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Satan’s Rock

Part Twelve

Warm Summer Lightning

In the heat of  afternoon, thunder threatened.  Beyond  Francine’s opened windows, the world hung, muted by  expectation.  No birds sang.  She lay upon the bed Arthur’s household had prepared for her, listening to the mutter and cursing of the elements, suffering the clinging heat which, though she wore the briefest of shifts from her limited wardrobe, brought a bloom of perspiration to her cheeks.   Earlier, a doctor summoned from the nearby village of Thorpe Harkness, had declared her injured arm sprained but unbroken, bandaged it and prescribed bed rest.   It was too hot!  Although she lay on top of the covers their fabric clung to her, defying any attempt at sleep.  So when someone’s knuckles rapped  upon her door she was wide awake.

“Come in!”  Expecting her maid, the invitation was issued without thought.  Too late she discovered her visitor was Arthur.  He stood framed by the doorway, hesitant, and unable, for an instant, to avert his eyes from the vision before him.

“Arthur!”  It was a small cry, embarrassed as it was confused, “I thought…I mean, I rang for Peggy…”  With her good hand, Francine probed for a sheet that might restore her modesty only to find she was lying on top of all the bedclothes,   The hand flapped helplessly.  Her face reddened in a furious blush.  “Forgive me!”

“No, no, no!”  Retreating, Arthur struggled to articulate; “The fault is all mine.   I will call upon you later, when you’re…”

He withdrew hastily.

She called after him.  “Please stay!”  She had’nt rung for her maid.  Why had she said it?  What possible excuse could she have for saying it?

Why did he turn?  What possible defence could he offer for this behaviour?  “If you…I mean, do you not..?”  Alone with a lady of respectable reputation, in her bedroom, and she in a state of such undress?

She read his thoughts, laughed at herself.  She laughed aloud, then rebuked herself immediately for laughing so loudly.  “There is such heat in this room,” She said; “Will you stay and sit with me for a while?”

Advancing as  a man guilty of outraging common decency at every step, Arthur drew up a chair beside Francine, whose eyes sparkled with delight, reminding him how bewitching she really was.   “Why do I feel I remember you?”  He breathed. “When I am certain we have not met before this year?”

She raised her injured arm slightly, gesturing towards the ewer on her nightstand.  “I feel ridiculous!  One petty injury so disadvantages me I cannot reach a cloth to bathe my face, Arthur.  Could you…?”

“Of course.”  He stood once more, his back turned to her as he drenched a flannel in cool water from the jug.  The thought of his muscled thighs, clothed though they were to respectability by his breeches, so awakened her that she almost lost herself when he turned to her once more.  Then cold water dripped upon her arms and breasts and she giggled girlishly.

“You saved my life, sir, today.”  She murmured through the cloth, as using her good hand she bathed her face luxuriantly; “And now it feels as though you have saved it again!  Ah, this revives my spirits so wonderfully!”

“It was your son who saved you, ma’am,” Arthur returned, “Young Samuel discovered you were not abed, then led us to your aid.  He is a fine fellow.”

“Then I have another debt of gratitude,” She declared.  “Is my little frog quite well?/”

“Exuberantly so, ma’am.  He has made a confidante of your maid.  Peggy and he conspire together in the servants’ hall.”

“And I am forever in your debt.  Ah, me!  So many obligations!”   Francine drew the wetted cloth from her face, slipping it over her chin and throat to her shoulders, gently stroking her pale skin with its moist relief.  A tiny trickle found its way beneath the hem of her shift before vanishing into the cleft between her breasts,  Arthur was captivated,   “You watch me closely, sir,”  she chided him kindly,  and it was his turn to blush.

With no further comment she reclined for a while, the exposed part of her bosom draped by cold cloth.   When its pleasing effect had dissipated, she asked, in altered tones and with candour, “Why are you so disturbed by the thought that we might have previously been acquainted?  What is it that exists between us?”

He pondered that question deeply:   “I feel – no, I am sure – we have met before.   On each occasion when we speak of this I grow more certain, yet I cannot explain it.  I can tell you the story of my life in some detail and find nowhere that you might fit within it; nevertheless…”  He spread his hands.

Once again the searching intensity of Francine’s stare sought his eyes, and were they windows to his soul she would surely have opened them, for she shared his knowledge.  “Is it not as if there were a locked room somewhere that we shared?”  Her long fingers had absently guided the cloth to the limits of her neckline and begun to seek beneath her shift as if they mimicked the action of his hands, for she desired his touch qjuite shamelessly.

Then the moment was passed, and he had seen and felt the same temptation.  He had risen to his feet. 

“I must go!”  He exclaimed, afraid of himself.   He took her hand in both of his.  “Francine, whatever this is, the answer must be found, and I am certain it hides within your vanished history.  You may be sure I shall discover the answer!”

Don’t! Stay!  Her inner voice wanted to cry out to him, but he had already left, her door closed briskly behind him.  She knew as well as him the constricts of reputation which had demanded that he leave, yet her heart and her body saw no reason to resist their mutual passion, and if his hands and his morals had strayed, she would have made no complaint.  Was she so permissive, so morally dissolute?    Of one thing she felt certain:  this Arthur was the man whom she and Maud Reybath, her ‘sister’ from Bleanstead so urgently sought.  Although its mechanism was beyond her understanding, Francine knew a door was rapidly closing, a door only Maud could find.  A message must be sent to Bleanstead somehow, confidentially and without delay…

The room, far darker now, flared with sudden lightning.  Thunder cracked in a fusillade of fury.  The storm had begun.

#

Peter and Melanie made pilgrimages to The Devil’s Rock together a few times after Peter’s first visit to St. Benedict’s House.   For his part, maybe, Peter wanted to justify the description he had given Melanie of the Great House, to introduce her to Vincent and Alice.   It was important Melanie should be with him if he were ever able to visit there again.  From those late March days to this, though, the house had been locked and silent, its gatehouse closed.

 The seagull, the bird with the diamond mark on its neck, never reappeared.

Melanie came with him for reasons of her own.   She had fallen in love with the place.  The rock, with its dark and light sides like the two hemispheres of the moon, its rugged wildness and big, wide open skies was reflective of her mood right now.  She needed the sunshine of the seaward slopes, warmed to the cosy little homes, full of summer visitors, which nestled there.   And sometimes she needed the damp twilight world of the landward ruins as much.   The old rock was a mystical playground, somewhere to release the child which was still so vital a part of her.  Here she felt welcomed, and at home.

Then there was a deeper, more brooding affinity.   Why, when she so hated thunderstorms, for instance, did she always feel drawn to this place when the weather was at its height?   Why did she so want to stand on the roof of that Great House and actually feel the lightning playing around her?   Frightened for herself, she would make a shuddering withdrawal from these thoughts, but they always came back when the next storm brewed.  Her mother’s bedroom window directly faced the rock across the bay:  she would stand sometimes for an hour there, gazing through driving rain at its craggy outline, her head filled with wild dreams.

Last, though by no means least, there was Peter.   One reason why the rock always seemed so special was Peter: being with him on this island just fitted somehow, as though the last piece of a jigsaw were slotted into place.  In the deepening of their friendship Melanie was finding a meaning – something she  was happy to accept and let grow.   For the moment, let it suffice that there was nowhere she would rather be than here, sunbathing on the grassy slope of the south side, lying beside Peter.   Let the grass be a little wet: the sun had been scarce for a while; it did not matter.   Time would cease to have meaning.

“What things did he ask about me, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was close:  she felt his breath on her cheek.

“Hmmm?”   Melanie opened one eye.   “Are you asleep, Mel?  Well no, not now, Babes.”

His eyes were a bright, disquieting blue.  ‘I wish he would kiss me.’   Her thoughts said.    She raised herself on her elbows quickly:    “Who – what are you talking about?”

“Howard.   You said he was asking about me.  What did he ask?”

Howard’s first question had been ‘Is Peter your boyfriend?’ and very quickly without thinking she had said ‘yes’ but she would not tell Peter that.

“He asked what we liked to do together; what you were like, where you lived….usual stuff.”

“You didn’t tell him anything about …..”

“This place?   Your little nightmare?   No, of course not.”   Melanie giggled.   “I did say you were a bit strange sometimes.”

“Did he react to that?”

“How do you mean, ‘react’?  Did his tummy start to wobble sinisterly, did ectoplasm flow from every orifice – what?”

“Ask more questions….”

“He was, well, a little probing.   But I didn’t give anything away.   Why are you so concerned?”

Peter shook his head.  “I don’t like him.  I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a feeling: don’t tell him about the dream, Mel?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”    Mel started to get to her feet. “And speaking of feelings, its time we moved on, I’m afraid.”

“Do we have to?  It’s really peaceful here.”

“Yes, we do.”  Mel insisted.   She was afraid of herself:  afraid if she stayed in this desultory conversation, dreaming and talking and talking and dreaming, she would allow unsaid words to be said, let secrets out.

“Why?”

“I want to see if the House is still locked up.  If this Vincent of yours isn’t here today, he should be.   No-one should miss a day like this.”   It was an excuse, but it was one she knew would work.  Peter was as anxious as she to find Vincent at home.

“Okay!”   In a sudden burst of energy Peter leapt to his feet:   “First one to the top!”

“Oh, no – not a race!  You are so juvenile sometimes!”   But she watched his retreating back and the strength of his legs as they thrust against the sharp incline, and a little groan escaped her lips.   She followed with a resigned heart.

The pair had long since discovered a path which, although steep, wound its way directly up the southern aspect of the rock.   Leaving the holiday cottages below, this path led through a minor forest of rhododendrons.  The only habitation in sight, occasionally through gaps in the undergrowth above them, was Toby’s cottage.

Peter clambered up the rocky track, oblivious to Melanie’s wanton stare.   Soon he was struggling through the bushes and she was out of sight.   In the midst of the rhododendron maze, suddenly, there was a sense of loneliness:  a harmonizing with the isolation of the island.   He heard, in the hovering air, the sounds of violence and betrayal from its past.  How many lives had perished on these slopes?   How many dreams and aspirations had been broken here?   Village fishermen drowning in shattered boats pulverised against the rocks below: the abbot watching as his monastery was torn stone from stone; Crowley’s ashen visage at a window of the House, knowing (Peter was sure he knew) how his wife’s lover planned and schemed at his coming end.  And more, and more stories, more and more unsettled accounts.   He heard them, these tormented souls, muttering in the rush of breeze among the grasses, lurking in the trees below.   An eruption waiting to happen: a vendetta against this terrible place, ready to be repaid.

“Well now young Peter!”

The voice was right behind him and so surprised Peter that he only just suppressed a yelp of alarm.

“What be you doin’ ‘ere maister?  The house bain’t open today, you know.”

“Toby.”  Peter breathed:  “We…..er….my friend and I, we’re just visiting the island.”

“Friend, eh?  Don’t see no friend.”

“No…she’s…she’ll be along in a minute.”   Peter tried to regain some self-possession:  “How are you, Toby?”

Toby did not, in fact, look very well.   His always puffy, debauched face was an unnatural pink, and his eyes had a furtive look.  He had improved significantly in one regard, however, for which Peter was grateful.  Seeing Melanie labouring up the path behind Toby he was very glad the cottager was fully clothed.

Melanie found herself being introduced to a grubby, rather bulky man in a check shirt and the nearest thing to moleskin trousers she had ever seen outside a costume museum.  She considered that if the wind were to blow in another direction she would be able to smell him.  The prospect was not pleasant.

“Hello Toby.”   She said.

Toby reached forward to grasp her shoulders with his big, spade hands.  Melanie saw how this movement induced another, a quite convulsive dip of his head and neck.   She felt a pain in him – not acute, not suddenly onset, but suppressed; a lifetime-old ache of deformity.   She sensed it, and Toby’s eyes met her’s in a moment of communion.

“Well now, everybody knows my name!”  Toby grinned, displaying a broken picket fence of grey teeth:  “You’m welcome, missy.  We don’t get too many volupshous young ladies up ‘ere.”   The compliment slithered like an eel from a jar.  Melanie felt her skin creep. She took an involuntary step backward.

“Isn’t Vincent here?”   Peter stepped in hurriedly.

“Bless you no. Not been here these two months gone.  Left the day after you was last here, young Peter.”

“And Alice?”

Toby looked puzzled.  “Alice?   Don’t know no Alice.”

“But she was here when I was here.  Volupshous young lady – very tall with black hair.”

“Oh, ‘Er!   Now I know ‘oo you’m meanin’.   But bless you she don’t live ‘ere.   Never saw ‘er before that day you came.   Never seen ‘er since.”

As this conversation proceeded, Peter learned more about Vincent.  The guitarist and songwriter was too wealthy, in Toby’s opinion.  One house was enough for any man, especially one like St. Benedict’s, but Vincent had three.  In the winter he was to be found in Monaco, and sometimes, when business called, in Los Angeles.  In Toby’s opinion after all that a yacht was a terrible extravagance, but Vincent had one of those, too.  Anchored in the – well, Toby had difficulty with the name of the sea, but it had all them islands in it.

 “Caribbean?”  Peter suggested helpfully.

 “Ah, yes. That ‘un.”   Toby nodded sagely, lapsing into a sort of rumbling, guttural sound which sounded much like an elephant’s stomach. Then he added:   “Nothin’ that man ‘asn’t seen, mind.  Nothin!”

Toby seated himself awkwardly on the grass, clearly ready for a leisurely conversation.  He went on at length, then, about the rock star – his ‘rowdy bliddy instrument’ and the shenanigans that went on within the closed gates of the Great House.  Toby’s head was bowed (Melanie had already defined the area of his disability to the vertebrae of his neck, and kept getting sharp reminders of the hurt it caused him) so he had to engage their attention by looking from the top of his eyes, an unintentionally reproachful look, like a mild accusation.   Melanie and Peter sat opposite him, listening dutifully.

As she listened, Melanie began to find a musicality in Toby’s voice which lulled her, so that she forgave him those first leering introductions and began to see him as a part of this island, at one with the birds and the wind-song of the afternoon.   There was a song to the whole place.   Somewhere in her inner ear she could hear it, feel it, wanting to come through.  And although it told of a thousand sorrows it was not an unhappy song, but one of hope.  Try though she might, Melanie could find no malice in St. Benedict’s Rock.   The song was enchanting, maybe bewitching, to her.  It drew her towards it with the gentleness of approaching sleep….

“Old Ben be talkin’ to you, eh, missy?”   Toby’s words floated towards her on a raft of cloud.  They were for her, pertinent to her alone, entering her mind with acuity so precise she thought Peter might not even hear them.  She felt a jabbing pain in her right arm.  Peter was nudging her.

“Wake up, Mel!”

Mel shook herself out of her reverie. ‘Old Ben be talkin’ to you….’   Had she dreamt the words?   Was the rock talking to her?

“Toby, when Peter came here, you said he was ‘expected’ didn’t you?”  She found herself asking.

Toby’s face creased in a frown.  “Aye.  Expected he was, yes.”

“By whom, Toby?   Was it Vincent who invited him?”

“Mr. Vincent, he knew young Peter was coming, yes.”

“But he didn’t invite him.   It wasn’t Vincentwho sent the bird.”  Even as she said it Mel realised how ridiculous the whole premise was.   A globe-trotting millionaire with a trained seagull?

Toby looked at her, then at Peter.   “Well, of course not.  Mr. Vincent was part of it.  ‘E knew as how it was happ’nin’, that’s all.  ‘Aven’t you worked it out yet, then, you young ‘uns?”

“Worked out what?”    Peter felt that he was being incredibly dense.

“Well, Mr. Vincent ain’t ‘ere today, is ‘e?  But you be. You’m expected.”

“But….hang on a minute…”  Peter reasoned.  “You were surprised to see me, weren’t you?   You asked me what I was doing here.”

“True.”  Toby pursed his lips.   “But I didn’t say ‘twas you as was expected now, did I?”

Slowly but surely the truth dawned.  Melanie felt emptied.   “Me?”  She asked:  “I’m expected?”

Toby grinned a set of intermittent teeth again.  “See?  Now you’ve got it!”

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

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Felix Mittermeier on Pixabay

Old Cottage: Werner Weisser, Pixabay.

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Catalogue of Shattered Dreams

When I was young I was designed to become a writer.   Of course in those days we knew nothing about DNA but in the sunshine of my bright ideal I saw myself:

Hunched over a typewriter,

in a dim room with a high window of nicotine-stained glass,

Chain-smoking myself into a coughing stupor,

Careless – utterly careless, of the greater world around me.  

Let the scripts pile up on the desk, on the floor, in the passageways and arbors; I would be oblivious to the chaos.  I would write.  Day, and night, write.

Why didn’t it work out like that?  Why didn’t it?   Well, to begin with, but also with annoying persistence, I could not perfect the art of typewriting.  Canute-like, I could not restrain the Tippex tide, nor the quasi-D’Artagnan-duelling clash of rival keys, the log flumes of paper jams, smudges, crumples, and mechanical accidents.   Who has not cried out in pain as they see their paper-carriage skip the return stop and fly across the room?  Why was the Japanese vase, the recuperating cat, the hapless hamster positioned there – just exactly there?

The day the Word Processor came into my life was like Richard III’s best bit:  ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by these salesmen from Sharp’.  Differences between RIchard  and I are many – I for example, am unlikely to be exhumed from a car park, but I have to take his point:  I was liberated.

Life and Art, eh?

Unfortunately, there were storms in other seas.   Spouses unappreciative of piles of manuscripts in passageways or scattered upon disorderly desks, for whom creative chaos held no romance   The word ‘dust’ has been mentioned pretty frequently throughout my life, closely followed by the more nebulous  “Urgh – what’s that?!”   

Spouses are also prone to materialism.   ‘Putting bread on the table’ has dominated many a meaningful conversation, and rebuffs by taking the phrase literally treated with scorn.   I was compelled to accept that there had to be bacon, or beef, or vegetables lumped in.  As my self-addressed manuscripts to ‘1, The Garret’ cascaded back through my door and a wallpaper of rejection letters accumulated, I grudgingly accepted the need to do ‘work’.  

I had to find something that paid.  Writing was not the crock of gold it promised to be.  It was just a crock.

I won’t deny that I take pleasure in money; I am darkly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t, but to the bug of creativity it is pure insecticide.  Wherever you spray it, the Inspiration Aphids are consumed.   Why, after all, spend hours preparing a piece that will reward me with a pittance when I could be doing something more productive, more creative, more lucrative?  Except the ‘creative’ in this sentence refers only to creating money, and the productive in this sentence has to do with making more money, and the ‘lucrative’ in this sentence refers to the worship of MONEY.  Somehow, money always offers very good reasons to ignore the pleading noises Noble Poverty makes inside my head, where  Elizabeth Barrett argues strongly for distinguished starvation, and we even share a bad back, but no time for starving selflessly when there is always another conference to attend, a buying trip to make, a new range to review.  And when all those mundanities are finally overcome, home life has a catalogue of new ones, as in “When are you going to fix that drain?”

“I’m an artist, for God’s sake, my darling:  I DON’T DO DRAINS!”   

“Yes you do.”

You’re right.  This is the real world, and the real world has drainage.

To souls as torn and tortured as has been my own in my advancing years, retirement shone like a beacon.   In retirement I would find solace.   There would be nothing to fill my day!   I could sit in my corner, I could create magical images upon the page.  I WOULD HAVE NOTHING TO DO BUT WRITE!

Wrong!

It is an unwritten law, but it is ineluctably true:  if in life you were busy, in retirement you will be busier!  Once you make your diary aware the pressure is off it will fill itself with small, inconsequential things.   Your family will aid this process by demands for home improvements, shopping trips, ‘visits’ to nice country houses (the kind where your host will make you pay an entrance fee, then rebuke you for touching their furnishings or walking on their grass) and finally – the big one – Sitting.

In extreme cases Sitting may tie you up for several days:  

“Dad, can you take care of Bruce the Hellhound or Tibby the curtain-ripping cat while we go on a weekend break to Moscow?  Or a week in Bulgaria?  Or a round-the-world trip?”

More normally, it will be no more noxious a duty than care of The Precious for an evening, and no more exhausting than that ritual chase around the sofa you instituted last year and have been regretting ever since, with a bit of story-reading to initiate sleep.

If any diary spaces remain, there is always the National Health Service, and I’d like to conclude this blog with a personal message to them.

Dear NHS,

Yes, my body mass index figure is almost as far adrift as most of your overworked nursing staff,   You understand, as do I, that my body will inevitably deteriorate with the years, and I should be thrilled that you want to catalogue my demise and itemise each failing function so avidly…

But I’m not.    Okay?

Your obsession with type 2 diabetes drags me out to repeated Doctors’ Surgery and hospital visits to have my eye pupils stretched with painful chemicals, my blood sampled and my (forgive the word) piss taken with unnerving regularity.

Why unnerving?  Well, because the cleanliness of your premises is self-admittedly not always of the best, so each time I subject myself to them, with the health conditions you are so insistent I have, not to mention those that I ACTUALLY have and haven’t told you about, I run the very real risk that the infection I catch could be fatal.   Capiche?

Thank you, good readers, for tolerating my excess of bile this week: perhaps it’s because, to find a space to write this piece, I had to cancel an NHS appointment to ‘test my feet’.  Don’t worry girls, I have two; I tested them myself this morning by going for a walk.

A more normal posting, the latest episode of ‘Devil’s Rock’, follows shortly.

Image Credits for today:

Featured Image: Keyboard, by Alisonmiller1969 on Pixabay

Typerwriter Image: Devonath on Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Eleven

The Crooked Prince

“I will dispense with introductions.” Against the brick echoes in the vaults of his father’s palace, Prince Shumal’s voice was high, sing-song, almost a falsetto.   Yet it was utterly devoid of any humility – a voice that could command.  “Those of us who know each other already know too much.     Those who can should remain strangers.”

There were murmurs of assent from around the circle.   All meetings of the Brotherhood began in this way.

“I will tell you;” Shumal went on; “that this place was swept for devices this morning.   We are free to discuss.   Now, our brother,”  He waved a vague hand towards the man in traditional Khubali dress,  “will explain a problem which has arisen.  A very serious problem…if you please, brother?”

“Highness.”  The man was an Arab.   His face wascreased by the scars of action, the badges of a soldier.   He spoke in measured words:  “As you know, a recent action initiated by one of us here did not go well.   A target survived.”

Yahedi met the man’s stare, which had singled him out as he spoke.

“You refer to the London target?”

The Arab inclined his head.

“The security cordon was warned.”   Yahedi stated.  “Such was my report.”

“But a target was missed, right?”   The American intervened.

Yahedi responded quietly:  “If you are suggesting the miss was any fault of mine, brother, you should take great care.”

“No-one here is accusing you,”   The Prince cut in hurriedly.   “Your efficiency is not in question.”

“The target was, indeed, warned.”   The Arab continued.  “The warning was given by one of us.”

“Really?”    Yahedi was surprised for the second time that morning.  “Why, can I ask?”

“I had to.”  This time it was the woman who spoke.  “The alert came through the embassy – a logged call.   If I had not passed the call on, my cover would have been blown.”

“And we have worked for many years to put our sister here in place,”   The Prince said:  “She has a grade two clearance with British Intelligence.   She was very clever, in fact.   Were you not, sister?”

“I gave the warning through the American Embassy staff line.  US embassy staff have a low opinion of British Intelligence, so they gave it little credence.    They allowed your target to present himself for you.   That insured you would still have a clear shot.  You just didn’t hit him.”

Salaiman Yahedi never flared, never lost his temper.   Whenever he felt himself at a disadvantage he would evince great calm.  But there were ice crystals in  his eyes that only the innocent or the stupid might ignore:  “The man simply ducked.”   He said with exaggerated gentleness.   “He was warned.”    His gaze was focussed on the woman, who flushed and looked away.

“He did not ‘duck’.”   the Arab said.

“He did move evasively;” The woman rejoined as levelly as she could, “But not because he knew a bullet was coming.”

The Prince took up the thread.  “You did not see, brother, because your gun-sight was focussed on the target, not upon what went on around him..  He bent to retrieve a piece of paper which fell in front of his face.”   Shumal’s voice rose to its most exasperated pitch.“A piece of paper from the sky, for love of Allah, blessed be his holy name!” 

True, Yahedi reflected, his gunsight had been trained closely upon the target’s head.  He had not seen any piece of paper.   Of the faces around him, Bourta, clearly, had known of this: the Indian, the American, they had not.   He had already pigeon-holed those two as the paymasters: presumably very generous ones, otherwise why would they be allowed to meet with such as Bourta and himself?   The Arab?  Salaiman was fairly sure he was not there because of his money.   The woman…he let his stare rest upon her once more.   She was ill at ease.   Why?   What anxiety caused those long, spidery fingers to be continually working?   He knew why he had been sitting in Hyde Park at that early hour of that particular morning, but why had she been there?

Bourta voiced the question in everyone’s mind,  “How could that happen – at the exact moment of the shot?    Did it drop from a tree, or something?”

“And to place it so exactly!”  the Indian chimed in.  “To drop paper on a precise spot?   Not possible, I think.”

“You know what I think?”   Asked the smiling American:   “Bullshit!   That’s what I think, Sheik.   Of all the half-assed crazy stories I ever did hear that has to be the craziest.”

“It happened.”  Said the woman.  “The paper does exist.  I understand it is A4, printed with a picture of a young white male, apparently enhanced in some way.  MI6 have it in their possession.  And no, there are no trees in that precise area.”

“We think.”  The Arab said, “It was dropped by a bird.”

“That is a very large piece of paper” Said the Indian eventually:  “For a bird.”

“Can we get to this paper?”    Yahedi asked.

The woman shrugged:   “I am trying, but my level of clearance does not go that far.  I only have the surveillance footage.”

“I got my own theory.”   The American’s voice had a steely edge.  “My theory is that I paid a cool half-million for a hit that didn’t hit.   And the agreement your target tied up with the British that very morning cost me another one hundred and fifty million, because they’ve accepted the JAN-net ground defence system not the Hetton-Patton version, and my Company’s fenced out for maybe the next fifty years!”

“We all have our reasons for wanting this target neutralised.”   Shumal said gently.  “It will be taken care of.”

“Why, thank you, your Highness!   But that’s no god-damned use to me now!”

“Peace, brother, peace! “  The Prince commanded:  “Did you think that our cause was to be so used, that you could treat us like contract killers?  You test our hospitality!”

There was silence, as each member of the group tried to assimilate what they had heard.  The American’s youthfully-tweaked countenance was becoming very red indeed, but he said nothing.  

At length Prince Shumal spoke:   “Let us examine this from an added perspective.  We need to take heed of a new and dangerous adversary.   Brother,”   He gestured to the Arab;  “ I think you have something to tell us.”

“YourHighness.”  The Arab addressed the whole group.  “We must accept that someone, or something, had forewarning of this execution.  Your informer was anonymous, yes?”   He glanced at the woman, who immediately (a little too quickly, thought Yahedi) nodded assent;   “And specific as to where and when the hit was to take place.   So, an insider, a mole?    But it was a further incident –apparently quite miraculous – which saved the target’s life.”

The Arab leaned forward, earnestly seeking to engage his audience:   “We are all professionals.  We move in a century of great human progress founded upon skill and scientific accomplishment.    That is why it will be hard to accept, for us, that this miracle was the work of a sorcerer.”

“A what?”   Said the American.    “What, like a wizard or something?   Oh, come on!”

The Arab spread his hands:  “Nevertheless….in our brotherhood, greater wisdom has taught us acceptance of these things.”

“It is the only explanation,”   Shumal cut in:  “Unless you truly believe in coincidence.   I am certain there were no leaks in this particular barrel.  It was a very important barrel.   And if it didn’t leak, and if he really was saved by a picture floating from the sky, then I take sorcery.   I do not believe in such coincidences.”

“Prince, you can’t believe this.”   The American was astounded.  “I cannot believe you believe this!”

“The pieces fit.”  The Arab said.   “In our history there are plenty of instances where one with the gift of sight used a bird as a familiar.   A bird would understand the action of an object floating in the air.   There can be no other explanation.”

“I’m damned sure I can think of one!”  The American muttered.

“Then I invite it.”

Prince Shumal got to his feet.   “We cannot change what has been.   But whether we believe the agent at work here to have acted at the behest of Allah or the Devil, we must find out who, or what it is, lest it should interfere with other projects.  Our brother here…..”   He indicated Bourta, “Will introduce himself to you, sister, and you will strive together to learn more: I want to see that piece of paper, and I want to know who telephoned the original warning.   Our brother has special skills:  he will be of great value to you in this.”

Again, Yahedi found his attention occupied by the woman.    There was a certain cast to her eye – only momentary, but unmistakable – an unguarded second which spoke of duplicity, perhaps even of betrayal.   And now he was convinced.   He glanced across at Bourta, knowing the Moroccan would have seen it too.  There was eye contact, a mutual understanding: the woman must not be trusted.

“This execution is deferred for a while.”   The Prince continued:   “We have generated too much interest in the target; but we shall return to him, at a later date.   In the meantime, brother….”   He smiled crookedly at the Indian:  “We have your affairs to sort out.  Never fear, no pieces of fluttery paper on this one!”

“That’s it?”  The American asked, coldly.   “We just let it go at that?”

“We will do all we can, my friend,”   The Arab said.   “We cannot change the past.”

“All this fatalism is very commendable,” The American’s voice was granite-edged:  “But you guys are in the business of changing things.   Now I have lost a contract because of your inefficiency, and I have put a cool two million into your god-damned ‘Revolutionary Fund’ and I want something changed.   OK, not the past – let’s discuss how we get to the guy who has my contract – but I want some guarantee here today:  I want something back.”

“Of course, of  course!”   The Prince was placatory:  “We understand this.   These are matters best discussed in confidence, between you and I.   We shall set up a meeting together, I will look to it.”   He spread his hands in a dispersive gesture:  the meeting was concluded.

There was a procedure to follow now:  discretion required that only a few might exit by the tunnel at one time – too many emerging onto the street outside the palace walls would invite suspicion.  So the Prince would detain those with whom he had further business, releasing others whose business was already done.  A brief word sufficed for the American, a promise to set up a meeting, then he was allowed to leave.   Bourta singled out the woman to pursue the mission given to them both by the Prince.  A great deal of verbal communication passed between her and Bourta: but the whole content of their discussion did not amount to a fraction of the meaning which Yahedi and Bourta exchanged between them with one momentary glance.   Had she seen it, the woman would have felt much less secure.   Bourta and the woman departed, more or less together.

 Yahedi wondered about the Indian, just as he wondered about the Arab.  Both were strangers to him, and though as far apart in character as two individuals might possibly be, each had another mystery about them which was unexplained.  It was the Indian who was next to depart, leaving Yahedi and the Arab to remain with the Prince.

 “Do you like the look of our brother?”   Shumal murmured, gesturing towards the Arab, who stood apart.  “I am convinced he is of great value to us. Takes one to know one, eh, Yahedi?   An exemplary man at arms, hmmm?    And a creature of such intelligence!   His organisation – this ‘Portal’ of which I am sure you have heard – is at one with God and our cause.   Walk with me.”  Prince Shumal took Yahedi’s arm, guiding him towards a far corner of the room.  “You see, killers, my friend, are twice a penny:  is that the expression?   They fall over themselves to work for us.   One is lost to us, another is there to take over… this is the way of things.”

“Children ready to die for a cause, Highness, are not killers.   They are food for killers.”   Yahedi responded.   “And many who are not children; though they pretend to much, do not have the necessary ice in their heart.”

The Prince patted his hand.   “I have faith in you, Brother.   I know your stamp.   There are those who feel that you are vulnerable, some say even that you are corrupted: they mislike your Jewish ancestry, mistrust your western affinities.    I say to them, no, we do not need to fear this.  Yahedi is our friend.    It is not true that he defers to the highest bidder, that his only god is the dollar.   I say this, Yahedi, my friend, because I trust you.  I believe you do work for us.   I believe that, but I and our brothers know our Arabian friend is loyal…”

“If you wanted him,” Yahedi cut in: “I would not be here today.   You would have sent him after me long before now.”

“How do you know the hunt does not start here?”   The Prince chuckled.  “Perhaps I shall give him your contract this very morning?   What do you think, Yahedi my friend: could he collect?”

Yahedi shook his head, recognising that however menacing the Prince’s words might sound, he was asking for an honest opinion.  “No. He is a man of arms, but he is not of our breed.  Send him after me and I will send you his head by return of post.   I do not doubt he is a good soldier, a devoted servant of Allah.   But it is a thing apart to assassinate a woman, or to take out someone who has no gun, whose back is turned, who is standing hand in hand with his children.”

“So be it.”  The Prince nodded. “The truth, brother, speaks of a time long delayed which cannot be delayed much further.  An hour when you will both be needed.  In the meantime, we must clean up this situation.”   He handed Yahedi a small briefcase. “Go now, brother.  Take this with you.  Allah keep you until we next meet .”

Back at his hotel, Salaiman Yahedi opened the briefcase the Prince had pushed into his hand.  It contained fifty thousand Dollars in neatly wrapped large bills, and a photograph of the American.

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

Image Credit: Abuli Munaravi on Unsplash

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Hansel and Gretel

 “Bettina has farrowed.”  The letter said in my Uncle Owen’s stilted terminology.  “Ten perfect little piglings, four boys and six girls.”   I was shown the picture.  A cluster of grinning faces sniggered back at me.

“Ten!”  I was impressed.  Lots of things impress you when you are six.

“Poor Bettina!”   My mother sympathized. “Perhaps Emil will take you to see them when we visit next month.”

Emil and Mitzi, his wife, were the bailiffs at Uncle Owen’s farm in the New Forest.  The German couple were nice people, and the congenial Emil, particularly, always had time for me.  

Owen’s ‘farm’ had few agricultural references, which set it as much apart from the farms surrounding my home in the West Country as a monastery from a hermit’s cell.  Yes, there was a herd of cattle, and there were tumultuous chickens, irascible geese and implacable ducks.  And there were pigs, of course.   But all these were a backcloth:  the star performer was the farmhouse.   The farmhouse was Uncle Owen’s showcase.  

Uncle Owen was ‘Something in the City’ (the City of London, that is).   He had bought the farm for weekend entertainments to enhance his business, so the house reflected this.  A long, thatched building with exposed timbers, it gazed serenely out over an acre of manicured lawn towards two sagacious chestnut trees. To the east a driveway lined by firs and rhododendrons, to the west a tennis court – my uncle’s preferred sport was tennis, at which, despite his large frame, he was a formidable exponent.

On hot days we would lunch beneath the panoply of the chestnuts, on wet days in the brown heat of the farm kitchen.  I would eat frugally and say nothing.  And on this particular afternoon Emil took me to see Bettina’s litter.

“You see they are not little piglets anymore.”  He said, lifting me so I sat on the wall of their yard.  They weren’t.

Twenty little eyes looked up at me, assessing me instantly.  Ten healthy mouths muttered conspiratorially. 

“We are weaning them.  Really they are already weaned, I think, but for a few days more they stay with Bettina.”  Emil informed me.  “We have to get them back to her now.  Would you like to help me do this?”

I needed no second bidding.  Inside the yard, with its gate closed behind us, I watched as Emil opened a loose box to reveal the recumbent Bettina, still massive with milk, resting within.  She did not bother to rise.  Ten healthy pig-children regarded me with renewed interest. 

“We go each side, I think.”  Emil advised.

The pig-children would not give up their freedom easily.  I remember my enjoyment of the chase, and I am sure the pigs were having just as much fun.   Furthermore, they taught me respect.  They showed me their skill in evasion, their fleetness of foot, their wicked sense of humor.  As Emil and I cornered one group they split into two, then into pairs.  They teamed up, then divided again.  They twisted, they turned.  They made dummy runs to wrong-foot us, and one even became cheeky enough to push my legs from under me so I fell flat on my back.  After a few seconds of uninterrupted view of an azure blue sky, the face of a triumphant piglet appeared, grinning down at me.   Several minutes of pure entertainment later, during which Emil and I were comprehensively out-maneuvered, Bettina’s delinquent children finally consented to be herded to her bosoms.  It was their decision, not ours.

I needed washing.  So did my clothes.  How somehow I avoided censure I can’t recall, but probably it was because Emil came to my defense.  Anyway, upon learning of my adventure my mother laughed for at least five minutes, and that evening when I wafted in to dinner everyone very pointedly sniffed.    In that and other ways I think the memories of my chase stayed with me for a week, not least because next day I was made to ride home in our car beside an open window.  It was a cold journey.

Family crises arose even more frequently than usual that year, so we were back at the farm no more than a month later, recuperating from the debt collector wolf-pack which frequently set up camp outside our home.

I asked to see the pigs.  Emil and Mitzi exchanged glances.  Eventually, Emil gestured to me.  “Come.”  He said.

The yard, scene of our epic chase, was deserted.  A farm was a business Emil explained: selling young pigs was one of the ways it made money, and I think I understood his euphemistic use of the word ‘selling’ sufficiently and was as yet young enough to need to choke back my regret.

“But these two we keep!”  Emil said grandly.

The little building, with its open space at the front surrounded by a low wall, was designed for pigs and, to my joy, two young pigs occupied it.  Two young pigs who seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, full of squeaky eagerness as they shoulder-barged each other to the wall to greet us.  A boy and girl both well on their way to adolescence now, I swear they remembered me, just as I swear the boar was the very same one who looked down upon me from the sky on the day of our epic game.

Emil and I leaned upon the wall, communing with them for a while.  Then he said:  “You know we have no names for them.  You can name them if you like.”

I must have spent most of that day there, just talking to those pigs; and they, in their turn, talked of their view of the world, one strangely reminiscent of my own:  they expressed sadness and understanding for the loss of their brothers and sisters, and lamented that Bettina, now returned to the field with the other pigs, seemed to have no time for them.  They accepted my gifts of apples with magnanimity.  I became their friend.

You do not – and this is important to all those of you who do not know – make a pet of a pig.  You befriend him.  If he doesn’t like you he can be quite fearsome, and he is never yours to do with as you will.  He has a mind of his own, and he meets you on your own intellectual level.  He will happily discuss matters of import with you but he will have opinions of his own, and though he may be far too courteous to freely express them, you will know by the little give-aways in his attitude when he disagrees with yours. 

“Did you think of their names?”  Emil asked me as we prepared to leave.

“Hansel and Gretel” I said, remembering my bedtime story of the two lost children.  “We’ll call them Hansel and Gretel.”

At home I kept their picture on my wall.  Each night in the instructed ritual of prayer I mentioned the two pigs.  I talked to them from the threshold of sleep, vividly dreamt of them, drew them in my exercise book.  

It was Christmas before I would return to the farm – a family Christmas with a small host of guests, most of whom I have forgotten now, and several of whom I never really knew.  Through the beery greetings and the waves of conversation I sought the only two friends who were special to me.

The little pig-pen was empty.

Panic-stricken, I plunged into the forest of humanity in search of Emil.  I found him with Mitzi in the kitchen, operating the machinery of food.  As I tried to enter he barred my way.  “For little boys it is dangerous in here.”

“Where are they?” I demanded, tearful by this time.  “What’s happened to Hansel and Gretel?”

I could not miss the solemnity in his tone.  “Ah, little man!”  Emil said. “They grow too big to be together in the pen now, you see?  Your Gretel, she is with the other pigs but you may not recognize her.  Pigs, they grow up fast, you know?”  He smiled indulgently.  

I swallowed hard.  “And Hansel?”

“Hmmm?”  

“Hansel.  Where’s Hansel?” 

Emil sighed, and a wisp of cloud dimmed the bright blue of his eyes.   “Hansel is gone.”  He said.

Gone?  The big kitchen table was prepared for dinner, a bright red and white gingham cloth laid crisply across its knurled wood top.  The brasses which lined the kitchen walls flickered in red sympathy with the fire burning in the open hearth, a fire before which a spit was slowly turning.   Busy elsewhere, Mitzi spoke sharply to Emil in German.  With a pat on my shoulder the big man stood aside so I could see – so I could watch, as with a cup of its collected juices he basted the creature that was turning on the spit.  And I knew.  Although I was just a child I saw and felt through all my heightened senses the tragedy of men’s greed, in the rich smell of meat in that big room and the expressions the bailiff and his wife could not conceal, I knew.

So I saw Hansel just one more time.   I saw him in the humiliation of death, those philosopher’s eyes sightless, disported on a bright red and white gingham cloth before a raucous, baying audience of salivating revelers who laughed at my distress, rebuking me when I ran from the sight.

There would be other visits to the farm, visits which, as a child, I was forced to make, but they were not made willingly.  I never got over a feeling of revulsion whenever I entered the farm kitchen, or the spark of disgust which grew in me with the years for Uncle Owen‘s over-indulgent friends.  The memory of a brief acquaintance is evergreen, and though they are long departed, I keep Hansel and Gretel alive in my heart.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Ten

Al Khubar

Peter’s first encountered Howard, the man who seemed to be stepping into Melanie’s father’s role when he called to collect her, at the outset of a Saturday afternoon they planned to spend together.   ‘Brickwood’, Melanie’s home, stood on a hill above Levenport’s ‘Old Town’.  It was a large house of brick and hung tile walls beneath a vast, high-pitched roof which, should it ever emulsify and fail, would be entirely beyond her mother’s means to replace.

Marco, who was Melanie’s father and Karen’s first husband, had bought it.   If it had not been Karen’s own choice, she forbore to say so; instead suffering the woodworm, creaking stairs, multi-paned windows and huge polished doors in the name of married love.   Since Marco’s departure in his Porsche she had become less constrained, often openly cursing the large, cold rooms with their perpetual resources of spiders and dust.

A tall, fair-headed man answered the door.

“Hello.  You must be Peter.”   The figure who filled the doorway, at least six-two or three in height and of what could best be described as a solid build, was dressed in a blue sloppy sweater and brown chino’s which did nothing to flatter his waistline or each other.  There was no evidence that he cared one jot about this.   In fact, his whole demeanour seemed to suggest that he was careless about most things.   “Come in, son.”

What was it that made Peter so resentful of total strangers who called him ‘son’?   He sought what he always did in a meeting with anyone new: a straight eye and an honest expression:  he found neither here.

“Hi!”   He said, shyly. “Are you Howard?”

“You got me gov’nor!”  Howard raised his hands in a mock surrender.  Peter winced.

 “I am the same.” 

“I’m pleased to meet you.   Melanie and I were going across to St. Ben’s: is she ready?”   Peter asked, as politely as he could muster.

“Oh sure, sure.  No hurry though.  Come on in and wait, Peter.  Do you want a drink, or something?  Coke, eh?”

Peter slid uneasily into Karen’s kitchen, declining the offer of a drink.

“Well, I’ll have a coke, anyway, I think.   Sit down, son.  Tell me about yourself.   What do you like to do?  Fishing?   Music?  What hobbies have you got, Peter?”

“Er….computers, and …. reading I suppose….”  Peter answered, with the uncomfortable feeling he was twelve years old again.   Howard poured himself a glass from the refrigerator and, tasting it, clearly did not much like what he drank.  But he brought it to a chair opposite Peter and dragged himself into the seat with a tortured scroop of wood on tile.   Sitting across a table from this full-on and truly quite massive figure, Peter was at a complete loss.

“Really?  Computers, eh?  Just games and stuff, I expect?”

“Well, some games.  But I’m more into programming…..”

“Are you good?”   There was a palpable wall of antipathy building itself across the table:  Peter felt it and he was pretty sure that Howard did too.   Yet it seemed that in some strange way he, Peter, was the one in control.   When he ventured to look into the large man’s eyes he was sure he saw anxiety there – an almost spaniel-like desire to please.

Melanie’s feet were to be heard clattering on the stairs.   She was nearly knocked backwards by the wave of relief that hit her as she entered the kitchen.

“Hi Mel!”   Cried Peter,   “Are you ready?”

Rising to his feet and more than ready to leave, he felt his shoulder gripped by a detaining hand.  This action was so firm as to make Peter think for a fleeting moment that he might be under arrest, or something.

“I’m quite good with computers;” Howard said.  “Maybe we can get together sometime, Peter, Hmm?  I might be able to help.”

Managing a few non-committal words of gratitude, Peter struggled free , taking Melanie’s hand (something he very rarely did) as he steered her towards the door.   Not until he was in the clear, outdoor air beyond it did he regain his composure, recovering his breath as he led the way, almost running, into the street.

“Hey, slow down!”  Mel protested: “What on earth did he do to you in there?”

“Wow, Mel!”

“Well, I told you he was sort of odd.”

“Yeah, but ….look, sorry Mel, but he’s surreal.    I don’t remember seeing him before – is he new in town?”

“He just moved here.   From the Midlands, he said.”

“What’s his work – what does he do?”

“He’s an engineer, or something.   He works for Catesby’s.”

Catesby’s:  a big local factory building bridges.   Peter tried to picture Howard building bridges.  “Weird.”   Was all he could say.

Melanie wasn’t sure why she felt so upset.   Was this not so, so similar to her own first reaction to Howard?   Had he just tried to break ice with Peter the way he had with her? 

“I’m sorry you don’t like him.”   Wait a minute!  Was she defending him now?  “He’s asked such a lot about you.  I think he was looking forward to meeting you.”

This, for reasons which rushed in upon him like a flood tide, was not good news to Peter.   There was something wrong with Howard; the whole thing,   the set-up.

“Did he ask you to wait back a few minutes so he could talk to me?”  he asked.

“Well, not in so many words, but – yes, I guess he did.   Oh Peter, was it that bad?”

Nothing he could tell her would adequately express what he felt inside.   He didn’t know why, but he knew instinctively: Howard and he were enemies.

#

Al Khubar came alive in early morning, a teeming anthill of activity rushing to beat the sun.   Yahedi left his hotel at seven, before morning prayers when the temperature was still in the low thirties, accepting the hot wall of air which greeted him as he left the controlled climate of the New City like a blessing from Allah.   He loved the heat, but he would not endure it in a suit, as westerners did.   The street market was already wide awake, bustling with life.   The stall he sought was there as usual; its proprietor sitting exactly where he expected him to be.

“You do not change, old man.  You are the ageless one.”

“Ah, but my heart and my head still work!”   The old man cackled through black teeth:  “My cloth is still the best cloth – I have saved it for you, honoured friend.”

Yahedi smiled in gratitude, knowing that the stallholder had no memory of him and would forget him completely as soon as he had gone.   He bought traditional Arab clothes, the robe of white, the thobe, a red chequered cloth headdress or ghutra, and a tagia to keep the ghutra in place.  He haggled enthusiastically, shook the old man’s hand in the traders’ way, the quick slap of palms between two who have struck a bargain.   Then he returned to the Hyatt to change and to eat.  There was an hour for rest and reflection before he must once again venture into the Old City, and his business there would be important – important enough to have drawn him half-way across the world.

When Salaiman again emerged from the New City, the sun was a laser of fierce heat which boiled the north wind into a skin-stripping blast.   His new headdress flapped and rattled against his cheeks, the white thobe he had bought wrapped around his legs.   They were flimsy enough, these defences, but they were the best that could be had and he was graceless enough to sneer inwardly at the fat, sweating westerners who passed him with their brash unmelodic voices, seemingly always raised in complaint.  These unfortunate souls, who lived solely for the purpose of circulating money, had some driving ambition to make the entire world look exactly the same. In their ideal universe the Old City district of Al Khubar would soon have a MacDonald’s at every corner, a Wal-Mart in its fountained gardens.   Their concept of a different culture was no more than an extension of their own.  They would be satisfied only when this beautiful city’s heritage was reduced to a couple of lifeless ancient shrines which they could photograph beneath air-conditioned domes before returning to steak and fries  in their western hotels.   All the rest, the colours and sounds and shapes and emotions and the religious vitality of the place, would be grist to the corporate mill, ground down to serve the rapacious appetites of the ‘suits’.   Allah forefend!  Were there not already two MacDonald’s in the New City?  Did not five of those elegantly sculpted skyscraper hotels rest in western hands?  

            Yahedi directed his sandaled feet away from the business district, into the maze of narrow alleys which networked the old town.  Here was anonymity.    Among these white stuccoed chasms he was just another citizen.  He walked with purpose for he knew his route well; yet every now and then he would stop, listening for the echoes of  pursuing feet.  At any unusual sound or movement he would double back, deliberately losing himself in the labyrinth for a while.  He did this three times, not in the certainty of being followed, merely because he thought it might be so.

Yahedi took an hour to reach his destination.  A squat, blanched concrete taxi office stood upon the west side of a street which backed onto the Palace walls.   Beyond a faded green panelled door he was greeted by a familiar spiced-meat smell and the customary zing of flies.   The sole occupant of the office, a tubby male of middle years, had his teeth buried in a sandwich of  prodigious proportions.

“No taxi!”   This apparition grunted, showering his desk with crumbs in the process.  “Come back two o’clock.”

“I would like to go with my child to Kafjiha tonight.”   Yahedi stated.

The fat man made a gurgling noise, possibly indigestion:  “Will it be a return fare?”

“Just for me.   My child remains in Kafjiha with my father.”

The sandwich waved at the door.  “Across the street – the third door to the left of the alley.  Do not knock.  They will open if they know you.”

Yahedi, leaving, heard a click as the fat man picked up the ‘phone.

It was a plain wooden door in a plain mud and plaster wall.  Bourta, Yahedi’s friend, opened it as he approached.   “I said I would greet you personally!”  He grinned.   “Did you have any trouble?”

“No, the town is already asleep.   Am I the last, then?”

“By no means!   Come, let us make ourselves known to the Prince.”

The door gave entrance to a narrow passage that was nearly filled by Bourta’s broad form as he led Salaiman along its length.  They passed a small arbour with a seat fitted into the left-hand wall wherein sat a pale-skinned woman of uncertain years, dressed in fatigues.  She was perched uneasily upon the hard wood of the bench, an AK-47 resting across her knees.   In the poor light Yahedi could not read her face or see her eyes, or notice how they followed him with the  half-interested appraisal a tiger might give a passing rat.

At first, the passage was lit dimly by a glass roof high over their heads, where a bird, once brightly coloured, its wings now tawdry from panic and futility fluttered, unable to escape.   But then, at a sharp turn to the right, the way plunged abruptly into darkness. 

Wooden steps led precariously downward.  This was no longer a passage but a hole, rough-hewn into a great mass of brick and rock.   A burrow made by man-rabbits; a warren beneath the very walls of the Royal Palace itself.   Yahedi, twenty-first century assassin, knew this tunnel well.   Thirty steps to descend, then it became a passage once more, though the light did not return.   Each time he groped his path through this one, with companions or alone, Yahedi mused at the naiveté of those whose great wealth and power persuaded them that such measures were necessary or even desirable:  a secret passage, in Allah’s Holy Name!   Was this some kind of game to these people?     Did the Prince imagine that his family, or the rest of the world for that matter, was unaware of his associations and meetings?   He, Yahedi, moved freely in the world knowing that his every step, his every word and gesture, was likely to be watched.   He devoted the better part of his waking life to evasion, spent much of his considerable fortune upon disguise:  but never once did he persuade himself he could gain more than a few precious days, or hours, advantage over those who would capture him.   All of his twenty passports bore names which were known; today he had another, number twenty-one; by tomorrow, if not already, this name, too, would be attributed to him.    Surveillance?   That was a part of the net which would follow him forever, just a few steps behind.  Then there were the spies, the infiltrators, the professional moles, the turncoats, the traitors…the list was endless.

Oh, yes, this passage would have been a secret once:  for a few days, even weeks perhaps, the Crown Prince Shumal might have held clandestine meetings in his rooms with those who had trodden this path.   Then an aide would have become suspicious, or one of those who had cut the tunnel would have succumbed to ambition or torture, or maybe both.   From then on the secret way would have been permitted to exist, not because it was a secret, but precisely because it was not.  Because it was useful to know that those whom the Prince wished to meet in secret would pass this way, and those were the people a Prince’s enemies might wish to investigate.  Thus, Yahedi passed through with his head bowed, unspeaking:  wherever the camera was, he did not want to show his face to it. 

            As the tunnel began to re-ascend, a winding, upward stairway which led into the Prince’s private apartments, he had time to consider: the London affair had ended unsatisfactorily, but in the normal course of events that would not be sufficient to warrant a personal audience.  A sealed envelope, a further instruction, was the usual procedure.  So why this rare summons from the Prince?  Bourta had spoken of greater things.  Had the balance within the ruling family changed?   Everyone knew of the struggle for power which had followed the illness of the old King, of the ascendancy of his son El Saada – Saadi, as he was known:  an extravagant, spoiled wastrel never likely to secure the succession; a vassal in whose hands the oil state of Khubar’s place in world politics might just remain safe, but only for a generation: for Saadi was a known homosexual, a crime in itself in Al Kubhar, as well as the predestined end of a royal line. Was this the reason?  Was Shumal, the Crooked Prince, ready to assume his heritage at last?   Did he have work for a killer like Salaiman Yahedi?

Bourta turned the stone handle which rolled a marble relief to one side, admitting them both to the Royal Apartments.   The Crooked Prince himself was waiting for them.

“Blessings of Allah upon you, and upon you, my friends.   Come, take some tea with us.”

Prince Shumal was the uneasy head the crown of Khubar would rest upon, should the Crown Prince El Saada not survive.   The second of only three sons born to the old King, his public image, like that of the heir to the throne, was well-washed and gauzed:  his photographs, hung discreetly below those of his elder sibling, showed a clean-shaven accountant-like visage, gazing benignly at the world through horn-rimmed spectacles.   Unfortunately, this laundered version of his appearance meant he could rarely appear to his subjects in the flesh.   When he did show himself, it was always whilst riding behind the shaded windows of a limousine, shrouded in traditional royal dress.  In such disguise, no-one could see he was sitting upon a box.

“The Prince,”  a British Royal had once said valiantly after meeting him;   “Is a person of great character and unique charm.”   Adding confidentially to his Aide-de-Camp;   “Whom I hope I shall never have to meet again.”    He didn’t.

Prince Shumal’s stature (he was no more than four feet six in height) was never referred to; nor was his rampant habit of nose-picking, or his lascivious manner with the palace servants, especially the female ones.    He was a Royal personage, after all.   And in so many ways Shumal was a much better proposition than Ashedi, the youngest son of the old King, who was widely acknowledged to be an idiot.  Prince Shumal, for all his negative qualities, had a mind like a knife, and all the presence and confidence which rank and money could bring.   He was also a subversive, and a champion of the poor: as unlikely an angel as you could wish to meet, Yahedi thought:  what if heaven is made up of all such as him?

Yahedi accepted the Prince’s offer of tea (it would have been unforgivably discourteous to refuse), taking this opportunity to glance around at the other occupants of the room.   The apartment itself was unchanged since his last visit:  a modern, lavishly appointed air-conditioned flat, decorated in deliberately unostentatious colours:  matt browns, subdued greens.  There were two doorways, or rather arches, each of simple, square-carved marble, which led on to the Prince’s private rooms.   Two windows led out onto balconies, these heavily curtained against prying eyes.  The floor was cool grey marble. A vast flat-screened television all but filled one wall, while others were covered with tapestries – Mohammed with the angels, Martha with her boy-child at the holy well – all very devout and many as old as the palace itself.  His fellow visitors –  Bourta of course, a man of obviously Indian extraction in western dress he vaguely recognised and another in traditional dress he did not – fitted uneasily into this marriage of old and new.   They perched upon sumptuous leather couches which formed a circle in the centre of the room, sipping at their tea.   All waited.

There was a rumbling sound of stone on stone.   The marble relief panel slid aside and two more guests stepped into the room.   The first to emerge was a tall Caucasian male, slim and athletic in build.   This man, Yahedi decided instantly, was an American, and a man of some means.   His surgically enhanced face, his unnaturally bright eyes shining through thick spectacles, even his deliberately casual clothing exuded wealth.   And everything about him spoke of youth, of vitality – only the thin, papery skin of his hands, where they protruded from the sleeves of his expensive sweater, betrayed his real age. Yahedi guessed at sixty.  He might have been more.

“Hi fellas!”   Said the American, with a shuffle of his feet, almost a little dance, then a wave to encompass everyone in the room.  “Hi Sheik!”

The deliberate effect, the calculated travesty of etiquette gained the attention it sought.   Everyone in the room formed an immediate impression of the American.

A second visitor stepped out of the darkness, blinking at the onset of light.    This person instantly drew Salaiman Yahedi’s attention:  not because she was a woman, or because she was quite remarkably beautiful, although that should have been enough, but because he had seen her before and he never forgot a face.   Today she was smartly but modestly dressed in a business suit, her head covered according to custom, but when they met before she had been jogging and wearing tracks.   He had almost tripped her, one early morning in Hyde Park.

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

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The Insect

The Insect

Sometimes the span of a lifetime is needed to make an assessment of people.

Provincial – that defined Tark’s self-image in the early nineteen-sixties.  An insurance clerk with artistic pretensions and a deeply dissatisfied perspective upon his small-town existence, he had convinced himself of one thing; his destiny was to devote his life to art, however confused he was about the direction his artistry should take.   A short-lived stint as a junior reporter on a short-lived local newspaper had punctured his faith in his ability as a writer.  His capacity for clearing a room when he sang, coupled with absolute incomprehension of the finger-skills needed to master an instrument seemed to eliminate a future in music.   Those inclined to criticize were apt to say he lacked even a hint of talent.  In his own mind he was a genius waiting to flower – at something.

Blagging being as prevalent in the nineteen-sixties as it is today, if Tark’s parcel of ineptitudes had been wrapped in a more presentable package with a greater sense of style he might yet have passed as ‘gifted’, but Tark’s assets were buried deep, tilthed over by a six-feet-one stick insect’s  body and supported on legs so bony even drainpipe jeans struggled for grip.   His feet, sized fourteen and shaped like spades, were equally ill-equipped for a generation which saw toes as an obscenity and punished them by thrusting them into ‘winklepicker’ shoes.  Tark persevered with a cheap black pair which reshaped with time into something resembling a pair of rearward-facing armadillos, complete with tails.

 His appearance was of an under-confident, slightly spotty example of ‘modern youth’.  If he was ready to flower he showed very little sign of doing so.  The only buds he exhibited were red and topped with white blisters.

Given such ammunition, Tark’s low self-esteem manifested itself in aggressive responses to any number of situations; repressed silence at parties, inarticulate rudeness when confronted and on his rare voyages into the everyday a slouching gait along the pavements of the town, studying his  reflection in each shop window as he passed.

Which was how he bumped into Natalie.  He wasn’t looking where he was going, nor was she; maybe they were sharing the same shop window, she from one direction, he from the other.  Their heads met with a noise befitting a cricket analogy; leather on willow.

“Ouch!”  Natalie explored her forehead with tentative fingers.  “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”

Terrified she would bleed, Tark launched into a profuse apology which reached crescendo with an offer of coffee, an obvious solution as the next window belonged to a coffee bar.

Natalie conceded.  “I was going in there anyway.  You’re buying.”

Those two words (‘you’re buying’) Tark subsequently discovered, were intrinsic to Natalie’s survival as a student.  It was a habit she never broke.

From such unpromising beginnings, great things are often born.  They introduced themselves; he discovered she liked Danish pastries.  She was studying Fine Art at the local art college, finishing her course after her parents had moved away, so she was living in digs.  Her evenings were in need of filling and she had thought of Amdram – did he know anybody?  It so happened he did.

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, that meeting was the point at which Tark’s world began to expand.  There were few immediate signs; this slightly ungainly girl, not classically good-looking, but with an engagingly expressive face and serious eyes, seemed interested in him at a point when he believed he was the least interesting person on Earth.  While they were visiting the coffee bar, she also appeared to be interested in a wild-looking and very hairy student who sat at another table.  As she left the coffee bar she crossed to the wild-looking student’s table where money was covertly exchanged for a small packet.

That was one thing Tark wasn’t buying.

Within a week the lump on Natalie’s forehead had subsided, Tark had joined a drama club, spent an evening watching Jacques Tati movies and learned there were things in the world to smoke other than tobacco.  Within a month their friendship had become very close – that was Tark’s impression, anyway.  One evening he asked her if she would like him to pose as her life model.  

She looked at him oddly.   “I mostly do landscapes…but if you want?”

Winter came, the Amdram turned into a production, prompting an odd flatterer or two to suggest Tark should go to drama school, but he was vaguely uncomfortable with the authenticity of the praise.  Nevertheless he sought some artistic outlet and his typing was still abominable, so he stretched a few muscles and read a bit of Stanislavski.  Natalie continued to paint.  His uncertainty was not a failing she shared.

For all the increasing security and depth of their friendship, Natalie drew one very firm line:  sex was out.   Nudity fazed her not one jot, she liked shedding the restriction of clothing and was happy for Tark to do the same as long as he would not  interpret that small permissiveness as anything more.  Her career, she would insist, was everything.  She could not risk the accident of pregnancy, so, although those around them might make assumptions, and though they often spent days and nights together, they maintained an awkward celibacy:  awkward, at least, from Tark’s point of view:  it fed into his bubbling cauldron of anger.

One spring evening they were sitting in the garden of Tark’s family home; Natalie had her sketch pad with her, doing quick studies of whatever took her eye at the time, while Tark tried to describe his only encounter with a ruby-tailed wasp.  He must have failed dismally in the attempt because she suddenly pushed her pad onto his knee.

“Draw it.”

Was that a moment of revelation?   Did the magic memory of his meeting with that unusual creature transfer itself to paper?  When he had finished he stared at his effort and his effort stared back.  All his miserable, self-deprecating hostility glared from the fudged lines.  At first he tried to hide his abysmal effort, but Natalie was not to be so deceived.   She snatched the pad from his hand.

“It speaks to me,”  she said.

“It was only an insect,”  He replied humbly.  

“Oh, it’s much more than that.”

The insect, of course, was Tark; how he saw himself – how he was, very possibly.  If Natalie saw that too, she was far too polite to say so.

So, no revelation, then; yet a crumb to tempt him to see through the superficial self-image he had built for himself to something far more genuine.  Natalie forced that to happen, not by encouragement, just by her example.  Matters had moved forward; if he wanted to be around her he had to conform; he had to contribute.  To be with her was to see the world as an artist would see it – as she saw it.  He had to add something interesting of his own to earn her approval.

Tark found focus.  Every waking moment when he wasn’t engaged in clerkery was filled with things to sketch, different media to try, exploration of methods, foraging for board, or scavenging for paints.  Now that he and Natalie shared a new affinity, techniques fascinated him.  Although he felt hopelessly dwarfed by her talent, he had found somebody at whose feet he was willing to study.  For the first time in his life he had some sense of direction.

They began working together, painting scenery for the Amdram group’s next production.  He began to develop a plan for much more, telling himself they might have a life together, sharing a workshop, a studio, perhaps a partnership.   In retrospect he might have been better advised to share his vision with Natalie, but he didn’t.  Not then.

The aspect of his new companion’s personality that he never fully understood or equalled was the depth of her unswervable determination.  She fed it into her work, so every stroke of her brush was a conversation with the medium, and little of her dialogue with Tarq on those occasions had any significance at all.   From the most basic exchanges:

Tarq:   “Shall I get lunch?

Natalie:  “Wonderful.”

Tarq:    “What would you like?”

Natalie:   “You choose…”

To the more serious issues:

Tarq:   “We could set up a studio together!”

Natalie: “ That sounds like an idea.”

Tarq:     “I’ll look into it, then.”

Natalie:  “Why don’t you?”

He would get food in and she would ignore it. He was too broke to pursue the idea of a studio, which was fortunate, because she never mentioned it again.

That same vagueness pervaded everything in Natalie’s life other than the journey of paint from brush to canvas, so Tark should not have been surprised when, at the conclusion of her college course she announced that she intended to stay on for another year.

“I’m not ready for London yet.  I’ve more to learn.”

What could he deduce from this; should he be encouraged?  Natalie was always reticent, never gave reasons willingly, but he believed, poor mortal, that she was staying for him.

Come their second summer, Tarq had convinced himself enough of their relationship to take some first tentative steps towards a life with Natalie.   After all, had it not endured for almost two years?  They worked together whenever possible and he began evening classes at her college, through which he discovered a penchant for pottery.  With determination unusual for him, he persuaded his parents to part with money for a wheel and a small kiln.   Given the opportunity he would have discovered the many shortcomings of being wedded to clay – even his own mother kept her distance – but by good fortune or bad the issues of grey sludge spread no further than his room, because a week later Natalie had an announcement to make.

“I’m going to France.”

Tark’s first response was gaping disbelief, “What?”

“Jenna, Toms and Becs are putting a trip together.  Toms has a studio down there, near Cavalaire-sur-Mer, I think he said.  Oh, and Tazza’s coming – probably.”

Tark’s second response was;  “When?”

“Monday, if we can get a ferry.”

“For how long?”

“The summer.  We might stay on.  I don’t know.”  Natalie added, lamely, “Come, if you like?”

A year since, such a move would have been beyond Tark’s comprehension, but his love for this strange, enigmatic girl had altered him enough to reply hesitantly:  “Okay.”

“Alright, then, I suppose.  We’re all putting in.”

Didn’t it, you might ask, occur to Tark to question Natalie’s willingness to leave him behind?   How did he channel the anger he felt?   Secretly, in his clay-spattered room; and being insufficiently skilled to express himself by throwing a pot, he banged a board onto his easel and threw paint at that instead, expelling whole tubes of colour, splashing at it with slip clay for good measure.   Then he took another board and did the same, and another until he had no more paint, and no more board, and no more desire ever – ever- to become an artist.

Yet he still went to France.

He was broke: paints were expensive, brushes too.  So he sold his potter’s wheel and his kiln to pay his passage.   He endured an uncomfortable van journey in ever-increasing heat with a bunch of art students he barely knew, because although he could forgo the art, he could not be separated from the artist.  His feelings had rooted themselves too deeply.

Natalie took to the South of France with alacrity, Tark stuck to her like a second skin, at first.   There were necessary changes.   Toms owned their apartment, so rent was not a consideration.  Food though, and materials; they had to be paid for.  Toms mysteriously popped up with both from time to time, though not reliably: the company had to earn money, if only to eat.    Becs spoke French fluently, and with the tourist season in full swing, quickly found work.  Toms found evening jobs for himself and Tark at a local supermarche.   Natalie painted obsessively, Tazza sat in a corner and played guitar.   Jenna?  Well, Jenna found hotel work, but Jenna was ‘with’ Toms.   

With the resilience of the young, the group adapted to their new situation, which on the surface seemed idyllic.   Toms was one of the Art College tutors and Jenna was a student, so the others were there to lend some propriety to a very inappropriate relationship.   Becs, a darkly introspective girl with pretensions as a portrait painter, spent most of her days sketching any tourist with a wallet, Tazza, who declared himself a musician, did no work at all, predating on whoever had food available, while Jenna played with a canvas she had insisted on bring with her in the van.  Everyone shared freely in her work and no-one understood it.

Of the group, only Tark and Natalie painted assiduously, whenever they could.  Tark’s work reflected the outlier he felt himself to be, apologetic, almost desperate.  The heat disagreed with him, almost everything that could bite bit him: he had never travelled abroad before, only possessing a passport by chance because his parents had once considered going on holiday to Madeira.  Those around him were all friends; they had a level of communication he did not share.

He worried Tazza.   “Tark, mate, you should get out more!  Get down on the beach a bit, yeah?  Get some sun, man!”

Their apartment had a terrace, so Tark wondered at Tazza’s logic and anyway sun was the last thing he wanted.   His paintings, half-completed dashes of sorrow, the work of a day, sometimes less, piled up.   Although he shared a room with Natalie, he scrupulously observed her celibacy  rules, and they hardly spoke.

Then one day, about four weeks after their arrival, Natalie said:   “I’m pregnant.”

Tark knew he could not be the father, of course.  At last he found a voice for that well of anger that he kept so repressed.   “Who is it?  And do you want to tell me when?  I mean, before you dragged me down here, obviously.”

“I didn’t drag you anywhere.  Tazza’s the father. If you must know.  We were doing it at my pad.  You kept leaving me to go to night classes.  So don’t try to put the blame on me. ”

“They’ve been seeing each other for months,”  Becs said at breakfast,  “That’s why she didn’t go to London.  We thought you knew.”

Tark had one more exchange with Natalie before he left, when, with a commendable absence of bitterness, he wondered why she had felt so free to put her career at risk with Tazza, rather than himself.

“I like him.  I needed you, for the support, that was all.  Somebody there, you know?  We could never have stayed together, though.  You’re not a real creative, Tark.  You must see that.”

That might have been the last Tarq heard of Natalie.  He returned home, found a new job because work was plentiful in those days, and he almost, but not quite, resumed his self-conscious, self-isolating life – with just this difference: in his chosen solitude, in the peace of his room and for reasons entirely different to before, he continued to paint.

A year would have to pass before the doorbell announced a visit from Margo, the lady who ran the Amdram club.

“Can you paint the sets for our next show?  The chap we used last year tries, but he can’t really do what you do.”

“Natalie isn’t with me, now.”

“So I was told.  I never really liked her contribution, anyway, to be frank; too fussy.  I’d prefer if you did it on your own.”

This surprised Tarq, but he agreed.  He painted the sets.  By a stroke of fortune that wasn’t really a stroke of fortune because Margo set it up, someone from the regional opera company came to see his work and asked him to do their sets, too.  Soon, a wider audience began to express interest in his paintings.

And there, I suppose, the story rests.  You will probably have guessed by now that ‘Tarq’ is a pseudonym, not our hero’s real name.  Even in this day and age, few painters gain notability and wealth in their lifetime, but ‘Tarq’ has certainly achieved this.  Nowadays his signature on a painting is worth millions.  To this day he remains an artist of note, although his genius has never exceeded that of the group known as the ‘Avant Cavalaire-sur Mer’ triptych, with their unique blending of paint and clay.

The last time I saw him, I asked if he ever got in touch with Natalie again. I knew that she had never reached Art College in London as she planned, electing instead to follow a rock band on a tour or two.   Tarq knew where she was, he said, because she had written to him asking if he would like to paint with her again.   He told me he refused her request.

He remains a very private, and to strangers, a very lonely figure.  His face is not well known, but should you be in Sacramento, in the area, say, of the K Street Mall, and should you notice a gaunt, septuagenarian beanpole of a figure who lopes rather than strides, with his eyes fixed on his own reflection in the windows of the stores, it is likely to be him.  Lately, I am told, he is seen sometimes in the company of a woman who has the hands of an artist.  They walk together but they never talk.

I like to think that she is Natalie.

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

Image Credits: Featured Image: 5598 375 from Pixabay

Artist with Easel: Bridgesward from Pixabay

Cavalaire-sur-Mer: RD LH from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Nine

The Coming of Howard

Morning was slow to discover Francine’s recumbent form, the sunlight needing to creep over the bole of the uprooted tree before it could find its way into the pit that forest giant had created; lighting first upon her back, then, when it had enough warmth to offer, bringing a gentle glow to her cheek which caused her to stir.  Had she slept?    Had she fallen?

The blessing of the sun was welcome, for the rock beneath her, so possessive of her whole being the night gone, was warm no longer.  It was merely stone now, and whatever mystic properties it might have harboured to entice her had fled, leaving her with a sense of loss so intense it brought her near to tears.  There would be precious little time to grieve, however, because she was not alone.  Footsteps were shuffling behind her, and the sound that roused her to complete wakefulness that of heavy breathing, loud enough to all but eclipse the gentle rustling of the wind.

“Here!”  A man’s voice thick with accent, a foreign burr, although of what origin she could not tell,  “It is her!  It is the woman!”

Another voice  answered.  Someone not yet sharing his companion’s position in the pit yet, possibly not even in view.  “You’re certain?”

“Yes, certain!  Yes!  Come, help me – we must get her out of here!”

The other voice’s owner, making complicit sounds, was drawing nearer.  Hands that were not gentle closed about her shoulder.   “You, woman!  You must come with us!  Get up!”

Francine tried to shake herself free.  The rough hand grabbed her wounded arm from under her  and she screamed at the pain.  “Sir!  I beg you…”  She twisted her head angrily, to find herself looking into eyes so cold they conveyed the utter futility of begging.  He was as bronzed, this man, as he was lean – as he was strong, but there was no mercy in him; no kindness.  He began dragging her, half-carrying her because her feet would not, to the side of the pit where his companion stood watching dispassionately.

“Help me here!”  Francine’s captor snarled.  “Take her arms!”

But now there were – were there not – other voices.  English voices raised in a hue and cry.   Desperate to resist this man, Francine wrenched herself away, shouting,  “help me!  A rescue!”  As loudly as she could.

With muted expletives the bronzed man caught her again by that painful arm,  clamping a hand across her mouth and she bit down upon a finger, or maybe two, as hard as she could.

“This way!”  A voice she knew;  “See him?  Take him down!   Shoot, man!”

In immediate answer the lusty thunderclap of a fowling piece echoed in the cold air and the man who had been reaching down to hoist her from the pit rocked backwards with an agonized yell.    New voices were all about Francine now, gaining substance in the shapes of men – two at least of whom had guns.

With their appearance her captor became the captured; the pit a bear trap in which he was the wild creature, snarling his fury.   He clutched Francine to his chest, shielding himself as he backed towards a trodden ramp of mud that seemed his easiest ascent. 

“You, fellow!  Give yourself up!”   Arthur!   Arthur was there, standing at the lip of the depression with a duelling pistol.  “You have no means of escape, sir!  Release the lady now, do you understand?”

It occurred to Francine at that precise moment that her captor was unarmed.  Had he been in possession of even a knife this was the moment he might be most expected to have it in his hand.  It occurred to her also, as it probably already had to those assembled, that without help from the top of the slope this creature would be hard put to keep her between him and Arthur’s party when he attempted to climb from the pit.  His companion was no longer in evidence –  she judged that he had either fallen or fled.    Francine was not a great burden but she could be an awkward one, and if she were a dead weight…

Francine fainted – or at least, she appeared to do so.

She heard the shot, felt the arms that clawed at her jerk as she fell,  and the body that she was pinned against become as limp as she.   Then there were other arms, many arms to raise her up, cradle her and carry her.   And the only arms she wanted to carry her were there, and they were Arthur’s.

#

It was a parched springtime, that year.   Day followed day, week followed week with little rain. Late April was hot: lengthening days, longer and longer hours of sun. In early May the first storms began.

Peter, who loved fierce weather, walked Levenport Esplanade en route to his lectures many times with thick mists of cloud overlaying the town and rain lashing the pavements in untamed percussion.  On such days The Devil’s Rock was a grey shadow, Saint Benedict’s House a shrouded Valhalla barely visible at its peak.    When lightning flickered behind them rock and house were silhouetted like some great behemoth from the mythology of the sea: if the lightning struck, as it sometimes did, a white trace joined house to sky for a telling moment, a brief pathway between earth and heaven.   Then the thunder banged so loudly it seemed the basalt itself would split, and dry echoes crackled around Levenport’s sheltering cliffs.  At times like these Peter could easily imagine he was listening to a conversation of the gods.

Melanie rarely joined Peter on such tempestuous journeys, she being deterred by such practical difficulties as hair, wet clothes, and a nervousness of thunderstorms.    On finer days, though, she often met him on the Esplanade, and as the summer became ever wetter and less welcoming, spent more and more of her evenings wandering the Arcades with Peter, or ‘hanging’ with him in his room.  The reasons for the growing closeness of their companionship were defined one evening at the beginning of May. Their conversation was drawing to a close upon a reflective note.

Melanie asked,  “Did you ever hear from Vincent again?”

Peter shook his head,  “No, not after that phone call.   It’s really strange, thinking back to all that.  I suppose everything was OK, though.  I mean, that guy didn’t get shot, did he?”

When the attempt on Senator Goodridge’s life was broadcast on the television news its effect on the pair was sensational:  yet neither Melanie nor Peter knew how Goodridge’s life was saved because the details were never announced.   Peter had managed to persuade Melanie that his piece of clairvoyance was a one-off: some kind of anomaly or trick which they should keep as a confidence between themselves.  He had his own reasons for this as we shall relate, but it was true that he had not been contacted by anyone, and assumed that the mysterious purpose of his visit to St. Benedict’s House had been met.

Melanie did not disguise her jealousy.  “Shame.  You get to go to all the interesting places.  I should like to see that house, and your tablet of stone.  I wonder what would happen if I touched it?”

“Probably nothing.”  Peter shrugged,  “I think the things I saw had more to do with those iffy cakes of Alice’s than any stone.”

(But this was a lie.  He still dreamed those images, and one of them in particular haunted him.  He feared, really feared, that in some way and for some reason Melanie might one day get to touch the rock, to see the things he had seen)

“Alright,”  Melanie said,  “play it down if you want to.  Me, I think you’re a great seer – which, incidentally, makes you just a little bit creepy….”

“You speak truth.  As for creepy, I do occasionally get an urge to read the thoughts of your innermost mind.  Isn’t that normal?”

“Normal?   Lol.   Speaking of creepy (which you are) do you know my beloved mother has gone out tonight?   I am alone in that big dark house?   Don’t wait up for me, that’s what she said!”

Peter smirked,  “Do you want me to come over and look after you?”

“What,expose myself alone to the tender care of a letch like you?  Er….no!”

“Letch, now! Better dust off the garlic then.”

“Yeah, cheers.   Night babes!”

The next morning was a wind-blown and rainy one.   The more surprising for Peter, then, that he found Melanie waiting for him, sitting huddled in one of the shelters on the Esplanade.   Her face was traced from recent tears.

“Hey, “He greeted her, “Whassup Mel?”     Peter could not remember seeing Melanie cry.

 “I had to get out of the house.”  She said miserably.

“Why?”

“This morning I came downstairs and there was a man I’ve never seen before in the kitchen.   He was just, like, wearing underpants or something. It was horrible!”

“Ah!”   Said Peter.

“Alright, go on; tell me it had to happen.  I know – I knew it.   Mum’s a good looking woman, entitled to a life and all that….stuff.   It still doesn’t help when it does happen.  She’s my bloody mother!”

“It may not have happened;” Peter suggested gently: “I mean, he may just have slept on the couch, or something?”

“Oh, it did!   You should have seen her when she came down.   She was drooling all over him…it was just sick!”     Melanie wiped her hands across her face. “Oh!  Oh, and his name’s Howard, she insisted on telling me!   Howard!  As if I wanted to know his bloody name!”

“You’re upset.”  Peter sympathised, putting his arm around Melanie’s shoulders.        Truthfully, he had known that Karen, Melanie’s mother, would find a new companion.   His mother, Karen’s friend, who was expert in divining the nature of people, had told him so.  “She’s not a woman who likes being single” she had warned.   “Melanie is going to have to come to terms with that.”  Well, the prophesy had proved to be right – rather sooner than anyone (except maybe Karen) would have wished.

Even so it was difficult to accept, not just for Melanie, but for Peter too.   His own family lived in an oasis of calm amid troubled seas; for whatever you could imagine Bob and Lena to be, they were metaphorically joined at the hip.  You could not imagine them as separate from each other.   Once, in the days when he first knew her, Karen had appeared to Peter to have something of this same unity with her first husband, Marco, because children of the age he was then do not enquire into the stability of relationships, and his friendship with Mel had not deepened enough for her to trust him with tales of late night arguments, long absences, icy silences.   But whatever Karen was as a person then, she was very different now.

“Maybe he’s not….well, you know, permanent?”   Peter suggested lamely, aware even as he said it that his thoughts had led him in the wrong direction.

“Oh!   So my mother sleeps around now, does she!”   Melanie grinned at him weakly.  “Peter, will you come home with me tonight?  I mean, I don’t want him to be there again and me to be on my own, yeah?”

Peter hugged her shoulder: “Sure Mel, ‘course I will.”

And, after college that evening, Peter did as he promised.

Thus began a routine which developed:  before long Peter was walking Melanie home on a regular basis, and soon he was staying for half an hour, or an hour, in which the pair might go through their college work together or play video games.

Peter became an accepted visitor at Melanie’s house.   Karen seemed to see the value of his companionship.   She was not unaware of the tumult that a new man’s presence in her life would cause, or so determined as to ignore her daughter’s feelings; and if Peter, who was mature for his years, might buffer the effects of this collision she was thankful enough.   After that first ill-judged night when she had let passion overcome discretion and then seen the gravity of her error in Melanie’s face, Karen kept her relationship with Howard at arms length for a while.  But she knew where it was leading: and certainly Melanie would have to live with this.   Then, on a more practical level, as Mel spent a greater and greater proportion of her life with Peter, visiting him in the evenings, spending time with him at weekends, she was able to devote more of her own time to Howard.

Nevertheless, Karen trod carefully.   She made certain Howard was never there when Melanie returned from college, and she always told her daughter when he was to visit.   If she planned time away, she took care to involve Melanie, no matter how grudging the response.   With a delicate balancing act always in her mind, she juggled the lives of the people she loved (or was growing to love) in such fashion for a while: and, for a while, it seemed that things might be working out.

#         

When the hot summer northerly is blowing, an aircraft landing at Al Khubar must approach from the sea, where the runway is built out upon a man-made peninsula into the Bay of Ulman, or as it was known in early pirating days, the Sea of Thieves.

On such a summer day an airliner, heading first out to sea, will drop steeply as a stairway from the clear, azure sky and, as it passes below two thousand feet, turn tightly eastward for its final approach.   The cabin has been made quiet by the precipitous descent, until that banking turn.   Then it is common for an almost unanimous gasp of admiration to be drawn from strangers’ lips, as they get their first view of the miracle that man has worked upon the shore of the bay.   For the city of Al Khubar is such a testament to the capability of man to create beauty, that all those who have not seen it before, and many, too, who have, will be awestruck at the sight.  The graceful arch of the Sharm-Ayah suspension bridge which spans the whole bay stands so high you feel the plane might easily fly beneath it: then beyond, in the marinas of the western shore, line upon line of the most elegant yachts that were ever built lie at anchor.   But it is not these which draw the stranger’s eye; nor is it the smooth half-moon of verdant green grasses and trees which follows the shoreline so precisely from West to East.  No, all this is lost; for beyond the bay, beyond the green park-land which consumes two and a half hundred thousand precious gallons of water a day; beyond even the eight-lane highway which skirts the Park’s northern rim, stands such a city as western eyes have never seen.   Towers of tinted steel and white concrete rise in perfect symmetry.   Where there is a sickle-shaped skyscraper rising a thousand feet to the east, another to the west must be just the same.  Galleried glass tiers of shops and offices rise in steps, their profile clover-leafed into courtyards, storey upon storey.   Each courtyard is a space with trees and grass to sit, or stroll, or meet with the trams which network the city at every level.  The dome of the Great Mosque is the hub of lawns and hedged gardens which spread from it like a wheel, two great fountains behind it firing jets like crossed swords into the sky.   In a land where water is wealth there are even canals here, bisecting the new city with Venetian roads.   Amidst all of this the old town of Al Khubar sits, antiseptically white, within its defensive walls.   And amidst the old town, its walls even higher, stands the mighty palace of His Majesty King Assan.

Salaiman Yahedi had seen this sight so often down the years, yet it surprised him each time with its capacity to rob the body of breath.   As one who had long been stateless, Yahedi had no particular preference for any of the great cities of the world:  each was an interlude, a brief stop-over, a job to be done.  Yet, for all that, Al Khubar and its people drew him as certainly as any homecoming could.   He always felt a tinge of regret that he could not rest longer here.

After the air-conditioned plane had delivered him through the air-conditioned gate to Arrivals, and he had collected his minimal suitcase, Salaiman scanned the busy air-conditioned terminal for faces that he knew.   Mahennis Bourta stood out easily from the crowd.  The big Moroccan was at least half-a-head taller than most: his face, a tight, muscular mask of sinew and flesh, was split by a horizontal gash of a smile.

“Yahedi my friend!    Allah be praised!   Why, you look so well!”

The wide, slashing grin vanished as the pair made their way through the throng.  “I have a car for you.   I am to take you to the Hyatt, where you are booked in under this name.”   Bourta slipped a passport into Yahedi’s hand.  “Sleep Salaiman. We are to meet tomorrow at the usual place.”

“Really, so soon?   What is the mood, Bourta?”

“The mood, my friend, is that London did not go well.   The mood is not good.”

“There were reasons – not of my doing.  These things happen.”

“Ah!”  Bourta said, expressionless.  “There were bigger reasons, Yahedi, bigger than you know.   Here is the car.  We will talk in the morning, and |I urge you.”  He rested his hand on the assassin’s arm, “To prepare yourself.”

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

Image Credits:     Harry Grout on Unsplah

 Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

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Satan’s Rock

Part Eight

A Revealing Breakfast

Breakfast was a substantial meal in the Cartwright household, for which Peter was grateful in spite of himself:  the after-effects of his doped lunch at St. Benedict’s House and his turbulent visions had ruined his appetite for a while, but abstinence was not natural to him.   The smell of sausage, bacon and eggs that greeted him on the stair wafted strongly as he opened the kitchen door, so he was surprised to see his mother and father sitting at a bare table.   His father looked up with what was meant to pass as a woeful expression while his mother tried not to appear too bored.

“Sorry, old chap, but there isn’t any breakfast this morning,.” said his father, with a peculiar snort.

“Oh, Dad, you’re going to tell me the pig got better,” Peter said.

“Yes!  Yes!”   His father collapsed into giggling laughter; “How did you know?”

“You told me the same joke last week; twice, and once the week before and several more times since Christmas.  I think you got it from a Christmas Cracker.” 

Mrs. Cartwright set three plates of food on the table.  “Your father likes it,” she explained.  “He doesn’t know many jokes.”

“Dad,” Peter asked, as his father underwent a sniggering and very moist recovery,  “do you remember when we did a family trip to London?”

Bob Cartwright mopped his face with a tea towel.  “Yes.   Yes I do.   Dinosaurs!”

Peter raised an enquiring eyebrow.  “We went to the Natural History Museum,” his mother reminded him, “Have you forgotten?   I suppose you have; you were only five, after all.  There was an exhibition of actual sized dinosaur automata.   You thought they were real and you were absolutely obsessed, not frightened at all. It took us ages to tear you away.”

Yes, Peter remembered.   He often, still, made drawings to recapture  those images.   “Where else did we go?”

“Oh, everywhere!  We went to the tower of London, saw the Palace…”   Lena recollected.  “What makes you suddenly ask about London now, I wonder?  It must be at least ten years ago.”

“Almost exactly,”  Bob Cartwright chipped in,  “It would have been April 25th.  That’s the date today, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”  Peter was noncommittal, “It’s just curiosity.  I seem to recall enjoying it, that’s all.”

“You did, darling.   Well, apart from one bit.”

His mother’s remark seemed to resonate with something Peter could not quite find in his own memory.  “How do you mean, mum?”

“Bless you, you don’t remember The Tube, do you?   Well, maybe that’s a mercy,” 

“No,”  Peter prompted her:  “Tell me?    Was there a problem?”

“Somewhat, Pete,” his father reflected. “It wasn’t very pleasant, that’s all.  It was my fault, too; all my fault, really.”

His mother gave one of those gentle smiles she so carefully stage-managed and saved for ‘deep family moments’. “Your father worried we wouldn’t get back to Waterloo in time for the train, you know?    So we took The Tube – The Underground.”     She went on:   “Everything went swimmingly until we got to the top of the escalator (it was one of the deeper stations) and then, well…..”

“All hell broke loose.”  His father cut in.  “You screamed, you fought, you scratched.   You were terrified of the thing for some reason.”

“I carried you.”  Lena went on.  “You were so frightened I thought you were having some sort of fit.   You kept shouting about falling, and towards the bottom you were struggling to breathe.  It was just a panic attack, I think; though I was really, really worried for a while!”

“You soon got over it once we were down, though.”  Bob said.  “You liked the tube train.”

“Where was this, mum?  What’s the Tube Station called?”

“Hyde Park Corner, darling.”   Peter’s mother regarded him with concern.  “We had spent some of the afternoon in Hyde Park, you see, because the memorial is close by – for the Australian Forces.”

“That was the reason for the trip,” his father explained.  “Paying respects, you know?  I had an Australian college friend whose father died in the war.  I don’t know if they still hold a ceremony every April 25th, but I recall the date well – Anzac Day.”

As he readied himself for college, Peter’s mind was racing.  Falling – drowning – things which seemed to fit the feeling in his dream.  Hyde Park Corner was not a street, though.  It was a junction of several streets.  

He explained this to Mel as they walked together, but she seemed to have tired of the subject.  “That’s a fa-a-a-bulous pic you sent me.  It’s so absolutely you!”  She enthused.

Peter frowned.  “It isn’t that special.  Have you been photo-shopping me again?”

“Might have been – a little,” Mel smirked.  “Did you ever consider what life might be like…”

“Oh, what?  What did you do to me this time?”

“As a female?”   She laughed out loud at the ill-timed swipe of a school bag which missed her by a foot.  “Pathetic!”

“You’re bringing it to college, aren’t you?  Making me a laughing-stock all over again?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.  All right, I did – once.  I was stupid and I’m sorry.”

“So where is it?”

“It’s at home, somewhere.  I did a print-out and I was going to show it to you, but I couldn’t find it this morning.  The window was open so maybe the draught blew it under the bed, or something.  I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“You leave it at home, I’ll feel safer.”

Mel asked, after a pause:   “all those soldiers you saw marching – were they in modern uniform?”

“Battledress, why?”

“Describe it to me.”

Peter dredged in his memory for the marching figures in his vision, their empty faces grey, staring ahead.   His head filled with their despair, their hopelessness, their pain.  “Hats, trench coats, boots.  You know.”

“Hats, not helmets; like bush hats?”

Peter nodded as the lightbulb, always glimmering, flared brightly. “Anzacs!   They were Australian soldiers, yeah?   And the big man, the dark man, he could be, like, Death, or something!” 

“Right!”  Melanie crowed.  “Whatever’s on Vincent’s mind has to do with that memorial, my little possum!    Quick!   Find your ‘phone!”

#

By the time Vincent managed to contact Alice the morning had advanced another hour.

“How are you, sweetness?”

“Look, Vince, I’m busy.  I don’t have time for social calls.”  The day had not improved since some idiotic man had interrupted her morning jog.  “Have you got anything else for me?”

“I have.  It’s about the Aussie War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.  Oh, an’ he thinks there’s a lot of deadness involved.”

“The kid gave you this?”  Vincent’s words put Alice’s mind in turmoil:     “How the hell could he know?”  

“It is on the itinerary, then, is it?”

“I…no point in pretending…yes, it is.    Anzac Day.  Expressing solidarity with the Australians – honouring their part in the conflict, and all that.  Our boy’s laying a wreath there this morning.”  She checked her watch.   “Christ, he’s leaving the American Embassy in five minutes, and it’s only a couple of blocks!  Vince, you’d better be right!”

Alice had to consider carefully what she should do.  An anonymous tip-off on her personal ‘phone had begun all this.  Something distinctive in the caller’s voice had convinced her of its authenticity, and it was this disquiet she had shared with Vincent.  Then Vincent had validated it a little further by producing the boy, and inducing the boy’s disturbing response.  But he was still just some unknown youth in a distant seaside town, who should not have even known the Very Important Person was in the country!  Did she believe him?  

With the motorcade already on its way it seemed pointless to try to stop it.  She could already hear their derision when she told them a student psychic had predicted an assassination attempt.   Eventually, she would have to explain the inexplicable to someone, but right now… She tapped out numbers on her ‘phone.

“U.S. Embassy, please.”

Hal Bronski was already in the car when an operative from within the bowels of Grosvenor Square called:

“Are you serious?”

“Sir, she recommends you abort.”

“Son, we only abort for earthquakes and tidal waves.  This is British Security again isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.  I had no choice but tell you.  She insisted I log the call.”

“Well, son, you tell those loons that we don’t listen to crank calls.    If we did, we’d never go any damn place.   Oh, and son?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be sure to log the call.”

From the foremost limousine in the small motorcade that swung out into Park Lane, Hal linked to the Very Important Person’s car.  His man should always be told of any irregularity, and Hal never failed in his duty.

“Sir, we have been advised of a possible situation.  We’ll be going to code amber.”

“Is it serious, Hal?”

“Sir, it’s amber.  We take everything seriously.  But this is filtered through British Security, so I wouldn’t worry.  We’ll just close the cordon a little, that’s all.”

“’O.K. Hal, you know best.”

From his vantage point overlooking the large, tree-fringed island in traffic that encircled the memorial to Australian forces dead, Salaiman Yahedi watched as the Very Important Person’s police escort  scythed through London traffic, clearing a path into the heart of the island. There, beside an arched monument to the Duke of Wellington the limousines rested, and Yahedi knew at once that someone had warned of a threat for, instead of alighting as he normally would, the Very Important Person remained in his car until a human shield formed; then, when he emerged to greet the Australian Ambassador, they stayed much closer than was usual.   Yahedi was unconcerned.   Had he not been at a window with such an advantage of height he might have been worried; but at all times, even now, he had a chance of a clear head shot, and the range, though not inconsiderable, was nothing to a shooter of his ability.   Not yet, though,: not yet.  Yahedi waited patiently, watching the Very Important Person make his way through a small band of dignitaries, staying back from the window to avoid the sharp eyes of the security cordon, and those of the rather more untidy bunch of British agents.

The ceremony was brief.   Someone presented the Very Important Person with a wreath and he stepped forward, away from his security yoke, to lay it at a strategic point before the long wall of tablets which formed the memorial.   Then, with heads bowed, the Very Important Person and the Ambassador stood side-by-side, remembering the sacrifice of those whose names adorned the wall.   Yahedi still waited, his target hidden for this minute of silence by the security cordon.  There would be a moment, a time when the party retreated from the wall, turned in that half-military fashion politicians always try to adopt, to walk back to their cars.   He gave the mechanism of his rifle a final check before slipping its muzzle through the hole he had made in the window.    Carefully, methodically, he took aim.

The Very Important Person stepped back from the memorial, turning on his heel.

As he did so, a  sheet of paper floated right past his nose.  He dodged it instinctively.

Thwack!     A single bullet snicked off the pavement, cracked against the concrete barriers, and whined away into the trees.

Even as the spent bullet ricocheted, Hal was running, wrapping his Very Important Person in a chest high-high hug to cover him with his own body.  In a few seconds his team had gathered in a protective shield as Hal rushed him back to his car.

“Stay down sir.  Are you hit?”

“No, I don’t think so, Hal, I think I’m all right.  By the way, I never got to ask you….?”

But the conversation, if there had ever been one, was over.  Doors slammed.  The motorcade, with its Very Important Person safe inside, left at speed.

Mayhem followed, as police bristling with firearms moved in to cut off traffic on the adjoining streets.  Amongst the howling sirens, the rushing to and fro of those who had come too late, and the frenetic departure of those who had stayed too long, the only static figure was that of a stubby and slightly sweating Jeremy Piggott, British Security, who could be seen examining a piece of paper which had somehow saved the Very Important Person’s life.   It was a sheet of A4 Copy printed with a curious picture of a boy’s head, superimposed upon the body of a woman wearing a skimpy evening dress.   He looked at it cryptically for a while, then at the sky whence it had apparently come.

“Do you believe in divine providence, Jeremy old son?”  He asked himself:  “No, you do not.”

He flagged down a passing member of his team.   “I want to know who this is, and I want to know soon.”   He said, passing on the sheet of A4; adding:  “The top bit, of course, not the body.”

Across the road in that third-floor room Salaiman Yahedi patiently and carefully cleaned the gun and window glass before he returned to his own suite on the first floor. The gun was left behind on the third-floor, in the room which bore ample evidence of occupancy, by someone with a false name and passport who booked it the previous week.

            Yahedi knew the bullet had missed; was upset, of course, that so carefully constructed and expensive a plan had failed; but he knew also that there would be another time, and another plan.  Now, though, he was booked into this hotel for a further two days.   Yahedi liked London, and enjoyed the company of the woman his employer had sent to act as his wife during his stay.   He resolved to spend those few days learning more about both.

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

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Tarpington’s Grass

Tarpington’s Grass

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“Last night, at around half-past-three, the garden waste bin moved.”  Peregrine Rubeltopf sighed, closing the little notebook and passing it to Vicki, who opened it again, upside down.  “Not much to be gained from an entry like that.  No details.  I mean, how did it move?  Where did it move?  For what reason did it move?”

“It was an event.  It didn’t need a reason.”  Vicki Blomquist stated with finality, placing the matter beyond question.  She tried to find the page Peregrine had closed upon, unaware she was turning to the wrong end of the book.  “I presume that was his last entry?”

“Event, event!”  Marcus Batt cried impatiently.  “It can’t just be dismissed as ‘an event’.  Tarpington has disappeared – there must be more to it than that.  Why was he awake at half-past-three?  How could he see if the bin moved – in the darkness?”

“Perhaps he heard it?”  Peregrine craned his neck to see out through Tarpington’s kitchen window.  Three plastic wheelie bins, Recycling, General Waste and Garden Waste, were sitting beside the path in an orderly row.  “They don’t look as if they’ve moved at all.”  He said.   “What’s Chipperby doing out there?”

“Investigating probably,”  Marcus said.  “Chipperby’s always investigating.”

Peregrine frowned.  “Isn’t that why we came?”

“No, it most certainly is not.”  Vicki had taken up a stance in the middle of Tarpington’s kitchen,  her eyes raised towards the ceiling and her hands spread in a gesture of supplication,.  “Oh Mighty Ones, hear us!  We await you!  Show us your beneficence we beg you, and allow us to extend to you our humble welcome!  Ah, each day brings you nearer,   I feel it; I feel it! Peregrine – can’t you feel it?”

“She’s gone off on one again,”  Marcus said.  “She’s beginning to twitch.”

“Well, he’s definitely not here, and no-one’s seen him for days.  He could be on holiday?”  Peregrine suggested.  “No, scrub round that.  Tarpington never goes on holiday.”

Outside in the passage, Saul Chipperby was seeking clues to substantiate his friend Donald Tarpington’s cryptic final note.   A member of the ‘Lallybridge Alien Life Society’ or LALS for several years, he sometimes found their collective company a little overwhelming; but that was not to say he disbelieved their mission; oh, no.  Lallybridge was a hub for alien activity, Saul was convinced of that.  Hadn’t he seen those mysterious silver discs in the eastern sky sunset after sunset, heard the strange hum that persisted behind the moan of a north wind, the creak of the trees in the birch wood on the night when the blue light shone from behind St. Wilfrid’s Hill?

Donald Tarpington had gone – abducted, without a doubt.  Like seventeen-year-old Shona Trott from the Post Office and Glen Tebbit, the butcher’s boy.  They had been returned, fortunately – found together in Margate six months later with no memory of their miraculous experience.  And Shona was carrying what would inevitably be an alien child.  But Donald Tarpington, he was a member of LALS. His abduction could only mean the visitors were ready to make contact at last!

Saul wasn’t sure what evidence of Donald’s abduction there might be.  When the Society met on the first Tuesday of each month, signs of alien activity were freely discussed, and scorched circles generated by great heat from landing craft featured highly in those discussions, but when it came to specifics – size and so on – no-one had actually seen one.  Nevertheless, scorch marks on the concrete could not be discounted, in Saul’s opinion, any more than signs of a struggle, or a pungent alien type smell.  There was a pungent smell certainly, but it emanated from the three neatly aligned wheelie bins.  He approached them cautiously, opening them one by one; first the blue Recycling bin, which was half-full, then the General Waste bin which was black and very full, and then the green Garden Waste bin…

“Don’t tell them I’m here.”

The creature was a caterpillar, wasn’t it?  Except that it had limbs – or possibly tendrils, it was difficult to tell.  It was certainly very green, as a mallard drake’s head is green, and it spoke:  well, it sort of spoke, because its words entered Saul’s head by means other than his ears.

“I won’t,” said Saul, astonished at his lack of astonishment.  The creature’s eyes were large, dreamy and the clear blue crystal of a mountain lake.

“Can you get me food?  I’m hungry.”  The creature’s thoughts read.  “I simply love these little short things, but I seem to have eaten nearly all of them.  They taste delicious.  What are they?”

“Grass cuttings.”  Said Saul.

“What on earth is Chipperby doing?”  Peregrine demanded, watching his LALS colleague passing back and forth beyond the rear window of Tarpington’s lounge, into which room the quorum had adjourned and within which they were helping their absent host by downsizing his decanter of vintage port.

Peregrine opened the window, shouting, “What are you doing, Chipperby?”

“Mowing the lawn,”  Saul replied.

“Good lord, why?”

“It needed to be cut.”

“Did you check out the Garden Waste bin?”

“Where do you think I’m emptying the grass box?”  Snapped Saul.

Vicki Blomquist’s ‘Event Temple’ took a further half hour and two more generous measures of port to complete, during which time Marcus and Peregrine prowled around their erstwhile friend’s home, ostensibly looking for anything which might help them understand the method of his abduction, while allowing their focus to constantly stray into criticism of his choice of underwear or his loudly coloured ties.  Their efforts were curtailed by Vicki’s loud proclamation:  “Griselda’s been abducted too!”

The assembled company were jointly rendered aghast.  Griselda Burdock, a member of LALS like themselves, had been prevented from joining their investigations at Tarpington’s house by a need to visit Sainsbury’s supermarket. They were expecting to join her for a post-abduction drink at the Skinner’s Arms later that evening.

“Her aunt’s texted me three times,” Vicki told them.  “Griselda returned from shopping, it seems, without ever re-entering the house.  “The bags of shopping were abandoned, their contents scattered on the path by the side gate.  That was three hours ago!”

“Did her Garden Waste bin move?”  Saul enquired, with what he hoped would sound like a thin veneer of sarcasm.

“I think we’d better go and check this out.  It sounds to me like they’re finally ready to invade.”  Said Marcus, with gravity.  “Her aunt’s place is only three streets away.”

“Yes,”  Saul agreed.  “I’ll come back here later and clear up.”

“This must be reported,”  Peregrine said.  “It’s a major news story, at least!”

Saul, Vicki and Marcus greeted Peregrine’s enthusiasm with sad, downcast eyes.  The people at the local paper would, as usual, laugh and offer unkind suggestions as to the real reasons for their colleagues’ absence, and if they were lucky enough to avoid a charge of wasting police time, the reactions of the local constabulary would run along similar lines.  The LALS reputation for extravagant claims of alien invasion was well established in Lallybridge.

“Where are you going with that wheelie bin?”  Miles Purvis called across the road as Saul Chipperby rumbled past.  “It looks heavy!”

“I’m taking it up to the Tarpington place,”  Saul responded.  “It’s Griselda Burdock’s.  While she’s away I’m getting both bins emptied from Tarpington’s house. It’s easier!”

“I suppose,”  Miles said doubtfully, trying to follow Saul’s logic.  “By the way, has Chipperby Lawn Services got a slot free to cut my back garden this weekend?  Great idea for a company, that.”

“I’ll maybe have some space on Sunday.  I’ll give you a call.”

Saul was not unaccustomed to the odor of fermenting grass, although its smell was the more malodorous for being confined within the walls of Tarpington’s living room.  Wherever he looked there was grass – grass in bags, grass in boxes, grass in basins, grass in bottles.  He wondered what Tarpington would make of it if he returned unexpectedly from the holiday Saul still darkly suspected might be the cause of his absence.

“Circumstances dictate cases.  I wouldn’t object in the slightest.”  It was the familiarity of the voice in his head that made Saul jump.  He shot a glance at the two creatures, one dark green, the other dark blue but remarkably similar in every other respect, that lay entwined comfortably on Tarpington’s brown leather corner unit.  Two pairs of dreaming eyes returned his look.

“Donald?”  Saul frowned.  This didn’t make sense.

“Of course, dear chap.  Who else would I be?”  The dark green creature’s response filled his mind.

“And you can address me as Griselda,”  ‘Donald’s dark blue companion’s ‘voice’ was equally familiar.  “Although we aren’t, actually.”

“That much we can agree, at least,” Saul said. “You bear no resemblance to Griselda – nor you to Donald. You actually look more like, well, caterpillars, I suppose.  You do know that, don’t you?”

“Caterpillars.”  Blue Griselda exchanged glances with Green Donald.  “That could present a problem.”

“It would explain the appetite,” Green Donald agreed.  “Could I have another bag of cuttings, by the way?”

“By all means!”  Saul slid a box of cut grass across the floor in the creature’s direction.  “You haven’t explained who you really are, yet.  What has happened to Donald and Griselda – I mean, you’ve given me their names, but…”

“We’re placeholders.”  Blue Griselda jumped into his thoughts.  “You can think of us as exchange students, if you like.”

“We’re Zoggians,”  Green Donald continued.  “The Donald and  Griselda you speak of have been teleported to our Mothership for modification, and we’re keeping their place for them until their treatment is complete.”

“The difficulty with teleportation – it’s a new system for us – is displacement of matter.”  Blue Griselda explained.  “If we break a creature down into its constituent atoms and then remove them we leave a hole.  That can cause quite a commotion!”

“But nothing like the disturbance that will result when we try to put them back!”  Green Donald added.  “So we swop – two Earth people out, two Zoggians (that’s us) in.  We’re keeping a window open for their return, when they’ve been upgraded to Zoggian specification.”

Saul was incredulous.  “Donald and Griselda are being turned into Zoggians?”

“Obviously!  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a Zoggian?  New, increased functionality, superb telepathic communication (including teleconferencing and augmented visuals) and full connectivity for our sensory navigation package – and that’s just to begin!”

“If you attract our gold package, for less than five pounds a month you can even download your own music on Zoggify!”  Blue Griselda chimed in enthusiastically.  “Although, this caterpillar thing does seem to be a bit of a problem.  We were supposed to appear identical to the earth creatures we are body-sitting for, but something seems to have become confused.”

“I found you in the garden waste bin,” Saul found himself explaining to Green Donald.  His long-held belief in alien abduction was helping him overcome the profound shock of seeing his convictions validated. “You could easily have got mixed up with a caterpillar or two in there.”

“And I sent up my transmission pattern for you to copy,” Green Donald mingled his thoughts with Blue Griselda; “So we are the same, effectively.”

“Which doesn’t solve our problem,” Blue Griselda reminded him.  “Am I the only one who feels a little stiff this morning?”

High summer approached and Saul’s Lawn Services business fell into decline as an increasing weariness overtook him; so he was quite glad to arrive one Sunday at the Tarpington house to discover not a pair of voracious caterpillars but two extremely large dry chrysalids, one green, one blue, in their place.  Even then he refrained from informing the membership of LALS (the Lallybridge Alien Life Society) what had passed.  Only when, upon a regular weekly visit, he thought he detected movement in one of the chrysalises, did he summon them to the Tarpington house, relating all that his larval companions had told him.  The members were not pleased.

“Why didn’t you inform us earlier?”  Marcus demanded.  “We might at least have averted the chrysalis crisis.”

“They asked me not to,”  Saul replied.  “I think they were afraid of publicity.”

“And now look what’s happened!”  Cried Peregrine.  “They’ve turned to bloody rock!  Vicki dear, what are you doing?”

Intoning the words of an unintelligible mantra, Vicki Blomquist was busily producing cards decorated with mystic symbols from her handbag and positioning them around the room, glancing frequently up to a point on the ceiling for reference.  “I’m generating the Event Temple, Peregrine.  One of us has to, or Donald and Griselda won’t find their way back, you see?”

“I think they will,”  Saul responded.  “The blue one’s splitting;  look!”

A tiny fissure had opened in the Blue Griselda chrysalis.  Marcus, ever thoughtful, brought a bath sheet from Tarpington’s linen cupboard and held it up, ready to preserve the hatching alien’s dignity as she returned to Earth.  “I don’t care whether she’s still one of us or not, she deserves a little respect,” he excused himself (somewhat lamely, Peregrine thought).

The assembled company would have to wait a further half-hour, regaled by Vicki’s chanting, before the familiar head of Griselda Burdock finally appeared, her hair passably well styled, and looked around her. She registered no surprise at the presence of her welcoming committee as, giving a final heave she rose, thrusting the two halves of her chrysalis from her.  Marcus, about to bring her the towel, froze.  Griselda looked down at her large, bedraggled wings and her six furry legs.

“Dammit!”  She said.

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

Image Credits:

Featured Image – Thomas Budach from Pixabay

Grass Mower: Ulrika Mai from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Seven

Schemes and Dreams

In a night of troubled dreams, Francine could manage only fitful sleep.  Her heart could not allow her to forget the warmth of Arthur’s enfolding arms, or how natural it had seemed, even though the mere recollection brought a flush of embarrassment, that she should seek refuge there.  Her head was filled by murmurings, strange conversations in words she could not quite detect, invitations that defied all reason in their insistence.  They called to her, awakening her time after time, growing ever stronger as the night passed.  In the early morning while all but a few of the servants in the house were still asleep she yielded to them at last:  she rose from her bed and slipped stealthily through the corridors of the Guest Wing, out into the darkness.

Once out of doors, the sounds in her head left no doubt: they emanated from the place in the park where the old oak had been blown down by a storm.    Oblivious to the dangers of the lingering darkness, she found her way on slippered feet through icy April rain  back to that great overturned giant,   The first vermillion glow of sunrise broke through the clouds to discover her at the brink of the wide pit left by the uprooted tree, staring down into the abyss and its exposed foundation rock.  Now so close, the urge to find union with that unyielding stone was irresistible.  Francine began to clamber down, an enterprise that, even had it been pursued with caution would have proved impossible on feet wet from the grass.  She had no thought of caution.   Within seconds her balance escaped her and she fell.  She fell so her head cracked against the stone and her arm doubled under her.

There was pain; a searing scream of protest wracked her injured skull; but it abated almost immediately.  Neither did her twisted arm complain for long:  where she lay against it the rock’s warmth, if that was how it could be described, flowed into her like balm, inducing her to seek more from its embrace.   This, it seemed to tell her, was the place she was meant to be.  She did not question it.  It offered the solace she needed so badly.  

She had been lying there how long?  Who could know?  The rain had ceased and the sky was becoming light, a morning chorus of birdsong surrounded her, yet she did not hear it:  all she heard came from beneath her; from the rock itself.   Words, indistinguishable at first, then drifting around her head like those that had invaded her sleep; so much stronger now, so much more assertive.   So much like those strange utterances she had shared with Arthur at the Bleanstead lighthouse as the sea beat in upon them that wild morning, when she had spoken of their experience as being ‘real’.  These, though, were not her own words; they were the words of a young voice, a female voice:

“Wow!    Are you weird or what?” Some other unintelligible words in the same voice, then a male response.

“I so did not!  I was a bit freaked, that’s all…”

#

Peter, his mind still filled with visions, had been ushered back to the room where he and Alice had first met.  Vincent had parked him on some cushions as a seat and Alice, kneeling in front of him, was trying to engage his eyes.  She did not seem quite as furious as before.   “Do you know where you are?”  She asked him.

“I don’t.”  Her hand was on his knee.  He didn’t like it: there might have been no threat, but those fingers, those tentacles were like a cat’s claws, ready to dig into his flesh.    “There seems to be a clock. I keep seeing a clock.  I can’t read the time from it – it’s all liquid and sloshing about…”

“Town, city?  Like London?   Like Big Ben, or something?”

“No, I don’t think so.  It’s just a clock face, only it’s old; like, ornate hands and everything…”

Vincent was further across the room, pacing.   “A street on its end, part of a big place like a city, a clock.   Don’t worry about it Pete, it’ll come through.  Describe the people you saw.”

As he told his host of the woman whose pain had reached into him, the angry man and the black figure of despair, Peter felt a return of sensation, as if, his head gradually clearing, something new, something dark was revealing itself.  He began to view Alice differently – there was an elusive part of her he had to reach, and for a reason, although he could not grasp what the reason was.

“It’s a strange thing – I never had this happen before.  I’m really sorry!”  He said humbly.

“No, mate, you don’t need to apologise!”   Vincent was magnanimous.  “I’d like to say it could happen to anyone, Pete, but that wouldn’t be true.  Listen, I think we should take you home now:  I’ll get my bloke to bring a car round.”

The red Aston Martin which arrived at the great doors to take Peter back to the mainland was impressive enough to allay his regrets at leaving.   Alice stood beside Vincent under the Arch, watching him leave.   Again, as he said goodbye, Peter experienced that urge to say something left unsaid.  But there was a menace in Alice’s beauty which deprived him of speech, and after a few hesitant mumblings he withdrew into silence.

Alice watched him go, ignoring the faint churning she had felt in her stomach when she caught his parting look.  “A street on its end?    A clock which could be from anywhere?  A woman in some sort of trouble and a big sad guy?   Okay, Vince, how am I going to explain that to my people?”

Vincent hugged her shoulders:    “You’re not, are you?  This is very much our bird, innit?  Look, darlin’, I told you he was special, didn’t I?  And I was right, yeah?”

“So why, if he’s that special, are you just letting him go?  Vince, this is really urgent!  We don’t have any time!”  Alice spelled the words out to him, slowly, as if that would penetrate what she saw as density in his head:  “If there is something there, I need to know it now!   Why not just get him back and sit him on that rock until he sorts out what street, and what city, and who the hell is the giant guy?”

“You get so, so uptight!”  Sighed Vincent.  “Just now you were accusing me of abducting a minor, now you want me to!  If we put him through that again now, he would probably go insane.  He doesn’t understand what is happening to him yet.  Maybe he never will.  But I know this much – if he comes to the answer, he’ll do it in his own way, and his own time.  We can’t rush it.  Besides, I don’t think he’ll be working alone.”

“How do you mean?”

“I didn’t say he had to be the only one, did I?”

Peter sat holding his breath as the man he had met at the gate, now his chauffeur, steered them carefully through Crowley’s tunnel. He felt he was still too close to everything that had happened to even try to make sense of it all:   maybe Mel would help him do that if they could meet up on FB tonight.   Meanwhile, Vincent’s parting words to him still reverberated in his head.    The rock guitarist had gripped his shoulders so as to make him look straight into his eyes as he said them.  Vincent was being ree-ally serious.

“Listen carefully Petey, alright?   Sort out that dream, yeah?  And when you have – when you can tell me what it means, or even if you’ve got an idea of what it might mean, whatever time of night or day, you call me immediately.   Doesn’t matter if it makes no sense to you, if you just feel like it’s an answer, ‘phone me.   I’ll be waiting.    Now, here’s my number.   Keep it safe, yeah?”

Avoiding college that afternoon did little to improve Peter’s cataclysmic sense of something that was just beyond his range of vision:  something black and somehow threatening.   He wandered aimlessly through the remains of his day, unable to concentrate, frightened to revisit his dream.  The recurring image of the dark man, so all-consuming and melancholy, loomed like a thunderhead over everything.  

“Petey?”  His mother looking in through the door of his room, gently concerned, seeing that something was wrong, but wise enough not to intrude.  “Are you ill, love?”

“No mum, I’m fine.”   Lena did not persist.   “If you need us, you know where we are.” She closed the door.

Mrs. Cartwright: Lena.   Graduated from ‘The Slade’ with a fine arts degree, met Robert Cartwright at a ‘Varsity ball in Cambridge when he, a student of theology and a little younger, was still an undergraduate.  Lena had been a mysterious, introverted companion; given to sudden outbursts of exhibitionism which were the more remarkable for their unexpectedness.   Bob was as radical then as now, by no means a convinced student of the conventional theologies, or, as he would put it:  ‘Trotskyite religion’.   They remained friends, she painting and establishing a reputation for herself as a graphics artist, he a struggling Anglican whose worldliness was forever in question.   Nevertheless he achieved his Doctorate and, when the Levenport living was offered to him, proposed to Lena.   She gave up a promising career to become the wife of an irascible and altogether unconventional priest.   They were, with certain reservations, dutiful parents, doting on each other and upon their only son:  but they rarely showed, and never spoiled, with their affection.  Peter was who Peter was:  a lonely child but a well-adjusted one.  Robert was a faintly dysfunctional father, perhaps, possessed by demons of a practical nature:  Lena at times very much the artist – self-obsessed, demanding, often terminally depressed.  Yet she still painted: it was the income from her art, rather than Robert’s living, which kept their lifestyle ticking over.

Once he was sure that he would not be interrupted, Peter turned his computer on and used the keyboard to text Melanie, describing everything he could remember of his day.  She called him back at once.   “Wow!   Are u weird or what?  Did you, like, throw up on his carpet or anything?

“I so did not!  I was a bit freaked, that’s all.”

Melanie thought Alice should have impressed him,  “What was she like?  Describe her for me.  Was she sexy?”

“Alice?  What care I what Alice was like!  Tall, black hair – could have done with a comb…

“Heavy eyebrows, big nose, sort of long?”

“Not that big!”

“Alice Burbridge!”  Melanie cried, triumphant,  “I bet it was Alice Burbridge!  She’s dead famous, Pete!”

“Yeah, right! I kind of thought she was going to stab me, some of the time.   Tell me what you think the dream – vision – whatever. was about.     You’re good at these things.”

“I think it was about too much happy cake.”

“Mel, serious, please?”

“Okay, okay.   There was a street, you said?”

“Yes, but on end.  I’m falling down it instead of walking.  The pavement’s vertical, and I fall into the sea at the bottom.”

“Was there anything else about it you remember?  Like the name on a shop, or something?

Peter searched his memory, “No, nothing.  It all happened too fast.   Vincent thought it might represent some sort of code, you know?  With the clock and everything?”

“I don’t see that.    I think it may be a series of clues.  Dreams draw on your experiences, don’t they?  Peter, try this.   Is there somewhere in your past – a place you visited that was so special…”

“…that I didn’t want to leave?   Like the West End, you mean?

“Right: London.  What made you think of that straightaway?”

“Dunno.  I sometimes remember it.  Kensington; went there with olds when I was, like, five or something.   Wicked day.   We did the Natural History museum.   Tiny kid, big skeletons; I was well impressed.”

“You didn’t want to come home?”  Melanie asked.

“No.  I wanted to stay longer, but you know my dad, he’s time-obsessed.   He kept lantering on about missing the train….Oh shit, the clock sloshing around!”

Melanie was triumphant,  “Yep.  Your dad is the clock, and the large place is one of those museums, or maybe just London.   Now, the street; are we looking at this the wrong way round….can u remember falling down, or anything?

“What,  on that trip?  No.”

“Ha ha.  Or panicking?   Did anything make you frightened?   You were only five.”

Peter shook his head, “I don’t think so.”

Melanie sighed,  “Well, we’ve got London, anyway.   Where else did you go, do you remember?”

“Not really.   I mean, we probably did the tourist places, like the Tower and things, but I don’t think they mean anything.”

“Explain?”

“\I can’t, honestly.  I just think that this – whatever it is – I’m supposed to be seeing, should kind of stand out, u know?  Like really obvious, if you know what I mean.    Thing is, Vincent made it sound so urgent and important; I feel like I’m letting him down, yeah?”

Melanie made a face.  “I think he needs a big slap, giving you puff and putting you in this position.    I’ll keep working on it, but I can’t think of anything else right now.  Tell him London.  Maybe that’ll help?     See you at coll tomorrow, if you’re coming, that is.”

“Sarcasm  now!   Yep, I’m coming.  Come round here, if you got time, we’ll go in together.”

“Half-eight then.  ‘Night babes.”

“Mel?”

“Yeah, what?”

“I should have said something to Alice.”

“Like what?”

“Dunno.  Just something.”

Peter closed his call with Melanie before he tapped out Vince’s number.

#

Alice was at home in her Lancaster Gate apartment when Vincent called:

“It’s London.”   His voice said.

Alice was not feeling charitable.  “Great!”   She growled:   “That’s just great!    That narrows it down a lot!”

“Alright, alright!  We still have four possible days when this could happen, don’t we?    Give the lad time, Al.”

“No time.” Alice told him, with resignation in her voice.   “If – and I do say ‘if’ because I don’t believe this whole cockamamie thing with visions and stuff anyway – if it is London it’s going to happen in the next eighteen hours, because tomorrow night the whole circus is moving on to Manchester, then Newcastle.  It flies out from Newcastle on Friday, doesn’t return to London; and I’m not supposed to be telling you this oh Jesus what’s the matter with me!!  We don’t have any time at all, Vince!”

“Well, do you know the itinerary for tomorrow?  That might help a bit, yeah?”

“Yes, I do.   And no, I can’t tell you, because that’s top secret.   You know we aren’t disclosing any details of his schedule.  I’ve already said far too much.”

“I’m not a bleedin’ spy!”

“If this goes belly up you might as well be!  If they discover I’ve been feeding you information the Court’s ‘ll mince us, Vincent. So you’d better pretend you don’t know me for a while, okay?”

#

Salaiman Yahedi rose early as a matter of habit.    Six o’clock was, for him, the best time of the day.   When he strolled in the Park,  joggers, deliverers and carriers, all with a head-down purpose of their own, would scarcely notice him.   If he now and then acknowledged a stranger as they passed, there was no inquisitiveness on either’s part:  no-one studied faces; no-one noted, specifically no-one noticed him.  Yahedi was an expert at these things.  Salaiman Yahedi, who was wanted in almost every country in the western world, might, you would have thought, have been happier in the crowd, losing himself in a host of faces, but no: he preferred the few to the many, the early-morning people who were lost in their own world as much as he was lost in his.

Those who placed barriers for an event later that day were not security men, they were just workmen with barriers.   They had no interest in who was around, who might be attending to the detail of their work.   So Yahedi was able to wipe the dew from a bench and sit watching them for a while, just casually.  None but the most discerning could have seen that, whilst he sat there, he was sizing up the relationship between those barriers and a certain window on the third floor of a prestige hotel across Park Lane.   No-one else could see (for Salaiman was satisfied that he himself could not) the small, circular hole he had so painstakingly incised in all three layers of glazing in that window; working for hours into the previous night.

Yahedi relaxed, enjoying the morning.    There was no smell quite like that of English grass before the day had bullied and bruised it.  It offered some compensation for the eternally low temperatures, the ever- present threat of rain.   Curious, though, that on a morning so fine there should be flocks of seagulls as far inland as the Capital: he assumed the weather on the coast must be less kind.  Salaiman amused himself as he watched their wheeling, spiralling flight for a while, before he returned to his hotel for breakfast.  His day’s work would not begin for a couple of hours yet.  He stood up, preparing to do battle crossing an already busy Park Lane, and in a moment’s carelessness nearly collided with a woman in a red tracksuit who was jogging past.

“I am very sorry, excuse me!”   He apologised.

“It’s okay.” The woman seemed preoccupied, troubled.  As she ran on, Yahedi watched her retreating back thinking how beautiful she was, so tall and with such a shock of black hair, and how he would relish practising his very specific arts upon her.   Some would always escape.  There was nothing he could do; unless, of course, they should run across each other again….

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

Header Image: Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Dinosaur: Harald Matern from Pixabay

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A Measure of Living

It’s 6:00 am on a February morning.  The air is chill as I slip out from beneath warm blankets.  Ice has formed inside the window pane of my bedroom and I scrape it away to peer into the darkness at the frosted world beyond.  It is 1960.  I am fourteen years old.  

Outside our front door lies a bundle of newspapers, dropped by the newsagent’s van.   I will take them in, sort them on the kitchen table into an order to fit into my canvas bag, then I will take the bicycle from the back shed and set off on my ‘round’ of the country lanes that I cover every morning.

I don’t remember how many customers I had.  They were farmers for the most part, and villagers whose working hub was the nearby town.  Few travelled far, in those days.  As a rule they were tolerant, kind people who suffered their news in wet and dilapidated condition on rainy days with little complaint.  The canvas bag did its best, but it rarely succeeded in keeping the Daily Mails and The Times, the Mirrors or the Manchester Guardians completely dry.   I hated wet Sundays.  Sunday ‘papers were so heavy with supplements and extras I sometimes had to make two runs to spread the weight.

Dogs persist in my memories of those days – more, perhaps, than people.  Ralph was a Border Collie who helped drive his master’s cow herd to milking about the time I came past.  His method for asserting his authority was to leap up and swing on the tail of the rearmost cow.  Heavy with milk, the matron would half-heartedly flail a backward foot, but she never really seemed to mind.   When he wasn’t working he sat on the wall next to the road.  Ralph expected to be petted.

The architect at the end of the road owned a Great Dane:  the dog knew I regarded him with sufficient terror (he stood nearly as tall as I) to employ avoidance tactics whenever possible –  there was a long path to negotiate before his owner’s letter-box, and he looked forward to my daily visits with enthusiasm.  I was his favourite game.  Picture my young self, if you will, anxiously peering over the front gate to make sure the coast, as it were, was clear.  Picture the Great Dane hiding behind a rose bush of generous dimensions, watching as I stole stealthily up the path, slipped his master’s newspaper through the letterbox, and turned to beat my fast retreat, at which point he would stroll almost casually out onto the path, cutting off my route to safety.  Our eyes would meet.  I swear by the curl of his lip he was laughing. That dog had the deepest, most spine-chilling bark I have heard before or since.  I called him Baskerville; I don’t recall his real name.

Puttie was a Highland Terrier, a ‘Westie’.  Puttie’s owner, a nice comfortable lady, taught him to come to the front gate and collect his mistress’s ‘paper.  She accompanied him the first time to reassure me that Puttie knew what to do and it was all right to lean over and give him the rolled-up ‘paper.

“Are you sure?”  I asked her.

“Yes, certain, dear.  He’s very clever, you know.”

So I did.  I leaned over and delivered the newspaper into his jaws.  Puttie received it with enthusiasm, thereafter proving he was also very fast on his feet.   Seconds later, after he had disappeared behind the house, there came the first sounds of shredding.

“I expect he’s just taken it inside,” his owner explained, although she didn’t sound convinced.

That was an exercise never to be repeated.  I was told subsequently by nice lady’s son that Puttie not only took the newspaper indoors, but scattered bits of it around every room in the house.  He also defended it with vigour, while it still had entity, resisting any attempt to take it from him.

My ‘paper round paid me, as I recall, fourteen shillings a week.  It filled the two hours before our school bus came to take us over the hills to the local seat of learning.  It kept my own personal wolf from the door in the winter months, became a chore in summer when there was farm work to be done – potato raising, fruit picking, harvesting, in the evenings.  By and large they were good days, when a ‘child’ of twelve, thirteen or fourteen could ride the hay wain home, pitch straw with forks or (my favourite) ride the sled behind the bailer.  Farmers were mean paymasters, but we learned to work for our living.  We were respectful, a little fearful, and we were strong.

Then, in Britain, some might say the downward spiral began.  One day in a town called Minehead a beat bobby sought to discipline a miscreant teen by giving him a clip behind the ear.  In those days that kind of correction was common enough, I had been on the receiving end of a stout policeman’s severity once or twice myself.   It was simple, it was effective, and nobody died.  It nipped a thousand potential lives of crime in the bud.  The parents of that boy sued the police and won.  The beat bobby was a beat bobby no more, the constabulary paid up, thereby setting a precedent from which have sprung countless opportunist law suits, ranks of ambulance-chasing lawyers and a Health and Safety culture with which every former bastion of authority must ingratiate itself for fear of damage claims and destroyed careers.  

No more the hay wain rides, the thrusting of bales from the sled.  Even paper rounds are suspect now, and besides, those who might have earned from them are too busy throwing bricks at policemen, intimidating their teachers, or roving the streets in gangs.    You might disagree with me, in fact I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bloggers will, when I suggest that whenever we try to subvert the natural order of things by law we make them worse.   In the cocoon of my modern life I do occasionally reflect in this fashion.  Today I decided to share.

Featured Image by Sergey Mikeev from Unsplash

Image of Great Dane by Keenan Barber from Unsplash

West Highland Terrier by Sharon Tay from Unsplash

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To Molinaphoto885 and whomsoever else it may concern…

I have been accused in my ‘Contacts’ page by the above addressee of infringement of copyright on an image or images on this blog. The email sought to direct me to a site wherein, it said, there would be references to the material in question. It did not give me direct references to the image/images. or the articles in this blog where they are purported to have been used.

I will not open links sent to me in communications of any kind, unless they are from trusted senders. Any information which requires action from me must be included in the text of the email, or other communication, itself.

I never intentionally breach copyright, to which end it is normal for me to use sites that offer material free for commercial use. There are plenty out there to choose from. If I unintentionally display copyrighted material, the copyright owner need only contact me as stipulated above and I will immediately remove it. I have no wish to offend.

My attempted response to this accusation will not ‘send’ to the email address supplied – it is refused by the server, which makes me think I am justified in treating this as a scam. I may be wrong, and if I am I will happily apologize to Monica at Molinaphoto885 as soon as I receive the relevant information, including an email address to which I have the right of reply.

If I am not, this is a warning to all my blogging friends out there of a possible scam I have not encountered before. Maybe you have? Please let me know!

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Satan’s Rock

The Chapters So Far:

The Wild Sea:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

The Prince’s Gift:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Quimple:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Intrusion:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Foreign Deceptions and Home Truths:   Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

The Cuckoo and the Nest:     Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Honoured Guests:             Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

An Invitation:                      Satan’s Rock – Frederick Anderson’s Story Blog (frederick-anderson-stories.org)

Exploration and Discovery:      https://frederick-anderson-stories.org/2021/05/02/satans-rock-9

Part Six: Butterfly

At first, in spite of the miasma Vincent’s welcoming spread of food had induced, Peter found his introduction to St. Benedict’s House fascinating.   Shepherded by the erstwhile rock star, yet with scant guidance from either Vincent or Alice, he was able to interpret what he saw in his own fashion.  Whatever drug Alice had introduced to him, although it did nothing for his balance, seemed to heighten his perception.  The small wooden paneled door which now led into a quiet informal garden could be the side door Toqus had secretly used.  He could visualize the big man’s form and the shining bronze of his skin, even believed for a moment that he saw his fleeting shadow, and he explained this to Vincent, who asked:   “Who was this ‘Toqus’ geyser, then?”   Peter managed to garble out the story of Crowley and his mysterious servant.

The long gallery, once buttressed onto the rock beyond these windows, had been torn off by the storm on the night Lord Crowley died, its debris cascading down three hundred feet to the sea.   Now full length sheets of glass replaced it to form a sky-walk with a view which took Peter’s breath away.

Here might be the room where poor old Crowley spent his last night alive.    Too ill to use the great stairway that fed the upper parts of the house, his bedroom was on the main floor.  Although the décor was entirely changed, its oak doors opening now into a warm, modern dining room with a beautifully polished central table and Mackintosh chairs, still it was easy to imagine the big Georgian four-poster bed with its poor, huddled occupant.  

“This is where we do the posh eating.”  Vincent explained, unable to see, as Peter saw, beyond the recessed lighting and the plain, smooth walls in their sympathetically soft terracotta hue.  Peter refrained from telling him of the likelihood that the house’s original owner had died in just this doorway.  Certain information might be best left unsaid.

This, then, must have been the corridor along which the maidservant brought news of the old man’s death.   In this smaller salon a widowed Lady Crowley had very likely entertained her scheming lover: of course, the designing Mr. Ballentine would have known all there was to know of the house in his day.  As in Lord Crowley’s bedroom, though, little real clue to its distinguished past remained: just as the structure of the Great Hall had been gutted to accept the new, so most of the rooms had lowered ceilings with crisp, fresh interiors, refurbished for the comfort of Vincent’s music industry guests.   Low volume audio played in most of them, and the air was redolent of nineteen-seventies glam rather than Regency hauteur.

Led hither and thither through so many different rooms all looking so much the same, Peter’s befogged brain began to descend from the height of its euphoria and to tire of the experience.   Yet Vincent,  clearly regarding his ‘place to be’ with pride, wanted him to absorb each space.  Peter noticed, too, that Vincent was moved occasionally to leave him alone in a room, as though his presence might interrupt Peter’s appreciation in some way.  He would have been intrigued had he overheard Vincent and Alice on one such occasion.

“Nothing!”  Alice hissed in exasperation.  “He doesn’t feel anything, he doesn’t see anything – he just wants to talk about bloody history!”

“Right, yeah, right!”   Vincent soothed, “Maybe if you hadn’t dosed him up so much?  Give him time, girl?    He’s got to tune in, right?”

“Vince.   Vince?   Time is what we don’t have?”   Alice paced as she spoke.  “I agreed to this, God help me.   I came down here because you told me you had the answer.   And you’ve got nothing!  Just a schoolkid and some crazy fantasy you dreamed up – probably after one of those iffy fags of yours.   Well, I’m dead!  I’m finished!”

“Will you calm down?”  Vince said.   “Have some faith, Al?  He hasn’t seen everywhere yet, has he?”

“Where else?  The guest bedrooms?  He’s out on his feet now – are you going to take him around all of those?  You said yourself the answer was down here.  Where did you get him from anyway?   How on earth do you know he’s ‘the right one’?”

“Trust me.   I just do.  Let ‘s take him through the atrium and do the studio now, right?”

Alice gave him a look of trust betrayed:  “I can’t believe I’m going along with this!  This is abduction, do you know that?  You’re keeping this kid against his will!  Look, ask him, Okay?  Just ask him if he gets – oh, I don’t know – some vibe or something: whatever he’s supposed to get.  Ask him.”

“Can’t do that, love.”  Replied Vincent.  “It has to be spontaneous.  We’ll know when it happens, though.”

“If it doesn’t hurry up I’m going back to London – see if I’ve got a job left.”   Alice shook her head sadly.  “I did trust you, Vince – you, and your miracle solutions.  I went for it, didn’t I?”

“Faith, Al, have faith.”  Vincent urged, as he returned to the room which had once been the great kitchen of the old house.   “Come on, Peter, mate.   Come and see where I’ve got me own personal recording studio!”

The architect Quimple’s original plans for St. Benedict’s House had depicted a main building surrounding a central courtyard in a sort of horseshoe on three sides.   Part of this courtyard had been intended as a sheltered garden, where his client could take the air while tempests raged and hurricanes blew, the rest, discreetly veiled by a columned palisade, a cobbled yard whereon much of the business of the house, deliveries of food, cleaning and drying of linen, etcetera, could take place.

The stable block with its attendant noise and odour was designed to be away from the house, forming part of a boundary wall on the seaward side, near the gatehouse.   But with the fall of Crowley’s fortunes, and after the more physical fall of Quimple, Matthew Ballentine  insisted that economies must be made; the stable was built across the open space which Quimple had intended as a garden.   Thus the stables formed the fourth side of the courtyard, so other than access gates serving the tradesmen’s yard it completely enclosed the cobbled area.  No-one had much objected to this transformation, in part because all the main windows of the house opened outwards onto the seaward sides, and in part because they knew no differently:  Ballentine ensured the original plans were destroyed.

“This used to be a courtyard,” Vincent explained as he opened the small door from the one-time kitchen;   “We threw a glass roof over the top, so it’s an ‘Atrium’ now.   We got all sorts of stuff in here.   The studio used to be a stable.   Come and see!”

He led Peter into a small, enchanting garden, dissected by a path among giant tropical foliage and a bridge across a pond where golden carp swam sedately.  A fountain played at one end of the garden, sending a tiny stream over a series of little cascades.    Water plants scented the humid air and sun from the glazed roof created a rainbow.  The mist was dusted with exotic butterflies, some catching the sunlight in vibrant flashes of pure color as they flew, others perched with gently flexing wings upon stone carvings of mythic creatures that lurked in the undergrowth to either side of the path.   The enchantment was brief but liberating for Peter.  Here, in a tiny tropical paradise, anxiety, stress, his worries about being missed, all dissipated.  

It was an experience soon over, however, because for all its variety, Vincent’s  temperate house was quite small and the studio-come-stable all too close.  Not that Peter was uninterested in what was, after all, the first recording studio he had ever seen.

“Is this the mixing desk?”

Vincent nodded.   “Yep. Just as good as any they got in the big company studios.   I can do a full recording session here, editing, everything.   Come and try the booth, Pete.”

So Peter stood in the sound booth, where he could not help imagining himself with headphones on and a band behind him as he sang.  And there was a high stool to sit on, and there were guitars strewn carelessly about the place, and a drum set he wanted to play; but he could tell that for some reason Vincent was not so enthused, while Alice in her shuffling slippers inside the sound booth was positively twitching with impatience, so he did not ask if he could do these things.   Instead, he made his excuses.

“Thank you for taking the time to show me all this;” Peter said,   “But I think I really have to leave now.”

“Yep, I guess that’s it.”  Vincent agreed with an odd, resigned sigh:  “Thanks for visiting us, mate.  I’ll show you out, Pete, yeah?”

Alice said nothing.  Outwardly she seemed the same rather laid-back person who had greeted him at the beginning of his visit.   There was a smouldering undercurrent, though, which Peter could not help but detect; and as he and Vincent made to return through the enchanted garden she flounced ahead of them, her hips swinging angrily and her squid-hands clenched so the tentacles were white.

In his dejection, Peter nearly missed the little drama playing out in by the pond.   Had he not chanced to look down he would never have seen the giant white butterfly which, presumably while feeding on a piece of rotting fruit lying at the margin of the water, had got itself caught in weed.   Two legs were firmly wedged in a frond that tightened its grip every time the poor creature struggled, and the golden carp were circling ominously like u-boats close by.   Peter leaned down and released the captive, gently pulling the strands of weed apart until he could lift it clear of danger.  The great insect then, far from flying away as he might have expected, clung to his finger as if in gratitude.

“What should I do with it?”  He asked Vincent, entranced.

“Do you think he wants to go home with you?”  Vincent smiled sadly:  “Better let him settle somewhere to dry out, man.”

There was a rock beside the stream, a nice flat table-shaped stool of sparkly black granite where a butterfly might sunbathe, so Peter let it settle there.  As he persuaded the creature to leave his hand he had to lean against the rock.

            A scream wrenched itself from somewhere deep inside Peter’s head.   He recoiled, clutching pointlessly at pain which was firing some furnace in an untouchable place: he twisted around, nearly fell, yet he could not snatch his hand away.  Pulses of heat were radiating from the stone, engulfing his thoughts, turning them into shapes – images of people, places, exploding through his mind at terrifying speed. The figure of a faceless woman lost in an agony which cried out to him, wrenching at his heart:  behind her, grasping her shoulders, a powerfully-built man whose eyes were filled with hate.   A thin, enigmatic male image in clothes of a bygone time whose cadaverous features twisted and worked at some imagined discourse.   As these three rushed by they were pursued by rows of soldiers; hundreds, no, thousands of soldiers in battle dress. A tall dark man of utter sadness broke from their ranks to come straight towards Peter, reaching out as though to claim him.   The dark man grew larger, ever larger, until Peter knew he must be swallowed by the image:  he was bound for oblivion, bound to be submerged, lost in the mass of this gargantuan figure.   Then, just as he was about to give way, to plunge into the dark man’s despair, he seemed to tip backwards, and he felt himself tumbling, over and over, through featureless space.  He was falling.

From out of the emptiness a townscape came rushing up to meet him.   There were no figures now, no people or faces, just a street of buildings, shops, offices maybe:  but the street was a pit, standing on its end and he was plunging helplessly down into a hot, raging sea which lay at the bottom.  He cried out in terror.  Boiling waves consumed him. He could not breathe, could not see.  This was it:  this was what drowning was like; the water reaching between his lips, into his nose, his throat, down into his lungs.   Then, when he thought that death had come, there was a hand – soft plump skin, a persistent grip – a child’s hand.  It slipped between his own scrabbling fingers as soft as dove feathers; and it led him, it guided him away.  As abruptly as it had begun, the pain stopped.

Peter was back in the garden again.  A few panic-induced gasps for air were needed before he could persuade himself he was free of the illusion, that he was not truly drowning.   He slumped to the ground, his head gripped between his clenched fists.  Looking up, he found his two hosts staring at him.

Vincent grinned broadly.  “Bingo!”   He said.

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

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Gone

The man in the seat in front was picking his teeth with what looked like a straightened-out paper clip.  Head bent forward over the green canvas bag on his knees, he appeared to be engrossed in this exercise, even obsessed by it.

Randall tapped him on his shoulder, hesitantly.  The man turned, still picking, showing Randall a face much older than he first thought.   “Yeah mate?”

“I’m sorry if I…can you tell me, is Hall Park Gardens the next stop?”

The man frowned, examining the end of his improvised toothpick for a result, and finding none.  “Hall Park Gardens?  Nah, don’t know no Hall Park Gardens.  Wrong bus, mate.”

“Oh, no!”  Randall pushed himself back into his seat.  The bus banged over a pothole, jarring his spine.  He remembered why he hated buses; the immediacy of human contact, the hard cushions, the noise, the wasted hours and inexplicable diversions through endless residential streets.  Why had he allowed himself to be dissuaded from driving here?

“That’s a wicked place for parking, Take the train.  It’s ever so simple!  The Fifty-Nine bus stops right outside the station.  It goes more or less straight to St. Mary Magdalene.”

More or less.  More or less!  Randall stared out at a strange street, at kebab shops, emporia for shoes, for vegetables, for fashions:  a strange street in a strange city – strangers on the pavements, dashing or wandering, as lost as he.

“Smartly dressed.  Funeral I’d say.  I’m right, aren’t I?”  The man in the seat in front had turned to face him again.  Salt-and-pepper grey stubble on a sallow, smoke-dried face.

“Yes.  Yes, that’s correct.”

“Thought so.  White shirt, black tie.  Thought so.  Family?”

“No, no.  A friend – an old friend.”

“Sad, very sad, that.  What church?”

“Sorry?”

“What church is the funeral at?  That’s where yer goin’ innit?”

“Oh.  Oh, yes.   St. Mary Magdalene.  Yes, the funeral’s there.”

“Bleedin’ ‘ell, were you ever on the wrong bus!  Lissen,”   the man leaned a beige jacket-clad arm on the back of his seat.  “Forget about Hall Park Gardens, dunno where that is, anyway.  Lissen, I’m gettin’ off next stop, but you stay on for two more stops, yeah?  Get off at The Broadway.  Take the Number Twelve goin’ east.  It’ll have ‘City Centre’ on the front.  St. Mary’s is either the fourth or the fifth stop on that route, alright mate?  Don’t take the Twelve B, that goes a diff’rent way, see?”  Randall’s tooth picker reached for the stop button on the pillar at the gangway end of his seat.  “Good luck, mate.”

Something about the man was familiar, reminded Randall of someone.  He looked up to ask, but the man had gone.

The Broadway proved to be a wide avenue of larger dwellings, its pavements lined with tall plane trees beneath which a number of past residents had, in return for a plaque dedicated to their memory, provided those seats more commonly associated with city parks.   Regaled by birdsong, Randall rested upon Allen Shopland’s memorial laths with peace of mind only faintly disturbed by the association in his memory between St. Mary Magdalene’s Church and Hall Park Gardens.  Somehow he was sure the one was to be found at the end of the other, although whence that memory came was a mystery to him.

A bus arrived, putting an end to his disquiet.  He flashed his travel card at the screen by the driver’s seat and contemplated asking its morose incumbent to tell him when he had reached his stop, but the driver’s demeanor was less than communicative so he held his peace.  A church, after all, could scarcely be so inconspicuous as to be missed.

Wedging his knees behind yet another bus seat, Randall surrendered himself to the pitch and yaw of the different vehicle, trying to concentrate upon his memory of Michael; of their years serving together in the Middle East and the close bond between them that was broken by the end of their army careers.  What on earth had brought his dear friend to live in this vast urban sprawl?  What could possibly have possessed him to settle here?  Michael was dead:  after so few years it was inconceivable; was it illness, love for Belle who had strung him along so mercilessly, or was it this city that had killed him?  The memory of Michael’s face, shining with the smile that was so uniquely his, filled Randall’s eyes and his heart, bringing tears as it always did.  He was not so old he could not weep without shame.

“Close, were you dearie?”   There was a woman sitting next to him.  “Move over a bit, dear.”

Beyond the window, streets and houses flashed by.   How many stops was that?  He had lost count.

“We’re going too fast!”  He cried.

“This driver, dear.  He’s a bit of a psykiepath, if you asks me.  Is this your stop then?”

“I don’t know.  Is it St. Mary Magdalene?”

“Lord no!  You’re going in the wrong direction, dearie.  You wanted the one for the City Centre!”

Frantic now, Randall jabbed at the stop button, thrusting out into the gangway.  “Stop!  Stop!”  He half-stumbled forward, swinging gibbon-like from rail to rail.

“Stay behind the line!”  The psychopath commanded him, then checked in his interior mirror.  “Oh, gawd!”  The bus was drawn quickly to a halt, incurring a clamour of displeasure from nearby traffic, doors opening with a viperous hiss. “Go on, get off!”

Randall had no idea where he was.  He only knew Michael’s funeral was timed for two-thirty that afternoon, an appointment that he would now be pressed to make.   Why, oh why had he elected not to drive himself here?  Why, knowing he had not ridden on a bus for thirty years, hadn’t he ignored advice and taken a taxi from the station rank?  So many whys, so much self-reproach; hadn’t Michael always teased him for his inflexible nature?  It was the reason he had not risen in the army as his parents expected he would, the reason his marriage to Kate had stuttered and struggled for years before finally breaking down.

He must be calm.  He must take stock.

Buses, clearly, were not to be trusted.  He decided to walk.

This could become a military exercise; Michael would appreciate that.  Like those days of the advance, yomping across stony desert terrain with a full pack – a sort of half run, rhythmic and persistent, eating up the miles regardless of pain or blazing heat.

The military mind kicked in.  First, he needed to know his present location, and identify the route to St. Mary Magdalene.  The bus had dropped him off near a crossroads, on the corner of which stood a general store.

“Do you have a town map?”  Randall asked.    Then, when he had made the purchase, “Can you show me where we are now, and the whereabouts of St. Mary Magdalene?”

“You are wanting a church?” The shopkeeper seemed a little vague and took care to keep a separation between Randall and himself, but he supplied the answers he thought Randall wanted.

“Thank you!”  Said Randall.  Clarity at last!

Back on the pavement with his directions securely in his head, Randall set off at the peculiar dog-trot his army training had taught.   People stepped aside to allow him through and some passed comments but he neither noticed nor cared; he had a map in his hand and three miles to cover before he reached the church.   Street upon street, feet hurting, heart pounding, sweat pouring, set upon accomplishing his mission, just like the old days – the good days.  He would arrive there in time!

Yet the streets were sometimes roads, the roads lanes or alleys; none of which complied with his map.  So many roads were unnamed in these days, their signs never replaced when the walls that bore them changed, or stolen by enterprising kids with an eye to the car boot sales, or for their personal collections.  He struggled with the map – its print was so small, his eyes grown weaker with the years; nevertheless, on he went in his odd, stumbling run, stride unbroken, up streets and down roads none of which had meaning, with the old panic rising and rising in his heart and the old pain growing at the very centre of his being.

Then suddenly he knew where he was.  Without warning the road where his map had failed to lead him was there, stretched out before him, wide and straight!  The familiarity of the place burned into his eyes, every feature of it memorable and dazzlingly real.  At its distant end, the road terminated before a proud grey church around which the first mourners were gathering.  Randall, his heart uplifted, mustered the last of his energy and began his journey up that final road.  His appointment with Michael would be honoured, the love between them that had always remained unexpressed could be avowed before his friend, his dear, dear friend passed through the gates into eternity.

Why, suddenly, could he go no further?  How did it happen?  What was a road had become a lake, wide, probably deep, certainly beyond his ability to cross.  There was an island in the centre of the lake, standing high above the water, garlanded with layer upon layer of rhododendrons, pink and red.  The church stood at the water’s opposite shore, doors opened wide in invitation, its congregation gathered and elevated in song, yet there was no way to reach it, for the lake was all of a mile to either side of him and almost half as much across.

Defeated, Randall fell to his knees, compelled as he believed to make his last goodbyes from a distance, to utter a prayer unheard by the man he loved.  It was then the boat found him, it was then.

“Let’s go across, then, old man, shall we?  Let’s go and tell him what you’ve kept hidden all these years.”

Everything had changed.  He was sitting on an unyielding wooden seat, and Michael stood before him, wearing a dog collar that identified him as a priest.

“Michael?”

A feminine hand clasped his, and a warm familiar voice melted into his ear.  “Dad, it’s Rosie – I’m here now.  This is Father Clemence, Dad.  He’s not Michael.  I’m sorry Father; he sees people, you know?  From his past, and that.”

“I’m afraid he’s in a bit of a state,” Father Clemence said, “We lack facilities you see. The police wanted to take him to the Care Centre but Randall was so insistent upon coming here – something about a funeral?  He seemed to believe the police car was a boat, for some reason.  He kept talking about crossing a lake.  I wish I had a better understanding of these things.”

“His best friend was called Michael – he knew him from his army days.  Michael was drowned in a boating accident on Hall Park Garden Lake; in Torrenton, you know?”

Randall’s voice was unsteady.  “He keeps telling me Michael was drunk.  He never drank, never!”

“Don’t upset yourself, Dad.  Who keeps saying that?”

“The toothpick man.  Him!”  Randall stabbed at the priest with a wavering finger.  “That’s him!  He was on the bus!”

“This is Father Clemence.”  Rosie soothed.  “It was after they was demobbed, Father.  Michael couldn’t cope with civvy life, could he, Dad?   He was drinking really heavy the night he died.”

“Is that Rosie?  When is Michael’s funeral?  I was told two-thirty at St. Mary Magdalene’s; am I late?”

“Only by about twenty years, Dad.  Michael died a long time ago.  You were right about the date, though, and the time of the funeral; you always seem to manage that.  We’ve been worried sick about you, you know?  Come on, let’s get you home.”

“It’s a long way.  I came on the train.”

“No, Dad, it’s about twenty minutes.  I don’t know how you got here, but it wasn’t by train.”

“I loved Michael.”

“I know, Dad, I know.”

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

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Satan’s Rock

Part Five: Exploration and Discovery

The sounds emanating from Mountsell Park’s music room spoke of fingers engaged in a titanic struggle.  Abel Montcleif, too polite to refer to the discordant sounds directly, punctuated his conversation with barely concealed winces and, once, an audible groan.

Arthur Herritt’s business manager shared his employer’s appreciation of good music.   Physically, however, he  contrasted less favourably.  Whereas Arthur surpassed six feet in height, Montcleif fell short of it by four inches,  Where Arthur’s nose was prominent and his chin sufficiently determined to support the chin-strap of a cavalryman, Montcleif’s nose would have been inadequate for the oversight of such a jaw as his master’s.  Thankfully, his lower features tapered gracefully into the rest of his rather full profile, so there was no need, and if his voice had a flutish pitch about it which might have made him unremarkable upon first acquaintance, the force of his relentless personal drive more than compensated after a little time passed in his company.  As a manager of Arthur’s affairs, and those of David Hart-Witterington before him, he was irreproachable.  Arthur, so recently succeeded to the Hart-Witterington Estate, had loved him as a friend for years.

“I have seen very little of the lady,”   Montcleif piped, referring to Francine Delisle,  “In the last several months – since before Lord Hart’s sad passing.  If, as you say, her guardian has been keeping her indoors for fear of some danger, real or imagined, that would not surprise me.  Jebediah Fletcher is an ungenerous and frightened little man.”   

Arthur grimaced as he recalled the name,  “I know him!   Of Fletcher and Green, the grocers’ emporium.   Yet he is always out in Society,  whereas I cannot recall encountering Francine in the City at all.  Is she habitually so retiring, d’ye think?”

“Francine!”  Montcleif raised an eyebrow.  “That rather suggests you have been making up for lost time, doesn’t it?  Are we enamoured of the young lady?”

“She…interests me.  The manner of her appearance at Fletcher’s door, in a Moses Basket, as it were, the absence of any other information concerning her or her son, and now this visit from a crazed Dervish who is clearly far more interested than I?  How does it all hinge together, Abel?”

Montcleif nodded,  “I shall endeavour to find out.  As to your assailant, I would think he is three counties away by now.”

“Truly?  Would you?  If his message had any honesty, I would say he is close by, waiting for a gap in our defences.  It might be worthwhile remembering he used a plural:  he said ‘the woman is ours’.  I rather fancy he will not be waiting alone.  I am not Jebediah Fletcher, yet I can see how the poor man could have been affrighted.”

“In the meantime may I take it Francine has become a guest of Mountsell Park?”

“Do you think it inappropriate?”

“A woman with a child, both in need of protection?  A single man of marriageable age?  Very, but one does what one must.  Perhaps you can help her with her Pianoforte tuition?” 

Much of the afternoon had passed when Arthur discovered Francine walking in the walled garden.  Finding her had not been difficult, for Robinson the Ostler and one of his stable hands, returned from their pursuit of the trespassing horseman, were under instructions to keep watch upon her whenever she strayed from the House.  

“I detain these gentlemen,”    She greeted Arthur, nodding to the pair, who stood like sentries at the garden’s single door;   “I intended to take the air.  Am I a serious inconvenience?”

“Not in the least,”  He assured her;  “There must be other diversions than music.”

“You heard!  You heard and you suffered,  I am so sorry!  My fingers seem eager to find a tune, yet I can make nothing pleasing come from the instrument.  I have taken a decade striving to discover just one accomplishment that survives from the teaching of my past life, but I have found none.  I cannot embroider, I cannot paint, and now I have a whole music room to myself I have no escape from my inability to play!   I am truly worthless!”

“Please pardon my imposition of an escort upon you.  I have no wish to limit your freedom, only to keep you safe.  After this morning…”

“I know; I heard.  And I do understand.  Arthur, will you walk with me?”

“Gladly.  Is Samuel not with you?”

“He is within doors.  He is much taken with Peggy, the maid you so kindly provided for me.  She has a repertoire of grisly tales that are entirely to his taste.  He is rapt!”

With this and like subject matter to sustain them, the pair made their way from the garden, Francine treating her two heavily-built bodyguards to a nervous look and enquiring whether the fowling pieces they carried were strictly necessary?

Arthur apologised,  “Scatter-guns are cumbersome, I know.  Unfortunately, my noble predecessor had quite individual views on the subject of firearms, so we are woefully lacking.  Other than a pair of duelling pistols, gamekeeping weaponry is all we possess.  I’m working to correct that.”

“You have so much to defend here, Sir!”  Almost without thought, Francine had taken Arthur’s arm and she gave it a hint of a squeeze;  “After my privations in the City, this is very close to Paradise.”   

They strolled at first by the carriage way which cut through the park, Francine buoyed up by the first bite of evening air, Arthur absorbed by her company.  Behind them, the ostler and his stable hand kept watch at what they perceived to be a respectful distance.  At a place where the way reached a depression Arthur guided Francine onto a far narrower defile, where they found their way beside high banks of rhododendron. A birch copse framed the path in ragged discipline, their history of leaf-mould soft to the tread.  The estate gardeners had cleared this gully and made of it a forest path, full of the rustles and songs of evening, though an hour had passed since it was last touched by the sun.  Francine shivered prettily in the chill, he offered his coat and she, adjusting the garment about her shoulders, expressed her gratitude with a ghost of a smile.

“Come,”  he encouraged her.  “We shall be done with the valley and back among the hills in no time!”  As he promised, the lower portion of the path was immediately followed by an ascent which revealed a vista of the parkland to their right side, and Mountsell House to their left.   The climb was steep enough for his support to be required, engendering a sensation which, as he clasped the cool submission of her hand, affected him more profoundly than he might have wished.

“That poor tree!”  She declared as she found space to regain her balance,  “Whatever happened to it?”

The smooth sloping grass beside their path had been massively disrupted by the toppling of a venerable old oak which, torn from the ground by its roots yet supported by its most stalwart branches, lay like a wounded soldier across the hillbrow, as though trying with its gnarled limbs to drag itself to safety.   

Arthur nodded solemnly.  “A sad casualty of the great gale that occurred on Christmas Night,”  he said.  “It proved the demise of several trees, but this one remains to be cleared.  The work of a summer at least, for our woodcutters.   It reduced our Head Gardener to tears.”

“I remember the storm well,”  Francine acknowledged,  “Nonetheless, I am surprised.  One would have thought such a doughty presence capable of withstanding Armageddon, should it occur!   What forces must have been needed to do that deed!”

“A fine old tree too – of some five hundred years standing, Mr Maple, our head gardener, asserts.   He offered an explanation.  Let us look.”  Arthur took Francine’s hand again, which, he had to admit, he rather liked doing, and led her to an advantage from which she might see down into the pit left by the tree’s roots.  “Do you see how shallow the root bole is?  The tree could never grip the soil deeply because rock lies close to the surface here.  With the years of growth those ancient boughs were gradually exceeding the effort of its roots.”

Francine looked as she was bidden, and she saw the base of the depression as Arthur described it – and yet more.  How smooth, how clean, how extraordinary the surface of the rock appeared, as though freshly washed by rain, although there had been none in recent hours; and quite unreasonably she found herself wondering if somehow Arthur had conspired to lead her here, so she had to tell herself it had been her idea to walk with him, and why would he want, anyway, to impress her with this rock’s unaccountable magnificence or become aware of the warmth that seemed to radiate from it?

“It’s quite beautiful!”  She may have spoken aloud.

A thunderous explosion rent the curtains of this illusion in twain and startled her so much she squealed in alarm, and instinctively threw herself into the arms of the Master of Mountsell Park!   For a few fleeting moments she succumbed to his embrace before he could explain that the stable hand had accidentally discharged his gun, having jammed its stock heavily on his foot.   When she felt able to look elsewhere than the folds of Arthur’s waistcoat she was gratified by the prospect of the culprit dancing on his painful toes.  She sensed the gentle touch of Arthur’s fingers as they brushed the hair back from her cheek, and stepped away hurriedly.  In seconds the moment was passed; she regained her composure, called out to their chastened escorts to enquire if anyone had been injured, even managed to laugh at the whole affair, but the beating of her heart took far longer to recover, and the vision of that rock would pursue her into dreams that night.   

#

Vincent Harper might have appeared to be somewhat dwarfed by the vast proportions of his mansion.  He was not as tall as his picture, nor was he as young.  But as he bounded forward to greet Peter it was certain that his stellar presence had not diminished.  His flaxen hair straggled forward just as it did on his album covers, draping over his narrow shoulders in wavy strings; and if most of these festoons started from a point lower on his cranium than once they did, it would have been unkind to notice.  His wiry frame was so spare of flesh that, though the leather jeans and the white tee-shirt he wore were obviously made to be tight, they slipped freely over his body.  Only his face, lined heavily by the years and by the harder side of living, gave away a man comfortably into his fifties.  Peter was completely overawed.

“Come on, man, we’ve got some serious work to do:”  Vincent took Peter by the shoulder.  “Never been here before, have you?   You’d like some grub, right?  Come and have something to eat and I’ll show you round.”

Feeling a little shaky at the knees and not in the least hungry, Peter nevertheless allowed himself to be guided.   The great hallway, with its school-corridor echoes and hard stone outlines, reduced him to awe-stricken silence.  The walls were hung with pictures – some original oil paintings, some photographs and prints of y eastern origin – some of Vincent the artist and his band, some of women in states of undress, a few obvious family album pictures, too.  a panelled oak door beneath the right hand flight of the glass staircase opened to admit him.

“Welcome to my pad, mate.  This is the bit I actually live in, right?”

Beyond the door was a room from another world; for, as the great hall had been built to impress, so the salon was furnished to pamper.  His feet wrapped by a deep crimson carpet, Peter breathed in a faintly familiar, exotic scent, gazing upon long, deeply cushioned settees and white-curtained walls which were hung, (where they were revealed), with very expensive paintings and prints – A Warhol, certainly, what appeared to be a Lucian Freud, something very like a late Augustus John with many others he couldn’t identify. Six pillars of satin aluminium supported a low padded ceiling dotted with starry lights, from which two womb chairs were suspended.   Framed perfectly in one of these sat a svelte, languorous woman in a bright green silk robe, whose straight raven hair sparked from her head like an electric shock.  Vincent introduced her.

“Peter, this is Alice.”

“Hi Pete.” Alice’s voice had a slow, dialect drawl.  “Want some nosh?  Something to drink?  Drinkies, yeah?”   Her long slender hand gestured at a low table laden with the stuff of luncheon: salad greens, fruit, bread. The hand, with its fine wrist and impossibly thin fingers, should have seemed beautiful to Peter, because Alice was a model who was used to having the finer points of her beauty dissected and admired, but it did not.   She seemed formless, like a squid.

“Hullo Alice.”  Peter responded shyly.

Vincent gave his shoulder a brief hug. “Have what you like, man.  Make yourself at home.  Plant your arse somewhere and we’ll tell you what comes next.”

A drink and two sandwiches later, Peter found it easier to talk.  Where did he live, what was he studying?  All the time he had the impression they knew what his answers would be.  He found himself half-accepting this, just as for some reason he seemed to find his hosts’ expectation of his visit unsurprising – it was the most natural thing in the world to issue invitations via a wild bird.   Nor did he pronounce himself unwilling when Vincent told him how he absolutely must see the rest of the house that very day. He did try vaguely to protest that he had lectures to attend that afternoon, but already the world outside lacked importance – had faded, almost, into mist.   Besides, the rockstar legend was manifestly proud of his ‘pad’ and it would have been rude to deny him.  The air in the room felt thick and heavy, the yielding cushions beneath his weight too softly inviting.   He began to wash in and out on a tide of sleep. Present gently merged into past, words in his head were befogged by music so he was only able to pick up snatches of conversation.   Alice’s voice, quite sharp, was one of these bites.

“Better get him moving now, or he won’t be going anywhere.  Once he drops off, it’ll take hours to get him back.”

Vincent’s hand was grasping his shoulder:  “Come and have a look around, mate.”  He said.

Now, with an odd sensation of floating, he was being steered back into the great hall,   Alice following on spidery legs, her slippers shuffling unaccountably loudly over the marble as though they were treading sand.   Here, with the fresher air clearing his head, he was ready to be told about the history of the pictures on the wall, the architecture, or maybe even some stuff about Crowley or Ballentine.  Could one of the portraits depict Lady Elizabeth herself?   But Vincent did not seem to know – or if he did, he gave very little information.

“Truth is, Peter, I’m not too clued up about the past of this place.   You probably know more than me.  And you’re going to tell me everything you do know, mate; aren’t you?”

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

Featured Image: Kevin Wenning from Unsplash

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The Newquay Train

The text read:  ‘You must come and see this’.  

Lambert came.

That was in 2014, when Tamsyn and he had been searching for a house in a rural setting near Tamsyn’s childhood home for nearly two years.  Property after property had failed to meet their exacting needs, whether by reason of location, size or simple character, so when Tamsyn’s latest find hove into view around the corner of a quiet country lane, Lambert was ready to be persuaded.

“It’s an odd shape.”  Lambert commented.  “Familiar, somehow.”

“It’s a railway station,”  Tamsyn told him.  “Not now, of course, but once.  I think it’s beautiful!”

There was, Lambert conceded, something very plucky and brave about the white rendered façade of ‘Brueburn Halt’, although he would have hesitated to call it beautiful. 

“No rails, they took them up years ago, but you get your very own station platform!”  The estate agent enthused, standing on it, “Endless potential!”  He added, failing to be specific.

“My question is why?”  demanded Lambert,  “Why a station, here?  There isn’t a village for miles.”

“It is odd,”  Tamsyn agreed  “I grew up not a dozen miles from here, yet I don’t recall this station.  I imagine the line was closed before I was born, so I can’t answer you, I’m afraid.  Seeing it yesterday was like it was the first time, you know?”  

Within its doors, Brueburn Halt was a dusty time capsule, wood cracked and peeling, festoons of wallpaper in patterns and colours long forgotten shredded from its walls.  In the darkness behind its boarded windows Lambert sniffed at rising damp like a terrier, poked at plaster, winced at damp ceilings, quailed at the single foetid bathroom.

“It’ll need to be completely gutted.  Are you sure you want this, Tams?”

Tamsyn floated balletically from room to room.  “Yes, oh, yes!  We must have it, my sweetest – we must!”

“The house has been empty for two years,” The agent, a little square man, lowered his voice confidentially, “The old lady who owned it went a tiny bit do-lally in the end; used to sit outside on the platform day and night, rain or shine.  Said she was waiting for a train.  A train!  No rails, see?  They took her into care in the end, I believe.  Big white van – you know?”

“We know.”  Lambert assured him.  “I’ll put in an offer.”  He added.

Lambert honoured his pledge to ‘gut’ Brueburn Halt.  Extensions mushroomed, courtyards were paved, bathrooms proliferated like sanitary rabbits; worktops of black marble glittered in programmable lighting, windows widened, doors deepened:  no swatch of expensive fabric was left unconsidered.  Lambert did not lack sentimentality, though: through it all, the old station platform remained untouched.

There was more, you see, between Lambert and Tamsyn than could be defined in years, although the generally accepted twenty-five was certainly a disparity worth reckoning.  A banking millionaire, Lambert took pride in his wife’s beauty and admired how approaching middle age had not dimmed the child in her; her elegance, her grace – in fact, he was obsessed by her. Tamsyn, prima ballerina for one of the world’s finest ballet ensembles was his pearl beyond price. 

Loved her?  No, not that.  Valued her?  Certainly.

At those social occasions so important to Lambert’s profession Tamsyn’s radiance would draw the rich and influential unfailingly to her flame.  She raised his profile, as she would put it, above the other hippos in the wallow.  When she first met him, Lambert had been rich; with her tutelage he had become very, very rich.  Now, ready in his advancing years to retire, he was gratified when Tamsyn likewise expressed a wish to hang up her pointe shoes – and return to the countryside of her childhood.

It did not occur to her septuagenarian husband that Tamsyn’s retirement idyll might seek to replicate the simplicity and innocence of those formative years.  He could think of her cradled in none but the most perfectly satin-lined nest.  If the confines of Brueburn Halt were smaller than those to which he was accustomed, there was no reason it could not equal the sumptuousness of, say, their St. John’s Wood apartment or their summer villa at Cannes.  If she showed dissent (as from time to time she did) at his lavish tastes he scarcely regarded it, even rather liked it.  Financial despot that he was, he enjoyed a little combative friction – and he always won.

This is not to say Tamsyn was ungrateful.  She claimed to be impressed by the refreshed appearance of ‘Brueburn’ (Lambert had dropped the ‘Halt’, thinking it inappropriate), professing enthusiasm for their shared future in this peaceful spot.

“Oh, Lamby, we shall grow old here, together!”

 And if Lambert had not caught her in this room or that within the house now and then, standing alone and quite still, her expression pensive, her eyes clouded and remote, he might have believed.  Yes, she assured him, the quirkiness of the surviving station platform amused her, the open pathway of the old track bed awakened thoughts in her of long country walks with dogs, she said.  Lambert raised an eyebrow – he had not considered there might be dogs.

Of course there were no dogs, no Tamsyn, either.  If the idyll of retirement seduced her, Brueburnquickly palled.  Party season on the Riviera beckoned, and when that bored her, London society demanded her presence.  She was still, she insisted, in demand professionally.   Much the same could be said of Lambert, whose declared intention to ‘retire’ presented many challenges.   Brueburn languished; St. John’s Wood was so much more convenient.

“I don’t feel comfortable, there,” Tamsyn eventually confided to friends when she spoke of Brueburn.  “One imagines one can relive one’s past, doesn’t one, whereas truthfully one cannot?  Too much has changed.”  And with a vapid sigh:  “For the better, one must suppose….”

Throughout the summer of 2016 Brueburn remained shuttered and deserted.  Come autumn, Lambert decided to place the old station house back on the market.  One late September day he drove from London with this in mind. 

Lambert arrived at ‘Brueburn’ to find its doors already opened, the climate turned on, and his music system playing a coloratura piece from Lakme, one of Tasmyn’s favoured operas.  At first these things seemed to suggest – in fact they spawned the  hope – that his partner had preceded him, although as far as he knew she was still in London, where she was expecting him to re-join her in a couple of days.  But though he explored the much-altered station house from end to end, he found no-one.  A mystery then.  At length he decided Mrs Broadbent, who cleaned the house once each week, must have made these preparations for his coming. He contented himself with that tenuous explanation, poured himself a drink before venturing outside onto the old platform.  Here he rested, as he had hoped to do more often, immersing himself in the sounds of rustling leaves and the drying wind of the season.

Some minutes elapsed before he saw her.   Further along the platform, on an old railway bench that had escaped his notice hitherto, a girl in a printed cotton dress sat reading a paper-backed book.   

  Lambert approached her, though not unkindly, “Hello, young lady.”  The platform was part of his private property but she might not know, after all; why should she?  “What brings you here?”

Wordlessly, without lifting her eyes a moment from her book, the girl extended a hand in which she held, pinched between her forefinger and thumb, a small, green ticket.

Lambert stared at it.

“Don’t you want to clip this?”  The girl asked in a thin voice.

Intrigued, Lambert took the little piece of cardboard from from her hand.  It was stamped third class for Newquay, and dated September 24th, 1949.  “Where did you get this?”  He asked, in a tone less certain than before.

The girl inclined her head towards the house.  “Ticket office.  D’you want to clip it, mister?”

“No, you keep it.”  Lambert passed the ticket back to her.  And he found himself saying:  “They’ll clip it on the train.”  He stepped back, suddenly finding the intimacy of the space repelling and certain in the knowledge he was not wanted there.  Leaving his intended lecture concerning trespass unsaid, he retreated to the drink he had abandoned on the platform’s edge.  When he turned to look again, the girl had gone.

“Describe her to me.”  The estate agent said, when he came to estimate ‘Brueburn’ for resale.

“About thirteen, brown hair, thin and quite pale.  Tall, for her age, probably.  I didn’t see her standing up.  Cheap white cotton dress with a red print.  Roses, I think.”

The agent thought for a moment, then shook his head.  “Nope.  I don’t know anyone like that.  Local kid, though, prob’ly; I can’t know them all.  Do you mind if I have a quick look around?  You’ve done so much to the place…”

Instead of returning to London as he had planned, Lambert ‘phoned his partner.  “Tassy darling, I’ll be staying down here for a couple more days, can you manage without me?”

Tasmyn sounded piqued.   “Sweetie, you know I need to give Rory some answers.  He doesn’t have backing, and I promised him you would make up any shortfall.”

“Is this about Le Corsair?  It’s a classical ballet – surely he can’t be begging in the streets for finance.  Why do I need to become involved?”

“The subject matter is a little controversial.  I don’t think it’s been performed here for years, which is why I want to do it.”

“What do you mean, precious; you ‘want to do it’?  I thought we’d promised each other, no more leads.”

“And we had. Oh, Lamb, I have never danced Medora, it’ll be the last, I promise…”

“I think you’d better come down here.  Wrap things up as soon as you can.  I’m going to need some substantial persuasion.”

“Oh, dear – are you, Lamby?  I shall have to do my very, very best.  You’ll wait for me?  You won’t go jetting off somewhere?”

To curtail a syrup of endearments, Lambert switched off his ‘phone.  He was disquieted by events in the latter days of Tasmyn’s career, as it became evident that her talents were falling from favour and he was repeatedly asked to paper over the financial cracks.  A full-scale classic ballet promised to be rather more than a crack.  He pondered his decision to sell Brueburn afresh.  Maybe this was the time to insist their mutual retirement pledges be put into action. 

She was there again, the girl.  He came out onto the platform expecting to see her:  the same dress, the same paperback book; the same ticket?

She looked up, her intense green eyes meeting his.  “You keep pestering me,” she said.

“You’re on my property,” he replied; and when she gave no response:  “What’s your name?”

“I don’t know as I should tell you, old man comin’ after young girls, and that,”  She retorted.  “Crim’nal, that is.”  She returned to her book.  “I’m Janice, Janice Brathwaite.  My dad’ll come after you.  He’s fierce, my  dad.”

“Well, Janice, you’re trespassing.”

“I’m not.  I’m waitin’ for a train.”

Lambert felt as if he was struggling against something – a weight of atmosphere surrounded the girl.  “There are no trains anymore, Janice; the tracks are gone, do you see?  There’s no ticket office, because the station’s my house, now.”

“I’m goin’ to London.”  

“Your ticket – the one you showed me yesterday  – that said you were going to Newquay.”

The girl rounded on him, her voice rising to a scream.  “LONDON.  T’is LONDON I’M GOING!”

Lambert found himself being blown backward as if by a gale.  The pressure to put distance between himself and the girl was irresistible.  He turned and almost ran back to the shelter of his house with Janice’s voice screeching after him every step of the way.  “LONDON! LONDON!  LONDON!”

Only when he was safely indoors did he look back up the platform from a staircase window. There was no sign of the girl.

Later that evening he Googled ‘Janice Braithwaite’ on his laptop, his search returning only current Facebook references and a few genealogy hits, none of which seemed to apply to a little station called Brueburn Halt, or its long-forgotten estate.  Undeterred, he found the name of the largest local newspaper and paid his way into its archives where, by refining his search to the date of Janice’s ticket, he found the news item he sought.

Railway Death

A tragic accident at Brueburn Station occurred yesterday, when a local man was hit by a train travelling to Newquay and Penzance.  The man, who appears to have fallen from the platform, was pronounced dead at the scene.  Services on the line were suspended yesterday, but are said to be running as normal this morning.  The deceased was named as Norman Talbot Braithwaite.  He leaves a wife and daughter.  Relatives have been informed.

Lambert lay awake long into the night, more than once hearing, when the night was free of other sounds, what he thought to be the thunder of a distant train  – the chuff of smoke and steam, the click-clack of carriages, the hoot of a warning whistle.   When at last he slept, he dreamt of his house as once it was – ticket office, waiting rooms and platform canopy with the tracks laid afresh and gleaming with use.  And when he woke he knew what he must do.  As soon as he had cleared his business calls he returned to the search engine.  He remained there some time.

That afternoon the girl was there, seated and reading as before.  Ignoring the forbidding aura that surrounded her, he walked right up to the seat, which was a long bench, and sat down beside her.

“Hello Janice.”  He said.   She did not reply.  “I’ve read a lot about you,”  Lambert went on.  “About the competitions you won.  You were very good, even when you were only seven or eight years old.  But that was almost seventy years ago.  How old are you, Janice?”

“Thirteen.  I’m thirteen.”   Lambert sensed a wave of antipathy – he could describe it no other way – pushing against him.  Janice was producing her ticket again.  “I’m waiting for my train.  I’m going to London.”

“Your ticket says Newquay.”

“Then it’s wrong.  WRONG!  I’m going to LONDON!”

“Don’t excite yourself, girl.”  Lambert told her, resisting the urge to retreat, no matter how strong it became.  “Why don’t we talk about the first time you came here?”

“Nothing to say.” The full weight of Janice’s will thrust at Lambert, physically moving him away.

“You came with your Dad, didn’t you?” As if at the turn of a key, he felt Janice’s resistance suddenly stop.  She got to her feet, and stood wide-eyed, staring down at him.  He looked her up and down, the slight figure in her cotton dress, and he knew.  He was certain. “Your Dad was taking you to school in Newquay, but you didn’t want to go to school, did you?  You wanted to go to London to begin doing the thing you loved and to make a living from it – even at such a tender age you knew you could do that.”

“But he wouldn’t let you, would he?  It was a spur of the moment thing.  No sign of the ticket clerk, few people on the platform, the train rolling in.  You were so gifted at judgement of balance it took only the slightest push, might not have seemed deliberate at all.  He didn’t fall beneath those wheels, Janice, you pushed him.”

“Pushed him.”  The girl repeated the words slowly, rolling them around in her head.  “Pushed him.”

Satisfied, Lambert turned and walked away.  That was why she returned here, he told himself.  He didn’t know how often she was doomed to re-enact that dreadful day – he didn’t care.  She was no more than an empty ghost to him now.  When he turned around, she would be gone.  And she was.

The hour had turned six when Tamsyn’s car rolled onto the forecourt of ‘Brueburn’ and its svelte, exquisitely coiffured driver emerged to Lambert’s effusive greeting.  “Tams, my sweet love, you have no idea how lonely I’ve been!”

“Oh, Lamb, I’m so sorry!  I had the most dreadful, dreadful drive!  The traffic, my dearest!  But are you well?  You sounded so serious on the ‘phone.”

“Never better my sweet, never better!  We have serious matters to discuss.   It’s an enchanting evening, so when you have quite recovered come and join me on the platform:  I’ll have your Moscow Mule dressed and ready.”

Very well, my dear, if I must.  Although even the platform is somehow a little bit disturbing. One does one’s absolute best to love it here, doesn’t one?  I shall be with you in a trice!”

Tasmyn’s ‘trices’ were usually on the long side, so Lambert was well prepared by the time she floated from Brueburn’s interior garbed in yards of expensive silk.  “I’ve made an effort for you, darling, you see?”  She shuddered.  “Oh, god, this place gives me the creeps!  Why on earth did we imagine we might ever live here?”

“We did not make that decision,”  Lambert replied mysteriously,  “We were invited and we came.  You look so very beautiful tonight, my dear: if beauty were ever eternal it would find its home in you.”

“Lamby, what a sweet thing to say.”  Tasmyn’s eyes squinted against the evening sun,  “You didn’t tell me we had a guest?”

“Ah, the girl!  You can see her too.  I’m so glad, I thought I was going slightly insane.  She’s our resident ghost, Tasmyn.  Come and meet her – she’s quite memorable.”

“Memorable – whatever do you mean?  I’m not in the mood to socialise, dearest, especially with a ghost, if that’s what she is.  She looks rather too substantial, to me.  Anyway, I do believe she’s coming to meet us.”  Tamsyn’s eyes, wanting glasses she would never wear, narrowed.  “What’s her name?  She looks oddly familiar…”

“She does?”  The distance between the two females was now no more than a dozen yards.  Both stopped.  Disbelief was reflected on each of their faces.  Lambert; he had to believe.  He had known that afternoon, when the girl got to her feet; now, walking and standing, her turned out hips were too obvious.  “Tams, my darling, you should have told me your real name.”

There were times, Lambert had learned, when the truth defies rational explanation.  He had travelled widely and seen enough to know this to be true. 

“Lambert, what have you done to me?”  Tasmyn’s voice pleaded.  “What have you done?”

“I’ve brought you to face your past.”

No further words were spoken.  The two figures stepped towards each other and embraced.  And when the embrace was ended, only one very old woman stood on the platform at Brueburn Halt.  As she wavered and seemed she might fall, Lambert came to her, supporting her.  From her quivering fingers he took a small, green ticket.

“You won’t be needing this now.”  He said.

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

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Blackbird

Of all the seasons. Spring in England is the most capricious.  Not that I don’t love a bit of caprice – I do – but she can get a bit wearing sometimes.  She never tires of invention and sometimes, well, you just yearn for a little permanence, you know?

Anyway, to put you in the right mood (you may have to turn your volume up a bit) I’ve popped in an anthem from a feathered tenant.  He requested it.  He has dreams of Spotify.   I’d like to say he is a trouble-free occupant of Stalagbaybush 23, but don’t let the dulcet tones fool you.   When he’s got his kids on the ground he’s murder!  He hides them under a leaf, or the shed, or anything else he imagines will provide cover because they can’t fly, and he doesn’t seem to know how to give lessons.   Then he flies around the place screaming his head off at anything or anyone he imagines might come near:

“I’ve got my kid on the ground!   He’s scrawny and he’s got no feathers so leave him alone!”

And of course the cat at number forty-two pricks up her ears, and promises herself she’ll take a look over there after lunch,

After twenty-four hours or so of non-stop hysteria my over-diligent parent’s screeching subsides.  Of the scrawny youth there is no sign – it has left us, though whether in the glory of flight or in the throat of the cat from number forty-two I have no way of knowing.   Just occasionally I will see a semi-feathered lump perched on my fence, beak opened demandingly while his father, who now looks smaller than he, pumps him with ‘special treats’, so I guess the family has known success.

I cannot claim, any more than my Blackbird friend can, that April has been a mellow month:  seventeen frosts to start our days, where ‘usually’ (I like that word when describing English weather) we might expect seven.  Rainy days?  Few, or none.  By afternoon the garden, like my Blackbird friend, is in full song; rich in the verdant greens of emerging youth, bright with colour, loud with bees, hoverflies and an elderly wasp who doesn’t seem to have learned his place.   The sun is not fierce, but it is warm enough.  There’s a chair, and a whisky waiting because I am that lucky man whose wife is a fanatical gardener.   She can take pleasure in creating life and I can spare the odd moment to watch.  

For the Blackbird, for every creature in Spring the emergent garden, the burgeoning heath is a place of business.  For me, it is a chance to listen, a season to enjoy however exhausting are those occasional rain-pursued retreats.  The life of the early season is a testament to youth that brings back to me the garden of my childhood home, the garden I described in ‘Hallbury Summer’, a book I serialized here a year or two ago.  There is no stream to burble by, where I am living now, no ‘pop’ of water-voles, few dragonflies; but the sounds, they are the same, the scents never change, and my sheer joy in the annual miracle is as fresh now, as it ever was.

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Satan’s Rock

Part Four

An Invitation

Petergunn2:   Hi Mel!  

Melatrix:     Hi Babes – feeling better?

Petergunn2:  Yeah – sorreeee.

Melatrix:    Cool!   Favour 4 me?  JJJ?

Petergunn2:  Ask and it shall b given – if it doesn’t cost me.

Melatrix:    Remember that photo I took of u?   On the prom last Easter?   Can u mail it me?  I have some ideas.

Petergunn2:   WHAT ideas?

Melatrix:     OK, don’t worry then.   Like I care?

Petergunn:   Yeah, right. Look in your inbox.  And Mel?  Don’t give me lizard feet this time!

Melatrix:     Ta babes.

In the privacy of her room Melanie could, and sometimes did, cry hopelessly in those weeks and months when she knew her mum and dad were preparing to part.   Peter helped her.  He had a way of making the day easier to face.  When her father finally left and she missed him and the things she had share only with him, she told Peter those things, and Peter found the words to comfort her.  Tonight, as she played idly with the picture of her friend, morphing his image this way and that, she was reaching a time in her life when she was beginning to wonder just how important he was to her.    

#

Peter had no idea what thoughts drew him across the causeway towards the rock on the morning following his exams.  A prospect of two free periods at class would not be justification enough, nor would the wafted guitar music announcing that Vincent, the Rock’s incumbent mansion owner was at home, have sufficed.  Faint strains from a succession of old songs, they were, middle-of-the-road stuff from the sixties and seventies:  “Brown Sugar”, “Maggie May”, “Aquarius”: they had a magical quality, so that when the final notes died away there was a feeling of loss,  but they would still have failed to turn his feet in their direction.  He had heard them too often.

If he tried to form a picture in his head of the ageing rock star who played them, perched up there on the ramparts of Crowley’s fantasy castle, the images were faded and confused.  They lacked the clarity of his younger years when Vincent had first come to Levenport.  Then he had lain in bed at night for wakeful hours, just imagining.  This morning his academic prospects, the pictures of his future, concerned him more.   Yet here he was.  Why?

It had seemed no time at all before he came upon that seagull.  It had perched, motionless, with one wing partly extended, on a piece of driftwood sticking out of the sand, apparently sunning itself.   The diamond-mark was clearly visible on its neck, the same hard eye watching him as he wandered toward it.

“You liked the music?”  Asked the seagull.

“You’re not real.”  Peter accused him.

“I said, darling chap,” The gull repeated slowly; “Did you like his music?”

The words are forming inside my head, Peter thought.  Is this how schizophrenia starts?

“It’s all right, dear, you don’t have to speak if you don’t want to;” the seagull said testily.  “He wants to meet you.  Come on!”  

And with a few lazy wing-beats it was sky-borne, arrowing through wheeling flocks of its brethren towards the rock. There were a hundred gulls over the bay that morning yet the bird’s identity was never in doubt, for while the others dived, turned, soared upon the breeze, the diamond gull’s direction never varied.   When it perched, a tiny white fleck, atop one of those ludicrous Bavarian towers, Peter saw it clearly, even fancied it may be beckoning to him:  the words “Come – now!” rattled in his head with jangling insistence.

“Alright – I’m coming!   Shut up!”  He reprimanded the bird, forming the words in his mind.

“Oh!   Hissy-fits now!   So sorry!”

What?

So without real justification other than an imagined conversation with a seabird he found himself wandering through a hamlet of fishermen’s cottages that adorned the man-made platform at the foot of St Benedict’s Rock.  The builders of The House had created this platform to assist their labours:  the cottages had sprouted like fungi from it after the carpenters, the masons and the forgemasters left.   Once, the fisher people had populated its quay with boats.  Just two remained, scarcely seaworthy fishing smacks, their rotting hulls slapping and gurgling in the oily water.

 Throughout all of his sixteen years Peter had come to the island maybe five times.   The aggressive wildlife which inhabited the place was kept in check by Levenport’s council; its lurid history of warriors and monks with pagan rites was largely forgotten.  There were holiday lets on the rock, although, perhaps because it was so far removed from the hub of the town, tenancies were rare.   Certainly a necrotic air hung about the tiny houses with their peeling paint, clustered mushroom-like around echoing back-lanes. The rock frowned darkly overhead, depriving them of sun.   Lichens dripped in the cold dampness.   An unkempt dog snuffled by.

Peter, (already doubting the moment of unhinged reason that had brought him here), strode quickly through the little street, anxious to be free of its chill.   But if he had hoped for better from the road which ascended the rock itself he was to be disappointed; for although the narrow path that had long ago led teetering Benedictines to their lofty cells had been widened, burrowing in places into, and in one case through, the sheer basalt, the ocean breeze howled icily of ghosts of the past, dredging up shuddering memories of misery and murder from resources within Peter’s mind.   Around each new bend shades of marauding Vikings lurked: cold monks drifted by, their empty faces set in grim smiles: Quimple the mad architect’s flailing body plummeted past on its fatal fall.

Three small dwellings clung to the landward side of the rock, optimistic summer rents – no-one would winter here.  The first, a fresh-painted Hobbit House, leaned precariously from amid a tangle of greenery, bushes planted in imported earth which made some attempt to soften the stark angles of the stone.   Above it, on the opposite side of the road, two further hovels had fared less well.   Wedged against the rock itself, they awaited final destruction with roofs agape and walls crazed by ominous cracks.   Black windows, their glass long gone, stared sightlessly towards the shore.  It was many summers since anyone had sacrificed their vacation to these.

After climbing westward for almost a half-mile Crowley’s road cut through the rock in a tunnel sufficiently high for a coach and horses, with coachmen aloft in the prevailing fashion, to pass. Dim electricity lit this burrow from algae-green lantern glass recessed in the walls. Peter hurried through, fearful of the shadows it contained and a little revolted by the very specific graffiti daubed over its sides.

Emerging from the tunnel he might have thought of  himself as entering a different dimension. The island’s south side was brighter, sunnier.  Here the road turned first south, then east, rising upon a gentler slope through wild meadow with trees below him to his right, among which were several compact cottages, all well cared-for and one or two obviously occupied.   As he walked by the front yard of one of these a little girl was engrossed in a kind of skipping game: she grinned at him as he passed – a pretty, vacant grin that somehow spoke of more than greeting.  He scuffed his shoes, a self-conscious “hello” playing around in his throat. A little way behind the houses, screened from the  road by trees, the land fell away in great cliffs to the sea. Above the road on the left clumps of wild rhododendron obscured Peter’s view of the summit and the house which topped it.  Further up, at the road’s final turn, a solitary white-washed cottage was the only sign of habitation.  It was a really small house, maybe one room upstairs and one down, with a lean-to shed on the back.   Gingham curtains in the windows spoke of bygones, their torn dirtiness told of neglect.   A tin bath, an axe, several garden tools hung along the lean-to wall in an orderly rank, though, and the large garden running downhill from the rear was well cared for.

“Now what be you doing ‘ere?”   The voice was amiable and slow, but it alarmed Peter enough to stop him in his tracks.

“I’m going to The House.” He turned to address a full-figured man standing at the cottage door, regarding him with a bland expression.   He noticed with passing interest that the man had no trousers on.

“Are you now!”   This wasn’t a question.   The man hoisted at sagging, stripey underpants.   “What makes you think you can go there?”

Peter thought quickly.  “I’m invited;” he said – which was true in part, at least.

“Are you now!”   The man repeated.  “Who do you be, then?   You got an ‘ppointment?”

“I was asked to come this morning,” He refrained from admitting his invitation had been issued by a seagull.  “I’m Peter Cartwright.”

The man was silent for a moment, while he appeared to chew upon something: ‘Maybe I disturbed his lunch’,   Peter thought.

“Are you now!   Peter Cartwright, eh?”  Peter got ready to run.

“Well, you carry on now, young Peter, you’m expected, you are.   Tell them at the gate they’re to let you past.  Tell ‘em Toby said so.”   The man turned to re-enter his cottage, adding for information: “I’m Toby.”

Toby closed the cottage door behind him, leaving Peter rather wishing he had not seen the back of those underpants. 

Expected?  How could he be ‘expected’ when really a spur-of-a-moment decision was all that had brought him here?   Did that remarkable bird talk in the heads of other people too?   Peter considered himself a logical sort of person, not given to impulses, and this was just so, so impulsive of him!   Perhaps if he turned back, now…

But he had come so far; and if he did turn back, well, then he would forgo the very slender chance, if he somehow was invited, to meet the wild guitarist whose sounds filled him with so many special feelings,and to get to see the inside of The Great House, the Crowley House, a place he had ached to explore ever since he was a small child.   Hidden still from his sight, he nonetheless knew that the gatehouse was just around the next bend.   So, gathering his courage, and with the feeling that his whole life was approaching an irrevocable moment of change, he walked on.

The gatehouse had lost its three Imperial Russian domes the night old Crowley died: one completely removed by the storm, the others unsafe and demolished shortly afterward.   They had never been replaced, so what now stood before Peter, whilst imposing enough, was a gatehouse of relatively modest and sober proportions, where a moderately modest and sober gatekeeper waited for him behind a pair of modern wrought-iron gates.   This smiling, fully-trousered figure greeted Peter with a friendly: “Hello old boy, what brings you to us?”   He sounded like he had been an officer in the army, but his hair would have better befitted a roadie.   “Can I announce you?”

“Hello, I’m Peter.”  Said Peter, feeling somewhat reassured:  “Toby says you’re to let me through.”

“Righto!”  The gatekeeper picked up a telephone from a box on the wall, waiting for a second or two before the line opened at the other end, then saying: “Vincent, someone quite youthful called Peter is here…”   He glanced in Peter’s direction, whispering: “Peter who?”

“Cartwright.”

“Peter Cartwright.  Are you expecting him?”

The voice from the other end was an explosion of sound, which the gatekeeper, with a chuckle, played six inches from his ear.

“You can go on up;” he told Peter, “I think he’s going to like you.”

Beyond the gate, a driveway led through a walled garden with perfectly trimmed lawns to the house itself, a brick-built curved regency façade of three storeys with rows of high windows to welcome the sun.   Its walls were crenulated at roof level, as if to repel some enemy or another, while at each end the slim rocket-tubes of Bavarian towers sprouted like forced asparagus.   Splurged exuberantly into the centre of the facing wall were the great black timber doors of the house, twelve feet in height; these in turn dwarfed by a huge arch, inset with carving and glass of every imaginable colour.   Peter had never seen this view of St. Benedict’s House, which his father dismissed as a ‘half-arsed mosque’, and had to search for his own description of its outlandish marriage of styles.   ‘Disney plays Royal Crescent’ was all he could come up with.

He had almost reached the doors at the centre of the Arabian Arch when, with a clank of metal which made him jump and a somewhat musical grinding noise which made him cringe, they swung open.

         Before him a vaulted hallway of palatial proportions rose to the building’s full height, culminating in a vast dome of glass.   To right and left the sides of this space were formed by the galleried ends of each floor of the house, linked at their further extremity to a perfectly oval glass stairway, railed with chrome, which ascended to each landing in turn.   Central to the back wall, behind the stairs, a huge portrait of a rock star playing on a darkened stage exuded Vincent Harper’s presence: and in the centre of the pink marble floor of the hall stood the man himself.

“Peter! Mate!  Are we glad to see you!  I was beginning to think you wasn’t coming, you know?”

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

Image Credits: Header picture by Mohb Zuber Seifi from Pixabay

Guitarist by Clk-Free Vector Imaging from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Three: Honored Guests

For Arthur, the hour before luncheon had been a restless one.  Even though his encounter with the wild rider on Mountsel Park’s west terrace could not be said to have entirely unnerved him, the powerful odour of the horse, the heat of its breath on his face and the rider’s words haunted him:  ‘The Woman is ours’ had locked in his mind.  Who so wanted to hunt Francine DeLisle down?  Was it even she to whom they referred?  It had to be, yet how quickly had they trailed her to his door?  A morning?  Less?

In his library the master of Mountsel Park resorted to a volume that anonymously recounted the suffering of common soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars:  ‘The Journal of a Soldier of the seventy-first Glasgow Regiment’, seeking to refresh his compassion for the thousands of crippled veterans who were still spilling, years after Waterloo, from the hospitals onto the nation’s streets.  Something in the desperate bearing of the violent emissary spoke to Arthur of the military, while everything about Francine suggested, no matter how she accounted for her absence of a past, that she had been either a widow or victim of those wars.

Edkins had apparently educated Francine concerning the geography of Mountsel, for when he reached the Breakfast Room, he found she awaited him there.

She had pinned her hair back, primly.  He remarked upon it, because to his mind it drained what pallor remained from her cheeks, so she seemed at once vulnerable, and a little severe.  No longer clad in her heavy, travelling clothes she had donned a simple powder blue dress that draped to her ankles in what had come to be known as the Empire Line.   Little Samuel stood at her left hand, looking more confident (or defiant) than his mother.

She patted her hair uncomfortably, in response to his comment.   “It is too long.  Access to care of such personal trifles has been…difficult.”

“I’ll see to it that a maid is placed at your disposal.”

“Oh, there is no need…”

“Nonetheless…”

“It is a woman’s matter.  I should not trouble you…”

“It is,”  he assured her with great gentleness,  “Not the least trouble.”

Francine lifted her gaze to meet his and they laughed mutually, sharing their self-consciousness.  He saw all he wanted in her eyes. 

At table they sampled from a platter of meats; cold tongue, beef and ham with artichoke and Spring leaf.  Samuel ignored his mother’s warnings to  taste his first horseradish and complained loudly about it.  Little was said, although every brain that gathered there blazed with questions.  Only when they had eaten, only when Samuel had been released to return to some toys the Housekeeper had provided in the Withdrawing Room, were the barriers breached.

Arthur’s opening gambit; “I feel I have to discover more about you,”  sounded too eager.

“I wish I had more to tell you,”  Francine rejoined.  “Indeed, I wish I knew myself!”

“Yet you know your name.”

“Nay, sir, not even that.  My guardian, who is one of those who are unstinting in their admiration of the First Republic, insisted I should answer to a name –  in the Gallic mode, he said, and thus I am Francine.  His lettering of ‘DeLisle is a little quaint, but notwithstanding his education on the matter I believe he thought me a casualty of Monsieur Bonapat’s campaigns.”

Arthur acknowledged this ratification of his own theory,  “You have doubts?”

Francine’s hands were laid upon the table before her.  She studied her fingers, taking care with her reply;  “The casualties of war are everywhere, most certainly, as much now as when he discovered me, yet – you will think me foolish – I cannot count myself  among them.  

I have no wounds, no scars, I am not alarmed by sudden noise, as I am told affects so many poor souls;  and I have no nightmares, save only one.”

Arthur smiled,  “And you are not French.”

She shot him an embarrassed smile of her own.  “It seems not.  Pray do not test me with the language, for I cannot understand a word!   I speak only English, I cannot play the Pianoforte, and although I sense that I have some virtuosity on an instrument,  I have no idea what that is!   My guardian’s musical accomplishments were not such that he could aid me in these matters.”

“Needlecrafts?”  Arthur suggested,  She pulled a face.

He shrugged helplessly,  “Knitting?”

“Please!!”

 He laughed, because the disgust in her voice at this last suggestion was another step, as she became more animated, more relaxed in his company, despite his interrogation of her.  He decided to advance further.  “When we first met,”  he said,  “You expressed your enjoyment of the storm with words I found curious.  Do you remember them?”

Francine blushed prettily,  “You embarrass me Arthur.  I do.  My understanding of them is no greater than yours.”

“You said you found the experience ‘perfect’.  You described it as ‘real’, which I thought both original and luminous, although I had never heard them so used before.  Could there be some dialect in your past that eludes us both?”   When she made no reply, but just stared at the table before her, he quickly stepped back in:  “I must introduce you to the Music Room, Francine.  Our array of instruments is somewhat limited, I fear, but you may find something there to detain you.  I have a meeting with my manager this afternoon, but you will be are well protected.  If you wish to allow young Samuel out into the grounds, I will see to it the ostlers are nearby.”

“Sir, you treat me too kindly.  I must not stay…”

Reaching forward to cover her fingers with his hand, he cut in,  “You are my guests; my very honoured guests.  You are welcomed here.”

#

At around the time that Peter, released from his seafront reverie by the departure of the companionable seagull was making his way home, a very special plane inched into its allotted space on an English airfield, and its V.I.P. (Very Important  Passenger – or Person, if you like) prepared for his first public moment on British soil.  In the aircraft’s aisle a group of six figures in grey overcoats were being marshaled into order by a grim-faced wedge of humanity who snapped out instructions with the brisk percussion of a snare drum.  This was Hal.  

Although Hal undoubtedly had more names than that, the Very Important Person they were duty-bound to protect did not know them, or, for that matter, much care.  He had long learned that it was necessary to know only a very little about a person in order to find that special wavelength, that personal level of concerned inquiry that had made him Very Important.  The security chief’s name was Hal and he had a sick wife in Portland.  That was sufficient for one man.

“Hal, my God!  So good to see you, boy!   It’s been too long, for heaven’s sake!  And tell me, Hal, how is your dear  wife?   I so hope she is better?”

And Hal, who had trouble sometimes remembering that his second name was Bronski, would wait the eight seconds he knew the greeting was timed to take – all the Very Important Person’s greetings took exactly eight seconds – meet that deep, sincere gaze, those eyes almost moist with sorrow, before responding in a voice like a chainsaw ticking over.

“An honour to see you too, sir.   She is much better, thank you.”   He would refrain from adding:   “And living with an Airforce pilot in Kansas.”   It was simpler not to tell the Very Important Person things that were unnecessary, like how his ex-wife had gotten over the flu several years ago.

This evening, Hal was perturbed.   He mistrusted British security and he did not like the publicity surrounding the Very Important Person’s visit, or the political sensitivities it would arouse.

“Are you ready, sir?”

“Yes, fine, Hal.  Go ahead now.”

Shuddering in anticipation of the cold, the Very Important Person followed his protectors as they moved down the aisle which was his last little bit of the United States for a while.

Below on the tarmac, in England, Jeremy Piggott cut a slight, rather pallid figure as he stepped forward, black shoes squelching dismally beside a soggy red carpet in the rain.  When the aircraft door de-pressurised Jeremy had reluctantly lowered a black brolly to expose wispy red hair.   He hated being wet; but this was a great ceremonial moment, or would have been, had this not been a military airfield from which public and press had been excluded; and anyway, his exposed head was expected as a mark of respect.  Jeremy felt he was going to sneeze.

At the foot of the stairway Jeremy’s own Very Important Person stepped forward to greet the visitors.  Two Very Important Hands clasped warmly, while some very unimportant pleasantries were exchanged:

“Senator Goodridge.  Welcome, sir.”   For the Very Important Person was he.

 “Bob Cranforth my God!  So good to see you, boy!   It’s been too long, for heaven’s sake!  And tell me, Bob, how is your dear wife?   I so hope she is better?”

Secretary of State to the Foreign Office Cranforth was one of a very few members of the present government who openly declared his homosexuality.  He smiled distantly, allowed the jnquiry to pass.

Jeremy heard a quiet voice, flint-like, scraping in his left ear.

“Who the hell are you?”  Demanded Hal Bronski.

“Erm….Piggott.  British security.”

Hal looked down at Jeremy as if he were something which had got stuck on his boot.  “My God!”

Jeremy sneezed.

“Stay out of my way, yes?”  Hal grated:   “Peggit?  You got me?”

“Well, yes….it’s Piggott, actually.  And I believe we are supposed to assist each other?”

“Assist my ass.   I have a job to do, Pluggit, and you are not part of it.  Understand?”

“But I have my orders too, if you don’t mind.  I’ll watch my man, you watch yours.”   Jeremy mopped at his nose, urgently stifling a repeat sneeze as he stepped delicately out from beneath the shade of the talking tree which towered above him.   “Sorry.”  He added diffidently.

“Fine.”   Hal said, waving towards a distant corner of the airfield.  “Go watch him from over there someplace.”

And upon this promising foundation, the co-operative effort of the two nations’ security for the Senator grew.   They all followed as their Very Important People headed for a dismally small airfield terminal and shelter, finally, from the interminable English rain.

#

The arrival in Britain of Salaiman Yahedi on the morning of the very Important Person’s visit was an altogether more subdued affair; but then, Yahedi would have wanted it no other way.   The private yacht which took him aboard ten miles off the Sussex coast had set out from Folkestone the previous afternoon: a family party who often sailed that stretch of coast between Kent and Southampton, living the high life on a boat bought from the profits of their travel company.   They were well known in yachting circles and their presence unremarkable. So when they brought Salaiman to their mooring on the RiverTest he was merely one more for lunch, a business contact perhaps, because they had frequent guests on these trips.  No-one could have known that he had recently been an invitee to quite another party, a French one, which had met with them overnight in mid-channel.  And when he left the restaurant by the moorings after a pleasant lunch with no more than an canvas bag and a briefcase – those who were curious assumed he had to return to work – was not the young man in the lounge suit who picked him up in a BMW the stereotypical personal assistant?     Had they seen the BMW being exchanged for another, smaller car twenty miles up the road, they might have assumed differently.

For Yahedi, such methods of travel were normal – his life consisted of switches between small boats in the dark, private planes on airstrips which were always a little too short.   His worldly goods could only just fill the bag he always carried.  Home was the next back bedroom, the space in a sympathiser’s loft, a futon in an unmarked van.   He didn’t mind:  for his simple business baggage was dangerous. All the luggage he required was fitted delicately but precisely into the briefcase which he kept on his lap – the tool of his trade, the proof of his expertise in a very specialised skill.   When assembled in his experienced hands, the sights were accurate to nearly three hundred and fifty metres.   Yahedi was an exponent of a very rare and valued craft.  He was an assassin.   

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

Picture Credits:

Featured Image Dominique Devroy on Pixabay

Yacht at Sea Roman Grac on Pixabay

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Don’t Tell me What to Think…

I intended to put up a different post here, but circumstances alter plans…

There is a stream of thought nibbling away at the foundations of my country’s society, and like a termite infestation, it is perfectly capable of bringing down the whole building.

I AM NOT – AND I SHARE THIS WITH MOST PEOPLE IN MY COUNTRY – A RACIST.

When I meet, talk to, relate to someone it is with them, as a person.  The colour of their skin will not alter my relationship with them, or how I perceive them.  And I believe, no, I KNOW, that for most people in the UK this is the case.  If I do not like someone, I consider myself free to tell them.  I certainly won’t tell them my dislike is founded upon the color of their skin, that wouldn’t be true.

I am not denying some racism exists in the UK.  It exists everywhere, but in the UK it is (or was?) a relatively minor issue, rating lower, I suggest, than sexism, ageism, or class division.  Generally speaking, the way to acceptance and material success in the United Kingdom is more liable to be barred by any of these, than by nationality or skin colour.

But we are making skin colour an issue!

We are destroying, eating away at the natural tolerance and diversity of the British People by raising some sort of false standard solely dedicated to the advancement of certain career activists who have no regard for the things they wreck.   This is dangerous.  I believe they know it is dangerous.

There may be racist faults with the Royal ‘Firm’.  I am not a Royalist, because I believe it nourishes the ‘Class Ceiling’ but I acknowledge it is a very old institution, and there will be a hell of a lot more issues fermenting behind those ridiculously oversized doors than just race.

There are certainly faults with our Universities, which are the spawning ponds for ‘Woke’ politics, gender identification and a neo-communist resurgence.  A lot of negatives.  A lot that is wrong, yet remains controllable if some sense of balance is kept.

The case may be different in the USA.   I am sure that it is.  With due respect to my many wonderful fellow-bloggers in America, I have to say there are an upsettingly large number of American accents among the camp of UK activists, and they’re leading all of us into their (into your?)  race war.   Not content, it seems, with tearing their own country apart, they appear to be intent upon destroying ours.

The mud that glues the nest of totalitarianism is suppression.  It is everything that drowns the freedom to speak without inhibition, to think without fear.   Zealots everywhere know this.  Weaknesses are best exploited from within.  It is part of their code.  Successful civilisations, historic democracies that thrive upon stability, upon argument in an open forum, also thrive upon strength to resist those deleterious self-interests which prefer the darkness of the basement, the secret places within the floors and the walls.   

Once the presence of their corruption is evident, it is often too late.  Please, people – open your eyes.  You are being taught to hate!

Please, if you have time, give me your thoughts below.  Let’s start a discussion!   (If you can only make your point by using personal insults, BTW, don’t bother.  Trolling is SO last decade!).  

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Siobhan

A short story that got lost somewhere…

Ade’s walk was furtive, feet scratching at the pavement, eyes downcast.  Sometimes when he walked this pavement he would direct his gaze to shop windows, watching himself go by – but not today.  Sometimes people stared at him, their faces masked in suspicion at the Asian youth with his imperfect skin and his hangdog stride.  Was he rabid?  Whatever he had, could it spread to them?

No!  No man, not that.  You don’t catch my disease:  what ails is inside me, internalized; and I have no doubt who gave this thing to me – it was you.  All of you!

You made her hate me!  You made her turn me down!   You did it by hammering her with that connection – bad; Asian.  Asian, bad.

I saw the look he gave me, man!  Her father, yeah?  What am I doing soiling the air next to his daughter?  What right have I, like, to walk beside her, or dream of loving her, yeah?   I’m just a guy, you know?  A guy in the wrong skin.

Since that first sweet exchange of smiles a year ago Siobhan’s remembered image was never far from Ade’s mind.  He had printed her name on his heart.  Each morning he wakened to the memory of her pale skin, the almond of her eyes, her feline grace, her gentle voice.  The way her cheeks flushed when he told her how he felt, the little shake of her head when she laughed.  Siobhan, always there.  

He increased his pace, skulking  through the gauntlet of High Street commerce, glaring.  Its garish displays glared back, windows drooling with blatant western fat.  The dresses that were made by people, his people, working in conditions unfit for dogs and wages that barely kept them alive: the mannequin waiting to be dressed. 

 Just left like that – disgusting, man!  

Western wealth, everywhere, oozing down the greasy streets, exuding from the fat pores of the godless whiteys who rushed by him in their pursuit of more – money, more gratification, more, more, more.

Her father had ended it.  Ade, trying to do the honest thing, the honourable thing:  “Sir, I love your daughter.  I love Siobhan.”  

He had seen the man’s face close up as he said it, knew it was over, even then.  Siobhan had cried when he tried to look at her, shook her head, hopelessly.  That was a week ago.  He had seen her since, accidentally, on the street, like their first meeting.  Just once.  No smile then.  Not even a glance.  She had passed him by as if he did not exist.  Her old man had been getting at her.  He’d turned her against any thought of loving an Asian.

So that was why – why he was here.  And it wasn’t just about her father, about Siobhan.  It was about all the years of being different because his speech and his color made him so.  It was about a kind of hatred that was soul-deep, a burning need to right something that was horrible and wrong.  

His footsteps had led him from the High Street to the park, through its grand, pretentious gates into the green solace beyond.  A favourite place this, balm for his troubled soul, somewhere he could rest on a favourite seat, watching the foraging of the city birds and playing his music.  

He was tired now.  He had worked late into the night, preparing everything, making absolutely sure he had done it right.   And now he had five minutes to himself, when he could relax on the wooden bench he always used, and breathe the air he so needed.  He checked his smartphone.   Exactly five minutes.  

One for the brothers, man.  For the ones who died for the fight.  

“Ade?”

A voice that brought all the sweetness of white magic to his ear: Siobhan’s voice.  He was dreaming again.  “Siobhan?”

“Yes.  How are you, Ade?  I’ve been thinking so much about you.”

He was dreaming, wasn’t he?  But no, she was real.  Siobhan, leaning on bare forearms over the back of his seat with her cheek so close he could catch the scent and the sound of her breath.    

“I been okay, yeah?” He stammered.  She brought the wanting back; yet for a minute he could not believe it – believe her.   “What, you talking to me now?  You’re dad won’t like it, will he?”

“Look, Ade, I’m so, so sorry.  My dad, he’s a prejudiced old man, and he just doesn’t understand, you know?”

“Yeah well, he got my number, didn’t he?  He got you so you don’t speak, Siobhan.  You walk right by me, girl.”

“I know, I know.  I had to do some hard thinking.  But I couldn’t imagine, like, seeing you every day,  after he hurt you so bad.  And this morning I made up my mind, because I miss you so, and I just want to be with you, Ade.  With you.”

“But he’s your dad, isn’t he?  He rules.  I got no chance, Siobhan—no chance!”

“What, I should, like, spend the rest of my life with my dad?  I told him this morning:  if he doesn’t accept you he can go boil himself, right?  Hey, you crying, or something?”

“It’s because, yeah?  Like this is so… ”

Siobhan pressed her finger to his lips to quieten him.  “It’s alright, Ade; it’s all right.  I was going to come and see you tonight, but then I saw you in the Mall sitting by that planter thing and it was like:  shall I – shan’t I?  And I followed you here.  I couldn’t wait to be with you again, Ade.  I love you so much!”

One minute.  It had all gone so wrong, Ade thought.   But he was happy beyond measure because Siobhan was with him, and he loved her at least as much in return. As for the rest…

She asked: “Anyway, Ade, what were you doing in the Mall?  You don’t usually go there in the mornings.”

And he said lamely:  “Oh, nothing.  Just hanging.”

“Shall we walk to college together?”  Siobhan squeezed his arm, easing him gently to his feet.  “I tell you, you’re lucky I’m here to look after you, Ade, you’re that absent-minded sometimes.  Guess what I’ve got here?  I picked up your bag, mate.   You left it behind under the planter – in the Mall.”

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

Image Credits:

Featured Image by Free-fotos from Pixabay

Mannequins by s. Herman and P. Richter from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Two: The Cuckoo and the Nest

When Matthew Ballentine called upon Lady Crowley at the old general’s country estate,she rightly discerned that he had interests beyond the simple business of saving the house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  He would not have acquainted Lady Crowley with them, precisely, upon their first meeting, nor on subsequent occasions; but Elizabeth was a very perceptive woman so there is little doubt that she knew.  In the weeks before his first call upon her, Ballentine had inquired into Lord Crowley’s financial affairs, taking care to learn the devices by which his estate could function in his absence.   He had learned, for example, how attorney rested with a legal partnership who served the Crowley family, and how they had power in an emergency to raise revenue and settle debts:  unable to contact Lord Horace they had only to be persuaded by Lady Crowley that an emergency existed in order for them to take certain measures which he, Ballentine, hoped to play to advantage.  And so it proved.

As winter tightened its grip Crowley’s creditors organised themselves and sought a warrant for his arrest and imprisonment.  Whether they could have succeeded is in doubt, but the threat of scandal was enough.   Ballentine entered into a bond to settle the debts in return for some forgotten acres at the fringe of the Montingshire Estate.

Meanwhile, his influence was spreading through Levenport like a faery ring, with invisible roots reaching out to every wealthy townsperson or merchant in whose interest it would be to see the Great House completed.  Ballentine entered into private contracts with them all: his name was never mentioned but his money underpinned the syndicate which tied the ring together.  As a professed draughtsman, Ballentine busied himself with alterations and amendments to Quimple’s jumbled plans, and although he was often seen at the site, his financial involvement was not questioned.  Work on the Great House resumed  – the road that serviced what little housing adorned the Rock’s lower slopes was extended, by means of a tunnel, to the site, the scaffolds of which crawled with mason-ants as they hewed and crafted the stone walls, perched high above the bay.   Roof –beams that Quimple had planned to hoist from sea-level now slithered like starched worms on dollies across the causeway.   Drovers cursed and horses sweated.  Garden terraces began to form, the Bavarian towers inched upwards.

Peter was sure Elizabeth must have known what was happening.  Although Ballentine took care that she should never see the accounts, she would have reviewed them many times in her imagination;  yet she did nothing to stem a rising financial tide.   She left everything to her new-found draughtsman and manager, whose ‘syndicate’ continued to pay, and pay, and pay.

The veil of mystery surrounding Matthew Ballentine intrigued Lady Crowley;   so much so that she was almost constantly in his company:  sometimes he would call upon her at the Montingshire estate, at other times she would visit Roper’s in the town, to observe the progress of her husband’s amazing house, and to…well, let us say, although the proprieties were always punctiliously observed, it was generally agreed in the town, as well as in the Montingshire mansion’s servants’ hall, that ‘an arrangement’ existed.   This was gossip which suited Ballentine – he did nothing to promote it, but neither did he do anything to deny it.

In the autumn Crowley, a sick and broken man, returned to his Montingshire home.   Work upon the Great House on the Rock was completed in the winter of the year eighteen hundred and twenty six, and whilst it would never be beautiful or acknowledged as a great work of architecture, with Ballentine’s modifications it would at least stand up.  He had come to the work when it was too far advanced to do much about its extravagant towers or bulbous domes, or even the great Moorish Arch over its main doors, but he had curbed their excesses to some extent, to make a house which might not be greeted with outright laughter.

By this time Ballentine had become an established figure in the town, and a personage of some worth.   A member of the Chamber of Trades, he frequented town society, recognised by his affinity to Lady Crowley.   As arrangements began to install the ailing Lord Crowley in his new abode, Matthew Ballentine was at the forefront, organising furnishings, transport for staff, and so on.   He was unflagging too, in his attendance upon Lady Crowley, who now found for herself a new burden in the person of her returned husband.

Lord Horace Crowley was driven into the town quietly one October night to take up residence in his new home.   What he thought of the structure which was meant to be the realisation of a private dream, was never recorded. Quite possibly he was too ill, this pale, gasping shadow of a soldier, to really care:  he was scarcely well enough to travel, barely survived the slow, careful journey from his country estate.   He may only have been concerned with finding a quiet place to end his days.   Borne by a coach and pair, he entered his preposterous gates to be seen no more except by those immediates who attended him.   The town, or such proportion of it that realised he was there, watched with speculative curiosity. 

At some point between October and December of that year a syndicate representative must have presented Lord Crowley with an account of all the money it had spent in affecting completion of the great house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  Precisely how large a sum was involved is not known although it would have been considerable, well beyond the noble Lord’s reduced means to pay.   So it was that ownership of the last of his estates,  Montingshire, passed to the syndicate, then quietly on to Matthew Ballentine with an ease which may have seemed remarkable to some who witnessed it, but no surprise to those few who personally waited on the old man.

Crowley cannot have relished life, or had much interest in its continuance.  Cuckolded quite openly, he spent his last days struggling from one breath to the next, in the fright of a mansion his addled eye had imagined so differently when he first saw his rock, now so many years ago.  His only redress, as he saw it, was to sign away his treacherous wife’s future security:  he would leave no trust or allowance for her in his will (women were not allowed to inherit property as of right in those days), and with this stroke, no roof over her head.  That Ballentine seemed to be at the helm of the syndicate was a final act of treachery which very probably eluded him; he was certainly not intended to find out.   Would it have deceived the faithful manservant Toqus, whose silent wisdom had guided him so soundly down the years?   Ah, but Toqus was not there.  

No-one was watching when Toqus did reappear.  His dark shade must have wafted through the rain of some December evening:  how or when he gained entry to the great house was never known. He did not enter by the gates, for no-one remembered admitting him there – in fact the servants seemed vague in their recollection of the first time they chanced upon him in the corridors, or saw him at his master’s shoulder.   He arrived ‘sometime before Christmas’.   The servants of the Great House remembered Christmas well.

On Christmas Eve night came before its time.  Concerned mariners watched as the barometer glass dropped like a stone: boats crowded the town’s harbour, those merchants with premises along the seafront boarded up their windows and doors.    The first howling blast of wind fired from the sea like a cannon-shot, exploding against bluff stone walls and thrashing at window shutters as it tore a path through deserted streets.   Great grey ocean rollers in stately procession made their slow march into the bay where they fixed bayonets to charge, white-plumed, upon the sea-wall.   Quoins groaned, dogs howled, the gale grew to a hideous shriek. This, just the advance force, lashed spume across the foreshore, sent spray to the very roof of Roper’s Hotel. Then the main army advanced: walls of water in dress line, breaking disdainfully over the top of the harbour to crash and to crush the feeble wooden hulls inside.   They breached the sea-wall as though it were made of sticks, led forays well inshore to the heart of the town. By eight o’clock that night Levenport was in the grip of a hurricane.

In the black eye of this malevolent  invasion, the Great House was an unearthly thing of cries and groans – tiles flying from the yet-unbedded roof let in cataracts of rain to slough down newly-decorated walls; and wind-demons which, once inside, ricocheted from room to room, guttering candles, shattering window-glass, screeching their need to be free.   Papers flew, furniture was overset, doors blew in:   the mighty main gates themselves, left carelessly secured, broke free from their hinges to crash drunkenly against their gatehouse wall.  The newly planted gardens were stripped and levelled – bedding plants, bushes, infant trees all whisked away like chaff. So many of the household staff had been already sent home for Christmas (Toqus had insisted upon this) that no-one remained to secure that which had loosed, or resurrect that which had fallen.   Far below, the causeway to the mainland  was long gone, only remnants occasionally revealed by the trough of a wave.   The storm blew until morning, when it ceased as suddenly as it had begun. In the leaden dawn, sleepless townspeople surveyed the damage.

No sound or sign of life came from the Great House.  A long gallery which rested on abutments embedded in the face of the rock, had disintegrated and fallen to the sea.  Once-flamboyant Turkish arches from its façade were strewn in pieces along the sea-shore; entangled with much of the planting from the gardens of the house, and flotsam from boats for which the harbour had been no protection at all.   Of the three domes atop the gatehouse, only one survived.  One sat perilously askew on the brink of destruction, the third had completely disappeared.   The causeway was breached in seven places.

When at last servants managed to return to the house, they  discovered Crowley’s rigored body at the door of his bedchamber.   Terrified, the frail old man had apparently left his bath chair and taken to his feet to find safety.   The effort or the terror that induced had proved too much for a heart which, but for the intervention of Toqus, should have stopped a year before.

Crowley was buried with a simple ceremony.  His body was laid to rest in a family vault on the Montingshire estate. He died without knowing he would lie beneath land he had wife’s lover while she, far from being dispossessed as he would have wished, visited his memorial regularly that winter and on into the following spring, before her morning ride through the grounds.   Often that same ride would take Elizabeth to those distant acres of estate that had compensated Ballentine when he agreed to settle the debts remaining from Quimple’s days.  She might pause to watch for a while as the navvies worked:  soon there would be a main railway line  through the cutting they dug.

Peter realised his arm, draped over the railing, had gone numb.   He shifted it and the movement disturbed the seagull, still perched at his side. 

So what did happen to Crowley’s manservant?

Crowley’s body had actually been discovered by a maidservant, one of only five staff who spent the night of the storm on St. Benedict’s Rock.   This woman later attested that the body was locked by rigor, suggesting that Crowley had died many hours before, and that he clutched in his left hand a large gold medallion with a chain which was snapped in half – a medallion and chain familiar as that worn by Toqus.   Never thinking of the implications of what she saw, the maidservant first ran to find Toqus, because the African had always been closest to the old man. He was not to be found. By the time she had sought out othersCrowley’s body had been left unattended for perhaps an hour, maybe more:  by which time the noble Lord’s dead fingers had been broken open, and the medallion and chain had gone.

For some reason this piece of evidence was never put to any test.  The maidservant herself did not claim the memory until some weeks after Crowley’s funeral, and then only in the confidence of the servants’ hall.   The undertaker either did not notice, or did not set any store by, the fractured hand, but rumours persisted for many years, until, herself in her final decline, the maidservant swore that she had cowered before the sweat-covered and bloody form of Toqus towering over her in that bedroom, on that terrible morning.

Toqus was never seen again.   So did the servant give a true account?  Was the African giant there?

“I don’t know;” said Peter conversationally to the seagull:   “But I bet wherever he was, Matthew Ballentine wasn’t far away.”

“Really?”   The seagull appeared to consider this for a moment:  “What makes you say that, dear boy?”

“It was all too convenient.   Ballentine’s scheme wouldn’t have allowed him to claim the estate directly while the old man was alive – too obvious.  And if the syndicate charade had been allowed to continue with a sitting tenant like Crowley, they might have wanted to evict him, and then who knows what problems might have come up?”

The seagull fixed him with one beady eye.   “You’ll be saying next that Ballentine arranged for the storm.”

“No.   Toqus might have done that.”

Peter suddenly realised he was speaking aloud:  a large woman in a blue coat gave him a bemused look as she passed on the end of a dog. Talking to a seagull!  What next?    He glanced in the bird’s direction, thinking that they had been together, he leaning, the gull perching, on that railing for some while.   And it had not occurred to him that this was odd behaviour for such a creature, until now, when in his glance he took in a peculiar diamond-shaped mark on its feathered white neck – probably just some irregularity in its natural colouring, yet quite distinctive – and realised that they had been side-by-side there for nearly half-an-hour.   The bird seemed to recognise this, too.    With a lazy flap it wheeled out over the bay:  it was gone.

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

Image Credits: Featured Image: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Storm: Dimitri Vetsikas from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Five of Conversations

Foreign Deceptions and Home Truths.

Edkins, aged family retainer and butler though he was, reacted immediately to the menacing intruder’s attack on his master.  About to seek his instructions for the midday meal, he had been close by, close enough to see and describe both rider and horse.  At Arthur’s side in an instant, his expression was one of more than usual concern,  “Are you hurt, sir?  Should I summon the Watchmen?”

“No, no,”  Arthur quickly recovered himself.  He had been surprised but was not, in his own estimation, of a mettle to be be intimidated by such a trespass.  He leaned across the balustrade, addressing a huddle of anxious upturned faces gathered on the driveway below.  “Robinson, ride with a few of the stable boys and make sure that villain is not still on the Park, will you?”

Robinson, his chief ostler, was a sturdily-built man known not to baulk at a fight: “Aye, sir.  Will we take a staff or two?”

“To defend yourselves only, I think.  I am uninjured.  We should not respond with harm.”

In Arthur’s mind,there was no doubt his assailant had  long gone.  Were he not, and if the lads from the stable should discover him, he was also fairly certain Robinson, being of an uncharitable disposition, would place his own interpretation upon their defence of themselves..  

His hour of peaceful contemplation rudely ended, Arthur retired to his library until luncheon.  He would be of a mood to put the extraordinary event behind him, were it not for the mad rider’s words.   What imagined cause had he to claim ‘the woman’ was his?  Arthur presumed this reference was to Francine.  Did that man contribute to the cause of her guardian’s anxiety?    He decided he must forgo delicacy and urgently discover more about Francine.   At his library desk he wrote a note to Abel Montcleif, his business manager in Mountchester and secured it with his seal before summoning a houseboy.

#

On the Esplanade at Levenport and leaning against the steel railing that kept the unwary or the inebriated from plunging fifteen feet to the beach, Peter could not wipe out the memory of his – as he saw it – disastrous exam.  Whether he accepted its historical title of St. Clement’s Rock, or acknowledged the superstitious sobriquet given to it by those who lived in its shadow, the sombre height of ‘Satan’s Rock’ now all but hid a descending sun, a gloomy reflection of his thoughts.  Exercising his little pocket of expertise in matters of the Rock’s history helped him, did it not?  In some measure was this not the start of his demise, just as once a single failure had begun Horace Crowley’s downward spiral?  Such thoughts in one so young were ridiculous, of course, but they fed his mood.  And he could claim a cause:  he needed to complete the picture, to find the final piece to his personal puzzle – what had become of Toqus?

Lord Crowley did not know of his architect Quimple’s demise when he took ship for warmer climes, leaving his wife in charge of affairs at home,  Toqus stood at the old Lord’s side as he left England, believing his house on St. Clement’s Rock would be finished by the coming spring.  The noble Lord was greatly troubled with more immediate matters.   Powerless to correct the slide of his personal fortunes he embarked upon a very carefully planned programme of visits to those of his wealthier acquaintances who enjoyed a bet or two, and who, like himself, were wintering abroad.  Not entirely surprising, then, that he turned to gambling as an extreme measure – he had been, after all, the beneficiary of many of Prinny’s wilder wagers – and perhaps his early success, given the shrewd manner of so many of his past campaigns, might have been expected:  not the rapidity of his later losses, though, which had nothing to do with shrewdness or control.

There happened to be a young Contessa whom he met one warm September evening as they took the air on the balcony of a villa belonging to one of Crowley’s gaming companions.   She a radiantly beautiful young woman of twenty years, he an ailing soldier soon becoming sixty, he was flattered by her attentions enough to fall, as many an old man will, into her maelstrom of charm.   And he would suffer for it, soon enough. Who could tell if she saw anything in him beyond his money? Let us record part of a letter from the Contessa to her closest confidante, written a little before Christmas 1825.

“The dullness of this place is only relieved by a most amusing companion.  My dearest Yleni, I believe I have a suitor!  His title is Lord Horace Crowley, but he insists I call him Rollo!

Lord Crowley is a man of such blunt manners one may think him coarse upon first acquaintance, yet I am persuaded he has much gentleness in his soul, and his courtesy to me is that of a true gentle-person.   Oh, Yleni, I am quite disgracefully besotted by my English Lord!   He has monopolized my time far too easily these last months; he lavishes his generosity upon me ceaselessly – there seems to be nothing for which I may not ask!

He is terribly old, I fear, but has land and money enough.  Am I very wicked, do you think?” 

   Only one redeeming feature of this liaison would save Crowley from utter ruin – the Contessa‘s letter acknowledges it:

“A manservant accompanies him whom he calls Toqus.  This man seems never to leave his side and he is most distracting!  He is, as I believe, of Moorish descent, certainly of a pallor which would hide him well were the night too dark, and of a size which could fairly support the roof to this villa should the walls collapse!

“At times one could be forgiven for feeling as if this Toqus had some curious hold over Rollo.  I find him disturbing, and confide I should be quite grateful if he would just not be there.  But when I suggest to Lord Crowley that a certain amount of privacy might be attained were the man dismissed; even when, dare I say, there should be some temptation in the prospect, he is most reluctant to allow the creature from the room.  I swear this Toqus seems to have us both in his power, and the way he regards me, with such rude discernment, has me quite frightened!”

So, while the balmy Mediterranean winter soothed Crowley’s lungs, he paid court to a pleasant young woman a third his age, who, to give her justice, promised him nothing in return.   It was a long winter.

When the lovely Contessa left in the spring she took a sizeable amount of Crowley’s diminished fortune with her: jewels, rich fabrics, gold trinkets and favours, much of the money he had lavished upon her, even small items of salon furniture for which she had expressed desire, all joined the very practical and efficient train that followed her on her progress through Europe.

Devastated at the Contessa’s loss to him and ravaged by guilt, Crowley sought to recover what he could by a final desperate round of wagers,  none of them successful.   His credibility, ultimately his credit with his friends guttered like a spent candle; and the seizure which struck him, one hot summer evening on the Avenue des Libes, very nearly snuffed him out.   Had Toqus not been there to rescue him he would have died.   Passers-by, meaning well, recoiled in revulsion at the sight of the great black fellow who knelt beside Crowley’s lifeless form, alternately apparently kissing him on the mouth and beating his chest – and disgust turned to amazement when Horace Crowley, his pallor that of stone, was seen to be suddenly coughing back to life.

Meanwhile, in England, Lady Crowley was subjected to a visit by an extremely attractive young man – several visits, in fact.

When Quimple the Architect took his death-plunge, all work on St. Benedict’s Rock stopped.   Quimple had been, after all, more than just the planner of the great house: he had been its executor too.  Although he left behind him drawings, bills, sketches and notes which would guide future construction, he left no management structure, no master of works – he had done all of this himself.  So a crew of labourers and craftsmen who were accustomed to remuneration at the end of each week saw no prospect of further wages, and left. 

The great house was still roofless, open to the torments of the weather.  And winter set about the merciless business of destruction.

Into this rusting breech stepped one Matthew Ballentine.  Peter knew little about Ballentine, except that he was a gentleman who, unlike a great majority of his peers, apparently enjoyed an active life.   While others such as him might be found sailing uncharted southern seas or hacking through snake-infested jungle, Matthew Ballentine seemed to like exploring closer to home.    When Quimple made his dramatic exit it drew some attention from the national press which Ballentine, then at his London Club, read with interest.   He took coach for Levenport the very next day.

First sight of Crowley’s intended mansion was a shock for most.  When Ballentine saw it he was dumbfounded.   Half-raised Bavarian towers, Russian domes, Moorish courtyards and castellations, all within one design:  the result, applied to the uneven summit of the rock, being hideous confusion.  Ballentine was something of a draughtsman:  not an architect; no, no-one had ever addressed him thus, but a skilled artist with a natural appreciation of form.   So for some little while, as Peter imagined him, he must have gazed at the amoebic sprawl that crowned St. Benedict’s Rock with horror:  then he would have begun to laugh.

Three weeks after this Ballentine sought out Lady Crowley in her country estate.  He found a woman, who, though now well into her thirties, had lost none of her classical beauty.

For her part, Lady Elizabeth might have been equally pleased with the tall, elegantly dressed man who stood to greet her in her drawing room that afternoon: he had a natural charm which floated her through the usual pleasantries with unaccustomed ease.   Peter could imagine their conversation:

“You wished to see me with regard to the property on St. Benedict’s Rock, Mr. Ballentine?”  Her voice was flute-like, musical:  but when she spoke of the house, Ballentine fancied he detected a tension in her tone.

“I did.”   He approached the essence of the issue delicately:   “Such an enterprise must be extremely demanding of your husband’s time?”

“Indeed it is.”

“And the distance involved, given his extensive occupation here, must be taxing.”

“That too.”   Elizabeth studied a Turkish urn which graced a corner of her withdrawing room carefully.

“And then there was the sad affair of Mr. Quimple….”

“True.”  Ballentine suddenly found himself gazing into the depths behind Lady Elizabeth’s eyes – they were not tranquil depths.  “May we dispense with this verbal quadrille, sir?”

“Certainly.”   He breathed.  He was captivated.

“You are aware that my husband is not here.  You will know that he is presently in France, for his health, leaving me to deal with all of his affairs. You no doubt also know that the house of which you speak is in an intolerable state with no work being done upon it.   I have my hands full with this estate, so your intention is to – what – perhaps offer my husband a sum to purchase the place?  Enlighten me, Mr. Ballentine?”

“No ma’am. Not that.”

Elizabeth suppressed a resigned sigh.   Of course, no one would want to buy it now.  No-one would ever want to buy it.  Still, there was something in this man that encouraged confidence.  Whatever his scheme, she might be dangerously tempted.

“I know that communication with the South of France must be difficult, so such a negotiation would be awkward at this time:” Ballentine said.  “For the present – I have some comprehension of architecture, ma’am – I would like to offer my services to ensure the house is safely completed.”

“Indeed, Mr. Ballentine?”  Elizabeth treated him to a tiny smile.  “Then you would be most welcome, for I assure you I have no idea how the situation might be remedied otherwise.   But you do not look like a man who builds houses for an occupation.  Tell me, were I to gain my husband’s agreement to such an arrangement, what would be your interest in this?”

Ballentine returned her smile with one of his own.  It was the gently understanding, knowing smile of a man who had done his research well.  “To complete the house would require a large sum of money – freeing capital amounts of such a size might be difficult?”

Lady Crowley understood.  “Ah!”  She said simply.   Should she confide in this man? If ever there was a time to lay cards on the table, it was probably now.

“There may be some things, Mr. Ballentine, which you do not know.  I am not, for example, in communication with my husband.   Oh, I know where he is, but he does not write to me.  Nor does he send me anything else.   When poor Mr. Quimple died there were…debts…which, with no authorisation from Lord Crowley, are difficult to settle.  Then there is the matter of this estate.  I have to deal with issues here which are unmanaged.   The Estate Manager my husband put in place was of no use and had to be dismissed, so I have to do the work myself.”

“You must find all this extremely distressing.”

“It is.  So you see, sir, the demands of the St. Benedict’s house are far more than just architectural.”  His eyes were kind: oh, so kind!   “Mr. Ballentine, I confess I am at my wits’ end!”

“Then,” said Mr. Ballentine; “You must, I beg you, accept my offer of help?”

“So may I believe your interests are also more than simply architectural?”

Ballentine paused before replying, stirred inwardly by Elizabeth’s implication and the emanations he knew already passed between them:   “Indeed they are, Ma’am.  Very much more.”

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

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Satan’s Rock

Part Four of Conversations

Intrusion

Mountsel Park, in Arthur’s opinion, was at its best on those Spring mornings when the rhododendrons in the Step-Wood were in full bloom, the lawns were silvered by dew and a gentle mist diffused the hard lines of the house’s stone-hewn grandeur.  Mountsel was an  old house but a merchant’s house, given more to display than beauty, more to theatre than poetry.  Yes, theatre was everywhere; in the echoes of the grand, almost baronial hall, the high windows, the extravagant statuary, heavy tapestries and drapes.  Part of such a place’s function was, after all, to impress, but those it sought to inspire were traders, not literati, and the higher echelons of London centric society were rarely to be spotted here. Instead, on the nights when its doors were thrown wide the salons and corridors were filled by prosperous local stomachs that could comfortably support a wine glass without the aid of a table, and ribald local humour such as graced the better houses of many provincial cities where money was made and exchanges were done.

In the brightness of day the house’s commanding position, too, giving it such clarity as a viewpoint, could only be softened by cloud or rain.  The aspect from which, on brighter days, could be picked out so clearly the urban clutter of Mountchester and extend down the navigable river Leven to the Channel and beyond would be muted by distance to a watercolour palette of melted tones; greys, blues and a dozen more subtle shades.  Upon these mornings Arthur could imagine himself immersed in a timelessness when the hours no longer mattered.  He could lose himself – he could mask the dark and haunting things that pursued him always: in essence,he could forget.

It was the Spring of the year following Hart-Witterington’s passing.   Arthur had not relinquished his mourning, for he missed the old man and his idiosyncrasies sorely; he had regarded him as immortal; never thinking that, despite his great age, death could overtake so dominant a life-force.  But then, on the one weekend he had been away, the one weekend he had extended by a day, his protector, the great man of substance who had built this house, had left him.

Alone in the world was a description Arthur did not care for:  he put it to the back of his mind, for Hart-Witterington had left him everything; the house, the business that provided eggs which, if not golden, were at least sterling silver; everything, in fact, but the gift of good company.  He had much to be grateful for, in terms not just of the warehouses he now owned, stacked along the City bank of the river and bursting with artefacts from the emerging markets of the East, but the organisation which conferred upon him a wealth of leisure to enjoy it.  Too much leisure.

He had breakfasted on his favourite devilled kidneys early, taken one of his horses for exercise in the parkland that surrounded Mountsel, before visiting one of his tenant farmers who was in feud with a neighbour over the damming of a stream.  By the time he had returned to the house and changed out of his riding clothes, the hour was eleven o’clock local time. He was contemplating means to fill the final hour before luncheon when Edkins discreetly tapped upon his study door.

“A visitor, sir.  Without appointment, I’m afraid; a Miss Delisle?  She has a child with her.”  The old butler imparted this information with the controlled horror of a meticulous house servant for whom exposure to children was deeply distressing;  “Shall I tell her you’re unavailable?”

Surprised, Arthur managed a slight shake of the head,  “No, Edkin, show them to the morning room, if you would.”

The old butler raised an eyebrow,  “But a child, sir?”

“A very well behaved one, if my memory serves me.  See if they require refreshment?  A brandy for myself, too, if you please.”

Approaching the doors of the morning room, it would be fair to say Arthur’s emotions were mixed.  After his chance encounter with Francine Delisle he had entertained thoughts of meeting her again and how such a rendezvous could be devised.  The tragic news of his protector’s impending death had all but driven her from his mind, so only recently had she revived in his thoughts.  Yet there must be grounds for this sudden visit:  had some misfortune befallen her?

She was seated on a salon chaise, and much as he remembered, if anything the more alluring because until this moment he had seen her only by candlelight,  or otherwise protected from full view by cape and bonnet against a gale. Her countenance was pale, emphasised by a grey dress trimmed with rose, her eyes the darkest pools of solemn blue

“Mr Herritt, how kind of you to receive me!”  She said quietly,  “I do hope I do not impose?”

He smiled,  “Not at all.  I thought we addressed each other in familiar terms, Francine.  I was Arthur; do you not recall?”

She returned his smile.  “Indeed, I do.”

Arthur turned his attention to young Samuel, who had positioned himself defensively behind his mother;  “And you, sir.  I trust you are well?”

The child looked uncomfortable, and rather trussed in his blue velvet suit.  He mumbled a muffled  “Well, thank you sir,”  without raising his eyes.

 Francine stepped in hurriedly,  “As are you, Arthur?  We are so pleased to see you are in good health!”

“The cholera, you mean?  That has largely passed, has it not?”

And so, haltingly at first, the ease of rapport they had found over dinner at ‘The Rifleman’ in Bleanstead was renewed, until it was almost as if a momentous three months had vanished altogether.  Edkins brought tea and shandy for the visitors, a brandy for his master.  As the conversation at last turned to the reason for Francine’s visit, her brow creased in a frown. 

 “I suppose I must declare myself, mustn’t I?  First may I ask for your indulgence a little further?  Could Samuel be entertained elsewhere?  Another room, perhaps.  He is quite independent.”

“Mama!”  The boy protested.

“Darling boy, you need not be distressed.  I have something to say that is for Mr Herritt’s ears alone.  A confidence, do you see?  And you needn’t fear for my honour, I promise.  Mr Herritt and I have already flouted convention without his giving me any cause for distrust.  Can it be managed, sir?”

Arthur said it could, and Mrs James, his housekeeper, was sent for, to lead a reluctant Samuel away for ‘A look at he hatchery’.

As soon as they had gone, Francine, having sipped from her tea bowl, as if by doing so she would gain time to choose her words, began her tale.  “You might think this curious, Arthur, that our fortunes should have taken such similar turns these past few months, but they have.  Oh, we have not suffered such tragedies as you, my guardian is still very much with us, Heaven be praised, but he is grievously beset.  His fear is for Samuel and I.  He is convinced our lives are in danger.”

“Why should he reason thus?”   Arthur asked;  “Who wishes you harm?”

“I do not know.  By my faith I don’t.  I have so few answers!   We had returned from Bleanstead only three days when he confronted me with his concerns.  He was quite ashen, as though he had just received a shock, and he told me I must find another, safer situation.  I managed to placate him, as a consequence submitting Samuel and myself to virtual imprisonment within his house, and we have been in this condition every day until last evening when he raised the matter with me again, quite forcefully!”

“You say he is your Guardian,”  Arthur interposed.  “He is not a blood relation?”

“No.”

“Would I know his name?”

“He has begged me to repeat his name to no-one.  He seems terrified to have any association with me.  It is quite unbearable!”

Arthur walked to the window that looked out upon the park, half expecting to see some strange carriage or a posse of runners, so earnest was his companion’s tone, but the tranquil innocence of the park was undisturbed.  The mist of morning was fully lifted now and the lawns might be already dry.  He rather wished the same clarity could have visited his mind. “What, do you suppose, renewed his  anxiety?”

“I can throw no light upon it.  But this morning I discovered a valise packed for us and ready in the kitchen.  A handsome had been ordered to the tradesmen’s door “

“With no destination at all?”

“None!  Oh, he did not leave us without money.  I have sufficient to keep us in lodgings somewhere – until summer, he said.  I am not to contact him or acquaint him with my address because, in his words, it would be better if he could not have the information extracted from him.  To that end, he was also emphatic that I should not return to Bleanstead.  That would, apparently, endanger Maud, because whoever pursues me will expect me to go there.”

Arthur shook his head.  “So we have to assume he is fearful of violence, or torture, perhaps.  Who does he believe to be pursuing you, that is the question?  Could there be somebody from your past who bears you ill-will?”

“ I have no notion.”   Francine’s hands were clasped her in her lap and her knuckles were white.  “It is possible, you see, that I have enemies.  May I be frank with you, Arthur?  Can we rely upon each other’s confidence?”

Exigency in the silk of her voice brought him immediately to her side.  “Never doubt it,”  he said gently.  “What is it you need to say?”

“I did not make my circumstances known to you when last we met, and I should do so now.  Indeed, it is imperative that I do.  Arthur, I have no past.”

“My word!”  He exclaimed, taking her hand in his.  It was cold, trembling slightly within the protection of his fingers.  “Many of us might wish we had no past, but the truth must be otherwise.  What are the circumstances that lead you to this conclusion?”

“If you want me to phrase it differently I shall.  I have no memory of anything before a night when I awoke to find myself lying,  heavy with child, before my guardian’s door.  His housemaid discovered me and I recall it so vividly because I have never felt such cold, never since then.  I really think that within another hour I might have died.”

Very gently, Arthur relinquished his grip on her hand, only to feel her reach for its reassurance once more.  “Oh, I am shameless!  Given a day, you would find me recovered to my usual self.  Today?  Today I had such a need to share my story, and you came first to my thoughts.  I cannot make any other excuse!”

“Nor should you be required to.”  He nodded.  “I am glad to be of service.”

“How must you see me?”

“With nothing but respect for your courage.  I see something must be done, and I see that it would be cruel to persist with this discussion.  I will reunite you with Samuel, and I hope that you will grace this house with your presence, for tonight, at least.  There are clearly many things to be said, but they will not suffer by waiting.  My housekeeper will conduct you both to a room where you can rest.  Perhaps you might join me for luncheon?  I normally eat at noon.”

Was he a little peremptory?  Under disguise of consideration for Miss Delisle’s welfare, had he concluded their conversation too soon?  Might he have learned more if he had allowed the thread to continue?   Arthur took no pride in his suspicions, nor was he blind to the meaningful glance his housekeeper bestowed as she took charge of Miss Delisle and her son: he, a man newly come into a fortune, a fact that was well known in Mountchester; she a young woman in straightened circumstances. A mother possibly without a husband, and certainlyt without alternative means of support.  If his thoughts were darkened by suspicion, who would doubt him, or blame him for that?  Of Miss Delisle he knew very little – one meeting, a convivial evening, some three months since.  Yet such meanness of spirit was not natural to him and he was, before all things, a gentleman, not a gallant.  He would not condemn a beautiful woman to hazard the road alone, without escort:  these were not the most propitious days for travel.   He had to know more.

Left to himself with an hour to squander before next meeting Francine, Arthur could have returned to his library, as was his normal custom before his midday meal.  He did not.  Instead, desiring the fresh air of a very pleasant spring morning he turned his feet towards the terrace on Mountsel’s facade, from which to could overlook the park.  Leaning against the stone balustrade he watched as the normal industry of morning took place on the driveway below: deliveries in a purveyor’s horse and cart diverted by a scullery maid from the road reserved for privileged visitors, to head around the East Wing in the direction of the kitchens; a pair of coach horses being led back to the stable block, three of Mr. Maple, the Head Gardener’s apprentices, attacking the rose beds by the fountain, pruning back to old wood,   Bees from the kitchen garden hives were busy adding their note to the proceedings, peacocks rehearsing in more raucous tones, all playing their instrumental part in the symphony of day.

In spite of all the distractions, it would have to be said Arthur’s inner thoughts were never far from Francine Delisle.  Her solo part in the orchestra of the estate was less voluble, but no less intrusive.  In his rapture, Arthur was unaware of an urgent approach of hooves, a thunder of heavy horse and furious haste.  It came upon him unexpectedly:  not from the driveway he could see, but around the West Wing, around the orangery, around the hatcheries, around the high walls of the tropical gardens.   Challenged by the shouts of the ostlers, the hooves spurned the civilised, muffling crunch of Mountsel’s imperious drive, opting instead for the flight of steps that ascended to the end of the terrace – the very terrace where Arthur stood.   He had barely time to turn before this horse was upon him; before its hot breath was panting down in his face and its rider – its mighty, bronzed rider, whose flint-cold eyes  glared fiercely enough to rip his soul from his breast – parted savage lips in a screeching war-cry.  It was a banshee screech, but the words that followed it were plain enough:

“The woman is ours!”

Before Arthur had time to respond, horse and rider had wheeled around, and by a cacophony of clattering hooves, returned from whence they came..

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

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Satan’s Rock

Part Three of Conversations

Quimple

What could have befallen Toqus?  Peter’s mind had already lost itself – his nightmare examination of the afternoon, European History and the dusty room with the dusty, pacing invigilator – all gone.  The history which had fascinated him since he was first old enough to read was written in local history books.  The bricks and mortar of Levenport, its traditions, superstitions, atrocities and victories, all laid out around him.  The Rock – St. Benedict’s Rock, sometimes reputed to be inhabited by Satan himself – that loomed above them all, loomed large in his vision now.  Callow youth, chin on hands, fingers gripping the cool steel of the handrail, the retreating tide singing to his question in ripples among the stones.   Toques, the manservant who never left Crowley’s side, where did he go?   That seagull, gripping the rail likewise a dozen yards away, remained inscrutable.   

“How would you know?”  Peter murmured.   The gull cocked its head.  “Do seagulls talk about history at all?   In the evenings, maybe, perched up there on the ridge tiles, before the kebab shops open?”

The bird fluffed a few feathers as an adjustment, clucking awkwardly, as references to its scavenging lifestyle were obviously discomfiting.

For several years following his memorable dip in the Levenport waters, Horace, Lord Crowley did nothing about the rocky island that was his royal gift.  During these (it should be said) quite happy times for the town of Levenport, ownership of its rock was a matter of no concern: a trickle of rent flowed through to His Lordship’s ample London coffers, paid by the tenants of the odd few cottages which nipped like bulldog clips onto the side of the track that led to its summit, but that was all.

Lord Crowley never came, and happily for those who eked a living from certain continental trading activities, The Revenue rarely came – the rock languished in its own particular peace.

At last there befell a time when Crowley’s sun began to sink lower in the Palace sky:  the older ‘Prinny’, soon to be King George IV, with his love of laudanum grew tetchy and difficult to please, so many of those friends who, true or otherwise, had found their fortunes at his noble feet were distanced.   After Prinny’s coronation Crowley spent less and less time at Court.  The parties grew fewer, the invitations sparse.  Also older and more circumspect, he took as his wife one Elizabeth Grey, a society beauty who, though herself considered to be past her prime, was yet thirty years his junior. 

At such a distance of time and space it was hard to know exactly when the old warlord decided to retire from London and Brighton life, still harder to comprehend why, of all his estates, he picked the Rock of St. Benedict as the windy cradle for his autumn years.   He alighted from a coach-and-pair one brisk morning outside Roper’s Hotel on Levenport’s esplanade with his manservant Toqus in his wake, making no secret of his intention to stay.   The town was afire with excitement:  the news that their distinguished guest intended to build a mansion on the rock flew through the salons and drinking houses so rapidly that the proprietor of Roper’s Hotel learned of it from his fishmonger before he heard it from Crowley himself!

In the weeks before construction began the town was full of rumours: what sort of dwelling could the great man be thinking of, to crown the rock and still satisfy his undoubted subtleties of vision and taste?   Would he follow the fashion, so popular at the time, of the Indian Palace, with those great Sezincote windows and high exotic domes?

Unfortunately, enormous wealth does not always imply good taste.  Crowley worked hard upon his plans for a mansion to be perched upon the rock:  he employed the best architect, listened to the wiser counsels of his wife, his family, his friends.  He listened, but he never heard.  One by one, the architect’s best endeavours were rejected until at last the poor man found he could suggest no more.   He returned to London, leaving in his wake a hotchpotch of drawings and uncompleted notes. These, the noble Lord studied for some time.

Days later there was summoned to Roper’s a certain Mr. Quimple. Mr Quimple was well known within the town as the architect who had created, among other things, Levenport’s charity hospital. This was a fine building, although less artistic than functional.   His subsequent commissions, drawing upon this early success, were equally unimaginatively designed, but had the virtue of being built like fortresses, so no-one relished the idea of knocking one down.

“Quimple!”   Lord Crowley instructed him grandly:  “Build me that!”

Joseph Quimple was a mild, slightly oily little man with disorderly clothes and straggly hair which fell on his head like a well-tossed salad.   His outward appearance was in total contrast to that of his buildings.  They were flat and uninteresting.  Joseph Quimple did not have a flat bit anywhere.

“Er, what did you want built, m’Lord?”

“Dammit, have you no eyes, man?  That!”

Crowley’s hand gestured expansively towards a large board propped against a wall:  Quimple had already seen it.   He felt a lump of horror rising in his throat.

“Well!”   He said. 

“My word!”  He said.

He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Glued to the board were bits and pieces of architectural drawing, cut apparently at random from the work of an obviously talented architect and reassembled to make a plan for a mansion.  Although what resulted was obviously intended to be a vision of a great house, upon first appearance it looked like nothing more than a page from a scrap-book.   There were bits of roof turned on end to make walls, gable-ends stuck over the top of windows, chimneys turned into pillars. Where the scraps failed to fit into the rest of the picture an expansive hand had joined them with bold lines in black ink with brief notations beneath:

‘Add step to match with first floor’

‘More roof here’.

Quimple felt his diminutive soul shrivelling deeper within him.  He struggled for words:

“It’s a very original concept.”  He managed to blurt out at last.

Crowley swelled with pride: “Glad y’think so!”

“But there are gaps.”  Waving a finger at an obvious space:  “Here, for example?”

“Stick in a water-closet, or something. You’ll think of it.”

Quimple felt as though the space beneath his feet was no longer supporting him.  He struggled in vain for firm footing.  “It defies description.”   He said finally.

“Excellent!”  The Lord took this as a compliment.  “Pleased you like it.” 

The little architect’s personal diary had provided an account of this conversation, but it was the last regular entry, and thereafter Peter had been unable to discover much concerning Joseph Quimple, or how he took Crowley’s dream glued to a large piece of board up to the summit of the rock and, somehow, brought it together in the agglomeration of styles and peculiar angles which came to be St. Benedict’s House.   He did know that the little man regarded the house as his master work, that it eventually sent him mad.   He found some clue as to why in a letter from the richly embossed Lord Crowley dated 18th August 1825.

Sir,

I have received missives from you concerning your progress with the house at St. Benedict’s Rock, and I am disappointed that you should feel cause to repeatedly complain about, as you would have it, “constant importuning of tradesmen for payment”. I surely need not remind one such as yourself, sir, that tradesmen are incessant in their pursuit of money and it is a necessary duty to rebuff them.  I do, however, send a draft for a further one hundred and fifty guineas to settle the most necessary accounts, but kindly do not trouble too much with decorators and the like, of whom there are an almost unlimited supply.

You reprimand me for my absence from the project, sir, but I say to you that I placed my complete trust upon you when I gave you instructions, which I expected to be followed to the letter.  Reports which I have received suggesting that there are, in fact, substantial variations from my plans, are disturbing to me, sir.   I am hopeful for an improvement to my health which shall allow me to return to England to correct these matters, but for the meanwhile I must advise you that you should persist no further with extravagances which, I am persuaded, lend to the house a quite undignified appearance.  

 I intend to limit my further investment in the house to a further nine hundred and fifty guineas, which will follow at the commencement of next year. You should dispose of this in such manner as will finish the house to an acceptable standard of accommodation.  I enclose my plan for the finished building.

I am,

Lord Horace Crowley

In even those distant times, though riches beyond the wildest dreams of many nine hundred and fifty guineas for such a project was a completely unrealistic sum,  but Crowley was, of course, by this time stumbling down a dusty road towards bankruptcy.

         “A book of account, Ma’am,”  he said once to Lady Crowley, on one of the few occasions when he spoke to her;  “Is a dreadful devious foe.   Whichever way ye turn him there’s always another within his ranks to find the weakness on your flank.   Set me against an army of the Frenchie and I’ll take ‘im on and thrash ‘im for ye:  but this?   Ye can never beat him Ma’am.  Ye never can!”

In eighteen-twenty-five, after some three years during which he never returned to the seaside town, the old Lord was still battling the elusive book of account.  Now, however, he had a second enemy gathering in his lungs.

On the rainy morning when the messenger arrived bearing Quimple’s request for further funds, Crowley had just seen his doctor.   He was ordered abroad. He must stay a winter in the warmer climate of the south of France; take the waters regularly, rest as much as possible.   If he did not he would live for….a year – two?  Who could say?

So Quimple worked alone, with very little money, constantly battling his Patron’s amendments and alterations to a plan which was structurally unworkable.   This alone, Peter thought, might have driven him insane.  But there were other enticing snippets of history surrounding the rock and its new crowning glory, other pieces to a puzzle which intrigued him and helped, as he returned home this evening, to distract from memories of a bad history examination.

Contemporary accounts relate that a bright summer morning in the Year of Our Lord 1822, when one Matthew Brightley, master mason, laid the first stone of Crowley’s Great House, marked an ending as well as a beginning.  Quimple had hitherto been untroubled by the rock’s natural inhabitants, but from that morning on, as if some truce had been broken, the snake population of the rock  attacked remorselessly.  Viper venom was a constant hazard for all who laboured there.   Several were made very ill by it, and two older stonemasons died.  It was also the time when the seabirds’ yelling became ceaseless, their molestation unpredictable and vicious.  The old title of Devil’s Rock was resurrected more than once in the taverns of Levenport.

Joseph Quimple’s final entry in his diary had always fascinated Peter:

21st August 1825:

Today completed excavations to level the surface of the central courtyard.  Exposed a shelf of stone apparently intruding deep into rock – possibly a seam.  Not granite.  Warm to touch.  Suggests hot spring, or similar – investigate.

He never did investigate.

In the gathering darkness of evening on 22nd August, the very day after this entry, those who chanced to be looking seaward were just able to distinguish Joseph Quimple’s bent form running atop the rock, inexorably running towards the lip of the cliff and its three hundred foot plunge to the sea.  There were those at the subsequent inquest who testified that madness and obsession were the cause of the little man’s lonely end.  There was one townswoman who saw the event, and her evidence spoke of Quimple as being pursued by a large flock of gulls.

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

Featured Image: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Two of Conversations

The Prince’s Gift

“Fecking Bloody Proust!”

Such a malediction, especially shouted into the afternoon peace of an English seaside promenade, was bound to attract notice.  The few heads there were to turn, turned.   Melanie, laughing her embarrassment, clapped her hand over Peter’s mouth.

“Peter!”

“European History.  I’m supposed to be answering a question about the Third Republic, and what do I do?  I write four pages on Proust!”

“Well, he was sort of interesting.  Very, um… influential.”

“And ….and….I went on for about an hour.  Half an hour per essay, maximum.  I know that.”

The girl with the sprite in her eyes grinned sympathetically:   “In search of lost time?”

“Oh.  Oh, funny!”  Peter slammed his fist against the railings.   It hurt.  “I’ve failed.  Oh, I have so failed!   Re-sits, now.   Oh, god!”

Melanie shook her head sadly, seeing the end of the world in Peter’s eyes, knowing it wasn’t;  not really.

“Peter, it’ll be alright.  Since when have you ever had to re-sit anything? Since when did you get anything less than an A?” 

She leant against the rail beside him, and together they watched the evening tide slinking up the beach.  She thought about the face of the serious young man beside her;  something she could do without looking at him.   She knew his face in this mood – the dark, enclosed eyes with a torment behind them, the strong jaw tucked in, the twitch in his pale skin.

Peter; temperamental, unbearably clever, generally considered something of a geek – her friend, now, of many years.  Growing up together in a small town like Levenport, it was never possible to be far apart.   After a while she sighed.  “Calmer now?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

St. Benedict’s Rock, the great basalt island across the bay, was a black silhouette in the evening sun.   The Bavarian towers at its summit like a pair of accusing fingers, features of a mansion which was more a ludicrous hat than a crowning glory, moved their shade eastward across the town, towards Levenport Head.   Once, needing the mental exercise, Peter had tried to devise a means of telling time by those shadows:  at seven am they would be pointing to the fish dock, twelve midday the town hall, and so on.  By that calculation it was now Woolmarket, or five pm.

“Vince Harper’s back in town.”   Melanie tried to change the subject.

“Yeah?”  said Peter absently.

“Yeah.  Saw his car at lunchtime, crossing the causeway.  Look forward to some nice sounds tomorrow morning.”

“Wicked.” 

She referred to the retired rock star who lived in the ludicrous hat atop the rock, and the rooftop guitar solos that were his signature.  Fortunately, he was not in town often, for his musical messages, delivered as early as six o’clock even on winter mornings, were of metal intensity.  The amplifiers which transmitted them, powerful though they undoubtedly were, could not overcome distortion by the elements, and so arrived at the mainland shore devoid of much of their musical eloquence.  Muffled by distance and scarified by the wind, they generated outrage amongst those of the town’s citizenry who were older, and more classically inclined.

“Hey,”  Melanie put her arm around Peter’s shoulders and gave him a brief hug, which was something she liked to do.  “I should go, Babes.  Message me tonight?”

“I guess.”   Peter said.

“See you then.”  Melanie walked away, doubting Peter would even notice she had gone.  “And how did your exam go, Melanie?”  She murmured to herself:  “Oh, OK, Peter.  I forgot all about bloody Proust.”

“Aaark”  said a seagull which had taken Melanie’s place at the rail.

“Ah!”  Said Peter.  “Quite right!  But what happened to Toqus?   That’s the question!”

Eyes narrowed against the sun, Peter’s gaze led him out over the water.  Now Melanie had provided the spark, his own thoughts were turned towards the strange, misshapen house on St. Benedict’s Rock.

St. Benedict’s Rock had a past.   Before the monks came and joined it by a causeway to the mainland it had been entirely an island, a looming pile with a reputation for spirits and black magic.  The warriors who had been first to land there, those whose castle once stood where the house stood now, and who built a tiny harbour on the landward side, spoke of strange sounds, of constant bird attack and plagues of snakes.  They named it Satan’s Rock.   In those days the bay had treacherous tides to draw the shore people and their primitive fishing boats to their deaths.   A causeway had tamed the seas, but the monastery which succeeded the castle had no less a reputation for evil.   The shore people told of skies glowing with fire, young men drawn to the monastery as novices who disappeared, never to be seen again.   

Peter knew the history, of course.  There had been some sort of structure on top of the rock almost since time began:  a castle, a monastery;  but the story of the Great House that topped it now, possibly one of the most unusual great houses in the land, had begun one summer early in the nineteenth century.

This was at a time when the monarchy rested in the hands of a Prince Regent (‘Prinny’ to his friends).   ‘Prinny’ was something of an innovator, and one innovation which greatly enthused him was the then novel past-time of bathing.  He bathed in Brighton – quite often – where his large regal bathing engine, rolled into the sea by flunkies to protect the royal modesty was one of the sights of the fashionable beach.  And occasionally he visited un-bathed-in coastal towns elsewhere for ‘a dip in the waters’.   Of course large parties of  hangers-on invariably followed.   Whether many of these sycophants shared Prinny’s desire to immerse themselves in icy water, Peter did not know: but their liege’s love of a good party was something they all concurred with and a future King will always find company in even the chilliest of seas.

In his own eyes of course, Lord Horace Crowley would consider himself a courtier.  Lord Horace was an empire builder who had come home laden with gold and audacity from some Middle Eastern wars where, in the best traditions of his ancestors, he had done a considerable amount of despoiling and burning.   Horace’s bluff manner was fashionable at the time, and so he came to be courted by the cream of London society;  and so, too, came to be visiting Levenport, emerging from a bathing engine adjacent to Prinny’s one cool April afternoon.   Both had imbibed freely of the vino.

 “Deuced cold!”   Prinny had observed.   Each wavelet brought fresh needles of ice. “Don’t your servant chappy feel it?”

The prince gestured towards Crowley’s manservant, a tall unsmiling figure with ebony skin who stood motionless beside him in water that was at least waist deep.  Toqus, a captive from the last of His Lordship’s foreign expeditions, had an exotic attraction for the Prince – an attraction also felt by many of the high-born ladies in London society.   Toqus seemed oblivious to a temperature that had Crowley shivering almost too violently to speak.

The King-to-be took a lengthy quaff from his glass, which he always carried into the water with him.  “More wine, old chap?”

A fully-clothed attendant hovered, waist deep, ready to recharge their glasses.  Insofar as it was possible for Crowley to feel pity he felt it for this poor flunky, whose slight form bobbed upon (and was almost overset by) each wave.

“Oh, damn it, go on then!”  Said Crowley through chattering teeth:  “You’re a dreadful generous host, y’know Prinny!”

“D’y’know I am?”  Prinny gasped:  “I truly am!  Generous to my truest and dearest friends, Horace!  To you, dear old chap!”   Bursting with emotion, the Prince Regent reached across to touch Crowley on the arm:  “You know I‘d give you anything, don’t you?  You just have to ask me, dear boy – just have to ask.”

The flunky, who had, by now, turned dangerously blue, recharged Crowley’s shaking glass.   What with the shaking of the flunky and the shaking of Crowley, and the mischievous intervention of a stiffish east wind, less than half of the wine found its way from bottle to glass, the rest casting itself upon the waters.  Crowley was so cold he could feel nothing below his waist.   The ludicrousness of this circumstance came home to him so that he began first to giggle, then laugh aloud.

“Anything, Prinny?”  He just managed to stutter.

“Anything, dear man!  Jus’ anything!”

“All right then – anything.”  Crowley looked about him.   “Prinny M’dear, I’ll take the damned rock!”

Both men dissolved into laughter at the hugeness of this joke, and Crowley would have thought no more of it;   but the following week a messenger brought a legal deed of title to his Kensington Village residence.  Toqus presented this document to him with his breakfast tray.   The rock was his.

Featured Image Credt: Mollyroselee on Pixabay

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

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Satan’s Rock

Part One. Conversations: The Wild Sea

“It’s really blowing, yeah?”  The woman’s pale voice strove to be heard above a gale -whipped crash of waves. “Isn’t it perfect?” 

“I like it.”   Arthur responded.   It was all he could do to speak.  They were thieves of words, these giant flumes of white-spray that crashed repeatedly upon the rocks below, so confounding that down the years they had drawn him to this spot at the foot of the lighthouse time and again.  The years were honest, though:  they had stolen none of this magic.  

“Me too!”  The woman tucked her pretty chin into her cape.  “It’s real!” 

Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth in embarrassed surprise:  “My goodness!  Whatever made me say such a thing?!” 

“What did you say, Mama?”  Asked the little boy, taking her hand anxiously.  “Did you use a bad word?” 

“Why no, Samuel, not bad, exactly:  just very odd.”  She replied, as if coming to herself, as  though returning from a far place:  her words seemed full of sadness, of a longing so profound that, despite his curiosity concerning his own part in this innovative little conversation, Arthur felt his heart quite moved.  She hastened to recover herself:  “And I fear brazen, sir.  I beg your forgiveness.” She dropped her gaze demurely. 

”A novel turn of phrase, but forgiveness is quite unnecessary,” Arthur assured her.  “May I have the honour of introducing myself, ma’am?   I am Arthur Herritt , of Mountchester. 

“Oh,Mr Herritt , you must think me very rude.  This is Samuel, my son.   And I am Francine Delisle.   Please forgive my informality – but who would introduce us in this wild place?” 

‘Should we need to be introduced’, he thought.  “Who indeed?” He cried , raising his voice once more above the sea’s renewed onslaught, “I had thought to be alone here.  I commend you for your wild choice!”

Wild it truly was.

Few ventured to Beacon Head in winter, when ocean rollers, compressed into the shallow conduit of the Channel, thundered purposefully against granite cliffs, their spray carried in on the wind like volleys of icy grapeshot.  Arthur, who loved the fury of the seas, gladly suffered whatever dangers the road offered to escape his busy life, but he had been surprised when he saw these two lonely figures standing in a space he often occupied by himself, by the rail of the lighthouse plinth, the red banded light tower at their backs, staring betimes down at the white cauldron of foam, or out towards the ocean.  The place they had chosen was the stormiest – a pulpit over the waters he adored, and his first thoughts were resentful of company but then, when he had drawn closer to the pair, seen the way the woman drew her cape about her, clung to her bonnet while her skirts flew unregarded above her delicate little ankles, it was as if a slumbering place in his soul had reawakened.   He must know her – he did know her.  Surely? 

Her presence might mean his prize of solitude was forfeit, yet he could not regret such a chance encounter.  Anyway, as fortune would have it the skies were becoming ever more leaden.  Rain would soon add to the storm’s torment. 

“Do you like the sea, Samuel?”   Arthur asked the child, raising his gruffest voice above another assault of surf. 

The boy considered this, sagely.  “I do, sir.  I would like to be a sailor, I think.” 

The woman, Francine , laughed.   “That is a severe vocation!  Samuel is full of such notions, Mr Herritt .  Why, only last week he was ready to sign up for the military.  Have a care, my darling boy.  Mr Herritt  has the bearing of an officer about him.  He might recruit you!” 

Smiling, Arthur found he could not avoid the woman’s eyes.  They were, he thought, the deepest, deepest blue.  A familiar blue. 

Francine ’s cheeks flared.  “Sir, you stare at me!” 

He demurred immediately.   “My turn to apologise, ma’am.  I must admit I may not look you in the eyes, lest I lose myself.   You remind me so remarkably of someone I have known.” 

“Well, that is kind, I think.  And flattering too, I must believe?   Tell me, do you come far?” 

“From Mountchester, ma’am.   Although not in a day.  I am passing a night at the Rifleman’s Arms in Bleansted.  And dare I venture to ask?”

“The same, Mr Herritt.   We are visiting in Bleanstead ourselves.  A very good friend has been kind enough to tolerate us for the sennight – a relief from the City, as cholera is so active there.  I confess I am surprised.  If you go about in City Society, I cannot think how we have never met”

 “Nor I.  My club is Frobisher’s, in the town.  I attend there whenever I can.  Does your husband..?”   

He stumbled into silence, seeing Francine ’s instant discomfiture.  “I apologise once again.  I am insensitive.  There is some circumstance?  Forgive me.”  Conducting a normal conversation in these conditions was difficult, the more so because Arthur’s mind was demanding answers to some difficult questions.  He glanced heavenwards.   “It will rain soon.  Have you somewhere to shelter?” 

The woman smiled; a radiant, electric smile.  “Truly we are both so wet already it would be hard to distinguish rain.” 

“Nevertheless I would not see you drowned.  May I offer my chaise?  It waits at the crossway.”

Francine ’s cape and bonnet veiled her frown.  “I do not know you, Mr. Herritt .  We are strangers!”

“Yet we have been introduced, if only one to  the other,”  Arthur protested.  “I can assure you of your safety, and if I should prove to be a scoundrel I am sure Master Samuel would defend you most ably!”

“I would, sir, never fear!”  Cried the boy, adopting his sternest falsetto;  “I give you notice, whoever affronts my mother shall have me to deal with!”

As if anxious Francine  should make the right decision, the clouds delivered their first flurry of raindrops, stirred to needles by the gale.  She relented gracefully.  “Then I thank you, Mr Herritt .  Your kindness is most warmly welcomed!” 

With some reluctance, the pair turned away from their high perch on the cliffs, and their audience with the sea’s relentless fury. A path which, though free of mud by its rocky nature, was nonetheless slick from spray and the advancing rain, led their descent for some four hundred yards while young Samuel gambolled fearlessly ahead of them.  When at last the way levelled out it had a further distance through a beechwood copse before reaching a crossing of two tracks, the wider being the way to the village of Bleanstead.  While they walked with their backs to the wind, Francine ’s skirts billowing before her, his one hand firmly on his hat, Arthur probed gently.  “I have to concede that we have never encountered one another going about in Mountchester, yet I feel strongly that we have met before.  Do we have associations elsewhere, perhaps?  Are you much travelled, Mrs Delisle?  Do you visit London, for example?”

“Indeed no.  In fact, I have very little in my history that could pass for experience of the wider world.  Scarcely any history at all.  I am truly most uninteresting.”

Francine,  as she climbed into the sanctuary of the chaise, accepting the firm support of Arthur’s hand, answered it with a clasp of her own and although her fingers were cold, he was reminded again of a familiar flame.  In the jolting enclosure of the post-chaise cabin young Samuel, securely ensconced upon a footstool, gazed up at him so intently as to rob him of conversation.  Francine , too, seemed preoccupied, watching the passing scenery so fixedly he felt almost as though she was avoiding further conversation.   Perhaps, he considered, she was feeling the chill of her mass of wet clothing: in truth she did look a little like a moth newly emerged from its pupae, but then, as he imagined, once dried and spread, what beauty might those wings reveal?

At Francine ’s request, the post-chaise drew up outside a long, low-eaved cottage, the lime-washed walls of which were a spider-web of virginia creeper tendrils that spoke of splendour in the Spring.  As Arthur’s passengers thanked him and prepared to depart, he decided upon boldness.

“The Rifleman’s Arms belies its title by providing a very good table, Mrs Delisle.  Would you do me the honour of dining with me there; perhaps on the ‘morrow?  I have a feeling there is more to be said.”

Francine  returned him a puzzled smile.  “Indeed?  Now whose is an unusual turn of phrase?”  She addressed her son,  “What shall we do about this, my darling?  Will you wait at home with your Aunt Maud while I dine with Mr Herritt ?”

The boy Samuel made a great show of considering his answer:  “I shall be intolerably bored, Mama, but if you wish it, I agree.”

“Thank you, Sam.  Then I will readily, Mr Herritt . Thank you.”

“Shall I send my carriage for you at seven?”

“You shall.”

Arthur would long agonize over the propriety of this invitation:  the woman clearly moved freely in City society and must, therefore, be respectable; this implied the presence of a husband somewhere.  But then she hinted at no compromise of her sacred vows, nor had her little boy spoken of his father at any time during their encounter.  Was she widowed then, as so many were by the conclusion of the Coalition Wars, or by the ravages of epidemic?  In the end he justified his precipitate behaviour to himself with the defence that he had merely suggested a friendly engagement in a public place.  There was nothing improper in new acquaintances cementing their friendship over dinner!

The Francine Delisle who sat against him at dinner the following evening certainly conveyed no hint of guilt at her flouting of convention.  She had modestly dressed herself in a warm frock of lilac twill that followed the wide-necked style so popular this year, exposing no more than a glimpse of pale shoulder to Arthur’s rasher instincts.  Her smiles conveyed the frankness of friendship.  She was intent upon acting with perfect propriety.  

“I had thought you were going to return to Mountchester today, Mr Herritt .  Did the weather deter you?”

“I admit the weather played its part, Mrs Delisle.”  Arthur chuckled apologetically,  “There were other factors.  I decided to indulge myself.”  

Francine , who liked a man with the ability to laugh at himself, saw through his subterfuge immediately.  She knew one of his ‘factors’ would have to be herself.  Her eyes surveyed him in mock seriousness,  “Should we be friends?  If we are to cultivate this familiarity, you might call me Francine .  Mrs Delisle is such a chore.”

“Willingly.  Therefore I must reciprocate.  I am, henceforward, Arthur.”

“You returned to the lighthouse today, then?”  she asked.  “So much rain!  I couldn’t countenance it.”

“No, nor I.  Although I spent a part of the morning walking, notwithstanding the inclement weather. I had cause.”

“Indeed, Arthur?  Is your mind troubled?”

He nodded, “Perhaps, a little.  I find I am locked in a struggle with an absent memory – but no matter; I shall take the Mail Coach to return to the city tomorrow, for I must conclude some business there, then retire to my home until the disease has run its course.  I am in no need of a fight which I cannot win.”

By degrees the pair fell into familiar conversation and the evening passed amicably enough, though without any suggestion of deeper intimacy.  Francine  proved an easy friend whose wit would sparkle once and again, and Arthur a taciturn but willing listener.   Before they parted, quite close to midnight, they exchanged cards.  

“We have summer to look forward to,” He said.  “Perhaps, when the weather is more friendly, we may run across each other again.”   And then, after the pause he needed for courage, he added:  “In happier times, might I call upon you?”

Francine’s brow took on a serious caste;  “I believe it would be better not to promise,”  she answered.

They would not meet again before Arthur’s departure for the City.  Nevertheless, as the coach and four bumped heavily past that low, lime-washed cottage in the early morning Arthur could not resist a stolen glance at its windows, wondering who was the companion he had heard spoken of as ‘Aunt Maud’ who lived within, and whether Francine was yet in the process of rising?  And he reflected that, apart from his insistent conviction that he had met her somewhere before, he had learned little more of Mrs Delisle from the time they spent together. In all of their evening she had told him nothing about herself.  In matters of the heart, as in most matters, Arthur Beaufort prided himself on his clear-sighted realism.  However gently, the intriguing Francine had rejected his offer of a deeper friendship, and so he must treat her as yet another of his many casual acquaintances who he might chance upon some day, in some other situation, and put all thoughts of her aside.  

Arthur might have been more intrigued, being a man of an inquisitive nature, if he had witnessed Francine’s return to Maud Reybath’s cottage in that late evening; if he had known that Maud Reybath, although she had a year or two on Francine, was not young Samuel Delisle’s aunt in anything but name.  He might have found the conversation between the two women interesting.

Francine discovered Maud snoring gently by a fire in her snug parlour, a book opened and inverted on her lap.  She wakened immediately to watch as  her returning guest briskly removed her gloves, hopeful for certain expected signs.

Maud had a voice that was surprisingly deep for her petite form.   “Well, my dear?”  She asked, letting her words bear weight.  

“I can’t be sure.”

“No definite negative, then,”   Maud rejoined sharply;  “Francine, we have to know soon.  The matter is one of urgency, my dear.  I fear you fail to appreciate…”

“I do, Maud, I truly do.  I understand.  It could be him.  It could be, but in some ways could not.  And so I may not answer you – not yet.”

#

The mail coach had taken all of a day and snow was falling steadily when it reached its Mountchester destination.  Arthur, thoroughly chilled, finally emerged onto the white-carpeted yard at The Royal Oak and collected his valise from the coachman.   He was still adjusting his eyes to the darkness when he descried a tall, gaunt figure in black greatcoat and top hat dismountinging from a burgundy-liveried Brougham that waited at the gates – a carriage he recognised as his own.

The figure belonged to a man well advanced in years, whose progress on the snow was perilously unsteady.  Arthur hastened to support him.  “Edkins?  You shouldn’t have come for me personally, my dear man!  This weather is…”  His words faded into silence.  The craggy features that opposed his own were creased with tears.  “Edkins, whatever ails you, dear chap?  What is the matter?”

“The master, sir.  I’m afraid he is very ill.  I resolved to find you and bring you home, sir.  At once, sir, I beg you.  At once!”

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

Featured

Cathedral Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured Image: Chris Santilli from Unsplash

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Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

“Once or twice.”

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

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

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

“They say the luck runs.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Six months later.”

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

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

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

“Now Sophie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian laughed.  “I did not!”

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

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

“Amazing! “

“Amazed was I!  What could I do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feature Image credit: Marco Pomella from Pixabay

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Perseverance

“They’re back!”

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

“They are.  The Zog people!”

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

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

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

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

“It might crash?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The swapping orbits thing?”

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

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

“Some of them still think they are…”

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

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

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

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

Picture Credit: Header picture – CharlVera from Pixabay

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Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Here we are.”

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

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

“Oh, my goodness!”

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

“A bit more climbing.”  He said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind is she?”

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

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

“Of course – where else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I call you Seb?”

“I’d like that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Somewhere we could be more cosy?”

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

Which was when he did this curious thing.

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits:

Header image by Ambitious Creative from Unsplash;

Girl with butterflies by Victor Mendoza from Unsplash

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My Diary…

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

What’s the matter with me – too proud?

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

Get up

Feed dog

Feed me

Write

Feed me

Wri…  well, you get the picture.

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

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

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

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

Yes!

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

More importantly still…

This was the day of my first Coronavirus inoculation!

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

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

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

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

A Bientot!

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Horlicks

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

Let me tell you about Horlicks.

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

“Sorry to disturb you, Ben.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“His name is Horlicks, Ben.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better make it a Biryani.”

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

“Oh, you’ve got a parrot!”

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

“Oh, isn’t it just excellent?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she spots the harness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I’m sure I don’t need to be!”

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

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

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

I go to the pub.

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

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

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

And then he tells me.  Tull tells me.

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

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

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

“Just stop!”  Says the voice.

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

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

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

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

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

“Drive on!”  Says the parrot again.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Kingfisher

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

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

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

And one final bend.

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

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

 “I should never have left.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you were coming back after lunch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By Force of Arms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abel

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

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

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

“Toby, don’t touch now.”

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

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

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

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

The teenage girls dissolved into shy giggles. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you’re not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twenty-one ?”

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

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

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

“Ah, here we go.”  Abel said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

“How?  How is it different?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnia Caelum Blogs...Poetry, Art, Music

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

Stuck in the soles of my high heeled trainers,

as I walked up seventh avenue,

I found a little rock that reminded me of home.

In memories I travelled back to when…

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

strolled through Alexanderplatz, Las Ramblas and Gran Vía,

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

and crawled through the jungles of Guatemala,

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

And I stopped dreaming…

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

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

Hurrying to find warmth,

trying hard to believe,

with little more than a glance,

forcing their smiles as they grieve

for the many that we’ve left behind

who will find comfort in…

View original post 115 more words

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Wilbur’s Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

“Over there, behind the fountain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s take in guests.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bats?”

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

“We don’t have any bats!”   

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

 “No bats.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“FMM?”

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

#

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

No-one answered.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The thing is…”  Wilbur began.

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

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

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

Wilbur tutted.  “We?”

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

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

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

“EHR?”  Wilbur enquired politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’d be at rest in Heaven!” 

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

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

“I can’t dissuade you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Year, and a Life in Captivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just Leaving…

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

Happy Christmas and a Guid New Year, everybody. 

Stay Safe!

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

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Bathyscaphe

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

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

“That’s far enough, sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no she isn’t!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that history is entirely without its pitfalls.

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

After an icy silence:

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

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

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

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

“St. Mark’s Square?”

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

“In St. Mark’s Square?”

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

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

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

“He died in April.”

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

Prepared for fiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I’ll be the top hat…”

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Gift Wrapped.

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

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

“Gif’ wrapped?”

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

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

“Sorry?”

“Message.  Would’y’l….”

“Oh!  Sorry.  No thanks.”

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

“Yeah? Did he?  Oh, right, and he….”

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

“Silver or gold?”

“Erm, silver?”

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

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

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

I point at red.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Swami on the Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How wrong was I?

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

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

Takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it?

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

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

Namaste.

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Oxana Taran on Unsplash

B&W: 532Yoga on Facebook

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Home Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Didn’t you have an argument?”

“Did we?”

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

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

“We like the carpet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a blessed wood mouse!”

“There is no need to get personal!”

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

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

“Well, hundreds, then.”

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

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

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

“That’s the fella!”

“And poor, dear, Grandma Maisie…”

“Stank the place out!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

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

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The Rose

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

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

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

“It was a long time ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You left her alone!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not the rose!” 

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

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

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

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

And he knows.  

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

Like a tombstone.

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

“I couldn’t tell you…”

“No.”

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

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

“She’s so peaceful, Daniel.”

“I know.  I feel that.  I know.”

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

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

Picture Credit: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

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Birdie

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

Birdie?  Yes, I knew Birdie.   

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

“How’s Birdie these days?”

“Oh, fine.  Same as usual.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah.”  I said; then:  “Feel what?”

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

“Whoa!  What’s that then, Birdie?”

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

“Wha’ – in here?”

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

Humor him.  “Aw!  It’s close, is it?”

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

“Why can’t we see it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I daren’t, lad.”

“Scared you might fall in?”

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

“What – aliens?  Like, real aliens?”

“Must be, aye.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Birdie!  Married?”

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

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

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

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

“No worm-hole, then, Birdie?”

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

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

“Terrible things, those wormholes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Romberger Sound Productions on Pixabay

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When the Customers Don’t Count at All…

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

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

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

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

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

Neither of us has exhibited any symptom of the virus

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

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

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

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

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

It isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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Call me Cynical, But…

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

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

Bear with me…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Heblo from Pixabay

Featured

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.”

Featured

The Newquay Train

The text read:  ‘You must come and see this’.

Lambert came.

That was in 2014, when Tamsyn and he had been searching for a house in a rural setting near Tamsyn’s childhood home for nearly two years.  Property after property had failed to meet their exacting needs, whether by reason of location, size or simple character, so when Tamsyn’s latest find hove into view around the corner of a quiet country lane, Lambert was ready to be persuaded.

“It’s an odd shape.”  Lambert commented.  “Familiar, somehow.”

“It’s a railway station,”  Tamsyn told him.  “Not now, of course, but once.  I think it’s beautiful!”

There was, Lambert conceded, something very plucky and brave about the white rendered façade of ‘Brueburn Halt’, although he would have hesitated to call it beautiful.

“No rails, they took them up years ago, but you get your very own station platform!”  The estate agent enthused, standing on it, “Endless potential!”  He added, failing to be specific.

“My question is why?”  demanded Lambert,  “Why a station, here?  There isn’t a village for miles.”

“It is odd,”  Tamsyn agreed  “I grew up not a dozen miles from here, yet I don’t recall this station.  I imagine the line was closed before I was born, so I can’t answer you, I’m afraid.  Seeing it yesterday was like it was the first time, you know?”

Within its doors, Brueburn Halt was a dusty time capsule, wood cracked and peeling, festoons of wallpaper in patterns and colours long forgotten shredded from its walls.  In the darkness behind its boarded windows Lambert sniffed at rising damp like a terrier, poked at plaster, winced at damp ceilings, quailed at the single foetid bathroom.

“It’ll need to be completely gutted.  Are you sure you want this, Tams?”

Tamsyn floated balletically from room to room.  “Yes, oh, yes!  We must have it, my sweetest – we must!”

“The house has been empty for two years,” The agent, a little square man, lowered his voice confidentially, “The old lady who owned it went a tiny bit do-lally in the end; used to sit outside on the platform day and night, rain or shine.  Said she was waiting for a train.  A train!  No rails, see?  They took her into care in the end, I believe.  Big white van – you know?”

“We know,”  Lambert assured him.  “I’ll put in an offer.”  He added.

Lambert honoured his pledge to ‘gut’ Brueburn Halt.  Extensions mushroomed, courtyards were paved, bathrooms proliferated like sanitary rabbits; worktops of black marble glittered in programmable lighting, windows widened, doors deepened:  no swatch of expensive fabric was left unconsidered.  Lambert did not lack sentimentality, though: through it all, the old station platform remained untouched.

There was more, you see, between Lambert and Tamsyn than could be defined in years, although the generally accepted twenty-five was certainly a disparity worth reckoning.  A banking millionaire, Lambert took pride in his wife’s beauty and admired how approaching middle age had not dimmed the child in her; her elegance, her grace – in fact, he was obsessed by her. Tamsyn, a prima ballerina for one of the world’s finest ballet ensembles was his pearl beyond price.

Loved her?  No, not that.  Valued her?  Certainly.

At those social occasions so important to Lambert’s profession Tamsyn’s radiance would draw the rich and influential unfailingly to her flame.  She raised his profile, as she would put it, above the other hippos in the wallow.  When she first met him, Lambert had been rich; under her tutelage he had become very, very rich.  Now, ready in his advancing years to retire, he was gratified when Tamsyn likewise expressed a wish to hang up her pointe shoes – and return to the countryside of her childhood.

It did not occur to her septuagenarian husband that Tamsyn’s retirement idyll might seek to replicate the simplicity and innocence of those formative years.  He could think of her cradled in none but the most perfectly satin-lined nest.  If the confines of Brueburn Halt were smaller than those to which he was accustomed, there was no reason it could not equal the sumptuousness of, say, their St. John’s Wood apartment or their summer villa at Cannes.  If she showed dissent (as from time to time she did) at his lavish tastes he scarcely regarded it, even rather liked it.  Financial despot that he was, he enjoyed a little combative friction – and he always won.

This is not to say Tamsyn was ungrateful.  She claimed to be impressed by the refreshed appearance of ‘Brueburn’ (Lambert had dropped the ‘Halt’, thinking it inappropriate), professing enthusiasm for their shared future in this peaceful spot.

“Oh, Lamby, we shall grow old here, together!”

And if Lambert had not caught her in this room or that within the house now and then, standing alone and quite still, her expression pensive, her eyes clouded and remote, he might have believed.  Yes, she assured him, the quirkiness of the surviving station platform amused her, the open pathway of the old track bed awakened thoughts in her of long country walks with dogs, she said.  Lambert raised an eyebrow – he had not considered there might be dogs.

Of course there were no dogs, no Tamsyn, either.  If the idyll of retirement seduced her, Brueburnquickly palled.  Party season on the Riviera beckoned, and when that bored her, London society demanded her presence.  She was still, she insisted, in demand professionally.   Much the same could be said of Lambert, whose declared intention to ‘retire’ presented many challenges.   Brueburn languished; St. John’s Wood was so much more convenient.

“I don’t feel comfortable, there,” Tamsyn eventually confided to friends when she spoke of Brueburn.  “One imagines one can relive one’s past, doesn’t one, whereas truthfully one cannot?  Too much has changed.”  And with a vapid sigh:  “For the better, one must suppose….”

Throughout the summer of 2016, Brueburn remained shuttered and deserted.  Come autumn, Lambert decided to place the old station house back on the market.  One late September day he drove from London with this in mind.

Lambert arrived at ‘Brueburn’ to find its doors already opened, the climate turned on, and his music system playing a coloratura piece from Lakme, one of Tasmyn’s favoured operas.  At first, these things seemed to suggest – in fact they spawned the hope – that his partner had preceded him, although as far as he knew she was still in London, where she was expecting him to rejoin her in a couple of days.  But though he explored the much-altered station house from end to end, he found no-one.  A mystery then.  At length he decided Mrs Broadbent, who cleaned the house once each week, must have made these preparations for his coming. He contented himself with that tenuous explanation, poured himself a drink before venturing outside onto the old platform.  Here he rested, as he had hoped to do more often, immersing himself in the sounds of rustling leaves and the drying wind of the season.

Some minutes elapsed before he saw her.   Further along the platform, on an old railway bench that had escaped his notice hitherto, a girl in a printed cotton dress sat reading a paper-backed book.

Lambert approached her, though not unkindly, “Hello, young lady.”  The platform was part of his private property but she might not know, after all; why should she?  “What brings you here?”

Wordlessly, without lifting her eyes a moment from her book, the girl extended a hand in which she held, pinched between her forefinger and thumb, a small, green ticket.

Lambert stared at it.

“Don’t you want to clip this?”  The girl asked in a thin voice.

Intrigued, Lambert took the little piece of cardboard from her hand.  It was stamped third class for Newquay and dated September 24th, 1949.  “Where did you get this?”  He asked, in a tone less certain than before.

The girl inclined her head towards the house.  “Ticket office.  D’you want to clip it, mister?”

“No, you keep it.”  Lambert passed the ticket back to her.  And he found himself saying:  “They’ll clip it on the train.”  He stepped back, suddenly finding the intimacy of the space repelling and certain in the knowledge he was not wanted there.  Leaving his intended lecture concerning trespass unsaid, he retreated to the drink he had abandoned on the platform’s edge.  When he turned to look again, the girl had gone.

“Describe her to me.”  The estate agent said when he came to estimate ‘Brueburn’ for resale.

“About thirteen, brown hair, thin and quite pale.  Tall, for her age, probably.  I didn’t see her standing up.  Cheap white cotton dress with a red print.  Roses, I think.”

The agent thought for a moment, then shook his head.  “Nope.  I don’t know anyone like that.  Local kid, though, prob’ly; I can’t know them all.  Do you mind if I have a quick look around?  You’ve done so much to the place…”

Instead of returning to London as he had planned, Lambert ‘phoned his partner.  “Tassy darling, I’ll be staying down here for a couple more days, can you manage without me?”

Tasmyn sounded piqued.   “Sweetie, you know I need to give Rory some answers.  He doesn’t have backing, and I promised him you would make up any shortfall.”

“Is this about Le Corsair?  It’s a classical ballet – surely he can’t be begging in the streets for finance.  Why do I need to become involved?”

“The subject matter is a little controversial.  I don’t think it’s been performed here for years, which is why I want to do it.”

“What do you mean, precious; you ‘want to do it’?  I thought we’d promised each other, no more leads.”

“And we had. Oh, Lamb, I have never danced Medora, it’ll be the last, I promise…”

“I think you’d better come down here.  Wrap things up as soon as you can.  I’m going to need some substantial persuasion.”

“Oh, dear – are you, Lamby?  I shall have to do my very, very best.  You’ll wait for me?  You won’t go jetting off somewhere?”

To curtail a syrup of endearments, Lambert switched off his ‘phone.  He was disquieted by events in the latter days of Tasmyn’s career, as it became evident that her talents were falling from favour and he was repeatedly asked to paper over the financial cracks.  A full-scale classic ballet promised to be rather more than a crack.  He pondered his decision to sell Brueburn afresh.  Maybe this was the time to insist their mutual retirement pledges be put into action.

She was there again, the girl.  He came out onto the platform expecting to see her:  the same dress, the same paperback book; the same ticket?

She looked up, her intense green eyes meeting his.  “You keep pestering me,” she said.

“You’re on my property,” he replied; and when she gave no response:  “What’s your name?”

“I don’t know as I should tell you, old man comin’ after young girls, and that,”  She retorted.  “Crim’nal, that is.”  She returned to her book.  “I’m Janice, Janice Brathwaite.  My dad’ll come after you.  He’s fierce, my  dad.”

“Well, Janice, you’re trespassing.”

“I’m not.  I’m waitin’ for a train.”

Lambert felt as if he was struggling against something – a weight of atmosphere surrounded the girl.  “There are no trains anymore, Janice; the tracks are gone, do you see?  There’s no ticket office, because the station’s my house, now.”

“I’m goin’ to London.”

“Your ticket – the one you showed me yesterday  – that said you were going to Newquay.”

The girl rounded on him, her voice rising to a scream.  “LONDON.  T’is LONDON I’M GOING!”

Lambert found himself being blown backwards as if by a gale.  The pressure to put distance between himself and the girl was irresistible.  He turned and almost ran back to the shelter of his house with Janice’s voice screeching after him every step of the way.  “LONDON! LONDON!  LONDON!”

Only when he was safely indoors did he look back up the platform from a staircase window. There was no sign of the girl.

Later that evening he Googled ‘Janice Braithwaite’ on his laptop, his search returning only current Facebook references and a few genealogy hits, none of which seemed to apply to a little station called Brueburn Halt, or its long-forgotten estate.  Undeterred, he found the name of the largest local newspaper and paid his way into its archives where, by refining his search to the date of Janice’s ticket, he found the news item he sought.

Railway Death

A tragic accident at Brueburn Station occurred yesterday when a local man was hit by a train travelling to Newquay.  The man, who appears to have fallen from the platform, was pronounced dead at the scene.  Services on the line were suspended yesterday, but are said to be running as normal this morning.  The deceased was named as Norman Talbot Braithwaite.  He leaves a wife and daughter.  Relatives have been informed.

Lambert lay awake long into the night, more than once hearing, when the night was free of other sounds, what he thought to be the thunder of a distant train  – the chuff of smoke and steam, the click-clack of carriages, the hoot of a warning whistle.   When at last he slept, he dreamt of his house as once it was – ticket office, waiting rooms and platform canopy with the tracks laid afresh and gleaming with use.  And when he woke he knew what he must do.  As soon as he had cleared his business calls he returned to the search engine.  He remained there some time.

That afternoon the girl was there, seated and reading as before.  Ignoring the forbidding aura that surrounded her, he walked right up to the seat, which was a long bench, and sat down beside her.

“Hello, Janice.”  He said.   She did not reply.  “I’ve read a lot about you,”  Lambert went on.  “About the competitions you won.  You were very good, even when you were only seven or eight years old.  But that was almost seventy years ago.  How old are you, Janice?”

“Thirteen.  I’m thirteen.”   Lambert sensed a wave of antipathy – he could describe it no other way – pushing against him.  Janice was producing her ticket again.  “I’m waiting for my train.  I’m going to London.”

“Your ticket says Newquay.”

“Then it’s wrong.  WRONG!  I’m going to LONDON!”

“Don’t excite yourself, girl,”  Lambert told her, resisting the urge to retreat, no matter how strong it became.  “Why don’t we talk about the first time you came here?”

“Nothing to say.” The full weight of Janice’s will thrust at Lambert, physically moving him away.

“You came with your Dad, didn’t you?” As if at the turn of a key, he felt Janice’s resistance suddenly stop.  She got to her feet, and stood wide-eyed, staring down at him.  He looked her up and down, the slight figure in her cotton dress, and he knew.  He was certain. “Your Dad was taking you to school in Newquay, but you didn’t want to go to school, did you?  You wanted to go to London to begin doing the thing you loved and to make a living from it – even at such a tender age you knew you could do that.”

“But he wouldn’t let you, would he?  It was a spur of the moment thing.  No sign of the ticket clerk, few people on the platform, the train rolling in.  You were so gifted at judgement of balance it took only the slightest push, might not have seemed deliberate at all.  He didn’t fall beneath those wheels, Janice, you pushed him.”

“Pushed him.”  The girl repeated the words slowly, rolling them around in her head.  “Pushed him.”

Satisfied, Lambert turned and walked away.  That was why she returned here, he told himself.  He didn’t know how often she was doomed to re-enact that dreadful day – he didn’t care.  She was no more than an empty ghost to him now.  When he turned around, she would be gone.  And she was.

The hour had turned six when Tamsyn’s car rolled onto the forecourt of ‘Brueburn’ and its svelte, exquisitely coiffured driver emerged to Lambert’s effusive greeting.  “Tams, my sweet love, you have no idea how lonely I’ve been!”

“Oh, Lamb, I’m so sorry!  I had the most dreadful, dreadful drive!  The traffic, my dearest!  But are you well?  You sounded so serious on the ‘phone.”

“Never better my sweet, never better!  We have serious matters to discuss.   It’s an enchanting evening, so when you have quite recovered come and join me on the platform:  I’ll have your Moscow Mule dressed and ready.”

Very well, my dear, if I must.  Although even the platform is somehow a little bit disturbing. One does one’s absolute best to love it here, doesn’t one?  I shall be with you in a trice!”

Tasmyn’s ‘trices’ were usually on the long side, so Lambert was well prepared by the time she floated from Brueburn’s interior garbed in yards of expensive silk.  “I’ve made an effort for you, darling, you see?”  She shuddered.  “Oh, god, this place gives me the creeps!  Why on earth did we imagine we might ever live here?”

“We did not make that decision,”  Lambert replied mysteriously,  “We were invited and we came.  You look so very beautiful tonight, my dear: if beauty were ever eternal it would find its home in you.”

“Lamby, what a sweet thing to say.”  Tasmyn’s eyes squinted against the evening sun,  “You didn’t tell me we had a guest?”

“Ah, the girl!  You can see her too.  I’m so glad, I thought I was going slightly insane.  She’s our resident ghost, Tasmyn.  Come and meet her – she’s quite memorable.”

“Memorable – whatever do you mean?  I’m not in the mood to socialise, dearest, especially with a ghost, if that’s what she is.  She looks rather too substantial, to me.  Anyway, I do believe she’s coming to meet us.”  Tamsyn’s eyes, wanting glasses she would never wear, narrowed.  “What’s her name?  She looks oddly familiar…”

“She does?”  The distance between the two females was now no more than a dozen yards.  Both stopped.  Disbelief was reflected on each of their faces.  Lambert; he had to believe.  He had known that afternoon when the girl got to her feet; now, walking and standing, her turned out hips were too obvious.  “Tams, my darling, you should have told me your real name.”

There were times, Lambert had learned, when the truth defies rational explanation.  He had travelled widely and seen enough to know this to be true.

“Lambert, what have you done to me?”  Tasmyn’s voice pleaded.  “What have you done?”

“I’ve brought you to face your past.”

No further words were spoken.  The two figures stepped towards each other and embraced.  And when the embrace was ended, only one very old woman stood on the platform at Brueburn Halt.  As she wavered and seemed she might fall, Lambert came to her, supporting her.  From her quivering fingers he took a small, green ticket.

“You won’t be needing this now.”  He said.

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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.