I try, within my limited abilities, to offer a variety of stories, thoughts and whimsies on this blog, so, if this is a bit of a romp I hope you will forgive me. It’s a four-part story, which may not be for absolutely everybody, but it has been great fun to write!
(Incidentally, ‘stories, thoughts and whimsies’; so much better than that ugly word ‘genre’, don’t you think?)
It was Julian’s brother Freddy who made the discovery. Julian, in commodities, had bought the island after a particularly successful season’s trading (he saw it advertised in The Times under ‘Property for Sale: Estates and Other’). Freddy, staying in the house as Julian’s guest – a flamboyant, noisy one at that – was in the habit of taking walks in the early morning. This was how the discovery was made.
The Island of Aga was six miles from north to south, a mere mile across: much of the terrain was naked rock, impassable without climbing experience. Its few navigable paths were strewn with sudden descents and precipitous drops which made walking hazardous. The best morning stroll the island could offer led to the top of its highest point, Ben Adderhochie, from where, on a clear day, you could see the Scottish mainland, then down through a deepening series of rifts and clefts to the little Skaeflint’ae Beach. This beach was the stuff of legend, the cliffs around it permeated by tiny caves where smugglers were said to have hidden contraband which lay there still, along with its attendant ghosts. There was a path to the beach, but Freddy was never one for paths. He was slipping and sliding off-piste as it were, down the side of a little granite gorge when he made the discovery.
At first, when the bird flew past him and headfirst into the rock, Freddy thought it was just one of those hideous accidents which sometimes overtake our treasured wild creatures. When a second one did more or less the same, he put it down to coincidence – but a third?
On the stony floor of the gorge he discovered a quite liberal scattering of little wild things, many of which appeared to have suffered the same fate as the birds. Perplexed, Freddy sat down upon a user-friendly rock to try and make sense of all this. That was when he heard a gentle hissing sound, and began to sniff the air for himself.
Rowena Parfitt was Julian’s wife and a woman of principle who, when she had taken Julian for better or worse had freely accepted that Freddy was the worst of the worse. She tolerated him, but with a suppressed, implacable hatred; which was why, when he burst in through the kitchen door at seven o’clock in the morning yelling at the top of his voice: “Eur-eeee-ka!! You-bloody reeka!” It was more than a woman of principle could bear.
Rowena picked up the heaviest plate she could find and threw it at Freddy. The plate missed. It spun out into the back yard, shattering against a gatepost (to the mild chagrin of the goat that happened to be tethered there at the time).
“Oh, good shot!” Cried Freddy. “Eureka, me little darlin’! Get Julian! Come and see what I’ve found!”
An hour later Julian and Rowena stood at the top of the little gorge staring down at Freddy as he alternately lifted and lowered a sizeable flat tablet of stone.
“On – off. On – off! It’s like a blasted stove, my loves! Natural gas! Find of the century, I’d say!”
At such moments of supreme accomplishment (and it is fair to say he may have been a little heady with his find), it was always Freddy’s custom to extract one of his largest Cuban cigars from his top pocket and light up for a deep, luxurious inhalation of that unique tobacco. In spite of earnest entreaties from the top of the cliff, this morning would not be an exception.
Only after he had telephoned the coroner did Julian fall to some careful thinking. By the time the local doctor arrived on a boat from the mainland to issue a death certificate, he and Rowena, not without difficulty, had borne Freddy’s mortal remains back to the house, laying him out informally on their dining room floor by a large open fire.
Rowena plied the doctor with some of her best amber nectar.
“The boat journey would be very cold at this time of the season, Doctor Creggie.” Julian suggested, joining his wife in the kitchen. “Have you much work around the islands at the moment?” He topped up the good doctor’s glass.
“Aye, aye.” Creggie affirmed. “A great deal too much, ye ken? All ye city folks gannin’’ tae the back o’ beyond and no experience of what a winter can be like, ye ken?” It was very good Scotch. He willingly took a second glass, stayed on for some excellent conversation and a third, generous measure. At last he said: “Well, now, I must’nae miss the tide. Where is the puir man?”
“Oh, he’s in the dining room where he fell – terrible thing.” Julian said. “I suppose you won’t have seen many cases like this?”
“Ye ken?” Rowena added helpfully.
“Cases like what?” Creggie enquired, attempting to cock a quizzical eyebrow and missing by several millimetres: it really was exceptionally fine whisky, and if it was not quite good enough, Rowena had augmented it with a little something of her own.
“Spontaneous combustion: our family is prone to it, unfortunately. There was my great uncle Herbert, wasn’t there darling? Oh, and my niece Jasmine. Went up like a torch, poor dear.”
Rowena chipped in: “Didn’t your grandfather…?”
“It was always suspected: although medicine was not as advanced then. They didn’t have Doctor Creggie’s skills, did they, Doctor?”
Doctor Creggie, though mellowed by alcohol, was still dubious about recording a death as ‘spontaneous combustion’, but when he saw poor Freddy, who was in a very derelict state, and he thought of all the problems with obtaining a second opinion in this remote location, he finally concurred. Besides, Rowena’s little ‘addition’ to his drink was taking effect: “Now I must awa’ back tae the boat. Ye’ll need tae make arrangements for the puir man. He can be buried here, of course, but I’ve nae doubt his nearest and dearest’ll want him hame. Meanwhile, I would put him somewhere a little cooler, ye ken. Er…could ye direct me to the lavatory, now?”
Julian and Rowena watched, hand in hand, as the government boat with Doctor Creggie safely wedged aboard sailed back towards the mainland.
Rowena, whose hatred of Freddy extended even after death, insisted they remove his carcass to the back of the woodshed. There they left him, propped between some bags of cement and a rusty plough of the horse-drawn variety, which Julian had pledged to restore when he had time.
“Right,” said Julian. “I have things to do.”
A retired commodities trader has friends in curious places: one of Julian’s was the disaffected son of a wealthy Nigerian land-owner, whose nefarious stock market activities had been a source of entertainment in the past. Mwabe Mbabe Junior had been quiet of recent years, producing little to match his past triumphs: “Diamond Concessions of Nigeria”, the “Mbabe International DNA Modification Corporation” and the briefly meteoric “Global Mall Shares Limited” had all long since become unhappy memories, their investors wiser, poorer men. These days Mwabe Mbabe busied himself with begging letters on the internet and finding ways to leverage non-existent companies using the mythical backing of his father. Julian ‘phoned him.
“Julian, my darling!” Mbabe was effusive: “What do you have for me?”
A few days after the undertakers came to scoop up Freddy and return with him (along with a bag of cement to which he had become inseparably attached) to the mainland, a dark, smartly suited figure stepped off the island-hopping boat. He brought a considerable amount of luggage. One or two of the suitcases rattled suspiciously as the boatman hove them ashore.
“Will ye want me back this year?” The boatman enquired: “Or at all? Are ye moving in?”
The man was a seismologist whose speciality was discretion, whom Mwabe Mbabe had employed once to survey certain portions of his father’s estate when the old man was on a business trip to Europe. His suitcases were stuffed with equipment. He was tall and swarthy, with bright eyes and a haunting smile, and when Rowena saw him her heart leapt.
After settling in, the man (his name was Mahadis), accompanied Julian to Freddy’s gorge. Mahadis was impressed.
“I will check this out.” He said.
For the next several days Mahadis busied himself setting up his experiments. The island terrain was not the friendliest he had ever worked in, nor was the necessary secrecy easy to maintain, as that crowning glory of offshore living, the Royal Air Force, seemed to revisit every ten minutes at several hundred cacophonous miles per hour on a level at which, if the pilot could not see what Mahadis was doing, Mahadis could see what the pilot did.
Then came one of those days when the normally brisk breeze became a host of screaming demons. On such a day the drops of endemic rain were freezing darts. In such a gale two people were needed to push the front door closed. Julian had gone to the mainland to replenish supplies, so the two people pushing together were Rowena and Mahadis.
“He won’t come back tonight,” said Rowena. “Do you need more blankets?”
Two days elapsed before the seas moderated and Julian was able to return, by which time Rowena had supplied Mahadis with many more blankets. Such affection was impossible to entirely disguise: it betrayed itself in a multitude of little touches and covert looks, which Julian, no fool, could scarcely avoid noticing. He needed Mahadis, however, so nothing was said.
Nothing, that is, until the seismologist’s work was complete.
“This is my report;” said Mahadis over breakfast one morning while Rowena gazed rapturously at a mole on his neck.
Julian riffled the wedge of manuscript. “Difficult to visualize.” Was his verdict. “Come on, let’s get our boots on and you can show me.”
From the summit of Ben Adderhochie they could see the entire Island. To the west, the mountain dropped in sheer cliffs many hundreds of feet to the sea: they could look down upon the backs of gulls and Shearwater wheeling in the wind eddies far below. To each of the other three main compass points, the island descended more gradually: back to the house in the north, towards South Beach and Freddy’s Gorge, and more steeply towards the distant mainland (which could be seen on a morning as clear as this) in the east.
To Julian’s initial surprise Mahadis paused here, rather than continuing the descent to Freddy’s Gorge.
“Over there,” Mahadis said, waving in a northerly direction; “Beyond the house on the north shore, three places with substantial natural gas reserves that may be easily drilled. I have put down markers. Over there: (this time a gesture towards Freddy’s Gorge) another two, in addition to the one you have found.”
Julian’s eyes had been widening with this: he said: “Really? Six places.”
“Six. From at least two separate subterranean sources. You are rich, my friend.”
“Wow!” Said Julian.
“So, my work is done. Now I will leave. There is the matter of my account?”
When you tell a man he owes you forty thousand dollars, especially if you have been intimate with his wife, it is best not to do so at the top of a very high cliff. The gulls and Shearwater in their wheeling flight parted politely to let Mahadis through.
As he walked back to his house, Julian was having a re-think: rich, after all, was something he already was; a man of his intellect, of his imagination, should not just content himself with riches. No, there was more to be gained.
Indoors, he lost no time.
“Mwabe;” He told the telephone: “We need another partner.”
“Ah!” Said Mwabe Mbabe, “I knew you would say that. I have just the fellow!”
This was the moment, Julian decided, to take out insurance.
“Mwabe. You wouldn’t think of double-dealing with me, now would you?”
“My dear chap!”
“Because I still have contact with a Mr. Luigi, you see?”
Mr. Luigi was a powerfully connected gentleman who had been persuaded to invest heavily in ‘Global Mall Shares Limited’. Mr. Luigi had never found out how his millions had been mishandled, although he continued to investigate. Should he ever discover Mwabe Mbabe’s part, there would be nowhere for the Nigerian trickster to hide. The Luigi affair was a major contributor to Mbabe’s decision to take early retirement.
“My dear sir!” Protested Mwabe again, his voice higher by a semi-tone.
Satisfied, Julian rang off.
Julian’s relationship with his spouse now entered a fairly volatile phase: Julian’s explanation that Mahadis had left by sea very suddenly, though true in itself, gained only limited credence.
“He’s taken none of his equipment.” Rowena pointed out.
“He won’t be needing it.”
“I didn’t see the boat.” Said Rowena.
“I didn’t say anything about a boat.” Replied Julian.
“Bastard!” Said Rowena, secretly wondering why she could not stifle a shiver of admiration which vied with the grief in her throat. Later, when Julian had exited to seek out Mahadis’ markers, she reduced the family crockery by twelve very good quality plates.
From this point on, matters proceeded apace, so fast that Rowena’s agony passed unnoticed by Julian, although it was to return to haunt him later.
A small group of ‘fishing boats’ arrived at the island, their crews, all of olive-skinned appearance, staying long enough only to cap the six natural gas vents Mahadis had discovered. They were, for the most part, uncommunicative, although Julian (never one to pass up an opportunity) managed to sell them the better part of Mahedis’ seismographic equipment.
Shortly after the departure of the ‘fishermen’ there hove onto the horizon a much larger vessel. The ‘Xanadu’ was long, and elegant, and gleamed white in the late summer sun like some marvellous visitor from another world; which, in its way, it was. Far too large to approach the little jetty which welcomed visitors into Julian’s domain, the ‘Xanadu’ anchored in deep water. A launch which served as the yacht’s tender beetled across the gap from ship to shore, to be steadied against Julian’s jetty as the master of ‘Xanadu’ disembarked.
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Picture Credit: MW from Pixabay