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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.

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To a Friend

It was a yard, a concrete yard, nine years, ten years ago.  The people, the back-paw walkers, they will tell you my memory is not that long, but I remember.  High walls, a shelter against the rain and Ben, my companion.

We shared so many dreams, Ben and I – of the wild things whose scent we could test as it floated past us in the wind, but never see.  We talked of how we might chase them together one day, and what sort of world it could be, on the Great Outside.

The back-paws came to us with food, sometimes spoke or petted us, but mostly we were alone and afraid.  We had each other.  We were friends.

I remember the day the stranger came, and how he talked to us as back-paws will, and how I could not fear him, even when he put me in the metal  Box-That-Roared.  I saw the panic in Ben’s eyes as I was taken away, and I cried out for him, somehow knowing I would never see him again.

And then it was there!  The Box-That-Roared showed me what the Great Outside was like – flashed through it, scene after scene before I had time to smell its secrets.  I was alone and so frightened, with no idea what was happening to me, but then the Box-That-Roared brought me here.

All that was long, long ago, when I was young.  I live in the Great Outside now, and it is much as we imagined, Ben and I: my mistress, the female back-paws takes me daily to update my favourite scents, and for that generosity I guard her.  I have concrete to lie on when I am hot, although most of the time I favour the back-paws’ big shelter with its thick walls, warm places, and my allowance of three soft beds! My master, who is older and unsure, looks after me with food, some scratching when I need it, as well as giving his voice to break my silence.   For those services, I must guard him, too.

Let me warn you, guarding two back-paws is complicated because they will not behave properly, like a pack!  They are virtually helpless; they have no sense of smell and precious little hearing, yet they keep separating!  Sometimes my master takes the Box-That-Roars away for hours to places I can only learn about when it returns by sniffing the fat rubber rings on its feet.   Now and then my master and mistress both go away to those places and leave ME behind!  I fret because I cannot protect them then, or persuade them of the peril they are in.   All I can do is pull the kitchen towel off its rail.  I believe they understand. 

When they are here in our shelter I do my best to keep them safe. Guarding them both, making sure I constantly position myself so I can rush to the aid of either of them, is a full-time task and a very stressful one, but I think I manage, by and large.

And there it is – my life!   I am old now and less inclined to run and be foolish, but now and again when the silence threatens I remember my friend Ben, and I think of all the tales I might tell him of riding in the Box-That-Roars to wild places, and the new scents I discovered there.  Sometimes when the air is like crystal I imagine I hear him calling me, whether from that yard we shared or, as I hope, some better place.

My name is Honey.   There is much I wished for, but never found.  All-in-all, I think I am happy.

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Omnia Caelum Studios Valencia…A Conversation…

A rich celebration of colour and form from Francisco Bravo Cabrera’s blog, and his fascinating story. Do visit!

Omnia Caelum... Poetry, Art, Music

(“En el mar azul”, acrílico sobre lienzo, Omnia Caelum Studios Valencia, Derechos Reservados)

I painted this small painting, 50 cm x 40 cm, back in 2006, I think…

But it really does not matter if I recall the exact year. It was during the period between 2003 and 2008. That was my first most prolific period. During those years I was exhibiting constantly and also participating in all the festivals I could get to all over. I was living in Miami, Florida, USA and I travelled all over the East Coast of the United States.

Well, not really…I did exhibit in Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida, as well as in the South Florida area, which is composed of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach, those three counties, which are the largest…and in my opinion…the most important in the state. Miami-Dade county alone has over 5 million people, counted, and many more…

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Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts

I try, within my limited abilities, to offer a variety of stories, thoughts and whimsies on this blog, so, if this is a bit of a romp I hope you will forgive me.  It’s a four-part story, which may not be for absolutely everybody, but it has been great fun to write!

(Incidentally, ‘stories, thoughts and whimsies’; so much better than that ugly word ‘genre’, don’t you think?)

It was Julian’s brother Freddy who made the discovery.  Julian, in commodities, had bought the island after a particularly successful season’s trading (he saw it advertised in The Times under ‘Property for Sale: Estates and Other’).  Freddy, staying in the house as Julian’s guest – a flamboyant, noisy one at that – was in the habit of taking walks in the early morning. This was how the discovery was made.

The Island of Aga was six miles from north to south, a mere mile across:  much of the terrain was naked rock, impassable without climbing experience.  Its few navigable paths were strewn with sudden descents and precipitous drops which made walking hazardous. The best morning stroll the island could offer led to the top of its highest point, Ben Adderhochie, from where, on a clear day, you could see the Scottish mainland, then down through a deepening series of rifts and clefts to the little Skaeflint’ae Beach. This beach was the stuff of legend, the cliffs around it permeated by tiny caves where smugglers were said to have hidden contraband which lay there still, along with its attendant ghosts.  There was a path to the beach, but Freddy was never one for paths.  He was slipping and sliding off-piste as it were, down the side of a little granite gorge when he made the discovery.

At first, when the bird flew past him and headfirst into the rock, Freddy thought it was just one of those hideous accidents which sometimes overtake our treasured wild creatures.  When a second one did more or less the same, he put it down to coincidence – but a third?

On the stony floor of the gorge he discovered a quite liberal scattering of little wild things, many of which appeared to have suffered the same fate as the birds.  Perplexed, Freddy sat down upon a user-friendly rock to try and make sense of all this.  That was when he heard a gentle hissing sound, and began to sniff the air for himself.

Rowena Parfitt was Julian’s wife and a woman of principle who, when she had taken Julian for better or worse had freely accepted that Freddy was the worst of the worse.  She tolerated him, but with a suppressed, implacable hatred; which was why, when he burst in through the kitchen door at seven o’clock in the morning yelling at the top of his voice:  “Eur-eeee-ka!!  You-bloody reeka!”  It was more than a woman of principle could bear.

Rowena picked up the heaviest plate she could find and threw it at Freddy.  The plate missed.  It spun out into the back yard, shattering against a gatepost (to the mild chagrin of the goat that happened to be tethered there at the time).

“Oh, good shot!”  Cried Freddy.  “Eureka, me little darlin’!  Get Julian!  Come and see what I’ve found!”

An hour later Julian and Rowena stood at the top of the little gorge staring down at Freddy as he alternately lifted and lowered a sizeable flat tablet of stone.

“On – off.  On – off!  It’s like a blasted stove, my loves!  Natural gas!  Find of the century, I’d say!”

At such moments of supreme accomplishment (and it is fair to say he may have been a little heady with his find), it was always Freddy’s custom to extract one of his largest Cuban cigars from his top pocket and light up for a deep, luxurious inhalation of that unique tobacco.  In spite of earnest entreaties from the top of the cliff, this morning would not be an exception.

Only after he had telephoned the coroner did Julian fall to some careful thinking.  By the time the local doctor arrived on a boat from the mainland to issue a death certificate, he and Rowena, not without difficulty, had borne Freddy’s mortal remains back to the house, laying him out informally on their dining room floor by a large open fire.

Rowena plied the doctor with some of her best amber nectar.

“The boat journey would be very cold at this time of the season, Doctor Creggie.”  Julian suggested, joining his wife in the kitchen.  “Have you much work around the islands at the moment?”  He topped up the good doctor’s glass.

“Aye, aye.”  Creggie affirmed.  “A great deal too much, ye ken?  All ye city folks gannin’’ tae the back o’ beyond and no experience of what a winter can be like, ye ken?”  It was very good Scotch.  He willingly took a second glass, stayed on for some excellent conversation and a third, generous measure.  At last he said:  “Well, now, I must’nae miss the tide.  Where is the puir man?”

“Oh, he’s in the dining room where he fell – terrible thing.” Julian said.  “I suppose you won’t have seen many cases like this?”

“Ye ken?”  Rowena added helpfully.

“Cases like what?”  Creggie enquired, attempting to cock a quizzical eyebrow and missing by several millimetres:  it really was exceptionally fine whisky, and if it was not quite good enough, Rowena had augmented it with a little something of her own.

“Spontaneous combustion:  our family is prone to it, unfortunately.  There was my great uncle Herbert, wasn’t there darling?  Oh, and my niece Jasmine.  Went up like a torch, poor dear.”

Rowena chipped in:  “Didn’t your grandfather…?”

“It was always suspected: although medicine was not as advanced then.  They didn’t have Doctor Creggie’s skills, did they, Doctor?”

Doctor Creggie, though mellowed by alcohol, was still dubious about recording a death as ‘spontaneous combustion’, but when he saw poor Freddy, who was in a very derelict state, and he thought of all the problems with obtaining a second opinion in this remote location, he finally concurred.  Besides, Rowena’s little ‘addition’ to his drink was taking effect:  “Now I must awa’ back tae the boat.  Ye’ll need tae make arrangements for the puir man.  He can be buried here, of course, but I’ve nae doubt his nearest and dearest’ll want him hame.  Meanwhile, I would put him somewhere a little cooler, ye ken.  Er…could ye direct me to the lavatory, now?”

Julian and Rowena watched, hand in hand, as the government boat with Doctor Creggie safely wedged aboard sailed back towards the mainland.

Rowena, whose hatred of Freddy extended even after death, insisted they remove his carcass to the back of the woodshed.  There they left him, propped between some bags of cement and a rusty plough of the horse-drawn variety, which Julian had pledged to restore when he had time.

“Right,” said Julian.  “I have things to do.”

A retired commodities trader has friends in curious places:  one of Julian’s was the disaffected son of a wealthy Nigerian land-owner, whose nefarious stock market activities had been a source of entertainment in the past.  Mwabe Mbabe Junior had been quiet of recent years, producing little to match his past triumphs:  “Diamond Concessions of Nigeria”, the “Mbabe International DNA Modification Corporation” and the briefly meteoric “Global Mall Shares Limited” had all long since become unhappy memories, their investors wiser, poorer men.  These days Mwabe Mbabe busied himself with begging letters on the internet and finding ways to leverage non-existent companies using the mythical backing of his father.  Julian ‘phoned him.

“Julian, my darling!”  Mbabe was effusive:  “What do you have for me?”

A few days after the undertakers came to scoop up Freddy and return with him (along with a bag of cement to which he had become inseparably attached) to the mainland, a dark, smartly suited figure stepped off the island-hopping boat.  He brought a considerable amount of luggage.  One or two of the suitcases rattled suspiciously as the boatman hove them ashore.

“Will ye want me back this year?”  The boatman enquired:  “Or at all?  Are ye moving in?”

The man was a seismologist whose speciality was discretion, whom Mwabe Mbabe had employed once to survey certain portions of his father’s estate when the old man was on a business trip to Europe.  His suitcases were stuffed with equipment.  He was tall and swarthy, with bright eyes and a haunting smile, and when Rowena saw him her heart leapt.

After settling in, the man (his name was Mahadis), accompanied Julian to Freddy’s gorge.  Mahadis was  impressed.

“I will check this out.”  He said.

For the next several days Mahadis busied himself setting up his experiments.  The island terrain was not the friendliest he had ever worked in, nor was the necessary secrecy easy to maintain, as that crowning glory of offshore living, the Royal Air Force, seemed to revisit every ten minutes at several hundred cacophonous miles per hour on a level at which, if the pilot could not see what Mahadis was doing, Mahadis could see what the pilot did.

Then came one of those days when the normally brisk breeze became a host of screaming demons.  On such a day the drops of endemic rain were freezing darts.  In such a gale two people were needed to push the front door closed.  Julian had gone to the mainland to replenish supplies, so the two people pushing together were Rowena and Mahadis.

“He won’t come back tonight,” said Rowena.  “Do you need more blankets?”

Two days elapsed before the seas moderated and Julian was able to return, by which time Rowena had supplied Mahadis with many more blankets.  Such affection was impossible to entirely disguise:  it betrayed itself in a multitude of little touches and covert looks, which Julian, no fool, could scarcely avoid noticing.  He needed Mahadis, however, so nothing was said.

Nothing, that is, until the seismologist’s work was complete.

“This is my report;” said Mahadis over breakfast one morning while Rowena gazed rapturously at a mole on his neck.

Julian riffled the wedge of manuscript.  “Difficult to visualize.”  Was his verdict.  “Come on, let’s get our boots on and you can show me.”

From the summit of Ben Adderhochie they could see the entire Island.  To the west, the mountain dropped in sheer cliffs many hundreds of feet to the sea:  they could look down upon the backs of gulls and Shearwater wheeling in the wind eddies far below.  To each of the other three main compass points, the island descended more gradually:  back to the house in the north, towards South Beach and Freddy’s Gorge, and more steeply towards the distant mainland (which could be seen on a morning as clear as this) in the east.

To Julian’s initial surprise Mahadis paused here, rather than continuing the descent to Freddy’s Gorge.

“Over there,”  Mahadis said, waving in a northerly direction;  “Beyond the house on the north shore, three places with substantial natural gas reserves that may be easily drilled.  I have put down markers.  Over there: (this time a gesture towards Freddy’s Gorge) another two, in addition to the one you have found.”

Julian’s eyes had been widening with this:  he said:  “Really?  Six places.”

“Six.  From at least two separate subterranean sources.  You are rich, my friend.”

“Wow!”  Said Julian.

“So, my work is done.  Now I will leave.  There is the matter of my account?”

When you tell a man he owes you forty thousand dollars, especially if you have been intimate with his wife, it is best not to do so at the top of a very high cliff.  The gulls and Shearwater in their wheeling flight parted politely to let Mahadis through.

As he walked back to his house, Julian was having a re-think:  rich, after all, was something he already was; a man of his intellect, of his imagination, should not just content himself with riches.  No, there was more to be gained.

Indoors, he lost no time.

“Mwabe;”  He told the telephone:  “We need another partner.”

“Ah!”  Said Mwabe Mbabe,  “I knew you would say that.  I have just the fellow!”

This was the moment, Julian decided, to take out insurance.

“Mwabe.  You wouldn’t think of double-dealing with me, now would you?”

“My dear chap!”

“Because I still have contact with a Mr. Luigi, you see?”

Mr. Luigi was a powerfully connected gentleman who had been persuaded to invest heavily in ‘Global Mall Shares Limited’.  Mr. Luigi had never found out how his millions had been mishandled, although he continued to investigate.  Should he ever discover Mwabe Mbabe’s part, there would be nowhere for the Nigerian trickster to hide.  The Luigi affair was a major contributor to Mbabe’s decision to take early retirement.

“My dear sir!”  Protested Mwabe again, his voice higher by a semi-tone.

Satisfied, Julian rang off.

Julian’s relationship with his spouse now entered a fairly volatile phase:  Julian’s explanation that Mahadis had left by sea very suddenly, though true in itself, gained only limited credence.

“He’s taken none of his equipment.”  Rowena pointed out.

“He won’t be needing it.”

“I didn’t see the boat.”  Said Rowena.

“I didn’t say anything about a boat.”  Replied Julian.

“Bastard!”  Said Rowena, secretly wondering why she could not stifle a shiver of admiration which vied with the grief in her throat.  Later, when Julian had exited to seek out Mahadis’ markers, she reduced the family crockery by twelve very good quality plates.

From this point on, matters proceeded apace, so fast that Rowena’s agony passed unnoticed by Julian, although it was to return to haunt him later.

A small group  of ‘fishing boats’ arrived at the island, their crews, all of olive-skinned appearance, staying long enough only to cap the six natural gas vents Mahadis had discovered.  They were, for the most part, uncommunicative, although Julian (never one to pass up an opportunity) managed to sell them the better part of Mahedis’ seismographic equipment.

Shortly after the departure of the ‘fishermen’ there hove onto the horizon a much larger vessel.  The ‘Xanadu’ was long, and elegant, and gleamed white in the late summer sun like some marvellous visitor from another world; which, in its way, it was.  Far too large to approach the little jetty which welcomed visitors into Julian’s domain, the ‘Xanadu’ anchored in deep water.  A launch which served as the yacht’s tender beetled across the gap from ship to shore, to be steadied against Julian’s jetty as the master of ‘Xanadu’ disembarked.

© 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: MW from Pixabay

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Boston is Silent

This morning, at an extraordinary hour in the UK, ‘Boston Calling’ fell silent.

This excellent program, looking at the world and its attitudes to American culture, has been a feature of the BBC World Service for eight years and some 400 episodes.  In the UK at least, its wisdom will be heard no more.  I have no doubt its reputation in The United States was similarly high – not least because it would have found its audience at a more wakeful hour!

A sad event, then, and one which brought to my mind another great radio milestone when the late Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letters from America’ came to an end.  Cooke was among the last of the old school of journalists, greatly respected in Washington, and I value the CD collection of his broadcasts that sits on an undershelf no more than a couple of feet from this keyboard.

Yesterday I took delivery of a new laptop.  Now this will seem to you a complete disconnect, until I tell you it follows a trend of most new machines in omitting a DVD drive.  To play my Alistair Cooke CDs I must now resort to my older laptop (which has been commandeered by the Memsa’ab, incidentally), or this PC, which is in itself what is now referred to as a ‘traditional machine’.

Museum pieces!  Or so they will become when they have served their time, and our new machines have only a card slot for s substitute.  In less than a generation, a plethora of technical innovations has come and gone, at faster and faster pace.  Old information technology is succeeded by new, and the circle of obsolescence closes in.

Exaggeration?  Who among us still owns floppy disks, tapes or cassettes, and where can you read them if you do?

1600 years ago the last of the great ancient civilizations reached a stage in its dilapidation where it withdrew from, rather than threw innovation into, the greater part of its former empire.  The Roman presence in its satellites and client kingdoms did not end dramatically with the sacking of Rome, rather it diminished, whilst retaining its exclusive influence in one key aspect of power; the written word.   Once a pillar of all Roman culture, transcription became restricted to the gospels, which were painstakingly copied by monks in their role as specialist scribes.  Their language, Latin, devolved into a preserve of the learned and a complete mystery to the common man.  

Except in the hands of a narrow elite written records almost disappeared.   Looking back upon this time we call it the Dark Age – when few were sufficiently literate or wealthy enough to have access to writing.   Only with the invention of the printing press in 1440 did the dam to that reservoir finally burst. 

Now, as we approach the end of the present cycle of civilization, as the influence of the current major powers liberalizes and begins to turn upon itself, I see troubling similarities to the plight of those abandoned in the changing fortunes of Rome.  Step by step we are turning our backs upon our most reliable method of recording knowledge and our most effective way of teaching others.   Pamphlets or books have been available to all of us constantly – easily attainable, relatively inexpensive.  But this is not certain anymore.   The printed word is under threat; fewer and fewer books find their way to press.  And those same words committed to the hard drive, to the memory card or to our tablets cannot be trusted to be readable in forty years’ time, let alone four centuries.  Recording them, transcribing from one medium to another is possible, of course, and will in all probability remain so, but their availability will diminish.  Furthermore, it places responsibility onto the shoulders of our modern ‘monks’, the specialists in the world of algorithms and code:  a new elite.

In times of change, some things must remain inviolable.  Curation of the book and the languages that free us all from the tyranny of ignorance must be entrusted to those who would spread knowledge, rather than use it as power.  

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The Cabinet of Jarvis Poulter

Another short story ‘sprung’ from the archives – I hope you will like it (I am writing more stories, BTW, they just take a while).  In the meantime, if you like these, there are many more to be found on ‘Black Crow Speaks’ – click on the cover picture on the right, here, to visit those  little darlings at Kindle who are just waiting for your call…

Jarvis Poulter studied the ancient cabinet carefully, the two ornately carved doors in the upper part, three gracefully slender drawers beneath and taloned feet which snatched fiercely at the saleroom floor. Olive wood or cedar, it was undeniably scruffy, its corners knocked and cracks showing here and there, but Middle-Eastern in origin and utterly in keeping with the theme he planned for his bedroom.   He measured it, squinting through half-moon spectacles at the small figures on his tape.       Just a little alteration would make of it a wardrobe, and the drawers below were ideal for his meager collection of sweaters and his nightwear.  Yes, perfect.

Poulter positioned himself so he might be seen from the rostrum.

“Lot 421, a cabinet, believed to be Moroccan.   Fifty for it?”  The auctioneer asked.

Silence.  Rows of inattentive heads, noses buried in catalogues.

“Forty then.  Twenty!  Come on, must be worth that?”

Silence.

“Alright.  Last chance.  Ten.  I’ll not go any lower…”

“Five.”  Piped Poulter in his thin nasal voice.

“Got to be ten.  Want it?”

Poulter sniffed.  “Alright.”

“Ten then.  Anybody?”  Catalogues shuffled uncomfortably.  “Ten it is.  Sold.”

Poulter was pleased with the price.  He told the auction porter this, as he helped maneuver the cabinet onto his pick-up truck.

“Well, you certainly got a lot of tonnage for your money.”  The porter grunted, from the heavy end.

 Poulter would not enjoy his drive home.  Never a natural driver, other traffic terrified him so the quiet roads, before rush hour really started, were a blessing.  He felt uneasy, though, because something, somewhere, was knocking.

Was it a wheel bearing?  His mechanical sense was no better than his road sense, but someone had told him once that a worn one of those would make a knocking noise.  So – was it a wheel bearing?  He looked down towards the place where he thought the noisy wheel might be.  It could be.  It would be another repair bill!  His local garage-man would rub his hands together with ill-concealed glee – Poulter was his most gullible customer.

Corner!  CORNER!

Preoccupied was he with the wheel Poulter had forgotten the road entirely, and the road, with a justifiable dislike of being ignored, sought retribution.

Panic!   Hauling on the wheel, Poulter managed to yank the old pick-up back into line.  It skidded; it slewed. 

It bounced.  

With crunch and thud Poulter’s prized cabinet unshipped itself and crashed onto the road.  He drew to a halt with a heartfelt groan, hardly daring to confront the consequences of his foolishness by looking in the mirror.  When he did, the sight offered little consolation; for there was the cabinet, lying drunkenly upon the tarmac:  it was not the cabinet which drew his eye, though.  It was the prostrate figure lying half-pinned beneath it!

“Oh, my Sainted Aunt!”  Exclaimed Poulter.  (Poulter often summoned his Sainted Aunt in times of crisis).   “I’ve killed someone!”

‘Someone’, however, was still moving.  By the time Poulter reached him, his victim, uttering a stream of invective, was wriggling free of the wooden tombstone.  A small man of apparent middle age in working overalls, he shouted angrily at Poulter:  “Bloody hell!  What d’ye think ye’re doing, yer old fool?  You bloody near slaughtered me then!”

“I’m sorry.  I’m really, really sorry!”  Poulter jabbered as he dabbed at tears of relief behind a grey handkerchief.  “Are you – are you badly hurt?”

“Dunno.”   To Poulter’s amazement his victim was clambering to his feet, dusting himself off.  “Nay, no harm done, lad!  Don’t upset yerse’n, now.  But lissen, next time brake before the corner, right?  Drive into it, don’t try and brake ‘alf-way round!”

“Yes, yes.”  Humbled, Poulter tried to make amends.  “Look, can I give you a lift anywhere?  Are you going far?”

The little man stared at Poulter intensely for a moment, as if a decision was needed.  “Aye,” He said.  “Awreet.  But first we’d better get this big coffin of your’n back on t’ truck.  Back up, will ye?”

For so small a figure the little man was surprisingly strong.  Together he and Poulter managed to restore the cabinet, distressed but entire, to its place in Poulter’s pick-up truck.  

“Now tie it down tight, lad!”

Poulter drove away with his new passenger breathing rather heavily beside him.   A horn sounded its impatience.

“Call me Albert.”  Said the little man.  “What’s tha name, lad?”

“Oh, I’m  – please call me Jarvis.”  Poulter rarely revealed his Christian name, but there was something very easy and familiar about  Albert.  Could he have found a new friend?  Jarvis Poulter had few friends.  In fact, he reflected as he pulled out onto the main road, he had no friends.

A squeal of brakes; angry shouts; things which happened to Poulter a lot, and for reasons he didn’t entirely understand.

“Bloody Stephen!”  Said Albert.   “Yer a right twaddy of a driver, Jarvis!   Yer nearly mashed that poor lad!  He wouldn’t mind so much if ye got going, but ye’r that slow!”

“I am, aren’t I?”  Poulter agreed.  “I wish I could do it better.”

“Sorry?”

“I said I wish I could drive quicker.”

Albert tightened his seat belt.   All of a sudden, for some reason, Poulter’s foot slipped across to the pick-up’s clutch.  His hand flicked down to the gear lever and he dropped a gear.  His right foot tweaked the accelerator just enough, and the pick-up answered him with a throaty roar.   As his speed in the new gear increased, Poulter eased his steering to the right and pitched into the bend in front of him.   The back of the vehicle, notwithstanding the weight upon it, drifted gently.  The tyres sang.  Ahead, evening traffic was gathering. 

“What’s happening?”  Poulter cried.  His hands, his feet seemed not to belong to him.  He was a marionette on mysterious, unseen strings, his limbs dancing over the controls, his balance perfectly attuned to the pick-up’s new-found vigor.  “I can’t stop!”

Fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour, lanes of traffic on each side, yet somehow a path – a snaking, narrow path – between.  Eighty, ninety!   Now weaving an impossible course, touching gas, brakes, opposite lock on the corners, controlled drift through swerving lane-changes.  Sirens, blue flashing lights behind him at first, then receding.

“Lost ‘em!”  Albert said triumphantly.

“Help me, please!”  Screamed Poulter. 

“Nay, lad!  Tha’s doing awreet by tha’sen.”

Cars, lorries, buses, traffic great and small flashed by as Poulter, gibbering, clung to the wheel.  Traffic lights turned green in fright at his approach, open-mouthed pedestrians and protesting cyclists parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses, and in a matter of moments the pick-up had come to rest outside Poulter’s home.   The engine switched itself off.  Frozen in horror, Poulter stared through the windscreen as overheated metal ticked back into shape.

“What have I done?  What have I done?”

Albert glanced about him.   “Well, I think yer’ve driven ‘ome.  This isn’t my ‘ouse, so it must be your’n.”  He undid his seat belt.  “Right, let’s get this cabinet off t’ back and inside, then ye’d better take the truck soomwheer and park it.”   Poulter seemed incapable of movement.  “Coom on, son.  The filth’ll be round in a minnit!”

“The police?  Oh my god!”  (Somehow Poulter’s Sainted Aunt was just not adequate on this occasion).  “But they’ll trace me!   Their computers…”

“Aye, they’re bloody fast nowadays.  So it’s a good job y’ reported it stolen yesterday, in’t it?  But if yer think about it, t’ thieves aren’t likely to have brought it back to your house, so yer’d better take it soomwheer they might ha’ left it.”

“No!  I mean no.  You see, I didn’t report it stolen!”  Poulter shook his head helplessly.

Albert ‘s leathery face creased in a slow smile.  “Aye, lad.  Yer did.”

Much later, when Poulter’s cabinet was safely indoors and after the police had visited him with the news they had recovered his vehicle (‘Joyriders, probably sir. You should get it back in a couple of days’) Poulter faced Albert across his kitchen table.   With the help of several pills his mood had recovered.  “What was it?”  He demanded.  “You did that to me, didn’t you?”

“I don’t see how yer can say that!  You were driving!”  Albert replied.  “Yer made a wish, didn’t yer?  Yer got yer wish.”

Poulter’s laugh was a particularly abrasive, braying sound.  “Wish?  What wish?  Absolute nonsense!  You crossed the road without looking!  I had to swerve to avoid you.  After you collided with my cabinet I was unnerved – and then you were rude and aggressive about my speed.   I reacted.  That’s why I drove so irresponsibly!”   Though this version of events had scant regard for the truth, he rather liked it.  It would do no harm to reapportion some of the blame.

“Nay, lad!”  Albert said quietly.  “Ah weren’t hit by t’cabinet.  I were inside it.”

Poulter sniggered.  Poulter guffawed.  Finally, Poulter snorted. 

Albert said:  “Ah’ve been trapped in theer, lad, I have.”

 “Don’t be ridiculous!”  Poulter snapped.  “You simply can’t be serious!”

But Albert was serious.  And the sincerity written on his face was sufficient to convince.  “Yer moost ‘ave heard me knockin’, lad.  Yon’ cabinet’s got a false back, see?  T’crash loosened it, otherwise there’s no way out.”

Poulter shook his head.  “ Oh, really!  When did you get in?  How long were you in there?”

“Oh, about four hundred year this time.  That’s if yer stick to t’Gregorian calendar, o’ course.”

A long silence.  Eventually,  Poulter began to cackle, a noise that was, if anything, even more unpleasant than his snigger, or his guffaw, or his laugh.  “Four centuries?  Wishes?  You’ll be telling me you’re a genie next!”

“Aye lad.  Ah don’t like the word, but tha’s what I am.  That’s me.”

“You really believe this, don’t you?”  Poulter sneered.  “Alright, so, if I were to wish for a royal banquet to appear before us on this table, right now, you could make it happen, I suppose.”

“I wouldn’t mind sommat to eat, if tha’s offering, but I won’t do that, no.”

Can’t do that, you mean.”

“Won’t.  See, there’s a lot of competition amongst us genies, and I’ll not waste points lowerin’ me’sen to grantin’ that kind of wish.  I like a challenge!  Then again, tha knowst how it goes.  Yer only get three wishes, don’t yer?  Be careful what yer wish for.  Yer got two left.”

Poulter was of a mind to make a further derisive comment, but something prevented him.  After all, the events of that afternoon defied explanation.  “Are you really telling me you can grant wishes?  I mean, was it you who fixed it so the police thought my pick-up had been stolen?”

“Aye, that were me.  Now, ‘ave yer or ‘ave yer not got sommat to eat?  My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut!”

It was the least Poulter, convinced though he was that he had a madman for a house guest, could do to oblige, so he sought out some eggs and potatoes in his kitchen and began preparing a simple meal.  As he worked, he called through the opened door:  “How old are you, Albert?”

“I don’t rightly know.  Age doesn’t come into it really.  I live life in both directions, y’see – sometimes forwards in time, sometimes back.   T’earliest client I can remember were near on two thousand year ago.”

“Really!”  (worth another snigger)  “Who was that?”

“Why, it were soom chap who had a big speech t’make.  There were about five thousand in t’audience and they was all starvin’.   Honestly, I didn’t want to do it, not many points in it, see?  But he wished for me to feed ‘em.  Five thousand fish suppers, he said.  Think o’ theet!”

“And you did it anyway?”

“Aye, I had to.  They would have killed me!  He told ‘em I were t’catering manager.”

Poulter nearly set fire to his frying pan.  “What else did he wish for?”

“‘E wished for a couple a’ things – used oop his three, any rate.  He were a talented lad, ‘im, mind. Could do quite a bit o’ it for hisself.”

“Amazing.”  Poulter said drily.  “Any others I might know?”

“What d’yer want, bloody references?   There were that big fat chap; you might ‘ave ‘eard o’ ‘im.”

“Fat chap?”

“Aye, called ‘isself Henry, or sommat.  Wore soom right glitzy clothes but ‘e stank sommat awful.   Not easy for a lad like that to pull.”

“King Henry the Eighth?”

“That’s the chap!  He wanted a bootiful Queen, he said.  Ah sorted ‘im out a right tasty lass, but ‘e couldn’t hold onto ‘er.  Sliced ‘er ‘ead off in the end.  See, here’s the thing:  you got to be so careful what you wish for, or it turns out bad.  Ah daresn’t tell you what ‘appened to the fella wi’ the fish suppers!”

Poulter’s culinary efforts, rudimentary though they were, formed the foundation for a very pleasant evening.  By the time Albert and he had concluded their meal, cleaned up (Albert proved almost as fastidious as Jarvis himself), and gone on a tour of the feast of collectables in Poulter’s upstairs room, it was late.  Feeling hospitable, he offered Albert a bed for the night.

Albert surveyed the made-up bed in the spare room.  “Aye, that’ll be grand!”  Albert said.

After his day’s adventures sleep evaded Jarvis Poulter.  Preposterous though his house-guest’s claim to status as a genie was, he could not entirely wipe the idea from his mind.  The driving incident was still fresh, and would remain so for some time.  So, as he often did, he read from one of the many art volumes piled upon his bedside table and, as he often did, paused to admire a picture of a favorite sculpture, that of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’.  His eager eyes devoured the graceful curves of the woman cradled in her lover’s arms and he thought how wonderful it must be to own such a perfect work:  how magnificent it would look, as the centerpiece of his upstairs collection.  How he wished…

So close to the edge of sleep, Poulter might not have noticed the first ominous creaking from his bedroom ceiling, but he certainly noticed the splintering explosion of timber and plaster that followed.  He certainly saw the plummeting progress of what appeared, in flashing past, to be a large white boulder which would be impeded not at all by the floor of his bedroom, nor by the floor of the kitchen below that.  Only God’s good earth stopped it, with a house-shuddering crash, on the concrete floor of the basement.  There it rested, obscured by a veil of dust.

“By ‘eck, lad!”  Albert exclaimed as he and his host stared into the crater.   “Tha’ needs stronger floors than theet.  Yon’ lump weights better than a couple a’ ton, tha’ knows.”

Jarvis, speechless, watched as the dust below them cleared.  Broken in two by its fall, Rodin’s masterwork was still clearly recognizable.    “But I didn’t wish for this!”  He wailed.

“Well, yes, lad.  You did.  One left now, mind.  Use it carefully, like!”

Poulter greeted the morning through fingers which clasped his head in abject despair.  His newspaper’s headline, concerning a mysterious ‘Theft of the Century’ from the Tate Gallery, could do nothing to improve his mood.

“What do I do now?”  He asked Albert, plaintively.  “My house is ruined, and I have a priceless stolen artwork shattered in my cellar.  Oh, my Sainted Aunt, what on earth am I to do?”

“I won’t lie to thee, lad.   Yon sculpture’s goin’ t’ be missed.  An’ the police’ll be wanting to know about things as go bang in the night, if you catch my drift.  If I were thee I’d make meself scarce for a while.”  Albert advised.  But then he added:  “O’ course, yer do still have one wish left…”

“Right now,”  Poulter admitted.  “I wish I could hide somewhere no-one would ever think of looking for me.  But I don’t suppose that’d be possible, even for you.”

#

The auction house porter groaned as he saw a familiar old pick-up, with an equally familiar Moroccan cabinet aboard, waiting by the saleroom doors.

“Not again!”  He said to the wiry man in overalls who emerged from the vehicle.

“’Fraid so.”  Said Albert.  “He wants it put in for t’next sale.  Gi’ us a hand, will thee?”

“Why is it so heavy?”  Complained the porter.

“Well built, lad; like me!”

After much labor the cabinet was restored to the saleroom. 

“I’ll get the paperwork.”  Said the porter.

“Aye.  You do that.”  Agreed Albert.   He had already seen the large Chinese urn which stood a little further down the aisle.  As soon as he was sure the porter’s back was turned he took the lid off the urn and wriggled down inside it, pulling the lid back after him. 

With no-one to sign for it, the auction house agreed their best course was to sell Jarvis’s cabinet, and to donate the proceeds to charity if its owner was never traced.   The following week’s sale saw the cabinet depart at a bargain price to a new bidder, much to the porter’s satisfaction, because thereafter that strange, troublesome knocking sound in the echoes of the saleroom would finally cease.

After a few years Jarvis’s deserted house would be sold off to a developer, when the remains of the marble sculpture would finally be discovered.   It was recognized instantly, of course, but the demolition man, fearing publicity and delay, set about it with his rock spike and reduced it to hardcore.

As for the Chinese urn, it would change hands many times.  Valuable as it was, no-one seemed anxious to keep it for long, and eventually it would find its way back to China where, inexplicably, its owner threw it off a cliff.  

© 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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Continuum – The Final Episode: The Valley of Carr-Villoise

Alanee has survived her mortal combat with Hasuga’s former ‘Mother’ and found the key to the wooden chamber’s secret door, by which she and Sala escape the City before its final collapse.  The pair discover a boat moored on the River Balna and entrust the current to take them clear of danger.

Although Sala strives to help her, Alaneee succumbs to her wounds.  With her whole world destroyed, Sala opts to end her own life and seeks an ending in the deepest part of the river.

Now read on:

  It is the Hour of Spirits; a time for ghosts to rise, a time of angels.  It is first morning, and Alanee is there.  In her hands the xuss, wheaten bread of the Hakaan, the wide plain she loves so well.  Upon the road before her, the long dirt lane that leads down the hillside from the village that is her home, between hedges grown high with wildsweet and the white weed, old Kaasa’s horse labours.  Steam rising from its sweating flanks, breath in bellows-blasts from deep capacious lungs it pulls a richly-laden cart – fresh fish from Hikarthay, flour from Baldar Mill.  An aged engine and its aged engineer; who more aged could there be, who more redolent of forever?  Across the swathe of mists a red dawn is breaking, and it is morning in Balkinvel.  Alanee, xuss clasped in her hand, in the summer of the land she loves.

Where was she when the darkness came?  When did the flame, the tiny spark she had nurtured so carefully into fire, gutter and die?  And by whose refulgence does she see, now that her own sweet light of memory has gone?

Deeper dreams, explanations:  ‘I am here.  I am always with you’.

Stirring.  A sweet touch that must be Sala’s touch, for in life there is no touch sweeter – then another.  Unwilling eyes, unready eyes – open, they can see nothing more lovely or more perfect than the dream – sleep is all these eyes, this body craves.  Rest is all this heart can ask.

But the touch is insistent: it comes to her and leaves her at once, like a drift of breeze, or a sweetness of honey on her tongue. It calls her.  She might turn away, but something, some kernel of heat within the white ash of her psyche asks it of her.

Open – wake – and so, as one who has returned from a great journey; as one who has seen the far distance and knows it for itself, she does.

Those eyes that meet her eyes are gentle.  They speak to her of safety; they invite her in.  It is not important, at first, that they are not human eyes, or even those of beasts she may recognise.  They are there, and there is a world behind them.

She who looks down upon her, she is not Sala, or even close to Sala.  She is not human, in a way Alanee knows.  A creature, though: a beast – no, she will not call it so – a being.  A being she saw in a picture once, with golden hair that cascades about its body in a flaxen mist: a being that smiles to see her eyelids flicker open, a being whose excited chatter is so close to speech she feels she might almost understand it, if only that speech was slower, closer to her need for understanding.  She smiles in return, and the being cries for joy.

In the subdued light (she is within the shelter of some large hut, or house) there is food; fresh fruit, some fish, some green-stuff, and there is rest again.  Darkness and light, sadness and happiness.  A host of little faces greet her, a gallery of those strange, near-human smiles, mellifluous sounds, all glad that she has wakened, happy she is with them.  In the cradle of their care she sleeps.  And come the morning, wakes once more.

As some of her strength returns, Alanee tries to raise herself and look around her.  The wounds to her leg and arm have been stitched with a fine, green thread and she is laid upon a bed of fresh hay-grass which has been somehow contained within a coarsely-woven sack resembling a mattress.  The same hempen substance covers her.  It is both comfortable and sweet-smelling, though a light dust tickles her nose.  A roof of reeds, supported by a central pole, rises maybe twelve feet to its peak above her head, and extends to a circular red mud wall.  Apart from her bed the only furniture, set against this wall, is a rather curious-looking jar upon a wooden stand.  The only opening, which serves both as entrance and window, has a rush hurdle propped beside it to act as a door.  Bright sun beams in onto a clay floor and outside there are sounds which, were they human in origin, would be like those of children playing.  She can see little against that strong, glaring light.

Three of the golden people (yes, she may call them that) stand watching.  Erect bodies sheathed in long, silken hair.  She extends a hand and one, she whose eyes first met her own on waking, accepts it.  Alanee wonders at her dark skin, the ribbed nails, hardened  knuckles, yet in its way her grip is sensual, warm and comforting.  There is such a sweetness, such an open frankness in her wild smile, such a soft music in her chuckling pleasure that Alanee is instantly compelled to love her.

One of the onlookers comes forward bearing water in a hewn wooden bowl, offering it nervously.  Alanee is glad to drink.  Expectancy!  She feels its twang upon the air.

A shadow falls across the floor.  A dark being stands framed within the doorway.   “We thought we had lost you.”

That deep voice!  That is the voice!  Unsure if she can speak, and fearful lest she be wrong she hesitates to say the name; but she hopes; she hopes so, so much!

“Dag?”

“None other.  You remember me, then?”

Remember!  Just to hear his voice as it resonated time upon time within her dreams, though she hardly knows him, has scarcely really seen his face, is all she could want.  Oh, Dag!  He walks towards her, as tall as she remembers, and the golden creature respectfully withdraws.

“Of course I remember you!”  Alanee can hardly restrain herself, tears welling into her eyes, and weak though she is laughter plays about her lips as she waits for him to turn to the light, for a glimpse of the face she once kissed in gratitude.  “Let me look at you!”

He sits beside her on the edge of her bed and she sees at once how well his image matches the one that has found space in her heart.  Those eyes so fathomless and dark, the tiny creases as he smiles – a wide smile across his long, slightly haggard face;  featured with sufficient flint to make a man.  ‘Yes’ Alanee’s inner voice murmurs:  ‘you are all I remember you to be.’

“Who designs your clothes?”  She asks aloud, finding an excuse to give vent to a laugh that is proving irrepressible.  He is dressed in an ill-tailored smock which looks to be made of wool.  It is coloured, very patchily, by some sort of red vegetable dye that has not quite taken.

Dag grimaces.  “In all honesty I rigged this up last night out of two of the curtains the Miroveti use for insulation.  They aren’t particularly strong on clothes around here.  They don’t see much sense in them.  I’ll have to do better now you’re around, though.  I’m boiling in this thing!”

“So normally you don’t wear anything?”

“Don’t look so worried!  They cleaned and kept your clothes for you, and we’ll rig up a loom, or something.”

“Dag, who are they, these creatures?”

“I’m glad you said ‘who’ and not ‘what’.  I wish I knew.   I asked the one I call Pasc – he brought me here – and the nearest we both understood was Miroveti.  It will do, anyway.  They’re even less strong on names than they are on clothes.”

A ripple of tiredness washes over Alanee:  her newly regained strength is ebbing.  She sinks back on the bed.  “Sala.”  She says:  “Is Sala here?”

Dag asks:  “Who is Sala?”

Sleep saves her.

When Alanee re-awakens the sun has travelled another course, and she feels renewed.  Despite anxious solicitations from her kindly nurse she rises and discovers the tabard dress she was wearing when she left The City neatly folded beside her bed.  It is clean and crisp:  it feels cool against her skin.

Supported at first on one silky arm, then taking some steps on her own, she ventures unsteadily out into sunlight, only to be nearly knocked from her feet by a milling throng of Miroveti children.  They gather about her legs,  pushing and jostling and clamouring for attention so insistently she surrenders; sitting down in their midst to laughingly submit as curious fingers touch her hair and her face.  Dag discovers her here, twenty minutes later, with a fascinated young Miroveti on her lap toying with her lips, ears and curls.

“You’ve been unconscious for four days,” he tells her later, as they wander down towards a wooden jetty at the river edge.  He has swapped his vast, heavy blanket for a more reasonable loin-cloth of animal hide. “You were alone in the boat when they found you.  I’m sorry.”

There is the boat, lashed at last to a calmer mooring.  Though Alanee explores it carefully, she finds no evidence of her friend.

“She must have thought I was dead; struck out on her own.”

“With the ‘dead’ part I can empathise; I thought you were myself until the Miroveti fed you with some of their amazing herbs.  They are marvellous physicians, there’s nothing they don’t know about natural medicine.  Now here you are, just five days later, walking around as if nothing has happened.”

“Not quite.”  Although the wounds are healing, they still hurt her.  The muscle in her leg tightens with each step, forcing her to walk with a limp.

He covers her hand with his own.  “There was a robe, a very fine courtier’s robe, though it was the worse for wear:  part had been torn off to make a bandage the Miroveti found on your leg wound; the rest of it was in the bottom of the boat.  We thought it was yours.  Maybe it wasn’t.”

She forces herself to breathe calmly.  Sala would have had to remove her robe if she were to swim ashore, she tells herself.  Sala was strong, so much stronger than she.

“What did happen, Alanee?”  Dag asks.

She perches on the edge of the jetty, dangling her feet in the water.  He sits beside her, and the river moves past them with stately invincibility, brown and wide.  The opposite bank is a forest that extends to higher ground, and which in turn becomes foothills to mountains beyond – a forest a-flutter with wild creatures revealed in brilliant flashes of plumage, dark leaves, ruffled gently by a warm wind.  Behind them the Miroveti village pulsates to its own rhythm of life: laughter and wailing of children, cackling of old ones, mewing and clucking excitement of females, mature grunting males.  A collection of huts of mud and straw built by half-human hands in a clearing in the woods.

Alanee tells Dag of the fate of the Consensual City; of her adventures there, and how she owes her life to her friend.  It is not a short tale, for Dag, like Sala, knew nothing of Hasuga or his power. 

When she is done, he says gravely:  “That explains a lot of things; and poses questions for a great many more.  Alanee, you drifted down this river, but it is not the Balna.  You were discovered up-river no more than a mile away, and further up there are falls: great waterfalls where the river drops a hundred feet or more.  You can’t have come that way.”

The library of her mind contains all the history she needs, so she tells him of all she found while idling in the sanctuary of death.

“This is Carr-Villoise’s valley.”

Dag looks blankly at her, so she goes on. “Carr-Villoise saved this small patch from the final conflict.  With Karkus he protected and fed the last mutant humans here while they developed Hasuga.”

She relates the story Lady Ellar had only begun to learn, left alone with that Book of Lore: how once, long ago, doomed mutants genetically engineered an almost ageless child, a biological computer whose brain could encompass all the knowledge they hoped he would need to eventually rebuild their species.  “So his body could survive they gave him this valley.”

Dag looks puzzled.  “Like a garden?”

“I believe so.  When Hasuga ate his real food came from here. This, the village, the river, the forest, this is all real.”  Alanee rests her chin on her hands, looking at the reflections on the water.  “And he was real.  Everything else…”

Alanee pauses for a while, watching carp, bass and eels darting among the reeds.

“Hasuga constructed a virtual world of his own.  He was lonely.  He wanted a mother so he created one.  Then, through the emanations of that great brain he made a palace to live in, a virtual city and a civilisation around it.

“The city, the outer lands and the people who lived in them, even those who ‘cared’ for him, he made by the power of his mind, structured over time into something so complex and substantial it might just as well have been real.  Oh, there were limits:  he could only sustain so many people or players within it– he played out little games of war, thought up plagues, all sorts of natural disasters, simply to control numbers.

“But computers, even organic ones, finally wear out.  So his purpose was always to recreate flesh – to re-establish a natural cycle of birth and death; people like the unsullied predecessors of those who created him.  There were a lot of failed experiments, like the children in the city:  I thought they were so vacuous and characterless, and now I see they were merely failures, unsatisfactory clones.  But there were successes too.”

“The Miroveti?”

“I guess so.  Simple creatures he created to be his gardeners who became his chemists.”  She smiles reflectively, “Far from simple!”

“Anyway, his final task was to regenerate humans.  His starting point for that was a slightly aberrant player from amongst his population and I was it.”  She spreads her hands demonstratively; “Far away from The City, see?  His message wasn’t so strong, out there in the Hakaan.  Oh, Habbach, was the Hakaan even real?”

  “Were you even real?”   Dag grins.  “You look pretty three-dimensional to me!  What you’re saying is, he was shaping you to be first of his new species inside the virtual world of The City?  So you can’t be real?”

“Let me explain.  He had to brief me first, make sure I was completely ready, that I had enough power, enough knowledge. Once he was certain of that his mission was complete.  All that was left for him was to shut down. He had to do that so I could get free.”

“Shut down – what, everything?”

“By gradual stages, yes.  We saw it as impending disaster – the Continuum.  It was Hasuga throwing switches:  he’s a very orderly and organised sort of being.  He had to prime himself to be sure there wasn’t a total failure before he was prepared.”

“So how do you become flesh and blood through all this?  When does it happen?”

Alanee speaks slowly and gently soothes his hand with her own.  “Dag, it already has.”

“Oh, for sure?  And how do either of us know the difference?”

“A secret that was kept by The Ancients.  The final key to my transition, if you like.  Hasuga didn’t understand it, It was incorporated it in the switch he was programmed to use to shut himself down.  A book that told of a magic made long, long ago. We had to hold it in our hands to make a final link: I was to die.”

Dag pales,  “But you didn’t…”

“Yes, I did.   Hasuga’s ‘Mother’ made the process more straightforward, actually;  I was dead when your wonderful Miroveti found me.” 

“|They brought you back from the dead?”

“So it seems.  They recovered my tiny piece of Hasuga’s program, if you like.  He modified me so I could survive without him.  I had to be shut down and restarted; and that made me real.”

For a long time Dag says nothing, staring deep into the water before he will ask the question he would almost prefer to leave unanswered;  “What about me?  I haven’t ‘shut down’, have I?  Are you saying that to be like you, I had to die, too?”

 She remembers the compress of leaves, the morning of her pain.  Her words are carefully chosen.  “I know you did.”

He stares at her:  “My healing – was that you?”

Alanee does not answer.  She has said enough.

Leaving Dag alone to reflect, she walks back up the slope from the river.  She will not tell him, yet, what their work together must be, though it might be that he knows; perhaps she senses the resentment he will feel, and can see how carefully she has to tread if ever he is to love her.

For herself Alanee will never lack comfort, never have to act alone.  In her mortal lifetime Hasuga will always be close at hand, though in no form she can touch.  He has left the burden of his imprisoned form behind, substituted flesh for a less substantial presence.  Yet he speaks to her still.

She has only a small part in the first chapter of the book she brought Hasuga on that fateful morning; a book that begins with a story of a garden.  And when she is gone, the book will help him with all that comes after.

“One thing, Hasuga – one thing I do not understand.”

In a day to come when she is alone, perched upon a rock above the valley, watching Dag and their children playing in the meadow below, she will ask the question, speaking aloud as she often does when she speaks with Hasuga:

“If the fatal flaw in the human race was, as the book tells us, begun at the very first; how different are we?  One man and one woman – we cannot begin a perfect race, can we?  Isn’t this just the same mistake, all over again?”

And he will reply, inside her head.  ‘Is perfection what you truly seek?’

Alanee may ponder this for a while, seeing how one of her two boy children always harasses and bullies the other, even in play.  Something in her mind must give an affirmative answer, for Hasuga responds to her.

‘There is more for you to know.  Have faith in me.’

Alanee’s answer is not, as she may suppose, so far away:  for hers is not the only home upon the banks of this river.  There is another.  It is kept by a woman deeply in love with a man who found her and pulled her from the water’s clutch, a handful of years ago.  While Alanee rests, this woman sows corn in a little plot she has created, her Mansuvene hands once so soft now hardened by labour, but with a happy heart, because despite misgivings she has always harboured, she is joyfully certain now that she is with child.

This afternoon she will break her news to her man, when he returns from his expedition along the shore of the river, and though she chided him for his false hopes, some part of her has faith too.  Maybe he has found the others he says he is sure are there.

After all, he is a man of  perception, and her trust in Commander Zess’s judgement is absolute.

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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Blackpool Rock

This is another short story from my archives, one I particularly like because although the story is not my own, it contains one or two personal references, an indulgence I rarely claim. I hope you will like it (or possibly remember it)!

Had he expected it?  The open fields poppy-red where he had played, half a century ago, unchanged?  The lake in the disused quarry, the village hall at Benton crossroads, with flagstone roof and walls of Victorian brick, still standing?   Looking rejuvenated, if anything, in the bright afternoon sun.

He drew up beside the wooden notice board nailed to its double doors, grey-pasted with faded parish notices, and still hanging at that slightly misjudged angle, almost exactly as he remembered it the summer before university.  He let his mind take him back, through those peeling doors that were just as he had thrust them open one Tuesday night, so many years before, and he remembered his dread as he sidled into the old brick building, oozing the furtive reluctance of youth, feeling the embarrassment of his tight, badly-cut jeans.  Village hall melees were not for him, not then.  Saturday night dancing was for him; local tribute Eddy Cochran (Ronnie Blass, baker’s assistant) tying himself in agonized knots on a creaking wooden stage.  Three-four time – not always on time, but loud.  Primal and wild.

Not the Women’s Institute.

They were all so old.  Portly ladies in portly clothes; teacups and nudges, secret buzz.  Contralto bees.

“What d’you want, love?”   Annie Riley, her enormousness bulged beneath rose-print on white.  “Did your mum send you?”

“Leaflets.”   He had muttered unintelligibly.

“You what, dear?”  Sherry Harbottle, as thin as Annie was fat.  Shrunk shank beneath a black frock that hung about her like a shroud.  “Oh, bless him!  He’s shy!”

Beetroot soldiers shinning up  their siege ladders.  He could not stop them.

“Oh, he’s blushing now!  Bless him!”  

“I want the leaflets.”  He said, oozing defiance.  “My ma says I’m to deliver them tonight.”

“Oh, them!”  Annie was already turning away.  “I left ’em in the kitchen.  Out there.”   She waved at the door of a tiny room from which trays of tea were known, periodically, to erupt. 

His path to the kitchen was long and circuitous because, like Kipling’s dormouse, he followed the wall, afraid to step into the middle of the room.  He plunged through its closed door like a mariner abandoning a stricken submarine.   Eyes glued to the floor, he took a moment to realise he was not alone.

“Oh goodness!   Excuse me!”  The owner of an exposed thigh hurriedly brushed her dress down to cover a refastened suspender.  A young woman; a plain blue dress.  She glared at him.  “Couldn’t you knock, or something?”

“Sorry!  Sorry!”  He spluttered, vermillion rising.  “I didn’t know… I got to take the leaflets, see?”

Severe eyes pinned him for long enough to be satisfied of his mortification.  “That’s them.”  She nodded towards a neat pile on a shelf.

“Thanks.”  He made to take possession of the leaflets.  

“I was making the tea.”  She gestured towards a huffing industrial-sized urn.  “Don’t drink it, whatever you do.”

“No, I won’t.  I can smell it.”  He glanced at her face, his skin alive with embarrassment.  He looked long enough to see a strong jaw, a wide, rather thin mouth, and pale cheeks.  Horn-rimmed spectacles disguised frank but nervous eyes.

“I got to deliver them, see?”

“What, the teas?”  Her voice was edgy, quite deep.

“No, them.”  He waved the leaflets.  Then, in a moment of bravery:  “What’s your name then?”

“Me?”   She seemed genuinely unsure if there was someone else in the room;  “I’m Mary.   I make the tea.”

“Yeah?  Hello Mary!”  He felt suddenly confident.  “Are you one of them, then?”  He nodded at the door.

“Yes, I joined.  The Women’s Institute’s a good way to get to know people.”  She recited.

“I’m Malcolm.”  He introduced himself.  “I don’t remember seeing you around the village.”

“I don’t get out, much.”  How old was she?  She might be twenty-five or six; but she had the naiveté of a seventeen year old, and she was painfully shy.  Two little pink blots had appeared on her cheeks.  But then she had cause, he supposed.  He had seen more of her underwear than was polite.

“You’re staring!”  She accused.

“Sorry, Mary.  So, how are you getting on with the old….with the ladies of the WI?”

“They asked me to make the tea. This is my third meeting and I’ve made the tea each time. That’s all they seem to want me to do.   I think you’re leaning against the biscuits.”

“Oh sorry!”  He said again, blenching at his oft-repeated apology.  “Custard creams, eh?”

“They’re allowed one each.”

“Would you come out with me Thursday?”

She was waiting outside the little whitewashed cottage when he had called for her, blinking through those thick glasses, mousey brown hair drawn back in a modest bun, champagne-coloured frock and little brown handbag clasped before her.   He spent the last of his weekly pay on a movie.  Afterwards, as they walked back the mile from the late night bus, he had ventured to put an arm around her shoulder. She neither resisted nor broke her stride.   At her door their eyes shared a silent moment.

“Well, thank you very much.”  She said. 

“Can I see you again?”

She seemed a little astonished.  “If you like.”

Mary almost ran, slipping indoors by the doorjamb as if she was frightened to fully open it.  The lock clicked behind her.

And this was the place.  That was the door.  As he had driven from the village hall another four hundred yards to her home the sky clouded over and rain began quietly.  Wind-blown, it flecked the windscreen like tiny splinters.   Malcolm tapped the wiper switch impatiently, as though to lose sight of those white cottage walls with their solemn brown front door even for a second would be too important.   In his head he recounted each detail as if he defied it to be altered.  It was not.

Sighing, he repeated a question he had asked himself so often down the years: why had he  persisted in his pursuit of Mary, that summer when he was seventeen?   And why had he never forgotten her?  Was it the sight of a graceful leg that began an obsession in him?  No, despite the gaucheness of his tender years, that was not the image of her that dominated his mind.  It was the memory of a day, and a look.

They dated sporadically at first.  His friends teased him.

“Did I see you out with your mum again last night, Malc?  I can let you have a paper bag if you want one.”

At each meeting he learned a little more about her.  She lived with her father, she spoke of her home life often.  She told him about her cat, of the flowers she loved to grow.   Were it not for the wooden set of her expression and a hint of cynicism in her voice he might have thought her happy in her world, but something nagging at his brain had persuaded him otherwise.

One hot sunny afternoon as they sat on a grass bank above the lake he turned his head to kiss her.  She did not resist, nor did she respond.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I wanted to.   I still want to.”

Mary stared at her knees.  “How old are you?”

“I’m – nineteen.  How old are you?”

“You shouldn’t ask a lady her age.”

Thereafter a kiss became part of their ritual which they observed, routinely, whenever there was a private moment.  As summer passed Malcolm became bolder until once, on the evening bus, he ventured to put his hand on that familiar leg.  She seemed unmoved by his gentle grip, yet she allowed it.  They walked the final mile to her home.

“My Dad’s going away on Wednesday.”  She said suddenly.  “Do you want to come round?”

By the Wednesday afternoon his hand was shaking so much he could hardly press her doorbell.  She answered in her dressing gown, taking his hand to draw him into the subdued light of a living room heavily decorated in green patterned wallpaper and bluntly furnished.  A fat, comatose cat stretched out on the windowsill, head against the nets.

“I don’t really know much about this.”  She confessed, as if she was addressing a task – a challenge she had set herself.

In her tiny upstairs room with afternoon sun beating on the coverlet he taught her the little he knew.   They were students in a shared experience, inexpert and mercifully brief; yet afterwards she clung to him as if he were life itself.

The rain on the car roof became a rhythm, a cascade of memories in heavy drops splashing, a milky mist rising from the warm road.  Malcolm’s car’s wipers swept the windscreen in regular gestures.   That had been the first time.  Up there.  The casement window above the brown front door.  After so long, could those curtains really be the same?

When, as now, his imagination took him back to that summer he remembered it as a time of joyful nakedness and entanglement, of thirst and gratification.  Only in times of sadness could he regret how few were those bejewelled afternoons when Mary’s father, a man he never got to meet, was away.   And when their physical union happened it was frequently awkward, mannerly and restrained, but reflection had persuaded himself otherwise.  He had always been ruled by passion, so the lie was important to him.

“Why do you like me so much?”  Mary asked him once, on one of those glittering days.

“Because – because you’re beautiful.” He let his eyes feast on the slenderness lying beside him, because it was a question he had to answer in himself.  “You’re just – beautiful.”

She reached for her spectacles from the bedside table, so she could see him better. She would squint without them.  “I’m not beautiful.  I’m plain.  I’m ugly.”

The self-loathing behind the words shocked him.  “No!  No you’re not!  Not to me.”  He tried to kiss her, and she turned away.

“You’re seeing someone who isn’t there.”  She told him. 

“She’s there.”  He insisted.  “She’s buried deep, where maybe not everyone can see her.  But I can; and when she’s happy and she lets it show – then her eyes shine like raindrops in the sun, and all the beauty spills out.  Some people paint beauty on themselves each morning, but they’re really twisted and hideous underneath.  Not you.  You have loveliness written right through you.”

“Like a stick of Blackpool rock!”  She laughed a rare laugh, then kissed him with rare spontaneity.  “Remember you said that.  Even if you didn’t really mean it, don’t ever forget it, alright?”

Had he really meant it?  After summer was over and he had gone to his further education he frequently accused himself of using her, of blinding himself to truths she accepted only too easily.  At university he found love that gave itself more freely, that possessed greater beauty, yet was never so profound.  As other memories were made and afterwards faded, hers was constant.  And with the years, yes, even through the married years, it survived.

So here he was, forty-two years later, parked on the road opposite her door.  There, just there by the hollyhocks, they had said their goodbyes.   There, on that precise spot, his heart had filled with sorrow at their parting and he had said the three words.  One of a very few times in his life he had said them.

Mary had stared into his eyes with an earnest darkness that made his heart stop.   “We’ll love a memory then.  Keep it precious for us, yes?”

“I’ll write to you.”

“No, you won’t.”  She would have turned away without so much as a farewell kiss had he not insisted.  And he saw her reasons, saw the bitterness, the self-disgust – saw tears behind those heavy lenses.    He felt the sob in her throat.

Malcom eased himself to a more comfortable position in his car seat.  Rain thrashed the roof now.  Accusation.  A flagellation; a penance.  She was right, of course.  He never wrote to her, even when the nights were their longest and his loneliness at its most intense.  Oh, how fresh were the images in his mind – of that look, of those tears!  In all the time he had known her, she had been unable to give herself entirely to him.   Only when it was too late had those magic words breached  her defences enough to show how she had hoped, and striven, perhaps, to return his love. 

He had no family now; here, or anywhere close.  He thought of his wife, and the sad, lonely stone that was her final home.  He thought of his children in their nests at the far corners of the big world, and then he thought of Mary, and how much of life he had missed.  With a great sense of destiny, he opened his car door.

“Who the hell are you?”   The man on the threshold stared at Malcolm as if he somehow recognised that face, but with the darkness and the rain he could not place a memory.  “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“I wondered if Mary Marshalsea still lived here?”  Malcolm said.

“Mary?”  The man pushed anxious fingers through a thinning head of hair.  “You…you’re looking for Mary?”  His eyes met Malcolm’s.  How old would he be – about forty, or forty-two, maybe?  “Yes, she still lives here.  She’s not home, though, I’m afraid. I’m Mr Marshalsea – can I help?”

A silence dropped like a curtain between the two men.  Facing each other, each confused, surprised, a little frightened, each at the dawn of a truth in the raining night.   Malcolm picked his words carefully.  “You’re Mary’s husband?”

The man bridled. “Look, chap, I don’t know where you got your information.  I’m her son. There’s no other Mister Marshalsea, unless you’re referring to my grandfather.  He died about twenty year ago.” Indignant, he dredged up a few ingots of aggression.  “See here, I ain’t going to stand in my door no longer.  If you want my mother you’ll find her at the village hall.  She goes up there early on Tuesday evenings.   It’s Women’s Institute tonight, see?  She makes the tea.”

His heart beating a little faster, his mind crowded with possibilities, Malcolm turned his car and retraced the road to Benton crossroads.   Outside the village hall he drew to a halt.  In his mind he saw her, as she had been in that distant time, busying herself among the cups and the custard creams.  He saw the heavily rimmed spectacles, those earnest eyebrows, that firm, slightly too prominent jaw.  And he remembered.

“We’ll love a memory then.  Keep it precious for us, yes?”

He saw the peeling paint on the closed doors, the old notice board with its bleached messages.  He might have heard or imagined the faint clink and rattle of crockery from within. 

He slipped his car back into gear, and drove on.

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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: Philip Miles, from PIxabay

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Continuum – Episode Thirty: Flight

Continuum – Episode Thirty:      Flight

In the previous episode:

Alanee has completed Hasuga’s task, bringing the stolen book, which has revealed itself to be called ‘The Bible’, to place in his hands.   When she does so, the integrity of The City is destroyed and the Continuum moves in.  Hasuga is taken, images, places, people are stirred up and scattered like leaves.

Alanee strives desperately to find her way back through the ruptured dimensions to Sala, her friend, but Mother, Hasuga’s previous carer attacks her and in the fight Alanee is badly wounded…

Now read on.

Exhausted amidst the chaos of the collapsing City, Alanee is alone.  Hasuga has gone, taken by the demon that her predecessor, the old Seer, gave a name.  Celeris is gone in just the same way, stripped from her mind by Hasuga’s destruction and unable to fulfil a promise both had made.

‘I will never leave you’

So if it is help she seeks, it will not come.   If it is strength she needs, that, too is gone.  But Hasuga gave her his legacy and his faith that she can fulfil whatever purpose this monster, The Continuum, has.

“I have made you powerful haven’t I.”

Power that lies in the great vault of knowledge he has etched into her brain, which must offer the solution that will lead her back to Sala:  if she can only find it. Her head aches, her eyes hurt, yet she can still think.  She can still see.  Her injured limbs cry out their protest.  She was in the Palace Yard – is she now?

She should feel something outside herself – the stones of the pavement, the heat of the sun on her face, perhaps – but no.  Despite the great structures that fold into ruins all about her, no toppling statue seeks to crush her, no mighty boulder of construction does so much as scrape her flesh as it passes by.  Where is the dust?  The bookseller side by side with Ellar – she sees falling people and their fragmented homes, businesses, lives; people who are all familiar to her.  She sees them because she knows them.  If that is true then why does she not see Sala?

She focuses entirely upon Cassix’s chambers, that one location.  It is still intact!  The old stones, marked mysteriously by Cassix, are a spell she must break.  Cassix’s enchantment; his final defence!  She centres upon Sala in her mind, straining every brain-cell,  and instantly she is on the flags of the chamber with Sala standing over her, pale and scared.  “Alanee!  Oh, Habbach, Alanee?”

“My magic…stronger than Cassix…”

“Oh, ba.  What in the seven hells have you done?”

The old stone room is steady at the moment, although Alanee knows that will change.  In her joy at reuniting with Sala, she lets her thoughts shift away for an instant, and the floor begins to move away with them.  The noise, that insane roar, is close behind her.

 “We have to leave here, now, ba.”  She clambers to unwilling feet:  she must discover some means of escape, “We have to – to stay here is to die.”  It is all she can do to raise her voice above the demon’s clamour.

Sala steadies her arm.  The chambers are collapsing around them.  The great ball Alanee moved with such ease vanishes, the mirrors are melting into candle-wax cascades.  Only that metal disc remains, and it spins now beneath several searching lazer light needles.  In vain she tries to pin her thoughts to the elevator that leads down to the gardens, knowing even if they find their way to it, it will not work.

Frantic because she can feel her concentration fading, Alanee stares about her, seeking answers.  In all the turbulence, the heaving floor, the melting walls, that ancient wooden cabin remains as impenetrable as ever.  There is a door, she has seen it, but where is it now? 

“Look for a panel, or a handle – something!” She gathers her resources once more.

There is no response.

“Come on!”

She focuses again, makes a fresh demand of the wood, but no – the opening she saw in the mirrors, the place where the old one sat will not appear.

Cursing, Alanee musters one last mighty effort; all the suffering of her life, all her belief poured into a single vision of an open door, a way outside.  But still there is nothing; no movement, no sign that the door she has seen just once was ever there.  Once more the heavy cloud of defeat wraps about her; once more she drops to her knees, this time in certainty.  Her strength is gone, no answers have been found, she has lost.

Sala curls herself about Alanee’s hunched body, kisses her goodnight as she would a child, preparing them both for death.  Alanee can do no more than take her dear friend’s hand, to press it weakly in her own, to feel her flesh, the ring with the emerald stone she has always worn…

The stone!  The stones!

“What stones, darling?”  Sala asks. 

“The stones!  Find the leather chair!”

Sala’s reply is soothing and kind:  “The chair’s gone, Alanee-ba – everything’s gone!”

But hope, however unjustifiable, is returning.  “No.  No it hasn’t!  It’s still there, I know it is.  Fix your thoughts upon it:  fix all your thoughts on two stones – one on each arm of the chair.”

Sala shakes her head:  Alanee, don’t make me leave you, ba…”

“No.  You can do this.  You must do this.  Remember the chair, how it looked!  Use that memory!  Go to the stones.”

“For you.”  Sala sighs, dredging up a last strength of her own.  She will do as Alanee asks.

“Concentrate!   It was right there, remember?  It stood there!”

Unbelieving, the Mansuvene woman stares hard into a space that has no levels, references or form of any kind.  Her world, her whole world and every memory in it is whirling before her.

Alanee’s voice is suddenly powerful:  “The stones.  Bring them to me!”

Out of nowhere the old chair appears: standing solidly in the eye of the hurricane, and the stones, one upon each arm, waiting for her.  Wordlessly, Sala rises to her feet, strikes out; a few terrifying steps. 

Bring them!  The command is not spoken, for the dervish yell of the Continuum drowns all sounds but those inside her head.  Determined now, Sala turns to find Alanee on her feet, buoyed up by strength beyond her own.  She lifts the stones, passing them into Alanee’s extended hands.  An instant flash of raw power nearly throws her over, its blue plume of light bathing her friend in garish relief as she slams the stones against that obdurate wooden wall.  They explode – shatter into a thousand pieces that fly off, glittering, into infinity. Overawed, Sala is witness as, apparently from no visible place, a door springs open.

He is there.  Karkus sits within, just as Alanee saw in her mirrors, at the self-same desk.  With a grey-as-time smile across his thin dry lips he raises a hand, gesturing towards the interior of the cabin, and with Sala supporting her arm Alanee staggers inside.  Behind them, the door to The City closes and they find themselves standing together in the gardens, facing the path that leads down to the Balna river.

Sala is stupefied.  Her Mansuvenian superstition speaks to her of witchcraft, insists that this cannot be real: her body may have accomplished a descent of several hundred feet in less than a couple of steps, but her mind will not accept it.  “What deception is this?”

“It was a doorway, ba, a portal.  Cassix knew what would come and he provided himself with a means of escape.  He brought it from another place, an ancient place.  Or maybe it was here first.”

“The old man…”

“His job is done.  He can rest now.  Come, we must hurry”

Muttering prayers for their protection, Sala supports Alanee, shutting her ears to the devastating shout of destruction which rises once more behind them as they struggle down the pathway to the banks of the River Balna.  It is a painful journey and only when they have reached the river will Sala look back.  What she sees is beyond comprehension:  her city has gone.

There are no cries:  there are no escapees but themselves.  There is only the wall towering into the sky like a white fog – and now it seems to be gathering heat, moving so quickly it leaves no room for question, no margin for doubt.  Nothing will be left.

Unspeaking, the pair pause in homage to those they have known; Ellar, Trebec, Rabba, Delfio, the Domo – so many others.  Alanee urges Sala on:  “We must keep moving.  It will not rest there.  It will spread.”

She sees the emptiness in her friend’s face:  “Come on, ba.  There will be an answer somewhere, you’ll see!”

Alanee makes to move again, sending pain shooting through her leg and hip:  her head is beginning to spin, making each new step an unsteady agony.  By crippled stages, she and Sala make their way along the path beside the great river, but her blood loss is taking its toll.  By the time they reach the bridge, Alanee knows she can go no further.  “I’m finished.  You’ll have to leave me here.  I’m sorry, Ba.  I’m so sorry.”

Sala says:  “What about that?”

Clarity is fading.  Alanee mutters stupidly:  “What?”

Ignoring her cries of pain, Sala hoists her friend bodily to the rail, pointing down at the river.  “That!”

Moored by its painter, an old wooden skiff Alanee once saw braving the jostling ice-floes of the spring thaw, is still there.

Alanee’s impressions of what follows are patchy and confused.  Sala almost carrying her across that wide bridge, each move striking shudders through her quaking bones: half-stepping, half falling into the rocking boat, lying in the prow while Sala arranges some green-stuff from the bank behind her head and all the while the closing thunder of the Continuum:  these before darkness comes in merciful release; after that, only night.

Sala does not fear impending danger, nor does she particularly want to run from it:  For someone whose whole life is invested in The City the prospect of life without it seems more formidable than the quick death the Continuum offers; if she feels a compulsion to go on, it is only for Alanee.  Alanee is her lover after all, and now her only friend.  Nevertheless she has to prompt herself to loosen the mooring and commit them both to the mercies of the Balna.  The skiff lurches free of the mud, the river snatches, the river takes:  stern first, then wheeling around so swiftly Sala clings to the gunwales for her life as she is launched into the turbulent narrows downstream of the bridge.

For some hours the little craft faithfully follows the current, throughout which time the heat is intense; the water hot, almost boiling, the wall of the Continuum never far behind.  There are paddles, but these are rarely needed.  The skiff seems to know its way, and bustles about the weeds and tangles of the bank without ever becoming snagged or grounded.  Sala blocks her ears to the noise and her mind to the heat – busies herself by tying Alanee’s tourniquet more severely, using a hem of her own robe as bandaging for the wounds to both leg and arm.  Alanee drifts in and out of consciousness, though even when her eyes are open she barely recognises where she is.  Sala can see her friend is ailing, watches life seep from her in slow, unremitting drops. 

There comes a time – a bend in the river perhaps – when the furious pursuit of the Continuum fades, the steam from the water rises less freely; almost as though the monster has given up their chase and, its mission complete, drifted back into the sky.

Day drifts into night, thunder into silence.

In the darkness, a new distant rumbling from a fresh adversary: white water.  At first Sala believes the Continuum has returned; as the sound grows with each passing minute.  The boat gains speed, rocks perilously.  Then she is amidst cold spray and black rocks, unable to see and unable to steer if she could.  Is there a waterfall?  Cowering over Alanee’s inert form as the helter-skelter descends, Sala can only trust the boat to find its way, which it does.

It is midnight before they reach calmer waters.  The boat has taken on water she has no means to remove.  She knows Alanee’s body is lying in it and that cannot be good, but nameless terrors haunt her, the night-cries of beasts, strange rustling noises, the plunge and ripple of alligators sap her courage.  Sne will not go ashore in darkness.  

By fits and starts she learns to use the paddles.  Colder, wetter and hungrier than she can ever remember, Sala greets the dawn.  As soon as she has confidence enough she finds a place to land.

Child of The City that she is, Sala can remember nothing less certain than pavement beneath her feet.  She is not so naïve she does not know the boat must be hauled up, away from the current, its keel firmly grounded, yet when she clambers gingerly over the side mud lurking in the shallows clings about her legs to make her fall.  She rises to her feet with a city woman’s pettish anger, laments the ruin of her clothes, weeps for her hair, her nails.

Although the boat seems secure, she is nervous of leaving Alanee helpless inside it, fearful lest it should release itself to the river, leaving her stranded ashore.  It is heavy with water, yet she struggles and sweats and screams with it until she has the painter within length of a stunted bush where she may tie it off.  In the prow, at least Alanee now lies upon drier wood, though her clothing is sodden and her flesh cold.  The leg wound is weeping again, refusing to heal.

After this exertion Sala takes stock of her surroundings.  She settles on a ridge higher up the slope, close enough to run back to the water should that untrustworthy vessel take its leave.  Now she is ashore the deep cover of the forest seems closer than it did, and if the night creatures that serenaded her are asleep, they are still very active in her mind.  It is nevertheless an ideal place for her purpose.  A sward of green meadow-grass leads into the forest like a wide path.  Taking a deep breath, she follows it towards the woodland margins, starting like a hind at each unexplained noise, but hungry enough to overcome her fears.

The woods are full of berries, absolutely none of which she recognises.  Enticed by swarthy verdant scents and venturing ever deeper into forest, Sala picks experimentally, tasting as she goes, until she has found a small quantity of some she does not think too sour.  These she collects in the front of her robe, nearly dropping them when she is confronted by a squirrel-like creature the size of a cat clinging to a branch not three feet away.  Her squeal of alarm sends the animal flying for concealment in the upper branches, and serves to remind her that this may not be a friendly place.  With dignified haste she brings her gleanings back to the boat where she tries to induce Alanee to eat; but her friend is barely awake.  At length she gives up: the water in the boat must be bailed out and she has no vessel with which to achieve this.  Once again her robe suffices.  Thanking Habbach for a warm midday sun she takes it off, using it as part scoop, part mop for two long, laborious hours until the stern is emptied.  Then she dries it as best she may upon a rock until, with threat of the Continuum still in her mind, she casts off once more.  Her robe is still damp.  Thirty minutes later she throws up the contents of her stomach into the river.

So it is for the hours of this day, then another.  All the while the boat moves between steep, wooded banks with no sign of any people, anywhere.  On the third day the tree cover thins. Among marshy shallows and low, stony beaches Sala finds a place where she can haul ashore, gathering her courage for a longer expedition.  Throughout the night Alanee has been delirious, mouthing unintelligible sounds, shaking with fever:  this morning her condition is desperate, scarcely breathing, flesh clammy and cold.  Sala is certain if she does not get help today, her friend will be beyond recovery.  She decides she must climb the hills that skirt the valley, in the hope that from a vantage point she might see some sign of civilisation.  As soon as it is light she makes her friend as comfortable as possible and sets off.

Her shoes are not meant for such rigours.  Hunger has weakened her and the climb is arduous for limbs that, however fine, have never made any serious ascent.  Behind her and far below, in the green trough carved by a million years of flowing water, the little boat with its precious burden waits.  The sun beats from a cloudless sky and far away to the west she can see a rainbow low over the horizon where the white water runs.

  That is behind them now – what lies ahead? 

At noon Sala stands upon a high summit, her vision so clouded by tears she can scarcely see.  In every direction the prospect is featureless; an infinite desert of grey ash.  Only the lofty needle of Kess-Ta-Fe stands resolute, a distant marker to the ruined north.  The river valley, it seems, has escaped.  Otherwise, the Continuum has taken everything.  The world she knew has vanished.

That afternoon when she returns to the boat she tells Alanee all she has seen, while Alanee, of course, hears nothing.  Alanee has neither moved nor shown any sign of consciousness since before the dawn.

On day four Sala wakes late.  Although the boat drifts lazily she is too weak to leave it.  Constant vomiting has dogged her attempts to eat; the warmth she shares with her friend against the night-time chill has penetrated her own defences.  She checks Alanee and finds her stiff and cold.

Sala weeps bitter tears for her friend.  She watches over her, warding off those imagined demons that visit the Mansuvene dead.  When the morning is far advanced and there is nothing left to do or say, she gets to her feet.  Carefully stripping her robe from about her she waits until the boat reaches a part of the river where the water is deepest.  There, with a last smile back at her life she slips over the side.  In all her City years, Sala has never learnt to swim.

…don’t miss the final episode of this story…

© 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: Matthew Wewering from Pixabay

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Nine: Time to Choose.

In the previous episode:

Acting upon Hasuga’s demand that she remove a book from the City’s Inner Library, Alanee takes the elevator deep into the rock below the city, where she finds the sanctuary of the Book of Lore guarded by Karkus, aged progenitor of  The City itself.   In stealing the book she is discovered by the leacherous Portis, who tries to compromise her in the privacy of the elevator in return for his silence.  She tricks him by summoning Ellar to call the elevator,and escapes, leaving Portis to explain himself to the Mediant.   Now read on…

Alanee knew she had only a few minutes lead on events.  While she put as much distance as she could between herself and the elevator, Portis would, with difficulty, be persuading the Ellar the Mediant of his innocence and of hers, Alanee’s, culpability – he may not succeed on either count, but Ellar, meticulous as she was, would want to cover herself very quickly, so swift pursuit with the object of investigating any possible theft was inevitable.

Later, were she given time, Lady Ellar might review these events and wonder.  Why had Alanee’s summoner message, tapped out blindly:  “Help call lib elev”, reached her rather than any other member of the Council?

  She might wish that it had not.  She will not know that Alanee’s inexpert fingers hit her call-button purely by chance, because beneath the folds of the robe that seconds later she would shed she could neither see what she wrote, or to whom she addressed it.  It was only essential that someone should call the elevator, bring it up to the high corridor.

The Book?  Ellar never saw the book.  It was beneath Alanee’s robe when she recovered it, concealed from sight as she clasped it to her, running away through the scattering of nobles who frequented the corridor at that time.

Later, Ellar might discover these things.  Just as she might investigate Portis’s frantic claim, made while he sought to cover himself:

“It is a device Lady!  She has stolen a book!   Detain her, for Habbach’s sake!”

She might believe him.  Anyone witnessing this scene in the corridor might, if Portis’s habits were not well known, if his tastes were not public knowledge and if the physical evidence were not so compelling.  It is a balance of probabilities, as all things are, and it weighs in Alanee’s favour for just long enough.

Alanee bursts into Cassix’s chambers, where Sala awaits her. Saucer-eyed, Sala takes in her friend’s undressed state.  “Je-Habba!  What happened to you?”

“Sire Portis got a little too fresh for his own good.  I’m all right, ba, don’t worry, or I will be as soon as I get some sensible clothes.”  She senses Sala’s nervousness,  “But you’re upset, aren’t you?  Is there something the matter?”

In the bedroom, Alanee throws her robe and the book upon the bed, quickly slipping into a Hakaani-style tabard she had commissioned from the dressmaker.  She shudders:  “I wish I had time for a bath, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this soiled.”

Sala stands in the doorway.  “What’s that?”  Her eyes have rested upon the book.

“I’ve no time to explain right now.  I’ve a head start on the guards, I think: no more than that.”

Sala’s stares at the little locked volume: her eyes follow it as Alanee picks it up and slips it into her clutch bag.  Alanee reads her thoughts.  The friends both pause in shared significance.

“Is that from the…?”

“From the Inner Library?”  Alanee is tying the thongs which secure the sides of the tabard;  “Yes, it is.”

Sala’s summoner is blaring:  she stabs at it, holds it up to the light.  “It is the Lady Ellar.”

“Don’t answer it!”

“Alanee, she’s my patron!”  Sala protests; “But it doesn’t need an answer, darling.  It’s an order.”  She displays the read-out for Alanee to see.  The message says:   “KEEP HER THERE.  You stole that book, didn’t you?  Alanee, they kill you for that!”

The pair exchange looks.  Alanee says:  “So, now.  Your patron or your friend?  Time to choose, ba.” 

Sala nods solemnly.  “That’s a choice I’ve already made.  I won’t keep you, but have you seen the mirrors?” Alanee is making for the door, intent upon completing her mission by placing the book in Hasuga’s hands; “Take a minute to look at this first.  Please, ba?”

She urges Alanee around the mysterious and, to her, a doorless wooden edifice, guiding her into the leather chair before the trio of mirrors.  They are alive with reflections; reflections of carrion birds circling, people racing blindly as deer before a forest fire; dying people with terror, mortal terror in their faces, muscles taut as steel hawsers, drooling mouths and bulging, sightless eyes.  There are thousands, the running and the dying, thrown into stark relief by flashes of brilliance from a furious sky.

‘Have you seen?’  Hasuga is in Alanee’s head again.  ‘Do you understand?’  Alanee does.  Now, before these images, she understands it all.  ‘Bring me the Book.  I must have it in my hand, Alanee.’

Fighting her fear, she tells Sala.  “The book must be returned to whom it belongs.  I have to take it to him.  If you believe in me you must wait for me here, ba.  Do you see?  I will return.”

Sala calls after her:  “This.  All this.”  She waves towards the mirrors.  “It isn’t real, is it?  It’s just necromancy, witchery.”

Alanee smiles kindly.  “Is that what you want to believe, ba?   No, the mirrors speak truly.  That is the Continuum, and our time has run out  Be patient now, I won’t be gone for long.”

“The guards will come.  Ellar will come!”

“Tell them you tried to detain me, but I fought you off.  Stay here if you can, darling.”

Since her arrival, Alanee has not had opportunity to explore the links from her high station to the lower city, and she knows of just one route to the Palace.  By winding her way through back alleys, past drinking halls and night club areas that are sweeping up from the business of the night before, she hopes to evade any troop of guards Ellar or Portis may send in her pursuit.  She loses herself twice before a chance diversion delivers her onto the forecourt of the great palace building.   Taking a deep breath and concealing the book as best she can, she steps into the open.  Although she may feel a hundred eyes boring into her back, she is safer than she expects.  In the event most of the city’s elite are about their daily tasks and word of her little drama with Portis has not yet reached this level.  Any remarks she overhears refer to her status.

“I believe that is Lady Alanee, our new Seer!”

“So young!  So young!”

“Exquisite!  Quite exquisite!”

When she steps into the Great Hall of the Palace, however, the atmosphere is quite different.  Here the hustle and bustle of the day is in full swing and seemingly more frenetic than its usual pace.  She is recognised here too.  A few greet her, some ignore her, all look curiously at her disrespectful form of dress.  When she reaches the private elevator that rises to Hasuga’s high rooms, this becomes an issue.  A royal drab steps across her path.

“Lady?  What business have you here?”

“I’m appointed to meet with Sire Hasuga.  You know who I am?”

“You are the Seer, Lady.  But your clothes are inappropriate to the inner sanctum.”

“The matter is urgent.  I had no time to change.”

“Nevertheless…”

“Step aside, man.  Lady Alanee has Sire Hasuga’s full authority.”  She identifies that voice immediately, spins around in some confusion.

“Celeris?  But how…?”

His smile is as placidly beautiful as ever.  “Lady, I am always at your service, surely you know that?  You must forgive our over-zealous friend here:  the place is in turmoil.  There is a rumour that Sire Portis is under arrest, and Sire Trebec is to be brought to trial for genocide.  The High Council is in utter disarray.  It is what you might describe as a ‘bad morning’ really.”

He steps closer, so she can inhale the sweet scent of his breath, whispers to her.  “You see?  Even a hologram has its uses.  Actually, my dearest memory, this is the last time we shall meet.  Be well, Alanee.”

The elevator doors are open behind her.  Before she has time to protest or give tongue to her anger, (or would it be love?) Celeris walks away, vanishes in the hubbub of the crowd, leaving behind him an emptiness of parting.

As the doors close and the pod of the elevator raises her to Hasuga’s royal apartments she tries to confront the riddle of Celeris.  Who, or what, was he?   Substantial enough, this she knows:  no ghost, no apparition.  Then what – a part of her that she might summon in times of hopelessness or hope?  How could a life be brought to existence purely by her need, then cease until next she needed it?  How could space be created in time for such a materialisation, and what would be left each time it departed?  The process of deduction begun before the mirrors is developing and each new revelation is another shock, another open mineshaft into darkness.

He is where he always sits, upon his bed.  The room is empty.  The serpentine machine is gone, the screens are still and lifeless.

“You have the book.”  It is not a question.

Alanee takes the book from her bag, offering it to him, arm outstretched.

“No, not yet.”  Puzzled, she steps back.  How pale he looks, how thin and drawn!  The mighty complex of his brain that always seemed to pulsate with inspiration is unillumined now, as if some part of him has already left his body.

“I thought you wanted it, you said you could open it, read what’s inside.  Now you don’t?”

“I know what is inside.  As do you.  You read it when you took it in your hands, and yes, you must give it to me, but not before you know its name.”

“It doesn’t have a name – not on the spine, not on the cover – look!”  She proffers the volume, and almost at once she wishes she could retract her words, for there is a name – embossed in gold letters, where before there was nothing.  In some wonder, she reads the title aloud.

“The Holy Bible.”

Hasuga says simply:  “We are done here.”

“You make no sense to me. This makes no sense, none of it.  There is some plan, some scheme.  If I am a part of it, shouldn’t I be told?”

“Alanee my dear one, I have said to you not once but many times that I am learning.  All the knowledge I have gained is in your head too, though you may not countenance it yet.  I do not know what will happen to you next, only that if you are given the opportunity, you will also learn.”

Hasuga rises to his feet and steps closer to her, so she may see his eyes, and the conviction within them, as never before.  “It is all there in your mind – all the history, all the reality.  As you need it and if you need it you will find what you seek, dredge it out.  Think of your mind as a great library filled with books , all of which you could not possibly find time to read.

“So, what now?”  His smile is suddenly so reminiscent of Celeris.  “Well, that is the next great discovery.  When my hand closes around that book, a circle is completed.  Then we shall both discover the truth.”

Hasuga extends a thin left hand, clasps her free hand within it.  “We shall not see each other again.  Go now.”

And with his other hand, he takes the book from her grasp.

The heavens scream.

Long ago, when Alanee was very young, the earth shook itself as a dog does when it clambers from the water.  Her mother pronounced it a ‘tremor’ and dismissed it, but to Alanee it was a fearful episode; a profusion of falling plates, rocking furniture, cracking plaster from the walls.  She remembers it.  So the feeling of the palace in motion beneath her feet is familiar, and were it not for the time and place, she might dismiss it as her mother did.  But there is a greater wrongness within it that speaks to her, something that demands she run.

“Quickly, Sire!  We must get away!”

Hasuga only smiles:  he smiles, then, like Celeris in her chambers, like Saleen before Ripero’s outstretched hands, he is gone.  The room is gone.  The apartments, the entire palace is fragmenting, with no cry, with no thunder of masonry or spike of flame – without any blinding fog of dust:  just a distant whine of something coming;   something absolute …..

Filled with horror, Alanee turns towards the door:  but there is no door, there is no wall.  For a fraction of a second the great hall of the palace is in its place (how is she here, rather than three storeys above?) but then that, too, disappears:  Toccata’s tsakal house materialises with Toccata standing within it, his face a white mask of despair.  His expensive hangings are falling in a whirlwind, yet he still reaches out to her, mouth moving in a soundless greeting.  In turn the ante-room to the council chamber, then the palace courtyard fly about her head – images of places she knows, faces she remembers, shuffling like cards in a deck.

Somehow she is running, she knows that, though her feet do not seem to move; passing through the courtyard, the Grand Park, the malls, her old apartment, all with the desperate desire to find her way back:  back to Sala.  The one thing, the one person vital to her.  She must rescue Sala.

Is it her?  Is she in some kind of dream?  Only that unremitting sound, growing steadily, seems real.  The City has lost its order, its structure:  it is coming to pieces.  Nevertheless somehow she is finding her way.  Something in her psyche guides her, makes sense of the moving maze in such fashion that she finds direction when all direction has been lost.  A thread within her follows a thread through the mayhem and that should be sufficient – would be – were it not for Mother.

Mother, cheated by her beloved child and screeching out her loss in a paroxysm of fury:  Mother with hyena-teeth bared and long knife aloft comes whirling from the mists of confusion with one thing only in her contorted mind; to take the life from the one who took Hasuga from her – Alanee’s life.

Before she can defend herself Alanee is thrown to the moving ground with time to no more than twist away from the first strike – the second she cannot avoid.  It plunges deep, it strikes like an rod of fire into her thigh and instantly her blood starts pulsing through the wound.  This is death!  She takes the third strike on her arm, catching the raw blade enough to turn it on itself.  With a strength born of mortal peril she thrusts the demented woman from her, grabs the hand that has the weapon in its grip.

Now a real struggle begins.  Mother has the knife, would thrust it into Alanee’s heart, but Alanee holds her by the wrist and is forcing it back.  Mother is finding her feet, trying to rise.  Alanee feeling her strength flowing freely from the gash in her leg has too little time.  It must be now!  The woman’s hand is pushing this way, her balance is swaying that.  Going with her movement, going against her poise, one thrust.  The knife goes where the knife chooses, and it chooses Mother’s throat.  The woman who devoted her life to care of the Hasuga child ends it by her own hand, by Alanee’s guidance.  Her windpipe severed and emitting bubbles of blood, Mother sinks to the floor, thrashes there for a second or two before dying.

Alanee’s rising vomit would choke her.  With no time for ceremony, she snatches Mother’s robe, using the bloodied knife to rend a strip from it.  She binds her leg tightly, so tightly she has to suppress a cry of pain.  Aghast at the pool of her own life that has already formed upon the switchback floor, she limps forward:  still hoping, still searching.  She promised she would not be long.  She promised she would return for Sala.  Her leg is ruptured, the muscle in her arm is slashed, disabled by the same knife; but she must find Sala.

The task is insuperable, random scenes passing before her so fast she can achieve no sense of direction.  In neither light nor darkness, she does not know where she is going, she cannot find anything constant to cling to.  The noise which pursues her is incessant now, an animal, an all-devouring thing.  People are scattering everywhere:  Ellar flits by, Trebec, the Domo.  And all the while her strength ebbs.

Utterly despondent, she ceases to try.  The hopelessness of her state, the certainty she will die before she ever reaches her friend overcomes her.  Whatever is happening to the city will consume her too.  There is no redemption, no answer.  There, amidst a rolling barrel of destruction Alanee drops to her knees and submits to fate.

Behind her the Continuum roars louder, a focussed beast sensing prey.

© 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 credit: Kristen from Pixabay

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An Air of Putrifaction

Here’s a bit of a challenge to distract you from the mayhem of this week.

If you are a Believer (upper case ‘B’ intended) you live in a world created by your God, do you not?  Everything you stand upon, every miracle of birth that happens in the secret nests of the birds or the dens of the animals, or even in the comfy dens we create for ourselves, is His work.  The essential stuff of life you owe to Him.  The air you breathe is a wonderful balance of poison and balm He and Nature have created together.

The water of the spring that rises from the rocks in the high hills is as pure and perfect.   It has a story of thousands of years filtering through the ground beneath you before it finds its way to the sun.   And as it begins its journey to the sea it is tuned and moderated by natural things that add to its character, making it worthy to contribute to Ocean in the end.

Until it gets to you.   You, personally.

You – the processes of manufacture, the treatment of soil to force unnatural growth, the effluent and detritus you create every time you load your washing machine with powder or your dishwasher with a tablet, every time you discard a wrapper or kick away a tin, add chlorine to your pool, bleach your bathroom, dye your hair?

From its first encounter with our civilisation, all the way to the sea, our stream’s joyous natural run becomes a gauntlet of dead water from ‘purifying’ plants, poisons that have evaded purification, rubbish and other profanities, all of which together will at last ensure the ocean itself will become blighted. 

And yet – here’s that challenge bit; you knew I’d get to it eventually – we each of us pursue a life that gauges our worth upon ‘growth’ and ‘success’  – bigger house, more exotic food, larger car, more travel – all of which together make the journey that stream has to undertake so much worse!

Alright, none of this is new.  You can maybe excuse yourselves by insisting you do all the token stuff – recycling, saving water, only buying organic, etc..  But brothers and sisters, the beat goes on.  You may lessen your impact, but you still make one.  In your quest for that elusive ‘success’ you always will.

What if you’re making the biggest mistakes of your Earthly lives?  What if, when you of faith arrive at your Pearly Gates, Peter assesses your eligibility not on the worthiness of your life but purely upon how little damage you’ve done?  What if church on Sunday didn’t matter a jot; just a huddle of people having a sing and uttering a few platitudes to assuage their guilt?

What if there was really a trap door that felt sort of warm to your feet, and a lingering smell of sulphur in the air?

No, I’m not a Thunberg disciple or even a Christian.  So I’m not espousing a yurt-ish lifestyle or a composting toilet, nor am I likely to give up my small, economical car.  All I’m saying is COVID has given us this chance to re-think and we should take it.  We shouldn’t simply emerge from under in a panic and re-commence our harem-scarem chase after a pinnacle of success we can none of us ever reach.  We should give the philosophers and the meritocrats a chance.

Consider this for a moment as you drain your Jacuzzi or your bath with all those oils, or your kitchen sink, or discard that plastic bottle as you seek your personal target on your morning run.

Or perhaps revise your religious views?  Ask yourself:  what does He really think of you? 

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Eight: Caverns old and Caverns Deep

Warning:  this episode has some erotic content.

In the previous episode:

Despite the Domo’s attempt to exclude her, Alanee is summoned to a meeting of High Council, where she predicts the burning of Balkinvel and converts many of the Councillors who did not believe in her.

Triumphant, she returns to her chambers to celebrate, and spends the night there with Sala…

Alanee has risen early.  To avoid disturbing Sala, who sleeps sweetly and deeply, she has extracted her fake book from its hiding place and paged Altor the Convenor.  They meet in the corridor outside her Chambers, from where, the book concealed beneath her courtier’s robes, she is guided to that elevator which last night transported her to the High Council.  This time, however, the elevator is programmed for a different destination:  it plunges deep; deeper, Alanee feels, into the soul of The City than she has ever been.  She remembers when Dag first brought her to The City through a tunnel less deep in the rock than this.  Counting the seconds, she endures Valtor’s stream of effusive flattery as they descend.  The gardens, perhaps even the mighty Balna River, will be many feet above her now.  She is in the bowels of the mountain, confined, perhaps trapped, beyond sight or hearing of the outer world.

She need only emerge from the elevator to see how limited is her means of escape.  She steps into a small foyer with the usual couches that typify ante-rooms or waiting areas in The City.  Other than the elevator by which she has arrived there is only one door – and such a door!  She had expected grandeur, perhaps – timbers made mighty by age, ornate iron hinges, carved devils and hobgoblins in ancient oak.  Not so.

The door before her is completely circular and fashioned from steel.  Its central capstan is clamped in place by chromed stanchions thick enough to deter the most ardent assault for a month.  The wall into which it is set is also steel, undecorated but for two staves which rest in brackets to either side of the door.  These, or rather their illuminated heads, provide what little light the foyer has –imbuing it with a severe, mournful atmosphere.

Altor turns a mechanism at the locking point of the stanchions through a ritual of numbers before spinning the capstan.  With a grudging hiss, the door releases, and by the humming effort of an electric motor somewhere, yawns reluctantly open.

“Lady, I may not pass through here.  I am a poor Convenor, I lack your greatness or worth.  You must proceed alone.  I will await you.”

Alanee peers through the thickness of the steel aperture the door has left.  She can see little beyond, but a narrow stair descending into gloom.  “I’ll need time to study.  I may be here all day!”

If Altor is at all discomfited by this, he shows no sign of it.  “Then I shall wait all day.”

Alanee can be equally stubborn.  “I don’t need you to stay.  You’re the Convenor – you may be required elsewhere.  Can’t I find my own way back?”

Altor’s face is set.  He has clearly been instructed to wait.

Is there something in the demeanour of this obsequious man that should toll a bell of warning?  Has he had other instructions too?  She will learn nothing more from him, however, so with a shrug that says there is no more to be done, Alanee steps through the aperture.

The way is almost – but not quite – dark.  This flight of steps is lit by torches at intervals along the walls.  At each footfall an echo returns, speaking to her of great mass and weight.    Here, deep in the bedrock, she is sure even the thoughts of Hasuga would be hard put to reach.

‘Did you think I could not hear you?’  The words flash inside her mind, and this time she greets them warmly, because she feels lonely and afraid.

‘Yes.’  Her mind replies:  ‘I should have realised, shouldn’t I?”

‘I am always near.’

A glow spreads through her, a sense of protection and – almost – friendship.  If he were physically near she might even be moved to kiss that grotesque head in sheer gratitude.  ‘Don’t go away, then.  This was your idea.’

Steps winding downward, on and on; Alanee feeling sure she is becoming closer to something, some indefinable thing that stirs inside her: in truth a descent probably no more than thirty feet or so before it ends.  Here; another open space, another door.

This time there are no seats to regale the weary climber.  The walls are rough-hewn from the very mountain itself.  There is no colour here other than grey, yet the lighting is brighter:  several stars of pinpoint light sparkle from above her head.

He sits in the corner, the man in the hempen smock she recognises because she has seen him before, in the wooden room that squats doorless within Cassix’s chambers, the room that will only open with mirrors.  And he, hunched in the earnestness of prayer, is just as she remembers.

He speaks:  “Lady Alanee?”  His voice is of dry leaves trodden.

“Yes Sire.”  She has no thought to address him by other than a regal title, though she has no notion how he might aspire, meanly dressed as he is, to any noble birth.  His skin is as crimped as rough linen and he is of the parchment wherewith the books he guards are made.  He is Karkus, as old, and as wise, as they.

“Pass, Lady.”

“Thank you, Sire Karkus, I will pass.”  Hasuga, how do I know his name?

Because you are who you are.  Yours is the knowledge of all things.

This time a simple door of planks is all that must swing open to admit her:  beyond, an archway, and beyond the arch a hall – a hall so unexpected by comparison with its ante-room that it takes Alanee’s breath away.

A perfectly circular chamber paved in white marble, it is lit by crystal white radiance from a high ceiling.  Around the continuous white wall are arrayed books; thousands upon thousands of volumes neatly shelved ten layers high.  At the very centre of this great library, upon a plinth of black granite, a tome larger than all the others lies open – its rich vellum spread flat by the weariness of use, its illuminated script greyed by age.  Alanee recognises this though she has never seen the original until now: it is the Book of Lore.

Here she might pause; stay for a moment to read truths so very few of the chosen ones have seen: yet she does not go to the Book of Lore.  Instead she moves toward a glazed case at the far side of this splendid repository, led straight towards it by the book that cries like a secret child beneath her robe.  She passes over the myriad of titles that stand protected by the glass, some in languages she does not understand and some she does:  though still a mystery to her because she has never read a book for its sake – ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘To Have and Have Not’, ‘Faustus’, ‘Endymion’, ‘A Jew of Malta’, Ulysses’.

 Alanee is drawn only to a single, untitled volume.  There, central upon a central shelf, the exact facsimile, the likeness.  Its door of defensive glass should be locked – is locked – yet it yields to her as if her touch is expected; without effort, without complaint.  She takes the one, puts the other, from its concealment in her robe, in its place.  All the while behind her, in the doorway, the ancient guardian watches, but does nothing.  When she turns towards him, a volume old as time within her grasp, his parched lips crack in a smile.

And when she takes the book in her hand, what happens then?  What vision consumes her?  It is as if the mysterious lock has no meaning, as if all the text of the work she grips so tightly is in her head without so much as turning a page, every word the instigation of a dream, a new story, a separate plot.  Passing before her are peoples she has never met, tribes cast out, cruel persecutors, gentle victims.  There are women faithless and faithful, engaged in their own pursuit of dreams, men generous and devious, wise and foolish, builders and slayers, workers and idolaters, wealthy and poor.

She does not mark her own progress, or see how she mounts the stairs once more; reaches the mighty door that has kept these truths so deeply buried for all the years; passes through.  She feels the eagerness of Hasuga with her in the text and he is reading as fast as or faster than she.  She feels the words bleeding out of her, to be re-joined by the millions already in his giant mind.  She feels….

“Lady Alanee!”

The elevator door stands open.  But it is not Valtor the Convenor who awaits her. It is High Councillor Portis.  She comes to herself, finding she holds the book openly in her hand.

Portis asks:  “What do you intend doing with that?”  His suspicions are confirmed, his fears realised.  “That book should never leave its case, still less the Inner Library.  You have scarcely risen to prominence, it seems, before you choose to abuse your good fortune.  A grave mistake, my Lady.”  His summoner is in his palm, the buttons already being pressed.  “Guards?”

Ever since she accepted Hasuga’s challenge the possibility of discovery has been uppermost in Alanee’s mind.  Her script is well rehearsed. 

“Sire, the error is yours,” She speaks clearly.  “Sire Hasuga himself gave me his permission to borrow this.”

Portis colours.  “That is a palpable lie!  Sire Hasuga has no knowledge of the book.  How can he?”

“How can he?”  Alanee attempts a laugh, though it sounds more reminiscent of a bray.   “He is all-seeing, Sire.  He knows of all your precious books!  And…”  She picks out her consonants like cuts of sharp steel, “he sees you now.  He hears your every word.”

‘Hasuga!  Help me!’

“Guards.” Portis repeats quietly.  “You are required at the Council elevator.  Lady Alanee is to be placed under arrest.”

He beckons.  Where else should she go?  At least when the elevator returns to the higher levels she will be closer to Hasuga, nearer to his power.  So, heart pounding, she meekly follows the High Councillor into the chamber of the elevator.  She is inside.  The doors close.

Hasuga, oh, Hasuga!  Where are you?

Is this a trap?  Could Hasuga have deceived her?  Suddenly she feels cold, very, very cold.   

“I am curious, I admit.”  Portis murmurs, indicating the book; “What can you want with that?  I mean, to risk so much. You do know what you have done?”

She conjures a desperate reply, “I thought to take it back to my Chambers to study it, Sire.  I didn’t intend any wrong.”

“But the book is locked, woman!  It has been unopened for as long as anyone has memory.”

“I am meant to have the gift of sight.  What if this book should contain the solution to the Continuum?  What if I can unlock it?”

“Something you will never have the opportunity to discover. Theft from the sacred library is a capital offence, Lady.  A high price for your presumption, is it not?”

Fearful now, Alanee has to swallow back a rising gorge to meet Portis’s stare. “Sire, it is just a book.”

What does she read in Portis’s face?  What does that unopened book reveal?  Is there a flicker of doubt there; a hint at hesitation?

“And you should have examined it where we are each allowed to read, those of us who are honoured to have that high privilege.  There is no excuse, Lady.”

“I could not open it in there.  Hasuga…”

Sire Hasuga.  Sire Hasuga, Lady!”

“Sire Hasuga then:  he guided me to it.  I am to glean the knowledge he wants from the book, so together we can unravel the mystery of the Continuum.  But I can only open it within Cassix’s rooms.   Sire, you have been inside there?  You remember the mirrors?  The mirrors can open things that are sealed, like that big wooden thing without any doors; they can show me inside there, as I am sure they can show me inside this book.”

Together with Sire Hasuga?”  Portis’s voice does not disguise his incredulity or his own lurking doubts.  “Your arrogance, Alanee, defies belief!  To assume such a thing in your private thoughts is blasphemy; but to utter it aloud, before a High Councillor!”  He pauses then.  Alanee wonders why the elevator has not moved and Portis, whose acuity she could never question, reads her thoughts.

“Curiously, you might think, there are no cameras here.  Above us, in the city, they dog our every step. But within the library, and this elevator space, solely reserved as it is for members of the High Council, there are none.”

“Sire?”

“We are not seen, here, Alanee.”  Portis seats himself in one of the velvet upholstered chairs, leaning back into the rich cushions.  “We are not heard here.”

Alanee stares at him.  “So, you’re saying…”

“I’m saying that our conversation has been confidential.  I am suggesting it might remain so.”

“Might, Sire?”

“How have you covered the theft of the book?”

“With a facsimile; a blank that looks exactly the same.”

Portis allows himself a smile.  “Cunning!  Therefore there is every chance the volume will not be missed?”

“Every chance, Sire.  But the guards have been summoned, have they not?”

“Not.”  Rising to his feet, Portis waves his summoner:  “This is switched off.”

Alanee’s heart leaps with hope.  “Then you believe me!”

“I will not say whether I believe you or not.  But I am the only one who knows you stole that book.”

“What about the old man, the librarian?”

Portis studies her quizzically.  “There was no one else in the library, Alanee: we do not have a ‘librarian’.”

At this reply Alanee at last asks herself why she felt no disquiet when she realised the old man had witnessed her substitution of the book:  she had accepted his presence as though he existed on a different level.  She begins to see a pattern, a circle.  Karkus, a spirit from a distant past:  (how can she be so sure it was he?) is part of that circle.  He wanted her to take the book.

“Sire Karkus?”  Portis’s interjects, and she realises she was reasoning aloud.  “What do you know of Sire Karkus?”

“He was present, Sire.  I took him to be the Librarian.  Maybe in a sense that’s what he is?”

“Dead for more than two thousand years is what he is, Lady.” 

“In one frame of time, maybe.  In another?  A ghost, then, if it suits you.  He was there.”  And she adds helpfully:  “Probably still is.”

“Ghosts! Frames of time! Librarians!”  Portis snorts:  “You have a gift, young lady, I will concede that  But a gift for imagination rather than second sight, I think!”

Alanee challenges.  “I imagine, then, that a part of you does doubt, a little?”

“My thoughts are my own business.  You are a thief.  That is my view; but….”  He weighs his words:  “I believe you may not intend to be entirely dishonest.  Therefore I am to be persuaded.”

Her stomach sinks.

“You have a bargaining chip,”  Portis attempts a smile, achieves a leer.  “You are an extremely lovely woman, Alanee.”

“So?”  She says heavily. 

“You are so young.  You cannot apprehend how desperately we who are grown past our prime still want a share in such beauty.  How we watch you, need you, as you pass us by, while you ignore us, pretend we do not exist?  Our bodies may alter Alanee, but our needs do not.  Do you see where this is going?”

“Oh, I do.”  She does.  There is a price to be paid…..

“You said once – what was your wonderfully apposite choice of phrase? Ah yes; if I wanted to ‘stare at your body’ I would have to ask. Well, I’m asking now.”

She cannot prevent the colour rising in her cheeks.  She says slowly:  “And is that all you are asking?”

All?”  Portis repeats bitterly.  “No, Alanee, that is not all.”

Tears inside her; mad, affronted tears she will not shed:  not for him.  “And if I do what you ask?”

“Then no guards will be waiting.  I will merely go into the Library for study of my own.  You will keep your Book to do with it as you will.  Now;” He rises to his feet, “Come here to me.”

His eyes have a hunger she cannot avoid: yet still she hesitates, hoping against hope there is some higher sense of honour in the man.  “Do you not think, Sire, that a gift only has value if it is willingly given?”

“No, Alanee, I do not.  Come here.”

“A minute, Sire.  Allow me this one minute, I beg you?”  She turns away, gazes up to the roof of the compartment for salvation.  There is none there, no Hasuga with a thunderbolt of retribution, only Portis’s graphically buxom nude pouting seductively down at her from its place on the wall.

  Hasuga, help me? 

With her back to Portis she uses the minute he has granted her, steels herself.  Taking a deep breath, she releases the brooch at her shoulder, shuddering to hear his gasp of gratification as her robe drops away.  Now she turns so he may feast his eyes on her and with only the book to conceal her womanhood, she walks toward him.

Portis cannot stay the convulsive shaking in his hand as he reaches out for her, and Alanee has learned enough of men to know that control of the situation has passed to her at that moment.  She must be in command, or she is done.  She has arts, skills she can use.  He must be hers, in her spell for just long enough, she hopes, that he will not notice how the elevator has begun to move.

Is there some perverse pleasure in this: no pleasure of loving, or giving, but the not unpleasing sensation of power?  Portis it was, who controlled this scene; who wished it, dictated the terms:  but who controls it now?  Like a puppet, she can make him twitch or dance, hold or give forth, at the behest of a touch or a word.  Profound though her inner self-loathing is, she has never felt (do you hear this, Hasuga?) more powerful than now.

‘I hear it.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘Nowhere.  I am always with you.  Portis cannot match you – I told you that, remember?  You do not need me for this.’

Portis’s fingers would slip like fat worms, but this she will not allow.

“Not yet, Sire, not yet.”  Instead she takes his hand and guides it, counting the seconds inside her head.  “Come closer to me; let me tease you, just a little.  See?  We almost touch, yet not?  Does this excite you, Sire?”

“Yes, oh yes!”

He is breathing, sweating heavily and she is counting – still counting seconds.

“Oh, Sire!  No!”  His touch is more aggressive now, his desire expressing itself in porcine grunts.  He has her at a disadvantage.  She has let herself be cornered.  His lips are pressing roughly, biting, hurting her.  She tries to thrust him away. “No Sire!  NO!  Leave me alone, Sire!  Get your hands – off – me.  NO!  NO PLEASE!  NO!”

Before Portis has noticed his change of fortunes the elevator door is open.  Lady Ellar stands before it, open-mouthed:  “Sire Portis!”

“Keep him away from me!”  In purple fury, Alanee snatches up her robe to cover the book, and with both gathered to shield her she runs naked from the scene. 

Ellar is too shocked.  She does not try to stop her.  Alanee’s summoner, with whose urgent fingers Ellar’s pager button was activated in those thoughtful seconds before she shed her robe, lies forgotten upon the elevator floor.

© 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: Art Tower, from Pixabay

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In Which Dominic Goes to Durham…

One of the symptoms of caste identity in United Kingdom society is innate suspicion of people with names like Dominic.

By their arrogance shall we know them, we of the Trevor, Fred and Bill world; and, to be honest, after so long an exposure to our quaint Royalist culture, we expect nothing less.  Little over a century past a time when we were expected to stand aside and tug our forelocks, when we were not even owed an explanation for the actions of our masters, it should be no surprise that their accounts of, not to say excuses for, their imperious behaviour should be faltering, at best.

Hence, I have tried to stand back from what will inevitably become known as Durhamgate.  Explanation for those not ‘in the know’:   In March Dominic Cummings, ‘advisor’ on Government policy here in UK, drove from his London base a distance of …..miles, flouting, some will maintain, the quarantine rules.  He was exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 at the time, and his objective was to remove his four-year-old son to his family home in Durham, where other relatives were available to care for the child should he and his wife both fall ill.

In the subsequent media frenzy various other accusations have stemmed from ‘reliable sources’ of ‘drives to Barnard Castle’ (a town about thirty miles from Durham) and ‘stops to refuel’ etc. but again I refuse to become exercised by these, as the gutter press (in which I include the BBC) are known nowadays for inventing whole tranches of ‘news’ when the occasion suits them.   By and large, the press objective is to obtain a Resignation to complete their current witch hunt before they move on to the next one.

Personally, I have no extreme feelings one way or the other.   Why?  Mr Cummings is not a politician, but he has fallen in with the bad crowd.   Whether he likes it or not, his has become the broad back the EU remainers have picked for their blame game, and any trick or device to discredit him is therefore fair.   Secondly, there are two views that attach to Boris Johnson, one that accepts him as a decisive leader, another that dismisses him as a bungling fool with a Churchill complex – if the latter be true, any steadying hand within the machine of government must be welcome and necessary – disruption must only serve a political agenda. Not the health and safety of the country.

The police view is that our Dominic did nothing wrong.  I won’t comment further on that because we have all, at one time or another, been subject to the vagaries of our wonderful boys in blue.    Dominic, however, is a good Catholic name which at once implies honesty and explains the depth of his love for a small boy (I refer to his son, of course).   

It is also worth bearing in mind the goldfish bowl that London life offers any public figure.  I was struck by the monumental hypocrisy of the press behaviour as they scrupulously observed ‘distancing’ rules when Dominic gave a press conference on the Downing Street lawn – distancing rules that are conspicuously absent whenever he should be unwise enough to emerge from his London home to undergo the daily gauntlet of aggressive cameramen and garrulous ‘interviewers’ who block his path and invariably stray within inches of his face.

‘Not our responsibility’ the press insist.  Very convenient, considering how many of those pictures appear in their newspapers.

I can wholly understand that not all the weight of personal decision for making that trip to Durham was borne by Dominic himself,   Without making any detailed judgement of character his wife, Mary, does not look like a woman to be trifled with:  I can see how she would want her infant son protected from the media coyotes, and would be heavily in favour of finding solace and space.

So, these being the reasons for my ambivalence; should Dominic Cummings stay in post, or should he go?   On the one hand, something needs to end this media culture that states if you put your hand on someone’s knee in 1999, or said something contradictory ten years earlier, you are to be humiliated, ruined, and driven from public life.  On the other, did he really break the rules seriously enough, or raise questions in the mind of the idiot public that are sufficient to confuse ‘the message’ of distancing and self-isolation (whatever those rules really are).

On balance, I think he should stay.  I may not doff my cap the next time he drives past on his way home, but neither do I think he should apologise, because that implies fault and his position is that he did nothing wrong.   I do think his role in shaping government policy should be examined closely, and that is a process that may well now happen under cover of Downing Street in the middle of the night – something at which British politicians excel.

We are all too po-faced when it comes to pillorying the behaviour of others:  let him who is honestly without sin cast the first stone…

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Seven: The Relief of Balkinvel

In the previous Episode:

Ellar doubts Sala’s loyalty, as the mediator seems unable to elaborate upon her encounter with Celeris.  Alanee employs a friend of Toccata’s to ‘remodel’ Casix’s old chambers.  Finally left to herself, she is able to study the mirrors.  They reveal a doorway to the wooden room and an ancient figure sitting within it, then show images of her home village, ruined and deserted.  Before she can turn away, they force her to witness reflections from an apocalypse in which thousands die.

While the High Council meets to discuss Trebec’s report in The City, Dag finds civilization in the river valley, only to be captured…

Trebec’s report has been heard in solemn silence.  While the High Council ruminates, The old General himself sits contemplating the fold of his fingers across his ample belly.  At length, the Domo asks:  “How many?”

“Ten thousand,”  Trebec mutters into his chins.

“Ten thousand.”  Leaden words.  “And the injured, the unhomed?”

“None survive.”

The Domo murmurs, “It is dispensed with, then.  Let the matter rest.” 

“Sire!  No, Sire!”  Carriso’s protest echoes among the vaulted hammer beams of the Council Chamber:  “This can never rest!”

“Carriso,”  The Domo soothes.  “It is all that could be done.”

“They were people!  They were injured, burned, deformed by grief, and we slaughtered them like pigs!  That is a crime of unforgivable immensity!”

Trebec raises eyes in which each blood vessel may be traced, like distributaries of an arcuate delta.  “You, Carriso, you have no blame in this – it is my sleep that will be sacrificed, not yours.”

Carriso snaps back.  “Aye – but my people, not yours, who were condemned.”  He rounds upon the Domo.  “How do we justify this deed; how?”

Remis intercedes.  “If a citizen is deprived of Word even for a day his loyalty will be affected.  For a cycle…”  He shrugs his shoulders.  “They were irretrievable, Carriso.  Nothing could be done.”

Carriso is far from placated.  “Nothing? How should I accept ‘nothing could be done’?  We must ‘accept’; always, always ‘accept’.  Death is a price we pay, in our thousands and tens of thousands, for our unquestioning acceptance!’.”

Trebec shakes his head.  “If it consoles you at all, and I know it won’t, those who died by our hand were few in comparison with those eradicated by the actual event.  This evil, whatever it was, turned the whole of the North Dometian Plain and the Kaal Valley into a wasteland, a grey desert.  I cannot imagine how anything will ever thrive there again.”

Selech, who Cassix once named the ‘Continuum Dissident’, asks.  “Was it a volcanic event, an earthquake?”

 “Cassix would say, indeed Cassix did say, it was the Continuum,”  Calvin the Ancient challenges:  “We have a new Seer, do we not?   Why is she not here?”

The Domo says; “She is too fresh in her position to be of value.  We need not trouble her with this.”

“But if the affair concerns the Continuum?”

Continuum, Continuum, Continuum!”  Selech vents his frustration.  “Has anyone apart from Cassix seen this damned Continuum?  Or is his departed word all we have to vouch for its existence?”

Ellar says quietly:  “I have seen it.  Cassix showed it me.”  She rises to her feet.  “It does exist, sires; and in Cassix’s last days he was deeply concerned at its growth, both in size and strength.”

“This Hakaani stripling….”  Trebec returns to the conversation.  “Was Cassix delusional, or does she have even a fraction of his gifts?”

“I do not know, Sire.  She certainly appears to have visions.”

“And we must be content with that.”  The Domo says, with an air of finality. “She is not here, so we must move on.  Are there any other matters concerning Sire Trebec’s report?”

“Yes.”  Carriso has been tapping his frustration upon the edge of the Council table. Now his anger bursts out in speech.  “I ask that Sire Trebec’s conduct be investigated by the Criminal Court.”

The Domo nods.  “I expected no less.  Your charge?”

“Genocide.”

Trebec looks up sharply. The Domo draws a breath.  “Very well.  A little strong, though, sire, wouldn’t you say?”

“What else was it?”  Carriso asks.  “And to you, sire….”  This in Trebec’s direction:  “For your crime against my people, I withdraw the hand of friendship.”  He turns back to the Domo:  “I also demand that the Seer be summoned.  There is no precedent for a meeting of High Council without that office, and I suggest it is dangerous.  She may be able to prevent another similar tragedy.”

The Domo sighs.  He has no choice.

Valtor’s nervous buzz is a surprise to Alanee, though not entirely an unwelcome one:  four glasses of paia and the arrival of Sala have raised her mood to a point where she would entirely erase the manner of her friend’s last departure from her mind, yet Sala is unresponsive to her acclamation of Prinius’s improvements; “See how much he has done already!” and after waving at the obstinately hideous wooden ‘shed’ “Even he can’t think of anything to do with that!” she is lost for words.  Sala’s conversation stares like an old blade – monosyllabic replies, devoid of reactions. 

“They want me at the High Council.  Oh, Habbach, now what have I done? Sala-ba, you will have to take me.  I don’t know the way!  You know it, don’t you?”

“Valtor will come for you.  You should wear the robe.”

Alanee rushes to the bedroom.  She calls through: “You don’t want to be here, do you?”  And when Sala doesn’t respond: “They’ve instructed you to be here.  To watch me, yes?”

“Yes.”

The door chime sounds.  Alanee returns, her robe hurriedly thrown about her.  “Do I look alright?  No, don’t answer that.  Sala, while I’m away, dearest, get drunk, will you?  Paia there, look?  Get horribly, revoltingly drunk and when I come back we’ll talk.  OK?  Love you!”

She breezes out into the obsequious gale of Valtor.   “May I say, Lady, how wonderful it will be to have a lady as our Seer?  We are truly blessed by Sire Cassix’s percipience,  although I lament his passing; I do, of course.  Of course, very sad.  A great loss.  So noble…”

“Yes, Valtor dear.  You can stop now.  We’re all very sad.”

The Convenor leads her deceptively quickly along softly carpeted corridors to an elevator the interior of which is as lavishly appointed as any wealthy noble’s reception room.  Gilt-framed chairs upholstered in plush blue velvet, a series of masterfully executed graphics depicting rural scenes around its dark red walls, subdued, honeyed light.  The only mild surprise is an artistically drawn and very buxom nude on the rear wall (Alanee thinks she can guess at whose wish that was included).

“Sire Portis?”

Valtor nods in a manner which contrives to look as if he is bowing.  “The picture was of his selection, yes.  The others show each of the great nations:  Mansuvenia, there; there Braillec…”

Alanee stops listening.  After a brief descent, the elevator passes beneath the courtyard of the palace; and ascends once more.  The doors open directly onto the council ante-chamber.

“Lady, are you prepared for their Sire-ships?”

Sire-ships?”   Alanee tries to dispel the image that instantly forms in her mind of the Domo as a galleon in full sail, but she is still stifling laughter as the Convenor throws open the doors of the Council Chamber, and sixteen expectant faces turn in her direction.  At the sight of the seated Domo looking exactly like the prow of a large ship her laughter breaks through.

“Sires greet you.”  She splutters helplessly.  “You…oh, Habmenach!  You sent for me?”  Behind her, Valtor has disappeared.  The doors have closed.

A murmur returns to her from the assembled Councillors.  The Domo tacks in her direction.  “Greet you, Lady.  You find us amusing?”

“Sire?  Oh, Sire, no:  it was him – Valtor.  He cracked a joke.  I’m sorry.”

Sixteen unconvinced faces:  perhaps contemplating the unlikely idea of a joke from Valtor.

“I’m sorry.”  She repeats.  “How can I help?”

The Domo rumbles:  “Lady Alanee, you are of the High Council now.  You are a ‘Sire-ship’ too.”  Discovered, Alanee blushes.  The Domo nods to an empty chair at the far end of the long table.  “Please, take your place and be welcome.”

It is an upright chair worked in gold gesso, with well-padded seat and arms of red brocade.  She treasures the moment, feeling some pride at her reception into that somewhat severe, privileged place.  When she is seated, the Domo continues.

“Lady, there was an incident in Dometia recently concerning which, I am given to understand, you may have some knowledge.  Do you know what I am talking about?”

Alanee feels the stares turned upon her.  She feels the paia in her head, relentlessly working.  In a moment they will discover her – she is drunk.  No; no, not drunk, but light-headed, certainly.  She replies with as much gravitas as she can muster:  “I know something has happened, Sire.  The aerotran pilot who brought me to the city crashed there, and there are stories; but what exactly it was; no, I don’t know that.”  Then she adds brightly:  “I suppose if I am a good Seer I should, shouldn’t I?”

Trebec grunts expressively.  It was the wrong thing to say.  Nervous, stupid:  tongue running away with her.  All at once she finds herself badly needing a friendly face at that august table.  No-one wants her here:  Cassix’s choice was not popular here, either, and she will find no sympathy in these hostile stares.  To this worthy gathering, who once called the old Seer their friend, she is a bumpkin from the plains of the Hakaan – a worthless dullard without any contribution to make.  Their collective look is one of disdain.

Yet?

Yet.

No, not so High, my lords of the High Council:  not immune to the baser instincts of normal men.

“I suppose;”  Alanee says slowly, and with great deliberation:  “It must be a change for you all, seeing me with my clothes on?”

“Young woman!”  Portis expostulates.

“Especially you, Sire.”  Alanee knows what she is saying:  she no longer cares for the effect it may have.

“Gentlemen!”  To her surprise it is the dark rumble of the Domo’s voice which cuts across a rising clamour:  “Lady Alanee has cause to be offended with us.  The blame for the animosity we all feel does not lie with her.  Sire Carriso, you demanded the Seer’s presence?  Would you care to proceed with the explanation?”

“If you wish.”  The aggrieved Councillor begins nervously, reluctant to put his tragic story into words:  “Lady, many lives…”

As soon as he starts to speak, Alanee’s eyes are drawn to Carriso, seeing at once he is a Dometian:  hearing instantly the emotion in his voice.  From that point, from his first few words, she gains all she needs to know, though what within her has nurtured this kernel of knowledge is a mystery to her.  Hakaan in the mirrors – it has happened!  It happened to Dometia!

“How many?”  She cuts across Carriso’s tale before it is begun, though she hardly knows what part of her speaks.  “How many died?”

The cynicism of the High Council floats away like a cloud.  The eyes that turn to Alanee now share an altered expression.  Taken completely aback, Carriso murmurs:  “All those of my people who lived in the valley of the Kaal, Lady.”

Dust, empty streets:  the Terminus in unattended flames:  that was why!

“The same!”  The unsourceable voice that inhabits her cries:  “The same for the Hakaan.  Balkinvel, the northern uplands; the same.  Get the people out, Sires!  Save them now!”

Those stares that fix upon her face!  They might well dismiss her words as drunken raving, ridicule her, scorn her, but they do not.  For her face is pale and possessed, her eyes not the eyes of a Hakaani widow. They are those of a Seer in the throes of a vision. 

“Sires!  They must run!”

The gathering is dumbfounded.  No-one speaks for seconds that seem to stretch into minutes.  Trebec breaks the spell:  “You have seen this? Is this true?”

“I have seen it.”  Alanee answers to herself as much as to the gathering, as if she must affirm her own belief in her gifts.  “And yes it is true.”

Carriso rises to his feet:  “If no-one else will….”

The Domo recovers himself.  “Yes:  Yes. Carriso, you see to it, will you?  Evacuate the whole area!  Sire Selech, will you organise Word and camps for the displaced population?  The Council will excuse these Councillors?”

The Domo delegates these tasks without moving his eyes from Alanee’s face.  “Lady, can you answer me a question?”

“Sire?”  She is barely aware of him; all of her thoughts are with Shellan-mer, with Carla, Paaitas, old Malfis.  They must be saved!  Yet a calmer part of her inner self is saying they will be, that she has done her work.  Balkinvel’s streets will be as she saw them and though she might grieve for her friends’ loss of their homes, she must rest content.

“Have you seen the Continuum?”

“Yes, sire.  Cassix showed it to me first.”

“What is it, Lady?  Do you know?”

“No.  I know it isn’t important, of itself.  The important thing is behind it, hidden.  When something happens to that, the skies are thrown into some kind of fury.  It isn’t anger, though:  more like pain – agony….”

“And this ‘thing’, can you describe it for us?”

“A white light.  A white light that floods everything so brightly your eyes can’t look at it.”  Alanee replies:  then she adds, though she can’t put a meaning to what she says:  “It isn’t now.”

Portis clears his throat.  “Explain?”

“I can’t, sire.  It has no place in time.”

“It seems;” Sire Calvin says quietly:  “That Cassix chose well.”

“But what is the meaning of it?”  Vast and ungainly as he is, Alanee sees and hears: the Domo is pleading with her.  He is no longer fearsome, no longer in control:  beneath the vast exterior of this calmly authoritative man boils a ferment of superstition and doubt.  He is like a great bird feeding from her hand.

“I do not know.”  She says with truth.  “I must study the Lore.”

The Domo nods.  “It shall be arranged.  Valtor will take you to the Inner Library in the morning.  Perhaps you might persuade him to tell you one or two more of his jokes?  We will convene again tomorrow afternoon.  In the meantime, thank you, Lady Alanee.”

The Council moves to disperse, each with their own agenda (for evacuating the population of an entire region is no minor task), each with their own message in their hearts.  In the elevator Alanee finds herself in the company of Trebec; though he offers little conversation, standing apart with fists clenched as if he would beat himself in the intensity of his rage.  Alanee, who was not present at the earlier part of the meeting does not understand this, but despite her instinctive dislike of the man she feels his guilt and an honesty; a vulnerability she can respect.

Sala is sprawled upon Alanee’s new couch, her white silk shift in disarray and stained with pink paia.  By the half-emptied carafe she clutches to her chest Alanee can see at once that her friend has obeyed her orders to the letter, but inebriation does not seem to have lifted her spirits; in fact, she guesses that Sala has been crying.

Without a word, she takes the carafe from Sala’s grasp to pour a measure for herself; then goes to the kitchen to brew a mug of strong, treacly tsakal. 

“Oh my; we have worked fast, haven’t we?”  Alanee says gently.  She places the tsakal in Sala’s hands.  “Try and drink it, darling.  Do you know, I made quite an impression tonight?  I believe I may even have made an ally or two.”

For a while that is all that is said.  The pair sit in silence, sipping their drinks while rarely meeting each others’ eyes. At last Sala says, in a voice quite clear and succinct:  “I met Cassix a few times, you know?”

“What did you think of him?”

“I liked him.”  Sala glances inside herself:  “Yes, I liked him.  Strong personality – steady, commanding eye:  artistic hands….I’ve always been rather impressed by men with artistic hands.  And he was a Seer, you know – a Seer.”

“Yes.  Yes, I do know.”

“One of the best the City has had, they say.  Now…”  Sala places her mug of tsakal down upon the table with elaborate care,  pressing her finger-tips together.  “Where was I?”

“Best the City…”

She gazes up at Alanee helplessly.  “He never made a lover appear out of empty air; not’s far as I recall.  Never.  I didn’t know him that well, you see?  Alanee – what are you?”

Alanee sighs:  “I wish I knew, ba.   I know who I thought I was; before Cassix saw a part of me I hadn’t dreamed of.  All that time I was just living my life and they were watching…”  She pauses.  “This I know.  I am your friend; no matter what you think of me.  I need you; I really do.  All this other stuff” She gestures at empty air, “It isn’t anything to do with you and me.”

Sala does not speak; not immediately; because within her the clockwork is grinding to a stop, the mechanisms of her training and dedication are breaking down as the gentle fingers of alcohol pull at those strings which still tie her, loosening the bonds, exhuming the entombed.  “And suppose…”  She picks up the words one by one, little pieces that shattered and are lying there waiting:  “Suppose I still needed you?”

Alanee grips her hands:  “That would be wonderful, ba!”

But Sala shakes her head.  “No.  I mean needed you, Alanee.  Putting aside all my ‘stuff’, suppose I was an insecure, emotional child who has just by chance met the one person I could selflessly love, only to find she doesn’t love me – love me, Alanee.  Suppose I wanted you so badly and I couldn’t turn and walk away because of my work and my…..”   Sala pauses:  “Because of my bloody work.   Suppose that, my darling.  Suppose that.”

Hopeless, helpless, more than a little drunk, what else can she say?  Sala turns her head aside, knowing tears will come again and not wishing, this time, to be caught. Alanee, who perfectly comprehends, will not let Sala hide herself.  This much she can do for her friend.

“Oh my dearest!  Come with me, ba.”

Taking her, raising her, holding her: embracing her as only a lover would, or could: leading her to bed, accepting no protest, laying with her in a sacrifice of love: who is to say what Alanee wants or feels tonight?

Perhaps in the lyricism of a very private music she finds a harmony that is new to her, perhaps she does not.  For this night, for this person – for Sala – it doesn’t matter.  To see a smile on the face of an angel, a smile the innocence of which has been interred for so long, is all she could ever ask.  And to hold so closely one who means that much to you, as together you drift above the lapping waves of sleep, is all anyone in any life should desire.

For tomorrow, all things must change…

© 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:

Council Chamber roof: Ron Porter, Pixabay

Featured

Another Story from the Archives:

I wrote this originally in 2012.  It’s is a long one, so I hope you will enjoy it.

NB.    This story was not included in my volume of short stories, ‘Black Crow Speaks’, the icon for which is showing on the right-hand side of this page.  Why not click through to Kindle to see the contents list and the full array of those that were?

The Harp

Delphinia Morgan-Jett was mildly vexed, which would explain her tone as she reached the top of a call centre staircase of numbers and a real voice enquired thinly:

“Can I help you?”

“He is there again.”

A pause at the end of the line:  “I’m sorry.  Who, exactly?”

Mrs Morgan-Jett tutted dangerously.  Acquaintances feared that ‘tut’ as a postman might fear a Dobermann’s snarl.  “Young man; it is not my habit to repeat myself.  I have telephoned concerning this vagrant at least a dozen times.  Kindly deal with it.”

“Ah.”  The thin voice took on a deeper timbre of understanding.  “You’re Mrs…” – a further pause – “Morgan, that right?”

“Morgan -Jett.”

“Yeah, whatever.  And this is about the bloke on the corner of Christminster Avenue – him with the brolly?  So he’s there again, then?”

“Was that not the substance of my initial remark?”

“Right.  Look, Mrs Morgan, is he is actually committing any offence?  I mean, is he doing anyone any harm?”

“He is loitering; he is a vagrant.  He is unpleasant and he is causing an obstruction!”  Delphinia Morgan-Jett was as close to seething as she could ever become.  “See to it that he is removed immediately!”

Sighing, the thin voice capitulated.  “We’ll get someone sent round.” 

Delphinia’s “Please do.” fell on the deaf ears of disconnection.   She carefully wiped her finger-marks from the white plastic of her ‘phone, then, morning sherry clipped between index and thumb, crossed to her ‘bureau’ window; one of two deep casements that overlooked Christminster Avenue.

This view, unchanging with the years, so appealed to Mrs Morgan-Jett’s sense of order and place that she often spent her morning seated here before her desk.  The building facing her on the other side of Christminster Avenue was identical in almost every respect to hers: a uniformity applied to a whole succession of avenues; rows of residential buildings, their stone five-step approaches leading up to polished wooden doors, their dignified porches spoiled only by security buzzers stacked on discreet panels behind an outer arch.  There were few such concessions to modernity – a deli in the basement of number fifty-two that struggled for survival, and the intervention of parking meters which, of course, brought the curse of the motor car – impatient growls and grunts, the bawling of ill-disciplined children desperate for all the things children were always desperate for:  toys, sweets, ice-cream, toilets, the sea.

In rare moments of tolerance, Delphinia might be forced to admit she found music in those discordant street noises.  Sometimes in early morning as she surveyed the deserted road from her high place she looked forward to the business of the day to come, because, for all its cacophony of sound it made a pleasing counterpoint to the draughtsman-like severity of those Georgian architectural lines.

Delphinia’s building,  number three on the east side of the avenue, placed her close enough to the seaward end to permit a corner of aquatic blue in her otherwise urban prospect while sparing her the vulgarity of the Esplanade and the full effect of the elements when winter came.  The sea started where the Esplanade stopped.   At high tide on occasional nightmare days angry waves broke right across the Esplanade, even reaching as far as the traffic lights at the end of Christminster Avenue, where the two roads met.    Those traffic lights, now busy with morning traffic, were the focus of Delphinia’s annoyance.

He was there again.

Tall and hunched beneath a voluminous beige mackintosh reaching nearly to his ankles, with a deerstalker jammed firmly over his long grey locks, thick horn-rimmed spectacles and a smothering brown scarf, this pedestrian was glaringly noticeable.   If anything could add to his ostentatious oddness, it was supplied by the picnic basket which he set carefully down at the corner of the street, and the large, folded, red and yellow golf umbrella he carried in his hand.   Ignoring the attention of bemused passers-by, he opened the basket to extract a thermos flask from which he poured himself a generous measure of tea.  Then he sat down atop his basket to drink. 

Delphinia watched this performance with distaste.   She had been compelled to follow the creature’s routine step by practised step, many times.  First, he finished his tea, then packed away his thermos and its cup.  Next he raised himself to his full height, drew his shabby coat about him, and stepped to the kerb at the very corner of the road.

What ensued was, depending upon perspective, either balletically comical or profoundly irritating.  Delphinia’s vagrant raised a commanding hand to the car nearest to him and stood in front of it.  Oblivious to a squeal of brakes, he turned his back upon its aghast driver to strut to the centre of the road junction where, with sweeping gestures from his furled brolly, he made it clear to the traffic on the Esplanade that he wished it to proceed.   He stood making these arms-length gyrations for some time – long enough to attract a rising chorus of horn-blasting protestation from a growing queue on Christminster Avenue – before motioning the Esplanade traffic to stop, and beckoning to those waiting in Christminster Avenue.

No matter his actions were reminiscent of a graceful dance:  or the order he imposed had a logic of its own, for his directions bore no relation at all to the sequence of the traffic lights.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this reservation, given that when the lights favoured a certain stream of traffic he would almost always be in its way, and that after a while certain of the motorists under his influence started to obey him rather than the legal control.   The overall outcome was chaos.

This Delphinia witnessed with her accustomed fascination.   She quite forgot her intention to time the arrival of the authorities, waiting as she was for a grinding of metal and stream of obscenities which she was sure must come, but which somehow never did.  Those whose view was closer to events seemed to regard the man with humour and even booed when a harassed-looking policeman in a van turned up.

Normally at this stage of events the man would succumb to a few words of wisdom from a representative of the law and allow himself to be led away: normally, but not today.  He snarled his dissent; he wrapped his arms around the pillar of the traffic lights on Delphinia’s corner, and – she must have imagined it – he looked directly up at her; looked her straight in the eyes!

Delphinia took an instinctive backward step.  Those eyes had found her so quickly they must have known she was watching!   Her curiosity sharpened by unwonted guilt, she moved into view once more.  A policewoman had arrived to lend extra weight to the constabulary argument, a substantial presence in every way, but the umbrella man’s gaze was unswerving.  He stared fixedly at Delphinia’s window with an expression that left no room for misunderstanding: he was seeking her help!

Delphinia made a decision – one which she would be unable to explain to anyone sensibly, and certainly not one she would have confessed to her cocktail evening friends.  Snatching her coat from its stand in the hallway she hastened to the lift, and, finding it elsewhere, descended the stairs.  Spry enough for one of her years, she had no problem reaching the street just at the point when the vagrant was being bundled unceremoniously into the policeman’s van.

“Just one minute!  Officer, wait if you will, please?”

It was not a request.  The policeman, whose day was already becoming something of a trial, glared towards the source of this imperious voice, his right hand still securely clamped to the umbrella man’s collar.  He met the crystal stare of a woman accustomed to being obeyed.

“I shall take responsibility for this gentleman,”  Delphinia clipped her consonants precisely.  “You may deliver him into my care.”

“I’m delivering him to a nice comfy room in our detention suite.”  The policeman responded, although not too brusquely.  Delphinia’s upright bearing, immaculate coiffure and expensive burgundy suit flashed warnings he should not dismiss.  Such attire was consistent with that of a councillor’s wife, or maybe a member of the Watch Committee.

The woman constable was more sympathetic:  “Are you acquainted with this person, madam?”

“We received a complaint.”  The policeman said.  “We’ve had a number of complaints.”

“Yes, I know.  I am the complainant.”  Delphinia brushed this argument aside.  “And now I’m telling you I will be responsible for this – this person.  He will not repeat the offence.”  She fixed the person with her coldest, most incisive stare.  “You won’t, will you?”

The vagrant grinned three teeth from his top jaw, two from his lower jaw.  “No!  No offencing!  No!”

The woman constable seemed puzzled.  “You realise what you’re saying?”

“Of course I do.  I’m not senile.  You can release him into my charge!”

The two representatives of the law exchanged glances, and within their silent communication were all sorts of unsaid discussions about avoidance of paperwork and use of police time.  “Well, chummy;” said the policeman.  “It looks as if you’ve found yourself a friend.”

Delphinia waited patiently through a number of formalities.   When they were concluded, and the police presence was receding in a fog of exhaust, she said:   “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

The vagrant grinned those teeth again.  “Yes;” He said in a surprisingly cultured voice.  “Yes please!”

Throughout this process Delphinia Morgan-Jett had suppressed a desire to censure herself.  Why, in heavens’ name, was she doing this?  What was it about this eccentric man’s demeanour which drew her to him?  Pillar of the community though she was, such acts of charity were completely foreign to her.  As she guided the umbrella man to her front door, accompanied by muted applause from a small crowd, she wondered what insanities would visit her next?

“I am Delphinia. What is your name?”

“Tom.  I’m Tom.”

In her hallway she persuaded Tom out of his deerstalker and coat, revealing an Arran sweater from better years and grey trousers that were possibly even older.  Delphinia consigned the umbrella and box to a corner.  “You were looking at me as though you recognise me – do you?”

“No.  No, I don’t.”  Tom said abruptly; then, in gentler tone:  “These are nice.”

They were in the corridor which formed the spine of Delphinia’s apartment.  Its walls were lined with oil paintings, detailed landscapes and character studies lyrical in colour and brilliantly executed.  Their creator had a fine hand.  

“Do you like them?  My son was an artist.  This apartment was his studio.   He exhibited at the Royal Academy.”

“Studio?”

“Yes.  He adored the light; the reflections from the sea intensify it:  it inspired him.”

They had reached the kitchen and Delphinia was filling a kettle.   “He moved?”  Tom asked.  “Where’s he now?”

She did not answer at once.  She busied herself preparing a teapot, arranging two bone china cups and saucers on a silver tray.  “One’s children should survive one; that is what I do not understand.  Life is as it is, I suppose.”

“He died?”

“An accident – a complete accident.  In Rumania, of all places.  It is a lot of years ago now.”

“You’ve got his paintings.  You can remember him by them.”

Delphinia smiled sadly.  “Yes, I have his paintings.  Some of them, at least.   Shall we take tea in the drawing room?”

Tom smiled sympathetically in return.  “That would be nice.”  He said.

They sat upon brocade upholstered chairs watching the sun’s patterned progress across the floor; and they sipped at tea from those fine china cups, regarding each other in comfortable silence.  Tom, despite his somewhat unusual appearance, seemed to fit into Delphinia’s elegant backcloth in a way she would be at a loss to describe, but it was true she found solace in his presence. 

“It’s a nice apartment,”  He said.  “You must have a lot of money.”

Delphinia gave a ghost of a smile:  she never spoke of money.  “I have enough.” 

“That piano.  That’s a nice piano.”

“It is a Beckstein.  I believe Menhuin may have owned it once.”

“You play?”

“I do, but not habitually.  My favoured instrument is the harp.”

“Harp, ah.”  Tom nodded sagely.  “Where’s the harp?” 

“It’s downstairs – in another apartment.”

“Ah.  You’ve lent it to somebody?”

“Goodness no!  I would never dream…”  Delphinia bit back on her words.  She was going to castigate Tom for daring to imagine that an instrument so temperamental and so precious could ever be loaned to anyone!  Tom, of course, could not be expected to know such things.  “Harps are so sensitive to alterations in temperature or humidity, you see:  they do not live fulfilling lives with people.    I keep it in a separate apartment at exactly the atmosphere it requires for perfect tone.”

“So you’ve another apartment – like this – just for your harp?”

“Rather smaller actually.  But yes.”

“I think you must be very rich,”  Tom said.  Then:  “I’d like to see it.”

Delphinia responded with another of her faintly patronising smiles.  “Perhaps another time?” She said.

“I’d better be going.”  Tom suggested.

“Yes, of course.  Shall I arrange for a taxi?  Where do you live?”

Tom demurred.  “I Don’t get on with taxis.”

So, by fits and starts, began the most unlikely of friendships, a connection the existence of which neither party would accept, yet existed nonetheless.  Now, whenever Tom appeared with his traffic director’s accoutrement at the corner of Christminster Street Delphinia would hasten downstairs to ply him with tea, and Tom would accept, staying long into the morning in that warm, comfortable drawing room.  As time passed he pursued his role as traffic controller less and less:  instead, he would often arrive at her door, standing upon the threshold, his liberally greased hair plastered to his head with mathematical precision.  One  morning Delphinia showed Tom a very special room, behind a door at the end of her apartment.

“This is something of a shrine,” She said.   “It’s rather dusty, I’m afraid.”

It was a large, well-illuminated space, and around walls which had once been cream in colour were stacked canvases – hundreds of them.  Artwork was visible on some, not on others:  completed pictures against primed but naked canvasses, sketches against half-finished works.  Tom stood amazed, his eyes drinking in the profusion of colour and form.

“His studio.”  He breathed.

“His studio, yes.”  Delphinia did not mention that the contents of that room alone included thirty completed canvases, or that her son’s work, if an example ever reached the market, could command sums in excess of two hundred thousand pounds.  She lacked that much trust in Tom, at least for now.

Tom said the right thing.  “You must be very proud of him.”  He said.

Delphinia beamed.  “Yes, Tom.  I believe I am.”

The summer passed.  Tom came for tea once, twice, three times a week; and during those visits little was said, but much implied.    Upon one occasion Delphinia played a Chopin prelude on the Beckstein and Tom sat in a reverie so deep he seemed to be almost sleeping.

Then came a day in autumn when Delphinia, having passed a morning shopping, took her usual taxi home from the town centre.   She had taken advantage of the best of the day, for the last hour of fading daylight, which had been warning of things to come, was fulfilling its promise.  Rain hammered upon the taxi roof, bounced from the pavements.  Caught on the street, soaked pedestrians dashed or cringed beneath umbrellas, frozen moments of their discomfort brought into transplendent relief by sheets of lightning.   There was a queue of traffic building at the corner of Praed Street.   Delphinia’s driver muttered something.

“I beg your pardon?”  She enquired.

“I said, oh no not him again.”  The taxi driver repeated, “He needs sorting out, this one.”

Suspicion darker than raincloud filled Delphinia’s mind.  She strained her eyes against the gloom.   The arc of colour described by a golfing umbrella was unmistakeable.  “Tom!”  She sighed.   “Is he often here?”

“Know him, do you?  Lately, yes missus.  He used to be down your way, didn’t he – Christminster Street?  He’ll get himself arrested again, for sure.  A copper mate of mine reckons if they catch him again they’re going to get him sectioned:  you know, put away?  ‘Bout time, too.”

“Pick me up again at the lights, if I don’t come back to you.”  Delphinia instructed.  Once again in Tom’s case, she would act without thought for the consequences.  Fortunately she had the foresight to pack a brolly in her bag that morning, so she would avoid the full punishment of the elements, but the angry tea-tray shatter of thunder was warning enough as she hastened down the pavement to where Tom’s elegant ballet played to an unappreciative audience.

“Tom!  Come out of the road at once!”

Either ignored or unheard, she watched anxiously as Tom guided an ensnared car deeper into his trap.   Sirens whined in the distance.  The sound galvanised Delphinia into action and a determined Delphinia was not to be ignored, certainly not to be disobeyed.  She snatched Tom’s arm in a commanding grip, plucking him from the traffic and virtually frog-marching him, together with his picnic basket, back to her taxi.   The driver looked doubtful.

“He’s a tramp!  I don’t want him in my cab.”

Delphinia was in no mood to be diplomatic.  “He’s my guest, and I insist upon it.  Who should I report you to?”

Mouthing darkly, the cabby conceded.  “Keep him quiet.  I don’t want no trouble with the law.”

Outside, sirens were evolving into blue flashing lights.  A quick-thinking Delphinia thrust Tom’s signature brolly out of sight on the cab floor.  “Now remove that ridiculous hat!  It’s soaked anyway.”

To clear the pandemonium Tom had created took a little while, during which he twice tried to exit the cab and offer his assistance, each time to be restrained by Delphinia’s surprising strength.  Eventually the threat of police detention was behind them and the taxi got under way.

“Where do you live?”  Delphinia had never asked Tom this question before.

“Oh, not near here.”  Tom replied.

“He don’t live nowhere.”  The taxi driver had overheard.  “He gets into hostels from time to time, but mostly he sleeps rough down by the stock sheds, don’t you, mate?”

Tom said nothing.  Delphinia scowled.  “Is this true?”  Tom said nothing.  “Very well.  Take us to Christminster Avenue, driver.”

For once, Delphinia was disposed to tip heavily.  As he unloaded her bags, the cabby warned:  “Don’t you let him take advantage of you, lady.  Be careful, alright?”

It was well-meant, but ill-received.  “My good man;” Delphinia snapped back; “do I look as if I am to be taken advantage of?”

By the time Tom had helped her to and from the lift with her bags, and she had helped him out of his dripping mackintosh, Delphinia had come to a decision. 

“I have ample room.  You must stay here, with me.”

Thus her relationship with Tom entered a new phase.   She never once questioned the motives which led her to buy him clothes, cook meals for him, or use all her powers of persuasion when he seemed disposed to return to his former traffic-organising life.  Although with time he became a trifle more erudite, they conversed very little.   It was as if she had found a role she was always meant to play; and whether memories of her deceased son had a part, or if she was motivated simply by loneliness, was a matter for others to question, not her.

Others did, of course.  Her friends were slow to accept the apparently retarded man with his unruly appearance.  Many stayed away, a few became true confidantes:  interested in Tom, concerned about his life, concerned, too, for Delphinia.

Tom kept pace with change without effort or eloquence.   He seemed to move easily whichever way the wind blew and always ended up ahead of events; untouched by them and splendidly untouchable.  The taxi-driver’s warning had been needless:  although he accepted kindness when it was offered, Tom never sought favours or money.  For large measures of his time he sought nothing at all:  he could be happy for hours just sitting on the edge of his bed staring at the wall, or in Delphinia’s drawing room gazing out upon the Avenue and its peepshow of the sea.   There was only one request he had to make, one which took a month of agonising to put into words.

 “The harp.  I want to hear you play.”

Delphinia looked into the eyes of her sanguine companion, who even in the most expensive clothes managed to look ill-arranged and dishevelled, and sighed.    “Very well.”  She agreed.  “This afternoon.”

 Several locks defended Apartment 3A, each of which Delphinia opened, using keys from two separate rings.   She led Tom inside:  “I had this temperature and humidity control system fitted,”  She explained, indicating a control panel in the lobby.  “Come through.”

A plain panelled door opened upon a light and airy room.  Thin hessian matted the floor, mint-coloured walls were hung with further examples of her deceased son’s exemplary art.  An intricate plaster frieze ran around the room at cornice height:   a crystal glass chandelier hung from a rose of immaculate design in a white plaster ceiling.

“My builder – Mr. Baxter – worked wonders: he disguised the soundproofing so effectively one would hardly believe it was there.  The acoustics leave a little to be desired, I’m afraid, but still…   Won’t you sit down?”

An accommodating blue sofa beneath a shaded window suggested itself, but Tom had missed Delphinia’s invitation, for his eyes were devouring the room’s centrepiece – a harp, tall and serene.

Delphinia saw the enthusiasm in Tom’s gaze.  “American, a Lyon and Healy.”  She took his arm gently.  “Sit down, won’t you?  I will play for you.”

Only when she sat, drawing the knee of her instrument to her shoulder did the import of this moment dawn upon Delphinia.   For so many years she had played her music alone here, in this soundproofed, closeted space.  No-one had heard, no-one had seen until now, and all at once an auditorium of years ago yawned dark and deep before her, the sounds of settling people, the suppressed coughs, the murmured words that always followed that first, polite applause, returned to her.  She played.  She played as she always did, her head lost inside the song, her eyes closed to all but the fleeting touch of the strings.

And Tom?  He listened in his own private rapture, solemn and deep, letting the sweet, quiet insinuation of harp music envelop him like a warm blanket.  Kessner, Parry and Pachelbel flowed over him as gently as sleep.  He did not know for how long she played, or the titles to all of the pieces he heard, although he knew many.  He only knew he was in the presence of hands of faultless eloquence.  He did not want it to end.

“Yes, I was a soloist, many years ago.”  Delphinia admitted as they ascended the stairs.  “When my husband was alive we travelled frequently, so it was not possible to pursue a career.  I was forced to give up eventually.”

“But you kept your harp.”

“Yes, I kept my harp.”

“You should go back to it again.  You play very well.”

Delphinia laughed a little musical laugh she had been cultivating of late.  “Oh, Tom, one can’t simply ‘go back’.  Anyway my dear, I’m too old.  I like to practice, though.  I enjoy the discipline.”

True friends who remained in Delphinia’s circle noticed a new intimacy in her manner, a softening of the autocratic glare.  She seemed well, she seemed happier.  This was attributed to Tom’s influence and by some to a very much closer relationship than was the case.  If Delphinia got to hear of this version she did not show it or resent it; and Tom?  Resentment was not part of Tom’s makeup.

Over years fast friendships must inevitably spawn a form of love.  More unlikely companions would be hard to find, yet Delphinia opened her life to this rumpled man, and he responded with unique sensitivity.  The balance between them was perfect; so much so that those around them quickly forgot Tom’s dubious past.  Delphinia quietly sequestered his golf umbrella and his picnic basket, hiding them from view.  When he discovered their absence, Tom paced the corridor mouthing his distress for a while, but he did not otherwise complain.

On a morning just before Christmas of their first year together,  Delphinia’s brother and his family appeared bearing gifts.  Geraint Morgan eyed Tom up and down.

“Who is he?”  He demanded.  “What’s he doing here?”

Delphinia’s response was icily controlled.  “Tom is my friend.  He is here by my invitation.”

Tom ambled forward with his best attempt at a smile much improved by Delphinia’s insistence that he visit a dentist, offering his hand.   Morgan deliberately ignored it.   “It’s strange time of day for him to be visiting, isn’t it?” He said.

“Tom isn’t visiting.  He is my companion.  He lives here.”

Rachel Morgan made her first contribution to the conversation, in the form of a derisive snort.

“Well!”  Said Geraint:  “Whatever would Robertson think of this?”

Delphinia pursed her lips:  “It has been many years now, Geraint.   If he was here, though, I believe he would thoroughly approve.”   The reference to Robertson Jett, her deceased husband, made her bridle.  “My decisions and actions are scarcely your affair, now are they?”

“We want to see you kept safe;” Rachel chipped in.  “We don’t want you taken advantage of by some dirty old man.”

“Tom is neither dirty nor particularly old!”  Delphinia snapped back.  “And I insist you stop referring to him as if he was not in the room!”

The visit was as brief as it was acrimonious.  Tom retired discreetly, only re-emerging after they had left.

“Don’t concern yourself, Tom.”  Delphinia soothed him. “My brother’s family always rather lacked the social graces.  They come once a year; I never hear from them otherwise.” She unwrapped the present Rachel had thrust into her hand and stared at it disparagingly.  It was a book.  “I find this woman such an uninspiring author.  Do consign it to the kitchen waste, there’s a dear, will you?”

The following morning Delphinia found a policewoman standing at her door.  Geraint Morgan had voiced his suspicion that ‘a helpless old lady was being victimised by a confidence trickster’, and although she was quickly able to allay those fears she took heed of the warning Geraint’s behaviour implied.  She went to see her solicitor.

For five years Tom and Delphinia pursued an idyllic existence, he a devoted audience for her playing whether upon the piano or the harp, she often bemused, sometimes amused, but always stimulated by his stilted conversation, his unpredictable ‘ways’.  Theirs was a very private life, one in which they rarely ventured out beyond the usual demands of shopping or a limited social round, though exceptionally in their second summer they spent a month in France, renting a small house Delphinia had visited in her younger days.  But she fretted when she was deprived of her instruments and Tom understood this better than any.

To all things must be an end, and the end came to Delphinia one spring morning.  Sitting opposite Tom at the breakfast table with a soft sun shining in at the window she suddenly leaned towards him:

“Dearest Tom…”  She began, trying to utter a sentence she would never complete.

A stroke.  That was the doctor’s verdict, when Tom found the presence of mind to call him.   Mercifully quick, was his medical opinion – she would have known very little about it.  Tom, he had his own opinion, and he grieved for Delphinia in his own, very silent way.  Then he went and recovered his box and his brolly (he had always known where Delphinia had hidden them) and he made for the door.

Cynthia Braithwaite met him on the stair.  Cynthia was Delphinia’s most intimate acquaintance outside her companionship with Tom, and she had readily agreed to take care of him if anything happened to her.  Tom was not to become homeless; he was to continue to live as the new tenant in Delphinia’s apartment, on condition he looked after her harp.  In the events that followed, Cynthia honoured her promise.

At the funeral (he was the only one of the solemn gathering to be kept dry by a brightly coloured umbrella) Tom wept; and at the reading of the will he showed very little emotion when he learned he was Delphinia’s principal beneficiary.  An annual income in trust and tenure of the apartment for life, with an additional allowance for the harp.  Cynthia was bequeathed twenty thousand pounds as a remembrance of her friendship and ‘patience with a cranky old woman’.  The Morgans were left three paintings of her son’s collection; they were to be allowed to choose which three.

The Morgans were outraged, of course, because they had seen the entire inheritance as rightfully theirs, and Tom had, in their view, stolen it from under their noses.  Without Cynthia’s Rottweiler-like tenacity Tom might still have been legally bullied out of his entitlement, but with her help he stood firm and survived the legal challenges which followed.

Finally, there came a day when Geraint and Rachel Morgan arrived at the apartment to select their choice of canvases.  Cynthia met them at the door and Tom was nowhere to be seen, but as they examined the pictures on the passage wall the gentle strains of the Leibestraum wafted out to them from the drawing room.  So well-known a piece might have passed them by, yet it had a divinity even they could not ignore.

“That’s a fine recording.”  Geraint commented.  “Wonderful tonal quality.  Who is the artist, do you know?”

Cynthia was standing at the end of the corridor, next to the kitchen door.  “Yes, I do.  This…” she waved towards a substantial canvas hung to take full advantage of the light; “…is his portrait.  I think it’s a true Jett masterpiece.  It captures a virtuoso at the height of his powers, don’t you agree?”

Geraint Morgan stared at the picture.  Cynthia went on:  “He would have been performing the Brandenburg at the Albert Hall that September:  the end of a triumphant world tour.  Then one day he just stood up and walked out of rehearsals.  He was never seen again – a nervous breakdown, maybe?  No-one knew.  Delphinia was the only one who did, and she found out just a few weeks ago, going through the paintings in Clarence’s old studio.  I’m sure she had a premonition.”

Rachel Morgan had joined her husband.  She read the appellation at the foot of the work aloud:  “Thomas Brabham DeVere, pianist.  Oh my god!  Isn’t that…?”

Geraint nodded.  Wordlessly he walked back to the drawing room door and opened it.  Tom looked up from the Beckstein, but he did not stop playing.

© Frederick Anderson 2014.  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: Mabel Amber from Pixabay

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Six: Reflections

In the previous episode:

Dag Swenner’s health is improving as he follows the wild river, seeking first signs of civilization.

Meanwhile, Sala’s insistence that Celeris is a figment of Alanee’s imagination has induced him to materialize, and Alanee learns that he is Hasuga, dressed in a form she finds attractive.  His appearance is too much for Sala, so Hasuga blanks her memory of their meeting.

Alone in her chambers, Alanee discovers her powers:  using telekinetic energy, she can move the heavy silver ball, and now the mysterious mirrors beckon…

“Well?”  Ellar settles an ebony statuette she has been examining on her desk.  “What is the explanation?”

“There is none, Lady.” Sala shrugs her shoulders.  “She insists the man she calls Celeris bedded her last night.”

They are in the part of Ellar’s apartments the Mediant calls her study, a small offshoot of her main reception area.  Here she spends most of her waking hours, working at a large oak desk and admiring the collection of effigies and small busts that adorn the walls.

“There was no man with her?”

“No, Lady.”

“So what conclusion may we draw?”   What ails Sala?  Ellar’s mediator stands sullenly before her, a recalcitrant schoolgirl called before her principal.  There is no flicker of challenge, no answer in her eyes.

“That she imagines him, Lady.”

“That is an explanation, then, is it not; an imaginary bedfellow?  The strain, one supposes.  She is under a great deal of stress.  She insists upon it?”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Very well.  Thank you Sala.”

“I may go?”

“You  may go.  Return to Lady Alanee later, say, at six o’clock.  Stay with her then, if you can.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“Oh, and Sala?”  Sala is already on her way to Ellar’s door. She turns.  “You are wise enough in the ways of the world, I am sure.  You would be able to tell if Lady Alanee had, in fact, spent her night with a man, wouldn’t you?”  Sala does not reply.  “Well, I am asking your opinion: did she?”

“I cannot be sure.”

Sala departs, with Ellar’s discerning eyes scrutinizing her every step.  The alteration in the young woman’s posture, her voice, even her look is inescapable:  where now to place her trust?  While Sala is watching Alanee (will that still be possible?)  who will be watching Sala?  These questions may not detain her:  Valtor’s insistent message on her summoner is calling her to High Council.  Sire Trebec, recently returned from his mission to wrap up the Dometian affair, has prepared his final report and she, as a member of the Council, must attend.  She does so with some misgivings, knowing that on the Domo’s recommendation Alanee has been excluded from this gathering, which is setting something of a precedent, for it will be the first time in history that a full Council has convened without a Seer.

Alanee, meanwhile, is occupied with matters far removed from her station as Seer.  She is quickly acquiring the trappings of a member of The City’s privileged inner circle.  Unable now to walk freely in The City and shop for herself, she has no difficulty in selecting a reputable interior designer to attend her.

Prinius, it transpires, is a friend of Tocatta – a very close friend, if Prinius’s perspective is to be believed.  And certainly everything about his manner and bearing would seem to confirm that perspective, for he is dressed with the same careful precision, the same elaborate care.  His perfume is intense, his eyes warm, their earnest stare almost hypnotic.  A crescent moon of long grey hair flies about the fringes of his red fedora, for he is not young, and his long nose is purplish in hue and inclined to drip:  yet he illustrates his suggestions with expansive, eloquent gestures and he motivates like a heavy rainstorm, so that within a very few hours the inexplicable white suits have gone from Cassix’s grim walls to be replaced by brightly coloured hangings, while druggets temper the severity of the flagstone floor.  A pair of comfortable red leather couches have discovered space for themselves, adjacent to a low table in warm rosewood, above which naked lighting has been sacrificed to something altogether friendlier and more responsive.

He can do nothing immediately for the stone walls themselves:  “All that writing to be scrubbed off, then plaster panels, my dear Lady, are absolutely essential!  I will attend to it.  And graphics – something rather pretty I imagine?”

Or for the more idiosyncratic furnishings of the room:  the mirrors:  “Oh my dear!”

The large spinning disc of undecipherable purpose:  “A certain brutal charm.  One could always persuade the unwelcome guest to recline there.”

The silver orb:  “Quite impressive, really, though I would imagine completely useless?”

– or the doorless wooden edifice that dominates the inner side.  “That!  Oh Habbach!  I couldn’t even begin!  One might cover it with something; a tent, perhaps?”

On the whole Alanee is sufficiently pleased: when she surveys the beginnings of Prinius’s transformation over a late lunch ordered in from an exorbitantly pricey restaurant, she feels a certain satisfaction: it may never look like a home, but at least Cassix’s old cave is a little less habitable to bats.

Left to herself once more, allowing the clouds of loneliness to close in, she greets a summons from her door chime as a welcome sound.  She answers it half-expecting Sala to be standing there, rather than a deferential young man with a parcel in his hand.  It is the book she ordered the previous day.

Alanee tips the young man for his trouble and thanks him.  When unwrapped, the book nestles cosily in her grasp; leather cunningly distressed into eloquent age, blank unlettered pages mellowed at the edge, roughly cut, a lock not rusted, but so convincingly worn it might easily trace its ancestry through two thousand years, all exemplars of the forger’s art:  a book which until now she has only seen inside her head, made manifest. It is so deceiving as to give her mission substance and purpose, and new hope for its success.  She conceals it beneath a chair in her bedroom for the moment, while she plots her next move.

Is it the book that draws Alanee’s thoughts back towards Cassix’s mirrors?  She is suddenly reluctant to sit on that ancient leather chair, to face the three angled reflections that fill one end of the wall.  Whether the three further, smaller mirrors behind the chair deter her, or whether there is some more obscure reason she cannot know.  Nevertheless she takes her place in their midst and once seated she can find no justification for fear.  The whole thing looks and feels like a museum piece – they are mirrors, no more, no less.  What were Hasuga’s words?  ‘Gain their trust.’  Without the slightest clue what that may mean, she studies the large centre glass.

At first, the images she sees seem no more than different aspects of the room created by angles in the glass; however, it crosses her mind that she is looking not at first-hand reflections, but deflections from the mirrors behind her.  Yet, if that is so, why does her own reflection not appear anywhere?  She is sitting between the smaller and the larger mirrors, so how can her image be missing?  The answer may never have come to her had she not chanced to direct her gaze upward to where, concealed by changes of level in the ceiling, are more mirrors:  not just three but a whole battalion of them!  So…. the reflections she sees are being thrown back and forth, up and down, between all of these surfaces.  It is a wonder after so many journeys that they bear any resemblance to reality at all!

‘Gain their trust.’

Half-consciously using her new-found kinetic sense she finds she can fractionally change the attitude of one of the glasses.  Instantly the images alter.  In one glass now she sees a reflection of the city gardens; in another Prinius’s new wall hangings show up perfectly, in the third the strange wooden room with no door appears.

Alanee alters the angle of one after another of the glasses, fascinated by the finesse she can achieve, and their effortless synchronisation.  In part she is playing, revelling in her new-found abilities: yet there is rightness in each adjustment, a process that seems to involve switches within her mind.  And something more…

 Her fingers stroke the old leather of the chair.  Does she imagine it or is there a worn indentation where her hands rest on each arm?  On a whim she goes to a bag of items the  drabs retrieved from the watchtower, selecting from among them those two stones Cassix gave her.  She seats herself with a stone beneath each hand.

There are no revelatory flashes of insight, no journeys to the stars; just a tiny white spot upon the spinning metal of the disc on the wall beside her, and the micron-thickness beam of light that creates it, lancing straight from the mirrors above her head.  In the third mirror before her, the wooden room appears.  One end of the room has somehow acquired a door, and the door (a whole carved panel hung upon great iron strap hinges) is opened wide.  So little should be distinguishable in the gloom of that windowless interior, but one thing clearly is.  Upon a simple chair inside the door sits a very old, very thin man in a hempen smock.  This man’s gnarled and twisted limbs speak of age as an old tree speaks – of weathered suffering; of the ravages of the seasons.  The sockets of his eyes are hollowed, his skin as dry as ash.  He is unmoving:  his bones of fingers clasped before him, his head bowed.

Shocked, Alanee turns to look directly at the wooden room.  There is no open door.  It looks as unassailable as ever.  So, the combination of stones and mirrors can transform their reflections and the stones provide the switch.   Setting her teeth, she tightens her grip upon the stones.

She does not instantly recognise what she sees.  The Balkinvel reflected in the glass bears little relationship to the village she once, not long ago, called her home.  And she does not expect to see such a picture – why should she?  She is several thousand miles from the Hakaan – it cannot be a true reflection.  Yet she sees it:  it is there.

The Terminal is there:  there and burning, with the roof half-gone where flames lick through and a pall of black smoke rising into the angry sky.

Look at the sky, Alanee!

No-one douses the flames:  there is no bucket-chain, no anxious crowd.  It burns unattended – it will burn to the ground.  A village street that might be deserted were it not over-run by rats, creatures not given to exposure yet so frightened they run in the open, running for their lives, and cottonweed everywhere, un-swept, neglected.

The gap where her own house once stood; the house of her friend Shellan, its windows broken and door swinging in the wind.  Old Malfis’s immaculate garden overrun with weed; so quickly!  Did the old man die?  House after house empty of life – where are they all?  The Makar, Carla, Paaitas, Namma?  A pain stabs at her heart.  Her village; her life, destroyed.  Why? 

“Hasuga!  Did you do this?”

“I?  No, Alanee, not I.”

Then, before eyes becoming attuned to horror, the curtain falls, if curtain it be.  Some veiled nemesis descending from that sky, spinning and purging as if culling a memory.  Alanee sees it in the mirror; sees what Ripero saw, in that second when the love of his life was taken from before his eyes.

Look at the sky, Alanee!

Do the mirrors move by the insistence of her thoughts, or upon some impulse of their own?  They tilt towards the heavens – not greatly, but enough;  dragging her awestruck eyes above that scything whirlwind, high into the atmosphere, through the jagged, ragged lightning and the black moil of rage into a calmness of the palest blue.  She sees the cloud-base as another country: white mountains with black anger at their base, rolling hills, pleasant valleys basking in a gentle sun.  And before the mirrors’ eye they take upon themselves a life, so for an instant she might be gazing down upon fields, rivers, brave little towns clinging to those insubstantial wisps of vapour as if they were real:  chimneys smoke, men go out with ancient tools to till the red soil, and children!  She has never seen so many children!  They play in the streets, follow the plough, shout and laugh among themselves as if they have no cares at all!

Only for an instant.

The white line begins as a livid dot of such intensity it burns her eyes, spreading laterally, a swinging blade to level everything, scythe everything away.  Its signature screech obliterates all other sound, drowns the cries of those who, in the seconds before the coming know it is the end of all things.  From its epicentre white death rises to a cone, a burning ball:  then silence.

Alanee can bear to see no more.  With all the force of her mind she snatches her grip from the stones, turns the mirrors back into her own world.  The white spot on the disc disappears.  Her heart is so full it can hardly stand the excess of compassion and pain exuding from the glass: the mirrors seem to have some kind of empathy, some sort of life-force of their own.  They seem to be regretful, but surely that cannot be?  She remembers that once as a child she believed inanimate objects such as carvings or even farming machines could feel and move.  They never did, until now.

For a while she paces, pours herself a drink, then two.  With every step she tells herself the things she witnessed cannot be true.  Balkinvel cannot have been destroyed so fast; the work of a thousand years undone in a few cycles.    She was in such a low state she saw predictions of doom.  If she can change her own mood, the predictions will become more optimistic too.  Alanee knows nothing of Ripero, or how his village and his life was wiped away.  So she has no precedent for the horror she has seen befall Balkinvel, and the cloud-land vision is so preposterous she must dismiss it as fancy.

With the aid of a couple more drinks, by the time Sala visits Alanee’s humour has changed completely.  Paia, she has decided, is a very acceptable spirit:  she applauds Cassix’s choice, not guessing that it was a choice made for very specific reasons.

#

A first citrus tint of sunlight feels its way across the valley, casting the spark that will turn the waters of the river into a necklace of gold.  In long shuffling shadows night creatures bury themselves, finding tunnels into wombs of safety.  Dawn is chill of a depth no other chill can match.  It sends icy tendrils into bone.

From his perch behind a veil of acacia Dag has a panorama of all the river basin spread out before him.  Last night he began to climb, having made a decision to leave the river and gain the summit of a hill that rises behind him.  When he first heard the voices, he had yet another thousand feet to go.

He has followed the river for days now; hunting or fishing for food.  In all that time he has seen no sign of occupation, though the land is fertile: there is no track, no tell-tale smoke haze in the sky; nothing.  Then, suddenly last night, pushing his way through a thicket of bracken on the green hill, he heard sounds, distant chatter, undistinguishable as any form of language, but certainly, as he thinks, human.  Remembering his fugitive status, the acacia became his inhospitable bed for the night.  Now, in the dawn, he listens; he watches.

Yes, the voices begin again with the rising of the sun.  Few at first, then a rising clamour.  Whoever these people are, they are obviously neither hunting for food nor afraid of discovery, whilst he, Dag, cowers behind his cloak of foliage suppressing shivers as best he can.  Here, the wide bowl of the valley is some six miles across with mountains to the further side, their snowy peaks already blushed by the rose of sunrise.  The trees no longer reach to the waterside, for the river has grown languorous.  It meanders now, lazy amid bogs of poppy-rich meadow grass and reed, host to fronds of willow, a footing too uncertain for the stalwarts of the forest.  Colour is everywhere; hydrangea and cyclamen, Acacia and tulip, rhododendron and cornflower.  And still of the owners of the voices there is no sign, no life other than that of a dappled deer on the opposite river bank, far away and oddly so much bolder than he, as it takes dancing steps towards the water’s edge.

Almost beyond Dag’s powers of sight, the river turns southward around a gentle hill which juts out into the widest part of the watercourse: a promontory topped by a random scattering of trees; a tulip or two, a walnut, an umbrella pine.  As the light of morning gathers it reveals some detail of this higher ground:  there are features there which, even from this distance, seem strange to Dag’s discriminating eye – the grass is more evenly spread, there are no bushes or rocks to break up the line.  He tries a simple trick:  closes his eyes, turns away, then turns to look again; and yes; there is a movement there, two far-off figures so small at this distance they are little more than dots!  They move as children might in play, to and fro about the grassy slope; running, perhaps?  They are minute, but not so little that he cannot distinguish the human touch.  People!  For better or worse, good or ill, he cannot avoid civilisation forever.  The time has come.

Glad of action, Dag thinks he will move closer: stay hidden until he learns more.  Who are they?  They should be Dometians, but he is unsure how far he might have travelled, whether he might have strayed into the higher valleys of Eastern Braillec.   Whoever they are they must have heard what happened to their fellow citizens, so they would know and understand whence he came.  And this is his concern, for with Ripero he saw too plainly the fate of those refugees on the Dometian Plain.  Though his heart would guide him back to the Consensual City, in his head there is a warning.  Does the City wish him dead?

He has no time to do more than form his plan before choice is taken from him.  From nowhere, it seems, a figure rises before him, a figure with bright feverish eyes tearing aside the branches of acacia.  From behind him other unseen hands snatch and pin his arms.  A loop of thick twine binds them into captivity.  By the strength of many he is thrust face forward into the sun.  And what he sees draws a cry of disbelief from his lips…

© 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:

Arto Martinem from Unsplash
Stacey Gabrielle-koenitz-Roselle from Unsplash

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And This Will Not Work…

The governments of Western nations have, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, evolved systems devoted to treating their citizens en masse.   They have done so deliberately and persistently, neglecting the very obvious effects upon population and climate, even turning a blind eye to health, and Nature’s ineffable way of putting right everything they do wrong.

The results?    Bigger conurbations, bigger transport infrastructure, bigger shopping malls, bigger schools, bigger hospitals, and a vast jelloid mass of shifting population, dashing expensively hither and thither, regardless of damage caused.   In Nature’s terms, a sitting target.

If, now, we are sitting in our little hutches listening to the uncomfortable scratching sound of chickens coming home to roost, we have no-one to blame but ourselves.  It was always going to happen, because governments are too stupid to see beyond the edges of their desks…

If, after a token period of self-flagellation and noisy penance, we think our sins are forgiven and we can go back to doing things as before, we are just as stupid.

We have a chance to do things differently.  We have an opportunity to ditch the school system and establish one that uses home tuition and technology as its base; to finish off the daily dash to the city and adopt home working and video conferencing in its place, to recycle all the aeroplanes and trains the world doesn’t really need when oceans can be crossed with the tap of a ‘send’ button, to bring people back to their small, local communities and to provide them with a hospital that is nearby and doctors who actually care.

We can do it.  The technology is there!  All we have to sacrifice is the relentless drive for some obscure god we have invented, by whose edict we judge the success of our personal lives –

So, will we?  Sadly, no.

Instead we will fall back upon the only option we have courage enough to take – to re-open, to continue to construct, to herd our children into stockades to be taught, into mass wellness machines to be cured, and into mass graves when we die.

When we look at our existence through a tunnel of dead imagination, that is all we can see.

Footnote:

While we recoil in horror at the worldwide signpost of 300,000 Coronavirus deaths being passed, it is worthwhile remembering that more or less exactly a century ago Spanish Flu proved far more virulent for our ancestors:  deaths worldwide were certainly no less than 17 million, and probably as high as 100 million by 1921 – more lives than were claimed by World War One.

It was not the first ‘peak’ of that disease – in 1918-19 – that destroyed the vast majority of those lives, but the second.   In 1920-21.

Picture Credit: Mourning 51 from Pixabay

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Thin Ice – Another from the Archives…

There will always be dysfunctional people. Just as there will always be those who skate elegantly across the pond of life, so there will be those for whom life is a gauntlet of thin ice. I remember once, in discussion with a colleague about a stroke of misfortune that had visited a then-girlfriend, George remarking that ‘bad luck seemed to follow her around’.
This is a truth newly awakened in me each time (and there are many times) I find myself witnessing a disintegration in progress, and the absolute helplessness I feel before the relentless juggernaut of human nature. I can only watch as, in apparent slow motion, two irresistible forces match up to each other. I can do nothing to stop the explosion of destructive energy which follows.
From the shallows of old age, there is a morbid attraction for the tumult that forms about the thinner and cracking ice. To watch the inevitable and not to turn and walk away up the riverbank is dangerously close to schadenfreude, and I neither like myself nor respect my own history when I yield to that temptation. After all, these are scenes from my own past: I genuinely want to step between the protagonists and keep them apart. But I have no wisdom in this arena; and even if I had, wisdom has no part to play.

White Goods counselling

This was a few years ago. Tony was a generous man of nearly my own age, not in the bloom of health perhaps, but still walking in the sun when he found a partner younger than he, slim and apparently self-confident with a willing smile; a paragon of something not quite within the powers of description but mother to two adolescent children, a girl and a boy.
Within three months they found a house – a modest semi-detached with a garden – and moved in together; a course of action which might have seemed sudden, but the days grow short as you reach November, and it would be hard to criticize them for reaching out to grasp at happiness. To all appearances, this was the sort of consolation prize relationship many dream about but few attain, and all seemed well with Tony and Marian, his new-found friend.
Barely six months had passed before the first cracks showed. According to Tony, Marian’s expensive tastes did not match his modest income: she kept two horses, insisted upon her own car, and had a penchant for retail therapy. Two months later, again according to Tony, Marian drank heavily; Marian was bi-polar, Marian was ‘troubled by her nerves’. Marian suffered those slings and arrows stoically and made no accusations in return, but the outcome was inevitable.
Friends gathered around the two camps; battle lines were drawn. It was noticeable that of the two armies, Tony’s was much the smaller. They entered into skirmishes on his behalf with less enthusiasm and were conspicuously absent at key points in the fight. Like Custer at Little Bighorn, Tony stood tall; like Custer, Tony was too stubborn to realize he was hopelessly outnumbered.
No-one mentioned counselling.
Then, one Saturday morning as she hung out washing on their garden line, Marian announced calmly that she and Tony were not ‘getting on together very well’ and she was moving out. She had procured a new house locally, she told me, and would be gone ‘within the week’.
True to her word, as day seven dawned she and her children were to be seen loading boxes of possessions into her little car. They drove off and peace descended over the little house. A disconsolate Tony watched the remnants of his defeated army disappearing over the horizon. He stood alone.
For one day.
On the Monday morning at nine o’clock Tony went off to work. At nine-thirty Marian’s car drew up outside his house, where she stayed for the rest of the morning because her new accommodation had no washing machine and no garden. By midday she could be seen pegging out her washing on what now had to be regarded as Tony’s washing line. It was a temporary arrangement, she explained. It would be rectified as soon as she could procure the necessary equipment.
By Tony’s return in the evening Marian and her washing had vanished and the matter should have rested there – would have done, if Marian had fulfilled her intention to purchase her own washing machine and drier. Perhaps the temptation was too great, the answer too simple; or maybe with all her other commitments now she was single again new white goods were beyond her financial reach: whatever the reason, Marian kept coming back. Three times a week, her washing adorned Tony’s washing line, even to a point on one occasion when Tony’s own washing had to be deposed to make room.
Now Tony’s ear for bush telegraph was less than acute, but eventually this state of affairs had to come to light. You do not need to catch a rabbit red-handed to know it has trespassed in your cabbage patch. The evidence is provided by the cabbages. My choice of metaphor, by the way, is not accidental.
Marian had retained possession of a key. Her daughter knew its whereabouts. It was so available that one afternoon, in the grip of coital fever and desperately in need of privacy, she and her boyfriend let themselves into Tony’s house and thence into Tony’s spare bedroom. They were still there, deep in satisfied sleep, when Tony returned that evening.
I am unsure exactly what agreements the ensuing row produced, though a whiff of blackmail hangs in the air to this day. Suffice to say both Marian’s children spent the following weekend grudgingly treating Tony’s garden to a rather inexpert but well-intended makeover, and Marian’s washing forays no longer retained their clandestine nature. In fact, she often arrived with the basket before Tony had left, and on increasingly frequent occasions did not leave on the same day, or the next.
These events took place, as I have said, a few years ago. Tony is older now by double those years, and poorer by several more: but Marian, though she has still a house of her own, spends little time in it, and a lot of time in Tony’s, if only because of the volume of her washing. As far as I know, she never bought her own machine, and if she did, she never uses it.
The moral of this story? If there is one, it might point out there are many versions of ‘happily ever after’ which even within one partnership may not coincide. And a further point: as a bachelor in need of a life partner, your first consideration should probably be the purchase of a good washing machine.

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Continuum – Episode Twenty-Five: Apparition

In the last episode:

Alanee, now officially the city’s Seer, is introduced to Cassix’s old apartment, and its peculiar array of wooden structures, artefacts, and mirrors.  She is sad to discover how her promotion has altered her relationship with Sala, who makes it plain she must act as Ellar’s eyes and ears.   In the midst of her depression, Celeris visits her, raising her mood, and they spend the night together.

Meanwhile, beside a river far away…

Dag Swenner’s body is healing well; a heat that spreads within him brings balm to each organ and limb, making each torn place whole, as though by needle and thread it is stitching him back together.  Although he was on the brink of death, by some mechanism he cannot understand he is no longer dying:  He has felt stronger, true, but minute by minute his vitality grows.

The stench has been intensifying, drifting upriver on the wind for more than a mile now, so the discovery of Ripero’s remains, though hardly recognisable from the scavengers’ touch, comes as no surprise to Dag.  His first instinct would be to seek a burial place, but here among rocks and tree-roots, lacking any appropriate tools, he would find none:  so he comforts himself with the evidence that Nature will take his rescuer to herself.  All he can offer is a prayer for a soul already departed and this he does. He clambers by, greeting the new air thankfully.

Beyond the river bend the valley widens, where hills to either side sweep back, and tree cover is forest no more, but tranquil woodland.  There is no tread of civilisation yet, but Dag expects it will not be long before he finds ground given to fields, a trodden path, the creatures of domesticity:  he wonders then what sort of welcome awaits him – whether those who slaughtered the Dometians on the plain are intent upon his death, too.  Whose company may he safely seek?

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Alanee’s disappointment at waking to find Celeris’s space in her bed unoccupied is brief:  after all, he was with her into sleep and she is sure he honoured his promise.  She has slept late upon her draught of paia and loving contentment – now there are the challenges of a day to be met.

Tsakal in hand, she taps out the bookseller’s number on her summoner.  He sounds chagrined.  “Lady, you are a hard task-master.  Yes, it is ready, but the glues must dry and the lock must be added.  I shall have it completed by three.”

“Very well – thank you.  Please place it in a plain box, then wrap it and have it sent up to the Seer’s chambers.  No-one must open the wrapping or discover what is inside.  I want it as a surprise for my coupling.”  She knows this last excuse sounds lame, but she despises the need for artifice and is beginning to be careless of it.  Besides, with Celeris so fresh in her thoughts, Hasuga’s schemes have suffered something of an eclipse.

Thus, with the matter of the faked book in hand, Alanee has time to reflect upon her night with Celeris.  The warmth of his memory remains with her:  his way of touching her, his consummate skill as a lover – how quickly he has learnt!    A door chime disturbs her reverie.  Sala stands outside.

“Are you going to admit me this time?” 

“Yes, I’m sorry.  Do come in, ba.”  Alanee adds, defensively,  “He isn’t here.”

Sala nods, dourly,  “I know he isn’t.”

“You know?  You saw him leave?  I thought we agreed there were no cameras in here!”

“There are none in the chambers.  But there are several in the corridor outside and one cannot move about the upper levels without surveillance. That’s nothing new – simply the way it’s always been.”

“I see.  What time did he go?  I wasn’t awake.”

Sala is looking at her curiously, as if she is trying to apply reason to something that doesn’t quite fit.  All the evidence before her is of a woman who has passed a night with a man; and yet….

“He hasn’t left.  He hasn’t left because he never came.”

Why does the cheap response in Alanee’s head make her want to smile?  She avoids it.  “Well, I’m sorry you missed him then…”

“I reviewed the surveillance after you turned me away and again this morning.”  Sala puts her hands on Alanee’s shoulders; “Shortly after I left yesterday, you came to the door again.  You opened it, but you did not step outside.  You shut it.  Later, drabs came – to clean for you, I assume.  They left two hours before midnight.  Meantime you had food delivered from the Caldeg Restaurant down the corridor.  Then I came to see where you were and you shut the door in my face.  No-one else has been here, and nobody has left.  I’m the first one through that door since the drabs left you last night.”  Sala exhales, as though she has expended all the breath in her body.  “Now I’ll have a cup of your tsakal.”

Alanee cannot resolve the confusion in her mind.  In the kitchen, she stumbles around clumsily as she puts the tsakal together, unable to think.

“That can’t be,”  She protests:  “Celeris was here.”

“Alanee!  The truth?”

“Why would I lie to you?  He must have some way – he must be able to deflect the cameras. The drabs: ask the drabs:  they saw him here.  The food delivery man; ask him.”

“Yes, we did ask him.  You accepted the food at your door:  he saw no-one else.”

“But Celeris was standing right behind me…”

“As for the drabs, there is something odd there, I admit.  They were all personal servants of Sire Hasuga, not normally the grade of worker assigned to cleaning duties.”

“Did you ask them?”

“We can’t.  They’re nowhere to be found.”

“What?”

“They’re Sire Hasuga’s own complement, so he may dispose of them as he wants.  He seems to have – well – disposed of them.  We can’t track them down anywhere in the city.”

In Alanee’s mind there is a truth too awful to contemplate.  She is so preoccupied she fails to notice how Sala’s pallor, as she stands in the doorway facing her, has changed.  She does not see the mediator’s colour drain from her cheeks, or her wide, disbelieving stare.

A soft voice speaks from behind her left shoulder.

“You see me now.” 

For a second time in a day, Sala’s self-assurance fails her, as a young nobleman, dressed in all the formal regalia of the city, materialises from empty air.  At just this moment Alanee realises how she has brought Celeris to her: she, and someone else.  And that someone….

“It is you, isn’t it?”  She says.

Celeris answers:  “You already knew that.”

“A hologram!”  Sala snaps triumphantly.  “A bloody hologram!”

Celeris smiles.  He takes the cup of tsakal Alanee has prepared and brings it to Sala.  He offers it to her shaking hand, and when she seems about to drop it he closes his own hands around hers, steadying her.

“Can a hologram do this?”

Agape, Sala cannot speak.  She cannot look at him.  She sinks back against the jamb of the door, trying to find her legs.

Alanee says, quietly and levelly:  “Sala ba; greet Hasuga in one of his more attractive disguises.  He also does a Music Man, if you’ve ever met one of those?”  And of the beautiful man, she asks, stone-faced:   “How did this happen?” 

“You thought of me.  You are troubled.”

“I make you appear?”

Celeris’s smile is suddenly quite child-like. “You and I, together.  Part of me may be Hasuga, but Celeris is how you prefer to see me, so I am partly you.”

 “You found your way – into my mind?”

“We both knew it would be so.  Lady, I am The City.   No-one is immune, not even you.”

 “And so,”  Alanee voice trembles:  “You can turn my own mind against me?  You can just use me?  You can do that and I will just lie there and…and….you can violate me and nothing can stop you?  You can make flesh that isn’t real?”

“I am real enough.  You could have rejected me.  You did not.”

“This morning, you deviant, I was debating in my head how I might be in love – in love – with you!”  She spits out her words:  “You made me love a fake, you bastard.  From the fake bloody music in my head to the tailored-to-fit body to the marvellous bloody mind – all fake, fake, fake!

She hurls the tsakal cup that she has made for herself.  Celeris catches it calmly.  “You would not accept me in Hasuga’s body.  You are uncomfortable with that.  This body is defined by the image in your mind.  You chose it.  Do you know that for each of my thousands of years I have never once thought how my body must look, until these last two cycles?  Do you know how it feels to experience so many new sensations?”

Sala – where is Sala?  She has retreated.  She sits upon the edge of Alanee’s bed amid the ruck of unmade linen with head in hands.

In her kitchen Alanee is in full spate, somewhere between fury and bitterness, mortification and pure depthless misery:  “Oh!  And I’m meant to sympathise, am I?  I’m meant to understand?  Suppose all I see is the spoilt brat who gets what he wants? Who always gets what he wants?  A spotty adolescent who plies my heart with tricks because he can and because it doesn’t matter to him – I’m just another ‘good game’.”

Out of breath, Alanee has to pause, clutching at herself to squash the emptiness inside.  After all, how can you teach propriety to a child who has been pampered and spoilt for millennia?  Where do you begin?

The dark-eyed figure is of Celeris, but the words are clearly Hasuga’s.  He asks, without artifice:  “I have done wrong?”

Alanee replies in crystals of ice.  “I think that’s been the essence of the conversation so far, don’t you?  Hasuga, you deceived me!  You made me believe I could become close to someone again.”

“As in ‘love’?  That is some special thing?  My Mother often spoke of it.”

“No.  Not that kind of love.  Adult love;  mature love.”  Oh why is she explaining this?  What on earth difference can it make?

“Procreation, then?  That I understand.”  Something in his reply does not balance with the unfeeling expression on his face.  Alanee sees it.  Has she struck a chord at last?

“You know it’s more than that.”

But he shakes his head and turns away.  Perhaps to hide some manifestation of guilt, though Alanee cannot know it, and the moment, as so many of the great moments in her life since she entered The City, passes

Her fury has calmed, leaving a cavernous rancour in its wake.  She is probing through darkness she experienced once, three years ago, and which she had wished never to revisit.  Now it is here, closing around her, such that she cannot avoid the bitter edge in her voice.  “Well, at least Sala’s convinced of your veracity now, and she’ll not keep the information to herself.  How are we going to explain that away to my enemies in The City, Hasuga?”

“I am not Hasuga.”  Celeris insists.  “Hasuga is separate from me.  I am a creation of you and Hasuga together.  Hasuga may speak through me, and you may speak to Hasuga the same way, but we are not the same physical entity.”

“Somehow that seems to make very little difference.”

“Very well.  Sala will not remember me when she leaves here.  The memory remains yours alone.”  Celeris takes Alanee’s hand.  She snatches it away.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Is touching so abhorrent?”  He frowns.  “As you will.  This message, Alanee, does come from Hasuga.  You must bring him the book.  The matter is urgent.  If you do not believe this, see as only you can see.  Look at the sky.”

“The book!  The book!  All that matters, then, is that I bring him this book that he is not supposed to read.  If you can materialise as real people and blank Sala’s memory for her, why for Habbach’s sake do you need me to fetch your bloody book for you?  You can dream up a High Councillor to just walk into the Inner Library and take the thing, can’t you?  Or an army?  Why not an army?  You like war games, it should be simple for you!”

“No, not simple.  You, Alanee; you alone must bring that book to Hasuga.  When you do it, you will understand.”

Alanee says dully:  “There is nothing I understand any more.  Tell him…you…whichever you are, I’ll get the book.  As for Celeris, I’d like him to leave now.  I don’t want to see him again.”

She turns her back on him, unable to look at his innocent expression for another second.  When she turns again, he is gone. Inside her head, though, his image remains:  is it also still inside her heart?

She discovers Sala in her bedroom, seated on her bed.  She feels compassion for the woman who was briefly her friend, although she believes she may never cross the wasteland that separates them again, because Sala is clearly ruined in spirit.  Her incomprehension of what has passed haunts every word she speaks.

“Who – what was that?  Man, machine, what?   Have I just seen Habbach come to earth, Alanee?  Is that what I just saw?  I mean…”  She spreads her hands, lost for speech.

“You met with Hasuga, or a least a part of him.”  Alanee sits beside her, taking her cold hands in her own.  “Sala-ba, when you walk away from here you’ll leave the pain behind, but maybe, I don’t know, you’ll see how things are.  How they must be.  Maybe that, if you can retain it somewhere, will be just enough to persuade you to think better of me.  That’s all I can hope.”

Sala inclines her head, takes her hands away.  The distance is restored.  “My life is simple, Lady Alanee.  There are things I do not want to see.”

Sadness upon sadness, then.  Alanee nods, helps her rise, sees her to the door of the chambers.  There she stands to watch Sala walk away, wondering if Celeris’s promise can possibly come true:  after all she has heard and seen, will Sala remember nothing?

Left alone, she goes to the kitchen, needing the distraction of some functional thing to dissociate from thoughts that are not welcome, places in her mind she feels she may not go.  So she makes tsakal for herself, cleaning up the mess she created when she threw her original drink at Celeris, preparing xuss bread even though she has no appetite, and nibbling at it as if it were a comforter.  She makes her bed with fresh linen, takes the sheets she shared with Celeris into the kitchen.  There, she drinks her drink and she contemplates the soiled linen for a while, as though it might give her answers to those elusive questions loitering outside the gates of her consciousness.  Then she takes a knife and shreds the sheets methodically.

Returning to the forbidding, unfriendly reception room she ponders that silver orb upon its stand before the window.

‘Think of it as a sort of exercise for the psyche.’ Celeris had told her:  when she had commented on its extreme weight, he had said, ‘Not for you’.   But whose words are whose, now?  Are they her own, from some inner ear?  She does not want to go there:  instead, she sits before the ball upon one of those unyielding chairs.  She thinks of the Book of Lore at its station in the Council Room: how, merely for interest while Portis and Ellar were talking, she raised it from the surface of the table with just the power of her thoughts, then lowered it again.

“So now you.”

Without any particular effort of concentration, she makes the orb rise from its stand.  It hangs, suspended, as if waiting for her command.

“Easy.  Too easy.”  

Now she focuses her thoughts upon it.  She makes it spin.  Gaining in confidence, she moves it laterally, away from its resting place, across the room.  This is more difficult, as though some relationship exists between ball and stand that may not be easily severed, but she finds a thought – resentment of the misfortunes of the past hours – that releases it.  Of a sudden it flies, leaping high into the ceiling of the room, darting towards the window.

“Whoa!”  Alarmed, she shoots out a defending hand, making the orb stop instantly.  Another discovery:  the hand is a sensitive, precise tool; by pointing at the orb, she can make it obey.  Alanee guides it back to its stand and as it settles, the wood flexes beneath its weight.  Still she cannot believe what she has done.  She wraps her arms about the orb, tries to lift it physically.  It will not move.

“Was that me or you?”  She pokes the question at empty air, but she knows Hasuga will answer.  He does.

“It was you.”

The voice is so close, so immediate she glances around, convinced that Celeris has returned.  The voice, though, is unmistakeably Hasuga’s.  “You are here?  Where are you?”

“Wherever you want me to be.  We need not share the same room in order to communicate.”

It dawns upon Alanee that Hasuga’s replies do not come to her through her sense of hearing.  She says aloud.  “So now I can move things with my mind?”

“Telekinesis; a cheap party trick.  Nevertheless it took Cassix twenty years to achieve a fraction of your success.  That is just a beginning.”

“Oh, yes.  A beginning?  Where is this going Hasuga?  Am I learning from you, or are you controlling me?  Like the book in the Council Chamber?”

“You are learning.  I told you I had given you power, didn’t I?  Now you are gaining the knowledge you need to use your power.  Meanwhile I am learning from you.  You can have no idea how much I have to learn; or how little time there is to learn it.”

“Why such an obsession with time?”  Alanee, from the Hakaan, has never been disposed to rush.

“Look at the sky, Alanee.”

“I’m looking at it!  I’m just seeing sky.”  The view from the window is of grey cloud.  There are rain-flecks on the glass.

“Look in the mirrors.  Gain their trust.  I must leave you now.”

The feeling is of a switch being thrown inside her head.  Suddenly she is alone and aware of it, left with the room’s cold echoes.  The walls rise about her like the damp rock flanks of a deep chasm, a fissure in the construction of the City.  She might even imagine the scent of moss, or the rhythm of dripping water.

Freedom of choice; if she really has power she has the strength to step aside from the path they, Hasuga, the High council, Sala, even Cassix would have her follow.  She stares at the triptych of mirrors.  With great deliberation, she turns her back.

© 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.