An unpublished novel. (approx. 175 printed pages)


Milo, a once distinguished sculptor lives in a large, isolated house well hidden within its wild estate. Living with him he has helpers and retainers amongst whom there is often deep distrust and disharmony. Apart from these people, he has one intimate friend, an elderly woman who lives in a cottage just beyond the estate boundary.

Milo is encouraged to set out on a search for a holy well believed to be somewhere on the land; it is hoped that the waters from this well will restore Milo’s health. After an arduous journey the well is found and it is then that the tentative harmony within the group begins to rapidly disintegrate…


Extract – the first chapter:

    The household; though they like to delude themselves and to pretend otherwise, the truth is that everything depends on me. When Elizabeth, who knows very little about the situation tells me that they are a great and unnecessary burden to me, then I am deeply grateful to her for her sympathy. But at my age and with time running out, I find that I listen to them more attentively and tolerate their strange behaviour with a greater patience; yet again so often I simply want to take a knife to them.

    Sundays tend to be dissolute, a falling back from certain controls and standards. Mondays, therefore, are a chance to begin anew. I wake early and get the sheets and pillowcases changed. Usually I am helped in this task by Elizabeth who will often recruit one of the others to help her. On one occasion she remade the bed with the help of Sowhard and, though she made sure that he washed his hands, nevertheless I could not lie comfortably in the bed afterwards; sometimes I have to wash my hands if I merely touch something that he has touched….

    But today Amani has helped me and though she hates the task, I can be sure that she will make it look and feel very comfortable.

     So I lie now in the centre of this large bed with clean white sheets and full blown pillows, in the best room in the house with the best view. And not a great deal of discomfort today, stomach quite settled, and a cessation for the moment of the aches and pains. One window is open, the metal frame jammed back into the encroaching ivy, and one bird is singing. I feel well prepared for the day; Monday, the start of the week, is also sometimes a day of confessions.

   Soward  is the first to knock and, as usual, I have placed a note for him on the table by the door. As soon as he enters I draw his attention to this and by so doing prevent him from coming too close to the bed. Unfortunately Soward smells.

    He reads the note very slowly, holding it very close to his eyes and mouthing one or two of the words. As a working man he cannot carry spectacles around in his back pocket; most likely too, my note is illegible or incomprehensible….

    I cannot remember a time without Soward. He must be as old as I am. It would not be untrue to say that for a good deal of the time, or at least at those times when I do think about him at all, that I despise him; yet how can I have continued with this hate for so long? I am infuriated that I feel a shred of envy; yet what can I envy about this man? I can play chess with him on condition that I have an ample supply of drink to hand; win or lose, I drink too much. Of course we talk endlessly about the garden, especially in the summer; and then I warm to him enormously.

    He tells me now that Egor has already instructed him to paint something green or red or purple, or something of this sort, and this irritates me a great deal. Why must Egor usurp this pleasure of mine, knowing as he does how much I enjoy this instruction and planning with Soward at the beginning of the week. Certainly it is true that on occasion I have forgotten to give instructions to Soward; or else I have not given him enough to do, so that by the end of the week he is drifting aimlessly, threatening everyone and disturbing what little harmony there is. But this is insufficient reason for Egor to overrule me. But I will not challenge him yet; not yet….

    Leaning back in the bed I close my eyes and gesture with my hand to indicate to Soward that he should leave. The entire business is pathetic and stupid; undignified. My behaviour  like that of a meagre monarch. I hear the door close gently as he leaves. Letting my arms and hands uncurl and relax on the white sheet, I allow my imagination to bring me the head of Soward; large eyes that can seem so mournful, whereas in reality they have mostly that humbled, skulking look that usually follows his rages; his hair, grey-brown-yellow, quite long and as if pasted onto his skull, as if he should be bald but is in fact far from it; a worker’s complexion, ruddy and slightly coarse; an intelligent, almost sensual mouth ruined by the long drooping moustache; big ears, not flapping, but big on the side his head, protruding through the hair…

    I would like to like him. And I would like to be insensitive to his smell; but surely this will never be possible.

   I hear Rupert, or ‘boy’ as he is usually known, approaching from a long way off; not that he is particularly noisy, but he is erratic in his movements. He is, I am sure, outside my door for several minutes before he knocks. I lay down my book and take off my glasses; it seems important always to greet him with a smile lest he thinks that you are displeased with him.

    His face is drawn and pale, as if he carries the cares of the world. He is dressed almost completely in white. And not for the first time do I wonder at this youth’s partial, perhaps sporadic awareness of his own beauty; surely to a young girl, or a young woman, this being, this sexuality and sensuality must be ravishing? But perhaps not; perhaps I do remember how difficult, how complex and awkward these things can be. Perhaps I do not remember the fears and the boredom.

    He sits down heavily on the end of the bed and then leans sideways across my legs, supporting himself on his elbow. This is a gesture of friendship and intimacy; he begins to talk rapidly.

    “ You are aware that there is general agreement that my name is not only inappropriate and ridiculous but that it is also a rubbishy name. I must change it. Tonight, after dinner, I want serious suggestions so that I can decide on a new name; a name that you all approve of so that we can put an end to calling me ‘boy’. Do you agree? I mean, will you stay up long enough. At least until a few good names have been suggested?”

   I nod, and he continues.

   “Last year I think, or perhaps the year before that, there was talk of a Holy Well which had miraculous powers, curative powers. Do you remember?”

    I tell him that I remember the discussion.

    “Obviously now we have need of it, don’t we? I thought that we might put some coherent and collective energy into finding it. What do you think? The first question has to be, is the Well on our land, or nearby; or just vaguely in the neighbourhood? Which?”

    I repeat to him all that I can remember about the Holy Well, much of which is rather vague and probably unreliable information I have heard years before. The Well is probably on the land, certainly not far beyond its boundaries, but that he must bear in mind that many pieces of the land have been sold off in recent years. In my youth my family had not wished to find the Well, though certainly it was famous for its recuperative powers; their reasons, if I remember, were that its discovery would only lead to notoriety, attract the wrong kind of attention and might give rise to minor tourism and other such horrors; it was decided to allow the Well to remain lost.

    “So where do I start.” The boy demands. “Assuming that you would like us to find it, then where can I get some basic facts about it?”

    I tell him that he must begin his search for information either in the basement or in the attic; I cannot be sure which.

  The boy begins to pace about the room.

  “Were you sick in the night?” He asks suddenly.

    I shake my head. I can see that he wants to leave and I suggest that as it seems to be a wonderful day he should not waste it sitting inside with me. I will get up later on, I assure him. He makes another brief tour of the room, staring from the window, picking up odd objects and sniffing them, turning books over in his hands; finally he heads for the door and gives a small wave as he leaves.

    A little while later I hear Egor calling my name from beneath the window. Milo! Milo! I do not want to shout back, which will disrupt my mood, and I certainly do not wish to disturb myself physically by getting out of bed; but his shouting continues, on and on. Eventually I can stand it no longer and I pick up a paper-weight from the table by the bed and hurl it through the open window. There is no sound from below.

    Some quarter of an hour later he strides into the room while still knocking on the door. He replaces the paper-weight on the table by the bed and throws himself down in the armchair with his arms dangling over the sides. It is easy for me to despise this endless posturing.

    “I merely wanted to point out,” he says. “That I have added horns to the bas-relief and it looks very good.”

    “You know perfectly well that I had decided against horns; they are in the drawing, but I decided against them. Why can’t you listen when I speak?”

    For some time we both sit in silence. Though I make very few sculptures these days, he is the only assistant I can bear to work with. I am the entirety of his life. Whatever our differences, whatever loathing or anguish exists between us, it must sooner or later be resolved. There is simply no other course open to us.

    “Have you heard about the boy’s plan?” I ask him.

    “About changing his name?”

     No. I was thinking about his idea for searching for the Well.”

    “What rubbish. If only he would at last grow up. This plan will ruin the summer. And what is he doing it for? Why does he want to find it. Simply to satisfy some pathetic fantasy of his…”

    “What reason did he give for wanting to find it?” I asked.

    “No reasons that he could articulate, it seems.”

    “ Perhaps at least part of the reason is that the Well is presumed to have curative powers; he was thinking about me…”

    “Ah!” At once Egor’s attitude becomes tense. “Yes, I see. Yes, I see that in that sense there is some purpose in the search. I must give it some thought at once. Yes, perhaps the best plan would be to get a large scale map of the land and to divide it into squares. Then each square can be searched methodically. Or we could each search one square, or one square each per day…”

    I half listened to him rambling on, knowing that there can be no search and no hope of finding the Well without him, yet realising at the same time that there is now a very strong likelihood that he will appropriate the search and thus disaffect the others, especially Rupert whose idea it has been. Already Egor has grabbed paper and pencil from my desk and begun to make diagrams and draw up lists.

    As I watch him I begin to experience, little by little, the subtle ways in which his eagerness affects me.

    I have a sudden urge to shower and I get up and go into the adjoining bathroom. On my return it is impossible to get back into my bed because he has covered it with a large sheet of paper on which he has begun to sketch in his master plan for ‘The Search for the Holy Well’.  

    I feel in any case like getting dressed; and I am beginning to feel hungry. I kick him out along with all his plans and tell him that I will see him later. When he is at the door I remind him that our first and most important piece of business this evening will be finding a new name for the boy. He nods and smiles as he leaves the room.


    Having showered and dressed too quickly I am sitting in the armchair  by the bed allowing my strength to return. There is a gentle knock at the door. I know that it is Amani, and I quickly make sure that I am presentable. She comes in carrying a beautiful bunch of wild flowers. She seems disturbed or embarrassed, either because she is bringing me flowers  (which I have always said give me great pleasure), or else because she is wearing a light dress suitable for the warm weather, which I know she has just retrieved from a box in the attic where it has been all winter. She looks pale, very thin and attractive. We are all pale, I think; perhaps during this summer we will all become tanned…

    Sitting on the edge of the bed, she at once asks with genuine concern and gentleness about the state of my health. It never ceases to amaze me how careful and acquiescent Amani can be; how docile and feminine she can seem. Yet it is always well to remember that she has another side, or many other sides; depths that are impenetrable and beyond comprehension.

    For example, many, many years ago when she was young I introduced her to a relative of mine who was dying. Perhaps it was my mother. At first Amani was very silent; then suddenly she attacked my mother, accused her of harming me. She literally pushed her and hit her; and then equally suddenly she stopped the onslaught. My mother lay down on the bed in order to recover, I remember, and quite soon afterwards Amani came and lay down beside her and put her arm around her and seemed almost to caress her. She was then very calm and loving and emotional…

    It has always been my intention to confront her about this, but I have not yet done so; one day it must be done before it is too late.

    She is lying on the bed, her arms spread wide.

    “Have you heard this talk about the Search?” I ask her.


    “Will you join in?”

    “Yes, of course. I feel that we should choose a moonlit night, one night when you are feeling at your best, and then very slowly walk the land, including the original land. In this way we can perhaps help you to remember where the Well is. After all, many of the big trees have been there for years, since you were young in fact; you might recall something. You will guide us and we will lead you to the place. It will require that we work closely together, being stealthy, being quiet and listening…”

    “Egor has other plans”. I tell her.

    “That does not surprise me. The boy also has some strange notions as to how we should proceed. But I believe that we will find the Well only if at first we yield, giving ourselves to contemplation, carefully cultivating the circumstances in which an answer might occur… Surely there is no other way?”

    Suddenly Elizabeth bursts into the room carrying an enormous bunch of flowers; massive, highly coloured blooms cut from her garden. She apologises for not knocking but her hands were full. Amani at once sits upright on the bed and stares from the window. Elizabeth sits down very close to her.

    Elizabeth is Czech, we think, and as yet her English is not very good. She is a remarkably beautiful woman, very intelligent; she is sixty years old, perhaps older. She has come to live in the cottage that is just beyond our wood and so she is our only neighbour. She is really quite a stranger, but I have grown to like her very much. Certainly communication can be a problem, especially as only Egor speaks a few phrases of her language. I never cease to be taken aback when she first arrives; I am so surprised to have this other person, this elegant stranger, coming to my house.  

  © Richard Penna 2022