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Cathedral Close

It is eight o’clock.  From the great Gothic mass of the cathedral a tintinnabulation of bells proclaims the hour.

Skies of grey:  footsteps echo on the cobbles of the Close, and birch trees that line Cathedral Green’s flat acres of grass drip solemnly, the rain’s history whispered among their leaves. The shower has passed, they say.   Yes, but autumn remains.

The Close is wide, a mediaeval thoroughfare of heraldic grandeur beside Cathedral Green.  Birches stand like a guard of honor along one side, while little crooked shops built of tortured black timbers and white stucco bark and snap at the cathedral’s towering presence from the other.  They ogle passers-by through bottle-glass windows, do these emporia, their opened doorways lined with racks of postcards and souvenirs.  But a chill breeze plays in the alleys, and damp hangs pungently on the air.  There are few abroad today who might yield to such temptations.

I for one am in no mood to be tempted.  I walk this path each day on my way to work, and work, with the changes the last few years have wrought, is no longer the pleasure it once was.  I am a carver.  There was a time, not so long ago, when I took pride in my craftsmanship, when I was judged by the beauty of the finished piece, the quality and integrity of my art.  But this is no longer so.   Now, my day is punctuated by my manager’s repeated insistence that I finish faster, do more, simplify those details that require precious time.  Soon there will be no space for my art upon the wood; the furniture my Company makes will be faceless and bland, thrust into the world by jigs and machines that concede not a second to beauty.  Last week my lifetime’s occupation was threatened by a letter.  My ‘productivity’ was questioned.  My work rate must be ‘improved’.

This morning my wife, Renee, added her voice to the critical accord by telling me I am too timid – I should leave the Company, set up on my own.  I try to make her understand that it is not that simple, that I have no money to begin such an enterprise.  She calls me spineless.  With no bonuses to spend I know the privations of our poor condition hurt her terribly, and I understand why she strikes out.  But I hurt.  Deep inside me I hurt, and I do earnestly long for change.

There are others, though few, braving the weather this morning.  Amongst them one man stands out.  Marching towards me he is tall, with a determined stride and heavy hikers’ shoes which snatch at the cobbles.  He wears a blue jacket slightly darkened by the rain and on his back, beating against him with each step, is a red rucksack so well filled a lesser man might be borne down by its weight, but not he.   His lightly–bearded chin juts forward, his bright blue eyes stare past me undimmed by the chill, and his wide mouth is drawn back in determination.  He walks rapidly, closing the distance between us in seconds, and his very presence offends me, forcing the bitter gall of my own inadequacy up into my throat.

I am angry.  For a few delusional moments this man becomes the epitome of all I envy, all I hate; his commitment, his focused intent, his strength.  He is all that I am not and I see it in his eyes.  He knows my weakness.

Deliberately – I do it deliberately.  I step a little to one side, setting myself in this man’s path.  As we pass, I lean in.  My shoulder buffets his; his rucksack swings aside and I know the jolt must have hurt his arm at least as much as it hurt mine.   Instantly I am consumed with guilt.  My anger is vented and sorrow, apprehension, even fear take its place.  For me the encounter is over but somehow I feel his eyes on my back, demanding that I turn.

So I do.

I look around to find he has stopped.   He is looking at me with a challenge in his eyes.  I mutter an apology but he shakes his head.  The word is not enough, the offence was too calculated, too severe to be allowed to pass.  He has started walking back in my direction, his eyes never leaving mine.

Two paces away he stops to face me, and this time his expression is questioning: is this the fight I wanted?  Is this the expiation I seek?  Frightened now, for I am not a fighter by nature, I glance around in hope of escape but he moves as my eyes move, stepping before my gaze, his body wound up like a spring, his hands half-raised and spread in an unspoken invitation.

“Sorry – I’m sorry.”  I repeat those meaningless words.  Really, my mind is travelling:  why am I here?  How have I got myself into this position, a poor, frustrated loser on a cold autumn morning, marching forward into nothing when I know – my very soul knows – the time for change has come.  I could, I should take Renee’s advice.  I should make my living by carving and selling my own work, I should take her away from this.

Yet here I am, and in a minute or less I am going to get floored by this powerful, righteous figure of a man who I challenged for no reason other than my own pain.

I move to resume my journey but he steps before me, cuts me off.  As I turn to retreat, he blocks me again.  Unspeaking, yet unyielding, he is too formidable for my defeated mind.  In the final humiliation that must visit all who are as cowardly as I, I drop my shoulders, feeling the tears come.   He nods, stepping towards me, that final pace.  I cringe from him, I am shaking.

But then he smiles.  He smiles and with one gentle hand he reaches out to me, gesturing with the other that I am free to pass.  Stepping aside, he takes my elbow to guide me that first step or two; then he is gone.

Renee’s face is smiling, staring down at me, and there are tears on her cheek, too.

A quiet male voice says:  “He’s back.”

Renee nods, acknowledges the voice with a sob.  Her hand finds my arm and strokes it softly.  “Thank God!”  She murmurs.

There are white walls, clacking heels; there are girls in nursing blue and the steady beep of a machine.  Tubes spring from my flesh in a dozen different directions.  The owner of the quiet male voice comes into view.  He is dark-haired, with frank brown eyes, and he seems too impossibly young to support the lab. coat he wears.

“You’ve had a cardiac arrest, Mr. Frobisher.  We thought we were going to lose you for a while.”

I feel a salt splash as Renee bends to kiss my forehead, saying:  “We have to leave you now, so you can rest.  You’re safe now.  What would I do if I lost you, my darling?”

The faces leave, the screens are drawn.  Alone, with only the beeping machine for company, I have time to think; and in that blessed peace at last I understand.

For a while I was, truly, lost.  I have been allowed back, given a second chance, but on one condition – that my life will have to change.   The bearded man who had seemed a complete stranger is no stranger to me now, though I have been more accustomed to imagine him dressed in black.

One day I will meet him again; and next time, I will know his name.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured Image: Chris Santilli from Unsplash

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Encounter

“If you were to pin me down on this, I’d say it has all to do with names.”  His eyes drawn to the row of beech trees beyond his friend’s rain-sodden garden, Kevin was in a reflective mood.

“What are you saying now?”  Christian asked.   “Names?  I thought we were discussing relationships?”

“Listen to that rain!”  Kevin exclaimed, as the wind thrashed a tattoo against the window.  “It is. Names strike at the very fabric of a relationship.  I mean, ‘Kevin’, you know?  The hard ‘K’?  Women just don’t value a Kevin.  And it isn’t exactly a superhero’s name, either, is it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ve got a Clark batting for your team.”  Christian adjusted position in his armchair,perching his glass of whisky on the arm whilst reaching for a poker from the hearth.  He stoked the fire that burned brightly there into a profusion of sparks.  “Take my name.  I’m living a lie.  I’m agnostic at best.  You can’t seriously hope to convince me that these misfortunes of yours are attributable to your parents’ dismissive choice of name!”

Kevin turned away from the window and the depression of greys crowding his view.   “Dismissive.  You couldn’t know how accurately that describes my parents, could you?  Did you ever meet my father?”

“Once or twice.”

“Which was about as often as my mother met him.”

“Oh, come on!  But still, I believe your mother was his third wife?  Not strong on the whole bonding for life thing, was he?”

“Like father like son, is that your inference?”  Kevin shook his head.  “I thought I’d laid that ghost long ago.”

“They say the luck runs.”

 “No.”  I don’t believe that.  I mustn’t.  After all, we’re much the same, you and I;  I don’t see myself as particularly ill-favoured, or you, forgive me, as particularly handsome.  We’re roughly the same height, the same weight; our personalities are similar, even if I get a little more fired up at times – yet here I stand, left on the runway of yet another failed relationship, without the faintest idea where I went wrong.  And here are you, in this immaculately kept house with Svetlana who is, you have to admit, exquisite…”

“You could add clever – daunting insightful, formidably intelligent.  Yes, she is certainly visually pleasing, although she can be a little – shall we say – eccentric at times.”

“I will stick to exquisite.  After fifteen years she still looks as beautiful as the day you introduced me to her.  And you still dote on her, I can see that.  Fifteen years!  Can I tell you my experiences of those fifteen years?”

Christian chuckled sympathetically.  “There was Melissa.  She was a lovely girl!”

“With some lovely friends.  Lots of lovely friends, mostly male!  Then Claire, and Michelle…”

“Six months later.”

“Alright; that was brief even by my standards.  But Alicia…”

“Ah  Alicia!  She tore shreds, didn’t she?”

Kevin gave a grim nod.  “Literally.  I couldn’t go out, sometimes, with the scars and all.  And now…”

“Now Sophie.”

“Yes, Sophie.  Absolutely Sophie.”  Feeling his eyes smart from a revisited sadness, Kevin crossed to his friend’s sideboard, responding to the call of a whiskey glass that awaited him there.  “What’s the secret, Chris?  What do you have that I have not?  Where in the universe is there a Svetlana waiting for me?”

Christian’s finger traced an imaginary picture on the arm of his chair as he tried to frame an answer for his friend.  “I don’t know, Kev.  I could say there’s someone waiting for you out there, someone you’ve never met; but that wouldn’t hack, would it?  I think it’s just fate – no more and no less.”

“Fate!  That fickle digit!  No, I have no belief in luck, my friend.”

“Alright, let us say a ‘conjunction of circumstances’, then.  Will you settle for that?”

“Ah!  I suspected as much.  You have a secret, and it’s one I should share.  It’s time you publicized!  I want answers, before age and bachelorhood place my assets beyond recall.  Come on, give!”

” I have no treasures to impart!  Svetty and I were one of life’s chance encounters, no more, no less.”

“You met her on the Internet.  She posted on a dating site.  Or, wait – YOU posted on a dating site!”

Christian laughed.  “I did not!”

“I used to believe she was a mail order bride.  For years I was convinced you were holding out on me, in spite of her perfect English.”

“Oh really; you know that isn’t true.  She came to this country when she was ten.  Her parents live here.  He’s a ‘something’ with Debrette Cooper – the bankers?   Okay, I never told you how we met, did I? So I will.  It was pure chance.  I was in the middle of an aisle in the middle of a supermarket in the middle of an evening, trying to discover the location of the Cornflakes so I could replace an unwanted packet when this glorious woman just walked up to me and said: ‘Hi’.

“Amazing! “

“Amazed was I!  What could I do?”

“I suppose you could have hidden behind the Cornflakes.  But obviously you didn’t.  What did you do?”

“I said ‘Hi’ right back at her.  I wasn’t going to be intimidated, you see.”

“Heavens no, why should you be?  And?”

“And.  Ah yes, and!  She gave me the first of those quirky smiles she does, then she took this little blue card from her purse.  She came right up close to me, slipped it into my shirt pocket – bold as you like – and just walked away.  But oh, the quick touch of those fingers slipping into my pocket; and what a walk!”

“Stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself!  So let me guess, her ‘phone number was on the card?”

“A soft blue colour, that card.  It was nothing special – I mean, she hadn’t had fifty printed, or anything like that.  I think it was a business card for a hair salon, or something.  Point is – you’re right – she’d written her number on the corner.  And her name.  We both know her name.”

“That was how it all began?  Yes, of course it was.  You called, you dated, you lasted.”

“It was the way we all like to think it should be.  We matched perfectly.  Over a dinner table, at a bar, walking beside the river, it was like we read each other’s thoughts without ever really needing to speak.  We were married within a month, we’re still together.  We still – love – each other.  And I never told her.”

“Oh, my god!  Intriguing.  There’s a secret between you?”

“I didn’t say it, did I?  I never have.  When she told me her side of the story I could have reacted, I suppose, but  when you have everything in life you ever wanted, why break the spell?  Svetty knew.  She knew on Tuesday nights in that supermarket, on that particular aisle, if you carried a hand basket containing just two items it said you were looking for a companion.  It was a code, but the point is Svetty only knew because her friend had put her up to it that very evening.  She was feeling low after breaking up with someone so this friend persuaded her to give the supermarket ‘Singles Night’ a try.  And on that one night, the only night, possibly, she would ever do it I happened to be there.  I stumbled into it.  Fate, you see?  Apparently she was carrying the two significant items, but I didn’t even think about that.  How could I have known?”

Kevin  frowned.  “But that’s not a secret, not now.  Although it is likely to guide my feet towards that particular supermarket next Tuesday, it’s information you both share.  What’s the story?  What’s the big, humongous confidence you have kept to yourself for fifteen years?  How are you – even as we speak – deceiving your beloved Svetlana?”

“Well, it isn’t a deception, exactly….”

“What, then?”

“Just one small detail – in that supermarket, all those years ago – which means nothing now, of course…”

“Oh, no!  Of course not.   But you never told her…”

“I was  shopping with my aunt.  My amazing aunt.”

“This would be your Aunt Babs, would it?   A grainy old soul, God bless her.”

“Of sacred memory, yes, the same.  You see, after Uncle Henry had his stroke, I used to go shopping with her, to help her carry the weekly haul and to drive her, because she was getting on a bit herself, even then.  Anyway, dear old Aunty Babs knew all about Tuesday Singles Night – she heard about it at her Bridge Club, probably; most of the Singles Night clientele were of the card-playing persuasion.  We were in the adjoining aisle, Aunt Babs leaning heavily on her cart, me with my little hand-basket so I could pick up a few odd things for myself, when she suddenly snatched my few bits and pieces from my basket!

“I’ll look after these for you, dear,”  She told me,  “I’ve changed my mind about this cheese and these Cornflakes, so could you put them back for me?  They were just in the next row!”  She thrust said cheese and breakfast cereal product into my little basket, then gave me a brisk push on my shoulder to send me on my way.  Which was how I came to be in the same row as Svetty at the auspicious moment.  I wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  I would never have met her.”

“I see,” acknowledged Kevin, sagely.  “As accidents of fate go, that has to be an absolute corker!”  

“On the face of it, yes,absolutely.  Aunt Babs confessed much later (at our wedding, in fact) that while we were shopping she’d spotted this tall, statuesque woman navigating towards the Singles aisle.  She said that the moment she saw this woman she just knew we were meant to meet.  And she was right, you see.  She was absolutely right.  Dear old Babs, I really miss her.”

“So,”  Kevin said, giving Christian one of his most censorious looks,  “To return to my original premise, your meeting was not entirely fate.  Other forces were at work, there.”

“Well, you may say so, yet no trick or sleight of hand on my part was involved, unless you think I had Aunt Babs concealed in my hat like a white rabbit.  She acted without my corroboration.  Even fate needs a helping hand, once in a while. The truth is a succession of random events put two complete strangers, with neither background nor history in common, in the same place at the same time.   I don’t know about you, but in a land of sixty-odd million people, that speaks to me of something beyond yours, mine or anyone’s control.  We’re merely the pieces on the board.  The game, the strategy, if you like, belongs to someone, or something, higher than us.  Which is what I mean when I use the word ‘Fate’.”

Kevin smiled, staring deep into the red embers of the fire.  “If that’s agnosticism,”  he murmured,  “I’ll take it.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Feature Image credit: Marco Pomella from Pixabay

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Perseverance

“They’re back!”

“Sorry – what do you mean?  Who’s ‘back’?”

“They are.  The Zog people!”

“Oh, them!  I thought you had some fresh news, Tybalt dear.  One of their little mixed-meta things is crawling all over my ancestor-in-law’s left promontory even as we communicate.  They are a bit of a nuisance, I agree.  My relative complains of the blessed thing drilling little needles into his upper crust.  Most uncomfortable!”

“A bit of a nuisance?  A BIT?  Remember the last time, Penna.  Noise, pollution,  litter everywhere, and the digging – oh, the digging!  They’ve already started leaving their junk all over the place…”

“Well, to be fair we did sort of create that for ourselves.  I told Kovic to bat them back, but he just let the things crash.  They don’t work, or anything.  They’re harmless enough.”

“And now there’s another one coming.  Penna, this one’s going to land right on top of our heads!.  Do you know what they’re calling my head?  A  lake bed.  A lake bed, I ask you?”

“It might crash?”

“It might not.  Who knows what horrors I have in store if it lands successfully.”

“They’re looking for signs of life, Tybalt.”

“Well – suppose they find what they’re looking for?”

“They didn’t the first time.  All the way from Zog, and they stayed here for ten million years without suspecting a thing.  Unless they’re ready to accept silicone life forms and fluid consciousness they won’t find anything now.  Perhaps they’ll just go away.”

“They won’t.   They never go away.  They just breed like Martian rabbits and rip our crusts off to build their revolting little hutches… why can’ they take the hint?”

“Look, we shan’t let it get so far, this time, Okay?  If that starts to happen again we’ll get rid of them, like before.”

“The swapping orbits thing?”

“It worked last time, didn’t it?  I don’t care if you do come from Zog, if you can’t breathe on a planet, you get off.”

“Yes, but they no longer know they’re from Zog…”

“Some of them still think they are…”

“And as Earth people, they might be a bit less easy to deceive…”

“No, believe me.  They are, as you say, Earth people now.  They enjoy being deceived.  Our mistake last time was  making the Henges as markers for them to land their transporters in.  No such clues this time, if the worst comes to the worst.”

“Another orbit swap, more epochs of oceans, swamps, and getting hot and stuff.  Why can’t we simply send them an asteroid?”

“All right, if it gives you peace, Tybalt.  We’ll send them an asteroid.  Now, I feel as though I haven’t slept for a millennium.  Do you mind?”  

Picture Credit: Header picture – CharlVera from Pixabay

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Sebastian

Dim, reflected street lighting found its way into the alley, glimpsing features from the shadows:  a large half-opened refuse bin, stacked pallets by a steel-clad door, timber leaning on a wire frame.

The boy looked back.  Sebastian looked back.  “My front yard!  Urban Gothic is so alluring, don’t you think?”  

“No, I don’t.”   Nell had been watching Sebastian’s long torso swing easily with the rhythm of his stride; wide shoulders, slender waist.  “But I’m not a postcode snob,”  she said.

He stopped,  turning suddenly to meet her eyes, making the blood rush in her cheeks.  She knew, as did he, why she was here.  “It would be nice just to have a postcode!”  He waved to the high wall on her left:  “almost there!”

‘There’ was a doorway, steel-lined like a scattering of others punched into the sheer brick cliff-face of this minor chasm in the City’s heart.   Sebastian’s long fingers played over the numbers on the lock.  Strange, she thought, the determinants of attraction.  Even in the unlikely setting of the discotheque, her eyes had been drawn – she had been drawn – to those fingers.  A pianist herself, she knew there had to be a piano somewhere in this frail boy’s life.  But here?

A switch flooded a staircase with warm light.   “Only thirty-three,” he encouraged her;  “I count them every time I go up.  Helps fill in the time.”

“You’re lucky.  Not everyone can live over a concert hall.”

He tilted his head, bird-like – another mannerism she found irresistible.  “Over a garage, actually.  It wakes me every morning at half-eight, when they turn the compressors on.  Better than any alarm clock.  Otherwise I hear surprisingly little from it.”

On the stairs he didn’t race ahead as some men might, but matched her pace so she, following, could drink in the grace and sinew of him as he climbed.  Fitted shirt, tight flares, every ripple.  Cream walls, brass rail, bare concrete treads.  Thirty-three.  Footsteps echoing; thirty-one, thirty-two…

“Here we are.”

So this was it, the theatre of her deflowering.  Her birthday gift to herself.  She had planned no less, coolly setting out, short, short dress and chilly in the early evening air, to lose the virginity that had begun to weigh like a yoke.  Her twentieth birthday, still carrying the reluctant secret of her virtue on her shoulders.  Was she nervous?  Yes.  She was doing something she could never have contemplated before: a first time, a first date; a pick-up, frankly, her friend Rosanna would call it that.  But then, caution had only served to preserve the unwanted, and Rosanna was still at the discotheque, unlikely to be going home alone.

It was the scent that assailed her senses before all else, a subtle nuance to conjuring pictures of green fields and purple, heather-covered hills.   As Sebastian opened the door; as Sebastian switched on the light it was almost physical…

“Oh, my goodness!”

…yet the  hallway was small, a colourless vestibule only, and a metal spiral stair  Stairs that once again led upwards.

“A bit more climbing.”  He said.

Sebastian slipped his hand into hers.  She was being coaxed, gently.

There was no door atop these stairs.  There was an emerge – a rise from beneath through a floor reinforced thickly with steel beams into another world – from star-trap to stage – 

“Nell?”  He prompted her.  He was expecting a response.  Nell had been stunned into silence.

She found her tongue.  “I suppose it’s good to have a hobby.”  She said.

Foetid sweetness hung on air so thick it was hard to breathe at first, and humidity permeated her short, short dress so utterly its thin fabric clung to her skin.  All about her, above her, even around her feet, as Sebastian led her up the last few treads of the stairway, was growing and green; relentlessly green.  Sphagnum moss formed a carpet, softly yielding beneath her feet, weeping cherry made curtains they must brush aside to imbibe the heady glory of this place.  An umbrella pine shaded them like a hood, a wisteria clambered and tangled its way randomly about trellis-lined walls.  Planters, pots and containers were everywhere, large and small, brightly coloured or plain; each one abrim with leaf and growth, flower and life.  A decadently large butterfly settled on Nell’s wrist.

“Do you like her?  If you do she’ll be yours for a while.  They know if they are loved.”

“What kind is she?”

Sebastian shrugged;  “A white swallowtail, or something, I don’t know.  She’s beautiful, though, isn’t she?  How do you like my gaffe?”

“It’s amazing!  Are you actually living here?”

“Of course – where else?”

Nell cast about her, seeking the accoutrements of accomodation.  Certainly there were elements: withdrawing room furniture – a salon chair or two, a touch of Victoriana nestling between festoons of vine, a few small tables fashioned from stumps of hardwood, bookshelves extending high into the glazed roof, access to whose treasures could only be gained by a precarious set of library steps.  But a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom? And where was the piano?

Embarrassed by the way her short, short dress was misbehaving in the humidity, she asked: “Is there somewhere I can…”  and let the sentence rest.

“Freshen up?  I mean, not that you don’t look…”  His confidence also seemed to be ebbing a little.  He recovered himself,  “Through there.  The date palm and turn left.  I’ll fix us a drink – what would you like?”

“Oh, anything!   This lovely thing – is she coming with me?”  

“She’ll fly off.  Give her a bit of a nudge if you want.”  She did.  Nell’s graceful passenger winged away to find companionship with three or four of her kind that were performing a complex ballet around a pendulous cluster of mauve flowers.

“Sehra Bhale – it’s Indian”  Sebastian explained, noticing her rapturous expression,  “They love the flowers.  For the nectar, I guess.”

Only by traversing the floor did Nell get an idea of the true scale of this place. A full twenty yards away a date palm occupied a huge wooden barrel.  The tree was all but fully grown so its crown reached high into the roof.  From the same barrel sprang a screen of dense foliage, behind which she discovered the door to the bathroom and although she half expected the extraordinary here there was little more than a passing resemblance to a potting shed and aside from the presence of a stalwart iron garden tap, the necessary porcelain was white-ly normal.  If a certain amount of loam had left a tidemark in the hand-basin it seemed no more than she should have anticipated.  There was even a mirror…

“I fixed us these,”  Sebastian said when she returned to him;  “I hope you’ll like it.”

He cradled a stoneware chalice in each hand, one of which he offered to her.  She glanced at the contents suspiciously.  They were green.

“Swop you!”  She said, trying to keep her tone as light as possible.  Had it occurred to her he might lace her drink?  She wanted to remain in command of her situation.  

He just grinned.  “Of course.  They’re the same.  I wasn’t going to – you know – try anything.”

She hoped she was arching an eyebrow,  “I’m sure there are some things we could try.”  Flirting, she decided, was the only way to cover her nerves.  Her knees were about to give her away by shaking.  “This place is stellar!  Did you do all this yourself?  You must be very strong! I mean, do you have a gardener or something?”   As a line of conversation it was excruciatingly lame, but such was the gulf in her understanding she felt she must say something.  The room was unquestionably affecting her.  A first tentative sip at that green drink would deepen the affinity.

“On my gosh!  Whatever is this?”  Drinks can impress in many ways; by their alcoholic heat, a peppery sting on the tongue, or an intensity of flavor that can sometimes vanquish the most insensitive of palates.  Sebastian’s cocktail ( she would be obliged to call it that) performed each of those tricks at once, and left a trace of warmth behind for good measure.  

“Do you like it?”  He was smiling more broadly now.  “I make these myself, you know?  This is one of my favourites,”

“It’s a bit heady,”   was Nell’s verdict,  “Some serious alcohol.”

“Really not.  Only the natural sugars from the fruit I grow in here. Some more?”

Nell stared into her cup in disbelief.  How had she finished the drink so quickly?  Never mind; she enjoyed its taste.  “Yes, please.”

“Let’s sit down,”  Sebastian gestured towards a pair of salon chairs,  “Are you hungry?  Would you like something to eat?”

“No,”  She answered quickly; too quickly, perhaps, but all there seemed to be on offer was fruit.  The chair was a little too upright, a little too hard, for her mood.  She needed to relax.  “Them – the palm and that – there are real trees in here, yeah?  What made you do all this?”

“My jungle, you mean?”  He nodded,  “Fair question.  I like plants and stuff – will that do?”

Nell frowned.  Somehow, she had necked her second drink.  It was only moments since he had poured it, but after all, if it wasn’t alcoholic…  “Maybe just one more,”  she said, uninvited.

He poured.  There was a bottle.  It was half-empty.  “I wanted a garden,”  he told her,  “This place didn’t have one, but it was cheap and there was acres of space, so…”

“So this.  Okay.  Some of these guys, Sebastian, they’re seriously mature, aren’t they?  They couldn’t have been like that when they came through the door.  I mean, how many years…damn it, how old are you?”

He smiled angelically: a perfectly youthful, innocent smile.  “Does that matter?”

“To me?  I mean, no, I guess not.”   Nell blushed, as enthused now by his beauty as she had been when he first asked her to dance with him in that disco; so long ago she felt almost in danger of forgetting it – of forgetting what had drawn her here.  Her hand had reached for the bottle, she was topping up her drink without his assistance and he was smiling, and watching…

“You like me, don’t you?”  He wasn’t seeking reassurance, simply stating a fact.  “You want us to boogie, don’t you?”  Blatant, but another fact, the articulation of which should have made her feel acutely uncomfortable but didn’t, not at all, because it was true, and yes, that was why she had selected him – why she had accepted his invitation.  

“Can I call you Seb?”

“I’d like that.”

If a little courage had been missing, the mysterious green, rich drink emboldened her.  Rising from her chair, she crossed to his and, demurely at first, perched herself on his knee.

“That’s nicer, isn’t it? I enjoy being close, Seb.”

His answering smile feigned innocence:  “And I really feel close to you,”  he murmured, as if he was half afraid to speak.  “Are we -what do you call it – making out?”

She giggled,  “Maybe not yet.”  Stroking his arm, “Is there somewhere we can…”

“I don’t understand.”  He clearly looked as though he didn’t.

“Somewhere we could be more cosy?”

The intimacy, how did it happen?  When did they move from the chair and how were they suddenly entwined on a bed of soft, dry moss, and breathing together, almost as one?  How had she learned the words she was whispering – how could the caress of his fingers be so impossibly soft as to chase away any last clouds of maidenly guilt, or resistance?  Did ‘how’ matter?   In a necessary pause she glanced at her cup which was, once again, stubbornly empty.  She lamented it and he had the bottle ready in his hand. 

Which was when he did this curious thing.

Nell extended her arm, offering the chalice to be refilled, but Sebastian did not comply.  Instead, he tipped the bottle so all that remained within it cascaded over her.  Green verdance filled her eyes, her nose, her mouth, poured down her neck, between her breasts.  Diligently, remorselessly, the liquid probed and sought out each secret part of her, and it was clever, this balm.  It was intelligent.  It had no interest but in her flesh; it left the short, short dress unsullied in its quest yet it discovered all, absolutely all, that lay beneath.

She panicked at first.  She would.  She was outraged; though only for a second – as long as it took to feel the warm enclosure of her whole self, the gentle insidience of something that was rendering her limbs helpless to resist, her senses too benumbed to protest.   

Fiery heat rushed and retreated in waves through her veins, leaving tiny rivulets behind at every pass.   The blood in her body was changing, its flow was no longer the same.  Sebastian was there and Sebastian was watching, but how close he was, or how far away, whether or not she could touch him, did not seem to matter.  If her sight was fading, if everything was green, that was sufficient.  That was enough.  And in the end, the silence, too, would be enough.

In her altered state Nell could not see – would never ‘see’ again, but she could ‘feel’: her whole essence was of feeling, defined by twisting and climbing, but only Sebastian knew how that urge was driven by anger and aggression, for she could not talk, or shout out; so she had no way to express her pain.

#

Jarvis  Bowbeaker prided himself in being incapable of surprise.  After twenty-two years of steady progress in the plain-clothes division of his local police force he was fairly certain he had seen everything.  So when he ducked beneath the ‘Scene of Crime’ tape and passed through the steel-clad door in the dank old alley, when he climbed the spiral stair to that room he was immured from its severest effects by experience.  He merely dismissed the chaos into which he emerged as ‘disturbing’.

“You weren’t kiddin’ son, was yer?”  He nodded to the young DC who stood with an older, slightly too well-oiled man on a patch of floor that had been cleared.  It’s a feckin’ jungle!  Are those butterflies or bats?”

“They’re butterflies, Inspector.”  The oily man offered the explanation.  “Tropical varieties.  And the stench is down to a combination of ridiculously high humidity and rot.  I’m grateful to you for requesting my opinion – I would hate to have missed this one!”

Bowbeaker cocked an eyebrow at the young Detective Constable.  “Wilkinson, isn’t it? “What’s in it for us, son?  Suspicious death?”

“Hard to say, sir.  We’ll be waiting for SOCO’s report on that, I reckon.  Been dead for a lot of years, Sir.” 

“And you’re Professor Lombard, yes?  Our biologist?   What’s gone on ‘ere, then?”  Bowbeaker encompassed the tangled overgrowth expansively;  “All this?”

“Nothing.  Well, nothing in the way of husbandry, anyway.  This was tended and well ordered once, but not in the last forty or so years.  Whoever started it was quite a horticulturalist, managing to mix species from a number of different climatic zones and combine them so they effectively formed their own micro-climate. But it seems they abandoned it.”

“Did a runner, most likely,”  the DC opined;  “On account of the death, Sir.”

Bowbeaker sighed,  “Alright, son, lead the old horse to water.  Where’s the deceased?”

“Well, that’s it, you see…”  D.C. Wilkinson guided his superior and the Professor along a cleared path across the floor of the room.  “Watch where you tread, Sir.  This place is due for demolition.  It was the demolition lads who found it.  They  had to hack through here…”

“No snakes, are there?”  Bowbeaker thought he’d mention it.  After all, the place was in most other respects a jungle, its floor a mass of tangled roots, their way veiled by liana and festoons of creepers  of every kind.  Why wouldn’t there be snakes?   “Is that rain?”

“There’s hardly any roof.  It was a glass skylight at some time or other, before these larger trees pushed through.  Fortunately, you said, Professor, didn’t you?”

“Indeed!”  Professor Lombard acknowledged;  “Growth like this absorbs a lot of moisture.  Drought would certainly have inhibited it.”

“And here she is.”  The DC waved a hand aloft.

They had reached the far wall of the space, although that was hard to identify, clad as thoroughly as it was in greenery that clambered and tangled.  Swiping aside a suspicious-looking insect Bowbeaker followed his young assistant’s upward gesture.  Hanging almost directly above him and leaning forward as if ready to descend like an avenging angel, was a form that was unmistakably that of a corpse – or the remains of one.   

“‘She’?”  Bowbeaker questioned.  “How d’yer know our Doe’s a Jane, Constable?”

By way of reply, Wilkinson pointed downward at the wreckage of a series of tubs, one-time planters in a line along the wall.  The roots of their hungry tenants had long ago breached them and stretched out to claim their share of the mossy floor, but into each tub had been inserted a label, and on each label, faded but still distinguishable, was written a species name;  T/spermum Jasmine ‘Rebecca’, Bomarea Tropaeolum ‘Holly’, Ixora coccinea ‘Anna Lis’, ‘Rosa Macha ‘Joanne’, Lonicera ‘Angelina’, and finally, directly beneath the corpse, Epipremnum Devil’s Ivy  ‘Nell’.”

“Names for the species grown from each tub, Inspector,”  Lombard contributed.  “You’ll probably recognise most of them.  The Christian names underneath have nothing to do with a variety, and so we thought…”

Bowbeaker drew a breath, which he held for a very long time.

“I reckon that must be Nell, Sir.”  The DC said.  “Weird, Innit?  Sort of a marker for her, don’t you think?  Do those other names mean anything?”

Bowbeaker nodded, because they did.   “Rebecca Shelley, yes, I remember that one, and Angelina Scarcci.   Nell Wrekins, too.  All a bit before my time.  Girls in their twenties who were listed as missing.  I think the others will ring a few bells too, back at the office.”  He stared into the canopy of forestation above each planter, half-hoping to see more evidence that these poor tragedies had ended here.

“Take samples for analysis and ask the lads to get her down.  That’s hardly a dignified way to spend eternity.  Who owns this place, do we know?”

“Trying to trace that now, Sir.  It was a Council repossession  A garage business traded downstairs; it closed thirty years ago.  The owner died last March.  All dead ends, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

“Dead ends;  yes.”  Bowbeaker could not tear his eyes away from those human remains.  “Constable, get a step ladder in ‘ere, will yer?  I want to take a closer look at our Miss Nell.”

But he already knew, didn’t he?  No more than a skeleton after forty years, and only intact because the ivy that held it in its clutches would let nothing escape, nevertheless there were certain details his experienced eye could not miss; like the sized 12 shoe that hung upon one large foot, and the shirt that was not a blouse, because enough threads remained to see it plainly buttoned from the right.  Above (or beneath) all, the narrower pelvic bones that could belong only to a man.   He could not be certain, but if his memory served, young Nell Wrekin was the last of those disappearances, all those years ago.  Without knowing how, or why, he was quite sure she had something to do with whatever had happened here.

Bowbeaker silently watched as the body was freed at last from the grip of the vine, and it did not escape his notice the difficulty the SOCO’s people had in cutting away the stalwart wood that enclosed its throat.    He stayed a long time with the scene, so it was only after everyone had moved to leave that he crossed to the ivy’s woody trunk, placing a hand on the bark.

“Nell Wrekins, is it?”  He said, quietly, so none of the departing company should hear;  “Ye’re Devil’s Ivy, right enough.  Privately, I think yer did pretty well, back then, Miss Wrekin.  And even though it’s technically a crime, I can’t imagine how I’d go about charging a pretty plant like you with murder, can you?”

Feeling the touch, which was soft and insistent, he looked down to see that a root had wrapped itself around his foot.  He extricated himself gently.  “Don’t worry love, I’ll ‘ave a word with the Professor.  He’ll see ye’re taken care of.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Picture Credits:

Header image by Ambitious Creative from Unsplash;

Girl with butterflies by Victor Mendoza from Unsplash

Featured

My Diary…

I don’t often try ‘journal’ type blogs.

What’s the matter with me – too proud?

No, it’s simply for lack of material.   My average day is comprised of

Get up

Feed dog

Feed me

Write

Feed me

Wri…  well, you get the picture.

This week, not so.  This week, things happened.

This week, out in the world, Myanmar fell back into the clutches of a military dictatorship as evil as any in the modern world.  They have corrupt fingers in their country’s coffers, they imprison and probably murder anyone who stands up to them, and they persecute Muslims.  Usually it is possible to make some excuses for strict or violent regimes, but not in this case.  They are an abomination.

Bernie Sanders kept turning up – on park benches, in TV sitcoms, sitting alone in vast marble halls…

This week – February 2nd – was Candlemass.   The day that the child Christ was presented at the Temple, apparently, although I don’t go for that stuff so much;  more importantly it was Groundhog Day!

Yes!

If Punxsutawney Phil had been dragged out of his box in my town he’d have borne witness to four inches of snow – how many shadows that qualifies for I don’t know, but I think another 40 days of winter is kind of optimistic, as it goes.

More importantly still…

This was the day of my first Coronavirus inoculation!

It proved a very professional process that took no more than fifteen minutes, didn’t hurt and has had no negative effects, either physically or mentally.  As a member of a vulnerable group, I  numbered among the first 10 million UK citizens to be done, and I got a suss-tiffy-cate and ever’thing!   My wife does not receive hers until Saturday, which must mean, for future reference, she’s less vulnerable than me (I pointed that out).

A week or two ago I underwent a ‘procedure’ (I love that word!) at our local hospital and I have to say this:  whenever I’m fed third-party accounts of hospital preparedness, staff shortages and treatments they always seem to dwell upon negatives.  They vie completely with my personal experience, which, for the most part, has been extremely courteous, well-intentioned and informed.  In these troubled days medical staff display a great deal of forbearance, valor even, in handling the load of diverse work we pile on them.

And, of course, treatment under the National Health Service is FREE!

There we are; a journal post.  I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t done it now, but I’ve written it so I’ll put it up before I change my mind.

A Bientot!

Featured

Horlicks

I honestly can’t remember if I’ve posted this one before, so – because I rather like it – I’ll take the chance! Here’s hoping…

Let me tell you about Horlicks.

It all begins with a knock on my door early Saturday morning.  I’m in the middle of breakfast.  Ali, my landlord, is standing on the doormat; apology written all over his face.

“Sorry to disturb you, Ben.”

“It’s alright.”  Me, dressing gown, wiping Rice Krispies off my face.  Him, lounge suit, buttonhole – has he just got married?  I like Ali – he’s one of the new-style landlords – fresh faced, optimistic – went into property when the City went pear-shaped.

“You know about poor old Mr. Pennell?”  Ali uses his sensitive voice.  I do, of course.

“Yeah, Mrs. Jacob told me.  She found him, apparently.”  Abe Pennell, Flat Five.  If he caught you in the hallway you’d end up talking for hours, because once he started he’d never stop.  A lonely old man, I always supposed, and now he’d slipped away; in the night, alone.  It was sad.

“Well, I’ve cleared most of his stuff;” Ali says; “Except this.”

I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it: on the floor beside him, this massive cage thing –inside, with a quizzical look on its face, the most beautiful blue Macaw I’ve ever seen.

“He loved this bird and I just don’t have the heart to sell it.   I remember you asking about pets.”

A pet, yes: I’d been thinking of a cat, maybe, or a small pooch without any pretensions, not a parrot.  Yet somehow (I admit I’ve no idea how Ali persuades me) I end up with a cage in my hands.

“His name is Horlicks, Ben.”

Then Ali’s thanked me and gone, and the cage is standing on the table, and I’m looking at Horlicks and Horlicks is looking at me.  With great delicacy, Horlicks opens the cage and steps out onto the table.  With rather less delicacy, he plumps a grey foot on the edge of my breakfast bowl, sending Krispies and milk all over the cloth.  One by one he begins to eat the Krispies.  I suppress my annoyance  (how can you have a go at a bereaved bird?).  He seems quite passive as I coax him, nudge him, persuade him back inside his home, shut his door and secure it.  He opens it again and comes back out.

A cursory examination reveals that the latch is very loose.  I have some wire in the kitchen.  I put him back inside, wire up the door.  He seems to want to help me, poking at my fingers with his beak as I work, stepping back on his perch as if in admiration at the finished job.  Satisfied, I leave him while I go to the kitchen to make coffee.  The kettle has just boiled.  I am pouring water into my mug.  There is a flapping of wings and Horlicks joins me on the worktop.  He has a length of wire in his beak.

So we reach a tacit understanding:  Horlicks is not a caged bird.  From now on I will put the cage in a corner and leave the door open for him to return there whenever he wishes (he almost never does) while he has free run of my meticulously tidy flat.  I’m like that, you see?  I live alone, everything in order, everything in its place.  Lump sugar not loose, tablecloth on the table, covers on the chairs and wipe-your-feet-please-thank-you – get the picture?  Now I’ve heard that parrots are really messy, and that worries me, but there’s such a thing as duty of care, and I take that seriously too, so I have to trust Horlicks’ good manners and go out.

Fortunately this is a Saturday, because there is food to get – what do parrots eat, anyway?  The local pet shop will help.

Mrs. Hall at ‘Fluffy’s’ is effusively helpful:  “Parrots are extremely fussy, Mr. Cecil.”

She advises me no end, managing in the process to provide me with three books on care of Parrots and Parakeets, about half a hundredweight of balanced diet food for Horlicks, an extremely pretty perch, and a three-figure bill.  I make a note to get a larger car.

No-one could describe my feelings as I turn the handle on my front door.  All the way home I ‘m having cold sweats, picturing my flat as a battleground, seeing images of Horlicks amid shredded tablecoths, piles of stuffing ripped from chairs – what sort of things do parrots do when they get bored, anyway?  All my files opened and torn apart, broken china….

None of it!  I swing the door wide (but not too wide – I have another vision which involves Horlicks flapping past me to freedom) and there it is; my well-ordered flat:  still well ordered.  My new pet appears not to have moved, surveying me sagely from the top of my bookcase as I struggle to assemble the accoutrements of his new life.

“How old are you, Horlicks?”  I ask him conversationally as I carefully select a site for his brand new perch.  He tips his head to one side and rattles his tongue in a sort of keening sound.  “Do you like this, then?”

Now I am proud of that perch.  It is on a stand with a nice wide base where you can lay sand for collection of – well, need I be specific?  A hoop of little bells form an arch over the top.  There’s a food dish attached, too, which I fill with the newly-acquired goodies supplied by Mrs. Hall.

“You hungry, Horlicks?  You a hungry Horlicks?”  Oh-oh!  I’m starting to talk like my old ma did with her cats.  Here, tiddy-widdy!  Did he want his din-dins then?

Horlicks seems to understand.  He flutters down from the bookcase, settles on the perch, then after turning his head several ways, begins to poke at the food.  Satisfied, I go into the kitchen to make my lunch.  My coffee mug is on the worktop where I left it earlier, the sugar-bowl still beside it.  The sugar bowl is empty.  The coffee mug is full of sugar lumps.

Of course, it is my fault:  normally I would not think of leaving the half-full mug of unfinished coffee there, any more than I would forget to put the Rice Krispies packet back in the cupboard, but Horlicks’ arrival distracted me.  And the Rice Krispies packet is empty, too…..

When I return to my living room, Horlicks is back on top of the bookcase.  The food in his food bowl is untouched.  I calculate he has probably eaten enough unsuitable food to kill him.  Did I read somewhere birds can’t burp?

Over the next few days we learn to live with one another, Horlicks and I.  I learn, for example, that he has no appreciation of expensive special food:  I learn that he likes my food, mostly before I get the opportunity to eat it.  I learn that slices of Pizza, pieces of bread, biscuits, all manner of cooking ingredients will mysteriously disappear the moment I turn my back:  that only hot food – kebabs with hot sauce, chilli, etc., are left untouched.  Whether Horlicks learns anything new at all is open to doubt.  There is little question as to who is educating who in our new partnership.

I begin to eat a lot more curry than is good for me.

At first I think Horlicks must be dangerously constipated, because the sand beneath his perch and in his cage stays spotlessly clean.  This in itself is no surprise, since he rarely touches either of them, but I worry.  Then I discover the top of the kitchen cupboard (by accident – I open it and a piece of stale pizza falls on my head).  There are more things up there, Horatio, than are dreamed of…..

Lindsay comes round this evening.  Lindsay and I, we’re sort of an item, if you know what I mean?  She says we are, anyway.

She calls me first: “Shall I bring a Chinese?”

“Better make it a Biryani.”

She sees Horlicks, screams and steps back five paces.  Horlicks cringes on top of the bookcase, head lowered, wings hunched.

“Oh, you’ve got a parrot!”

I’m thinking ‘What a pity Peter Scott couldn’t have seen this’.

“Oh, isn’t it just excellent?”

Horlicks perks up.  Obviously, this parrot is prone to flattery.  I go to the kitchen to dish out the food, and when I come back, there’s Lindsay sitting on my settee, and there’s Horlicks on her lap, on his back with his eyes shut, having his tummy tickled.

For the rest of the evening I am playing gooseberry while Horlicks courts Lindsay with the professionalism of a gigolo.  He sits beside her as she eats, snuggles up to her whenever her attention might stray in my direction, brings her little gifts, like sugar lumps, the odd grape or two from the fruit bowl, or a Rice Krispie.  When we finally get to say goodnight he perches on her shoulder and would have stayed there had we not insisted.  He parts with Lindsay reluctantly, touching her cheek with that great grey beak in what looks suspiciously like a kiss.

Horlicks loves the bathroom.  When I shower in the morning he is entranced.  He sits on the shower rail with that lopsided look of his and watches me with an attention that borders on the perverted.  I come to the conclusion that all the steam is like the jungle to him, and it makes him feel at home.

“I wonder if you remember where you came from, Horlicks?”  I ask him, towelling off; and he adopts a questioning stare.  But he never answers, not once.

“Macaws aren’t good talkers, dear.”  Mrs. Hall tells me.  “It’s the greys that are the real conversationalists.”  I think this is on my third visit to ‘Fluffy’s’ – I don’t remember for certain.

“How can I control him?  He won’t stay in his cage and I daren’t open the windows.”

“Ah now!  Let me show you this ingenious little harness….”

Horlicks looks quite proud of his smart new waistcoat, and he doesn’t seem to mind as I hitch the leash to his perch.  He even consents to sit there while I fix it.  Then he flies off and settles on the floor at the limit of the tether.  Never mind, at least now I can let in some air.  I open the casement window and Horlicks watches me, very carefully.

So it’s Monday, and I have to go to work.  I am (had you not guessed?) a working man; I have a parrot to support.  Imagine the doubt, the fear:  do I leave him tethered?  Of course not.  I make sure he has plenty of food and water, then we have a little talk.  (I’m starting to do a lot of that)  It’s a lecture about respect for property and it isn’t the first time Horlicks has heard it, but he listens attentively nonetheless with that sideways look he gives whenever he’s concentrating…..

All day I worry!  I make mistakes, can’t think straight because of the nightmares that are going on in my head.  I finally get away at six and drive home so fast it’s a wonder I don’t get nicked.

My shaking fingers turn the key.  My sweaty palm grips the handle.  My shoulder tentatively pushes around the jamb….Horlicks screeches.

That’s a sound he hasn’t made before, but maybe he feels he has to break the tension.  Anyway, there he is on top of the bookcase, and a brief look around my room assures me that all is well with my world.  You see? (I tell myself) Horlicks is really not a bad bird.

Now, normally I would be off down the pub of a Monday – it’s quiet, and I get a game of darts with Tull, my old mate from the army.  Tull and I, we go back a long way, so far that I’m sure we must have had discussions about parrots.  Tull being Tull, he would have lots of advice.  Tull would have owned a parrot at some time or another, a parrot just like Horlicks, only better.  So I don’t go.  Horlicks and me, we have a night in with a lamb dansak.

There’s not much on TV, just some local news item about a poor old confused fella who was out shopping with his wife and just drove off and left her for some reason.  They found him parked on a pedestrian crossing in the High Street.  He said God told him to stop there.

I decide its time Horlicks learned to talk.  What’s the use of a parrot if it can’t keep up a conversation?  So we sit down together at the table and we run through a few simple phrases

“Who’s a pretty boy then?”   Who did think that one up?

“Who’s that?”  I rap my knuckles on the table for that one; like a door-knock, you know?

“What’s the time?”  I show Horlicks my watch – a mistake, because from then on he is obsessed with removing it.

“Greedy Horlicks!”  Prompted by a beak in my lamb dansak.

We persevere for more than an hour.  Well, I persevere.  Horlicks watches.  He says nothing.

In the end I accept defeat.  I have a silent parrot.  Later Lindsay comes round and endorses this.  “Macaws are not good talkers.”

Then she spots the harness.

“Oh, you’ve got a lead!   Let’s take him for a walk; come on!”

Lindsay, NO!  The consumption of my household provisions I can take, the intrusion on my very private world I accept, even the worry and the financing of Mrs. Hall’s early retirement are things I will put myself through, but walking down the street with a parrot on a lead?  That is one straw more than this camel can handle.

“You’re a bit of a stuffy old grampus, aren’t you?”  Lindsay accuses, and settles on the sofa to watch TV.  Of course Horlicks immediately joins her.  The two of them spend the rest of the evening canoodling.  Game, set and match.

Through the week, things begin to settle into a routine.  Nobody could call it normal, this new life I’ve got, but we get used to each other, the bird and I.  Lindsay comes by nearly every night: not to see me so much as to get touched up by Horlicks, who seems to have this Harpo Marx quality.  Lindsay speaks, he mimes.  True, his mimes are rather limited, but they seem to work.

An item on the news about an escaped parrot:  there’s a picture of it stuck up a tree.  “Oh look Horly, there’s a parrot just like you!”  And Horlicks does this sort of curtsey thing on her shoulder, then nibbles her ear.

Daytimes I’m at work, naturally.  In the evenings I play the spare part.  Friday I come home looking forward to the weekend and find Lindsay waiting on my doormat with a pizza for the bird!  This, I tell her, is going too far!

We have a bit of a row.  It runs along the lines of   ‘you’re not seriously jealous of a parrot?’ and it would have played itself out but for one little thing:  a little thing Lindsay finds on the kitchen table.

“What’s this?”  She demands, walking up to me with ‘it’ between her thumb and forefinger.

‘It’ is what I will describe as a ‘feminine product’ – all nice and clean and new, I hasten to add – not previously owned, if you see what I mean.  For once, I don’t know what to say.

“Yours?”  I mutter, lamely.  Wrong answer!

“I don’t use this brand, and if I did, I wouldn’t leave one on your kitchen table!  Are you seeing someone else?”

“Do me a favour!  I’ve been at work all day!  Anyway, how could I be seeing anyone else?  You’re always here!”

“Well, I’m sure I don’t need to be!”

“Suit yourself!  No…”  Lindsay’s about to storm out.  Now I don’t know why, but I sort of don’t want that.  So I stop her.  “Look, you stay here, I’ll go out.  I don’t know how it got there, but I have my suspicions.”

Lindsay cottons on (forgive pun):  “You mean…?”  I nod.  “But how?”

“Dunno.  See if you can find out.  Cross-examine him.”  Then my parting shot:  “That bird’s got to go!”

I go to the pub.

“What have you been up to?”  Tull asks.  “Thought we’d lost you.  Darts?”

Around about half past eight he drops it into the small talk, between throws.

“You’ll never believe what happened to Charlie Garrett – y’know, old gaffer with the limp; sits in the corner there Mondays?”

And then he tells me.  Tull tells me.

“Charlie takes his wife shopping.  Because of his gammy leg they do the usual thing: Charlie parks outside the supermarket while his wife goes around with the trolley.  When she’s done she opens up the back and puts the bags inside, then goes off to return the trolley.

“There’s a shuffling from the back seat, then this voice, which Charlie swears is his wife’s, tells him to drive on.  So he does.  Now he’s a bit deaf and a bit vague is Charlie, so it doesn’t occur to him that the draught he feels is coming from the tailgate, which is still up, and he’s used to being hooted at, so he doesn’t pay any attention as other drivers try to tell him.  Half way across town, (by now all his shopping’s dropped out the back);  this same voice says “Stop!” It’s really loud and panicky, like something’s seriously wrong.  Charlie stops.  He realises he’s in the middle of a crossing, so he decides to drive on.  “Stop!”  the voice says again.

“What’s the matter?”  Says Charlie, who can’t turn around easily and he’s never heard of mirrors.

“Just stop!”  Says the voice.

“Well now he does turn around, though it takes him a bit of time.  Guess what – there’s no-one there!  Now he’s in shock, because he thinks his wife fell out of the back, which is why when the copper comes over to see what’s going on Charlie says he thinks God was telling him to stop!”

Why do I have a funny idea I know what’s coming next?

“Right.  Now Charlie has one hell of a time trying to convince the coppers he isn’t a loony tune.  He does, though, and yesterday morning, him and his wife, they go out shopping again.   They’ve got to – Charlie lost all the last lot!

Here’s the best bit: it only happens again, doesn’t it?  There’s Charlie sitting in the car, his wife gives him a bit of a tongue-lashing about waiting for her this time, and there’s this same voice!  “Drive on!”  It says, bold as you like.

Well, Charlie’s not that much of a fool.  He turns around, and there on the back of the seat is that parrot – you know, the one that escaped?  It was on the news?

“Drive on!”  Says the parrot again.

“Not likely!”  Says Charlie, and he takes a swipe at it with his stick.

“Bleedin’ Moses!”  says the parrot; and it flies off.”

“This Parrot..”  I choose my words.  “Have they caught it yet?”

“Nah.  Owner hasn’t come forward neither.  Apparently it’s been hanging around that supermarket for days, nicking things out of bags and trolleys.  Charlie’s wife has got a theory though.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah.  Old chap she used to go and visit sometimes died recently.  He had a parrot.  She reckons maybe they turned it loose.”

Lindsay’s waiting for me when I get back to the flat.  Horlicks is not in evidence.

She shows me the latch on the casement window with the beak-marks on it.  “I checked around to see if he could get out.  He could.”

I find him cowering behind the kitchen waste.  I’m not proud of myself, shouting at a bird:  it isn’t one of my finer moments.  But you must understand, he knows he’s done wrong:  not only that, he’s been deceitful.

“You can talk, can’t you?  You can imitate people!  Worse yet, you steal tampons!”

It’s all of two hours before I forgive him, and I only do it then because for most of those two hours Lindsay’s been forgiving me; and it’s late at night, and after all, he has sort of brought us closer together:  tonight, you see, for the first time, Lindsay won’t be going home.

“He’s so cute!”  Lindsay enthuses, as we snuggle on the sofa together, watching him in his new position, relegated to the fireside rug.

“He’s a complete hooligan!”  I tell her, though my words are directed mostly at him.

He rolls over, lifting one claw nearly to his beak.

“I’m a proper Horlicks!”  He says.  “Bleedin’ Moses!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

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The Kingfisher

The white house on the corner had been the village inn, as Ariel remembered it.  Now it was someone’s home. There were flowers on the forecourt where benches and tables once stood – that same someone had built a low wall around the flowers and lavished it with white render, butter-thick.  The old inn sign with its painting of a barge was gone; its bracket, carelessly daubed with splashes of white paint still clung to the front of the house, naked and neglected.  Reluctantly, as it seemed, the new owners had permitted one sign to remain, hanging from their pristine gable end. ‘The Marina’ it said, and waved a wind-stirred finger into Basin Lane.  Ariel followed it, her hand sweeping lazily over the steering wheel, for she knew this turning well.

 Leaving the village street behind, she felt herself plunging, almost tumbling, back into her past.  In this hired car she was driving along a country lane she had walked very many times; amid choirs of humming bees, hedges rich with white flumes of cow parsley, garlands of campion and wild rose.  A short mile with sun on her face, or sun in her heart?

A bow-wave of memories washed before her, threatening tears as hired metal savaged the overgrowth, wheels bucked over wrinkled tarmac, around narrow bend after narrow bend.  

And one final bend.

 As the curve unwound high hedges like drapes were suddenly swept apart to reveal the old weathered gate, as always, hanging open; inviting access to that rough dolomite rectangle Abel could never be persuaded to finally lay to concrete.    There was no sign:  the visitor might as well turn here – Basin Lane led nowhere beyond this.  Customers’ cars strewn, rather than parked, in woeful disorder: fewer than she remembered.  And the path which was the final part of her journey, carving a way down through tangles of columbine and nettle to the boatyard and the canal.

Ariel parked up alongside a gaunt blue Range Rover of uncertain years. She drew a deep breath, seeking inside herself for the same vitality that once had filled her lungs on her every visit here without need for invitation.  The intoxication was not as it had been.  She felt its loss acutely – what had happened here?  Not the neglect; the charisma of Abel’s touch had never reached as far from the water as this, but the sadness!  There was no other word to describe it, she thought.  What once had seemed carefree was now heavy with care – the wild hedge and sedge that once danced and rustled in a mischievous breeze now huddled for shelter from raking gusts of air that were hostile and chill.  The day was warm enough, so why did Ariel shudder before that wind; was there something deeper in her soul than mere apprehension at seeing him again?  Was the wrong she had done to him here, hanging on the air of this place like a pall – hanging over her head like a judgement?  ‘Abel, I’m sorry, I should have stayed with you.’  She rehearsed the speech in her head, the words she would never really say.  She finished aloud:

 “I should never have left.” 

Standing to stretch cramped muscles, she glimpsed the high roof of the boat house peeping above a weed forest.  Its presence reassured her, gave her courage, even eagerness, to descend the path.  

Twenty yards, no more; careful to avoid wasps milling around a discarded carton oozing something red and sweet, wondering with every step what changes, if any, she would find and hoping her foreboding was wrong and there would be none; the grey concrete with the wooden boat house that stood in defiance of change at its head, the veranda with its ancient steamer chair that had been her source of comfort on many a hot summer noon, the little row of jetties with maybe a narrow boat or two tethered between, the reflective calm of the old canal sleeping darkly beyond?   So short was the path she could not be kept waiting long.  In a few tentative paces that familiar vista was spread before her and yes, all that was old seemed substantially the same, if a little more weed-bestrewn and somewhat smaller than matched her recollection.  But it did not stand alone.

So he had built it at last!  Her heart rejoiced!

The house was new – single-storey, low and sleek.  Sliding windows open to their vista of the canal, newly painted frames and doors glistened faultlessly in the glare of sun.   It was not large, as houses go:  its green tiled roof, its modest glazing, even the rise of three steps which aligned it with the boathouse, spoke of modest practicality that was so unmistakably Abel.

And here too, when at last she could tear her eyes away from this most surprising of additions to the boatyard and cast about her, was Abel!  She started; unprepared, though heaven knew she should have been, to see him straightaway.  She had envisaged seeking him out, entering the cool dark of the boathouse, or checking the cabin of a solitary narrow boat tethered to one of the jetties.  But no, he was here, in open view.

Clad in once-white overalls he was painting antifouling onto a hauled-up river cruiser of a kind she knew he hated and she had no doubt it was he, though his back was turned, by the square set of his shoulders, by the firm plant of his feet upon the ground.  Why had she travelled so far, not really believing she might find him so easily, or find him at all?  

Approaching him, taking these last few steps, might be the most difficult of her life.   He straightened as she drew near, sensing her presence, but he did not turn around.

“It took you long enough.”   Abel said.  Those softly-spoken vowels, that imperturbable drawl.

She could not imagine he would recognise her step after so long, so had he mistaken her for someone else?  “I know.”  Ariel dug deeply to discover her voice.   “I had…things to do.”

She moved to stand beside him – to his left, as she always had, which suddenly seemed so natural to her, as if in a few steps she could make the years vanish, slip back into the envelope of her past.  “You built the house,”  She said.

“Ten years.”  He replied, inducing a flutter in her heart.  Without so much as a glance, head  known it was she?  The years, the months, the days: had he been counting them too? 

“Is it that?”  She struggled again to find words.  “Yes, I suppose it is.”  She said.

“I thought you were coming back after lunch.”

Ariel smiled a smile that expressed the breeze of contentment she felt; and she turned tear-filled eyes to feast upon Abel’s remembered face, praying she would see her happiness reflected there.  What had she hoped; that he would be exactly as she remembered – that same humour, that same tacit, complacent grin?  Her imagination danced!  He had missed her when she did not return, missed her so badly that he had taken time to consider those things which, whilst once they drew her to him, had finally sent her away.   And he had built the house!  In her heart she wished, she hoped, she prayed.  Had he built it for her, prepared with that eternal patience of his to wait forever if necessary, in case she returned to him?

Then she looked deeper and saw there was more than hope in his face – there was pain..  She saw the change in him.

He was older, of course; his wind-harrowed skin etched and stretched by winters of frost and summer heat, but it was no fierce attack upon his featuress, this weathering, for compared to some the canals were a gentle mistress.   No, it was not a history of seasons that she could trace in his lean features.  It was a ghost.   He read her concern.   “Lot of things different.”  He said.

The relaxed, easy drawl of his younger voice was the same, but there was a tension, even a bitterness behind those eyes.  She bit a lip that threatened to quiver.  “What happened, Abel?”  She nodded to the glass fibre boat he was working on.  “What are you doing with this?  You used to despise these things.”

“Steel boats are expensive now, and there’s some can’t afford the tariff.”   Abel slapped a brushful of paint at the exposed hull.  “It wasn’t a good investment, believe me.  The bloody thing cracks like an egg if it gets in a collision.  I’m forever repairing it.”

“You haven’t answered me.  What happened?”

He made no immediate reply but continued with his painting, as if he were searching for an answer that would satisfy, and yet keep his private truth concealed.   At last he said:   “Dad died, seven years ago.  I had to close his yard, it was too expensive and there was no way I could keep two running.  He had debts, you see.  We sold two of the boats to shoulder that, and then a couple of winters ago we got more rain than Noah could have coped with.   The river burst its banks up at Chalferton and overflowed into the canal system.   It did a lot of damage.  The navigation’s still closed up at Handyard’s Lock, so we’re just on a branch, for a while.” He smiled, but only with his lips.  “A few misfortunes, really.”

She said gently:  “It’s good to see you, Abe.”

“And you.”  He nodded tersely.  “You married, I heard it said.  To a rich American, was the word about.  What brings you back here?”

“Yes, I was married, for a while.”  Ever since her flight had left New York she had wondered how she would answer just this question.  She could claim she needed to visit her parents, anxious for her father in his advancing years – or maybe she needed to put distance between her and the man she was leaving.  There was some truth in that. New York had crowded her, the rush and hustle of city streets made her frightened and the pace of each day tore her inner peace – that precious peace she knew with Abel – into shreds.  Could she tell him the truth she had denied to herself; that her journey was really to find him: how much she had missed him, thought of him, worried for him every day for ten years?  And now she was standing at his side, how could she tell him all she wanted was to fall into his arms? 

“I’m not married now.” Ariel murmured, half to herself.  “Or I won’t be, in another three weeks.”   She forced herself to meet Abel’s eyes.  “We both have sad stories, don’t we?”

“Looks like it.”  He matched her stare.  “It didn’t work out, then?”

“It isn’t his fault.  His work takes him away for weeks at a time.  But me and the big city?  I’ve been on my own a lot, these last ten years.”

He grunted. “Seems like you should have stayed, then maybe things would have turned out better.”  

“You never asked me to.  That was all you had to do – ask.  I would have stayed.”  It was all she could manage to keep the tremor from her voice.  Why hadn’t he asked?  For all the years they had spent together they had been fast friends, and he must have known how much she loved him, yet he had never given her cause to hope he cared for her in return.  She drew a breath, saying;  “I’m sorry about your Dad.  I always liked him.”

“Yes, he was a miserable old bugger, but he had his ways.  It’s a pity one of them wasn’t writing cheques.”  Abel frowned, avoiding her gaze.  “It really is good to see you.”  He repeated, as if he was striving for sincerity.  He had thought her his friend, believed they would always have that closeness, and he wanted so badly to say how he had missed her, and tell her of the betrayal he felt when she left without warning, left when he needed her most.  All these things he might say, but could never say, now or then.  “Are you staying in the village?”

“No.  Mum and Dad moved to Frebsham five years back; but then you’ll know about that.”

“I did hear.   Forty miles.  That’s a long way.”

Like another universe to you’, Ariel thought.  “I’ll maybe stay in town for a couple of days.”  She said; and then, when he made no reply, but was still, and remote, lost inside himself:  “Look, you’re busy…”

“What will you do now – stay in England?   I mean, if you’re divorced…”

She smiled faintly.  “Not quite.  Not yet.  I’ll have to fly back, to finalise things, you know?  I’ll maybe look for a job up Frebsham way;  I don’t know.”

“Well, while you’re here you must stay for lunch.  I’ll get cleaned up…”

“No!”  She said it too quickly, bit back on the word.  “I mean, no, thank you.  I ought to get back to town, get booked in somewhere.  It’s the high season…”

“We were friends!”  He blurted out.   “We were friends most of our lives, you and I!”

“Yes, I know; and we’re strangers now.  My fault – all my fault.   I should have been there when you needed… I just wanted something – I don’t know; something more, I suppose.”

How had she believed a reunion could succeed where the past had failed?  Yet she was sure that love was there, and still she hoped – hoped to hear the staccato fracture of ice; to have him reach for her, take her in his arms and make the world come right!  For all her pride, she could not conceal the plea in her eyes, or dare to speak, lest her voice should give her away.  

“Lunch in twenty minutes!”  It was a call from the boathouse.  “Abey you demon, you’ve got company!   Why didn’t you say?  Shall I lay for three?”

A figure stood, fresh-faced and smiling, in the door of the boathouse, with one hand against the jamb.

“No, she isn’t staying!”  Abel called back.   And to her:   “It’s a pity, though.  Peter’s a lovely chap.  We’ve been together three years now.  I’m sure you’d like him.”

At that instant, Ariel’s eyes were drawn towards the cool waters of the canal.  For a second, no more, sunlight flickered on the blue iridescent flight of a kingfisher.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

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By Force of Arms

I’m a geriatic.  I know the meaning of the word.  So when I see a neo-octogenarian being sworn in as the ‘Leader of the Free World’ you’ll forgive me for feeling a little concerned, especially when the process requires the protection of an entire army.

In many less ‘free’ countries that would be considered a coup.

Joe Biden (78 – and I presume we have more than just his word for that?) now has his finger on the nuclear button.  I hope he manages to stay awake through the special briefing from the military that accompanies that privilege, because it is quite critical,  isn’t it?  He seems to have trouble finding his way to the podium sometimes, and equal difficulty remembering what he came to say when he gets there.  I can totally empathise.  

Simple decisions, like what to have for breakfast, and little memory issues around the last encounter with the car keys become major concerns as our years advance.   More attention needs to be given to plotting the geography of our working days, with particular reference to the availability of armchairs and bathrooms.  Medical assistance needs to be…well, within reach, shall we say?

Should we ever meet, Joe and I, I would be pleased to swop experiences of our comparative medication programmes, because I feel certain there are a number of pitfalls there.  Bisoprolol and Statins are deleterious to concentration, I’ve found.  And one should never be afraid of taking a short nap in the afternoon. Or a long one…

Not that President Trump is much less scrawny an example of spring chickendom; and something other than heroic, in many respects; he cuts an unlikely Che Guevara figure as a potential revolutionary, yet the system has almost certainly reinvented him as such.  There was always the fear that if politicians got their talons into the Internet they would use it to create a monster and that has certainly been a product of the last four years.  The question is, if this is what they can achieve in one term, what will they spawn in the next?  

For me, as an outsider, the politics themselves are of less concern than the collateral damage:  ‘Democracy’ (and god, the futility with which we cling to that word) hinges upon the will of the majority being not just established, but accepted.   Have we seen the last election process in which that can happen?    If opinion can be shaped by fake news, and majorities won by fake counts, if fake issues can generate extreme solutions, what have we left?

Young opinion is shaped by young science, but in all that is new young opinion should be guided by, and not used by, those older and hopefully wiser in the ways of the world. The Media Freeway is a certain friend to those for whom the cynical exploitation of idealistic youth paves a road to success.  Where have the wise heads gone?  If they still exist, why are they too afraid to speak? 

This leaves those of us who still care with some odious decisions on a personal level.  It won’t rock the world if I close my Twitter account, though I may regret it because Twitter was fun, once.  But can I go on contributing, in however small a way, to an organisation that exerts censorship and pursues policies of ‘no platforming’?  Can I ever go to a polling booth again and vote, not wondering how my tiny ‘x’ will be cast?  Is there any source of information, be it news, archive material or simple learned opinion I can still trust?   

In a socialist autocracy, only the red message thrives.   If we must persist in chasing the illusion of ‘Freedom’, we are faced with an ever-steeper climb.  For those of us in the rest of the world, Joe Biden’s inauguration by force of arms is a sad occasion.

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Abel

Finally, the gaudily-clothed party of holiday makers had audibly subsided to a conspiratorial murmur.   Their car stood deserted in the boatyard car park having disgorged its umpteenth suitcase, their enthusiastic spaniel dog had signed its name to almost everything that could offer an intriguing scent, and now they huddled beside the mooring in two groups, expectant, irresolute.   

Canal boat rental ‘Daisy May’ of the long gleaming red cabin waited, Perkins diesel puttering idly.  

Abel, who never hurried, saw that they were settled and wandered across to them. Under the spaniel’s contemplative eye a family of ducks swam around the stern of the boat; mother brown and glistening, chicks yellow going on brown and cheeping. At Abel’s approach but on no specific invitation, the more mature vacationers began to venture onto the deck. Their kids were already on board, climbing over the narrow boat’s cabin roof – four of them in all, the youngest maybe five or six.  Anxious maternal eyes watched as an attentive elder shepherded them to safety.  

“Toby, don’t touch now.”

“Michelle, keep hold of Petey, there’s a darling.”

 Two families, as Abel judged, and ready occupants for every one of Daisy May’s twelve berths.  They had driven up from somewhere in the South.

“Are you ready to go, then?”  His lazy, familiar drawl seemed to ripen with the season, Ariel thought..    

Ariel watched from her steamer chair on the front trestle of the boathouse, saw Abel draw admiring stares from a pair of teenage girls in the party.  He was a big man, broad and muscular, his body honed by a lifetime on the canals.   

The teenage girls dissolved into shy giggles. 

“The cabins are so small!”  One of the older women complained.

“Can’t be no wider, you wouldn’t get through the locks,” Abel told her. “She’s seventy feet stem to stern. She’s got everything you need. Just accept it all happens in a space eight feet wide.   Now;” He addressed the older man.  “Remember what I showed you?   Up is forwards, down is back.  It’s a tiller, so push left if you want to go right, right to go left, Okay?  Oh, and you steer from the back, so you need to push off from the mooring, or come off stern first.  I’ll leave you to it.  Enjoy yourselves and take it slow!”

His litany completed, Ariel drank in Abel’s measured, capable steps as he returned to her.  She greeted him with her twisted half-smile, patting the seat beside her own in invitation.  “The last one.  You’ve had a busy morning!”

“Busiest day of the year!”  He lowered himself into the chair, extracting a squeak of mild protest from its seasoned wood.  Ariel wondered, not for the first time, if all that muscle was sculptured from marble.  “I’ve got everything hired out until Sunday, now.”

“And no boat hauled up.” Ariel glanced towards the empty slipway that skirted the boathouse.  “What are you going to do all week?”   

“Problem, I know.  I was going to fix the seals on ‘Gracie’s’ pump out valve, but we were short by a couple of boats and it was nothing serious, so I had to put her back in the water.  More than that,” he nodded towards the newly-tenanted narrow boat now struggling at its moorings, “We called in this ‘un from Dad’s yard.   Moira overbooked us again.”

“I thought I didn’t recognise her.”  Trying to disguise her amusement, Ariel watched as ‘Daisy May’s’ novice crew tried to leave the mooring forwards, frantically thrusting their fending poles at the bank.  “She looks a nice boat.  When did you bring her up?”  Abel’s father ran a twin boatyard some thirty miles south on the Grand Union Canal.

“Dad brought her on Wednesday.  I still had to fit her out with some stuff, though.  She’s brand new.   We only bought her this Spring.”

Down on the canal, the elderly man at ‘Daisy May’s’ tiller was becoming increasingly agitated.

“I’ll just be a minute.”  Abel apologised.

Offering Ariel another prospect of his departing figure the young boatyard owner strode (at the closest he ever came to a rush, she thought) back towards the mooring, calling out to the novice helmsman.  “Mr. Yardley, sir, put her in reverse!  Down!   Down for reverse!  See, it’s pulling water over the rudder, so now put your tiller hard left.   Nope, left – that’s it.   Now you’ve got her!   Straighten nice and easy, see  – there you go!”

Several tons of steel narrow boat backed out into the placid water of the canal, its elderly navigator grinning at his success like a Cheshire cat as children cheered and a manic spaniel raced back and forth along the cabin roof.

“I thought you took them up to Handyard’s Lock first, to show them the basic stuff.”  Ariel said as Abel returned.

“I do.  Some take longer to accept it than others.  They all think it’s easy, I can do this, so they don’t listen.  It is easy, but they don’t listen.  He’ll be all right now.”

“You’ll have to buy a couple more boats.”  

“Well, the business is there, certainly.  But we already have fourteen in the water, and they’re getting more expensive every year.”  Abel shrugged.  “I don’t know; maybe. I sort of like life as it is.”

Sighing, Ariel turned her face to the sun, closing her eyes.  “You have it all here, don’t you?  The canal, your boats, a quiet country lane miles away from the traffic, generations away from the world.  I envy you, sometimes.”

Abel chuckled. “Envy me?  Well, I don’t think I ever saw myself as that lucky.  Maybe I am.”

“Absolutely you are!  I look at you, always contented, not a shred of ambition anywhere in your body?  Every time I see you it’s the same.  You’re just happy, aren’t you?”

“And you’re not?”

Ariel sat up in her chair, suddenly decisive.  “I could use another beer.  Do you have anything for lunch in there?  A sandwich or something?”

“There’s bread, and beer in the fridge.  Help yourself.”

But she had already left him, nimbly skipping through the clutter of tools and stores to the back of the boathouse where, behind a row of foggy and randomly cracked windows, Abel lived.

His was a ramshackle existence, unchanged for as long as Ariel had known the boatman.  He had grown up here, helping Mark, his father, with never much use for school or learning, although he had learned his craft well enough; and when Mark bought the site down south, Abel simply took over.  There lingered a friendly odor of generations (who knew how many?) behind those smutty window panes that was familiar to her, a kind of mustiness that felt comfortable.   A living area, chairs, a sofa scattered with magazines and tour brochures, a worn Persian carpet, today littered with the detritus of ready-meal life, that might just as easily play host to a misbehaving outboard motor, or a bilge pump.  Adjoining this, a kitchen – small but clean, with a bread bin, fridge full of beer, some ham…

It was hot.  Midday sun beat down on the boathouse roof, the butter was melting as she applied it to the bread.  Two bottles of Coors were coldly welcome in her hands.

“Thought you’d like another beer.”  She said, rejoining him.  “When are you going to build yourself a proper house?”

“I wonder how many times you’re going to ask me that?  I wonder how many times I’ve given you the same answer.  I like being right here, by this old canal. I’m happy as I am.”

Ariel didn’t respond for a minute.   She sucked her beer, listening to the waterside birds as they cheeped and clucked their way through a day’s commerce, trading beauty for bread with the steady trickle of tourist boats passing by.

“The canal’s changing, though.” She said at last, and Abel didn’t have to answer, because the peace was disturbed by a heavier diesel chug which, growing in volume, finally resolved itself into a sleek white river cruiser.   “Isn’t that ‘Moonlight’?” She asked.

Abel nodded.  “It was.  Old Tarbut got too decrepit to use her – got himself a heart attack winding her through Skinsford Lock, so he sold her on to Armand Brothers.  Now she’s ‘Number Three Four Seven.’   Where’s the romance, huh?”

“Tarbut? He was nearly blind last time I met him.”  Ariel chuckled.  “I hope they cleared the cabin of all those spiders.”

“I’m sure.”   Abel waved to the couple who stood arm-in-arm at the boat’s smart little wooden wheel, and they waved back.  “Pair of townies like them, They’d be running round the deck screaming otherwise.  You’re right, though.  Things are changing.  Maybe twice as many holiday makers these days.  It isn’t a bad thing, I don’t suppose.  Good for business.”

“I remember a day like this, not too many summers ago, you and I went skinny-dipping down there.  We couldn’t do that now.   We’d be caught.”

Abel allowed himself a twitch of a smile.  “We were bloody nearly caught then, as I recall.  We were eleven years old.  The rules were different.”

“My dad wouldn’t have thought so.” Ariel sighed.  “Twenty-two years!”  She sat up, suddenly.  “There!  Did you see it?  Kingfisher!  Just a blue flash, but I know I saw!”

“Oh, him!  He’s been around a while, now.  Don’t know why – they prefer the rivers, mostly.  I expect he’ll move on soon.  Twenty-one.”

“Twenty-one ?”

“Twenty-one years.  That was the year of our eleven plus.  I failed.”

“And I went on to Partondon Grammar, for all the good it did me.”   She closed her eyes, lost in a golden haze of reminiscence.  “But still, it was a beautiful summer.”

Neither spoke then, reclined side by side, at one with their thoughts.  Oftentimes they might doze for a while here, with the water for company; until waking, she might turn to see his sleeping face and smile, as a lover might, at his innocence.  They were companions, friends, confidantes; and whether in the cold rains of winter or the summer heat this boatyard had been almost as much a part of Ariel’s life as Abel’s.  Here she had learned watercraft, taught herself how to paint the glossy barge art that adorned the holiday narrow boats just as gaily as the barges of old. If her love of art had been born here, so too in turns she had been baptised in tar, in antifouling, engine oil or grease; been exhausted, elated, proud and angry, but most of all she had felt the love that this place wrapped around her.  For as many hours of the week as were spared to her, she would come here, and always she would feel welcomed.

“Ah, here we go.”  Abel said.

A big river cruiser had burbled quietly up to the mooring, the sound of its engine lost in the silence of their thoughts.  A spare-looking man was already ashore, while a woman in a green blouse held a line from the stern, ready to tie off.

The man looked up as Abel approached him.   “How much for the mooring?”   He demanded crisply.  “We’re staying overnight.”

“Not here, this is a private mooring.  There’s a public staithe at the Stag and Hound by Handyard Lock.”

The man flushed immediately, primed for argument. He was short in stature and aggressive by instinct.  A terrier, Ariel thought; and he’s not enjoying his holiday. “What am I supposed to do, then?  I’m not going to moor outside a pub!”

“This boat’s from Robertson’s, isn’t it?  You could wind by the lock and take her back there.  It’s no more than five miles.  It’ll be quieter around their yard.”

Ariel allowed herself to chuckle openly, watching the man’s peacock strut as he vented his frustration.  Abel was unmoved and unmoving.  The man waved his wallet, Abel shook his head, and the scene played itself out, the one spoiling for altercation, the other patient, but obdurate, until there were no lines left in their script.  At last the visitor climbed back on his boat and, with a well-chosen selection of over-the-shoulder invective, sailed on.

“You could have let him!”  She rebuked, as Abel returned.

“Right!   They’d be queuing up by tonight.  I must have six signs saying this is a private staithe, They get worse.  What if one of my own boats comes in – a repair or something?”

The friends sat side by side, sucking their beers and watching a steady flow of tour boats pass by.

“What are you going to do, Abe?”  Ariel asked.

“Do?  Me?   Tidy up the boathouse this week, I reckon.  And I’ve got yards of paperwork to catch up on.”

“No, not this week.  I mean, with the rest of your life.   You can’t live at the back of a shed forever.”

“Why not?”

“You’re worth so much more, I suppose.”  Ariel said.

He took her hand gently and held it, and if her fingers trembled at his touch, he did not seem to notice.  “You know, I’ve often wondered about this ‘worth’ thing.  About chasing ‘success’, whatever that means – about always wanting a little bit more.  The way I look at it, I have what I want – all I’m really entitled to want – this is my little place in the grand scheme of things.  If I tried to change more than I needed to change, I’d only end up making myself unhappy. Other people, too.”  Abel added.  “Of course, it’s different for you.”

“How?  How is it different?”

“You like it – the pressure, the rushing about.  You enjoy the challenge, I expect.  That isn’t for me.”

“Really? Yes, I suppose I must.”   Ariel said.  “Don’t you ever want – anything – to alter, to improve?  I mean, you must sometimes ask yourself whether there could be another way?”

“Nope!”  Abel grinned.  “Everything seems to me to be just as it should be.”

He pushed himself out of his chair and walked down to the mooring to tidy a line his last customers had left beside the water.   “They’ll be missing this!” He called over his shoulder.  Ariel did not answer.  When he turned around he saw she had gone.   Such arbitrary departures were lately a peculiarity of Ariel’s visits, so he assumed she had needed to go back to her work.  As he returned to the boathouse he pictured his friend there as he always saw her.  Trim and pretty still, with her hair about her face in the breeze and that fond, slightly cynical smile, and he thought how nice a picture that was, and how peaceful her nearness made him feel.  He almost laughed aloud, as he often did when he daydreamed of Ariel, at the sheer joy she brought him.   Tomorrow she would be back, just as usual.

Ariel set her little car popping around the twists and turns of the boatyard’s narrow lane, heading  towards a village and a main road, which, in turn, would lead towards a town.  As she drove she wiped tears from her face, trying to ignore  the thump of her suitcase as it slid from side to side across the back seat.   When she reached town she would join a motorway to a city and an airport where the man she had agreed to marry would be waiting.  It was the third time she had made this appointment, and he had proved his love for her by his infinite patience when she had failed him twice.   That she could not return his devotion made her sad, and leaving the only man she could ever love cut a wound in her heart, but it was time for one promise, at last, to be kept.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

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A poem to end the year, for Noche Vieja…”Old Night”… #poetry, #poem

Now and then (not often) you find a poem that really resonates. This is just such a discovery. From Francisco Bravo Cabrera, a talented artist who, it seems, has so many talents! Please do visit his blog.

Omnia Caelum... Poetry, Art, Music

(“Changes”, acrylic on canvas,20x30cm, by FBC, Omnia Caelum Studios Valencia)

Stuck in the soles of my high heeled trainers,

as I walked up seventh avenue,

I found a little rock that reminded me of home.

In memories I travelled back to when…

I walked Manhattan, Montparnasse, and la Puerta del Sol,

strolled through Alexanderplatz, Las Ramblas and Gran Vía,

sat at la Plaza de Mayo, felt the breeze that warms Bombay

and crawled through the jungles of Guatemala,

then I let the sands from the Sahara burn my cares away…

And I stopped dreaming…

And I looked in the window of the shop that I was passing

and saw the reflection of one million souls that walked alone.

Hurrying to find warmth,

trying hard to believe,

with little more than a glance,

forcing their smiles as they grieve

for the many that we’ve left behind

who will find comfort in…

View original post 115 more words

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Wilbur’s Ghost

I’m reviving a tale of three or four years ago, to inject a lighter note in days when my own thoughts are anything but light! Happy New Year, to one and all!

It was imperative Wilbur should discover the exact location of the ghost.   He had no doubt there was a ghost; he had witnessed its activities often enough in the years since he had removed himself with his family to Abbot’s Croft, and he had become accustomed to its presence.   Although a little short-tempered at times, it was not a malevolent ghost; Abbot’s Croft did not feel especially cold, or suffer the clamminess associated with traditional hauntings, there were no clanking chains or cries of suffering, in fact the ghost made no noise at all, generally speaking.   Sometimes he would not be aware of it for weeks on end, at other times it would visit almost daily.

Yes, daily.  Wilbur’s ghost was not averse to making daylight appearances.  A haunting, Wilbur had learned, was not entirely a night-time phenomenon, not at Abbot’s Croft.  

“Is that your gardener?”  Roberta Mordegrave enquired, one fine afternoon over drinks on the terrace.

“Possibly; where?”  Wilbur was reluctant to admit he had been unable to retain a gardener for more than a few weeks, and on that particular Tuesday, he was gardener-less.  

“Over there, behind the fountain.”

It was a small fountain – more of a large water feature really – with enough spray to almost disguise someone standing behind it:  and there, standing behind it, was a disguised somebody; an opaque and watery silhouette that was undoubtedly the ghost.   Wilbur wisely confirmed his ‘gardener’s’ identity, then fell to distracting Roberta from the moment when the ghost must dematerialise, which it did.

“Where did your gardener go?”  Roberta asked, when next her eyes were drawn to the fountain.

“Oh, he does the roses in the front drive.  He’ll be there, I expect.”  Wilbur added knowledgably:  “They’re budding, you know.”  He refrained from admitting that his last gardener had left at a canter, after catching his horticultural tools performing a square dance in the vegetable garden. 

This is not to say the ghost lacked a nocturnal aspect, which could assume many forms.  On an evening devoted to a game of Bridge Wilbur found himself guided by a mysterious influence that, using neither vision nor voice, insisted he lead with a ‘low Club’ at a crucial juncture, resulting in a small slam for himself and his partner.   On another occasion he was reading peacefully in his drawing room when he heard a resounding bang followed by a sense of overwhelming pain and anger.   Wilbur scurried into the hall, where he found his Indian rug crumpled to a heap on the polished floor, suggesting that someone had slipped over while stepping upon it.  

One early morning he awoke to find his bedclothes pulled from over him.  Chilled and irritable, he snatched at the covers and wrapped them around himself.  Within seconds he was exposed again as a powerful force snatched the covers back.  Infuriated, he turned to rebuke his wife for her selfishness, but his wife was not there.  The other side of the bed was empty.  Only then did he remember that his wife was away, visiting her mother in Chipping Sodbury.

So there was a ghost.  Wilbur’s wife refused to make it a secret; instead, if a haunting was mentioned she would simply say “Oh, the ghost!” and move on to the next subject for conversation.  His two children, who had now flown the coup, would never admit to any sort of a ‘presence’, although through the last five of their growing years (those spent at Abbot’s Croft) they had passed more hours of the night giggling than sleeping. 

Wilbur’s worries about the ghost’s actual whereabouts stemmed from a meeting with Delbert Fruit-Hughes.  Now that Wilbur’s children were gone, Abbot’s Croft’s rambling old corridors and twelve bedrooms seemed too large for just himself and his wife.   He loved the house, did not want to downsize, so he suggested to his wife that they throw open their doors to others:

“Let’s take in guests.”

“Homeless people!”  His wife ruled.  “People sleeping in cardboard boxes everywhere.  Ghastly mess.”

Wilbur, who had more of a hotel in mind, demurred, but this was the sort of argument his wife always won.   So, on the following Wednesday morning, he kept an appointment with the County Planning Officer, whose name was Delbert Fruit-Hughes.   

“An HMO,” DFH decided.   “How many rooms?”

“We can make nine available.”   Wilbur calculated.  “What’s an HMO?”

“House of Multiple Occupancy – eight rentable units and a living area with cooking facilities.  You’ll need to update the rooms, add a couple of bathrooms.  Any bats?”

“What do you mean, ‘update’?  Surely our rooms are better than cardboard boxes – colder, maybe, but a bit drier?”

“There are standards we require.  And fire doors, you’ll need fire doors.  Any bats?”

“Bats?”

“You must be sure any work you have done will not disturb your bats. They’re protected, you know.”

“We don’t have any bats!”   

Delbert Fruit-Hughes screwed up his suspicious eyes suspiciously:  “Really?  Have you looked?”

 “No bats.”

“Newts, then?  A rare newt can hold up construction for years!”

“No, no newts.  Although,”  Wilbur added, with a smile. “We do have a ghost;”  

“Ah!  Oh, dear me!   Oh, my days!  Oh goodness!  That really is trouble!”

“How do you mean?  We quite like him.”

“He’ll have to be re-homed.  If there’s any chance of disturbing him, or if he’s likely to disturb your new occupants – I’m saying ‘him’, it’s not Mary Queen of Scots, is it?”

“I don’t think so.  Why, should it be?”

“She’s rather popular, we find.  Anyway, ghosts – part of heritage you see.  Heritage Britain is very protective of its ghosts. FMM, that’s my advice.”

“FMM?”

“Oh, those dreadful three-letter acronyms!  Find him, Mollify him, Move him, m’dear sir.  Oh, and if it’s MQS, you might have to deal with the head separately.  I wish you very good luck!  That aside, the process is deliciously simple.  I shall study your plans, to be assured that your proposals are in keeping with the age and listing of your house and that you intend using appropriate materials.  Then I shall come and visit the site in a few days.  As long as I’m satisfied, planning permission should be granted.  Tickety-boo!  Shall we say Monday?”

#

“It’s quite simple.”  Wilbur explained to the empty air in his bedroom.  “We want to find you somewhere more comfortable.  More comfortable to haunt, that is.”  

No-one answered.  

Wilbur was taking breakfast with his wife in Abbot’s Croft’s voluminous kitchen.  

“I should tell you,” said the figure at the end of their table, “I’m perfectly happy where I am.”

Wilbur’s wife glanced up, taking in a pale young woman wearing a grey business suit.  “You don’t look well.”  She said brusquely.  “You’d be much healthier if you got out more.”

“Of course I don’t look well.  I’m dead!”  The figure retorted.  “And I get outside often enough, thank you.”

“She does – he does.  I thought she was a him; or do I mean a he?”  Wilbur stumbled.  “I’ve seen her, after a fashion.”

“Well, I have my work to get to.”  His wife said.  “Sort this out, please, Wilbur.”  And she left.

“The thing is…”  Wilbur began.

“The thing is,”  The ghost cut in;  “You want to tear this house apart and fill it up with vagrants.  Well, no dice, I’m afraid.  No dados, kein wurfel, saikoro.   No.”

“Only part of the house.”  Wilbur protested.  “Anyway, how did you know?”

“I’m a ghost, sweetie.  Ghosts know everything.   Now please understand this:  we all have our place here; places important to us because they correspond with our deaths.  We won’t be moved.”

Wilbur tutted.  “We?”

“Of course!  You didn’t think I was the only spirit in this joint, did you?  There’s a nine-year-old girl bricked in behind the fireplace in the old refectory, a forty-year old stonemason who fell off the roof, an unlucky monk who ate too much pigeon pie, and a murdered eldest son under the floor more or less where you’re sitting.  This house is over six hundred years old, you know.  It’s seen some action!”

Wilbur was aghast.  “I didn’t realise!  I thought…”

“Thought it was just me?  By no means.  I’m simply Abbot’s Croft’s EHR.”

“EHR?”  Wilbur enquired politely.

“Those damned three-letter acronyms!  Elected Haunting Representative.  I do the manifestations on the others’ behalf (and you don’t need to move your chair, he’s at least four feet down).”

“And whose ghost are you?  You look – well, you look very modern.”

“I can appear in any clothing I want, if that’s what you mean.  One has to keep up with the times, doesn’t one?  Although I must admit…”  The ghost squirmed uncomfortably  “…I find the current fashion for underwear very strange.   I am, let me see…”  she counted on her fingers “…four hundred and seventy years old.  I don’t suppose that will mean anything to you, though.”

“Should it not?   Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, dissolution of the monasteries?  What happened to you?  Did you get dissolved?”

“Very nearly.  I fell in a cooking pot, alright?  The cook pushed me.  Then she got scared, because all the household knew she didn’t like me, so she hid my body inside the kitchen chimney. It was very embarrassing, and I don’t really want to talk about it, but I have to because my remains are still there.”

“What, here?”  Wilbur stared at the kitchen Aga, and the great chimney breast above it.

“In the room you use for your ‘home cinema’, I think you call it.  It may not look like it anymore, but that was a kitchen once, and the chimney is part of the south wall.”

“We have to take that down.  It’s in the way of the alterations.   We’ll find you, and we’ll give you a decent burial.  Then you’ll be released, and you can rest in peace.”   Wilbur suggested helpfully.  “Although we’ll miss you.”  He added.

“Absolutely not!”  The ghost declared.  “I like it here.  I would miss you, too.  You’re a nice family, you know.  I feel we have got quite close, over the years.”

“But you’d be at rest in Heaven!” 

“Not after the life I led!  Anyway, what would I do, puffing clouds around all day?  I’m sorry, but your plans are out of the question. None of us wan t them.  Why can’t you just go on as you are?

“Because the place is too big for us now.  We do this, or we move somewhere smaller.”

“I can’t dissuade you?”

“No.” Wilbur said tersely.  “We’ve submitted the plans, they’re all ready for approval.  You can’t do anything about it.  We’ve decided.”

Wilbur was treated to the eerie sound of ghostly laughter.  “Can’t do anything about it?  Oh sweetie!  Have you heard of poltergeists?”  To reinforce her point, the ghost raised a vase of flowers gently from the sideboard and floated it across the kitchen.  Wilbur watched it nervously, half-expecting to see it fly at his head.

“You may throw a few things, but it won’t make any difference; it’s decided.”

“Hmm.”  Said the ghost.  “I see you’re determined.  I’m sorry, because I always thought I was a good ghost to you.  Things clearly need to be brought under control.”  And she vanished, leaving the flower vase to drop, shattering, to the flagstone floor.

Wilbur and his wife were waiting on the Monday when Delbert Fruit-Hughes parked his car at the end of their drive, and watched him retrieve his briefcase from the back seat.   They moved to make him welcome, flinging wide Abbot’s Croft’s  old double front doors, and if Wilbur, stepping outside, noticed the driveway beneath his feet was wet, he took no account of it at first, although it had not rained for a day and a half.  In his endeavour to greet DFH halfway down the drive, however, his ears began to pick up a strange squelching sound.  He looked down.

Delbert Fruit-Hughes cried out:  “Oh, newts!”   And newts there were; hundreds, possibly thousands of the rarest newts nature could provide – newts that floundered on the gravel, crawled over Wilbur’s shoes, climbed his trouser legs, and when he bent to brush them off, one somehow attached itself to his hand and sat upon it, regarding him with a thoughtful expression.  But if there were thousands of newts, they were comfortably outnumbered by the bats.   The bats burst from the end gables of Abbot’s Croft in an effusion of black wings like a pharaoh’s plague, descending upon the running form of DFH and flapping about his head as he struggled to regain the safety of his car.   

As for Wilbur, he turned to his wife with a gesture of despair, but it was not her incredulous expression that caught his eye, it was the presence, at each window of Abbot’s Croft, of a smiling, grey, wispy ghost.

The letter denying Wilbur and his wife planning permission came promptly, not from DFH, who had suffered a nervous breakdown, but from his successor.  So it is a story of failure; the tale of a well-meaning couple who attempted to launch Abbot’s Croft as an HMO ( a House of Multiple Occupancy) only to be thwarted by a PSI (Protected Species Infestation); yet it is not quite the end of the story.   No sooner had Delbert Fruit-Hughes departed than the newts departed too, the newts and all but two pairs of the bats.  The entire host simply melted away.   The two pairs of bats that lingered, however, required feeding; and they were bats of a certain habit.  They took their fill from Wilbur and his wife as they slept, that very night, so that by morning they had wrought great changes.

Through the centuries that are to come rumours will strengthen and fade about the shy, retiring owners of Abbot’s Croft and their odd, nocturnal ways; but hey, they seem to be nice people, and though they never seem to get any older they are not at all the sort who could be connected in any way with the strange instances of dead farm animals that occur in the area now and then.   And as for tales of ghosts that linger in the old house, well, some claim to have seen a figure of a woman drifting about the gardens, but no-one has ever felt threatened by her.  She seems quite happy, for a ghost.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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New Year, and a Life in Captivity

So the New Year is striking off on a down-beat note.   Differences from the celebrations of other years could not be more marked, at least if we obeyed the conventional wisdom and kept our seasonal conviviality strictly to ourselves.

The which we did, self and memsahib, bingeing on Netflix and scarcely bothering to note the passing of the midnight hour, Or the hour before, the hour this sceptred isle finally thumbed its nose at the European Union.

On this particular day of the New Year’s birth (snow outside, temperature a stimulating 1⁰ C) it’s fashionable to review our past year, looking back on its highs and lows, and that’s so unutterably boring in my case I’ll go for ten years instead…

If the first ten years of this century are to be remembered as ‘The Noughties’, the second should be referred to as ‘The Wokies’.  This was the decade when I learned that ‘coloured persons’ were ‘persons of colour’, actresses were actors, and after expunging all the words that were no longer ‘appropriate’ from the Oxford English Dictionary it could be reprinted as a 35-page pamphlet.   On the ‘up’ side, I could ‘identify’ as any sex I wanted from a Sears Catalogue of around 250 different styles.  ‘News’ became the new Gospel, embellished by writers and presenters alike with ever more emotive language.  Of course there were days which lacked ‘news’. Like all good journalists on such days they wrote their own.  

Plaintive complaints of ‘no platforming’, terrified screams at ‘cliff edges’ and tombstone-voiced predictions of Armageddon assailed me so I spent my ‘Wokie’ days with loins permanently girded for a ten-year hurricane of wokeness – but was the journey worthwhile?  Well, personally I feel like Christian upon discovering the Slough of Despond is just a theme park and the real Vanity Fair looks an awful lot like Cambridge.  I dressed for a scourge when I could have got away with a lounge suit.  No drama!  Two General Elections, a referendum and the severance from a super-state all passed with not a hint of apocalypse.  No falls from cliff tops, no carbon monoxide seas wherein to drown, not even a pothole to interrupt the smoothness of the road.   The only consequences of the stultifying ‘Wokies’ for me are a complete loss of any sense of direction, and the inescapable conclusion that all signposts have been removed.  

So here I am, on the threshold of 2021, with no idea of where I’m going next!  But that doesn’t matter because I’m not supposed to go anywhere.

We’re told to stay in our houses.  Don’t travel, don’t socialise, don’t ask any more questions.  It’s a pandemic, gettit?  This is only temporary, until our Greaters and Gooders have made all the money they can extract from it, then you’ll be set free.  In the meantime, if you feel like suicide, or murdering your kids, or even learning Welsh, we have people you can talk to – they’re just a helpline away.

‘You’re call is important to us.  Continue to hold and one of our advisors will..’.

A bit like Joe Biden, I don’t really know where I go from here.  I don’t know what the next decade has in store. I joined the last one in expectation of great adventures, and in the event the adventures weren’t so great, but maybe the ’21s’ will be better. At any rate I must shake off this malaise.  I might go out and demonstrate against the slave trader guy whose statue dominates the town square. It isn’t a very good statue so I might help pull it down.  He won’t mind, he’s been dead for two hundred years.  While I’m in the mood for demonstrating I could join the movement for saving the planet, which apparently involves stopping traffic in City Centres and lying down on motorways.  It’s a little cold for that right now, though, so I’ll just write another post for this blog instead…Happy New Year, everyone!

NB: This was the decade in which I retired…I felt the world deserved a break, at the time.  Now I’m not so sure.

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Just Leaving…

Because I am likely to spend the next ten days in Zen-like contemplation of a fine Highland Single Malt this blog is best given a vacation until 2021!

Happy Christmas and a Guid New Year, everybody. 

Stay Safe!

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

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Bathyscaphe

Here it is once again – the most ungodly week on the calendar!

 I must confess I greet this festival each time with increasing wonder – like by whose permission am I still here?  This is a special one, though: it’ll surely be the smallest, and for the first time I go into it with the feeling of being watched – not by friends and family  who are accustomed to my excesses, but by the lurking presence of ‘authority’.   If I step out into the yard for some fresh air:

“That’s far enough, sir!”

I wasn’t going to go any further, but the strange, black-suited figure at my gate is not content with that explanation.

“You should return to your habitation immediately.  If you want air, open a window!”  His voice is muffled by mask and screen.  “Take The Pandemic seriously.  Do you realise that at least one person in a hundred thousand could suffer a moderate headache because of your selfish action?”

I won’t mention my own headache, brought about by a liberal application of gin, for fear of being gift-wrapped in cling film and carted off to an empty Nightingale Unit fifty miles away.  It is easier to retreat.

Indoors, though, the atmosphere this week promises to be, depending upon our state of ‘lockdown’, one or another kind of hell.

Not that Christmas is ever easy.  In normal years we might at least air our rapacity on the street and go about with our best ‘God bless us, every one!’ expressions as we bestow good wishes on those we meet – in normal years, but not this one.  The streets are all but deserted. Those we do encounter are so disguised by masks and haunted looks they might as well be talent-spotters for Hezbollah.

Meanwhile the media, sensing our inability to mingle with friends, relatives, loved ones, are primed and determined to batter us with a relentless hail of ‘Christmas Specials’.  Backcloths to football shows embellished with fake ‘snow’; everyone from the weather girl to the Prime Minister (oh, imagine!) clothed as if for pantomime.  Picture Dumb and Dumber, our two ‘medical experts’ dressed in crinolines, and Boris Johnson as Widow Twanky.  “She’s BEHIND YOU!”

“Oh, no she isn’t!”

 As of today the assault will intensify.   Every programme, TV or radio, is ‘Christmassed up’.  I await the Queen’s Christmas Day message with trepidation.  Mock antlers and tinsel were never her thing.

There is one consolation for us oldsters.  On the afternoon of the Sainted Day itself we elders get centre stage.  The audience may be smaller, but we can still beguile them with our tales of better times. Think of it as I think of it – as scattering the faery dust of Hope.

Some drink-impaired relative will offer a cue:  “I bet things were nicer in your day, Grandad…”

 On this special day nostalgia rules.  Be it around the festive table, ‘up the pub’ or ‘down the club’, at some stage the talk will turn to yesterdays; and some of us will relish the drift, and others will prefer to forget.

There are very good reasons why history is such a favorite subject.  Pursuant upon the miasma of too much wine and too much dine, we are too cosseted and cosy for conflict: it avoids politics, which are always dangerous, and religion, which is equally devisive.

Immortal quote:   “Stop going on about religion, Dad; it’s Christmas, for god’s sake!”

Not that history is entirely without its pitfalls.

“Remember Jeff’s party?  Things got really hot, didn’t they?  I never managed to explain to him how we broke that bed!”

After an icy silence:

“No, I don’t remember.  What bed, and who is Jeff?”

Lethal!   The greatest traps are not so much the deepest submerged, but those whose fronds wave gracefully in the coral shadows, still occasionally visible in filtered daylight from above.  Beware!  Snorkelling nostalgia is contingent upon truth. All facts are verifiable.  Only the rashest romancers dare to embellish facts that are commonly known.  Only the most boring would bother.

No, the more interesting story-fodder lies full fathom five – or three-and-a-half, at any rate.  Here, where little light intrudes, the most remarkable treasures of retrospection are to be found nestling cosily in sand, awaiting the salvage of your story.

“Ah, 2005!  That was the year Pope John Paul died, y’know.  I was in Rome at the time.  No-one expected it, him popping off like that.  The outpouring of grief was incredible.  They had to close St. Mark’s Square for fear of people getting crushed.

“St. Mark’s Square?”

“Yes.  I remember how terrifying it was.  I was caught up in the hysteria…”

“In St. Mark’s Square?”

“Yes, amazing place, normally. Like a great theatre…”

“Amazing – and in Venice.  Did you mean St. Peter’s Sqaure?”

“Oh?  I mean, yes, of course!  How could I forget?  It was so hot, that June..”

“He died in April.”

Little traps, with big, yawning chasms of credibility beneath!  By just that one, tiny slip are we judged; thereafter our audience will be a little less rapt, still kindly, but indulgent.

Prepared for fiction.

In nautical terms barnacle-encrusted recollections get less distinct as you descend below the twenty-year critical level.  And far safer.

 Mischievous currents may move events and places around, so as you drag your air-line among them in your steel helmet and leaded boots you can no longer trust them to be as you left them, all those years ago, but who’s to know?.

Was that before the Berlin Wall came down, or after?   ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’  Who was President then?

This is Christmas and the wine is flowing and your audience, most of whom were yet to be born in the times you so gleefully explore, is as captive as they’re ever likely to be.  Tired, well-fed caterpillars, you can watch their eyes glaze over as you help them into the chrysalis.

The Peurto Rico Trench of memories.  No-one should dive to sixty years or beyond without a bathyscaphe, yet it is warm, it is comfortable, and in some ways a liberation.  Depth and darkness.

“Did I ever tell you I was one of the crew of the Kon Tiki?  A bit of a wild one, I was, in those days.  Me and – dear me, what was his name – Floyd!  Yes, that’s it; Floyd Patterson. We used to hang around with a Swedish chap, Thor Hennerdahl.  We did a lot of boating together, y’see…”

The Monopoly Board was laid out some five minutes ago.  A face leans into vision.  The money is being counted out

“Do you want to be the top hat, grandad?”

If I look up I will see a little Mexican Wave of returning consciousness pass through my small audience

I had something important to tell them, didn’t I?  Wisdom to impart.  Whatever it was, I can’t quite remember it.   Maybe next year, when there are more of us?

No, that isn’t true; there won’t be.  Every year we get fewer in number.  Little by little, time will ease us apart.

Never mind; it’s Christmas – in ways the man in black at our gate can never understand.

“Yes, I’ll be the top hat…”

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Gift Wrapped.

This is a tribute.  Whatever damage to our health this black COVID comedy has visited upon us, its most permanent effect has been the demise of our traditional way of shopping.  Although our physical wellbeing will return, we are witnessing the final decline of the Mall, the Department Store, the High Street retailer.  

So, a little piece from Christmas past, and maybe an expression of sorrow for things lost; things we’ll miss in the online society of years to come…

“Gif’ wrapped?”

She is in her fifties, piped into the store’s idea of what a woman should wear in her thirties if she were a size 12. She is not a size twelve.

Plastic smile.  “Would’y’like to include-a-message?”

“Sorry?”

“Message.  Would’y’l….”

“Oh!  Sorry.  No thanks.”

The boxed perfume and cologne upon which I have just expended next month’s rent lies before me on the counter.  As enemies go it is already vanquished – its acetate window a little clouded, a little wrinkled, its cardboard colours brash.  Defiant, but defeated.  It is nothing like the resplendent offering that I selected from the brightly-lit glass case.   A cell-phone begins to play something Bieber.   The woman stifles it at the third chord.

“Yeah? Did he?  Oh, right, and he….”

A miracle happens.  Cell tucked against shoulder, bright paper from somewhere.

“Silver or gold?”

“Erm, silver?”

My perfume gift is interred in a whirl of glitzy paper.

“Well, it’s not my fault, I tried!”  The woman tells the ‘phone.  “No, not tonight.  I’m goin’ t’ Freddy’s.  I said.”

Ribbon shoots from somewhere far beneath, not one but two strips.  She holds them up for my approval, her face a mirror of enquiry.  I am being asked to select a colour.  The ‘phone is squawking angrily.  

I point at red.  

“Its no good him prattin’ on.  I said last night I wasn’t goin’.”  From furious to obsequious.  “Yes, madam?”

She has a customer enquiry further along the counter.  I expect her to move away but no, the miracle is still happening.   My gift is wrapped neatly in silver, a red ribbon is flying around it.

“Those are really more for the older man, I think.  Hav’y’thought of Hugo Boss?”  And to the ‘phone:  “Well he knows where he can put it, doesn’ee?”

Ribbon in a tight binding, scissors from treasure-house  below, their point stripping through the loose ends, reducing them to tight curls.  Gum, glitter.  To the new customer:  “He’ll really go for that one, I should think.  What about the cologne?”

To me:  “Seventy-Nine pounds, dear.  Cash or card?”

I never hear the end of the conversation.  I am dispatched, processed, a satisfied customer.  My gift cradled in my respectful grasp, my work of art, my Lichtenstein in silver created by the hand (well, one hand) of an anonymous woman whose work should surely be exhibited somewhere more prominent than my humble Christmas tree.

At home I contemplate the bottle of single malt that I shall gift to Uncle Bill with naked fear.  They stretch out before me – the paper, the scissors that will never cut it in a straight line, the sellotape which has no distinguishable end; the instruments that are the true hell of Christmas.  Grimly, but with determination, I down a third gin and fit the scissors around my fingers.

My wife comes in from work at six o’clock.  “The neighbours are complaining,”  she says,  “about you shouting again.”  She sees the broken glass and the splash of gin on the wall. “Have you been throwing things?”

“It was an accident.”  I tell her.  “Me, shouting?  No, must have been number fifty-eight.”

“What on earth is that?”  She has spotted Uncle Bill’s wrapped bottle of single malt.  “It looks like a traffic accident.”

I come clean.  What else can I do?  At least in my long-sleeved jumper she cannot see the scars where I finally turned the scissors on myself.

“Well you do your best and it is the season of good will!”  My wife says charitably.  “I hope you haven’t bought me perfume again.”

Today, when the thoroughfare should be brimming with supplicants to the Great God of Consumerism, scarcely a foot is heard to fall.  Brightly lit windows flicker code to each other across empty streets – gone the street markets; still-born the Santa Claus parades, the rattling strings of coloured lights that echo in a rain-rich wind.

Not once have I ventured out to make my contribution to those echoes. My Christmas is already shopped – day after day parcels to be gifted trickle to my door, from Amazon, from Etsy people, from emporia I have only seen on my monitor and whose threshold I shall never need to cross.   

One hellish prospect remains, however:  the paper, the sellotape, the scissors that won’t cut straight sit waiting and I know my skills have not improved!   If I was briefly the acquaintance of a lady, a true artist, and if she should remember how she wrapped some perfume for me once?  If she should by any chance be reading this, and be in need of some libation, maybe a mince pie or two as reward for a small service, I can assure her of a welcome at my door…

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The Swami on the Hill

This morning, as I prepared for a day filled with nothing in particular, I watched a nubile young person on the television demonstrating some torturous poses which she dubbed as ‘Yoga’.  Later, in the shower, I started thinking back – always a mistake when you’ve so many years to think back upon.  Bathrooms do that – it must be all the steam.  But I digress…

Do you recall those youthful ‘phases’ we all went through, when we sought ‘The True Path’?  I tried a lot of ‘paths’, I remember, including quite a few that required pharmaceutical help.     I also tried Yoga, mainly because at the time I was with a girlfriend who practised it.  And I learned the thing about Yoga is, yes, you’re always practising it.  You never get it absolutely right.  

My unimpeachable source impressed upon me that to qualify as a true Yogi and to draw the benefits that entails requires a life of dedication, that the poses are there to help you achieve complete breathing and the Elysium of meditation that lie beyond.  ‘The true Yogi drinks when he is thirsty, eats when he is hungry, sleeps when he is tired’  Incredible as it seems, I’m sure many of us can remember a time when we actually believed we could live life that way? I certainly did:  I was in love, I suppose.

Of course, the truth soon dawns.  Achieving a full lotus pose becomes impossible if your wife is impatient to be driven to the supermarket, or if your dog recognises that peculiar sitting position as a kind of game.  The next thing you learn about the lotus pose, as with a number of other yogic distortions, is just how long it takes to un-achieve it, as well as the surgical procedures that may follow.

In such a direction Elysium does not lie.  The attending physician in Accident and Emergency explains:  “If God had intended your hip to go that way he would have put it on the other way up.”  Doctors can be very cynical, at times.  And very unsympathetic.

Then there are the daily penalties of ‘working life’; the pints of beer quaffed for social gain, the ten-minute lunchtime visits to McDonalds, the protracted sessions on an acutely uncomfortable, orthopaedically unpardonable office chair, the sleepless nights slaving over a hot infant, the arguments, the rows, the assault charges…     ‘Sleep when you are tired’?  Alas, no more:  ‘Sleep no more, Macbeth (curious name for a child, you say? You haven’t met her) doth murder sleep’.  ‘Eat when you are hungry’ – a slogan KFC would no doubt adopt with enthusiasm, but terrible for your waistline if practised as freely as the doctrine would recommend.

Plunging at last into retirement I may have wished my days of limitless freedom would return, that I might grab one of those vile bedroom curtains, fashion it into a dhoti, and take my true place as the Swami on the Hill.  My years at the beck and call of the daily grind were behind me.  I would be able to drink, eat and sleep to my heart’s content.  The ‘True Path’ stretched out before me; Nirvana beckoned.

How wrong was I?

No sooner had the dust settled than I was apprised of my duties as ‘Parent in Residence’,  I learned how a day filled with nothing in particular requires organisation, time management, responsibilities.   Further, I discovered my vulnerabilities ‘in old age’ not only rendered the lotus pose physically impossible, but even to attempt it would earn a look from the attending physician in Accident and Emergency that could best be described as ‘withering pity’.  Nor was settling for the ‘downward dog’ any sort of solution.  Different dog, same game.  Same supermarket, too.

The schedules, the plans and the commitments have not gone away.  I am merely that much slower in fulfilling them.   So, not only am I as busy in retirement as I was when I got paid, but I am also physically less equipped to keep up.  Nowadays, to maintain the pace means resorting to ‘uppers’ of a very different kind to those I imbibed in my youth.  All legal,if that is any consolation, but all essential, or so I’m told.

Takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?

Well, at least I must finally concede that the Complete Yogi, as well as the ‘complete breath’ that is the gateway to perfect contemplation, lies somewhere beyond my reach.  It will never be.   It never was, truth be told, because the life of the true Yogi does not translate from that hilltop – does not fit into the modern world.  Our posturing is just another form of exercise to be fitted into an appointed slot in our day.  The elastic woman on the silver screen who demonstrates her ‘Yoga’ is guilty of a misnomer, because those extravagant poses are merely a form of exercise that might as well be aerobics, or weight training, or any number of alternatives far removed from the true prize sought in the Astika of a Hindu philosophy many thousands of years old.

I shall roll up my mat, restore the bedroom curtain, and let each incident-free negotiation of the staircase serve as my small victory.   A Dhoti and a turban are rather too draughty for an English winter, as it goes.

Namaste.

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Oxana Taran on Unsplash

B&W: 532Yoga on Facebook

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Home Life

It’s here again.   Morning darkness engaged in battle with a weakening sun and winning, little by little; the sycamore branch that scratches at my window in the gale, peevishly demanding the return of its clothes.  A dog with ears pinned back against the roar, a helpless waste bin, lid flapping in panic, bowling by.  I’ve missed it, the winter, but in ways somewhat different this year.  Why?  What has changed?

“Is she here?”   A querulous voice – somewhere above my head, in the general direction of the curtains.

I say:  “No.  She won’t be up for an hour yet.”

“Ah.”  My focus is drawn to a tiny leg emerging from amongst the drapes, and the rest of the spider follows, eye-stalks anxiously twitching hither and thither as if she mistrusts my reassurance.  All seems clear – as indeed it is – but she is wary, and pauses.  “You don’t know.  You don’t know what she can be like.”  

“My wife?  I thought I knew her pretty well.”   After all, it’s been much more than thirty years since we shared our first spider together.

“It was the vacuum, last week.   Nine of us, she took.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“She brings it out specially.  They’re still in the dust bag.  They don’t die, you know.  Go to the downstairs cupboard – you can hear them crying for help.  Cruel, that is.  Cruel.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll empty the bag later.  Anyway, you’re in the clear now.  Where are you going, exactly?”

“The skirting.  The one next to the kitchen.  Good house in there.  Warm.”   The spider suddenly makes a sprint down the curtain to the edge of my desk, stops.  “Still clear?”

“Yes.”

“Much obliged!”  She races across my desktop, disappearing over the end within a scarce breath, to reappear on the woollen carpeted floor.  “You haven’t seen my husband, have you?  I know I left him somewhere, but I can’t think…”

“Didn’t you have an argument?”

“Did we?”

“You see, I think you may have eaten him.”

“Eaten him?  Are you sure?  That was awfully careless of me.  You’ve still got the carpet.  Have you thought of replacing it, maybe with some wooden flooring, or something?  Wading through all this wool is just exhausting!”

“We like the carpet.”

“Well I don’t.  My feet get caught all the time.  Dreadful.”

“Why don’t you run round the skirting?”

She pauses, number two leg poised in a moment of indecision.  

“Good idea!”   Two rapid sprints ensue, the first across my cloying turf of carpet, the next along the skirting rim to a crack in the corner, a gap almost too small to imagine.  She is gone.

The silence that follows is not silent, but punctuated by the background buffeting of the wind; a rhythm of gusts like waves on a beach; four gentle, one fierce.  I settle back in my chair to contemplate my arachnid encounter, and the sea washes over me, nudging me gently up the beach into the warm sand of sleep.

“Did I hear a spider?”  A voice, dark, deep and rasping, jerks me awake.    A nervous glance around the room yields nothing.  “I said – look, it was a perfectly civil question, wannit- was that a spider?”

Why do I suddenly feel so defensive.  “Who wants to know?”

“Never mind who wants to know.  Answer the question.  Was that a…”

“Yes!”  I snap back at the voice.  “You want to eat her, don’t you?”

This provokes an evil chuckle.  “Not particular, really.  Not exactly haute cuisine, if you take my meaning.  A bit dry, usually.”

“Well, she’s gone now.  You’ve missed her.  Anyway, if you don’t want to eat her, what do you want with her?”

“Oh, I’ll eat her, all right.  I eat anything.”

“Okay.  If I see her again, I’ll be sure to warn ..tell her you were looking for her.  Who shall I say?”

“Tell her Benjamin.  Benjamin wanted to see her.”

From the first to the last of this conversation, Benjamin has been invisible, and though I scrutinize every inch of my room, he remains so.  Perhaps I hear, above the wind, the faintest scratching from somewhere far below.  Otherwise, nothing.  

Henceforth, sleep will evade me. Reluctantly I concede to wakefulness and set about the business of morning, so I rise from my chair, and remembering my obligation to the spider, negotiate landing and stairs to the narrow little cupboard where the vacuum cleaner is stored.  I pause, listening, by the opened cupboard door.  Why?  Do I really expect to hear those plaintive cries?  Is there some sound, however small, that makes me doubt my hearing or my mind?  Whatever my excuse, I elect to take the vacuum cleaner dust bag straight to an outdoor bin, so I extricate the machine from amidst a forest of brushes and mops.  It is a clamorous business and it causes offence.

Do you mind?”   The demand is high-pitched but strident. “I said, DO YOU MIND?”

Another disembodied voice, this time from the recesses at the back of the cupboard.  “What?”  I respond, irritably.  “What’s your problem?”  I blink owlishly into the darkness.   

“Problem?  Oh, problem!    No, no problem!  No problem I just got the kids down, and you come stamping in here throwing everything around.  As if I haven’t got enough to do, finding more paper, gathering flour from under that stupid bread-making thing of yours.  Why do you do that to wheat, anyway?  It tastes much better on the husk.”

“Wait a minute!  More paper?  Just what are you doing back there?  Who are you, anyway?”  (And why am I whispering?) 

The old carpet sweeper that stands at attention behind the gas meter quivers slightly as a minute creature appears from behind it; and having appeared, sits up on its hinder legs, whiskers a-quiver.

“Goodness, you know us, dear, don’t you?  Grandfather brought my mother and I to stay with you last November.  We always come here for our winter holidays.”

“You’re a blessed wood mouse!”

“There is no need to get personal!”

Oh, yes there is!  You’re here again!  It’s the same every autumn.  You spend summer in the dry stone wall at the bottom of the vegetable garden, don’t you?  I’ve seen you there.  Then as soon as the weather gets cold you come in the house, thousands of you!”

The wood mouse (for so she is) shifts herself uncomfortably.  “Not exactly thousands, dear.”

“Well, hundreds, then.”

“We are quite a large family, it’s true.”

“Yes, and a very intrusive one.  I don’t know how many of you died under the bathroom floor last Christmas, but the stench of rotting mouse stayed with us for months!”

“If you are referring to dear departed Uncle Vernon…”

“That’s the fella!”

“And poor, dear, Grandma Maisie…”

“Stank the place out!”

“That’s an unkind way to speak of the dead.  It’s quite upsetting!”  The woodmouse wiped her whiskers sorrowfully.  “Uncle Vernon, tragically he got himself stuck under one of your hot pipes.  It was awful!  Don’t think me ungrateful, because we so enjoy your gifts of pierced cheese, but pushing those big wooden sleds is so difficult; it got too close to your central heating armature?  Uncle couldn’t remove your gift from the spike, you see?  He was pinned there.”

I catch up.  “Pierced cheese?  On a spike?  I’m not feeding you, you disgusting little creature; I’m exterminating you – or trying to.  I wondered what happened to those traps!”

Sniffling, the wood mouse musters as much offended dignity as she can fit into her pin-points of eyes.  “Well, once more I must rebuke you.  Anyone would think we were house mice.   We are country creatures, with sensibilities, you know.  I won’t hold it against you, though, dear.  I am aware I am a guest here.”

So unexpectedly I almost jump out of my skin, Benjamin’s scraping tones grind out from the darkness.  “Traps, eh!  You’re a trapper!  You’re a trapper, mate.  Thanks for the warning, yeah?   Thanks for the warning.  Oh, and Mildred…”  He seems to be addressing the mouse…”I’ll be seeing you, sweetheart, won’t I?  Dunno why I bovver, you’re not worth two bites, are yer?”

“That’s Benjamin.” The mouse informs me, helpfully.  “Don’t take any notice of him, dear.  He soon goes away.”

“What is he?  Come to think of it, where is he?  I can never make out quite where he comes from.”

“Benjy?  He’s a rat.  He’s outside, by those dreadful plasticky waste containers?   That’s how Grandma Maisie became ill; she got her teeth gummed up trying to chew through one of them.”

“She should have stuck to acorns.”  I say unsympathetically. “Benjy doesn’t sound like he’s outside…”

My remark delights Mildred, who hops from foot to foot in passable imitation of a Cha-Cha-Cha.    “Yes, oh, yes!  He’s found a way of speaking through the drains, so it sounds as if he’s absolutely everywhere.  Simply terrif!    But don’t worry, dear, he can’t get in:  he’s too fat.  We come in through the kitchen airbrick, you see.  Benjy can’t squeeze through there.  So he has to talk to us from outside.  I think he must get terribly cold, sometimes.”

“He probably works out by chewing through our bin.”  I suggest sardonically.  “He’s quite scary, isn’t he?”

“Benjy?  He likes to show off his muscles a bit, but he’s an old softie.  His wife’s quite nice, actually.  I met her at a church social…”

Thoroughly bemused, I take the vacuum cleaner out into the light, and with a parting word or two after the fashion of ‘I must get on’ I close the cupboard door.  The dust bag’s contents, stirred and shaken by a mischievous gust of wind, I mostly empty into a waste bin in the yard, leaving me to wonder how the tiny migrants it contained will manage in their new lives, or if, now liberated, they will simply return to vex my wife a second time.   I watch anxiously for a quick shadow that might be Benjamin’s, but he doesn’t show himself.  Out of respect for Mildred’s unseen sleeping ‘kids’ I leave the cleaner out on the kitchen floor.  I rather hope my wife will return it to the cupboard later, on my behalf.

I need to return to my work.  I need to open drapes, raise blinds.  I need to let in the gathering day.  Instead, I stand for minutes of time, aimless; searching for something.  And though I do not rightly know what it is I seek, it nevertheless comes to me.   Miniscule movements, barely audible, high-pitched sounds, furtive scraping, gentle stirrings of the air.   All around me is life – in the reveal behind one of the kitchen worktops three silverfish are engaged in earnest conversation, below them in the damp invisible zones woodlice work, solemnly chomping at the detritus of our lives.

Across the floor a devil’s coach-horse scurries, tale half-raised and fearful of exposure, dashing for safety and the dark.  Against the window pane a small unglamorous fly is clawing pointlessly, weeping for its freedom.  Although the room is still, there is everything within it moving, a constant wheel of existence, a changing of generations, a cycle of light and darkness.

It is hard to leave, but leave it I must.  On the stair a portly black beetle struggles, pausing to salute me as I pass.  In my room I feel the carpet dragging at my feet, taking my thoughts back to my widowed spider, cosy in her skirting board home.  Soon a host of her children will tread the path their mother trod before them, and the wheel will have turned again.  I know I have a duty to lay the floor to boards, if only for their sake.

At last it has been revealed to me, the difference of the year – what is odd, what is changed.  I understand, at last, what I am.  I see my place in all the life around me, my function in this small universe and the sum of all my gifts.   Here I am no greater or higher than any of these little ones, but in fellowship with them.  They are my company on my journey into dust.   My last gift to them shall be – myself.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image Credits:

Featured Image: The Creative Exchange, from Unsplash
Spider: Robert Palog from Pixabay
Rat: Mustafa Shehedeh from Pixabay
Devils Coach-horse: Wikipedia

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The Rose

It is one of those hot summer days Daniel will dream about when autumn comes.  Daniel is ensconced in his favourite garden recliner beside his little table:  beer, book and biscuits; all, he tells himself, he needs from life.   Beside him, the gnarled bush rose his wife so loves and tends that it never seems to ail or fail is a mass of flowers, drawing its audience of apis mellifera with the accomplished confidence of a garden celebrity.  Beyond his outstretched feet and across a flagstone path a cotoneaster is enjoying attention from a much larger crowd of smaller but more dextrous bee creatures.  The cotoneaster is another ancient hero.  When the plant was young Daniel set a trellis for it to climb.  He has kept it trimmed to shape through the years so the trellis host, rotting now, is kept erect by its mature guest. Timber entwined with timber, each supporting the other, neither able to fall.  Daniel feels comfortable here, in this place, attuned to the humming of bees and the dappled shade of the sycamore tree that watches over him, protection against the day’s naked heat.

This garden unites them, Daniel and Rachel, man and wife.  Among flower beds by the patio Rachel is tending her hostas, plucking snails from their leaves after morning rain.  Sipping his beer Daniel watches his wife’s wiry, dedicated figure as she works, and he laments, quite idly, the cruelty of their years.  If only Ella could be here to share it with them…

He bears these wistful moments with greater equanimity now.  They no longer hurt him as once they did.  But sometimes, now and then, when his mind is free of more urgent thoughts, his memory will pluck a picture of an excited little girl in her white dress, laughing as she runs to him, warm and vibrant in his arms.  And he will weep – yes, there are still tears – to think of her, before he can shut her from his mind.

“It was a long time ago.”

He must have closed his eyes, for Rachel is standing, looking down upon him with the critical coldness of a stranger, her bucket of unhomed snails clutched in her hand.  It is an expression he recognises.

“I still hope, you know.”  He tells her, and his eyes say ‘I’m not heartless.  I remember’.

Rachel frowns.  They have not spoken of Ella for a while.  “You shouldn’t;” she says brusquely.  “Not now.  Not after all this time.”

“She was my little girl.”  He says.  “I miss her too.”

“There’s no sense in thinking about it.”

“She could be out there, somewhere.  She could be married, or something. We don’t know!”  He insists.

“I think we do.  Drink your beer before something dies in it.”  Rachel snaps.  “Stop resurrecting the past.”  She turns away.  “I have to lose these damned snails.”  And she walks briskly down the path, heading for the garden gate.  

Daniel watches her, awake now.  His mind is bursting with the accusation ‘you shouldn’t have left her’, yet he bites upon the words.  It is a poniard too often thrown, one which has found voice frequently in the past – in the twenty-four lonely years.   His little girl.  His little Ella.  She was left to play by herself in the front garden, his little girl.  Rachel was in the house, doing…what, he doesn’t remember: it doesn’t matter, now.  She was not there, and he was not there, and Ella was gone.   

The effort of suppression is too much.  The bubble of his anger finds a way to rise: He calls after his wife’s retreating form: “Why did you leave her on her own?” and he sees her freeze in mid-stride, which pleases him in some perverse way.  She has to grieve as he grieves.  She has to be suffering, too.

“How many times?”  She rounds upon him, clipping her words icily.  “How many times have we gone through this?  Whenever you get one of these moods…”

Daniel’s resentment is darkening now.  “I couldn’t be there.  I was away, working.  I wasn’t there.”

“You weren’t there.  Twenty four years ago, you weren’t there, and I was…”

“And you left her alone.”  He feels the tears well up inside him.  “My little girl!”

Our little girl.”  Rachel reminds him, expressionless.  She is returning to him, to his bloated form slumped in that disgusting chair, wondering with every step by what device she has ever loved him.  “Our little girl, Daniel.”  Wondering how they are still together, still man and wife; as if the ugly, knotted rope of their guilt, far from releasing them, binds them to each other in this garden.

She stands above him, glaring down. “The gate was shut.  She couldn’t get out of the garden.  It wasn’t the first time she had been allowed to play out there.  I was no more than a few steps away, in the kitchen…”

“You left her alone!”

“Yes, I know.  And she was ‘your little girl’; I know that.  You never cease to remind me.  But I also know ‘your little girl’ was autistic, and much as I loved her there were occasions when I had to get away, even if it was only for a few precious minutes.  You know that too, don’t you, Daniel?”  Her clenched fist bangs down upon Daniel’s little table.  His beer glass hops and girates dangerously on the wooden surface.  

He cringes as though the assault is personal.  “She could be difficult.”

“Difficult?  Difficult!  You were always away.  You never saw how she was with me – what she did to me, nearly all the time.”

Rachel spins on her heel, stalking angrily away towards the gate, swinging the bucket so hard its unwilling passengers rattle within it.  Daniel, daunted by her sudden temper, watches her go.  She is right, of course, he reflects.  It is a scenario they have replayed so often down the years.  The gate he made for their front fence, how he set the latch high so Ella could not reach it: the quietness of their road, the attentiveness of Mrs. Partigan, their neighbour, who missed nothing that passed her window.  Yet she had seen nothing that day; had been ill, she said, so she hadn’t even noticed Ella playing in the garden, although she thought she recalled the child’s voice, raised as it so often was.  Otherwise a peaceful day, like so many peaceful days when he was far from home, a peaceful day when Ella was taken away from them forever.

And Rachel never wept!  Even when the police said they had no clue, and warned them to prepare for the worst, she remained dry of tears.  Instead, she closed down – drew the shutters over her emotions and entombed her soul.  He saw it happen, watched helpless as grief took out her heart and put it somewhere far beyond his or anyone’s reach, so only ice remained.  Oh, yes, he remembers!

Another confrontation, another failure to pierce that armour, yet still he will seek a way to hurt her.   Her retreating back infuriates; he wants to stab at it, prise open those doors always barred against him.  He has never found the weapon, but he does not cease to try.  His eyes cast about him, seeking ammunition, something new and untested.  His anger settles upon the rose.

“I’m sorry.”  He calls after her with affability that does not disguise the cunning in his voice.  “To change the subject, then.  I think it’s time to replace our elderly friend, don’t you?  I’ll dig it out this afternoon.”

This time Rachel’s progress is not halted, but there is hesitation in her step.  “What ‘elderly friend?”  She asks drily.

“Oh, the rose.”    The rose – her rose.  The rose she planted as remembrance, she said, in the weeks that followed Ella’s departure.   Crooked and deformed as his marriage, he is suddenly offended by it and would remove it from his sight, but most of all he would destroy it because it would hurt Rachel.   The voluptuous blossoms are vulgar and blousy, the rattle of bees is loud and disturbing; but more than that, Rachel loves it.

“Not the rose!” 

Is it the guttural change in her voice that alarms Daniel?  She has stopped, turned to face him once again.   This time the bucket slips from her hand, scattering its cargo on the path as she staggers beneath the weight of his threat.   Her pallor is the colour of calico, her hands shake.   “Do not ever touch the rose.”

“It’s coming up!”  He says.  “I’m going to dig it up this afternoon!”

“Why?  It’s flowered better than ever this year.  Don’t, Daniel.”

He taunts her.  “I’m tired of it.  It’s time to move on.  It reminds us every time we look at it – it’s like a tombstone…”

And he knows.  

Rachel does not have to stagger towards him, her breathing short, her limbs barely carrying her.  She does not have to grab his shoulders, almost falling onto him, implore him in frothing gasps.  “We agreed! It’s her memorial. You mustn’t!   You mustn’t!”   The tiny seed of suspicion that has lain dormant in the tilth of his memories is stirring.  First shoots of an awful truth are germinating in his mind.

Like a tombstone.

Daniel should be consumed by fury, yet somehow he cannot feel anger, only pain.  He rises, ready to catch Rachel as she collapses, and guides her into his chair.  For once in twenty-five years he sees tears coursing down her face, and for the first time in all of their years together he sees her helpless, unable to cope.  He hugs her close to him, saying, perhaps without thought:  “Never mind, dear.   Never mind.”

“I couldn’t tell you…”

“No.”

“I didn’t mean…it was no more than a push…she fell.  It was the table, Daniel.  She hit her head on the kitchen table…You wouldn’t have believed me.  No-one would have believed me.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”  Daniel says.  “I won’t disturb her.”

“She’s so peaceful, Daniel.”

“I know.  I feel that.  I know.”

They both fall silent.  He draws up another chair, and they sit together long into the evening, bound to one another by their garden and embraced by the outstretched branches of the rose.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credit: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

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Birdie

It’s time I returned to the archives for another short story. Here’s a favorite…

Birdie?  Yes, I knew Birdie.   

The third house from the end, on our side of the street; that’s where Birdie lived, and had lived ever since I could remember.  He was a part of my growing up, someone I either met, saw or heard every day from my first walk to school right up to the time when I moved to the city.   Birdie was an institution, a fixture, a feature of the street.  If you wanted to sell your house to someone, you told them about Birdie.  He added color.  When friends came to supper, they asked about him.

“How’s Birdie these days?”

“Oh, fine.  Same as usual.”

Birdie played a piano accordion:  not well, but enthusiastically.  When you walked past, you’d suddenly find your steps being matched by a loud Souza march.  Looking up, you’d see Birdie’s grinning face at his window and his fingers flying across the keys as he belted the music out of that old squeeze-box, completely unashamed of the odd missed note.

Most people who lived in our street had attitude where kids were concerned.  I blame that on Baz.  Baz was my mate, and we still communicated, if you know what I mean, right up to five years ago, although Baz had trouble with words of more than one syllable and he couldn’t spell even those.  Text-speak came as a lifeline to Baz.

Baz’s problem was existence.  His, I mean.  If he didn’t turn up, everything went fine.  When he did, nothing went fine.  Baz could make a discussion out of ‘hello’.  Baz could make an argument out of any discussion, and Baz’s arguments always ended up with Baz hitting someone. So most people in our street had attitudes where kids were concerned; because kids meant Baz, and Baz broke windows – and legs.

Now Birdie never shared those attitudes; somehow, when us kids went visiting Birdie, Baz would become as quiet as the mice we knew lived in Birdie’s kitchen, although they never came right out and admitted it.

Birdie loved kids – no, I don’t mean in some covert, perverse way – though if he had I don’t suppose we would have realized.  He somehow knew what we were tuned into, he could read our needs and fulfill our dreams in his inimitably simple way.  He was the one who discovered Baz’s love of magic, so he took a lot of trouble making boiled eggs appear behind Baz’s ears, and setting up the card tricks that always, always mystified my poor, really very susceptible friend.  Mara, he understood her love of fairy cakes, so every time Mara and I popped in the door, there’d be a plate of cakes somewhere about the place.

Mara’s girth underwent subtle expansion with the years.  Her parents could never figure out why, but I knew.

As for me, I was an absolute junky for science fiction – anything that could fly was a spaceship, and Captain Kirk was my all-time hero.   The first time he found out, Birdie stopped playing his accordion (he was halfway through ‘Danny Boy’, just at the ‘it’s I’ll be here’ bit) and took me by the shoulder.

“Feel that?”  His hand was gripping my collar bone.

“Nah.”  I said; then:  “Feel what?”

“The tingle, lad.  The vibration.”  And do you know, I thought I could, a bit.  Birdie’d do that to you.  

“Whoa!  What’s that then, Birdie?”

“It’s the residual charge at the periphery of a force-field, lad!  There’s a very powerful anti-matter disturbance.”

“Wha’ – in here?”

“Yes, son, in here.  This house was built – wait for it – on the very edge of a time-space continuum!  Aye!”  Birdie struck a dramatic cord on his bass keys.  

Humor him.  “Aw!  It’s close, is it?”

“Aye, very.  In a different dimension, mind you, but close.  No more than a couple of miles below us!”

“Why can’t we see it?”

“Because I keep it contained, lad: I have to!  There’s a worm-hole leads directly from this room!”

In spite of myself, I felt I was seeing Birdie’s room for the first time.  I looked everywhere, and a little, believing part of me wanted to see that worm-hole, even though I didn’t really know what it would look like.  “What happens if you step on it?”  I asked.  

“Oh, I’d never do that!  And neither must you.  One touch and you’ll drop through into another universe!  You’ll never be seen again!” 

“That’s not safe!”  Mara had been silent all this time, busy demolishing one of Birdie’s cakes, but one look at her told me Birdie had got her absolutely hooked.  She was standing staring at us with her frosting-smeared mouth open, and tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“Oh, it’s all right, lass!”  Birdie soothed.  “I told ye, I’ve got it contained.   That there table is right over the top of it.”

Saucer-eyed, Mara and I gazed at Birdie’s heavy old Victorian dining table.  A massive mahogany construction of prodigious proportions, it had been in the centre of the room for as long as I could remember.  In my recollection though, I had never before shown such interest in the stacks of wooden boxes jammed beneath it.  Crawling examination of Birdie’s worm-hole was not an option.

“You’ve never moved that table?” I challenged him. “Haven’t you ever wanted to see?”

“I daren’t, lad.”

“Scared you might fall in?”

“Scared what might come through from the other side, more like!  I’ve heard noises, lad.  I’ve heard them trying!   In the night-time they come.  Its a good job that table’s heavy as it is, mind.  They’d be through!”

“What – aliens?  Like, real aliens?”

“Must be, aye.”

Just then, Baz’s football thumped against the outside wall of the house, which was Baz’s usual way of announcing himself, and the spell was broken.  By the time I came to remind myself of Birdie’s science fiction tale, it had reduced to a pleasing exercise of the imagination; no more or less than all his other tales.

I suppose our parents must have had ambivalent feelings about Birdie, even in those innocent, far-off days.  They enjoyed deriding his rough, untutored music, or making social capital out of his eccentric dress (he never wore socks, for example), or his untidy home.  When he ventured out into the street, which was rare, his loud, yellow check trousers prompted my Dad to call him Rupert, though I never found out why.  His brown cardigan had leather patches on the elbows, and holes everywhere else.

Mrs. Purberry from number 42, ‘Dunborrowin’, pronounced her usual verdict upon anyone who lived alone:  “What that man needs is a good woman.”  Others were less kind, but suffered his proclivities because his love of us kids gave us somewhere to go on wet afternoons when our Mums needed a ‘bit of peace’, so no-one would ignore him if they met him in the street, and no-one could ignore that piano-accordion when he began to play.

These are old memories.  As the years passed my friends and I grew out of that childhood wonderland at the third house from the end.  I confess, with sadness, how readily Birdie was forgotten.  Maybe others took our places to listen to Birdie’s playing, I can’t say for sure.  I went to University, Mara went to Art College and Baz went to jail.   The best part of twenty years passed before I chanced to ask my mother, on one of my occasional trips home from the City, about Birdie.

“Still wears those bloody awful trousers!”  She said cheerfully.  “And still playing that bloody awful squeeze-box of his.”  Then she added darkly:  “He’s married now, you know:  or at least, he says he is.”

“Birdie!  Married?”

“Well, let’s put it this way.  No-one in this street was invited to the wedding, if there was one.  But if you’re visiting, prepare yourself.  She’s a gorgeous girl!  Middle eastern, I think.  We all believe she’s a mail order bride.”

That was it!  I set off as soon as I decently could for the third house from the end.  The differences in the place were obvious; curtains in the windows, new paint, a gleaming blue car standing outside.

Birdie answered the door, looking a little older, maybe, but he had one of those faces that belied the years.  “Why, if it isn’t…  You took your time, lad.  I thought we’d lost you!  Come in, meet the wife!”

Admitted to that parlor where so many fantasies had been spawned, I absorbed the shock all grown-ups must accept when they return to the places they knew when they were young:  how small it was, how unlike the room I remembered.   The gargantuan table that had seemed so formidable was just a table, and it no longer dominated the centre of the room but was placed against the wall.  There was no sign of the wooden boxes.   

“No worm-hole, then, Birdie?”

Was there just a brief hesitation before he laughed at me?  “Why no, we closed that up long ago!”

“I didn’t think you could.”  I answered lamely, feeling foolish.

“Terrible things, those wormholes!”

“Yes.”  I felt awkward, beginning to wish I hadn’t come.

“Here’s the wife!  Let’s have some tea!”

As she floated in through the door from the kitchen, I could see why my mother had guessed Birdie’s wife was Eurasian, though I knew instantly she was not.  Her skin was not quite olive in color, her height exceeded her husband’s, yet she was impossibly slender and elegant in build; almost wand-like.  Her greeting was augmented by a slow smile and she extended a hand to me.

“You’re meant to place it on your cheek.”  Birdie said.  “That’s how we greet each other.”

So I took her two-fingered hand in mine and her warmth coursed through me; the same warmth, I was sure, that gave her a soft green glow in the twilight of the curtained room.  “Hello.”  I said, as soon as I trusted myself to speak.  I raised those fingers to my cheek and the tingle, the vibration Birdie taught me to feel all those years ago flooded my being once more.

“So you did let someone through.”  I said.  

“You’re right.  Just one.”  Birdie said.  “We can’t close worm-holes, but Araguaar can.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit: Romberger Sound Productions on Pixabay

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When the Customers Don’t Count at All…

For once, I’m at a loss to know where to begin!   Where DO I begin?

Let’s start with this.  A couple of weeks ago I was rushed to hospital after suffering severe blood loss, which eventually needed a transfusion to stabilize.  The treatment was calm, assured, and apparently successful because, buoyed up by all your good wishes (thank you so much!) here I am.

BUT while I was being admitted I was given a ‘test’ for the COVID virus.   It was done in Admissions, and it consisted of a long ‘cotton bud’ thrust through my mouth into the back of my throat.  It barely made contact with its target, only serving to induce a gag reflex.   No nasal swab was taken.

Since then I have done a little research and from all I have read it appears to me I was given a PCR test, one reliant upon nasopharyngeal sampling.  Really?   I have also learned that this test method is subject to a wide margin of error – when it is done correctly.  I don’t believe mine was.

Twelve hours later I was informed my test had proved positive, on the basis of which I was transferred to the hospital’s isolation ward.  This set in train a minimum of ten days of self-isolation for myself and fourteen days for my wife.   

Neither of us has exhibited any symptom of the virus

There’s probably a very good reason for that.  We weren’t – aren’t, in all likelihood – infected. Apart from a couple of proprietorial SMSs reminding me I was infected and it was my ‘duty’ to self-isolate, I’ve heard from no-one since;  Sylvia, however, received three ‘phone calls checking up on her.  

Maybe it’s because we are over seventy and ‘retired’ we are expected to have nothing better to do than wait for the next communication from the Thought Police.  Maybe we are expected to take whatever the system decides to deal out to us and remain docile.   Maybe that is why it is okay to give us such a flawed procedure, because we won’t have a means for complaint.

Ungrateful, am I?  No.  My emergency was dealt with efficiently.  I had a real illness and that was brought under control.  

Irresponsible, am I?   Again,, no.  I did self-isolate.  Although I never felt ill, I did undergo the marginal worry that catching something like this would almost certainly imply a death sentence.

Worried much more because there are figures being thrown about the media which are founded upon data produced by this test, and no-one seems to care.  When, in the hospital, I asked about the efficacy of the test, I was told it was ‘the best we’ve got’.

It isn’t.

Last week, testing was made available to all the citizens of Liverpool.  On the last figures I heard, out of 90,000 people tested, 336 returned a positive result – that’s 0.37%, considerably less, I imagine than would have been revealed by similar testing for say, influenza, or pneumonia.   The differences?  A different test,   known as the Viral Particle Test which, without going too much into ‘the science’, is much more accurate.  What is more, the sampling was conducted by the military, who, we are told, ‘are much more accomplished at these things’!

So, yes, I am very worried.   We are being told (not asked, told) to accept flawed data that affects our lives.  Small businesses are being starved of their life-blood and employees are being sacked.  People who have worked hard for years, towing the ‘duty’ line and saving to buy overpriced houses are likely to be forced onto the streets, their relationships broken, their children’s growing years disrupted irreparably, and why?

No matter how many times we are told otherwise, the horrible truth keeps revealing itself: we are all incidental to the grinding, merciless imperviousness of the establishment machine. We are sources of finance, no more than that. Only when that sources dries up, do we become important.

In the business of the United Kingdom (and probably of the United States, too), the customers come last.  

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Call me Cynical, But…

Each sling (or arrow if choice preferred) of outrageous fortune brings different reactions from different people.   Some will be impoverished by it, many will seek to reverse it, and some will see it as an opportunity to make money.  This is human nature, and in many ways it is to be applauded; after all, it got us where we are today, and the inevitable links between the two last-mentioned are a constant driving force for change.  

It is a construct within which Money Makers tend to lead.  Money Makers espouse power, best exercised through political or armed strength.  The decisions they make have to do with the money they can derive therefrom. More breeds more.  People with money always want more money.

Bear with me…

In the last half-century the ground rules have changed.  The burgeoning influence of Media has cast a pebble into the pool.  It is no longer possible to delude a local population with a plausible tale and gain power thereby:  whatever tale you tell for however modest a gain will be held up for the whole  world to examine, and if it has flaws, the world will find them.  As far as the association with money and power is concerned, the basic rule – the more you have the more you can buy – is no longer entirely true.  The Media has its own financial interest, and it cannot always be bought.

So it is with the COVID virus.   The message shaped by ‘The Science’ has been the darling of the Media for almost a year, and so far it has been very effectively sold. The Media are always happy to lap up a new source for universal hysteria and exploit it – it’s what keeps them in work.  So by mutual consent the crisis has been spiced up to a point where all the Money Makers in whose interest it is to extend the crisis have had to do is feed the frenzy with strategically-spaced ‘leaks’ and mystifyingly sourced graphs to lend authority to their pages.

But those in charge of the Media are Money Makers also.  And they are expert in identifying the moment when the virus no longer holds its audience:  the story has run its course, and there is a new, more powerful story to be wrought from the privations of lock-down, and the tragedies that arise from that.  The incidence of suicide in those of working age rising by 75%, the enormous debt burden (yet to be calculated), the loss of employment, broken marriages, and so on.

The next six month or so will be nothing less than fascinating to the observer.  Once Joe Biden has managed, by one means or another, to secure his grip on the Presidency, he has vowed to tackle the COVID virus.   With what?  With lockdowns, presumably.  But the populace has never been too keen on restrictions of this kind, which penalise the poorer half of society, and there is a media engine primed to exploit those disadvantaged or damaged by more severe measures.  What’s more, there are already cracks appearing in the vaccine story:  the newly-developed lab-child of Pfizer with its claimed 90% protection rate is said to be difficult to store, requiring specialised refrigeration: other versions are easier to work with, but less effective.  I am offering no prizes for guessing who will get the Pfizer version!   They, not the possible lockdown, will form the core of the story.

Will the media, now it has all but succeeded in eviscerating Trump, round upon Biden’s strategy?  There are some really iconic crosses on the national calendars in the next few months around the great commerce-fest of Christmas which the Money Makers will be reluctant to forego.  There will be crowds. There will be a lack of ‘social distancing’, and there will be a media crusade to ‘ease back’ and let the economy function.  All of which, of course, will be behind us by the time the new President is sworn in.  What will he inherit?  A massive resurgence of the Pandemic or an equally large punctured balloon, with no noticeable increase in the virus?   Just as important:  how will he respond, this President approaching his eighties who wants to ‘unite the nation’, when he finds himself plunged into a period of huge political unrest?   As an observer from without, as it were, I think I share the opinion of a number of blogs I have read over the last few days.  I tend to think he will plead illness and step aside.  And that will leave America in the care of Kamala Harris who, by accounts I have read, is extremely left-wing.    It couldn’t work better if it was planned, now could it?

NB.    In this post I have deliberately avoided reference to ‘COVID deaths’ and the human side of this virus.  Why?  I am becoming persuaded that the figures have been heavily massaged, widely misinterpreted, and those in control couldn’t care less about them anyway.  When people of power shed tears, I have found, it has little to do with humanity and a lot to do with their crocodilian digestion.

Image Credit: Heblo from Pixabay

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The Circle of Time

“Existing outside the circle of time.”  Bartolemy said, placing drinks he had bought on the table next to his friend.  “Imagine what that would be like!”

“Complicated.”  Hoenig thought.  “Didn’t I ask for lager?”

“Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg says that’s what spirits do.  Her spirits, anyway.”

“I should think the evidence for the effect of spirits on Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg is clear.”  Said Hoenig.   “I’d say at least a half-bottle of gin administered daily, if last night was anything to go by.”

“I think you’re very hard on the woman.  She’s a professional medium.”  Bartololemy rebuked.  “She has many distinguished clients.  I enjoyed last night’s little soiree, personally.”

“Then the long black dress and the dolman sleeves deceived you.”

“She truly is a substantial woman.”  Bartolemy admitted.  “She has great presence.”

“I’ve never heard them called that!  Contents-wise, it was a disaster.  Summoning Moira Jenner’s partner back from the dead, for instance…”

“I thought that was remarkable.  He came through loud and clear…”

“Miraculous!”  Hoenig agreed.  “Especially when Mrs. B called her partner ‘Tom’.   Moira’s partner’s name was Claudia – she’s gay, for heaven’s sake.  Then there was poor Mrs. Bevis…”

“Oh, that was far too practical!”

Hoenig permitted himself a chuckle.“Practical?   All the woman wanted to know was where her departed husband put the key for their shed.   She’s been locked out of it for six months!”

“Better than being locked in it, one might say…”  Bartolemy mused.   “When by engaging a locksmith…Anyway, back to existing outside the circle of time.  You’re not a believer, I take it?”

“I’ve always thought of time as being a rather linear affair.  Begin at the beginning, stop at the end, sort of thing.   Hard to see how a circle could work.”  

“You weren’t listening to Mrs. B., then!   It’s ludicrously simple, really it is.   The circle is like a wheel, spinning in the space-time continuum…”

Hoenig stared:  “The what?”

“Space – time – continuum.   The  junction between time and space:  they’re linked, you see?  The circle of time is at the centre of it; sort of whizzing round.”

“How does she know?”

“She’s a very clever woman, Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg.  She’s an ‘Honorable’.”  Bartolemy was not to be deterred.  “Time and size are directly correlated, so in our perception time seems to pass very quickly for small forms of life like the mouse, or the fruit fly…
“Are they correlated?”  

“Shut up and listen!”  Bartolemy rebuked.   “And it passes much more slowly for large life forms, like elephants, or the blue whale.  Think of the little creatures as rushing by on the wheel’s rim, while the elephant watches from much nearer to the hub – turning more slowly.  Can you see how the elephant would perceive time?”

“It would be too giddy to perceive anything, I should think.”  Hoenig said.  “ And she believes that her spirits are standing outside the wheel, or circle, or whatever – without moving?”

“Exactly!  You’ve got it!   So you might have Henry VIII standing next to Einstein, or Attila arm in arm with Florence Nightingale.  It wouldn’t matter because time is meaningless once you die and leave your physical form behind.  We rush by, while they remain there forever.”

“Round and round.”  Hoenig frowned.  “ Do you think he would have fancied her?”

“Who?”

“Attila – fancied Florence Nightingale.  A perfect couple, I’d have thought.  Supply and demand.  So when they die, they fall off the wheel?”

“That’s it.  Sort of.”   Bartolemy conceded.

“And then they’re outside the circle?”

“Right again!”

“Must be crowded out there.  How come she can speak to them, Henry VIII, and those – if she’s on the wheel, and they aren’t?”

“I don’t follow?”

“Well;”  Hoenig was becoming quite animated.  “If you’ve no sense of time – none at all – you can’t speak to someone who has.  See, even the simplest sentence requires time to be spoken; take for example ‘How are you today?’  It took a second or so to say that – that’s a unit of time?  Even if you shorten it to ‘Ho-ay” it still employs an element of time.”

“I suppose…”  Bartolemy hesitated, then shrugged helplessly.  “I don’t know, do I?  That’s her skill, I suppose.”

“That’s the gin.”

“Yes – no.  No!”  Bartolemy was crestfallen.  “How am I supposed to know?”

“You knew about the circle…”

“I did.”

“…and standing outside it.”

“That too.  You do realise you’ve spoiled it for me now?”  Bartolemy lamented, thrusting despairing hands into his trouser pockets.  “I’ll never go to a séance again!”

“I’ve done you a service, then.”  Hoenig considered.   “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve found this in my pocket.  Did you put it there?”

“No.  I don’t go round putting things in people’s pockets.   What is it?”

“It’s a key.   A small key.”

Hoenig inspected the object.  “Looks about the right size for a shed.”

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Tony Sent Me…

A frigid sun, not bright, lights this scene.  A car park, rarely so busy at this time of day, is crammed with shoppers on errands of desperation, pattering busily to and fro carrying bags stuffed to the gills with toilet rolls, tinned foods, more toilet rolls…

Tomorrow is lock-down day (again).  Another month of incarceration by the organs of the Nanny State.  Although enforcement of any kind, left in the hands of the local constabulary, seems unlikely.  Envisaging our beloved but utterly work-shy County Force in a role best delineated by George Orwell in ‘1984’ requires a stretch of anyone’s imagination:  nonetheless guilt nips at my self-confidence, reminding me I should not be in this place, that my presence here is forbidden – if I am caught…    

I glance about me, trying not to think how furtive I must look.  I have parked my car between lines as my OCD demands, and now I must give the signal we arranged, but dare I? Suppose my contact is late…suppose this is A TRAP!  Hunched low in my anxiety to avoid recognition I hit the horn.   The building is close by, its windows darkly shuttered, its bland brick faces staring back at me.  It gives no sign of recognition in reply.   

Come on!

I blast the horn again.   Every head turns. A bumper pack of toilet rolls falls to the floor.  All eyes are focussed on me, and my little white car.  The woman who has dropped the economy twelve-pack pins me with a glare of annoyance over the shawl collar of her blaze red cardigan as she wrestles it back into her carrier bag, but still the building remains, silent and inscrutable.

There is nothing else for it.  Disguised and cowled by hoodie and mask I leave the shelter of my car to head towards the only interruption in that unforgiving wall.  A small door: a plain door – a very closed door.   

I knock.  I pound my fists upon the panels.

The door opens.  Thank god it opens!

A face appears, a man’s face, masked.  The eyes above the mask glance quickly to the left, to the right.

He mutters, “Come in!”

Inside, the surgery looks much the same as it always has; the same consulting rooms, re-tooled perhaps for COVID victims such as I.  My doctor, too, would look the same if there was any feature of him I could see apart from those eyes.  In scrubs, with a cap to cover his head, he is almost a stranger.  To meet demands set in train by events of recent days, I must be tested for an urgently-required prescription and the only way to keep an appointment with him, given my sentence of self-isolation, involves masks and emergency doors after the fashion of a 1970s narcotics deal.   The surgery may be a clean, modern building, but in the face of a pandemic it has a new, more sinister face.

“I said come alone.  You got the cash?”

“Yeah – you got the stuff?”

“Yeah.”

Show me!”

“Show me the cash!”

The meet is concluded quickly, the deal done.   I return to my car more confidently, glad the moment is past.  I drive home.  As I pull onto my drive, my neighbour’s curtain twitches.  One of the most damaging side-effects of lock-down is mistrust.  Mistrust is everywhere now.

Whereas isolation is of no consequence to me, the forfeit of trust is harder to bear. I can imagine there are those for whom it will remain engraved upon their souls forever.

Thank you to everyone who has sent me their good wishes since my diagnosis for COVID.  I am pleased to say that with two days of self-isolation remaining I am still completely asymptomatic.   Of this, more to follow...

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My Mug Runneth Over…

This post contains rather more personal detail than I am accustomed to disclose.   If you are uncomfortable with this, or if you’re having breakfast, you might want to move on.   So why am I writing it?  I’ll take the peripheral issue first, to give you a flavour of what follows:  I have been diagnosed as having COVID-19.   

How did it happen?  Good question: was I looking the other way?

 This is the story so far, but first, this recommendation to all ye of advancing years.  Before you go to bed each night, be sure you have two empty coffee mugs on your bedside table..

Without being too specific, at a very inconvenient 3:30am the other morning.  I began losing blood.  Not a little blood, you understand – no, not ‘little’ at all.  When I had committed an estimated leg-full to the drainage system Family Team (self and wife – you’ll encounter a few ‘teams’ in this post) called for an ambulance.

“How much blood?”  The call centre operator was very polite.  “Two mugs full?”

“A lot!”

“Yes, but would you say two mugs full?”

Now, I’ve had similar conversations before and they don’t end well.  “A considerable amount,” I repeat.

“Two mugs full?”

“Shall we say  two pints?”

“Is that two mugs full?”

The ambulance guys were great.  They whisked me briskly to A & E with lots of salty water filling the vacant leg and left me there, gurneyed but unafraid.  I should have been afraid.  I should have been very…well, you get the point.

At this juncture I was given a COVID-19 test.  There was no subterfuge, I was told the elongated cotton bud that was thrust into the back of my throat was a COVID test.  It lasted less than two seconds, during which it induced a gag reflex. 

I was examined.  It was agreed I should be examined more, so, with that in mind, the Admissions Team transferred me to the Surgical Team, and treatment took its course.   A 200ml bargain bag of blood later I was told I had tested ‘positive for COVID’.

I cannot begin to tell you how my day was brightened at that point.  When, at 74 years old with a heart condition and in the lea of an abdominal hemorrhage you are informed that you have a serious virus, one that is particularly dangerous to the elderly with underlying medical conditions, your smile becomes somewhat forced.  In practical terms it meant I was to be instantly transferred to the COVID Team in their Isolation Pod, where I would languish for a subsequent 18 hours ‘under observation’.

My treatment in the hands of the hospital staff was excellent.  They were courteous even when I was being difficult. I did not expect them to understand me.  I am (I will be kind to myself) of a somewhat ‘driven’ nature.

It wasn’t their fault.  They had to leave me, initially in one of two occupied beds in a six-bed ‘ward’, then later in a very cleanable suite of my own, to have that kind of ‘silent fun’ that goes with being a writer, watching and listening as the stories came pouring around me like flooding metaphors, made all the more glorious by the media hype that surrounds COVID.

So, moving seamlessly (almost) to the present tense…

The atmosphere is, shall we say, convivial?    Lengthy social gatherings in the corridors, with conversational meat as diverse as last night’s party, or the junior doctor’s forthcoming birthday, interspersed with visitors from the outside, such as the bagman for Pathology, who complains of his twelve and a half hour working day.  

Then there is the Corridor Evangelist, upon whose approach all talk is respectfully muted:

“Hast thou tested for haemoglobin, child?”

“Yeth, Doctor, I have.”

“Then blessed be.  And his BP, was it worthy?”

“Yeth, Doctor.”

“Blessed be.  Go thou, and attend the sluice as it has been instructed to you.”

“Yeth, doctor.”

The ‘Loud Nurse’, of whose qualifications I am unsure, fills in those gaps when other activity drops.   She is the information database for her ward and a precious component of the entertainment spectrum.

Echoing through the corridor:  “She needs the lavatory.  Shall we use a commode?”

“You just go in there, dear.  I’ll wait outside.”

“Alice, you’d better not use those.  No.  Alice?  NO, ALICE!!”

“His sister’s in Australia, apparently.  That’s his wife, she was married to…”

Any unwelcome cessation of noise is filled by bleeps.  Machines are everywhere, and they all bleep.  The corridors bristle with them so pilotinging a gurney from room to room is a special skill.  The porters are clearly ex stunt-drivers.  In the silence of the night shift I’ve heard rumours the machines (which are all mobile) slip quietly away to practice formation dance routines in the car park – I don’t know if that’s true.

What about the food?  No, I’m not going to be uncomplimentary about the food!  It was very good, with the exception of the ‘mushroom soup’ – a form of plasma with harder bits which spoke to me of a past generation:  “Darling, if you’d only tasted me in my glory years!”   Then a couple of little whimsies, which might be true of any dining situation:  who decreed that soft toast should be accompanied by pre-wrapped pats of butter that have been cooled to -80 degrees, at which temperature they become as spreadable as a house brick.   And when does a dessert cease to be a dessert?  When it’s served in a stupid little plastic container with a rip-off lid!

I’d like to close with an observation that will be offensive to some – although, let’s face it, if I haven’t offended you yet, I probably never can.  Four doctors looked after me: in Admissions, a compact, very precise Asian guy, on the wards a doctor from the Sub-Continent, another from the UK, and a Consultant, who was also British.  Each had their own distinctive approach, but they had this in common: they were thorough and professional, and what struck me, overwhelmingly, was the way their national differences and characteristics dovetailed, with distinct unique advantages.  A true ‘Team‘. We are really very privileged to have them with us.

So here I am.  COVID-19 tested and found to be positive.  I remain in self-isolation for another five days, and do I feel different?  A little headachey, maybe, and a little sore of throat, but there are other issues, too, aren’t there?  I’ll try to keep you posted as the week proceeds.

“Do you believe in the sacred supremacy of the COVID, brother?”

“Yeth, Doctor.”

“Blessed be.”

If you have any questions concerning this post, please use the ‘Comments’. I’ll do my best to answer.

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The Grapes of Wrath

It’s been a busy few days, so this is another from the archives (one I rather like, actually).

It is never going to be the most promising of conversations.  I fact, it would not be  a conversation at all if I am not at a loose end, or if I had thought to dispose of the bowl of grapes on the windowsill of my office a day or so sooner.  Why am I in my office on a fine afternoon – perhaps the last fine afternoon of a dwindling summer?

I am taking refuge.

Downstairs, my significant other is preparing soup.  I stay with it as long as I can; I inhale the odours of nameless boiling things, the rancid steam, suffer the metaphorical Cheshire Cat grinning at me malevolently on top of the bread-maker and dog Honey sitting grinning equally mischievously in ‘food corner’- that place she always occupies at times of high risk, on the off chance of a dropped morsel.

I endure.  I choke.  I leave.  Make like a tree and…

In the blessed peace of my office, beside an open window wherewith to scent the first nip of autumn, I turn on my computer, settling down to write.

“Good stuff, this!”

Startled by the interruption, I turn.  “Sorry?”

The voice comes from that bowl of once edible grapes.  “See, what youze don’t unnerstand is, jus’ how bootiful this is…”

A pair of black antenna appear, waving somewhat aimlessly, from between two moldy and rather shriveled fruit.  A foot appears, dragging down one of the antenna.  “Neez a wash, man.  Neez a wash.”

Some might require more visible evidence, but experience comes to my aid.  This is indubitably a wasp.

“You’re drunk.”  I say, groping beneath my desk for the can of ‘Raid’.  Just because this wasp happens to be vocal, doesn’t mean I can’t spray it into oblivion.

“Drunk?  Me, drunk?  Tha’s against my religion, man!”  The antenna reappears, refreshed, and gropes its way over a penicillin-rich specimen that has clearly been its host for a good twenty minutes of gorging, before I appeared. A black and yellow face comes into view. “I never drink, me.”

“No.  You eat rotten fruit instead, and the sugars have turned to alcohol.  Ergo, you are drunk.”  I have found the ‘Raid’ and am ready to end this conversation in the way most of my encounters with wasps do.

“Oh!  Oh, tha’s right!”  He sees the canister, my finger on the aerosol button. “Tha’s it.  Do that.  Do what you do to all of my people.  Nuke us, man!  Kill us, jus’ ‘cos we’re black and yellow.  Don’t give us a chans to say nothing.  Don’ allow us a voice!”

“I’m not killing you because you’re black and yellow.  I’m killing you because if I don’t you’ll sting me!”

“Issat right?  Wha’ f you deserves to be stung?”

“I still wouldn’t want to be.  Anyway, why should I deserve to be stung?  What have I done, apart from provide you with those grapes?”

“You and your kind, destroyin’ all our nests, driving us away, generations of waspicide.  You oppress us, tha’s what you do, man.”

“Only because you’re so aggressive.  You can’t handle your drink…”

“I told you!  I said, I don’ drink!”

“Alright, you can’t handle your rotten fruit.  You’re stoned out of your mind, you’re loud and argumentative, and you turn violent. If I give you half a chance now you’ll sting me.  And why?  I can never understand why.”

“Why?  WHY?  Becoz…becoz it’s like he says…”

“Who says?”

“The Vespam, man.  ‘Is bloody ‘Oliness – he says – he says iz our duty to go out and sting the infiddle.  Yeah.  So I’ve got the courage to fly into the face of the sticky mist and thrust me sting into yez as many times as I can before I drop, see?  An’ then I gets virgins.”

“Virgin wasps?”  I sound incredulous.  I might be forgiven.

“Yeah, well summing like that.  Right tasty queens anyways.  So tha’s why I’m out here, man.  I’m goin’ ter get me own nest in Paradise, see?”

“What’s wrong with your nest here on earth?”

“You kiddin?  Thousands of us stuck in a li’l paper pall waitin’ for youze to come along and exterminate us? (he struggles over the word ‘exterminate’).  An’, an’! (he flicks an antenna for emphasis) soon as you gets rid of us you moves the bloody bees in.  Bloody bees!”

I look at him accusingly.  “You’ve built a nest in my loft again, haven’t you?”

He goes defensive:  “Not sayin’.”

“Yes you have.  And your Vespam’s turned you out of it because you’re an old male and ….

“Nah, nah!  You got it wrong, man!  Iz a holy war, see, an’ iz our priv’lege to sacrifice ourselves for the cause.  Until you stop building beehives all over our land we’re goin’ to keep comin’ at you and stinging you, see?”

At last the pieces come together in my mind.  A mile to the south of my house a landfill site has recently been closed:  the area has been turfed over with meadow grass and yes, several beehives have been installed there.

“You come from the old waste tip at Westbank, don’t you?”

“We was dispossessed, man.  We was driven out!  No sooner we gone, that the bees move in on our land.  The bloody bees!”

“I might prefer wild bees over you, but I’m not going to build a beehive in my loft!”

“Vespam says….”

“I don’t care what your ‘Vespam’ says. Bear in mind he’s sitting comfortably in the nest he’s turned you out of – at least until we destroy it.  You should get back up there – demand to be let in.”

For a moment I wonder if I might have carried the argument.  He shifts about on all six feet, rubbing his antennae over his big compound eyes, a pattern of movement I take to be consistent with thought.  But then…

“Nah!   ‘Is ‘oliness said it’d be like this.  Infiddles is very persuasive, ‘e says.  They’ll promise you all sorts, ‘e sez:  proper hives, reg’lar rubbish, lots of fruit.  Don’ believe ‘em.  They’ll ‘ave you workin’ yourself to death to feed a fat cow of a queen who pumps out kids at about two a minute; loadin’ your legs up wi’ pollen from pretty flowers so you nearly rupture your wings flying home to fat mummy?  Tha’s jus’ a typical human answer, isn’ it?  You think about it, though.  Whose goin’ to clear up your rubbish then?”  The wasp stabs at the fruit beneath his front legs, which have now emerged in pursuit of his antennae.  “Good, this.  Can you see those pink elephants?”

He begins to rotate his wings, letting me know the time for conversation is at an end.  The tail of his abdomen twitches eagerly and his head lowers for the effort of take-off.  He launches himself forward.

My hand points the spray, my finger presses the button.  He flies into the mist, and his cry of “Vespula is Great!” is all but lost as the gum binds his wings.

I watch dispassionately as he squirms and dies because he is angry and aggressive and I cannot love him.  Nevertheless I hope he finds his ‘virgins’.  He deserves that at least.

The clatter and crescendo from the kitchen tells me that soup has been achieved.  So, distracted from my original purpose, I take up the bowl of moldy grapes and prepare to descend.   On my way downstairs, I wonder, idly, whether it is possible to have a beehive in my loft?

 © Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

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The God of the Rocks

They said of him that he would be watching.   They said that from his mountain throne he would see the last of them to their graves, and the world itself would spiral down into infinity, before his eyes could rest.  He brought to them seasons, sun and the rain, and he taught them dread.  Where he wept new waters sprang, and where he vented his fury he sent fire into the sky.  Only in their terror would they pray.  Only when faced with the evidence of his wrath had they reason to fear him.  

They said he was a god.

They worshipped him, beseeched him often, in their times of peril or of pain; sought in vain for his solace, begged fruitlessly before him that he might forgive their sins, even though they could not explain the meaning of sin.  And although they believed they heard his voice, he never answered their prayers.

From his great height among the frozen rocks, his immortal flesh scoured by wind and ice, he was king, at least, of all he surveyed:  his eyes ever open, his ears filled by the knowledge of man; unsleeping, watching the ages pass.   

In his time he was accused of many things, at once feared and admired for his indiscretions.   He took the innocence of a king’s beautiful daughter, they said; came to her disguised by the night in a cloak of swan-down to give her a son who  she would raise to be his intermediary with the people – but no-one saw, or had word of the child.  Time brought rumours of many sons, to whom were accorded the powers of minor gods, and daughters too.   He divided his responsibilities among them, his subjects claimed – for childbirth, for death, for fire and fertility – children unseen, with powers never proved.

Centuries passed and the people prospered.  Their numbers grew.  They lost their fear of their god, spurning the myths of his children and proclaiming their faith to the mountain less often, while they committed greater and greater crimes in his name, and had no understanding of their wrongs.

There were a few, still, who pretended knowledge of him.   They made effigies they insisted were true to his mortal form, they issued decrees they said he had written, and words they said he had spoken. 

Those bold feet that first ascended the high watchtower they believed was his found no trace of his presence among those merciless rocks; so they allowed themselves to laugh, perhaps a little nervously, at their primitive notions of his existence.  The final knell.  But he was watching, just as before.  

 Some claimed He lived within each one of them, others believed Him to rule from somewhere beyond the sky.  Few knew the truth; that his home was where it had always been, beneath their feet – that he was the ground whereon they walked.

Very few truly understood this relationship to man.   They sought his guidance when he had none; prayed for his favour when he could give none, but because they had shaped him into a loving and compassionate image in their own minds they were sure, despite all evidence, he must have an entity that was righteous and just.   

With time he grew tired of the imperfect mortals that moved about him. Their treatment of fauna and flora that served him, the barbs they plunged ever deeper in his flesh, their unnatural agriculture which used chemicals to burn his skin (for his skin was the land).  He recognised signs of diminution in himself; for though with a shrug of his shoulders he might still  send their dwellings tumbling, or charge the air with fire, or foment oceans to tempest, ice into rain,  no-one came to pray to him. 

He was forgotten.

One final card was yet to be played that would prove his power and send  these creatures who could never be true custodians of his world to their destruction.  Why did he withhold?. His impatience with them grew yet he shrugged his shoulders: he did not dispatch them.  They vexed, but they did not infuriate.  Why?   Well, there was still something in his aged world to give him hope.

He had known her presence as she walked by this river before, a girl with pale cheeks and features of untainted innocence; one whose dark blue eyes were filled by the mystery of the waters and whose soul was clear of mortal sin.   She walked with a man, another human, but this did not deter him, for no mortal could withstand the will of a god.   In this girl, his ancient wisdom made him believe, there was a better future for his world; but as  no-one now believed in him, and nor, at first, would she, he must show her the pathway back to truth; she must become mother to the family of a god which, this time, would make itself known.  By an old and tried device of the gods, he reasoned to himself, he might make her his.  He was unaware how his strength had ebbed – without belief a god has no power.  In too many ways as he appeared to this girl and her man who had never prayed, he was almost mortal.   

“I think,”  Nadja said, as she crouched on her heels by the riverbank, reaching to dabble her fingers in the water;  “You should leave the poor fish alone.”

“Do you?”  the young man laughed.  “So you would consign man’s most popularhobby to the dustbin of incorrectness at a stroke, would you?”  He had set himself upon a tussock of grass beside her, his rods and creel clasped between his knees as he baited his hook.

“No, Ben, but I don’t see the point.  You entice them to bite on those horrible barbed things of yours, terrify them by plucking them from their natural element, then rip their mouths apart before you toss them back.  Why?” 

“Fish can’t feel pain.”  Ben shaped to cast his line.

“Are you sure of that?”

“It’s been proven.”

“Not, I take it, by a fish.”  Nadja sighed, because Ben’s blindness to all that was beautiful in the world made her sad.  “Oh, look at the swan, isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s a bird, a very big one, for a swan.”  The young man’s baited hook zipped over Nadja’s head on its way out into the current.  “If you don’t like fishing, why did you come?”

“I like the river, and I like you.  Is it me, or is he swimming towards us?”

“Maybe it thinks you’ve got some bread for it.  Give it a sandwich.”

“I’m sure you shouldn’t….”   Nadja’s voice faded into silence as she found herself gazing into the eyes of the swan, which were the most thoughtful and visionary eyes she had ever seen.  They were eyes  of intimate knowledge, bearing a message for her alone.   It was all she could do to refrain from walking out into the water to meet it, because the bird’s stare was mesmerising her.  It wanted her to join it, to nestle in the white down of its feathers, to ride upon its snowy back.  Reflected in shimmering perfection upon the water, the noble creature was drifting ever nearer.

“Oh, Ben!”  It was so close to Nadja now she might only stretch a little to touch its head.

“Careful!   It’s certainly hungry,” Ben warned.  “They can attack you for food sometimes.”

Yet Nadja saw no aggression in those eyes, only invitation.  Somehow it was no surprise to her that the swan should lower its noble head and  extend its neck to lie against the length of her thigh.  It breathed its contentment as, with nervous, uncertain hands she stroked feathers so close they were almost velvet.     Nor was she shocked when it raised itself, its wings arching slowly, very gently moving forward.  She rose to her feet, yielding to the persuasion that coaxed her into the warmth of that embrace.  For one moment it seemed she might be completely engulfed in the cloak of those powerful wings.

Only for a moment…

The great bird shuddered as Ben’s creel, swung with all the force he could muster, struck it upon its back.  It turned instantly, hissing anger as Nadja staggered aside.  It swept those wings with no hint of their former gentleness, scything into Ben’s ribs so hard the wind was knocked from his lungs.  Reared upon its grey legs, drawn to its full height the swan loomed over Ben like a white cloud  and eyes which just a moment before were blinded by love were twin orbs of lightning, afire with fury.   Injured and in pain, Ben almost fell as the swan, far from retreating to the river as he expected, advanced upon him.  Clear of the water its body was exposed and Ben, alarmed as he was by its aggression, was not done yet.     Stepping inside those flailing wings he delivered a blow to the creature’s body so fierce it was thrown backward into the water – so fierce as to sink deep into feathers and flesh and bone beneath.  With that single blow the god of the rocks discovered a dreadful truth:  that a god devoid of veneration is no god at all.   His transformation into this great bird had been his final miracle.  He was mortal.

In its panic at that discovery and with its dream of love reduced to a sad fantasy  the bird plunged back into the river, scrabbling through the shallows in search of deeper water, finding depth, swimming fast with no sense of direction.  In its distraction it ran its beak through the healing stream to deaden the hurt in its body.  A temptation, a mere scrap, skipped by on the current.  The swan took it in. 

“It’s taken my hook.”  Ben cried, regaining his balance.   “The bloody thing’s taken my hook!”

“Oh no!  No!  Do something!” Nadja rushed forward, plunging to her waist into the river to reach for the swan.   For a few dreadful seconds the bird churned the water as it discovered its plight and thrashed wildly against the line, then as suddenly as it had been taken it was gone.  Running on the surface on desperate feet it gained the air.   Graceful even when so wounded, its neck crooking as it tried to shake the metal hook free, it ascended,  and all Nadja could do was watch it depart.  She rounded on Ben.  “I could have got to it.  Why didn’t you wait?”

“I cut the line.   I couldn’t hold it, I’d have lost the rod and everything if I’d tried.”

“You let it go.”  Nadja wept bitterly, for she had seen in the space of a second everything the world had missed.  “You condemned it.”

Ben pleaded with her.  He’d had to do something, he told her – he was being attacked.  “It wasn’t my fault it took the line!”

“it was your fault the hook was in the water in the first place.  Your hobby!”  Nadja exclaimed scornfully,  “Don’t follow me!”

She turned from Ben to walk home alone.  As she walked the grass around her feet turned to brown, and young though the year might have been, leaves cascaded from the trees.  The wind grew stronger as a different darkness fell.

#

“Another one?”    Baldai asked.

“The third in this cycle.”  Procator affirmed, as they watched the screen.  “Most regrettable.  It seems this is the critical evolutionary phase.  Statistics for this galaxy are quite damning, I’m afraid.  We’re having some success, but almost entirely with aquatic solutions.  Land-based life forms are simply too fallible.  It’s almost as though the stock is corrupt.”

“That is possible, of course.”  Baldai admitted.  “However, there’s nothing to be done.  Is he recovering?”

“To a point, I suppose.  Avian disguises are particularly difficult to treat, and he had been entombed in river mud for three weeks before we could bring him up.  The physical recovery is good, but…”  Prokator made a gesture of futility;  “his psychological makeup has completely burned out.  He has expressed a wish to retire to his galaxy of origin and I think that is probably best.”

“And that?”  Baldai waved at the image on their screen of the bereft planet:  “What shall we do with that?”

“Oh, dispose of it.  There’s another eligible candidate closer to this sun-star, if you think we should have another try – but I would be inclined to emphasise the oceans, this time.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Photo credits: Swan, by Balog from Pixabay, Featured image:

Mountain, by David Mark from Pixabay

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Mud and Sand

“The weather was better in Porthmadoc.”   Tim said.

“Hmm?” Jen was studying a beer-mat.

“In the common parlance, Jen, a penny for them?”

“Sorry.”  Jen said.   The bar-room atmosphere made her whimsical.  “Was that your last job – Wales?”

“It was.”   Her manager launched into an exposition of tyrannical landladies who ruled a dominion of persistent rain.  His voice almost instantly faded into the choral background of muted conversation and laughter; a pub in a small northern town.  Wednesday.

‘In two days’, Jen thought, ‘I go home’.

A lone drinker at the far end of the bar, a toughened, interesting man with the broad accent of the Dales, was at least three pints ahead of the hour.  A woman’s heels clicked busily towards the toilets.

“Oh, lord, I give up!”

Jen stirred.  Tim had asked her something, had he?

“I’m sorry, Tim.   It’s the noise.  What did you say?”

“I said the trenches’ll be full of water again in the morning.”  Tim waved at the window.  “This rain.”

“If somebody hadn’t dug it so deep it was below the water-table….”  She replied.

“There’s no archaeology down there, anyway – saves time.”

“Not if it keeps filling up.”   Why had she agreed to this drink?   Jen had many ways of passing her evenings when she was away on a dig.  Going out with her married manager was not one of them.

‘Heels woman’ returned from the toilets.  As she passed the Dales man, he muttered something to her which prompted a disgusted look.  He brayed out a hideous laugh.  Heads turned.

This was so far from the dream Jen had pursued at University:  the summer digs among romantic ruins in Africa and Spain.  Only once since those idealistic days had she worked in tropical sands with a hot sun on her back.  They were a world away, hidden behind dark northern clouds filled with needling rain, four-wheel-drives which floundered like turtles in claggy mud, the smell and chug of a pump clearing water from around her frozen fingers as she worked.

And managers with a feeble hope they might sleep with her before the job was finished…

“That guy’s going to get himself chucked out.”  Tim was saying.

The Dales man had begun pestering ‘heels woman’s’ partner.   Their conversation, if it could be so called, was becoming hostile:  “Yer one o’ them bloody dev’lopers, en’t yer?  That were your car on my land ‘smornin’  weren’t it?   Yer ask p’mission ‘for yer cooms on my land!”

He was cut short by the heavy hand of the landlord.   “Time to go home, lad.”

“Aye, aye.  Go ‘ome, eh?  Long as I’ve got one.  This bastard, ‘e’s takin’ it off me, aren’t yer?”

But the drunk’s eloquence was short-lived.  His piece said, he allowed himself to be guided to the door, and out into darkness.

“That’s as much excitement as I can stand for this evening.”  Jen decided.  “I’m really tired.  I think I’ll turn in.” 

Tim walked with her to another pub near the edge of town, above which was the room which had been Jen’s home for ten merciless days.  Side-stepping his clumsy attempt at an embrace she wished him a firm “Goodnight”, thankful to close her door on the world for a few precious hours.  

Her window overlooked the street, so in drawing her curtains she couldn’t fail to see the inebriated figure of the Dales man, meandering by.  In some ways, she thought, he was a kindred spirit.   ‘Two lost souls, we are, Neither of us wants to face tomorrow’. 

With the morrow, as Tim’s aged vehicle bounced and slid along the country lane which led to Low Meadow development site, the rain returned.  Huddled beneath swathes of oilskin and wool in the back seats were ‘Bolly’, an Oxbridge graduate, Melanie (Mel), a Somerset lass with a rare sense of humour, Paul, who had outrageous acne; and of course, jammed into a corner, Jen herself.

A brightly painted sign reminded them they were guests of ‘Low Meadows Executive Homes’.  Beneath and beyond it, Low Meadow itself; devoid of any bricks and mortar miracles or even the foundations of any, but just a meadow – a large field.  Tim drove through the gate.

“There you are – told you.”   He shouted over the wind as they disembarked, gesturing towards a wide trench, half full of brown muddy water,  which cut a gash in the meadow, some twenty metres from the gate.   “We won’t be able to work this morning.  Set up the pumps and let’s get back to town.  We can do some soil samples or something.”

Pumps were stored in a site shed.  Together, the team got them working, so a steady flow of flood water coursed out into the lane.  A steady downpour of rain did its best to keep pace.

Tim said:  “Who’ll stay and keep an eye on things;  Jen?”

The price, was it, for last night’s rejection?  Jen watched the four-wheel drive’s lurching departure.  Sheltered by the shed, she boiled a kettle on the team’s battered primus.   The tea tasted of nothing much, but it was hot, at least.

There was little to do.  The pumps worked on faithfully, their very audible insistence  prompting Jen to take her tea outside.  Deluge notwithstanding she wandered around Low Meadow, surveying the damage an archaeological dig could do to a farmer’s land.

The flooded thirty metre trench was one of four. Two trenches had already been re-filled, a third awaited refilling – although that, too, was half-full of water, which no-one minded, because it had already been studied.   Filled or open, each was a livid scar on the face of a field where a silage crop awaited harvest.   Worse, the surrounding area was a morass of planting and mud, ground down by each pass of their excavator, now parked innocuously by the hedge, or Tim’s four-wheel drive.

Jen clasped her mug of tea for warmth.   Tim was right about the archaeology, she supposed.  In ten days the team had found not a shard here, yet there was that feeling, that instinctive spark kindled by her years of training.   This was good land, high enough to be defensible, and a stream ran in a valley close by.  In terms of early man this was an excellent place to set up home.

“What the hell are you doing on my land?”

The shout was authoritarian enough to make Jen jump. Absorbed in her thoughts, she had failed to hear a Land Rover draw up in the lane.   She wiped spilt tea from her sleeve as a stalwart middle-aged woman in anorak, cords and boots approached; a woman who was quite clearly furious.

“Are you responsible for this carnage?”

Jen swallowed hard.  “And you are..?”  She began to ask.

“Never mind who I am.  I have a lot more right to be here than you, that’s all you need to know.   You did this?”

“Well….”

“Can you drive that?”  The woman waved at the excavator.  “Never mind, I will.  I want it out of here.  Give me the keys.”

“The keys are not here.”  Jen managed to stammer out.  “Our driver’s got them.”   It was a lie – there was a spare set hidden in the shed, she knew.   “Look, can I explain?”

“When you and everything you brought with you is out in the lane, yes.”

“That’s not going to happen.”  Being wet through; being continually hit upon by every male crew-member who felt the need; being frustrated in a career which had turned out to be nothing like the one she had always wanted for herself; and, yes, being alone – alone in every sense of the word;  all these things sprang to Jen’s aid right now.   “We have permission.”  She articulated icily.

“You don’t have mine.”

“We don’t bloody need yours!”   Jen blazed.  “We’re employed by Park View Developments.   They’ve purchased this site for housing, and asked us to do the archaeology before they start to build.  They have to do that – that’s the law.   Unless you own Park View Developments this is not your land.”

She saw her words had hit home.  Her antagonist’s expression had altered subtly from anger to pain.  The woman turned away, staring out across the damaged field.

“It was quite clear.”  She said bitterly.  “Your people assured us they would not start to build until after harvest.  We had three weeks, they said.  Look at all this!   Have you any idea, young woman, how much we’re going to lose?”

Jen shook her head, feeling instantly sorry for the woman.  “In the strictest sense, I suppose, they were right.  We aren’t building – we’re just doing the archaeology.   But you should get compensation?”

The woman laughed.  “Compensation!”

Jen said:  “look, I only work here:  I would love to help but I can’t?  My manager will be back soon, and if you wouldn’t mind waiting, I can….”   

Her voice tailed off as the woman walked away, shoulders hunched in a manner which suggested that, had she less pride, she might be weeping.  The Land Rover drove off. 

When Jen told Tim about the woman he looked puzzled.

“Park View bought this land off a Sir somebody-or-other.  He lives in Barbados, I think.  At a guess you had a run-in with a tenant farmer.  Poor woman’s probably had the land sold over her head and the landlord told a few whoppers to smooth the deal.   It happens a lot.”

“Will she get compensated?”

“Doubtful.  She can try, of course, but I suspect her claim should really be against her landlord.  The damage isn’t too bad, anyway.  Give this stuff a week and it’ll be sitting up and looking perky again.  For her sake I’m glad we didn’t find anything – the big boys’d be all over this site like a rash; then she’d really have something to complain about!”

Jen looked at the ‘stuff’ and decided it would take more than a week to persuade it to look even remotely ‘perky’.

The angry woman was not the site’s only visitor that day.  Around half-past two a Mercedes saloon bumped and lurched its way up the lane.   A pair of unsuitabtly dressed men in shiny shoes and dark suits emerged – one was the man who had been picked on by the drunk the previous night.   They were clearly known to Tim, who moved to greet them as they stepped gingerly over unforgiving scenery.   Jen was working with Mel at the far end of the trench by this time, but she could tell that their conversation was fairly lively.   After they had gone, Tim came over.

“Park View men.   Usual pfaff.   They want us out by the weekend.  They’ll come to see us off, no doubt.”

“Why?”  Jen remembered her earlier conversation.  “They aren’t starting for three more weeks, the woman said.”

“Really?  I get the impression they’ll be in next week.  The urgency is all about finding something.  Our paymasters are extremely anxious that we don’t.  The longer we’re here….”

Jen had heard this story too often.  When she had become an archaeologist, she had never imagined she would spend so much time being paid not to find anything.

Thursday.   Just one more day….

In the pub that night Jen shared a table with Mel and Paul.  Conversations drifted by;   boy- and girl- friends, rents, places.

“I’m a wheel-less gypsy, me.”  Mel said.   “In the past two years I’ve shared four houses and three flats – with somebody different each time.   I’m starting to forget my own name.”

“You’re not attached, though?”  Paul tried to sound disinterested.

“Down boy!   No, no-one at the moment – how about you, Jen?   Anyone in your life other than Tim?”

“Tim is so not in my life!” Jen protested.  “But no, I’m single too.”

“Not that she gets grumpy or anything!”  Said Mel in an aside to Paul.

“I don’t!   Do I?”   Jen felt herself going slightly pink.

“No, no.   No girl, not much!”  Mel’s eyes widened.   She nodded over Jen’s shoulder.  “Speaking of absolute hunks – which I wasn’t, but never mind – is this a dream walking or what?   Sorry Paul, if I offend.”

Jen tried to turn; Mel stopped her.

“Don’t look!”   Then, in a hiss: “oh-my-god-he’s-coming-this-way-play-dead!”

“Excuse me.”  It was a dark, drawl of a voice, high above her shoulder.  Jen looked up – a long way up – into a pair of hazel eyes, a keen, strong face.  “I wonder if I could talk to you?”

“Er –yes.”  Jen tried to make sense of her thoughts. Mel made fainting noises across the table.  “How can I help?”

“First, can I get you all something to drink?”  The stranger was tall, well-proportioned,and confidence exuded from every pore.  “What would you like?”

“Thanks, but I don’t know you…”

“I’ll introduce myself.  I’m Peter Horsley.  I’m afraid…?”

“Jenny – Jennifer Thwaite.”  She knew she was babbling: “I’ll have an Archers, please?”

“We were just leaving,” said Mel.   “Otherwise…”

“Why?”  Paul asked peevishly.  “I haven’t finished my drink!”

The stranger smiled.  Jen melted.  “I’ll just be a moment.”  He said.

Mel watched Peter Horsley’s retreating back with a low moan escaping her lips.   “Oh Jen, you lucky cow!   Paul – hurry up!”

By the time Peter Horsley brought drinks Jen’s friends had deserted her.   “I hope I haven’t broken up your evening?”

“They had to leave – they said.”  Jen struggled to compose herself.  “So:  what can I do for you, Mr. Horsley?”

“Peter, please.   That was my mother you met this morning.”

“Ah!”  Jen paled. “How did you know it was me?”

“She described you well.  Oh, it’s alright.  I promise I’m not going to have a go at you.  In fact, I’m here to apologise.  It must have been difficult.”

He sat across the table, sipped at the pint he had brought for himself.  “Look, I ought to explain…”

“There’s no need.”

“Please?   My father has a small farm.  After he lost his herd to Foot and Mouth, mother wanted him to retire, but he saw it otherwise.  He re-stocked:  in fact, he built the herd up so he needed more land for fodder.  That’s when he rented those fields – three in all – from Sir Robertson.  He’d just put new fertilisers down, planted them out to silage, when the letter came.  It caught him at just the worst time, you see?  He’d put all his money back into the land, and if he couldn’t at least get the crop in….”

“We’ve been here for two weeks!   Why didn’t he come and see us sooner?”

“He wouldn’t.  He’s not good at communicating.  It made him – well, it made him ill.  Mum, she’s different, but she was away.  There was talk of separating.  Then last night she came home.”

“And you?”  Asked Jen.  “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but are you not ‘good at communicating’ either?”

“I don’t live here.  I came back when I realised something was wrong –  picked mother up on the way from the airport.  Doesn’t the sunburn give anything away?”

She had to admit she had been looking at nothing else.  Everything about his face, in fact: the way his lips moved when he talked, the wisp of hair that fell obstinately forward, the acute depth to those eyes.  “You work abroad?”

“Spain.”  He acknowledged.  “Andalusia, mostly.  I’m a land agent for a property company out there.  So you see, I understand how these things work.   I know that nothing can be done.”

“I’m just an archaeologist.  If I could do anything, I promise I would.”

“Yes.”   His gaze searched her deeply, personally.  She felt so, so challenged by him!  “I believe you really would.  Well, I said what I came to say:  I apologise on my mother’s behalf.”  He paused, hesitating.   “I don’t suppose you’d like to come to dinner with me, would you?  I mean, I don’t want to seem forward, and if you’ve already eaten?   Please feel free to refuse.”

Jen laughed at this sudden desertion of self-assurance.  “Thank you.”  She said.  “I’d love to.”

Thus began an evening that was magical.   There was nothing about Peter that was not entertaining, or funny, or whimsical, or sensitive, or masculine, or all of those things at once: of all of that evening, only the food was ordinary, and that passed unnoticed.   At times, Jen found herself riding on the warmth of his voice, so engaged by his words she lost all sense of what he was saying.  It seemed not to matter; in fact, those moments when he caught her just gazing vacuously into his eyes and they both broke down laughing for no real reason, were the best of all.  The hours flashed by.   When parting came, it took all of Jen’s good sense to walk away.

He did not insist, though she knew he wanted more.  “Don’t make this ‘goodbye’.”  He urged her.

His kiss burned her cheek for an hour, after just half of which he sent her a text which read:  ‘Had a wonderful evening.  Sleep well’. 

“Let’s wrap this up, people!”  Tim enthused.  “Get finished by lunchtime:  we need the afternoon to clear up.”

True to his leadership style, he uttered this final harangue to his troops through the window of his four-wheel drive as he left.  Whatever field work there was to be done, Tim would take no further part.   As to what he would be doing, back in town on his own, was anyone’s guess.

While ‘Bolly’ drove the digger through the cleared ditch, ready to take one final bite at the end, Mel and Jen waited.

Well?”  Mel frothed with curiosity.

“Well what?”

Well you can’t stop smiling, and well Tim was really annoyed because he said he was going to ‘sort out some soil samples’ with you in your room, but you weren’t in!

“We went to dinner, that’s all.  He’s nice.”

Nice!   Darling we could see nice after two minutes in the pub.  On a scale of one to ten, how nice?”

“Oh, about twelve.”   Jen started giggling and couldn’t stop.  It felt ridiculous.

The morning was warm; there was even an occasional burst of sunshine.  Only the desecration of the land around Jen disturbed her happiness as she worked, and she felt this as acutely as the heat on her back.   At the far end of the last trench, she laboured more or less alone. The others drifted off into pools of conversation.  Paul came to re-check some of his sets occasionally, that was all.

There was that familiar clink of trowel on earthenware that Jen knew intimately.  Drawing breath, she looked quickly round to see if any of the others had noticed, then began to clear the clay. She expected just a shard, but she exposed a third of a vessel which seemed to be intact.  A collared urn, lying on its side, exactly as it had lain for twenty-five centuries or more.

Jen’s heart bumped against her chest.  Without quite knowing why, she scooped loose mud back over the find, then climbed out of the trench, pacing along its edge, looking for something she knew she must have missed; something they all must have missed.   She saw it almost at once and it was a euphoric moment; one which evaporated as she understood what she must do.

The Park View ‘Company Men’ arrived at about eleven o’clock.  Second-in-command in Tim’s absence, it was Jen’s duty to liaise with them.

“No archaeology, then?”  A silver-haired executive, the seniorof the two, assumed the initiative brusquely.  “Finished today?”

“Come for a walk.”  Jen prompted him.

“Good god, why?”

“Oh, a general inspection.”  Jen replied.  “You don’t have to get in the trench, just walk along the side.  Try not to look too interested.”  Near the end of the trench where she had been working, she paused.  “To the right of the ladder: see that darker soil?   Then more, six metres further up?   See those round areas, going across the dig?   I know – they are awkward to pick out.  We didn’t see them ourselves, you know?   The trench was too deep, mostly it was full of water: it was only when I went over it again this morning…..Oh, and I’ve found a pot, too.   I must tell the others.”

The executive had turned grey.  “Alright.”  He said, at length:  “What exactly are we into?”

“An archaeologist’s dream.  My dream, too.”  Jen admitted, sadly.  “All my life…”  She bit her lip.  “Most likely the dark areas were ditches, the light part, a defensive mound.  Those circular bits are traces of post holes – not for a round house, they’re too big for that.  A stockade, the defensive wall of a settlement; late Bronze Age or early Iron Age, I should think – a big one; as big as this field.”

“Very well.   So you’re saying you’ll need further time.  How long – a week?”

“No, much more than a week.  Think of it as a village, twenty-five centuries old.   We’ve got to open up the entire plot.  It’s a significant find, you see, this far north.  The Council have been gagging for a site of historical significance like this.  At least a year, probably longer.”

 “Do you realise what you’re saying?”  The executive snapped.  “ With the housing market as it is, we could lose millions on this.  How do I know you’re qualified to make this judgement?”

“Well, I could prove where and when I graduated, I suppose, but it wouldn’t help.”   Jen broke away.   “Excuse me for a moment.”   She called across to the huddle of her team, hovering at a respectful distance.   Nobody liked ‘Company Men’.   “Bolly!   I’ve finished down there.  Fill the trench up, will you?”

The executive cocked an eyebrow at Jen, who acknowledged him with a trace of a smile.

The farmer answered the door himself,so Jen thought she must have come to the wrong address because she recognised him – he was the drunk she had seen thrown out of the pub on Wednesday night; but when the angry woman appeared in the passage behind him she knew her directions had not let her down.  Then Peter came through from the back of the house, and the look of pleasure that lit his face when he saw her was already reward enough.

They sipped coffee as Jen explained the events of the day.

“You’ll get two weeks to harvest the crop;” she told them.  “Then they move in to start building.  You’re getting compensation, too, at the rate of a thousand pounds an acre…”

“A thousand?”  the angry woman was incredulous..

“Isn’t it enough?  It’s for the whole area – three fields.  ”

“Enough?”  Peter cried.  “It’s amazing!  However did you get it?”

“Persuasion.  In return I personally supervise all soil samples we took from that trench.  I’ll be delaying some of the tests until quite late, until after you’ve harvested the fields and cashed your cheque.  If the Park View people don’t keep their word those tests will reveal post-holes and we re-open the dig.  If they do…well, samples can get contaminated, or even mislaid.   I’m hoping the money will be enough to pay for the feed you’ve lost.” 

Later, much later, as they lay on the margins of sleep, Peter wanted to know what the real price had been, and she told him the truth; that she had been to the edge of a dream and that was enough.   Yes, it would have been fulfilling to have a big excavation accredited to her, but it was time to acknowledge that lives were more important than bones.

“So what will you do now?”

“I’m not sure.  Take some space, perhaps; re-evaluate?”

“Do you think you might like your space somewhere warmer, such as… oh, I don’t know….Andalusia, for example?”

“Yes.”  She said, smiling sleepily.  “I think that might be perfect!”   

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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A Quick Comment for Boris, ‘The Hammer of the North’

Dear Prime Minister:

Age does not entitle me to abdicate responsibility.  If anything, old age should have made me wise.

Age does not mean I require protection from decisions I may make.  If I decide to see my son in spite of risk, and if I then contract a potentially fatal virus my illness and my possible death are entirely my fault.   Age and wisdom should preclude that decision, just as it should inform my ability to say ‘No, stay away’.

You see, I’m at an age where I have to start contemplating my death from some cause or another, and I am not so attached to life as to to recklessly pursue immortality.  It’s pointless.

Whatever we do, the COVID-19 virus continues to destroy lives, not through its own rather nasty symptoms, but by impoverishing society, isolating everybody and wrecking economies throughout the world; and because it is rarely fatal or even serious in the age group who work and operate those economies, ‘locking down’ to restrain the infection is needlessly harmful.

In case you hadn’t noticed, old people are a finite resource.  The more of us pop off, the lighter the burden on society.  Think of all the pension payments you’ll save!

I don’t want to be protected.  I don’t want widespread bankruptcy, social unrest and a mental health pandemic to be my responsibility.   If I get the bug, it’s my fault.  I will accept the consequences.

This disease is a tunnel we all have to pass through. If the powers that be want to pursue a policy that will beat this infection, crowd immunity is obviously the way to go.  It’s happening anyway, for God’s sake!   

Free the economy.  Let everybody get back to work, suffer a minor episode if necessary, and start the world turning again.   Don’t waste time and lives in mawkish sentimentality over us.  We don’t need it.  We can protect ourselves, as long as we have the information we need (hotspots, and so on).  If you are so addicted to passing laws that you feel you must do so to restrict us, then do it, but only do it to the elderly.

Let our young people live!

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Micah

Bear with me for a while; it has been so long and I forget so many things.   I forget, for example, exactly when I realised Micah was different to other boys I knew.  When the doubts began, or the first glimmer of enlightenment – I really cannot judge.  

Let me see – was it the spider?  Yes, I’ll tell you about the spider.

Micah and I, we had been friends as long as I could remember, because in Ollershaw – in the small village community where we grew up, every possible playmate was friend or enemy.  Naturally, age had a lot to do with this.  Matthew Carrell would be an example.  Matthew was two years older than me – therefore Matthew was my enemy.  So when Matthew tied me to the silver birch tree at the back of The Common, leaving me there in the rain, although I might have been frightened and vocal it was the least I had learned to expect.  It was Micah who broke those old, unwritten rules.  It was he who cut me loose with a penknife his stepfather gave him for his birthday, even though Matthew warned him to desist.  He braved Matthew’s wrath to save me.

We were children.  I was seven or eight, Micah’s birthday was a month before my own.  We all lived by a children’s code which was a part of our growing and as old as time itself, so Matthew was only acting in accordance with that code when he sought vengeance – something Micah surely anticipated.  In a quiet moment, in one of those places only children seem to know, Matthew took Micah’s knife from him, pinned him down while he went through his pockets and found it; then he took the knife along the mill path that leads down to the river (and is there still despite all the new development of houses on the riverbank), and he threw the knife into the water.   And Micah followed him, and Micah watched.

Micah did not cry.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever seeing Micah cry.

Now it was after school maybe the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week, when we were playing in the backyard of my house, that Micah and I came upon the spider.   There were empty apple boxes in a stack beside a brick lean-to shed my father always promised he would pull down, but never did.  We liked to fashion all kinds of fantasies from those boxes; they were made of thin wood and they were wide and flat, so we could stack them or arrange them in all sorts of ways to make pretend cars, or boats, or a secret den.  That evening I think we may have had it in mind to construct a spaceship, when, turning over one of the boxes from the bottom of the stack, Micah suddenly paused and gestured to me that I should be very still.

“What?”  I asked.

“Come and see,  Quietly, now.”

I came, I saw.  In one corner of the box my friend was holding, amidst a small nest of dead leaves, was the largest spider I had ever seen.   Wide eyed, I took in its long front legs, its thick grey body, the spread of its six remaining limbs.  I could clearly see the stalks that supported its eyes and two white stripes that ran either side of its thorax and abdomen.  It had no web.  We both understood that the small cluster of leaves was its home.

Micah whispered.  “Get me one of those Cocoa tins from the kitchen rubbish.”

“You’re never!”  I said.   Micah didn’t answer.

I brought the tin, removing its lid as I returned to the boxes.  

Perfectly calmly, as though it did not require as much as a second thought, Micah reached into the box, nipping the creature between thumb and forefinger as he plucked it into the open.   It curled up, tucking its legs so it resembled a ball, and I held the cocoa tin at arm’s length, closing my eyes as Micah dropped the spider inside it, and fastened the lid.

“We’ll have to make air holes.”  He said.

“Are you going to keep it?”  I asked.

“No.”

Micah regularly came home with me after school in those days, because both his parents worked full time and he was not considered old enough to be allowed home on his own.   We became close friends of necessity; two boys of similar age thrown together by circumstances will usually end up that way, even if there are differences.  I knew, right from the beginning, there were differences.

When you are young, with little experience of the world, there are a lot of important things that pass you by.  My mother and father were, I suppose, a satisfactory match:  My dad was an engineer whose work took him away for long periods, sometimes many weeks.  Letters from him would scatter on the doormat.  He always wrote letters when he was away, even if sometimes he arrived home before they did;  and my mother would sit at the kitchen table reading them, her face twitching with a mysterious smile I did not comprehend.   She kept them all.  Much later in life, when she was gone, I found the letters amongst her possessions;  I read only one, discovering with each successive word a side to my parents’ relationship that, as a child, I would have considered  profoundly shocking.  I burned the rest of the letters without reading them.  There was a privacy of language within them I did not want to expose.   At the time, they were just letters from my father with colourful foreign stamps upon them which I collected, in a desultory fashion.

“Does he mention me, Mummy?”

“Of course he does, darling.  He always remembers you.”

I would look forward to his return from those longer expeditions.  There would be a gift – a carving, a wooden toy or a doll, sometimes sweets.

“I’m not supposed to bring these into the country, Sprog.   But they’re delicious, you just have to try them!”  I felt so important then, because he had chanced capture as a smuggler, and he had done it for me!  I would imagine him on the run, fleeing across the windswept moor clutching my little bag of sweets, with police and dogs chasing him; although of course they were unable to prevent his heroic escape.  

As I said, in the innocence of childhood much about the lives of those close to you may pass unnoticed.  Nevertheless I knew that Micah’s home life was neither as happy or secure as my own.  Being ‘comfortably off’ for a child merely means food on your table, a warm bed and toys; Micah may have enjoyed these, but his family was not ‘comfortably off’.   My Dad’s car was new, large and almost silent, my Mum had a car of her own, so when the weather was bad I rode to school.  Micah’s step-dad drove his family’s only car, which was old and temperamental.  He never gave his stepson rides to school, so Micah and his mum would walk the mile from their home to the school gates, and they got wet:  a lot.

Once in a while, usually at weekends, I was invited to Micah’s home; on which rare occasions I was, of course, too polite to mention the paucity of furniture, or the absence of toys.  Micah’s mother would sit us on an aged sofa in their little sitting room, made fiery hot by a blazing coal fire, winter or summer.  We watched, sweating, through hours of cartoons on the ancient television before I could make excuses and leave.  I don’t think Mrs. Pallow (Micah’s surname was Pallow) resented my presence particularly; in all honesty, I sometimes wondered if she even noticed I was there, but neither did she make me feel welcome.  A nervous, shifting quicksand of a woman, I could see her mind churning its way through every waking moment – stabbing a poker at the fire she claimed was necessary to ‘heat the water’, fussing around the inexpensive china statuettes that were her hobby, or crashing and slamming in her kitchen.  Did I ever see her smile?  No, maybe I didn’t.

Personally, I never saw the spider again.  It left my home that Wednesday or Thursday evening in its new accommodation, tucked under Micah’s school blazer.   I believe it must have entered our school the next morning in similar fashion, though I have no specific memory of this.  I certainly remember when it turned up again, although I was not present.

Ours was the village school; albeit quite a smart one.  The uniforms were distinctive, the discipline strict, a burden upon Micah’s family which they must have found extortionate, yet they struggled to provide him with a new uniform each year, and finance the materials we needed.  So they obviously valued their son – something which seems quite curious, when I recall.  Atypical behaviour – not what my own upbringing was conditioning me to expect.   At school Micah and I were juniors: as yet more concerned with basic reading, writing and explorations in clay or cardboard.  Matthew Carrell was in the upper class, among those nine and ten-year-old children ascending the final upslope towards senior education.

We left our lessons at the school gates, Micah and I, whereas Matthew had ‘homework’.   Nothing very specific, though it did involve written exercises in school books, and handing work in to his teacher, the quite lovely Miss Comfort, whose name said everything about her that needs to be said – everything but one very specific thing.   

Quite when Matthew left his homework exercise book unguarded, or why, I cannot say.  Any more than I can explain how someone contrived to cut the centre out of all but the first and the last few pages of that book to make a rectangular space, lidded only by its cover page and a few leaves of carefully written essay.  And how our spider came to be occupying that space when Miss Comfort opened the book to peruse Matthew’s work I would rather not speculate.  I doubt anyone could have known Miss Comfort was an arachnophobe.  Micah and I, we were at music practice in another classroom, bells and triangles and a flat piano; yet we still heard the screams – all of the screams.

Mrs. Carrell collected Matthew that lunchtime.  She was very, very annoyed.  As they passed us by, as we stood in the playground, watching, Matthew turned his hung head to throw Micah a look – a look that was almost fearful.  It communicated an understanding which would spread amongst us all.  Micah did not live by the rules.

Then I remember distinctly how I shared a glance with Micah and saw his face twitch in a mysterious smile.  It was a smile that reminded me for one moment – just that one moment – of my mother.

 © Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Featured Image Credit: Brett Hondow from Pixabay

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Galleons and Gold

                                     

Samuel Trimble visited the City with metronomic regularity.  On Mondays and Thursdays, his plump over-coated figure alighted from the ten-fifteen train, pausing on the station platform to lid his thin hair with a Homberg.  Then he walked – down the hill from the station, through the City’s narrow cobbled streets, beneath timbered houses which frowned and leaned above his head, sharing confidences with one another.

      Samuel’s destination was a coffee shop housed in a time-worn building, with timbers in its lime-plastered ceiling as craggily genuine as its little front door, which forced a stoop, even for one of Samuel’s diminutive stature.  At ten forty-five, having purchased a newspaper, Samuel Trimble could be found in his usual seat by an old brass bed-warmer in the corner.

“Coffee, sir?”  The waitress always asked.  She had brought him coffee without asking, once. 

Samuel had stared at it for a very long time before saying in his tight, lisping voice:  “I wanted tea.”

Screened behind his newspaper Samuel remained oblivious to the other regular visitors to the cafe: an old lady always asleep; head back, mouth open – so thin and pale a stranger might think her dead. Two men, thirty-something’s whose theatrical conversation was laden with ‘darlings’ and ‘Oh my’s’ at a big table by the counter:  a bickering young couple next to the window who made up quite physically before they left hand in hand, besotted. 

His ears were closed, too, to kitchen drama:

“What do you mean he wants Worcester sauce?  Worcester sauce on my cheese?   I don’t do.”

“He says he wants it.”

“Tell him no.  NO!  What is he – peasant?   Throw him out!”

“And his missus wants goat’s cheese and coriander.”

“That I do.”

“No point if you want me to throw him out.  She’ll go with him!”

“Don’t you get your cheeky with me, Miss!”

 The two theatricals gossiping, Sotto voce:   “Oh, my god!   She didn’t?

“In his face, my dear – right in his face I was mortified, I can’t tell you!”

 Samuel, who had shared this room with these people so often, never once exchanged as much as a greeting.  What was it, then, on this particular day, that made him lower his newspaper?

 “Young woman; we require a table for two.”   A grand dame with a thick film of slap on her wide, large-featured face and a voice that could re-route the ‘Nimitz’, she stopped every conversation in the café.   All eyes but Samuel’s turned upon the woman.  One of the theatricals gave a snicker of laughter, provoking a smack on the fetlock from his friend.

Samuel’s gaze was focussed upon the woman’s companion: much younger; of maybe twenty or twenty-five years – a girl dressed in a magpie’s nest of short imitation leather bomber, bee-stripe top and loose khaki cargo pants.  A pair of red thong sandals flapped beneath thin feet.  Her lank blonde hair hung to her shoulders, yet such a face!  A slender, porcelain oval with a small mouth and large, very dark eyes set in an expression of permanent wonder.     

The waitress indicated a table opposite Samuel’s. 

“It will have to do.  Bring us tea – two teas.”  Like a galleon, the big woman crossed the floor of the café in full sail and Samuel ducked as she swept past.  Her companion followed in her wake, a circling gull. 

The waitress brought them tea.  “Anything to eat?”

The woman glared:  “If we require food we shall summon you.” 

While the rest of the cafe’s interest in this pair had already begun to fade Samuel was completely absorbed.  He could not take his eyes off the slim, shy girl whose big eyes were cast demurely down into her teacup. She was the target of her bombastic companion’s bumble buzz of subdued conversation and clearly being castigated to a point, so Samuel thought, where she was almost reduced to tears!

He tried to divert his attention, he really did!   He concentrated fiercely upon his newspaper, shutting out the drone of verbal bullying; but a loud expostulation from the big woman put paid to all that.   Chair thrust back, look of thunder on her coarse features, the woman stormed towards the counter, trumpeting “waitress!” so loudly the cutlery tray rattled.  

“Yes, madam?” 

“Young woman, does this establishment normally allow standards like these?”

“What do you mean?”  The waitress’s voice was sullen, and a little shaky.

“This cup, girl.   It is cracked!  Well?  Replace it for me.  Come along now!”

As the offending item was exchanged Samuel Trimble’s eyes were drawn upward upon some invisible thread to be met fully by the eyes of the girl, whose lips moved to form a single word.  He could not hear the word, but he could read her lips:  there was no mistaking their meaning.  She had said, simply:   “Help.”

Behind him, the big woman boomed:   “And we do not expect to pay for our tea!”  The girl’s eyes dropped quickly.   The moment had passed.

How long did Samuel remain in the coffee shop?  He stayed longer, much longer than was his custom, determined not to leave until the girl, then to…then what?  He had no clear idea. 

“Another cup, sir?”

“No thank you.  No.”

“Pretty, isn’t she?”  Said the waitress, with a smirk.

Samuel made no answer – he could not.  Samuel’s ship upon the ocean of life, composed entirely of routines, each day planned so carefully he knew precisely what he would be doing on this day in another month, or even another year, had never tacked across the bows of a member of the opposite sex for more than the briefest  of encounters.  When women spoke to him (which was not often, because he could scarcely be called handsome or even interesting) he became tongue-tied.  He would be foolish or rude.  

Alone in the house bequeathed to him when his mother died, living on an inheritance eked out carefully from week to week he had never married, never worked for his living, and never loved anyone other than his mother.  So the waitress’s question, innocent as it seemed, was of such toxicity to Samuel that he quivered before it.

“I’ll get your bill.”  The waitress said.

And yet, when the two women rose to leave Samuel followed them!  Whether in an outburst of gallantry for the younger one’s plight, or merely to satisfy his curiosity he could not have answered.  He only knew he must not lose sight of the waif-like girl.  Every eye in the cafe watched him leave.  The old woman woke up;  the theatricals paused in their gossip to exchange conspiratorial smiles.

Samuel’s quarry followed the main street.  He kept well behind them, affecting nonchalance with such success that even passers-by with no notion of his purpose began to eye him with suspicion.  He held back so far that when they turned into an alley he almost lost them.

Samuel had never walked this lane before.  It was oppressively narrow – a twilight of overhanging tudor antiquity.  The girl’s slippered feet echoed noisily in front of him.  His own leather-shod heels clacked.

Did he notice when the large woman disappeared?    He was so intent upon the girl he missed her departure.  Had she passed through a doorway into one of these high old buildings?   He had no idea – any more than he understood how it came to be that suddenly the girl was standing right in front of him.

“You came then?”  Her voice was full of rich colours.  “I thought you would.”  She reached out to take his hand.  “Come on.”

Her hand was small and cool.  There was a doorway, then dark, dark stairs.  On a second landing, by milky light through leaded glass, the girl stopped.   Only one door, a very ancient door, led from the landing.

“These are my rooms.  You can come in if you’d like?”

 Samuel stammered.  “Your er…your mother.  Will she mind?” 

“Oh, her!  No, she isn’t here.”

“I thought you asked me for help?”

“Yes, I did.  I do need your help.”  The girls tone changed, so that somewhere (Samuel could not quite place it) a little sob entered her voice.  “It’s cold out here:  please, won’t you come inside?” It was quite cold.  Why had he not felt himself shivering before?

The door was heavy, so the girl had to lean against it before it would swing open.    She beckoned to Samuel, smiling for the first time; and her smile lit her face so sweetly that Samuel’s marble heart was instantly beguiled.  Mutely, he followed her. 

A warm lavender-scented room greeted him, with hangings of thick red brocade about its walls and bare flames licking at logs in a large open hearth.  The chimney piece was ancient, with its old-fashioned cooking equipment of firedogs and a spit still carefully blacked and in place.   A ceiling of unpainted beams frowned down upon a carpet so well worn it was mostly canvas, and a pair of upholstered chairs which stood either side of the fire.   These chairs, once richly clad in scarlet velvet were more distressed and threadbare than the carpet.  Two dusty leaded windows gave light to the room; a battered mahogany sideboard stood against the wall between them.  Other than the hangings, the only adornments upon the walls were five small paintings, each a portrait of some kind.

“Ancestors?”  Samuel asked.

The girl repeated her smile:  “Just paintings.”

For Samuel, the faded luxury of this room was familiar:  he had never the means to renew those items in his home which, by dint of long use, needed replacement.  So he was looking at a reasonable facsimile of his own sitting room. 

“Why me?”  He asked at last, gaining confidence.  “Why ask me for help?”

“You look kind.  You look…”  The girl moved close to him, gazing wide-eyed into his face:  “lonely.”

That word plunged, like a well–aimed arrow, into Samuel’s soul.  “Oh!”  he said, more in shock than anything.  Then:  “Why – I mean how – do you need help?”

The girl shook her head:  “I can’t tell you, yet.  You’ll think me …look, please sit down.  Can I bring you wine?”

“No, no thank you.”  Samuel responded, sitting down in one of the chairs all the same.  “Just tell me!”

“You’ll think badly of me.”

“I won’t!”  Samuel protested.  “I really won’t!”

“Very well then!”  The girl took the other chair.  “This is how it is.  That woman you saw me with, she isn’t my mother – she’s my landlord.”

Samuel began to wish he had not insisted.  Solitary though he might have been, he was not a fool, and the girl was right; he was thinking badly of her.  “Go on.”  He said, in his chilliest voice. “This is about money, isn’t it?” 

At once the girl’s features creased:  a tear formed quickly in her eye and toppled.  “Oh, you see?  I knew.  I just knew you wouldn’t like me!”

We have said that Samuel was unaccustomed to any form of intimacy with women, and the girl’s obviously genuine distress took him aback:  “Now, now!”  He tried to placate her:  “You are behind with the rent, I suppose:  by how much?”

“A thousand.”

Samuel stood up, brushed the front of his coat, picked up his hat.   The girl sobbed.  As he reached the door, her small form slipped in front of him, her delicate palms rested against his lapels.  “Please stay?  I didn’t ask you for the money.  Have some wine with me?”

“Young woman, I couldn’t help you with such a sum!”  Samuel protested.  “You should have budgeted more carefully, for heaven’s sake!”

“No, no!  I’m not behind with my rent!  My brother – he’s an artist – he came to stay with me for the summer, and she says I owe her double rent because he was here!   I don’t know which way to turn, I don’t!  She’s an evil, grasping woman!”

Large eyes, soft breath, quivering, slightly pouting lips – was it any surprise that Samuel wavered?   He had to step away from the intensity of that stare, wrest his eyes from the girl’s bee-stripe top and the gentle swell of her breasts.  He did so on the pretext of studying the small paintings on the wall – five of them, each a portrait of a different subject:  a warrior, a prosperous-looking Victorian grandee, a roughly-shaven priest with a strong jaw, a very regal gentleman with a posture of extreme hauteur, and a merchant of some sort in regalia festooned with jewels.

“What do you want?”  He asked when he had recovered himself. “You say you don’t want money; what do you want?”

“Why, your help – your strength!  The moment I saw you I knew!  You could stand up to her – tell her she’s wrong!   I need you to tell her she’s wrong!”

Samuel sighed.  “Where does she live?”  He asked.

The large woman’s green-painted door was near the entrance to the alley.  How long Samuel bumbled and fumbled outside it is uncertain: certainly to knock upon it took extreme courage. 

“Who are you?”  The woman boomed, filling the doorway with her presence. “I’m busy.”

Hesitantly Samuel entreated on the girl’s behalf.  The grand dame was dismissive: 

“That wastrel!   Don’t spend your sympathy on her!   One tenant, one rent; two tenants, two rents.  I believe that’s perfectly fair!”

If he was seeking a kernel of humanity within that obdurate painted shell, he did not find it.  “She owes me the money.”

“She doesn’t have it!”

Those needle eyes stared, rather as a cobra assesses a mouse.  “Do you?”

Samuel’s blood rose.  “I’m certainly not going to pay it for her!”

His indignant riposte brought forth a smile from the woman.  It did not have the same effect as the girl’s smile, but her tone altered.  “Why not, now?  A gentleman like you who comes to town regularly?  A nice little arrangement I’d say.  You pay her arrears, she repays you.  I’m sure you could think of some service she might provide?”

Samuel’s beige face turned as completely scarlet as was possible.  “How dare you!”  He stormed.  “Even to suggest such a thing of a young lady of reputation!  Even to suggest that I might be capable of…of…”

“Of what, dear?  Of needing what all men need?  Is that so bad?  And you might find your little angel to be a lot more demon than you expect.  But still…”  The grand dame shrugged:  “If that’s how you want to leave it..”

No, that was not how Samuel wanted to ‘leave it’. He was outraged, true, but he was also acutely aware of his failure.  He was failing to intercede with the dragon woman, and he was about to fail someone who had just brought a moment of beauty into his dull slab of life.  This monster was too free with her language, bereft of morality, for his dulled mind.  He shrank inside, and he turned away.

“I tell you what:” The woman said; “I’ll make you an offer, dear.  I know the girl has no money, and it’s only a matter of time before she skips; so here’s an idea for you.  I have a love of gold – I can’t account for it, I can’t excuse it, but I do.  Bring me two gold sovereigns for her debt.  Do that and I’ll clear her arrears.  Bring me one gold sovereign a month for her rent as well, if you like.  Think about it.”

Samuel could trust himself no more.  He stalked out of the alley and into the street where, having already outstayed his normal visit to the City, he headed briskly back towards the station.  But he did think about it.  On the train home, on the walk from the station, all through that night he thought about it; and by morning the ghastly woman’s proposition didn’t seem so bad.  It was only immoral, he told himself, if he took advantage of the girl.  If he was merely her benefactor it was an act of charity.

So the very next morning he returned to the City.   A numismatist in a tiny shop by the river who had never seen him before greeted Samuel like a long lost brother, and in no time at all Samuel, poorer by several hundred pounds, was knocking on the big woman’s door clutching two gleaming sovereigns in a desperate hand.

“I do so love that picture!  Saint George, God bless him!”  The woman enthused.  “Now remember – one of these a month!”

Standing on the landing of the second floor Samuel half-hoped the girl would not be at home, yet half of him was equally anxious she should answer her door.  She did.

“I’m so glad to see you again!  Come in!”  She said.

Only when he was inside the room did Samuel realise how little the girl was wearing:  a white shirt that looked very like a man’s shirt, bare legs and feet.  In a stammered sentence or two, he told her what he had done:  as he explained, her eyes became as wide as saucers, until she could restrain herself no longer.  She threw herself against his chest, her arms about his neck as she wept out her gratitude:  “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!  There’s so much kindness in the world!”

Samuel had never experienced the emotions he was experiencing now. He had never felt the soft warmth of a young woman’s body against his own, and even the padding of his overcoat could not disguise the sensation of those unfettered curves.  

“It’s nothing; nothing!” He demurred, almost incoherent with embarrassment.”Your rent – um – I’ll – um – just until you get back on your feet, you see?  That’s all.”

Sensing his discomfiture, the girl stepped back:  “You’d do that for me?  You’d pay my rent?  I can’t let you do that!”

“Your landlord and I – we have an arrangement.”

The girl studied him in solemn silence for quite a while.  “You really are very lonely, aren’t you?”  She said.   “Will you come and keep me company sometimes?”

“I – I don’t know if I should…”

“Would you like some company now?”   Her nod towards the door at the far side of the room, the one Samuel assumed must lead to her bedroom, somehow contrived to be at once innocent and suggestive. Samuel coloured immediately.

“Oh, no!  No, I couldn’t – I mean, I wouldn’t…”

She smiled and squeezed his hand affectionately:  “You are very nice, you know; and you are very kind.  A lot of men….”  She left the sentence unfinished.

Samuel turned to leave with a thousand words of his own unsaid.  Where was his courage?  “But if…”  he blurted out,  “if I could come and talk to you sometimes – just talk?”

She laughed:  “Yes, of course.  I would like that!”

 “One thing…”  Samuel said.

“Yes?”

“Your name?”

“Miranda.”

If he had wings he would have flown those stairs; as he would fly them many more times over the coming months.  So light of heart was he that it never occurred to him to ask how Miranda had learned his name, any more than he had asked her landlord how she knew he came so regularly to the City. 

There were a lot of things Samuel Trimble would learn over the course of that winter:  he would, for example, learn to track the price of gold, because the large woman proved to be expertly equipped to do just that:  when the value of the metal fell, she would always take care to remind him of it, and she would accept nothing less than the extra full sovereign to make up her price.

“No half-sovereigns!  Can’t abide them!  No Krugerrands, either.  Don’t you try to get away with that!”

Yet when the gold-price rose the rent was never less than a sovereign.

“Trying to short-change me, are you?  Remember, this is a special price you’re paying!”

He would learn about love.  Gone was Samuel’s twice-weekly routine:  He was so often in the City now he scarcely saw his home.  His visits to Miranda grew more and more frequent, he stayed longer and longer.  It was only natural therefore, that such fast friends should greet each other with a kiss – only to be expected they would hug one another.

Then came the day he found Miranda in bitter tears, and the hearth cold.  She hadn’t enough money for firewood, she lamented, and he told her not to mind – he would pay for the firewood.  That was when, at last, it happened.  Samuel did not go home that night; nor did Miranda want him to.  It was daylight before he left, and when Miranda, with her hands clasped behind his neck, told him:  “You’re mine, now.”  there was something indefinable in her voice.

By February the need for firewood had spread to include food, by March clothing too.  Yet when Samuel gently suggested he might move in with Miranda permanently, or she should come to live with him, she rebuffed him firmly.

“You don’t see, do you?  You’re like an uncle to me: a warm, cuddly uncle who comes to visit!  It wouldn’t be right if you stayed.  I’d feel sort of tarnished if that happened.”

So the affair continued into the heat of the following summer, and the succeeding winter too. Miranda appeared never to have work of her own, though she seemed to have enough money for most of the time, and Samuel never enquired what she did to earn it.  As for himself, he had never been happier:  in fact, before he met Miranda it would have been difficult for him to define what happiness actually was. And yes, he was naive enough, or perhaps wise enough, to accept the course he was set upon without question.   But a financial storm was brewing: his incessant conversion of his scant resources into gold drained his account at the bank.  The numismatist, whose own wealth had increased considerably, began to turn back his cheques – when the numismatist didn’t, the bank did.

In the spring, a slimmer, more worried Samuel began seeking employment.  He tried, really hard, but there were few interviews and those there were went badly.  No-one wanted a self-important middle-aged man in an overcoat and a homburg hat. 

Finally, there came a day the anticipation of which had filled Samuel with dread. 

“There’s no money left.”  He told the large woman.  “I’ve given you all I have.”

The woman stared at him.  “Well then;” she said.  “It seems our little arrangement is at an end.”

Sadly, and a little more humbly than the first time he had negotiated with the gorgon, Samuel nodded and turned away.

“Of course,” The woman said; “The money isn’t quite all, is it?  There is still the little matter of your house?”

“My house?”  Samuel repeated stupidly.  “You want my house?”

“Let’s call it another ‘Little Arrangement’ – ‘Little Arrangement B’, so to speak.  Make over the deeds of your house to me, and we’ll say no more about rent.”

“But where will I live?”   Samuel was so lovelorn by now he would have gone through hell and barbed wire for Miranda, but the prospect of homelessness dropped a cold stone of reality into his over-warmed heart.

“With her, if she’ll have you.  Or you can still live in the house, for a while at least.  Just transfer the ownership to me.  You can be my tenant, dear.  It’s not an entirely unfamiliar status, is it?”

This night, Samuel did not go home.  Maybe in his desolation he hoped for wisdom from Miranda’s sweet lips, some encouragement that would help him find a way back to the surface of his troubled sea.  He found none.   Oh, she wept for him!  She laid her guilt before him, lamented how it had been she, and no other than she, who had brought him to this pass.  But answers?   No.  There were no answers.

“There’s only you.”  He told her:  “I live only for you!”

She said:  “And have you been happy?  Are you happy now, despite it all?  Did I not bring something to your lonely life?”

Samuel, through his tears, had to admit it.  She – she alone – had the power to make him happy.

The next morning, with a new resolve based upon nothing but unreasonable hope, Samuel confronted his solicitors.  Within a month, the dragon would have his house – the house his mother left him, his last ties with a miserable, solitary past.  And he left their chambers with a smile, because he was embarking upon a journey entirely new to him.

“This is my brother.”  Miranda said.  “He has come for the summer.  He’s an artist, you know.  He would like to paint you.”

Her brother was a cadaverous, grey figure with spiders for hands and sticks for legs.  He had a smell of dust and the grave about him, but Samuel sat for him that May, and though the portrait he produced was rather small, it was exquisite in form and detail, so that Samuel could almost see his living flesh move within it.

“He is ready.”  Miranda said when she answered her door one morning in early June.  Samuel had slept at his house the previous night and was not yet returned. 

The large woman nodded:  “He has no more to give us.  It is time.” 

Samuel’s greeting when he arrived that afternoon was not as he expected:  later the numismatist, the waitress from the coffee shop, the two theatrical thirty-somethings, the young couple and the old, old woman would be there too; for the party was in his honour, though he could not know it.  The logs burned fiercely in the hearth and the spit wheel turned.  

 A rich, delicious scent of roast pork wafted right across the City and the old buildings, the old timbered buildings leaned closer to one another, nodding with their own secret wisdom.

You would not find a resident of Samuel’s village who noticed when he disappeared.  Few of them recall when the young woman first arrived at the Trimble house; it is so long ago.  Yet she remains, her exquisite frail beauty unaltered by the years. 

Fewer still have entered that house: a young man or two may be seen there from time to time, but none have stayed more than a season or so.  The older, loud woman who she claims to be the mother holds everyone in fear, so there are not many witnesses to the striking row of little paintings, six in number, that adorn the drawing room wall.  The most recent of those depicts a vaguely familiar image of a plump man in a homburg hat.

Once in a while visitors from the City come.  Then there is feasting at the house and a delicious aroma of roast pork floats upon the envious air. 

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured Image: Tamegreaves from Pixabay

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Mea Culpa

A Re-blog from Bonnywood Manor. I hope you’ll share my admiration of this piece. Please pay this man a visit!

Bonnywood Manor

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”

“And how is that, my child?”

“It’s been over a week since my last blog.”

Silence on the other side of the confessional wall.

“Father?”

Throat clearing. Then, “Son, I’m not quite sure what this means, but I am here to guide you. What is this blog you speak of? Is it carnal in nature?”

“Oh no, Father. It’s nothing like that, although we probably should chat about those issues in our next session. No, a blog is where I post interesting things so that other people can read them.”

“You post things?” Short pause. “Are you sure this isn’t carnal?”

“Yes, Father. It’s like a diary, but it’s online, it’s on the Internet, and people visit my site to read what I put in this diary.”

“I see. This is a computer thing. Well, my son, we haven’t been allowed to have…

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Behind the Screens

A little narrative:

Recently, a young woman from Eastern Europe who lives in UK, rushed her heavily pregnant sister to hospital, 

Adhering to the letter of their Covid 19 regulations the hospital staff insisted the pregnant sister be separated from her sibling, who was seated on a chair in the ward corridor – a chair she occupied for the next four hours.  An examination of her heavily-pregnant sister was obviously needed, but the staff on duty refused to proceed until an interpreter had been summoned, because she spoke very little English.  

 They refused, inexplicably, to fit her sister (whose English is impeccable) with protective clothing and invite her to interpret.  Instead, they insisted upon sending for an interpreter, a man, living in a town 98 miles away, who took more than three hours to arrive.

The interpreter was lacking in medical knowledge, and extremely embarrassed by the bedside position in which he found himself.  His input was limited to a few sentences, and he frequently felt the need to turn his back on the patient!

It isn’t impossible to extract some humor from that situation, as long as you, a taxpayer, are happy to ignore the discomfort to which this poor woman was subjected over a protracted period, the occupation of staff and bed, and the cost of the interpreter, together with his travel expenses for 186 miles, when more capable help was freely available just yards away.

In  legal parlance this tale is hearsay, anecdotal, although I see no reason to disbelieve it.  There are many such examples of profligacy and waste, yet because whistle-blowing is effectively gagged we rarely have the chance to hear an insider’s view.  Instead we are constantly fed the line  that the Health Service is short of money, that more support is needed, more nurses, more doctors, more this, more that.  It takes emergence of these tales from a patient’s perspective to suggest the problems run much deeper.   Deeper, even, than the Health Service itself.

I can see how easily common sense might have prevailed, were it other than a Sunday night, when a senior person might not have been present.  Perhaps they might have overruled the strict ‘letter-of-the-law’ position that prohibited employment of the English-speaking sister – or perhaps not.

Perhaps everyone in the National Health Service has to tread upon eggshells because there is a phalanx of ambulance-chasing lawyers and journalists waiting in the wings to pounce upon anything that could be made to look like malpractice; ready to sue for millions and campaign across all the mainstream media, if the tiniest chink in the armour of accepted practice is exposed.

This is a malady that afflicts us all.  Not just in the National Health Service, but the Police Force and any one of a list of organisations where contact with the general public is involved.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with protecting people’s rights, or guarding against criminal malpractice, but society has become so litigious everyone is afraid to apply  common sense, and the cost to us all in terms of waste and duplication is huge.   A jet stream of negativity seeks out every crack in the casement, every cranny in the conversation so an action that is not specified by a rule book, a word not in the prepared script can send the unwary tumbling from their career and leave them personally unprotected.

We are knee-deep in poorly-drafted legislation that can be re-interpreted or simply misused in ways that, in the end, offer protection for nobody.  The effect has rather been a tendency to drive the real issues underground.

Personally, I have experienced both good and bad from the National Health Service in the UK. I would not belittle the wonderful care I have received, but nor should I deny the duplicated work and extravagant use of resources – they are enough to persuade me that money itself is not the cure-all the Service would have us believe.

Released finally from her treatment, the pregnant lady concerned has vowed she will ‘never return to that hospital’ as she believes medical care was better in her home country.  In the meantime, she has vowed to have her baby at home!

It is an ill wind that blows no-one any good.  I’ve said this before, but maybe Covid, with its gift for forcing us to re-examine all of our basic structures, might provide a fresh start?

Picture Credit: Stocksnap from Pixabay

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The Keffer Hills

To see them on a winter’s morn…

The Keffer Lantyn Fells are works of the godhead to be sure, with their high peaks wreathed in shawls of cloud; and though cloaked white in winter they may be, they nurture certainty of coming Spring,  when the crystal waters tumble from the whin stone shelves, their rich red silt bringing sweetness to the Lantyn valley, the like of which is never seen in other lands.   I have watched from afar, both in the December chill and the Spring running, and I would love them if I could.

But there is a devil in those hills.   Oh, I have heard folk tales from many lands, lurid legends of hideous creatures that lurk in rivers, or run screeching among the bare canyons of the high tops, of forest spirits and venomous sprites, but none to compare with this.  And none to have such dominion as this.  For beautiful as the sun-blessed Lantyn Vale may be, with its jewelled water and its willow scented glades, no human lives there, and no human ever will.

There were people once.   There was a village of fisher folk among the trees that line the upper reaches of the Lantyn waters, shy people nested like secretive birds who took succour from the river and huddled together when the snows came. 

Their lives were filled with superstitious tales, of mythic birds and forest ghosts, and one legend, that of Watake, the fish-god of the river, that gave substance to their being.  They honoured their protector, taking from the river only according to their needs.  And they were honest folk, before the coming of the fated child.

He who did the deed, they say, was a stranger to any charted shore – a ragged, rugged, rabid soul so oddly girded in shark-skin some would have it he was no land-born creature at all.  Yet he was a fisher by instinct, and he had learned of the riches that swam in the Lantyn River.  The woman?  She was daughter to a kindly village man who invited him to share their hearth, and come the autumn the fisher had shared much more.  All winter he taught those simple folk his ways with nets that they might plunder the river of its silver children, and come the spring when the woman’s belly was full he took his own harvest and went his way.

It is said the fisher man’s wiles led those honest villagers astray, and that winter greed was born.  It is said the spirits were already angered when summer came and his child entered the world.  That is as may be, but even the spirits could not have been ready for such a child as this.

For all his poverty, the village man shared with his daughter and her child such as he had, and his grand-daughter had no want or lack of love.   Yet from the very start it was clear she was of the fisher’s roving blood, given to straying alone into the upper forests, playing for solitary hours among the stony becks and brooks that fed the Lantyn’s waters in the valley far below.  At first she dutifully returned with evening, to sup at her mother’s table, and help prepare her grandfather’s nets.  She did this because she was taught that such was the way of the village, yet to learn the cruelty these implements of her natural father’s craft wrought upon the free-swimming fish of the river.  

As the child grew she passed all her hours wandering in the woods.  She began to learn the ways of the wild creatures living in darkest corners among the trees, even, some would have it, to speak in their tongue.  A wood-cutter from the village swore he came upon her once in earnest conversation with an otter that had built a holt in the bank of a stream:  she was crouched before the animal, he said, giving forth little chucking grunts and whistling sounds so perfect he could not tell girl from beast.  And it seemed to him the otter perfectly understood her.    Of course, such tales grow in the comfort of a warm winter fireside, yet there are always some who are ready to believe.

The villagers began to walk in awe, or even fear of the fisher’s child.  In her turn, she came less frequently to her parents’ home, but stayed day and night in the forest.  There were those who attested they had seen her amid a company of wolves, and some who said that one summer evening as she visited the river to drink she met with Watake.  These witnesses spoke of a creature larger and more powerful than any salmon – of scales that flashed all the colours of a rainbow as it leaped before the rose of the setting sun – yet in its great display of strength and beauty it caused not a splash or a ripple in the water, and thus did it affirm it was, indeed, a god.

Though fearsome in appearance, its eye was gentle.  It came to the girl to offer its wisdom.  She listened, she talked to it – she, seated upon the river’s bank, the fish-god idling in the shallows, long into that night.  A friendship was struck, something so deep and so sacred only death could break it; and thereafter her life belonged to the forest and the river.  She would never return to her village home.

From time to time down the years came word that the girl was seen, either swimming in the river or deep among the trees, but no-one could get close to her, or hear her speak, until it came at last to the summer of the Great Flood.

For days the Keffer Lantyn HIlls were buried in livid storm clouds.  Lightning flickered about the forest’s upper reaches, and the rain came like vengeance:  for a day, then a night, then another day.  The languid waters of the Lantyn River swelled to torrential fury;  fallen branches, whole trees rushed past the little village, frantic hands hauled upon the painters of escaping boats, gathered in nets mauled by the tumult.   Only the bravest or most hungry attempted fishing in such a storm.  Fortune for good or ill, they say, favours the brave.

As the legend is told, at the very moment Watake was taken by a villager’s net, the storm ceased.   The waters calmed and in wonder the people gathered around to see their deity laid low.  They stared, they muttered primitive prayers, watched by its eye, and its look might have told them, had they been wise enough, that it understood.  But the greed that was their nature now would not release them, so within minutes they set about hacking and slicing the great fish.   

Which is how the god of the Lantyn River died.

From his perch among the tall trees a redstart relayed the tragic news and by this means the wild girl heard of her beloved companion’s ignominious end.   Her wails of grief echoed and re-echoed through the valley;  the screams of her anger turned the river to blood.   There and then she uttered a sacred spell that was at once a curse and a death sentence upon the village and its people.  There and then she gathered about her all the creatures of the forest, all the denizens of the river and its banks and she made with them a pledge; that never more would men set foot in the Lantyn Valley, unless they should vanquish her first.

It was early the next morning when the villagers, fat with their spoils, woke to the sound of hooves.  Staring from their doors they probably never really believed what they saw – the onrush of wild deer, antlers tossing, trampling their huts and barging their walls to the ground; of thirsting wolves, rats swarming, sharp-toothed otters, badgers snarling like rabid dogs, each picking a throat and striking deep.   Birds, no matter how humble, that were become raptors, swooping and pecking at mouths and eyes.

A very few escaped, bringing to the outer world their story of the wild plague that erased their village.  The rest died.  Those who survived spoke of a demonic woman running naked through their compound with fingers of fire, setting roofs ablaze, making bonfires of their nets, and commanding the wolves to hunt them down.  In no more than a few minutes their homes were razed to the ground, and one by one, as though they were walking creatures, the trees advanced, and spread, and thrust new roots into the ground.  Before a seventh dusk the forest had taken back all it had yielded to the villagers.  There were no huts, no boats, no nets.  Sated wolves, well fed, slumbered where once the fisher’s steps had trod.

All sorts of rumours prevail, but no-one has ever returned to that valley to learn the truth, for  to set foot in those forests is to be attacked:  be warned should you ever try, for many have.  All wild life there is vicious, the wolves will hunt you down, the deer trample you beneath their feet,, the badgers and even the otters keep watch.  The trees themselves will reach down to strangle you, and even though you turn away, your dreams will haunt you for years thereafter.  Their general, it is said, is a wild girl who is immortal, and some claim to have seen her, and proclaim her very beautiful, but these are old men’s dreams.

For myself, I stay away.  Although I live not far from that devilish valley I would not travel there.  Far from it, my fear will always be that the contagion might spread, for once the wild ones have seen the product of their power, why should they not attempt much more?   I tell myself such thoughts are foolish, but I have seen how, in the last year or so, my own dog, though he sleeps at my fireside still, regards me differently.   And last night, catching a fox among the bins, I could not escape the snarl of his teeth, or the malevolence in his eye.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credits: Christel Sagniez and Gloria Peters from Pixabay

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A Faery Tale

Again, from the dusty archives! This is just a bit of fun, really!  Oh, and quite long again, so bring sandwiches.

“There were tales told of a girl, in the days before imagining, when wild people lived deep in the wild wood, and wild deer danced in sunlit glades.  It is said those blessed by the sight of this girl described an apparition so beautiful the raindrops about her turned to diamonds as they fell.  They spoke of auburn hair, of a dress gossamer-white that flowed about her graceful limbs as freely as the waters of a mountain stream; and light would shine in their eyes at just the memory of her.  It is said that old men from their beds could see her, and young men riding by on their steeds might desire her, but she was of the faery people, and none may touch her if they wished to live.

“Those were old tales.  This was long, long ago.”

Anna poked experimentally at a willow frond.  “You make it sound so real.  I thought I could see her for a moment there, among the trees.”

“If you see her, she will bring you good fortune.”  Callum replied. 

“But not if I touch her.”  Anna wound the frond about her finger.

“No.  You must never touch her.”

“I won’t, then – if I see her.  What was her name?”  

Callum watched Anna as she walked before him, and he thought her as beautiful as any spirit of the woods.   “Legend had it that her name was a riddle.  Whosoever solved it would marry her.”

“Ah, so there’s a story, isn’t there?”  Anna called back over her shoulder.  “What happened to

her?” 

“These are old, old tales.  Some say she passed as all the faeries did, into the Land of the Forgotten.  Others that she still walks here, among these trees, but will only appear to a very few who are specially blessed. Me, I like the story most often told, in those far gone days, of a young man from Halverton.”

Callum stopped talking, lost for a moment in his rapture of Anna.  She turned to see the far-off  look in his eyes and laughed her music, saying:  “Go on, then!  Who was this ‘young man from

Halverton’?”

“Halverton was just a village in those days, not the town it is now.  A collection of mean peasant huts huddled in the river valley, fearful of the wild wood; but it was a place where the river might be crossed, so there was a living for a few.

“According to legend a tyrannical merchant controlled the only route across the river, taking tolls from all who used it.  This merchant made a slave of a young man, working him all hours of night and day, then getting drunk and beating him mercilessly.  Now one morning, gathering firewood for his master in the deep dark forest this young man he met with the faery.  When she saw the blood that evidenced his beating she took pity on him.  She led him to her home deep in the forest, where she cared for him, healing his wounds.  There they fell in love.  They made a home together in the root bole of an old oak tree, and its ancient roots wrapped them in their warm embrace.  And so they lived, in happiness.”

“He must have solved the riddle?”

“I suppose.”  Callum smiled.  “Or maybe she cheated and told him her name.  It’s only a story!”

“Oh, but it’s so sweet!”  Anna enthused.  “Happy ever after, Callum.  Isn’t that sweet?”

“Well, not so happy, no.”

“Now, Callum!  Don’t spoil the story!”  Together, Callum and Anna stood at a place where their path divided into two; one of which would lead across open fields, the other into the cool shade of the trees.   “Which way?”  Anna asked.

“You choose.”  Callum said, but he held his breath while she made her choice.

Anna grinned meaningfully, deciding.  “Let’s hide in the deep dark forest, Callum.  Perhaps we can find an oak tree, do you think?”  She took his hand.  Then, as they strolled together on their new path into the darker recesses of the wood, she said:  “Why not a happy ending?”

Callum did not reply immediately, for the moment Anna placed her cool hand in his he forgot everything that had gone before.  Her presence, her soft breathing next to him, the way dappled sunlight found its way through the treetops to play in her hair enraptured him, and all else was lost.

At last, when they were already far from the open light of day, he said:   “There was a king who ruled this land.  Although he was a fair, just ruler, so too was he powerful and hot-blooded. For many years, years before the slave-boy met her, this king had heard tales, brought to him by his courtiers, of the forest maiden.  His palace echoed to accounts of her loveliness, and he was determined to take her hand in marriage. He sent his courtiers to the forest to find her; but even if they saw her once in a while, they could never get close enough to capture her.  Oh, they tried.  They contrived to bind her with nets, they dug pits that they covered with leaves, they laid traps; but she was wise in forest ways, and nothing that was made by man could hold her.”

“She was meant to be free.”  Anna murmured, half to herself.  “It’s so quiet in here, isn’t it?  So peaceful.  I can picture her, you know, Callum?  I can feel her close to me.”

Callum smiled.  “Can you?   Could it be possible you are one of the blessed?  But first you must hear the end of the legend.

“At last, the king grew angry.  He sent his herald to the forest with a proclamation, that the faery girl was to be his bride and she was to go to him, by his command.  He was king, after all.  He was not to be disobeyed.”

“Oh no!  What happened?”

“The faery girl emerged from the forest; something so unexpected and amazing all who saw her were frozen to the spot, because this was the first, the only time anyone from the outer world would hear her speak.  In a voice as soft and as pure as a thousand caroling bells she told the royal party she was wed already, and the lonely slave-boy was her husband.  She would never come to the king.”

“So the king wasn’t happy?”

“He was furious!  He sent soldiers to arrest her, but they were lowly paid and not as courageous as the courtiers.   They had heard it was fatal to touch her so they didn’t look very hard before they told the king she could not be found.  Now the king himself, who ruled by divine right, was not so fearful of her touch, or troubled by faery riddles, but he was wary of the forest people, and he had long sought an excuse to drive them out.  So in his passion he swore if he could not possess the faery girl no-one would.  He accused the forest people of hiding the girl and ordered their forest to be razed to the ground. 

“They set fire to the forest?”

“They came with torches in the first light of dawn.   They set fires along the forest edge and by sunset all the trees were well alight.  They say a thousand woodland people died.  Those who survived scattered and fled.   But Nature is stronger than any king, and they were not gone for long.”

“The girl, Callum!  What happened to the girl?  Oh, stop.  I already know.”  

“Yes, she died in the fire.  It was said she never left the old oak that gave her shelter, but curled up with her lover in her arms beneath its mighty trunk and waited for the fire to come.   When the forest people returned they discovered two bodies lying there, and left them while they conjured the rebirth of the forest with their magical husbandry.  With time, the greenwood swallowed up the faery girl, and so she rests.   For a while her memory died with her.”

Anna had walked a few paces in front of Callum so she might hide her face from him, in case her tears spilled.  “Only for a while?”

“Of course.  Isn’t it always so?  When one legend dies another is born?    This one tells how the faery girl wore a ring as symbol of her love, which she kept with her when she died.  Well, many claim to have found her ring as they walked through the forest, but none could recover it, for the legend says she holds it on her finger until one person of true virtue passes by, and only if they are as pure of mind as she will she release the ring into their care.”

“You mean, like the sword in the stone thing.  Like King Arthur?”

“Yes.  And here the riddle story comes in again. Whoever lifts the ring will learn the answer.  They will learn her name and the power it gives.”  Seeing Anna’s wide-eyed look, Callum laughed.  “It is only a legend.”  He assured her gently.  “There are thousands of old folk-tales like it in early history.  One version even says that if someone evil tries to pick the ring up, the faery will drag them down into the earth with her.  Like I said – only a legend.”

“Wow!”  The pair walked together silently for a while, lost in their thoughts, and they walked deeper and deeper into the wood.

Anna said:  “What if…?”   And she stopped.

“What if?”  Callum questioned her with his eyes, but she was staring at something far off among the trees.  “What, Anna?”

“Callum, what sort of tree is that?”

Callum tried to follow the direction of her stare, towards the knarled old tree that stood perhaps a hundred yards ahead of them.  “That?  I believe it’s an oak.  Why?”

“Because there’s something shining – there in the leaves at the bottom of it.”

“Oh, Anna!  I’m sorry I told you now!  It’s a folk tale – a story!”

But Anna was running.  “No!  No, it isn’t.  I can see it.  I can see it, Callum!”

Laughing, Callum ran in pursuit, but she was a young hind, fast and light of foot beyond his means to catch her.  He only did so when she had stopped before the old tree.  

“Callum, this is the tree.  I know it.  I can feel it!”  

Callum tried to catch his breath.  “It’s certainly old.”  

“She died here.  She’s laying here, the faery girl!  And this…”  Anna stooped to brush away leaves from the forest floor:  “Callum – oh, Callum – this must be her ring.”

Together, they stared down at a ring of gold all but buried in the black soil, its single stone flashing in rivulets of sunlight from the canopy of trees above their head.

“Could it be you?”  Callum murmured, overcome.  “Could you be the one to take the ring from her?”

“Well, it’s certainly a very beautiful ring, but I’m not worthy of it.”  Anna said.  “I hate to break this to you, Callum, but my soul really isn’t that pure.”

“It is in my eyes.”  Callum said.  “At least you should try.”

“No.  Should I?”

“Yes.  But as you do it, say a prayer for the faery girl.  I don’t know.  Maybe she will hear you.  Maybe you’re about to solve the riddle at last.”

“Oh, stop it!  I have to try, though, don’t I?”  Hesitantly, and trying to drive all thoughts of avarice from her mind, Anna crouched beside the ring.  With shaking fingers she grasped the gold band gently, making a prayer as Callum had suggested, right from the very essence of her being, a prayer of hope and love.  So, so carefully, she pulled the ring upwards.

The soil released it.   

Anna held it there, for seconds, for a minute perhaps, disbelieving.  When at last she found her feet, the ring nestled in the palm of her hand as though that was where it had always belonged.

“Oh, Callum!  It’s so lovely!”

“Almost as lovely as the hand that holds it.”

“But how do I find the answer to the riddle?  How do I learn her name?”  Anna cried.  Then:  “Wait!  There’s something written on the inside of the band.  It’s so small I can hardly read it.  It says…”

“What does it say?”  Callum prompted.

Anna squinted to pick out the words.  “It says:  ‘Anna’.  It says, ‘Anna with love’!”  Then, as the truth dawned, she glared at him in mock fury.  “Callum, you bastard!”

Callum grinned.  “I am, aren’t I?  Anna, will you marry me?”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Photo Credit: Header photo by Anastacia Cooper at Pixabay

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Mary

Tonight he finds her in his living room, seated in her favorite chair, gazing out at the view of the city beyond their window.  “Mary?”

“Who else?”  She turns to greet him.

“It is you, Mary!  It really is you!    Why here, of all places?”

“Oh, Richard, come on, you’ve been here before – often.  You are always dreaming of us together, in this room, but tonight I thought I would join you.  I want to be part of your dream. Why should the geography matter?”

“No, but you are different somehow; as if you were really, really here!  I mean – you seem so young!  You look no older than the day we met, all those years ago.  And isn’t that the dress…?”

“…I wore on our first day together?  You remembered.”

“Dearest, I’ll always remember.  Twenty-four years, and every detail of that day is as vivid now as then, but this – this is special:  I want…I want so much to touch you, to hold you…”  The regrets – the regrets come flooding in again, the sorrow for the wrongs, the penitence he may not serve.  It is all too late – too late for that.

“Richard, you are sleeping – this is a dream.  In your dream you can do many things.  You can touch me, hold me, love me if you like.”

“Please, don’t torment me, Mary.”

“A little, maybe.  Should I not?  Don’t I have cause, Richard?  Or reason to tease you, or fear you?  I have been, you see, very afraid. I‘ve many good reasons to curse my fate, because I have the misfortune to be a memory of yours. Yet this night is a special night, and I will make it your own.  Tonight I am a ghost to do with as you will, I will not leave you until dawn.”

“Is this forgiveness at last?  Can you forgive me?”

“For pushing me from the balcony that lies behind those windows?  For insisting I was suicidal?  For telling the world that I leapt to my own destruction?   My forgiveness is what your conscience craves?”

The ghost revives the memory again, and often as he has relived the betrayal, the jealousy, the fury of that night, it can still bring tears.  “It was an accident,” he weeps. “I didn’t mean it to happen.  You must know that.”

“No, of course you didn’t.  Nobody means to kill.  Anger takes over and you find strength you did not know you possessed.  You can look for excuses, for justification; as you have upon so many nights – it is not the issue here, not the reason I have come to you – not my cause to hope this will be a unique night for you.  This morning is a very special morning, is it not?  Christopher is twenty-one, Richard.  Our son is twenty-one today.  Or have you entirely forgotten that?”

“No.  No, of course not!  How would I forget my own son?”

“Well, let us see.  You sent him away to live with your parents in England when he was five years old, sent him to boarding school when he was eight.  This was his home, Richard, but you swept it from under his feet, uprooted him from his little universe and despatched him to the other side of the world while you stayed here.  He lives in England, you in L.A. How many chances have you taken to refresh your memory since?”

“That isn’t fair!  After…after us, I couldn’t bear to be near him.  I tried, I did honestly, but his every look reminded me of you, my darling.  So what I did was for him, as much as for myself.”

“His every look reminded you of your guilt, you mean, don’t you?  Is that why you never so much as visited – sent a card at Christmas, or a telephone call on his birthday, congratulated him at his graduation?  Richard, he is your son – your son and mine!”

“He never knew what really happened.  I’ve done my best.  I left him a gift, a special coming-of- age gift.”

“Ah yes, the gift.  Remind me of your gift…”

“But you are Mary; you have been watching; you already know.  This morning, when he wakes for his twenty-first birthday, Christopher will receive the key to a safety deposit box I placed with my bank’s London office sixteen years ago.   When he opens it, he will find bonds and share certificates inside – enough to make him financially secure for the rest of his life.  He will never have to work, or worry.  That is my gift to him, Mary.”

“How good it must make you feel – to be able to trade all that for a childhood!”

Richard smiles because he has often congratulated himself for this rich gesture.  Yes, his benevolence must do more than compensate for Christopher’s lack of a father.  “It is generous, isn’t it?  Few children can ever hope to receive such a gift: and it is not that I don’t love him – in some measure.  I said so on a tape I placed within the box – a tape I made the day after we laid you to rest.”

“And the day before your parents took him away.  What did you say on this tape of yours?  How you adore him, how you repent?  ‘Grow strong, my son, and learn from the failings of your father’.  Does it say that?”

“You’re judging me unfairly.”

“Am I?  In this respect, at least, you are wrong: I was not ‘laid to rest’ – could not rest while my philandering, guilty assassin walked free. Yet in all the generosity of my heart I wanted to be with you in these small hours. I offered you anything you wanted, a last gift. You should have taken it. Dawn is almost upon us; it is too late, now.”

“I don’t follow you. How is it too late? Why the finality?” He genuinely does not wish to lose the spectre that he has kept secretly in his thoughts for so many years. “Are you leaving me?”

“I left you, as you put it, out there on that balcony, a long time ago. But I can answer you: with the dawn, yes.

“Richard, my dear, you didn’t even press playback, when you prattled into that little recorder of yours.  You just offered excuses, dismissed your love in a few sentences and you tossed the tape into the safe deposit box.  Such a shame, Richard.  Such a shame.”

He frowns, suspicious at last.  “What are you keeping from me….”

“I?  I would keep nothing from you.  Tonight I came to give you peace.” Mary’s smile is chill enough to freeze the marrow of his bones. “Come close to me, Richard; come close and I will whisper to you – such sweet words.  I will tell you – no, come closer – I will tell you of a woman in fear for her life, in this room, sixteen years ago.  I will tell you how, after you had telephoned her in your rage she knew you were coming to her with murder on your mind, so she took your little tape recorder from its drawer and switched it on.  And I will tell you that tape was never erased, and how that woman’s every cry of terror and despair, and every word and blow of yours was etched upon it.  And then I will tell you that is the tape you sealed in Christopher’s safe deposit box.”

“No!  That isn’t possible!  I recorded on a clean tape!”

“You believed the tape was clear, because before I switched the recorder on, it was.  But your fingers shook as you pressed the ‘on’ button.  You didn’t record.  You should have replayed the tape, Richard.  You should at least have taken some of your precious time to do that.”

Panic overtakes him, a fear as debilitating as the moment when Mary, overbalanced, slipped from his grasp, all those years ago.  Can he think back so far?  Did he check the red recording light had responded to his finger on the button?  “I can telephone him!”  He cries.  “I can tell him there’s a mistake, that I’ve sent him the wrong key.  I can stop him opening the box!”

“Oh, my darling Richard, you have forgotten, haven’t you?  It is early morning here in LA, but the sun is high over London.  Our son has already opened the box; the tape is already played.  It is time to wake up, beloved murderer because your dream is over.  Any second now the telephone will ring.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit: Feature photo: Free-photos from Pixabay

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Of Canford Bluff

From those archives again!

  Don’t think us rude if we stare, stranger.  We get so few who visit here, you see.  Same weathered faces, same laboured jokes, but the beer’s good.  Arthur, he knows how to keep a good cellar, don’t you, Arthur?  Stay for a drink.  We’ll entertain you.  

Hartwood Farm?  Take the Brompton road a brace of miles, where it runs by Bretton Oaks, up Malton Hill, and if you turn left where you see the Wishing Stone there is a drovers’ track; it is there you may find it.  A mile or so.  A short mile, no more.

As the river runs about the foot of Hartwood Fell it leaves a basin of green land, not so large as you might think it, nor so green as you might wish it, but a farmer’s living once.  I knew him, the man. He who farmed that pasture – who lived there.  Sair, he was, with cheeks scoured black by the north-blown rain.  His name was Borden; Isaac Borden.

His home is standing, still, you’ll see it there, afore the narrow band of trees that skirt the Fell.  Of random stone it is, bare-laid on clay, and it might not be a house to make you proud, with no boards to warm your feet or plastered walls, yet when the easterly blows its flagstone roof holds firm against the worst, and when the river runs high from the fells in the spring rains it stands above the flood.  And there he spent all his years, did Isaac.

When I knew him he was old and he was broken.  But he was husband and father once, and inasmuch as a farmer is ever happy in these hills, he was contented with his lot.

What happened?  What was it led to his misery and his downfall?  Arthur, this man would like to buy me a pint, so my throat shall not dry.  I have a tale to tell.

He met her at the Wishing Stone.  She was waiting hooded in the snow for something she said would never come.  And he thought at first she was a wayward girl, but she was as hungry as she was cold, and so he took her in.  She warmed by his fire, she ate the hot soup he kept beside the hearth.  She pushed back her hood, she put her cloak aside.

They were married in the spring, Isaac and Mirabelle.  She bore him a son, she bore him a daughter, she stayed beside him through the years, but although he loved her best and knew her as well as any man can know a woman, there’s some would say she loved him not at all.

Now the daughter, Naomi it was, who paved their downfall.  A lonely child, as any child so raised must be, but with a yearning that might not be answered and a song in her head she could not name.  As she grew towards womanhood that song became more insistent, the words sweeter, until at last she took to wandering in the hills as if to search for it.  One summer forenoon when the heat was on the gorse and the curlews mewing she discovered what she sought.  Faint at first, it was, the music; the entice of rhyme but very near to silence.  Yet Naomi turned her steps to follow the tune:  she followed because she was curious; that at first.  Then, as the song grew louder, she followed because she must; because the music would not let her go.

Her head swam with the melody; her feet danced to the tune.  She climbed higher and higher, some said as high as Canford Bluff, and there she found upon the summit of the moor, as she thought, a fissure in the rocks whence the music came.   Such was the magic in her dance that she could go where no human might, and though the cut was no wider than the thickness of an arm, she slipped inside it.  She stepped through, into another world.

Isaac Borden waited, Jacob his son waited, hour upon hour all of that day, for Naomi to return.  You may not think of them as idle, for there is always work for poor farmers such as they, but they fretted and worried.  Mirabelle meantime, going about her tasks, she made no sign of worry.  As she worked she sang, a song neither man nor boy had ever heard her sing.  And when Isaac her husband spoke to her of Naomi’s tardiness, she smiled and made no answer.

Come that eve a thunderhead was building.  Jacob could contain himself no more.  Bearing his crook to guide his arm and setting his cowl against the lancing rain he set out, the boy, to find his sister.  In gathering dark, over rocks made slick by the downpour of the storm you might think his task was hopeless, yet he did not stumble and his stride did not vary.  Once and again bright lightning revealed his path, but a dozen times he might have slipped and fallen, were there not the strangeness of a pale green light that seemed to dance before him; and that light it was that beckoned him upward, until the music found him and drew him in thrall to the rocks of Canford Bluff.

Jacob saw his sister there, in a land beyond.  Through the narrow cleft he saw her figure dancing in a resplendent ballroom, with a score of courtiers all about her.  Jacob knew at once that he had stumbled upon the palace of the Fairy King.  He saw musicians in frenzy thrashing out the tune that had enticed him, fine ladies whirling to their rhythm, and watching over them all, upon his high crystal throne, the Monarch of the Wild People himself. His Majesty, he was as impressive a figure as you might expect – his stout body, too heavy for his wilted wings, clothed in rich silks and ermines, his round legs clad in white stockings, his feet in velvet slippers buckled with gold.   And the moment – the very second – Jacob set eyes upon him, the King’s frog-like stare matched his own!   Instantly, the boy felt a furious buzzing in his head.  White flashes skittered before his eyes and the stinging thrusts of a thousand fairy swords prickled upon his skin.   What could he do?    He called, he shouted as loud as he might to his sister:  “Naomi!  Naomi!”  But though she may have heard she paid him no attention.  He was too large to pass between the rocks; he could not reach her.  The stabbing swords became spears – they probed deeper, drawing blood – and try as he might, there was no riposte.  His assailants were too quick, their intent would all too soon become mortal.   Reluctantly, then, he turned away, but with one last vision in his head.  Utterly disbelieving, he saw his mother there among the dancers, looking up to meet his eye, and she was laughing!

When Jacob returned, bloody and torn, to his home, he discovered his father sitting in the pasture by the rushing river with tears upon his face.  And when they spoke and took some mead together the old man told how Mirabelle had left her wedding band upon his table, then walked without a word from his house; and how he knew at once what had happened, for these hills are rich in fairy lore.

“She was a child of the woods, my son.  I met her by the Wishing Stone and always knew in my heart it was so.  Your sister was destined; it was marked upon her.  Much as I have dreaded this day, it had to come.”

Now Jacob, he grieved for his father, but he puzzled how it was his mother’s seed had grown in his sister, yet not in him.  The years went by, and father and son struggled with the land each season in its turn.  The wild call did not visit Jacob’s ears again, though he worried greatly that it should.

Then one even, when the blackthorn bloomed snow white on the bough, and Jacob in his thirtieth summer, was returning from market on weary feet he discovered a maiden seated by the Wishing Stone.  Her head was cowled and her body wrapped in a gossamer cloak, so he knew her at once for what she was.  Nevertheless a wood nymph’s beauty intoxicates and a wood nymph’s voice is sweeter than song, so when she drew her veils aside; when she told him he was the one for whom she waited, he could not deny her.  

One winter they spent together in the cottage by the river, Jacob and Linantha, his bride.  And before they left in the spring Jacob learned how his wife well understood the wild blood that ran through his veins, for Mirabelle his mother it was who sent her to him.   

You see, upon that long-ago time when Isaac Borden met with Mirabelle at the Wishing Stone, she was waiting for her prince, rightful heir to the throne of the Fairy King.  He had not come, therefore she knew the usurper Malegon must have slain him.  When she lay with Isaac her purpose was plain.  She should bear two children with an earthling – the one a girl, who, with her wild blood, must become of age as a nymph.  The other a male child in whom the father’s seed was the stronger – who would remain with earthling kind until she sent a key.

So Mirabelle stirred the music in her daughter, and firm in her resolve, joined Naomi at court.  Together they charmed the fat usurper Malegon.  Naomi tempted and cosseted him, Mirabelle plied him with her sweetest wine, until he grew too fat and dissolute to defend his crown.  Among the courtiers was a girl so lovely all the courtiers fell upon their knees before her, and she was Linantha, Mirabelle’s niece.  Therefore Mirabelle selected Linantha as her key.  

Let Linantha and Jacob but lie together once, and Mirabelle knew the music would begin.  Jacob’s wild blood would be awakened.  Came the spring, and it was so.  Jacob bade farewell to his father, and with Linantha made his journey to the court upon the high fell.  The slaying of Malegon would be a simple thing.  Jacob would take his crown with Linantha as his queen, and Mirabelle, though thwarted in her wish to wear the crown, would be content to be the Queen Mother. 

And there the tale ends. These things the old man revealed to me when I spoke with him; when he was old and broken and alone. He knew their purpose when they left that Spring, Jacob and his nymph bride.  As he believed, they had gone to take their place on the throne of the wild people, and he died believing his son was a king.  He never saw them again.

What really happened?  No-one knows – or no-one knew until today.  This very day, come to think of it.  Go to the house.  You may find what you are seeking there.   You will find the old man’s grave, in the field by the river.  But I think you know what you will find, just as I think I know you, because I see in you your grandfather’s face, your grandfather’s eyes.  And at last, the truth.  The coup failed.  Malegon still reigns as fairy king.

How should I know this?  Because you are still an earthling, for all the cold fire in your eyes. You were born on this earth.  But let us talk of the song playing in your head, son of Jacob.  Perhaps ’tis Canford Bluff you really seek?

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Crossing the River

They would remember how they made it to the river that night, the travellers, and how it felt, emerging from the forest, to see the silver ribbon of the waters glittering in the last of the day and the first of the moon.  Tam was much the worse by then.

“In the mornin’ we’ll cross,”  Abel decided.  “Not tonight, not now.”

Three days since, the travellers, two men and a boy, had left the ashes of their village, the morning after the Reivers came.  The border raiders had stripped them of everything, their livestock and their families, leaving no good reason to remain or any clear idea of where they were going, other than a hope they might find protection with the Prince Bishops who ruled the land to the south.   Abel, the fittest, drew a travois laden with what few belongings they had saved; Tam, the village chieftain whose leg had been badly burned in the firing of his hut limped along as best he could, with the boy to help him.  They had known the river barred their way; they also knew the Reivers would not be far behind.

 “We’ll rest here.”  Tam, exhausted and crippled by pain, dropped to his knees.  His companions understood.  The boy was only thirteen summers old, yet he knew there comes a time when a man’s blood flows too slowly, when his fingers turn black.  Tam’s beard was frozen back to his flesh, where it found no warmth to free it.

“They’ll not spare us, those bastards,”  The boy said.

Abel patted the boy’s shoulder.  “Here’ll do.  Young un’, get what ye can from the river, will ye?  We should eat well.  It’ll be raw tonight.”

There was their plan, then.  The ‘young‘un’ set off along the riverbank with his sharpened wand of willow, while  Abel gathered wood to make a fire.  And there was Tam, picking at the grass for dry kindling with numb fingers, but otherwise moving not very much at all.

The river was wide and the river was deep, which the boy supposed had a beauty to the minstrel’s eye, but he was never much for rivers.  Its waters were so cold with melt from the high tops it would eat your bones if you stayed still, even in its shallows, for long.  He had no wish to tarry here; if the choice were his he would cross the water that night, for to have the Reivers discover them so exposed on this north bank would leave little the crows could peck over, but Tam needed rest, and Tam was his Chief.  

Fortune smiled:  she permitted a fat Chub to languish where it thought itself safe, deep in a pool behind a promontory of rock.  The boy’s point struck fast enough to pierce it.  It was four hands long, food for a man, but little enough for three.

Atop the promontory the boy rested a while, drawing his prey to leave a gift for the birds and giving himself time, as Malfus his father had taught him, to learn about the land that must afford him shelter until light returned.  In this moment he remembered his parents’ charred remains as the Reivers had left them, and he swore in his heart the Reivers would pay.  Abel was his father now, if any man was. 

The silvered river had turned leaden in the departing light, flecked black where it over-ran itself, or interrupted its journey around a stone.  No other sound than its music penetrated the pall of silence.  No birds sang.

It was a howl; it was pitched high to hang, wavering, on the wind.  The howl was long, echoing and re-echoing above the dark trees, and it froze the marrow in the young one’s bones. A fox?  A hare, perhaps, in a fox’s jaws?  A primal scream, certainly, yet of madness, not of pain.   Stock still, the boy let only his eyes move as he strained to see the first visible sign of danger.

Steep forest garbed the river’s further bank, not a forest like those of his Borders home where the trees men call pines hold the land in fief and nothing can grow in their shade, but a mesh of oak and birch and a floor of briar.    Somewhere in the blackness of that tangled wood, he could be certain, the author of the howl was watching him – watching and waiting.  

And so it proved.  Two great eyes of cold fire, flame and ice, moving with slow precision through the undergrowth.  With a hunter’s skill that belied his tender years, the boy began to move, his head perfectly still, his eyes never leaving those fiery orbs.  A river stood between himself and this creature, he reasoned:  let it be an expert swimmer, he would still have time to rejoin Abel and Tam.  If a stand against a monster there must be, they would make it together.

Abel and Tam were waiting.  They had heard the cry as distinctly as he.

 “’Tis crossing the river – ‘tis coming for us!   Run!”

Abel started to his feet.  Tam did not move at all.  Could he move?  But the boy’s alarm aroused the fitter of the two men for no more than a second before Tam’s words reassured them.   “The creature will not cross the water.  It is as the legend tells it.”

Abel frowned,  “Sometimes I trust my eyes better than I trust the lore.  There are  tales told then, of a worm?”

 “Some say it’s a worm,”  Tam agreed;  “some will have it as a dragon.  Yet dragons, as I have heard it, fly.  No-one’s ever seen such a thing hereabouts.  It is his forest, and as forests go it is a bad place.”

“You knew of it?”  Abel accused him; “And still you brought us here?”

“I have heard the legend.  I did not know the legend was true.  Besides, there is no other path for us.” Tam warmed himself by the fire while Abel set about cooking the young ‘un’s catch over wood he had collected. “Dragon or worm, ‘tis said to be a monstrous creature.  And if it has seen the boy it knows we are here.”

The two men exchanged glances.  The boy could see the fear in their eyes.

Tam shifted himself uneasily.  “Tend my foot, young ‘un, will ye?  It pains me.”

Obediently, the boy knelt to untie the thongs of hide that bound Tam’s leg, releasing skins which clothed his foot in the manner of a boot.  The skins were stuck to the flesh beneath, so as he peeled them away, the flesh was lifted too.  

“Poison.”  The boy said, struggling to keep a lump from his throat as his nostrils were assailed by a too-familiar stench.

“Aye.”   Tam caught Abel’s glance.  “It’ll serve me long enough!”  He snapped.  “You’ll not be cutting my limbs from me this night, man!”

They should have taken turns to watch, perhaps, and there might have been some plan to do so, had not their weariness and the gnawing of starvation overcome the travellers, to send them into a deep sleep.   For his part the boy slept fitfully, beset by dreams of the burning of his village and the terrible blood-lust of the Reivers.  He woke long before the sky returned to light.

Given peace to think, he considered their chances with the monster across the river.  One fit man and himself.  If his crippled chieftain had been whole it might have been a more even contest, but there was only Abel.  Abel was more a weaver than a fighter.

Yet if they stayed this side of the river the Reivers would just as surely get them.  Their raiding parties were everywhere, so even if they were not specifically pursued they would be found, and very soon.   They were in no condition to run.

Propped with his back against a rock, the boy took a decision; he rose, padded softly to the travois where he knew that Tam had left his sword.  As Abel slept not three spans away, he took the sword and slipped silently away towards the river.

Did he have a clear idea of his intentions?  Beyond crossing the river probably not:  could he slay the worm?  He might have persuaded himself of that, but neither could he be blamed if his hope was to simply escape;, a boy of thirteen, struggling for survival in a world that wished him only harm.

The swim took him downstream on the current, so he made landfall out of view of his companions on the northern bank.   It also tired him, for he was unused to swimming and the weight of Tam’s sword held him back. Then there was a difficult clamber up a slick and muddy riverbank while the oak woods frowned down upon him as if entering them at his tender age was vaguely distasteful.  He began patiently exploring the few apparent chinks in the dark wood’s armour of briar, but blind alley after blind alley ended only in a wall of thorns.  The sky was already light when at last he found a gap that led somewhere.   His companions would be wakening.  They might think he had gone to fish for food, but if they discovered the missing sword…

Progress was still painfully slow.  The ground was rising, the sounds of the river dwindling behind him to be replaced by…silence.  Still there was no sound: in an oak wood at dawn, not one bird sang.

When the boy came upon the clearing he had no idea how far he had travelled or how late the hour, because the canopy of the trees had kept him from the sun.  Every step had been an agony of fear and doubt, expecting the legendary worm to pounce upon him, for he felt certain it knew of his coming.  It was watching him from behind the arras of the forest, picking its spot.  This glade could be its amphitheatre.  With fear oozing from every pore, he stepped into the sun.

“Greetings,”   Said a voice, conversationally.  “A better day than yesterday, don’t you think?  I’m sorry if that’s the wrong thing to say, but in my experience Englishmen prefer to talk about the weather.”

‘Be still!’  In the boy’s head his father’s voice reminded him. ‘Until you know your enemy you cannot decide how to engage with him!  Think before you move!’

 All in all the boy had never had much confidence in this advice, and always favoured running away as a first option.  However, this seemed quite a congenial encounter and he did not feel afraid.   Obviously this was a fellow traveller.  Obviously there was less to fear in this forest than he had thought.

“Who are you?”  He replied, scanning the surrounding undergrowth for the owner of the voice.  “Where are you?”

“Oh, over here!”   A clump of dense vegetation parted, to reveal a human head – rather grizzled, distinctly hairy, but human, nonetheless. 

The boy sighed with relief, “Us be fellow travellers, then!  I’m headed for the land of the Bishops, what’s your destination?”

“Destination?  Well, nowhere, really.  Wherever fortune takes me, I suppose.  I wonder, would you perform a small service for me?”

“Anything!”  The boy grinned broadly; “What have ye in mind?”

The face’s eyes closed and its nose inhaled deeply, as though savouring the woodland scents.  “Thank you.  I am so grateful!  Do you see the book over there in the grass?”

Now the boy had heard of books, although he had never met one personally.  This was his first.  Fortunately, as there was only one object to choose from he had no problems with identification.  It was a doughty volume, hide-bound, lying open.

“Aye, I see it”  He said, anxious to oblige.  “They told me these were dangerous woods.   I’m happy to find them otherwise?”

“You heard they were dangerous?  Oh, dear!”

“Aye, they say there’s a worm..”  The boy’s voice tailed off as his eyes drank in the beautifully illuminated manuscript of the book. “That’s beautiful!”  He breathed.

“Isn’t it?”  He heard, rather than saw, his new companion emerging from cover behind him.  “A man in a grey husk dropped it there.  Would you read from it?  That would oblige me awfully.”

“I would if I could,” The boy said earnestly, wondering exactly what was meant by a ‘grey husk’, “But I’ve no notion what the symbols mean.  I‘ve never seen the like.”

“Oh, that is a pity!”  said his new companion; almost at his shoulder now.  “I thought all humans could read books.”

“Humans?”  The boy was suddenly aware how his guard had dropped.  “You said ‘humans’?”

“I did, didn’t I?”  Replied the voice.  “I, you see, am not – well, not entirely.”

Putting his deceased father’s advice firmly to one side, the boy forced himself to turn around, and the sight that greeted him dried the words in his throat.  Standing in full view the owner of the face was a little taller than he – that he expected.  The luxuriant chestnut mane which framed the face, the lithe feline body rippling with muscle, the twitching, spine-laden tail, they were quite beyond expectation.  Terror triggered his legs to flight but his feet remained resolutely rooted to the spot.

“Oh, don’t try to run,” the face entreated him; “I’m much faster than you, as the man in the grey husk discovered.  It just wouldn’t work.”

“You’re the worm!”  The boy managed to stammer.

“Worm?  My dear child, do I look like a worm?”   The creature turned a little to one side, offering itself up for inspection; “I’m a Manticore if the name is familiar to you, but I don’t imagine it will be.  The head of a man, the body of a lion and a tail a bit like a porcupine.  You won’t know what those are, either, if you cannot even read a book.”

“Are ye going to kill me?”

“Kill you?  Yes.  Eat you?  Yes, although there’s hardly enough of you to make it worthwhile.”

“Is that what happened to the man in the grey husk?”

“Yes.  How do you think I got the book?”

“But you’re so … so…”

“Polite?  Well-mannered?  Of course.  The fact that I am going to consume you is nothing personal, so there’s no harm in a congenial conversation first, is there?”

“If I’m too small to bother with,” the boy kept a firm grip on his nerves as he tried to inject a note of reason,  “why don’t you simply let me go?”

“Why.  Why.”   The Manticore seemed to ponder this for a moment, then his eyes lit up, as if kindled by sudden inspiration.  “If I do you will spread word of me among the humans of the south, and then one of them, usually in a metal suit, will come to slay me.    I can cope with that, but the bits of metal get stuck between my teeth.  I’ve got a triple row of teeth, look!”   It gaped, exposing what did seem, indeed, to be three tiers of razor-sharp teeth.  “A dragon acquaintance of mine had just such an experience a century ago, and he didn’t handle it very well at all.  The human despatched him with a long sharp stick – most upsetting.  That was what induced me to move away from Persia.  I suppose it’s why I’m here.  ‘Why’, you see?  Your word, your word!”

It bounced up and down on its forepaws gleefully, “Well now, I think we’ve observed all the pleasantries, haven’t we?  I admit to being a little peckish…”

“No!”  The boy jumped back, Tam’s sword raised:  “Leave me alone, creature!  I don’t want to have to harm ye!”

“Harm me?”  The Manticore chortled; “Oh my dear, look at you!  A scrap of a thing, hardly worth the bother, really, but it’s a fetish of mine, isn’t it?   Do put that pointy thing down, child, before you drop it!”  It raised one paw, exposing a row of long, hooked claws which it examined professionally, before polishing then on its mane.  “I could live very adequately on the deer from this woodland, but I do like a human now and then – quite a different taste, you see?  Are you familiar with pork, at all?”

The boy was not without acumen, quick to assess his chances as very low, yet not prepared to give up; not yet.   “Suppose I could be of use to ye?  If I’m scarce worth eating, perhaps I have skills I could offer?  It’d be better to keep me alive then, surely?”

The Manticore laughed, and its laughter was not a pleasant sound.  “Do you know I can fire the spines from my tail, like arrows?  I have so many weapons, child.  What could you possibly offer that I do not already have?”

“I could collect the spines for ye, and bring them back…”

“I don’t want them back!  I simply grow another set.”  The creature stretched its leonine body and lay on the grass, its chin resting on its paws.  “But this is intriguing.  What else can you offer me?”

“I can hunt deer for ye?”

“No!  Ah, no.  I can do that for myself.  I like doing it.”

“I can catch fish!”  The boy said.  “Basically, you’re a cat.  You must like fish!”

The Manticore cocked an eyebrow.  “Now that is interesting, you are quite correct.  I adore fish!”

“Well, I can catch them for ye.”  The boy said – and as he said it a scheme of such low cunning entered his head it was all he could do to keep from laughing in the creature’s face.  “I bet yer can’t catch fish for yourself – ye don’t like water, do ye?”

“As you observe with such perspicacity, I am a cat.   I loathe the water!  I hate the water!  I despise it!”  In the ensuing shudder, a spine accidentally dislodged itself from the creature’s tail.  It flew like an arrow and embedded itself resonantly in a tree-trunk.

“Few men must pass this way,” the boy suggested, “because there’s legends told of ye in the north to make them afraid.  Suppose my companions and I were to build ye a raft from the timber in these woods?  Ye could cross the river and your paws would barely get wet. A short march north of the river there are many humans for ye to feast upon – not men in armour but wild raiders easy for ye to catch and devour.  Y’see, ye would profit greatly from letting me live!”

“Really?  Could you do that?  My dear chap, could you absolutely do that?”

“Oh, aye!”  Said the boy, “We can do that.”

So it was that the Manticore agreed to let the young ‘un’s companions cross the river.  Tam was beyond caring, but Abel’s reluctance, and his horror at his first sight of his ‘worm’ took longer to surmount.   When the boy explained how their cooperation could be ample vengeance for the razing of their village, though, he was inspired.  

The Manticore had another surprise in store for them yet, because it possessed a power of healing, which it exercised by bringing Tam back to health.  While the boy fished, the adult pair felled trees to fashion a raft, and came the day when the Manticore was able to step gingerly onto its floating transport.

By the combined efforts of men and boy their unlikely cargo was propelled across the river without incident, and after some surprisingly emotional goodbyes the Manticore confessed the smell of quarry was quite overwhelming.

The three travellers had the pleasure of seeing it vanish into the trees beyond the river, knowing what a dreadful revenge awaited their Reiver foes.

Finally, the trio released their raft into the current, lest the Manticore should ever alter its mood and try to return.  They turned to the south, and although their own legend is rarely told, it is said they made their way safely to the more secure lands ruled by the Prince Bishops.   There, the boy learned to read the book the Manticore’s poor unfortunate lunch had left behind, becoming versed in Latin and a revered scholar.   

At least, that is the legend…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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A Material Girl

This week’s short story contribution from the archives:

She did not remember when it began.

At first it was not a fear – not as such; but just a nagging sensation that something she had accepted without question for so long, was no longer quite right.  Ella considered this as she loaded the washing machine – was it a sound that first alerted her?  If so, when?  Days ago?  weeks?  Months, maybe?  No, not years.  It couldn’t possibly have been as long as a year…

Perhaps it wasn’t a sound at all. After all, this was a utility room, and no matter how expensively equipped, it was often filled with sound:  hard, practical sound.  So perhaps it was one of those taut strings in her brain slightly vibrating; at so low a tone, at so deep a frequency she couldn’t actually hear it.  Or even the cool basement air, so exquisitely conditioned by the silent machinery of the house.  It was simply – there.

And now it was louder.   Or more vibrant.  Or rarified to such an extent she had difficulty in breathing.  Which was why she always stayed close to the door, ashamed to admit to an instinct to actually run, yet comforted by the firm feel of the latch behind her.  She couldn’t account for it.

Above her head, the games room with its snooker table solidity was empty, now that James no longer played.  It was kept locked.  So the unpleasantness, whatever it was, couldn’t emanate from there.

She emptied her basket of clothing into the washer, reflecting how small her needs were, now her husband had gone.  A single wash each week was well within the capacity of these glorious machines, so, much as she admired them as possessions, they tested her strong sense of practicality; and she really did not like being here, in this windowless room, in this stately old house.  

Ella’s reaction to the room was shared.  Angelina, her erstwhile housekeeper, had been equally reluctant to spend time down here.  In fact the woman had refused point-blank to go anywhere near the utility room in the end.

“Is bad place!  Very bad!  I am not surprised if dead people under floor in there!”

Angelina had talents in other directions which removed any question of dismissing her at the time, so Ella had choked back her own hatred of the place and taken the task of loading and discharging the machines upon herself.     But now?  A more modest utility space would suffice, would it not?  And in place of this?   Machine set, she retreated to the door, casting a backward glance over those smooth, tiles, clad walls and shining steel appliances.  A basement swimming pool maybe?  Then at least if Angelina’s suspicions were correct, the digging process would surely find out.   She would suggest this to Maggie when they met this morning.  Maggie would agree, of course.  She always did.

Maggie and Ella had remained fast friends since their childhood years:  same school, same tough, ghetto estate.  Two girls alike in their gritty approach to life, both firm in their intention to raise themselves above their impoverished beginnings, determined to consign the famine of their early years to memory.  Each had known a measure of success:  Maggie’s was a successful business, carefully honed into a franchise that had gone ‘national’ more than a decade since.   And she had married well, too:  Fergus, her husband, ran a flourishing construction business.  Maggie seemed happy with him, something Ella could not quite understand.

It was many years since the pair of lifelong friends had joined hands in a pledge that nothing; least of all love, should distract them from their ambitions.  No man would stand between them and fortune, though men were not without use; far from it.  To marry well was imperative; the fast track to a fortune:  to love, however; that was anathema to their plans.  Affection should never cause them to swerve or falter along their certain road to riches.

 “He should be rich, and he should be good-looking, if possible.”  Ella decreed.  “It would help if he was older; much older.”

“So far,”  Maggie commented, “I’ve found those things rarely go hand in hand.”

“Which makes the challenge all the greater!”  Ella said.  “But once you have found him…”

“Never let him go?”

“God, no!  We want the money, not the man.  Money and independence, Mags!  Think of it!”

“Divorce, then?”

Ella reflected for a moment.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  Are you with me?”

“Hell, yeah!”

A few years would have to pass before Maggie and Ella were at the same party as multi-millionaire James Morgan Maltravers.  Ella set her cap at the fifty-year-old socialite so single-mindedly most who witnessed it agreed the poor man had no hope of escape.  Comments frequently referred to Ella’s ‘claws’, but she was unabashed.  Their marriage adorned the pages of ‘Hello’, helicopters almost drowned out the utterance of their vows.  Maggie, a strangely sad maid of honour, watched as her friend pledged her life to James Maltravers.  Should Ella have noticed?  Should she have seen those first signs that Maggie’s resolve was showing signs of weakening?

The honeymoon was barely over when Ella and Maggie met for coffee.  Maggie’s eyes betrayed her fervour of anticipation:  “So, when’s the divorce?”  It was only half a joke.

Ella bit her lip.   “It isn’t quite that simple.”  She admitted.

“How do you mean?”

“His people made me sign a pre-nup.  If I leave, I get only the contents of my suitcase. “

“Zounds!”  Maggie buried her lip in her coffee cup.  “Wedded bliss, then.  Poor you!”  

“For a while, perhaps.”  Ella acknowledged, thoughtfully.  “The pre-nup doesn’t cover death.  I was able to negotiate that, at least.  If he dies, the majority of his estate comes to me.”

“Ella!  You’d murder him?”

“No, no.  Of course not.  Would I?”

“Quite possibly.”

“Well, I wouldn’t.  For a start, his family lawyers are firmly convinced I’m a gold-digger and they will be watching me like hawks.  Nevertheless there are ways…”

Ella found ample compensation in the loveless years that followed.  She had, after all, largely achieved her dream – a mansion in a leafy suburb and a fantasy lifestyle.  Only Maggie, who knew Ella so well, and one other, could discern the substance behind Ella’s mysterious comment; ‘there are ways’.  Although Ella never elaborated further, Maggie watched her friend’s relentless pursuit of her scheme with a mixture of grudging admiration and horror as James Maltravers’ naturally quite retiring nature was subjected to a social maelstrom of parties, a crammed agenda of political projects, and  a frenetic succession of exotic foreign vacations.   

The one other was Angelina, whose position as Ella’s housekeeper seemed extremely secure and comfortable.  Angelina was discreet: discreet about her employers’ sexual athletics, even though at times she found it difficult to get out of their way, and reserved in her opinion concerning the growing regimen of prescribed medicines in James’s bathroom cabinet.  Angelina’s special talent was cooking; and her remarkable ability to cram the maximum amount of calories into the least plate-space.

You see, Ella had discovered James’s weakness.  James was addicted to food.  Looking on, she pecked like a bird at her own portions while her husband, kept afloat on a pontoon of alchohol, wolfed his way through trenchers of buttered vegetables, roasted meats and compound sauces.   As a reward, Ella might have expected James’s girth to reflect the richness of his diet, as Angelina’s undoubtedly did.  But no, he remained as slim as a whip while his pallor altered from a healthy pink, through beetroot red, to an ominous grey.

Meanwhile, the good life was there to be lived, so Ella lived it to the full.  She lacked for nothing other than the independence she craved, and the only smeary bit on her rose-tinted window was Maggie.  Somehow her friend had lost enthusiasm for the aims they had shared.  Despite Ella’s urgent warnings, rather than reap the harvest of her success in business, Maggie had chosen to marry Fergus.  They shared a gentle, almost resigned affection Ella could not penetrate, no matter how often she reminded her friend of their original vows to one another.  Maggie’s only response would be a sad smile, which Ella suspected was an expression of pity.

“Look, Mags, you’ve done well, there’s no denying.  You’re wealthy,  even.  But you haven’t got to where we promised to be:  you can’t leave your business, so there are no summers on the Riviera, no homes in the Bahamas.  There’s no yacht in your harbour.  You’ve given up on it, girl!”

Maggie replied with that same smile.   “No, I haven’t.  Give me some time.”

This conversation was raised again in the year of Ella’s twelfth wedding anniversary, when her beloved husband’s overloaded flesh finally surrendered to a massive heart attack which, by the time Ella had found the telephone to summon medical help, had already proved fatal.  Maggie attended the funeral; more in support of her friend than for any other apparent reason, because Ella was being shunned by James’s family, and together they indulged in a little genteel weeping.

“He was such a kind man.”

“He was always so thoughtful.   How is Fergus?”

“Healthy.”

The subject came to prominence just once more, on the first anniversary of the passing of James Maltravers.   Maggie’s mobile fluttered.   

“Mags sweetie.  Come over for coffee, yes?   Or maybe something stronger?  It’s a year today, after all!  Kind of a celebration, here, and me rattling round this great mausoleum all by myself.”

“You sound sort of scared?”

“I’ve been in that damn laundry room again.  It seriously spooks me, that place.”

Maggie arrived within the hour, bearing Champagne.  “Where’s Angelina?”  She asked, as soon as she arrived.

“Hell, Mags, where you been?   I had to let her go; oh, ages back.”   Ella dismissed any possibility of conversation on that subject with an airy gesture.  For some reason she felt she should not admit to ‘paying Angelina off’.

“So you’re here on your own now?”

“Isn’t it wonderful?  I’ll get some fresh help, of course; but just for a while an echo or two seems good.”

“Yeah, dust is good.  What was it you said:  ‘rattling around in this mausoleum’?”

“I was depressed.  I’d been loading up the washer downstairs.  I’ve been thinking: maybe it would be better to have a pool down there, how about that?”

“Don’t rush into it.”

“Come on, babe, let’s get canned, yeah?”

Maggie understood it had not been an easy year for Ella:  James’s will had been contested, and yes, there was some unpleasantness, although nothing Ella couldn’t handle.   In the end, she had her inheritance.   She was a multi-millionaire; a status she had always sought.   Yet she seemed almost to prefer the solitude of her widowhood, for no-one with her kind of riches could fail to attract company of one sort or another.  The magnificent proportions of the house, with its endless corridors and extravagant excess of marble would have been intimidating to any lesser woman.   Why did the words ‘as cold as her heart’ pass through Maggie’s head?

The anniversary became an uninhibited morning lubricated by very good champagne, and by the time Maggie had poured out ‘one last drinkie’  Ella was drunk beyond shame.  She proclaimed her intention to go to bed.

“I’ve just got to take out some washing from the ‘chine.  That goddam noise, it’s so loud now.  I hate it!”

“You go ahead, Ell.  I’ll see myself out, yeah?”

So Ella was alone as she snaked her way down the stairs to the utility room in Maltravers House; buoyed up by wine and unsympathetically inclined towards those odd vibrations:  those sounds.   Yet once she was inside – once she had closed the door behind her – they found her again.   Louder now; much, much louder, like the tick of a thousand clocks they found resonance with the champaigne bubbles in her head and turned it:  around, and around, and around.    Stranded somewhere between anger and fear, Ella made a grab for her washing basket, missed, and crashed to the floor.  She was drunk – much drunker than she had thought.  Cursing, she raised herself and attempted to crawl towards the washing machine that waited for her at the centre of the bank of machines.  There seemed to be more and more machines:  washers and driers, pressers and steamers in ranks of cold steel that whirled about her.  What was happening to her head?   Her vision danced, her eyes were blurring.

At the edge of consciousness, Ella fell back onto the floor of the utility room.   Above her, faded and indistinct at first although growing in clarity with every moment, she thought she saw the image of her husband crucified against the ceiling, his body half in decay, his eye sockets empty, his outstretched arms festooned with rotted flesh.   Did she scream?   Was there anyone to hear her, to hear the explosion of noise, the staccato cracking rupture of the beams above her head?  ?  How profound was her terror as the ghost of James Maltravers rushed down upon her, to wrap her in a final, deadly embrace?

Maggie’s attorney laid aside any doubt.   “Your agreement with Mrs. Maltravers stands.   It has not been superseded by any new bequests.”

Maggie knew that it had not.  Ella had always been honest with her.  “I get everything then?”   She recalled the day, all those years ago, when she had sat in this same office with her friend as they pledged that whatever fortunes each should make, they would bequeath to the other.  

The attorney nodded.  “All of it.  The Maltraver’s estate with all of its liquid assets, property and land.  Now you have to decide when and how you wish me to initiate your divorce proceedings.”

As she opened the door to the street Maggie breathed deeply.   She had played a game and won!   She had been patient, she had taken her time, watching Ella’s scheming and revelling in the element of chance, the randomness of her own little plot.

The coroner had remarked upon the unusually localised nature of death watch beetle infestation in the Maltravers mansion, but conceded it was not unusual for these pests to make their home in old timbers.  The beams beneath the snooker table in the games room had been eaten through by the creatures, so it was only a matter of time before the 2400lb table plummeted through the floor into the utility room below.   The collapse of the table’s heavy Victorian lighting canopy and its impact like a hammer blow upon the table had triggered the process.   He recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Maggie, of course, knew why the infestation had been so concentrated.  She knew because she had put the beetles there, culture upon culture of them, down the years; and when Ella had described the loudness of ticking sounds she heard on that fateful morning, Maggie knew her moment had come.  While Ella, filled with Maggie’s drugged wine, was descending to the basement,  Maggie was upstairs, letting herself into the games room.   That rotten canopy needed no more than a nudge to bring it crashing down.

And now she had one more appointment to keep.   Angelina would be waiting for her in Starbucks.

Angelina and Maggie had known one another a long time, but their relationship had become much closer in the last year.   Angelina had supplied a copy key to the games room because, after Ella had dismissed her, she was no longer able to assist with Maggie’s sabotage.  Angelina, who knew everything, and who was already handsomely rewarded for her silence, was about to have another major payday.

Maggie ordered coffee, sat down opposite the big woman, and handed her an envelope.   When Angelina opened the envelope to reveal the check inside, her eyes widened.   “This is big, big lot of money!”

Maggie nodded.

“I do not ask for so much…”

Maggie stretched out both her hands and grasped Angelina’s pudgy fingers.  “We’re friends, aren’t we?   This is yours, you’ve earned it; you’re a rich woman now.  Together, Angie, we can go on and make this grow.  We can make much, much more money.”

“You would do that with me?”

“Yes!  Of course, yes!   That’s what friends do – they help each other.   All I ask in return is one little condition; an agreement, if you like.   If I die, Angie, all my money will go to you.   Yes; yes it will!  And I would like you to agree to do the same for me…”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit: Rudi and Peter Skitterian from Pixabay

Featured

Corvid Wisdom: Natural Balance

“You got a probwem, ven?”   WIth what appears to be half a slice of meat pie hanging from his beak, the crow looks his least prepossessing.  He also mumbles.

“Don’t talk with your beak full,”  I rebuke him.  “It’s not a problem, exactly.  More a question of timing.”

Dropping his gravy-laden  prize onto his lamp post perch, Crow deftly stops its fall with one claw.  He stares in at me through my office window suspiciously.   “Timing what exac’ly?”

“The two bird feeders in the back garden – when to stop refilling them.”

“Oh, them!  Not one of yer life-changin’ dilemmas, is it then?”  He returns his attention to his fragment of pastry, pecking at it reflectively, “Never bothered me much, them.”

It’s true; they don’t.  In the days before his seaside interlude, he and a couple of his mates on a boys’-day-out raided the feeders, which finished up in the flowerbeds, emptied but otherwise unharmed.  Once a seagull (Crow swears it was a seagull) flew off with an entire feeder.  Mostly, though, Crow’s diet comprises higher things; to wit, one meat pie,another beakful of which is his current focus for ingestion.  

“Stop fillin’ em.”  

“What about the sparrows?   What will they eat?”  I reason.

“Sparrers?!?  Bleedin’ sparrers??”   His expostulation is so violent crumbs of pie reach my window, spattering the glass;  “Bugger the sparrers mate, fink of Monty!”  

“Who’s Monty?”

“Monty?  Yer mean yer don’ know?  His fam’ly been livin’in yer garden fer years an yer don’ know?  Well, I tell you what, mate.  You find out ‘ho Monty is an’ you ask ‘im what he finks abaht sparrers!”  Crow’s pie resource is exhausted.  “Time to go!  I got places ter be.  You ask Monty!”

Watching him fly away I ponder his challenge.  Crow doesn’t understand that our duologue is my only communication with a bird, or any animal species, come to that.  Whatever or whoever ‘Monty’ is, in order to have value in Crow’s eyes he must be other than human, and therefore beyond my capability to converse.

It is a doomed abductive exercise.  The creatures that frequent my garden include a hedgehog, at least one urban fox, the odd cat and several species of bird.  I fall at the first fence because I have no means of knowing which of these enjoys the sobriquet ‘Monty’, and no way to ask.  Nevertheless it is Crow’s opening gambit when he returns to the lamp post later this morning.

“Know ‘oo Monty is yet, then?”   I confess my ignorance.  “Well, mate, that’s ‘ow yer treats yer residents, innit?  Yer got no sense o’ responsibility, have yer?”

“All right, I know you’re dying to tell me.  Who is ‘Monty’, how am I failing him, and what has that to do with the feeders?”

Have you ever seen a crow shake its head?  It’s at once a marvellous and incongruous gesture.  “Monty,”  He says with triumphant emphasis  “Is yer resident blackbird.  Black-bird, see?”

I can’t help smiling. Giving a name to the frantic little creature who spends his life in hopeless pursuit of garden domination doesn’t move me to sympathy.  The crow’s tone is one of reproof:

“Yer don’t fink much of ‘im, then?  Yer don’t fink he deserves respect?”

“And I suppose you’re going to tell me he does?”

I’m treated to one of Crow’s censorious frowns,  “He lives off yer garden, don’t he?  I mean, winter and summer he lives from yer land, drummin’ fer worms, keepin’ them unner control for yer, eatin’ pests, an’ ‘at?  ‘E’s a resident, mate.  Isn’t that worth nuffin?”

I protest:  “He’s not nice to the sparrows. He spends half his life trying to chase them away. He’s aggressive!”

“Wouldn’ you be?   That bay tree you got, that’s where ‘e ‘as ter build ‘is nest, innit.  Its fick enuff ter disguise a nest, an’ somewhere to ‘ide his kids under when they’re learnin’ ter fly.  ‘An’ Monty – ‘im – he’s clever see?  ‘E knows there’s on’y room fer one blackbird nest in yer garden ‘cause there’s on’y enough feed fer ‘isself an’ his missus, so ‘e chases off any uvver blackbirds, don ‘e?”

“He’s not entirely effective in doing even that!”  I sense a rant, so I try to get my scruffy black friend to elucidate; “He’s trying to keep a natural balance, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yeah.   That’s it.  But what do you do? Yer comes along wiv yer bleedin’ feeders, don’t yer, an’ yer hangs ‘em just up the fence from the bay tree, an’ before yer know it the bay tree’s full o’ bleedin’ sparrers.  

“Sparrers ever’where!  No manners!”

“What about the starlings?” I remind him gently.

“What abaht..?” He arches his wings in a gesture of restrained impatience. “We’re not talkin’ abaht no starlin’s, matey, oh no! Starlin’s, they’re jus’ like raiders, see? They comes and they goes, they don’ build they’re nests nowhere ‘ere. But them sparrers, they moves in, don’ they? They nest there ‘cause it’s a short ‘op to free food.  They don’t care nuffin fer yer garden, mate.  They don’t care if their noise draws every cat in the neighbour’ood to Monty’s tree, ‘cause they know the biggest bird in it ain’t them – it’s Monty.  Any cat’d go for ‘im first. They trample his turf so ‘e can’t hunt his worms, an’ they flock around the place like they own it, but shall I tell yer somefin’?”

“Something else?”

“Yeah!” The crow’s in full spate now, neck extending, wings punching his sides. “They don’ give a toss, mate, them sparrers.  Soon as the bes’ of the food goes, they go.  They aint goin’ ter starve – nah, not them!  They’ll just move to the next garden and strip that.  Af’er they finished wiv’ Monty they go an’ look up some of his cousins!”  

Crow fluffs up his feathers to adopt what I’m sure he believes to be an imitation of a human pose.  He clearly intends to mimic me.  “When ter stop refillin’ the feeders?  Stop now!  Maybe Monty‘ll have more chance of gettin’ his kids into the air before the cats get ‘em.”

He raises a foot to scratch at his neck,  “Or I do.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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In a Monastery Garden

Another from the archives:

“Will you be comfortable there, Father? The bench is hard; can I bring you a pillow to support your back?”
The novitiate is over-solicitous, as those fresh to the calling tend to be, and he tests Father Ignatius’s patience at times. “A pillow, indeed? Now that would be an indulgence rife with sin, would it not? ” The old Abbot replies.“I wonder, Brother, would you ask Brother Thomas to come and see me when he is spared from his tasks? I would like him to sit with me here for a while, if he can. Oh! (As the young brother moves to depart) And you might ask him to bring a blanket, should he be able.”
The novitiate fades back into the green fog that is all the good Father can perceive of the monastery garden, leaving not a memory behind.
With a contented sigh Father Ignatius leans back on the hard timber bench while his rheumy eyes explore the mist, wandering across the lawns to those vague splashes of colored flowers which are impressions on his palette of memory, remembered rather than seen. There will be campion where Brother Paul always plants it, and perhaps it is already in bloom, a brave red slash along the border before the high wall, and there, too, the meadowsweet and flowering thyme, in softer, more subtle hues. From the orchard beyond the wall a gentle scent of apple blossom on the breeze – a breeze now chill to these old bones, though the sun is strong. And this is his garden, sight and scent, and this the hum of bees, and this, his world.
Left alone, his mind quickly fades to sleep. His breath cracks in his chest. Wafts of grey habit drift by, hither and thither, with greetings he scarcely hears.
“Good day to you, Father!”
“God bless you, Father!”
These, God’s children, some who will pause to touch his hand as they pass, some who will not. On the edge of rest he sighs in sorrow for them. Brother Thomas brings news often of the new King, so discontented with his Spanish Queen; of how his heart is tainted by violence and hatred; so that Thomas fears he would burn down this sanctified place. Father Ignatius makes a silent prayer for his King who, though god himself, needs his true God’s mercy.
He has dozed awhile, has he not? The sun has dropped lower over the presbytery roof, casting its long shadow like a cloak across the grass. How long has he slept? Has he missed Vespers? Why has Brother Thomas not come for him? Some more pressing business, Father Ignatius suspects, for his good friend will soon be Father Abbot in his place, an office he already conducts in all but name. Yet the bees still hum their own plainsong, and the birds’ jealous melodies of evening are scripture to eyes which can no more see the written word. So perhaps God will forgive him for his omission, this once? Father Ignatius settles his conscience with a word or two of prayer, and drifts.
Again? Has he yielded to sin and slept again?
I am cold.
“I am cold.” Father Ignatius says, but no words come, nor can he say to whom he would speak. From deep within something is reaching for him, and someone stands behind him, someone he cannot feel or see. There is a roaring sound in his head like the surf upon the shores of his youth, pounding and pounding. He sees himself, a child again. He sees the beach, and Marian whom he loved once, smiling her welcome, her skin fresh and shining in the salt spray.
A new journey has begun – a journey for which he has been preparing all his life.
Around Father Ignatius the mist is closing, a grey cloak that curls and swirls like speech, though it has no sound. Yet there is sound. Voices: strange voices that utter words of a tongue he scarcely understands.
“Through here. Try the door.” A young man.
“Look how old this wall is!” A girl or a young woman; nervous, by the tremor in her tone.
“It must be original,” The young man again. “The plan shows there was a garden here. See? The handle turns really easily…”
The girl, in wonder: “Oh, Luke!”
Father Ignatius’s half-blind eyes pick out a lance of light, stabbing, flickering, turning towards him! Suddenly, rapidly, they materialize; the young man who sends the light from his hand, the girl who clings to his arm. He is short-haired and beardless with a bright red tunic and hose for both his legs joined in a single garment. The girl is dressed with her legs immodestly exposed, wearing just a loose vest and a strip of cloth about her hips. For a moment, Father Ignatius sees as though the veils of age have been entirely lifted, and the girl sees him too. Their eyes meet, their minds unite. In her shock, she screams loudly, her shrill note echoing through the empty garden.
“Do you see him?” She breathes, “Luke, do you see?”
“No, I can’t see anything,” But yes, he can. His features are frozen in fear. and he has already begun to back away, his feet demanding he run. He drops his lance of light as he grips her shoulder. “We shouldn’t be here! Come on!”
The girl lingers, reluctant. She sees; she knows.
“Bless me, Father?”
After Compline, as the last traces of evening fade, Brother Thomas will discover Father Ignatius still seated at his customary place in the garden, one hand raised as if, with his last breath, he was trying to give a blessing. In the neglectfulness of youth his novitiate never passed on the ancient Abbot’s message. Filled with remorse Brother Thomas will drop to his knees to administer the last rites and as he does so, his knee will find something hard half-buried in the grass; a black cylinder. He will be amazed to discover that in response to his touch it emits a piercing light.

© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured photo: Falco at Pixabay

Featured

BLM and the Mob

Normally, when I watch the tide of events in America I lament quietly, keeping my feelings to myself.   On the few occasions when I do comment I am politely (or rather less than politely) told I don’t know what I’m talking about, and to ‘butt out’.

I feel entitled to comment this time because what is happening to the west of the ditch is stirring the same pot in the UK, and although mine is a very small voice if we are many we make a chorus of conscience, so maybe we will be heard.

It should be no surprise, really.   Americans with their enthusiasm and verve for all things new have embraced and shaped media communications without, perhaps, giving thought to what the consequences would be if media exceeded law at the hub of power.   They – we – failed to police it; in fact, we espoused it enthusiastically:  I did so myself, lauding the freedom it gave us, denying the inevitable; that people with greed for power would quickly shape it and twist it to suit their ambitions.

And of course that is exactly what has happened.

The gift of the internet is its appeal to the young,  It is the province of the young – it gives them expression, it keeps their secrets from their elders, it allows them to write their own language.  We all know that to be young is to be an idealist; a crusader, a white knight at the Round Table of truth.  Once I was just so, an avid existentialist, disciple of Sartre and convinced civilised life was spawned on Earth by gods who descended in Erich Von Daniken’s spaceships.

I was correct in all my beliefs.  I was right!  Oh, how right I was!  I would argue down anyone who dared suggest otherwise and whenever I was in danger of losing to reason I would walk away, denouncing my challenger as old, or deluded, or irrelevant.

There’s nothing wrong with that: learning is a lifelong experience that no formal education can suppress, and if it tries so to do, things can go tragically awry.   The fresh young mind is eager to be fed; fresh young muscles are fuelled with immense energy, and when they get together, an unsinkable belief.   

Which is why they are so easy to manipulate.

Which is why those unscrupulous power-hungry elder minds, those paedophile rapists of virtue who largely comprise the political or activist class, can succeed in inciting riot, in subverting values and banishing good sense to serve their own purposes.  Being young, I would not have recognised that;  how can I expect the young of today to be any more discerning?

I huddle the politicians and activists together beneath this same banner because they share the same greed, if for different reasons.  Both have made a study of ‘motivating’ (stirring up) large bodies of people, or opinions, or the media influences that form them.  Both rely for their usually quite comfortable incomes upon the perpetuation of dispute.  Resolution is not within their remit, revolution is, to differing degrees, the aim of both.

We should not be surprised, then.  Not surprised that these people, with this miraculous new tool for their box, have no notion when to stop – where to draw the line – how to to exercise restraint.   And so they set about their programme of destruction with their own clear idea of what should ensue; and no idea what the actual consequences must be.

CERTAIN FUNCTIONS OF THE STATE MUST BE KEPT SACRED.

Who will keep order in the streets, control drug violence and protect the innocent if the police are defunded?

What mechanism will stop genocide if religious or ethnic groups become the focus of the mob?

How can Democracy work if the will of the majority can be so easily overturned by intimidation and public unrest?

If a nation denies its history, how can it remain a nation?

Behind the challenge of these simple questions lies the greatest evil embedded in the evolution of our species:  whether you choose to entitle it Tribalism, Puritanism or Fascism, the rule of the mob always begins with a none-too-serious premise, almost a bit of fun, and it develops into a monster.    

Of course black lives matter, but so do white lives.  Of course the great figures upon whom our history was built were not without flaws, but neither were the African tribes who went on raids to generate prisoners for sale into slavery.   Churchill and FDR were probably not paragons of virtue, but without them we would all certainly be non-Arian Untouchables in a society controlled by the Third Reich. 

Democracy, and therefore freedom, depends upon the validity of the public vote being placed above suspicion.  That, I am certain, is the true target of the activist movement in the United States.  An equally superficially unconnected agenda is extant in the UK, where the fingers of the international corporations are to be discovered stirring the lumpy jam of Brexit.  Money never accepts defeat, never respects opinion.

In the form of BLM, just as once from American Irish investment in the IRA, we have imported violence to our shores.  We were a little bit racist, yes, but we were working things out in our own way, and ‘endemic’ racism is not a fair criticism of society here.  A pity, then, that so much is being destroyed by the self-interest of a few.   They have much to answer for.

One siren voice:

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The Perfect Bear

From the archives, once more:

“M’Lord, when you look so disdainfully upon this great oak you see only the ravages of age.  I?  I see magnificence – a monument to the centuries.  With your indulgence M’Lord I shall create from it a thing of such beauty it shall be venerated by all who see it!” Anton Beneskja said grandly. “It shall be my greatest work!”

Lord Percival Fuchs-Pelham regarded The Briarley Oak, woodland giant and pride of his country estate, with some doubt.  “Ravaged, m’dear?  Immensely grizzled, I would venture.  Hideous, certainly: its nine hundred years have not dealt it the kindest hand.”

Anton smiled.  “Yet it still grows.  Had I that gift after so many years unsightliness is a price I would gladly pay.”

The gnarled tree’s elephantine boughs loomed over the companions’ heads like a coming storm, its mighty trunk twisted as if seeking the source of some summoning voice amongst the mountains of the east.  “Indeed, Master; if you can improve upon nature…”

“If I can?  If I can?  M’Lord Percival, have I ever failed?”

M’Lord Percival bit a nervous lip.  There was no doubting Anton’s genius.  In his life Beneskja, sculptor, had created many estimable works in wood – his ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ Triptych (Commissioned by Pius XI himself) was a venerated exhibit in the Basilica of St. Boniface and his quite graphic series of carvings ‘Beyond Innocence’ held pride of place in the Alpington Gallery.  A frieze the great man had hewn to adorn the banqueting hall of Malton House had been lauded as ‘inspired’ by all who saw it.

 “Yet this would seem…”  Knowing those extraordinary talents, Percival hesitated in his criticism…”exceptionally ambitious.”

“Indeed so!  Indeed so!  A great enterprise, my Lord!  I shall call it…”  Anton proclaimed;  “…The Perfect Bear.”

“All the same;”  Percival reasoned;  “Step me, Beneskja, but to carve from a living tree?  This is the Briarley Oak, man, and I’m not sure, d’y’see, that either my ancestors or my heirs would ever forgive me.  If I were to agree, then why not take the tree down first?”

“Wood, my Lord Fuchs-Pelham, is a paradox.  We speak of it as a ‘living’ material, but it is not.  Wood dies when the tree falls.”

Fuchs-Pelham’s cane scraped irritably at a random twig amongst the woodland loam.  He was not of a mood to be lectured.  “Deuced cold.”  He murmured.  A brisk north-easterly breeze was threatening rain.  “A bear, y’say?”

“And an affirmation of life: carved so the tree’s vital energies will be preserved. It will grow; it will develop the sculpture!  Perceive how those two mighty roots are spread like hinder legs with feet planted firmly upon the earth, and how they unify with the great barrel of that trunk, then how the neck supporting the thinner upper boughs – such useless things – forms a bole?  Hewn by my hand that bole shall become a head with mouth agape and rows of, oh, such fearsome teeth; and now!  Now!”  The old man thrust himself forward, jabbing a finger towards the forest canopy:  “See how that one lofty bough, strongest and most ancient of them all, claws at heaven?  It will be a mighty paw, reaching as though the creature were seeking to pluck the very moon from the sky!” 

 Percival tried to recount the times he had listened to his artist’s impassioned exposition of his work, how often he had doubted.  As Beneskja’s patron, he had been persuaded by many visionary tours of lifeless chunks of timber, and placed his faith, oh, so many times, in the maestro’s all-encompassing imagination.  Each time he commissioned a Beneskja work he did so out of friendship, or a gambler’s arrogance, or maybe for the love of fine art at its finest; to be rewarded, many-fold, for almost every adventure.  The parklands that surrounded his country home played host to many Beneskja compositions in marble or bronze, but this – this bordered upon travesty.

Lord Percival Fuchs-Pelham jabbed his cane at the twig, snapping it in two.  He had been chilled for long enough and had no wish for a fever.  “Beneskja m’dear: you must kill the tree in such an enterprise, surely?”

“Again no!  I can work with the form of the tree, leave such bark as it needs to protect the passage of life-giving sap, keep the strength to support those limbs.  My bear will live in your woodland, it will grow and alter with the years – my art will live, My Lord; long after you and I are gone.”

Fuchs-Pelham tried, using all the resources of his imagination, to gain a picture of Anton’s intentions in his mind.  He could not.  “I shiver intolerably!”  His Lordship finally said; and he walked away, shouting over his shoulder:  “Very well.  Do it!”

So a spark that had smouldered so long in Beneskja’s mind became flame.  Thereafter he could think of nothing else:  lesser commissions were left uncompleted, meals left uneaten.  He wandered the passages of his rambling old home through the early hours, often forgetting to clothe himself and frightening his servant.  He drew plans on walls, talked unceasingly of the tree until his mistress Gisette, incensed, began to throw things at him, and eventually left the house altogether.

Gisette came back, of course, she always did.  But when she did, the maestro was not at home.   She found him beneath a little roof he had made for himself, nestled at the foot of the Briarley Oak.

“I shall sleep here.  I shall eat here.  I shall work here.”

“It will be too cold!  When the wind brings snow from the mountains you will surely freeze!”

“I can build a fire!  I shall have wood, after all!  And perhaps, my love, you will join me on the coldest nights?”

“On such hard ground?  Am I so foolish?  When you turn to ice, be sure you pose so I can make a cast.  You can be your own last statue.” Gisette snapped back.  “I shall pay the household bills by exhibiting you here!”  Gisette stormed off, telling Anton she would be in his house if he wanted to come to her.  One of Lord Fuchs-Pelham’s servants would bring him food.

In fact Anton had no intention of remaining in his little hut more than a few days, while he studied the living veins that sustained the tree year by year.  There was little to detain him, as he saw it, once the essential sinew of the old beast was discovered and mapped; for he knew this must be protected.  Although much of the wood was dead and therefore of no use in his eyes his chisels and rasps would work close to living arteries.  It was essential he knew where to make each cut.

A week would pass before Anton began.  His gouge found an open end of grain which invited him to follow it, using the guile his years of dedication to art had taught him.  A sliver of the great oak yielded, prised away from a bed wherein it had slumbered for an age, exposing the lighter grey of long-deceased sapwood beneath.

“Ah,” said the oak.  “That was a blow struck with wisdom.  You have no idea how irritating is the burden of atrophy.  You have relieved me of an itch that has troubled me for three centuries.  I thank you for that.”

Anton took a backward step.  He looked, but the carafe of wine Fuchs-Pelham’s servant had brought him was still full.  Then he looked at the tree, which had not moved, or made any other sign of life.  Great artist that he was, he had often claimed that wood could ‘speak’ – until now he had never really been given cause to believe it.

“You spoke to me!”  He cried.

“Is that so surprising?  I have existed in this glade nigh on a thousand years while mortals have clustered about me, I have learned your language well enough.”

“But you have no…..”

“What?  Mouthparts?  Tongue, vocal cords?  Of course I can speak, though you may not hear my words, but rather feel them inside your head.  Not every mortal can sense them; but then, not every mortal knows wood as you know it.”

Anton found himself unable to reply!  He paced back and forth for several minutes, allowing his freed mind to marvel at this phenomenon.  At last he began to speak in mono-syllables; pouring out random questions:  “Why?  How long?  Which?  Can you?  Have I?”

The tree smiled.  Anton could persuade himself he actually felt it smile!

“Be still!”  The old oak said kindly.  “This way of sharing knowledge is new to you.  You must organize your thoughts, let your questions form.  Take some time.  We are trees – we have nothing but time.”

Anton did not return to his house as he had anticipated, in a few days.  Nor did he return in a few weeks, or a few months.  He built a fire against the winter, a screen against the east wind, and despite Gisette’s dire prediction he did not freeze to death.  For much of the time work was impossible – his tools too cold and brittle, his hands too bitten by the frost to hold them, but he stayed, and in that time the old oak shared many secrets.

One day in early March, as the first lances of sun sliced through the snow clouds and the ancient tree was busy nurturing buds he made a pact.

The tree had long known of Anton’s intention to transform it.  “I am old and though you have given me new life I know one day I must die.  I will be food for beetles, a rotting carcass on the forest floor.  I do not want that to be my fate.  If I am to be a bear,” the tree spoke in his mind, “I will help you with your quest for perfection.  I would like to die as a bear.”

Anton placed both his hands upon the tree’s wide trunk, saying:  “My Lord of the Forest, I will do all I can.”

Thus dawned a last, brilliant phase in the creative fortunes of Anton Beneskja, woodcarver and sculptor.  His renewed genius was entirely centred upon the Briarley Oak which, as he had promised, was step by laborious step transformed into the fearsome image of a giant bear reared upon its hinder legs, stretching for the moon through the canopy of the trees.  No-one knew how deeply intimate was his relationship with that great tree, or how each cut he made, each refinement of form was inch by inch advised by his subject:  he kept that secret to the end.  Knowing him as she did, Gisette might have been best placed to discover the truth, that ‘The Perfect Bear’ was not, after all, entirely his work.  Yet she was accustomed to his conversations with himself when he was working, and so thought little of discovering him apparently talking to the tree when she came upon him unannounced.

“Ah, my Anton!  My shining star!  It is as if the wood could talk to you, my darling, is it not?”

“Yes.”  Anton agreed.  “And imagine what it would say….”

The months passed, became years.  Out of the deformity of the Briarley Oak inch by inch, cut by cut, a miracle took shape.  One morning in the third spring, at quite an early hour, the largest root became a paw, its claws clutching the loam with crippling force.  In that same year the union of root and trunk was transformed to become a broad and powerful haunch, and the excess wood that spoiled the angle Anton wanted for the bear’s back began to fall away.  So dramatic were these changes those who witnessed them swore the tree itself was changing shape, its boughs creating new angles, the bole at its summit leaning upwards more than before.  Everyone who visited the glade remarked upon the vitality of the sculpture – how very like a mighty bear it had become.

As for Anton himself, he became as much a part of the woodland as the tree.  Working increasingly from ladders and burned walnut brown by constant exposure to the elements, he was barely distinguishable as he clung, ape-like, to a high limb.  Lord Percival, amazed at the sculpture’s brilliance, was inclined to visit often.  When he did he enthused, but Anton answered only with non-committal words and grunts.  When would the work be finished?  Not yet.  Did he need more money or supplies?  No, none.

Eventually, Fuchs-Pelham stopped approaching Beneskja altogether, preferring to view his remarkable carving from a distance.  Soon even Gisette was rejected.  The master lived by his work, and he lived only for his work.  It was his alone.

The years slipped by.  Gisette married Lord Percival Fuchs-Pelham.  Anton was seen only rarely. Glimpsed at times amid the foliage of his tree he became the subject of superstitious rumor.  Some claimed Beneskja had become a sprite, that he would hide within the disguise of his tree ready to leap upon the unwary.  Others even suggested they had seen leaves growing from his body.  He could no longer speak in human tongue, they said.  Children were warned with dark tales.

At last in the summer of the seventh year, ‘The Perfect Bear’ was finished.  Its presence in the wood had been so remarkable for so long it was impossible to be certain when Beneskja’s chisel made its final pass.  But the completed sculpture was a thing of power and beauty which fulfilled Anton’s promise.  And true to his promise it grew in glory with the years.

Beneskja?  Perhaps he left to travel in foreign lands, or to seek new avenues for his colossal talents; maybe he simply dropped into obscurity, his life’s work done.  No-one could say what had become of him and strangely for one who was a legend in himself, few took the trouble even to ask.

Then one bright morning the elderly Lord Percival and Lady Gisette, walking in the woods, came upon their glade to find ‘The Perfect Bear’ had gone!  There was nothing, no trace beneath the wide acre of clear sky the tree had left behind to show it had ever grown there.  They sought for signs of churned earth where its roots had been, called in experts to look for other clues, but all in vain.  The Briarley Oak, ‘The Perfect Bear’, had vanished.

A satisfactory answer was never found.  In future years a man from the village would claim to have seen a bear rushing across the fields towards the dawn with an old man clinging to its back.  Still more time would pass before a group of mountaineers in the nearby peaks came across a cave well above the tree line which was, inexplicably, filled with huge baulks of timber that looked like oak from an ancient tree.  But there were no signs the wood had been cut, or evidence of any human activity. 

“It is as if” one of the mountaineers explained; “the tree just crawled into the cave and died.”

©  Frederick Anderson, August 2020

Header Image by Liggraphy, from Pixabay

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Crow Diplomacy

The crow is there when I draw back my blind this morning.   Perched atop the lamp-post outside my window, preening himself with all the same self-importance and conceit I remember.

“Hello, mate,”  He cocks his head to catch me squarely in the eye,  “Surprise, yeah?”

“Surprise?  I thought you were dead!”

“Yeah?  Dead?  Oh, that’s nice, innit?  Nah mate, I been down the coast for a coupl’a years.  Got meself a bit of a taste for the old fishes, see?  Never been fitter, me.  See the shine on these?”  He stretches his flight feathers for effect,  “That’s what fishes does for yer!”

“So, what brought you back here?”

“Ah.”  He shifts uneasily.  “Watch this, look!”   With a dive and a spread of his wings he is gone, finding himself some rising air to soar above the common which skirts the further side of our road.  I watch him go.   Larger than my recollection of him, his flight is masterful, as though he owns the air he rides upon.  It is a freedom I always envied in him, yet I am glad for his return.  Regretting the brevity of our renewed acquaintance, I settle down to work.

An hour later he is back, alighting on the streetlamp once again and bringing a piece of paper which he pins beneath his left foot.  .  “It was the gulls.”  he says, staring down at it.

He is always gathering trophies of rubbish from one source or another, so I dismiss it as having some tasty morsel on it that he likes.  “Gulls?”  I query.

“On the coast.  I was doin’ alright dahn there, new Missus, more kids.  Them gulls, though…  See, when they comes up ‘ere – inland, when it’s windy, like – they’re behavin’ theirselves, ‘cause there’s more of us than there are them,  but dahn there, on the coast…”

Herman

“Were you getting bullied?”

He fluffs his feathers.  “Nah, mate!  Nah!  Bullied?  Me?  No bleedin’ gull bullies me, no-how.”

“But?”  I coax him.

“Well, it never stops, does it?  Mob, mob, mob all the time.  They got this leader, this Blackback called Herman.  Nasty little bugger.  He organises it all.”

“You offended Herman?”

“I might just of won an argument over a nice bit of ‘erring.  It was nuffin, was it?  He reckoned it were ‘is, but it never were…”  Crow clacks his beak:  “Don’t matter, anyway.  Back here now.  Even got me old nest back after a bit of argy-bargy.  Pizza place has closed. though, ha’n’it?

“You’ll be missing those bins!”

“What, me? No chance!  Good provider, me.  I know me dustbins, don’t I?  Yours is a good un.”

“Thanks for reminding me; I must remember to close the lid.  The Pizza place has gone.  Its owners couldn’t survive this Covid thing.”   And I add quickly, in case he should misunderstand,  “That’s Covid, not corvid.”

“I should fink so!  I should fink so, mate!  Us corvids gets accused of enough of it – this and that.  So that’s why the pizza place is closed.  Bat-poop.”

“Oh, you know about that!”

“Yeah!”  He fluffs out his feathers;  “I got internashun’l connections, I have. Larf, innit?”

“Well, personally I take it pretty seriously.”

“What?  I mean….’ere, look, let’s get it straight.  These bats, they’ve all got a touch of the Covids, right?  So they poops on these Pango…whatsits.”

“Pangolins.”

“Yeah, them.”  

“That shouldn’t be so sensational.  You and your mates are pretty expert in the excretia-targetting department.  I’ve received a few direct hits myself.”

“Yeah, well.  Once by me personally.”

“What??”

“”You’ve got a big head.  Anyway, don’ interrupt.  Then these Chinese blokes from Wotan eat the Panga-whatits and they catch the virus, an’ then they spreads it all over the place? Like I said, larf, innit?”

Why is it funny?”

The crow begins to dance from foot to foot on the lamp-post top, in the way he always does when he has a point to make:  “Well, first fing, see – first fing, these Pangy-whatsits is very scarce, right?  Not many left ‘cause the Chinese eat them all the time, and they use their scales, an ‘at.    So I’m guessin’ yer average bat don’t score many direct hits on many Panga-whatsits, see?”

“Yes,”  I acknowledge cautiously,  “I think I see.”

 And second fing; there’s a lab’raratary…”

“Laboratory.”

“One of those.  There’s one of those half a mile up the flippin’ road from this Wotan place where they makes viruses all day, like?  An’ no, you’re sayin, nobody slipped a few dishes o’ this Corvid stuff out o’ there?  No, much more likely you caught it off a bat that pooped on a pangolin what somebody ate?   Oh, my gawd!   It’s a larf!   They’re tuggin’ yer wire, mate!”

“That’s a terrible accusation!”  I accuse him.  “You’re saying these people are deliberately poisoning the rest of the world?  Why?”

The crow lowers his head to stare at me with such intensity I almost imagine, for a moment, that he is wearing those rimless half-lenses my maths teacher so often used to pinion me in my junior year.  “Now that’s a very good question, that is.  That’s the best question you’ve asked me all morning.  Yes.”

I recover myself.  “And does it have an answer?  Thousands of people have died.”

“That won’t matter to ‘im.”  My friend cocks his head.  “You didn’t expec’ me to say that, neither, did yer?  I knows about ‘im, too ‘cause I’m an internashun’l crow, me.   I got connections!”

“Yes, so you said. I don’t doubt it.”  I stare at him interrogatively, doubting it.  “Who’s ‘him’”

“This Chinese bloke, Xi Jinping – ‘im.”

The crow has always had the power to surprise, but this astounds me:  “The Chinese leader – how the hell do you know about him?”

“Like I said, connections.  Crows fly across seas, y’know, if there’s somefink good to eat on the uvver side.  We chat a lot.  Sven, he’s from the place wiv all the mosquitos…”

“Sweden?”

“Yeah, there.  Well, he’s got a mate, Ivan, from the big land – Russia, I fink you calls it, an’ Ivan knows a crow from Mongolia.  He was nestin’ wiv ‘er for years, an they still get on, an’…”

“Right!  Alright, I get the picture!”

  From what they’re tellin’ me, he’s ‘avin’ a bit of argy wiv this cockatoo feller, yeah?”

Amazed by my old friend’s apparent grasp of world politics, I decide to enlighten him further.  “If you mean the American President, I suppose so, yes.  He says China has been stealing American intellectual property and copying their technology for years, you see, and…”

“An’ this Pingy bloke, he says old Cockatoo’s lot ‘as been sendin’ work to them in China ‘cause they can produce it cheaper, then buyin’it back for a tax dodge.”  The crow nods sagely and looks down at his feet.  He seems to be looking at his feet a lot.  “Yeah, I get it.  I get it, mate!”

“So, go on then!”  

“Go where?”

“Give me your solution to the problem!”  In my past experience the crow always comes up with a solution. Maybe this one is a little too complicated, even for his innate common sense to unravel. I shouldn’t have doubted.

“Well, I sees it like this;”  The crow looks up to the sky as if in search of divine inspiration, but I realise almost immediately that his attention is being drawn by a seagull circling overhead.   “Do you hear that?  Do you ‘ear what that clam-shucker jus’ called me?

“Any’ow, your little difficulty.  Let’s see.”   He injects a scholarly pause.  “The way I looks at it, this Pingy bloke an’ the Cockatoo, they don’t share the same tree, do they?  They don’ get on.   A bit like me an’ Herman, yeah?   If we’d thought about it, we could ‘ave shared that bit of ‘erring, but we didn’t ‘cause we jus’ don’t like each uvver; an’ I has to back off ‘cause there’s more of ‘is lot than my lot down there, an’ Herman knows it.

“Which is not so true in this case,”  I point out, “because both sides are about equal.”

“So there’s yer answer, then!”  The crow sounds triumphant.  “What do yer do?  Nuffink!  Nuffink!   Hah!”  I must be looking dense, because he amplifies this conclusion:  “See, neither of ‘em can’t do nuffink ‘cause they needs to nest and feed, an’ Pingy’s lot won’t really want ter do that in Cockatoo’s tree, wiv all the mobbing an’ ‘at, an’ same goes for Cockatoo’s bunch.  They jus’ sits in their own trees an’ peck at each uvver’s feathers for a bit.”

“And that’s your solution?  They just go on skirmishing and hating each other forever?”

“Nah!  Nah, ‘course not!  This is all abaht time, see?”  The crow stares at his feet again.  “Cockatoo and Pingy, don’t they ‘ave mates?”

“Wives, you mean?   Yes, I believe they do.”

“There you are, then!”

“And…?”

“Wives, mates, partners – while me an’ Herman’s struttin’ about, we’re getting a right earful from our uvver halves, ‘cause we’re fightin’ over ever’fing.  I tell yer, mate, if I’d taken me missus from up ‘ere wiv me dahn the coast instead of pickin’ up a local bird I’d still be dahn there!  She’d ‘ave sorted Herman aht, no trouble!  See, us blokes don’ like losin’ face, but our missuses, they got more important stuff…”

“Like economics, and running charities, and so on.”  I suggest, with barely concealed sarcasm.

He looks at me archly,  “Yeah, alright – them.  Any’ow, bit o’ pressure, bit o’ time, and Cockatoo an’ Pingy both work out it’d be better if they got along and agreed on same stuff as before, an’ there you are, sorted!”  He flexes his wings.  “Now, if there’s nuffin’ else, I got to catch up wiv me local knowledge.  I’ve lost track of a farmyard or two, see?  Would yer believe it, Farrer’s Bridge ‘as stopped keepin’ ‘is chickens. No quick lunches there, no more!”

I watch as he soars into the low grey cloud that gathers over both our mornings, regretful of the time we’ve missed in these conversations, but glad to have his patent wisdom to ground me once more.  In his wake, the fragment of paper that he brought to the lamp-post in his claw flutters, discarded, to the grass below.

Consumed by curiosity, I descend the stairs and make my way out of doors to retrieve that fragment, which I probably see as litter.  When I examine it, I see something more – newsprint with the heading ‘US-China Standoff’ and a small picture of Donald Trump.  There is further text; beginning a characterisation of the major players in the trade war, and a few words of explanation of its causes.  It is a mere scrap with room to accommodate only a little information, but it might be enough to explain my friend’s grasp of an issue outside his normal understanding and to present me with a fresh challenge to my unbelief:

Can it be that the crow has learned to read?

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credits: Milkovi on Unsplash, Casey Horner on Unsplash

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Flotsam

A re-post from 2015…

“If it’s not a mine…”  Laura says;  “what is it?”

Toby shakes his head.   “Dunno.  It sort of looks like a mine, though.  Dad was saying about the war and that.  Maybe we should report it, or something?”

“Oh, yes, it looks like a mine!”  Laura mocks.  “Like you’d know what a mine looks like!  I think it’s just a box.”

“Yes I do so know what a mine looks like!  I’ve got pictures!

“Where?”

“At home.”

The ‘mine’ sits before them in the sand, deposited by the high tide the night before.  Whatever it is, its dull metal body will not tell.   The children have been watching it for a half hour, waiting for someone else to walk along the beach, but so early on this rainy morning no-one comes.

“I’m going to find out!”  Toby decides.

Laura protests.  “Noooo!  Toby, DON’T!”   All the same, she follows her brother as he approaches the object.   “What if it goes off?”

“Then we’ll be blown to bits!”  At nine years old Toby has little comprehension of all that means.  He stoops over the object.  “It’s got spikes like a mine, but there’s only four.”

Laura casts frightened eyes about her, wishing someone, anyone would appear.  She doesn’t want to be blown to bits – she needs help.  “Let’s report it, Toby!  I’ll run back and tell Dad!”  

“He won’t be up yet, and he’ll get mad at us.   See this…”  Her brother reaches for a prominence on the object at the root of one of the spikes.  “It turns, I think.”

“Oh no!”

“Yeah!   See?”

Making the prominence turn requires effort because it is rusted or seized by some other means.  Toby has to sit down on the wet sand and place his foot against the object to gain leverage.   Laura punctuates his every move with another groan of foreboding.  

A determined wrench plucks the thing from its sandy bed.   Toby falls backward.  Laura screams.  The prominence frees itself suddenly and turns, splitting the object wide open with an angry hiss.  Both children are petrified, struck dumb in their horror, waiting for the end.   

Nothing happens.

For several seconds neither child can move:  they sit where they fell, staring at the object, which has opened like a book.

Evetually Laura says.  “It was just air escaping. It’s all silvery inside!  Look:  it’s all silvery!”

“What’s all that stuff?”Toby says.  “It’s got stuff in it.”

Some of the ‘stuff’ has spilled out and lies scattered on the sand.

Emboldened by the box’s apparent incapacity to harm, the children recover themselves and edge up to it once more.  Together they begin picking over the detritus that has spewed from its interior.   “Its all, like, electrical bits.  Do you think it’s an old radio, or something?”  Laura says.  “Oh, and look there’s a little packet here with something inside.”

Toby stands over the box, staring down at it, a frown of concentration on his wind-tanned face.  “I tell you what it is!”  He cries, inspired.  “It’s an old navigation buoy!   You know, like the one at the headland Dad uses to guide his boat back in the fog?  This…”  He pulls a large, gold-colored disc from a slot in the top;  “this is the thing that makes the bell sound – see?”   He flicks a finger at the disc, which responds with a dull metal ring.

Laura has torn the little packet with her teeth and is examining the little piece of metal inside.  “Ouch!  That’s sharp!”  She sucks a drop of blood from her finger and throws the offending object back into the interior of the opened box.  “We’ll get into trouble, won’t we?  We shouldn’t have touched it!”

Toby’s frown deepens.  His sister is invariably right in matters of parental censure.  Dad will be annoyed.  “I tell you what, we’ll bury it.”

“Where?  In the sand?  The sea’ll just wash it up again.”

“Not if we bury it in the North Dunes.  They’ve been getting bigger every year since Dad can remember.  No-one will ever find it there.  It’ll be entombed forever.”  Toby breathes the long word proudly, making a dramatic arch shape with his hands.

“Alright.  Let’s do it quickly, before someone comes.”

With some effort the two children drag the object away along the beach, and the tide rolls in behind them, washing over their tracks.  It will be an hour or more before they have completed the object’s interment among the grasses of the North Dunes, and scuffed and smoothed the sand back into place.

“Time for breakfast.”  Toby says.  Then he spots the gold-colored disc in his sister’s hand.  “Oh, Laura!”

“I couldn’t help it!  I don’t want to bury it!  It’s so nice!”

“Give it to me!”

“No!  I want it!”

“You can’t keep it!  You’ll give everything away!”

“I can hide it!”

“Give it to me!”  Angry, Toby wrestles his sister to the ground and snatches the disc from her hand; then he strides away towards the rocky shore where the waves break, at the foot of the North Headland.  Realizing his intention, Laura runs after him in a tragedy of tears.

“Toby, no, don’t break it!   Don’t, please!”

But Toby is determined.  He smashes the disc against the sharp rock where the limpets cling, making an edge.   Nevertheless the disc resists him, and it requires several blows, with Laura weeping at his arm, before it suddenly splits into five pieces.   He hurls each piece, one by one, into the rising tide.

“Now!  We’re going back for breakfast!”

Still crying, Laura manages to intercept the final sliver of disc, though her dream of possessing it is shattered.  As she turns it over in her hands she makes a discovery.  “Toby – what’s this?”

Toby glances disparagingly at the black marks his sister had found.  “Nothing.”  He says.

“No?  I think it’s a speak-mark.”

“Don’t be stupid.  You’re just stupid!  You can’t speak a mark like that!”

“Just ‘cos you can’t!”

“And you can’t, neither.  Come on!”

But his sister lingers.  She tries to copy the symbols she has found, scratching them in sand that is still wet between the tides.   In the end, though, she has to admit defeat.  They mean nothing.  Reluctantly she follows her brother back towards their beach-side home, throwing the last shard of disc into the sea and leaving her sand writing to be obliterated by the waves.  For a while though, for a few precious minutes, the symbols she has inscribed remain, staring up at the waking of the twin suns.

Their message is imparted so the sky alone may read – one word:

VOYAGER

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original co

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Gloves

More archived material – this one from 2016 and re-worked a little..

I recollect her gloves.  They first drew my attention to her.  That afternoon at the City Library, she placed them side by side on her desk, arranged with such neat precision they might have been elements of a ritual, pointing towards me across the centre divider between our respective spaces, in perfect alignment with the upper left-hand corner of her book.  They were black gloves, of course.   She could have countenanced no other colour.

Easily distracted, my eyes wandered further from the dry meat of my Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’ to her hands – and I saw how long they were, the fingers how sensitive – how the veins within them were no more than a grey trace and how they were suited so, to her porcelain flesh, to the white, neat blouse with its delicate lace trim, to the gentle curve of her shoulders, to her neck’s ennobled grace, to the close- wound curls of her auburn hair.  

And then I remember her face: those eyes of startling pale blue, her pert, upturned nose and the prim set of her mouth, so determined yet so ready to drift into a wisp of a smile when she caught my stare – and how I curled with embarrassment as I buried my nose back into my book, only to feel I must make some gesture to excuse my gaucheness.  I raised Edward Gibbons’ weighty tome to the vertical so she could see its title, giving one of those eyes-to-the-ceiling expressions which conveyed (or so I hoped) my boredom with its cumbersome prose.

In return, she exhibited the object of her own studies, Dostoyevsky, with a little twist of her lips that meant the same.   We shared a smile.  I fell in love.

It wasn’t much, that moment; yet in the obligation of study and the hushed discipline of a library it was all we had, and enough to fill my young mind with dreams.  She did not remain long at the mercy of ‘Crime and Punishment’.   I heard, rather than saw her rise, slip her chair back almost noiselessly, find perfect balance on precise feet and move away.  Only then did I dare to look up and watch her departure, instantly regretting my shyness.  Why had I not spoken – just some little pleasantry to pierce the silence?   

I gazed after her,  indulging my wasted fantasies in the neatness of her short, clipped steps and formal, green-suited style, until distance consumed her.  I heard the brief rush of the street as she slipped out through the library doors.  Then I looked down, and saw the glove!  It was twisted, not neatly posed as when she laid it upon her desk.  In the story I invented for her she made to pick up both gloves as she departed, but retained just one of the pair.   Fanning a spark of hope, I snatched it up and ran in pursuit – past desk and alarmed librarian, down echoing stone steps and back into the city crowds of which she could be no more than a tiny part.  A part I would not see, or ever find.

I looked.  Oh, yes, I looked.  I searched the street that day, I searched the streets every day.   I returned to the library at the same time every afternoon for a month, every week for a year.  And every day I brought that glove, and every day was the same.  She never returned.

Once I saw her – or so I thought.  Upon my route to lectures in the North Bailey I had to take the riverside walk, and a little above the weir where the water is at its widest and deepest, there is a green-painted bridge of Victorian iron, a doughty testament to nineteenth-century engineering.   Was hers the figure standing there, by the rail at the centre of the span – and was she looking towards me?  Although I ran, by the time I reached the place there was no sign of her.  I was mistaken, betrayed by my wishful heart. 

Years would pass.  I would, at last, consign that little glove to an upper drawer and every once in a while expose it, and remember.    But after all, I was just nineteen that day in the library.  She of my memory was probably older than I, had a life somewhere:  perhaps a husband and children.  Every now and then I could persuade myself the fleeting engagement of our eyes had meant as much to her as to me, that she was out there somewhere, dreaming as I dreamed.  Of course, it could not be so, yet it was the matter of many a sleepless night.

Here I must explain a little about myself.  I am reticent by nature, a savagely introverted soul with a disinclination to trust;  a deficit of character I put down to the knowledge I am an adopted child, with all the internalised uncertainties that brings.  My adoptive family kept this from me until my fifteenth birthday, and it scarcely rocked my world until I mistakenly shared the information with my then-girlfriend, who promptly revised her opinion of me on the basis that she ‘no longer knew who she was going out with’.  Thereafter I was wary of forming relationships.   I am, still.

I think I was twenty-five or twenty-six when I at last decided I must try to trace my birth mother and father.  Who had rejected me before I had a voice for my defence?  Of course, it would be difficult.  Agencies are careful to protect the details of those who, by choice or circumstance, offer their children for adoption, and it was made plain to me that my success would depend upon the wishes of my natural parents.  I signed several forms, made a number of pledges, and waited.

This was in the late summer of that year.  I had work in another city at the time.  I suppose I was surprised that my request was resolved so quickly, because I had aimed to be back in my home town before word came.  After only three weeks I received a call from the Agency:  could I make an appointment as soon as possible?   I did so, and I will not forget my nervousness as I made the long drive to keep it.

The woman who faced me across her desk was kind, I think.  Her work must have made her so, must it not?    Yet to me she seemed harshly spoken; her words were clipped at the final consonant and sharp, incisive to my eager ears.

“You cannot always expect a request such as yours to be successful.  I’m afraid in this case…”

“They don’t want to meet me?”

“There is only one traceable parent, your mother.   You cannot make contact with her because she died many years ago.  However we were able to trace her sister, and she has no wish to communicate with you.  She wants to make that very clear.”  The woman reached into a drawer by her right knee, producing a large manila envelope, with the words ‘For Kevin’ scrawled upon it in faded biro.   “Kevin was the name your mother gave to you.  Her sister has retained this in her possession ever since your mother’s death, in case you ever wished to make contact.  I advise you to take it home and examine it at your leisure.  We can be of no further help.”  

Cutting the seal of that envelope took courage.  It contained a letter I shall not share with you, a confession of such sadness and loss it must remain hidden forever.   I will tell you, though, of the newspaper clipping, of the article with the photograph at its side, about a bereft young woman who leapt from the iron bridge above the weir at her life’s end, and I will tell you that the picture was familiar to me.  The face that stared back at me from the photograph was that of the girl I had seen in the library all those years before.

The envelope also contained, neatly wrapped, one black glove.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Out of Darkness?

“Round to your left, please!”

There are ways of saying ‘please’, which vary from earnest entreaty to thinly-disguised threat.   This is the latter.

“Did you order online?”

She stands in command of her little empire of plastic bollards and fake crime tape, stockily built, belligerent and enjoying the anonymity of her paper mask.

“Do you have documentation?  In through this door and go to station 2.”

The image of state authority passes through my mind as I obediently follow the painted lines on the floor.   “Your papers!   What is your destination?  Why?”

Inside the emporium, I am told to remain standing on a yellow square.  I do so, making a mental note to never use this ‘click and collect’ service again.  Probably, I will avoid using this store again.   I have the possibly illogical notion that if I am ever to catch the benighted virus, it will be here.   It will float into my respiratory system on a cloud of vitriol.

‘Station 2’ Comes up with my merchandise and allows me to collect it from the counter while ‘Station 2’ hides behind her perspex screen.   The items are loose, four little germ hives that rebuke me for failing to think of my rubber gloves.  I depart.

“That way!”

“Yes, dear.”

Retreating to the safety of my car and my sanitizer, having run the gauntlet of a purchase that the retailer was so anxious I should make, I reflect that the traumatising nature of the transaction is not so much the fault of the retailer as it is the fault of staff who would rather not deliver this so-tight-the-pips-squeak routine, who, in fact, would rather not be there at all.

This is an outlet for a big company, of course; a concern with branches nationwide.  Edicts are issued from on high, executed (i can think of no more appropriate word) by those who see themselves as minions and to whom the paper mask has afforded the benefit of disguise.   

As I drive home I realise that I have been privileged to witness the death of the ‘retail experience’ as we know it.  The end of the Mall, of the High Street with its punitive overheads, its regimentation.  Lockdown has given us all a freedom which, having experienced, we should be anxious to preserve.

Here’s the tragedy.  This authoritarian solution is likely to become distinctly a big company drag shoe administered from well-heeled boardrooms with no appreciation of the latent enmity that exists between staff at floor level and their customers.  Now there are masks.  Now any element of personal contact has been eliminated.  Now we can say what we THINK!  It is not a philosophy shared by those dwindling ranks of independent retailers who have a genuine interest and would like to offer a friendly, warm avenue of communication with those who walk through their door; but they are the ones who will suffer most from the collapse of ‘Retail Therapy’.   

High Streets and Malls, gang-raped by the big corporations, were in trouble long before COVID came to call.   Malls do not make money.   Pillaged by rents and business rates they are the biters bit.  Recently those on the High Streets have done no better.  Only banks can be relied upon to make profits.

Of those who have passed their isolation working from home, four out of five have expressed their preference for continuing to work from home.  The removal of restrictions should mean a mass migration back into the town, a human tidal wave of relieved shoppers grateful the siege has been lifted.  It has not.   Apart from essential travel, we seem reluctant to return to the bean-can life.  If a vaccine is not quickly found, perhaps we never will.

A personal opinion?   We could be standing at the threshold of something massive.  There is clearly a need for some centralisation, but not as much – a need for towns (cities) – but not as many.  Maybe the twentieth-century commute is a thing of the past, the big office no longer an eight-hour prison sentence at the hub of each day.  Does the nursery belong in the home, rather than at some converted church hall or school?  And are the icons of the education industry ripe for scattering, now they are so much a source of foment for rebellion and unrest? 

Photo credit: Joe Stubbs on Unsplash

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Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Four.

Author’s note:  this episode contains some eroticism and political incorrectness, so it probably isn’t for everyone, but I did warn you about that, didn’t I?  All dun in fun (or done in fone).  I hope you enjoy.

In Julian Parfitt’s ‘Oval Office’, an agreement with the UK Government was finalised with almost indecent haste.  After everybody had expressed their admiration for everybody else, A.J. Poulson, on the ‘phone from the Ministry, wrapped the deal up.

“I’ll have the papers prepared.  If your legal people are happy we’ll be signed and sealed in a few days.  You keep your sovereignty, we pay your rate for the gas, and we rent the pipeline from the Republic of Aga.  Toodle-pip!”  He rang off.

“That was amazingly easy!”  Julian enthused.  “Willoughby, you’re a genius!”

Willoughby blushed.  “Now, Julian!  Come on.  Let’s get in that exercise I promised!”

Skaeflint’ae Beach was at its best that summer forenoon.  Very early in his explorations Willoughby had discovered the cove with its honeycomb of caves and tall cliffs, hidden away from the gas wells on the other side of the headland.  The little apron of sand was large enough to tempt bathers and private enough to be exclusive.  In their first days on the island – in those times Rowena remembered so wistfully – she and Julian had bathed uninhibitedly here.

Today it was Willoughby who accompanied Julian to the beach.  Rowena had to stay behind – a consultant and an Iranian cook had arrived on the early tide to help prepare for the Iranian delegation due that afternoon.  They had set up most of their equipment at the harbour, ready to transport to the house, which they began to do at around eleven am. They were nice people, and they brought with them some knowledge of a surprising nature.

“Your clocks;” said the consultant.  “You do realize they’re two hours adrift?”

“Are they?”  Rowena was at first disbelieving, then astounded.  “My watch, too.  How could that be?”

“I guess too long away from the mainland?”  the cook suggested.  “It is of no importance – we can finish our work in very little time.”

“Julian!”  Rowena exclaimed.  “He won’t know!  Can you find your own way around?  I must warn him!”

Even as she set off up the path to Ben Adderhochie, Rowena recognised the futility of her task.  The walk to Skaeflint’ae was at least forty minutes, and the Iranians would be with them within the hour.  However, as she hurried, a few dark corners began to open in her mind; a few vital tumblers began to click into place.  As the sinister import of these deliberations took shape, Rowena began to increase her pace.  She had not missed the faun-like conspiracy in her husband’s look that morning, or Willoughby’s devious smile…..

“Isn’t this truly beautiful?”  Cried Willoughby, standing at the water margin.  “Doesn’t it just fill your heart, Julian?”

Julian, staring at Willoughby’s back, admitted that it did.  As they had clambered down the steeper section of the cliff path, Willoughby had removed his shirt to expose that back and every rippling muscle in it.

“Let’s swim!”  The rest of Willoughby’s clothes seemed to magic from him, so all of a sudden Julian was plunged into his dream of the previous night:  these were not the tropics, but Willoughby’s virile nudity was all it promised to be, running towards the deeper sea.  Laughing at the ice-chill of the waves, Willoughby turned to offer a view that certainly filled Julian’s heart, and did much to stimulate other organs too:  “Come on, my little water-baby; get in here!” 

Julian tried a modest compromise, removing his shirt and trousers.  Willoughby was hysterical:  “Oh, what?  Underpants!  Get them off you, man!”

So Julian did.  The sea was so bollock-freezingly cold it precluded all innocent play.  Willoughby did not mind this – he saw it merely as the setting of a stage.   Swiftly back upon the beach both men laughed and stamped and shivered while Julian made the point that, in this wet condition, they had no hope of regaining their clothes.

“I’m going to catch pneumonia!”

“Lie down on the sand,”  commanded Willoughby.  “It’s warm in the sun.”

Side by side in the more yielding stuff above the tide-line they stretched themselves out to dry.  Gradually Julian’s shivering stopped, but he did not cease to complain of the cold.  Not, that is, until he felt Willoughby’s arm across his chest – then he began to experience a warmth which wasn’t quite rational.

“Not a bad body, you know, Julian,” said Willoughby; “for a City gent, hmm?”

Julian should have resisted, but he found himself quite liking that irrational warmth.  There was still time to step back, then; to turn away – before Willoughby slithered closer to him, so they were flank to flank, and certainly before Willoughby’s hands began to explore him in areas where even Rowena was reluctant to go, unless offered a bribe of fine vintage Bollinger.

“I’m afraid I’m not very…”  He heard himself stuttering.  “I’m not hung like a…well, not like you.”

“Like a donkey?”  Willoughby laughed.  “Don’t worry, I’ve heard it said.  But I think you’re rather sweet, dear Julian.  And size isn’t so important, is it?”

To be fair to Julian, he did tense up a little at this point:  he did recognise the Rubicon he was crossing, that this was an aspect of sexuality which had always made him feel uncomfortable in the past.  But he did not feel uncomfortable – not at all.  In fact, Willoughby’s attention was making him feel very comfortable indeed.

He would have been less relaxed if his ears had picked up the faint chug of a diesel motor, or if he had been looking out to sea at this particular moment; for a yacht was passing the open mouth of the cove with its complement of three Iranian diplomats lined up, like three wise men on a Christmas card,  upon its deck.  Unlike the three wise men, though, they each had binoculars.  Alas, he was not looking, and he did not see.  He did not see even when, five minutes later, the same yacht and the same three diplomats passed by again, travelling in the opposite direction.  This time only one diplomat was looking through binoculars – the other two had cameras.

“I know what we need.”  Willoughby murmured in Julian’s ear.  “I’ll be right back, love, Okay?”

“Oh, don’t go!”  Julian was nervously affected by the prospect of any interval in his further education, inasmuch as he feared a premature conclusion, exacerbated by the sight of Willoughby’s taut buttocks stalking away from him up the beach, to disappear into one of the caves. Fortunately, Willoughby’s return was almost immediate.  He held a packet of white powder in one hand while he twirled a drinking straw in the other.

“A little stash I set up yesterday, especially for us,”  he explained, as he plunged into the pockets of his discarded trousers to produce a small mirror.  Using that magnificent torso to shield them from any breeze, he nicked the corner of the packet, allowing a thin stream of powder to settle in a line upon the mirror.  “Here we are, darling boy.  Something else you haven’t tried.”

Now there was truly no turning back. The Rubicon was a distant memory; Julian was well into Italy and his feet had dried.  The white powder filled his world with little clicking sounds and flashing lights and unable to withstand any further delay he thrust himself awkwardly at Willoughby, who chuckled his indulgence:  “No, sweety – that works with women, not with us.”

Then he showed Julian exactly what to do, and Julian followed his instructions with alacrity, and Willoughby said a rather curious thing. 

 He said:  “All right boys – in for the close-up.  Not all at once, now!”

‘Close-up’?  Julian relished this strange terminology, knowing there would be many new words to learn.  It was a whole new world, one he had denied himself for so, so long.  As he let the waves of fulfilment roll over him he ruffled Willoughby’s hair and opened his eyes to ask its meaning.  He did not have to ask; nor did he need to ask about the clicks, or the flashing lights, because they were still happening.  They were coming from the ring of photographers standing around them.

“Julian old chap!”  Said Willoughby, disengaging himself.  “Let me introduce you to the gentlemen of the Press.”

The misery of the next ten minutes would remain with Julian all his life.  His struggle to get through the ranks of paparazzi to recover his clothes, the break into an undignified run with his trousers still down around his knees, the raucous cheer when he fell flat on his face in the sand.  Then there was the second raucous cheer when, halfway up the cliff path he met Rowena coming down – or, more correctly, ran onto her fist.

If the gentlemen of the fourth estate had lacked quotes to spice up their articles Rowena gave them plenty.  But Rowena was never a woman to be taken, or quoted, lightly – she also gave weight.  The one redeeming act of that whole mortifying afternoon was when she kicked Willoughby off the cliff.  The man who wrestled with crocodiles was no match for Rowena scorned, and Rowena was never one to leave an advantage without pressing it home.  She pursued Willoughby to where he had fallen, clutching a number of compound fractures, and jumped on him until four sturdy press men restrained her.  By that time she had ensured that Willoughby would trouble no-one of either sex for a very long time.

#

“He invited them in early that morning,” Julian explained miserably, after he and Rowena had negotiated an uneasy truce and they were browsing the websites of the national dailies in their kitchen the following day.  “They were hiding in the caves all the time we were there.  He set me up.  The coke, the whole thing.”

Dismally, they scanned pages full of pictures with little black squares all over them.  Rowena featured as much as Julian, for the camera Willoughby had set up on the grandfather clock had done its job well.

“I got a phone call from the Iranians;” She said.  “They don’t want your alliance.”

Julian nodded. “You should have heard Prince Fuisal.  Apparently what I was doing in those photographs is punishable by death in Al Flaberri.  Daddy’s told him never to speak to me again.  The tankers all sailed early this morning – there’s going to be no pipeline and no deal.  We’re just waiting for the landing craft.”

Rowena rested her chin on her hands:  “Or maybe not.”  She said. “No, maybe not.”

Julian gave her a quizzical look.  “Unless you know something I don’t…”

“Exactly.  Let me explain: last night while you were licking your wounds, so to speak, I made a few calls of my own.  Then, this morning while you were watching the tankers sail away, I called A.J.  It took me a long time to get through, and even longer before he stopped laughing.  Then I told him he had to negotiate with me now, and he did stop laughing.  The deal’s back on.”

“I don’t understand.”  Julian admitted, staring blankly at his wife.

“You don’t. Do you?  Oil is oil, my dear:  gas is gas.  That, and the opportunity to get one over on the British are incentives too great for the King of Al Flaberri to turn down.  And fortunately, the sweet old King has a more liberal attitude to dealing with women than his stuffy little squirt of a son.  We had a lovely chat – he’s going to come and visit me next summer; isn’t that nice?”

Rowena’s husband’s expression was changing rapidly from bewilderment to sheer open-mouthed admiration:  “You’ve struck a deal with the King!  You’re a genius!”

“It has been said.”

“And with reason!  But, wait, what about the Iranians?”

“I was never too keen on them.  We’re exchanging diplomats with Saudi Arabia instead.  Lots more ‘planes!”

“Diplomats!  But we haven’t got an embassy!”  Julian protested.

“I thought the woodshed, with a few alterations of course.  I did explain and the chappy’s quite prepared to rough it, as long as he has a garage for his two Ferraris and we promise to build a road for him to drive them on.  I mentioned the grouse moors, of course.”

“Oh, now why didn’t I think of that?  A sheik in the woodshed – an essential talking point for parties!  And who, pray, have you in mind as our ambassador?  I’m sure you’ve got somebody!”

“Yes!”  Rowena said brightly; “I have!  I believe a certain A.J. Poulson is going to apply for the job.  He seems to think his career at the Home Office is over.”

Julian was completely overawed.  “You bloody little miracle worker!”  He cried:  “It was a day of days when I married you, my love!”

“Ah.”  Rowena said heavily.  “There’s something I ought to tell you, Julian, my sweet.  Let me see, how does it go?….Yes.  I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee.  There!  I can say that because I’ve changed the constitution.  And we’re Moslems, remember?”

Julian’s expression changed profoundly for a second time.  “You see;” Rowena said; “the King would only agree to revive our contract if you were completely out of the picture.  His family would never accept any association with – what was the charming term they have for it in their language? – I forget exactly, but I remember telling him you didn’t wear that type of shirt.  Anyway, I’ve staged a coup!”

“He’s made you take over the Presidency.”  Said Julian, staring in mystification at his ex-wife.  He shook his head in despair:  “I’m going for a walk.”  He made to rise from his chair.

“I’m awfully afraid you can’t.”  Rowena apologised.

“Why?”

“Well that’s the other part.  You’re under house arrest.”  She gave Julian one of her gentle, consoling smiles.

“What?”  Julian growled.  

Rowena repeated her words, in response to which Julian added a few thoughts of his own, largely in words that are unprintable, inducing Rowena to tut.  “Language dear!  You know, you’re dreadfully sexy when you’re angry.”

“You’re mad!”  Julian spat the words through gritted teeth.

“No, no; I’m perfectly calm.  You, however, are getting redder and redder.  It’s all completely civilised.  You know the portacabin the drilling crew used?  I’m having it moved this morning to the top of Ben Adderhochie:  there’s an oil heater inside so you’ll be quite warm – it’s a perfectly acceptable place to live until I can arrange to have you exiled.  I might come and visit from time to time, like I used to at your flat before we were married; won’t that be fun?  Or have your tastes changed?  Would you prefer someone more masculine?”

Julian exploded.  “Exiled?  I won’t do it!  You can’t make me do it!  All I have to do is call security, and we’ll see who gets the charming hilltop bungalow, you scheming, devious, blousy bitch!”

“Thank you.  I learned from the best, my darling.  Now, if by security you mean your half-dozen alcoholic Glaswegians they’ve sworn allegiance to the New Republic, because I’m paying them now – they’re waiting for you outside.  They’ll escort you to your new home.  I should go straight away, if I were you; we’re quite finished here.”

There was a moment Rowena genuinely feared; the critical few seconds when Julian was close to putting his thumbs to her windpipe and squeezing.  But his shoulders slumped and he stood up wearily.  At the door, he turned:  “One thing I don’t understand.  I wasn’t the only one Willoughby caught.  There are just as many photos of you with your knickers off – how come His Royal Majesty is prepared to overlook those?”

“Heterosexual love isn’t illegal in Al Flaberri.”  Said Rowena with an indulgent smile.  “In fact, they positively encourage it.  The old King was very impressed with the pictures – in fact, he’s asked if I have any more.  You recall the ones you took on our honeymoon?  You wouldn’t happen to know where they are, would you?”

The End

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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The Patient Sea

THe Patient Sea

Another ‘short’ from my archives, but a quite special one for me, for reasons I can’t expand upon here.  I hope you enjoy it.

The dusk had reached a late, frosted luminosity, as yet too bright to submit to the superiority of the car’s headlights.  A red line topped the western hills where the sun had been, a thin amber voile that misted from it faded upwards into deep blue.  Above the driver’s head the vault of sky he could not see was probably dark by now.  There were probably stars.  Was there a moon tonight?  He could not remember.

Ten more miles.

Davy knew his way too well; far, far too well.  He knew the last bend that parted the black mass of  woodland like a curtain.  Beyond, furniture of high buildings and a carpet of town lights, their crazed lines marching across one another to the blinking, blackening sea; and the sea quiescent beyond them, its patience infinite, waiting.  Far-off, a lighthouse thrust a spoke of brightness across the sky – a slowly rotating lance, its beam questing but finding nothing – nothing but clouds, white and ghostly, mildly put out at its disturbance of their privacy.

Oncoming cars, vans, lorries, flared past, a ceaseless procession; some blinding, some not.   There would be a turning soon.  A meeting of roads.

And a decision.

An hour ago he had driven from the airport knowing that he must arrive at this place, and now it was before him he could not suppress the eagerness in his heart.  Beneath a bridge the motorway; a glowing train of busy traffic beckoning, a magic carpet ride to hearts that welcomed him, love it was his place to accept.  Turn here, and in only a few hours his car wheels would crush the gravel of that familiar drive.  Love, food and rest:  he need only make that turn.  

And yet…

As if some other arms controlled the wheel – as if neither car nor mind were truly his – he did not turn.   The bridge guided him instead above the motorway, towards the town.

He knew his way here, too.  The wide main street, the sea road, San Bernardo Towers, the Cherrington Hotel standing gaunt upon its own headland, a little avenue with its attendant lines of beech trees, and in a line of cream-washed villas a cream-washed villa with a curving drive.  A door flung wide, arms flung wide.

“Davy!  Davy you darling!  What a surprise! How wonderful to see you!  My lord you look different, you do!  Have you grown?” 

Belle, big and laughing, her ursine hug so warm and sincere:  how often had she greeted him with these same glad tears?  Had he eaten, had he been away?   “There was one of those newsfeed things about you.  Were you really in Hollywood?  You’re quite the star, aren’t you?  You’ll stay for supper.  You will.”

“Thank you.  I was on my way home.  I just had to say hello, to remind you I was still alive.  I’m not really a star, you know.  Far from it.”  He added deferentially.

“But you’ll stay for supper?”

Through the front door with its Deco geometry, into the hall and familiar glow.  Parquet honey floor, walls half panelled in oak, half painted in Buckingham cream; stairs to a higher floor.  Davy raised his eyes.   “Do you still let the room?”

“You know, I think you were my last tenant!  It’s just a store-room now.  We inherited some money when Robert died.  I’m quite comfortable these days.  Do you want to see it?”

HIs fingers played upon the smooth polish of the banister rail.  “No.  I’ll rest content with the memory.   Look, I mustn’t keep you….”

“Don’t be silly!  I have pasta already prepared, and it’s Friday night, you know?   Una and Ros will be here any minute, I should think.”

Ah, he thought.  “You still have your Friday nights, then?”

He had expected, or hoped it would be so.  That was why he was here, was it not?  Or why he dreaded to be here?

The living room was still the same – chintz and comfort.  They ate pasta on their laps, talked with their mouths full.  Belle was effusive.  “You’ve changed so much, you know!  Filled out – and I don’t mean that unkindly.  I almost didn’t recognise you, Davy.”

“I was a student when I was here.  Students are always thin.”

The lean years.  The hours of practice in that little upstairs room.  The drama school with its impassioned principal, the desperate gathering of hopeless aspirants hanging on her every epigrammatic jewel.  How would he ever have risen from such beginnings were it not for Belinda’s father:  his contacts, his coaching?  It was often said of Davy’s profession that success was thirty percent talent, seventy percent luck.  Luck had come in the form of a party one Islington night, and the beguiling black eyes of Belinda.  Luck was a promise – she would be playing in her father’s production at the Haymarket and Davy could get the juvenile lead.  Then another promise.  They would marry in the spring.

Sated, Davy was only vaguely aware of the doorbell’s call.  Perhaps he was thinking of Belinda and how soon he would be with her.  Just two hours away she would be waiting, expecting him.  He would be late, and he knew the cruelty of his wilful neglect.  He needed to be cruel.

“You remember Davy, don’t you?”  Belle was urging Una forward, her hand in the small of the petite German frau’s back.   Davy smiled.  Yes, they had met once or twice.  Una; shy, quiet, burbled acknowledgement.   “And Ros?   You remember Davy?”

He smiled as a reflex.  He smiled to cover his pain, seeing his hurting mirrored in Rosalind’s eyes – a flicker, no more.  But her response was steady.  “It’s been a long time.”   She said.

“How are you?”

“Oh, quite well.”  

Belle’s smiling eyes flitted from Rosalind to Davy; as eyes might when following verbal combat.  Belle would have gossip to share later.

“Let’s have drinks.”  She suggested.

It was an evening of tales, of questions gently rebuffed, impertinences humorously countered, reminiscence and reflection.   Trivial Pursuit around Belle’s rosewood table and red wine to sip away the hours.  Davy, whose presence the older women found exotic, needed to do little to fulfil expectations other than be there, yet there was a wire about him, a tautness they might not expect.  Rosalind was quiet, almost withdrawn.  She spoke rarely.  Davy’s eyes kept finding her.  She avoided their gaze, although she could not mistake their meaning.

Time slipped by.  Twice Davy’s mobile phone vibrated in his pocket, twice he ignored it.  The women’s conversation washed around him, buoyed him up on its eddies and swirls, yet failed to disguise Rosalind’s icy silence. 

The clock in the hall struck ten.   “I should go.”  Rosalind said.  “I have to start early tomorrow.  I work Saturdays now, you know.”

Davy affected a sigh.  “Me too.  I promised I would be in Dorchester long before this.”

Belle was genuinely alarmed.  “Davy, you can’t!  You’ve been drinking, my dear.”

“Only a little.  I’ll take a turn on the Esplanade first, to freshen up.  Then I’ll come back for the car.  I won’t disturb you.”

“You dear boy!  I’ve found you, and all at once I’m losing you again!”

“I found you, remember?  And I will again. Thank you for tonight, Belle.”

The villa released Rosalind, and Davy beside her, from its grasp.  A chill October breeze came off the sea.

“I thought I might take a stroll along the Undercliff.”  Davy said.

“You know I go home that way.”  Rosalind said.

“Let’s walk together then.”

“Yes.”  She wore a long coat with a high collar that framed her face and tucked in below her chin. 

“You still live in Bardshire Crescent?”

“Yes.”

He complimented himself on his memory.  She struck out ahead of him, leaving him to watch the easy grace of her gait and listen to the rhythmic click of her heels on the paving.  “You needn’t follow.”  She murmured over her shoulder, as though she did not want him to hear.

“May I not, then?”

Her shrug was unconvincing.  “As you please.”

Where the avenue ended their road merged with a short, steep hill that led to the beach.  At the foot of the hill, no more than fifty yards away, stood the entrance to the pier, still alive, even in deepening winter, with the promise of light.  Stretching out like an accusing finger over the black water it dangled an invitation Davy was tempted to accept.   “Would you care for a walk on the pier?”

“It’s closed.  It’s winter, or haven’t you noticed?”

“Then why all the illumination?”

“I have no idea.  Maybe they just want to remind you there are some roads that have only one ending.”   

Rosalind’s stride was rapid.  Davy, struggling to keep up with her, had to remind himself of the distance, the mile that followed the margin of the sea – the black, black sea that slipped and muttered in the shadows, patiently waiting.  Around him, streetlights that had no street (for no vehicles might use this road), interminable rows of beach huts, the rise of cliff, and the glitter of hotels above it.   Distant streetwise youths boomed on accelerators, anxious sirens spoke of pursuit.  Above him the sky – the moonless sky.  

“At some point,”  She stopped so suddenly he almost fell into her.  Her tone was venomous. “You’re going to tell me our meeting like this was accidental.  You’re going to tell me you’d forgotten about Friday nights, aren’t you?”

Taken aback, Davy found himself leaning against the balustrade, and avoiding her challenge by staring out into the dark.  Far off, a navigation light blinked.  Further off, the beam of the lighthouse continued its unending swing.  “I’m not going to tell you that.”  He said.

“Then why, David? What are you doing here?  If you knew, or if you thought…”

“Maybe I didn’t think!”  He interrupted her.  “Maybe I had no idea what I was doing.   Maybe…”

“So you just roll up!  You just roll back the years as if nothing – nothing ever happened between you and this town; between…”

“Us?”

“Yes, us.”  Rosalind glared at him.  “My god, in the middle of a freezing night and leaning against that rail you still manage to look like a lounge lizard.  Didn’t I read somewhere about someone’s impending marriage?  Yours, if I’m not mistaken.  Why are you here?”

“Honestly?”  He said honestly.  “I don’t know.”

“Honestly!”  She said.  “Honesty to an actor is a word on a page.   I never did know when you were acting, or when you were serious.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know myself.”  He said humbly.  “Perils of the trade, I suppose.”  He asked suddenly:  “Are you with someone?”

Rosalind’s lips twisted into an edge of a smile.  “Am I in a relationship, do you mean?  No, I’m not.  Was our last thrash together the last time I went to bed with someone?  Again, no.  I’ve tried every conceivable way to forget that we ever happened, David.”

“Any success?”  She did not answer.  

Davy again turned his attention to the wavelets, tried to attune his thoughts to their gentle motion, but his heart was in turmoil.  “I had to see you.  Don’t force me to explain, I won’t have a reason.”

She sighed, relented because she could not sustain anger with Davy – never could.  She came to lean against the balustrade beside him.  “I’m cold.” She confessed.  Tentative, he reached his arm about her shoulders.  Instinctive, she leaned into him and her breath was close.  “We didn’t work together, Davy.  We were bad for each other.”

“Being bad once seemed so good, though.”

“Did it?”

He grasped her shoulders, anxious she should face him.  She did not resist.  With a gentle hand, he brushed her hair away from her forehead, and kissed her there, softly.  Her skin was cold to his lips.  “I’ve never forgotten.”  He said.

The tear she blinked away might have been induced by that sharp onshore breeze.  “Don’t.”  She told him, but her voice was irresolute and her lips were tilted towards his, offering.  He met them in a kiss flooded with memories, of times past, of happiness and wanting.  It was fulsome and sweet, it might have been deep.  But then he was clinging, suddenly desperate and she, alarmed, squirmed from his hold, thrusting him back.  “I said don’t.”

He turned away instantly, abashed.  “I’m sorry.  I have no right….”

“Who is she, David?  I mean, apart from the director’s daughter?   Who is she?  You’re engaged to her.  That’s what I heard.  And this is how I heard it!”  she snatched her mobile phone from her coat pocket, waving it in his face.  “On Facebook from bloody I-told-you-so Jennifer.  Very brief and concise, very, very sententious, and liberally illustrated with your publicity pics – you and whoever-she-is holding hands, you and whoever-she-is embracing…”

“Jennifer’s a bitch.”

Rosalind shook her head, sadly.  “No, Jennifer was right.  She warned me not to become involved.”

“But are you – involved?   I mean in any way…”

“Oh for Christ’s sake!  You know I am!  Isn’t that why you’re here?  Truthfully now, isn’t it?”

“Belinda.”  Davy told her.  “Her name is Belinda.”

“Belinda Halprin.  A great name, I suppose; with a daddy who can raise you up from that terrible little school and make you a leader of your profession.  The fulfilment of dreams!”  Rosalind took his hands in hers, closing around his long, delicate fingers.  “But oh, David, I know you so well!   You don’t love her, do you?  You didn’t think you needed to.  Seduction – such an easy thing for you.  You don’t have to try, hardly at all.”

“You’re wrong; you’re so wrong.”  In his passion his hand clenched with hers, emphasising each word.  “I wanted to go to Belinda, yet I had to – I had to – come to you.  I had to try and see you again.  I’ve never once stopped thinking about you, wondering how you were, if I should write to you or leave you alone.  Ros, darling, I don’t know what I can do.  I’m trapped.  I love her for everything I want to be, but I want you, because you are who I really am.”

“Well, that was easy.”  She said.

“How do you mean?”

“You love her, you want me.  No contest.  Love conquers all, darling, doesn’t it?  Forgive the cliché.”

Davy sighed.  “Honestly, I think it may be the other way around.”

“There’s that word again.”  Rosalind leant upon the rail at his side, sharing his view of the black horizon.  “Do you want me to be honest?  I have no script, you see – I’m not reading it from a page.  I love you, David.  I have never got over us.  I never will.   But until tonight that memory was a comfortable warm bed of embers;  and I can only forgive you for fanning it into flame once more because I see the little boy in you, and I think I can understand just how lost you are.  We could never be together, my love.   You may want your life back, but you’ve lost it irreparably, and I can’t help you.  It’s your problem – I hope you do love her, or if not, that you will learn to…”

“I could give it all up!”

“No, you couldn’t.  Or you shouldn’t; at least not for me.  It’s not my trap, David.”

She reached up, and her cool hand stroked his cheek.  “A pity.  A great, immense pity.  But I’m going to say goodbye now.   You walk that way, I’ll walk this.  And if you do ever return to my town, avoid Fridays, will you?”

He stayed for a while, watching the sea and the steady arc of the lighthouse beam.  When at last the sound of Rosalind’s heels had faded and the night was reduced to silence he turned towards the east once more, and as he retraced his steps he began to cry, freely.  With no-one to see him in the dark and tears streaming down his face he thought of her, and he wished for her, and he cried the more because he knew she was right.  Only as he neared the lights at the entrance to the pier did he attempt to wipe his face to respectability, regaining the confidence of stride his way of life had taught.

He arrived at the foot of that short rise that would lead him away from the seashore.  Here he stopped, as if transfixed; seeking to retrieve a terrible thought that had flashed through his mind then disappeared.  The hill to his left, the pier to his right.  A choice presented itself, one that was his alone to take.  A second decision.

With a deep intake of breath, Davy clambered over the barrier which guarded the way to the pier.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Pathology

Another from the vaults! A story written some years ago, revamped for this blog, and all the better for having lost a little weight. I hope you enjoy it!

Hugo Albricht paused over his work for a moment, arching then straightening his back; so forcing the young man who had been standing close behind him to step backwards quickly, to avoid a collision of heads.

“You realize you are breathing on my neck?”  Hugo tried to sound as mild and agreeable as he could.   “Do I take it you are interested in pathology, Detective …er..?”

“Sergeant, Doctor.   Detective Sergeant Sims.”  The young policeman wanted to apologize for inconveniencing the pathologist.  “Sorry.”  He said, lamely. 

“Ah, so young to be a Detective Sergeant.  You must be very diligent, I think, to volunteer for this task so late in the day. Most of your colleagues would have chosen to leave by this time.”   He pointed to space at the other side of the table.  “You can watch from there, you know.  Your view will be much better.  ”

“Thank you.  Yes, I’m interested, Doc.”   Paul Sims moved around the table, brushing against the bare white feet of the corpse, and positioned himself opposite Albricht.  “Poor old bugger.  He hasn’t an ounce of flesh on him, has he?”

“Age is very cruel, young man.   Yet it comes to us all.  How was he found, this poor old – bugger – as you call him?  Do you have a proper name for him?”

“Not yet.  He was in bed, or on it.  A small bedsit up the road in Bayswater, but there was no information about him there, no letters, no plastic, not even an oyster card.  No relatives as far as we can find out, no-one else in the block knows him.  He could have laid there for months, had that young woman not made the discovery.  She was doing a pamphlet round and she said she just felt something was wrong.  Women, eh?”

“A very clever woman.  Very intuitive.”  

“Yes.  Unusual name, too.  Eladora – suppose it’s Mexican, or something.”  Sims did not mention how the black hair and emerald eyes of Eladora had intoxicated him, or how flirtatious she seemed, once the shock of discovering the old man’s body had passed. 

“The door was open – on the latch.  I just pushed, and there he was.”

 Sims had given Eladora his phone number.  He was certain they would be arranging a date before the week was out.  

“You’ve opened the chest, Doctor.  I thought this one was routine?”

Hugo smiled indulgently.  “In pathology we avoid terms like ‘routine’, Detective Sergeant.  We leave such words to middle-ranking policemen with a high case-load.  This is an autopsy, certain rules must be observed.  However, everything here would indicate natural causes.  

Paul Sims sighed:  “Just that old age thing, then.  How old must he be?  Ninety?”

“Ah, who can say?”   Hugo surveyed the parchment-thin, wrinkled flesh of the specimen lying before him.  “I believe more.  Yes, I believe a little more than ninety.

“Well, you may be the night-owl if you wish, but I have to leave this for tonight.”  The Pathologist said.  “Let me see, what is it you need to know – is it a suspicious death?  I will run further tests, of course, but in my preliminary opinion what we see here is just the work age or dementia, sometimes does.  Starvation killed this man.  With no-one to look after him, he did not eat.  See?  See how the stomach is shrunken, the heart muscle so weak and thin?  His body has been eating itself because he has taken no nutrition in weeks, even months maybe.  But this is still a natural process, so heart failure is my most likely conclusion.  We shall put our mystery friend back into his new one-bed apartment and I’ll finish off in the morning.  The report will come through the usual channels, yes?  It is not urgent, I take it?”

“Fine Doc.  No rush.”

“By the way, young man:  not ‘Doc’.  I am a consultant pathologist, not a Doctor.  I do not mind the error, but there are those who might.”  Albricht smiled.  “And may I say well done, Detective Sergeant Sims.  You remained resolute when many an intern would have been flat on the floor by now.  It was a privilege to meet you!”

The consultant pathologist shepherded Sims to the door and watched the young policeman’s retreating form as it departed along the corridor outside, smiling to himself as he thought of the enthusiasm of youth.  Then he returned to his office to remove his scrubs and prepare for the evening.  His phone was waiting on his desk, vibrating in spasmodic fury.

 “Yes, dear?”

As his wife vented her impatience over a dispassionate ether, Albricht waited stoically.  “Yes, my dear.  I worked late, you see?  No, no.  Just an everyday thing, but tomorrow I would like to be free in time for the conference, so…

“Yes I am finished now.”  

“The Ferguson’s, eight-thirty, yes, I remember”

“Just a minute, my dear, there’s a knocking on my door.  I’ll call you back.   No, no, I will.  I promise.  I must deal with this now.   I’ll come straight home.”

The young man who stood in the mortuary doorway was tall with regular features and of Mediterranean extraction, as Albricht guessed. “Mr Albricht?”   His voice had a soft, melodious lilt.  “I’m so glad I caught you!”

Albricht frowned.  “Yes, you caught me, indeed.  I was just leaving, in fact.  How can I help you?”  Hugo Albricht felt he should know the face in front of him, yet he could not quite recall..”.  

“I wouldn’t trouble you, but I’m on something of an urgent errand:  I’m from the Coroner’s office – in Helmesford?  I have some ID.”

The man held his green Identification card up for Hugo to inspect.

“Mr Pulman.  You’ll forgive me, Mr Pulman.  My errand is also somewhat urgent.  Could this not wait until morning?”

“I would rather get it over with, if you don’t mind.  A simple matter of identification.  An elderly male brought here this afternoon?  We believe the man in question is the subject of one of our open files.”

“You want to see the body?  I was just working on it, this last half-hour.  It isn’t really prepared for an identification…”

“That’s all right, Mr Albricht.  I’m used to this sort of thing.  As long as the face…”

“Yes.  Yes,, of course.   The face.  Come, I’ll show you the gentleman.”  Albricht led the way back into the mortuary.  “A quite straightforward case.  Natural causes is my preliminary finding.”

Pulman nodded.  His eyes were keen and bright with knowledge, a quality that aroused Albricht’s admiration.  This was a very clever man, he decided.  “This death may not be as straightforward as it appeared to you, Mr. Albricht.”  Pulman said.

“Well, well.  We gave him this room for the night, at least.”  Albricht opened the cabinet door he had closed for the night, not twenty minutes earlier, and rolled out the shrouded form of his mystery cadaver.   “You are sure you are ready for this?”

“Yes, Mr. Albricht.”

“He is very old of course.”

“Yes.  About two thousand years.”

Albricht thought; ‘this is the second man to stand too close and breathe on my neck tonight.  Why?’  He pulled back the shroud.  There was nothing beneath.  Although the shape of the cadaver was faithfully traced by the shroud, the space that should have been occupied by the body was empty.

“Two thousand years?”  He said, slowly, as his understanding grew.  “I have heard of you people, but never believed.  Why here?”

“A game we play from time to time, my familiar and I.  Once every century or so I have to rejuvenate, and I need younger blood.  A mortuary – where is better?  And when we have feasted on the dead, there is always one in attendance who is not dead – something warm to round off the evening.”

#

They sat side by side on a bench in the park, Harald Sims and Eladora, and anyone could tell by the way they gazed into each others’ eyes they had found love.  Around them, the town descended into night and amidst this green interruption to its star-spangled life they spoke of the feelings in their hearts.

“A policeman.”  Eladora sighed.  “Who’d have thought?”

“You don’t mind?”  He asked earnestly, squeezing her hand.

“Of course not!”  Eladora’s  emerald eyes flashed adoringly.  “I feel so – protected!”

They laughed together at this.  “I know it’s right, the two of us!  I just know it!”  He insisted.  “The moment I saw you!”

“And so strange we should meet where we did!”

“A chance in a million, my darling.”   Harald enthused.  “A spark of attraction fanned to flame in a seedy flat in Bayswater – such good fortune!  And in circumstances, I would normally consider sad…”

“That poor old man!”  

“Ah yes,  that poor old man.”   

A sombre moment, perhaps, yet Eladora could not help the smile that came to her lips – those full, tempting lips.  “Speaking of flame….”  She left her sentence unfinished:  “Do I have to say it?”

“No, no.  I will.   Your place or mine?”

“Yours.”  She said.  “That’s my choice.  I want to see yours.”  Her hand passed gently across his shoulders and slipped beneath the open neck of his shirt, stroking his shoulder, feeling the warmth of his neck.  “Perfect!”  She said.

He was about to rise.  “What a strange thing to say!  How is my neck perfect?”

“Such vibrant arteries.”

It had been an evening beyond any possible dream of success.  Dinner at the finest restaurant Harald could afford was after sunset, in deference to Eladora’s habit: “I’m a night person.   You wouldn’t see the best of me in daylight…”

The cuisine was unparalleled.  

“You don’t eat very much.”  He accused her kindly.

“I have a spider’s appetite.”  She wrapped her smile around him; “But I enjoy my wine.  Besides, you have hardly touched your food either.”

“It’s you.  I’m so besotted with you I can’t seem to eat.”

“Well, there you are then…”

The way was open for a sharing of fantasies.  Each confessed to having thought about, brooded over, dreamt of the other in the impatient days between this and their first meeting, against the grim backcloth of that Bayswater flat.

“I couldn’t wait to be with you again.  Really, I don’t know how I kept from going insane.  Is it wicked to talk like this?”

Eladora smiled, and said ‘no’.  She was equally distracted, it seemed.

So, at the dreamlike conclusion of a very special evening the pair rose from their trysting place in the park and strolled, arm in arm, along the pathway that led to Harald Sims’ Spartan little home, and it may be that they shared a kiss now and then and some murmured if meaningless conversation.  He made her laugh childishly.  She enticed him, teased him, caressed his neck.  

At the gates to his home, though, she froze, profoundly shocked.  “No!  But I live here, too!”

“Really?  Which one?”

“The third on the right!”

“And I’m in the one with the marble frontage, over there!”  He said.  “I’m trying to get that angel statue moved.”

“So the policeman thing is just the day job.” She shuddered.  “I hate marble, don’t you?  Granite is so much warmer.”  Then, slowly:  “We have more in common than I thought.   Of course, you must be of the European family.”

“And you are from South America. I wonder how we have been such close neighbours and never met.  Very strange.”

“Well…”  Eladora murmured philosophically;  “Now we know we really are together for eternity, I can confide in you, my dearest.  I am very hungry.”  She nodded towards a young couple who were walking towards them along the path where the park bordered the city cemetery.  “Would you care for supper?”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Two.

Prince Fuisal was something of a disappointment to Rowena:  she had anticipated a thobe of flowing white, a ghutra and a beard.  Instead she got a rather affable young man in a business suit, with very little hair at all.  Nevertheless, she caught herself curtseying as he greeted her.

“Your Highness!”

“Ah yes.  This is – what is the expression – ‘the little woman’.  Is that correct, Mr. Parfitt?”

Needless to say, Rowena did not immediately take to the young Prince; not that it mattered, since from that point onwards he scarcely acknowledged her existence.

When Julian had finished choking, he invited his guest to the house for tea.

The Prince was unenthusiastic.  “Tea.  Yes, of course. Tea.  Lead the way, Parfitt!”

As soon as tea was served (by Rowena, naturally) the Prince seemed eager to get down to business.

“Tell me your proposition, Parfitt.”

“Well,”  Said Julian;  “What I suggest is this….”

The Prince’s hand restrained him.  With a regal nod, he indicated Rowena.  “You wish to discuss business in front of your woman?  How quaint.”

“Oh, no, don’t embarrass yourself!”  Said Rowena:  “I’ll be in the scullery scrubbing the floor if you want me, husband.”  And she left, closing the door with a violence that set the remains of her dinner service wobbling perilously on the dresser.

Rowena did not meet the Prince again.  She heard his laughter as Julian unfolded his plans, then the front door closing as he departed.  Within an hour of its arrival, Prince Fuisal’s launch was bearing him back out into the bay.  That evening the ‘Xanadu’  gracefully and silently slipped its moorings.  By the morning of the following day, it was as if the third in line to the throne of Al Flaberri had never visited.

For another week Julian’s island basked peacefully in pale Scottish sunshine.  Rowena so loved this place with its moody climate and magnificent scenery that she soon forgot her ill humour, even to the point of forgiving Julian.  She preferred not to know what his discussions with the Prince had entailed, and certainly Julian was not eager to tell her, so she began to revive her daily routine and pursue her own interests.  She fed the hens, milked the cow and the goat Julian had insisted they buy (though neither of them had any background in animal husbandry) and worked at the well-nigh impervious garden.  The wind riffled through her hair, her skin bronzed in the subtle sun, she breathed the richly oxygenated air and felt glad to be alive.  For a while she almost made herself believe that the natural gas resources had sealed themselves up and the whole thing was forgotten; but of course it wasn’t.  On the seventh day, insidious hell oozed in from the ocean.

Boats chugged quietly into the bay late on Saturday night: by morning they were gone.  Along the shore a camouflage net covered the equipment they had left behind, and the accommodation for the workers who came with it.

These were riggers, whose intrusion was neither subtle nor brief.  They were possibly most remarkable for their ability to turn a simple portacabin upon the jetty into a thriving public house, which sprang into life at seven p.m. (just after the heavy machinery which littered the island had shut down) and did not acquiesce until well into the following morning.  During the day they worked under cover, with the extensive use of camouflage netting and disguised vehicle movements; a mystery to Rowena, one which Julian seemed reluctant to explain.  They came, they gave their hosts six weeks of unremitting torment, and they left.  Peace descended once more, but it was a gurgling, vibrant peace.  It was the peace of pipes laid and lying idle, of machines which did not turn, of vehicles which squatted covertly in hollows and caves.  It was a peace waiting to be breached.

Rowena slipped meekly out from beneath the ice-pack she had adopted as a permanent night-time companion.  Frequently of late she had found it necessary to remind herself of the day of the week; even, in stormy interludes, whether it was day or night.  This morning, she was certain, was a Wednesday.  She would remember, later, that it was a Wednesday.  Sun-glow bathed the little bedroom where she often slept alone now.  She dressed quickly, for the advancing year brought a fresh, invigorating bite to the breeze.

It was Rowena’s habit, in the early day, to don her biggest sweater and stomp the upward mile to the summit of Ben Adderhochie, from whence it was possible to see the mainland afar off in one direction, and to imagine the Americas, half a world away, in the other.  This sense of space and freedom excited her so much that she would make a little dance for herself at times, and, miles from sight of any other human, cavort around the top of the Ben like Julie Andrews on speed.  The breeze was exceptionally fresh that morning – that Wednesday.  Rowena had already become familiar with the long jetty Julian’s riggers had built, probing out from the north shore for nearly half a mile – but this Wednesday…..

Julian was already up and making coffee when Rowena, white-faced, threw the door open.

“Steady, old girl!  You’ll have the hinges off!”  He said.

“Have you – do you know what’s out there?”  Rowena stammered.

“Er – no, dear?”  Julian played along.

“A tanker.  A big, gigantic, huge, no – not just huge – massive tanker!”

“The Al-Rasheed, I believe she’s called – this one.”

“THIS ONE!  How many are there??”

“Well, we’re scheduled to accept six.  Although, if the weather breaks, of course….”  Julian waved his hand vaguely.  “Coffee, dear?”

“Yes please, one sugar.”  Rowena slumped into a chair at the big breakfast table.  “I suppose it’s a silly question, but what exactly is a super-tanker doing anchored so close to our island?”

“Oh, loading with gas.”  Julian replied mildly.  “They – we – have equipment to condense it: that way we can send it anywhere in the world.”

“We?”

“The Shahiree-Parfitt Corporation:  Prince Fuisal owns the Shahiree half, of course, but he can’t admit to that, being royal – wouldn’t be ethical.”

For some while now, Rowena had been sensing a growing weight upon her shoulders.

“Julian; are you quite mad?  Have you any idea what is going to happen when the mainland finds out about this?”

“Oh, they already have.  I told them yesterday.  They were asking about the jetty.”

“My god!  We’ll have the police, customs, the bloody British Army here.  Julian,” Rowena took a decision;  “I’m leaving you.”

“Are you dear?”  Julian responded mildly:  “You’ll need a passport.”

“A passport?  A boat to the mainland, that’s all I need, Julian.”

“No dear.  Sorry, but they won’t let you in.  You see, as of yesterday, you became a citizen of the Republic of Aga.  We’ve got our own flag, and everything.”

“You’re insane.  They’ll murder us!”

“No.”  Said Julian.  “No. they won’t.  The Republic of Aga has declared itself to be under the protection of the Kingdom of Al Flaberri.  Now the King of Al Flaberri (Fuisal’s dad) is a great mate of our Royals, and his country is strategically important to Britain in the Middle East.  He buys lots of planes, and things.  This is his son’s pet project at the moment.  If the British try to interfere, Flaberri will order them out of their naval base in the Gulf.  Very knotty problem, that, for the British.  Oh, and by the way, we also declared an alliance with Iran.”

Rowena burst into tears and ran from the room.  Ten minutes later, she returned.

“It won’t work.”  She said.

“Yes, it will.  Not for very long, but for long enough.  After the initial enquiry, the diplomatic counterpoint, a court case, an appeal, then another to the European Court (we’ve applied for membership of the Community) and the final settlement – I’d say a year, at least.  That’s a minimum of twelve tankers, even given the worst weather.  After expenses that will yield about a hundred and sixty million.”

“You said ‘settlement’”

“I did.  The ultimate answer will, of course, be for the British to buy the island.  With mineral rights, I’d say another two hundred and fifty million or so?  With a bit of skilled negotiating, we should be able to retain royalties.  We need a good estate agent.”

Throughout this explanation Rowena’s mouth had been dropping slowly open.  Her knees felt quite unsteady.  “Then what happens to us?  Poor old Aga’s going to be not much more than a slag heap.”

“I’m negotiating for a different Island; somewhere warmer.  The South Pacific, actually.  I think you’ll like it.”

“Come to bed!”  Said Rowena.

“Oh, one thing I did forget to mention.  It may be necessary to convert to Islam.”

“Come to bed, husband!”

At this point the relationship between Julian and Rowena might have turned something of a corner:  there is no more effective bandage for a wounded marriage than a seven-figure bank statement, especially if the draft constitution of your newly-adopted nation makes no provision for divorce.  Besides, as First Lady of the Republic of Aga, Rowena had duties to perform and an image to live up to.  The reason their relationship did not, in fact, improve, we shall now relate.

The fledgling republic got off to a nervous start. Constant over-flying by Royal Air Force jet fighters was nothing more than they, as residents on a Scottish island, had come to expect.  However, now the gloves were metaphorically back on the hat-stand these aircraft flew lower and with considerably more menace.  Helicopters kept appearing over Ben Adderhochie, a reconnaissance plane droned constantly in the background.  When, the next morning, a Royal Navy destroyer anchored off the bay, Rowena suggested that maybe Julian’s fabulous plan was not working.

“It’s OK,”  Julian said.  “I sent a warning against trespassing in Republic of Aga airspace.  They’ll desist very soon.”

And they did.

Anthony James Poulson was staring contemplatively at his bag of golf clubs one Friday morning when his senior, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, stuck his head around the door.

“A word, AJ?”

“Certainly!”  said Poulson affably.  “Albatross.  Will that do?”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Not at all – that’s a very nice word:  better than eagle, for example, or birdie?”

“I’m being serious, old man.”  The under-secretary drew up one of A.J’s rather comfy leather chairs.  “It concerns this chap Parfitt.”

“Oh god, no.  What’s he done now?”  Poulson’s tantalising vision of the fifteenth at sunset began to fade.

“Well, it isn’t so much what he’s done, as what we haven’t – if you’ll forgive the grammar.  It’s been a month now, during which time he’s managed to turn around six tankers-full of high grade natural gas, and we don’t seem to be doing anything.”

AJ spread his hands.  “What can we do?  It’s a complete stand-off, as far as I can see.  Faisal’s slaughtering birds on some very choice grouse moor with our beloved Prince even as we speak.”

“There must be something.  Where is he selling all this gas?”

An awkward silence ensued.  A.J. Poulson seemed to have something in his eye.  “Well, to us, actually.”

“I must have misheard you,” the under-secretary said slowly:  “For a moment I thought you said ‘to us’.

A.J. coughed.  “Auchterwootie Refinery is just eighty miles south of Aga.  He gets an excellent price, and the trip for the tankers is so short they can run a shuttle service.  It works very well.”

The under-secretary looked as though he was about to explode.

“Well, it’s not our refinery;”  A.J. defended.  “It belongs to Swell PB.  We can’t stop them.”

There was a considerable interval while the under-secretary recovered from this piece of information.  At last he said:  “Do you have any idea – any idea – how ridiculous this makes us look?”

“Absolutely, under-secretary.  The King of Flaberri is having a bit of joke, I think, at our expense.  Whenever I put in a call to suggest a solution I get the distinct impression he’s laughing at me.  Usually he limits himself to one-sentence answers, and the sentence almost always includes the words ‘British Aerospace’.”

“You know the PM’s all for taking the gloves off and sending in a couple of battalions?  This Parfitt fellow wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on, now would he?”

“Well….”

“Oh, come on!”

“Parfitt claims he has documentary evidence that Aga was not included in the Act of Union.  He says the last people to take up residence there were the Danes, in about 740 AD.  The island’s not part of any of the recognised groups, it’s never been named anywhere; and, at thirty miles, it’s outside British territorial waters.”

“That would stand up?  I mean, legally?”

“Parfitt is ready to test it in the courts.  The problem is, there’s just an outside chance that the European Court might uphold it.  Then we really would be in the soup.  Parfitt did come up with one solution.”

“Which is?”

“A pipeline.  It would get us over the natural gas issue.  The trouble there being, Parfitt wants a lot of dosh for it, and he has no intention of relinquishing his sovereignty claim.  He’s a curious chap,” A.J. mused; “He has friends in The City who are doing very well out of this, but I would like to know what he’s after.  I don’t think it’s just the money.”

“And a pipeline’s the best we can offer?  The PM is absolutely hopping about this, A.J., and your entire department is bankrupt of ideas?”

Poulson thought for a moment, acutely aware that his apparent lack of a solution was endangering his booking for the first tee at 3pm.  “Well, maybe there is a sort of a possibility:  it depends rather on just how underhanded you’re prepared to be.”

“Underhanded?  Dear boy, this is the Home Office – since when were we anything else?”

“Well then,”  A.J. picked up the telephone;  “Let’s see what we can do.”

Some days elapsed before this interview at the Home Office could bear fruit.  The fruit concerned, in the person of one Willoughby Lightfoot, had required transport from inaccessible foreign parts where he was found deep in some allegedly impenetrable jungle, half-way across an uncrossable swamp.  Willoughby was not too upset by the call to his mobile phone – after all, the crocodile he was wrestling at the time was, as crocodiles go, too small for his purposes.

In London, Lightfoot needed a day or two – to be briefed by A.J; to restore his hair, which was long and flaxen, and to manicure his nails.  A further twenty-four hours later he reached Scotland, where he made a few enquiries, looked up a few contacts.  Now he stood on the foredeck of a local trawler, looking across the one remaining mile of choppy sea which separated him from the Republic of Aga.

“Is he expecting you – the Parfitt man?”  a deckhand asked.

“He’s expecting someone.”  Willoughby shouted back against the wind.  “He’s not expecting me.”

Willoughby Lightfoot entered Aga’s small harbour poised atop the trawler’s bow like a figurehead, his hair flying about his face, his startlingly blue eyes focussed upon the little welcoming committee gathered on the quay.  A long leather coat streamed behind him in the evening breeze.

His reception, six strong, fell way below his own exacting standards.  In declaring Aga a Republic, Julian had needed security guards for just such purposes as these, recruited from those places on the mainland with the highest unemployment.  Even unemployed men with any self-worth had proved hard to procure – the working conditions were less than desirable, the pay wasn’t desirable at all.  Finally, Julian had approached a hostel for the homeless in Glasgow, discovering those who would consider anything if it included a roof to sleep under, regular meals and an unlimited source of booze.

Amongst such as these, Willoughby was Gulliver before the Lilliputians.

“Right, chappies – which way to the boss?”  He enquired, assuming Julian would not be one of the ravaged creatures who accosted him.

“I need ye’re paasspoort!”  said a slightly bent man with a hawk nose and a drip.

“Fine.”  Willoughby produced it from his shoulder bag.  “Now,” he said, watching the document disappear into the folds of the bent man’s uniform; “which way?”

“No’ so fast.”  A stout Glaswegian with an astonishing lack of neck chided him.  “There’s procedures.”

“Right-ho.  Proceed away!  What shall we do next?”

“The strip search.”  

If, at this point, Willoughby began to regret that he had made this appointment with Parfitt as a diplomat from the Home Office, he did not show it.  Instead, he regarded the little group of security guards with a look of amusement.

“Oh, you silly boys!”  He chided them gently.  “Why didn’t you just ask?  Now – who wants to be first?”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.