Peter watched Melanie’s retreating back as she walked quickly away. Her last words to him: “I don’t think we should see each other for a while,.” and the cold marble lump in his stomach prevented him calling after her. Did she hesitate, hoping that he would? He wanted to see reluctance in her step, but in his heart he knew this was something she must resolve on her own. For some time he remained there, on the St. Benedict road, churning over sorrowful thoughts in his head, before he too started unwillingly for home, with his emotions brimming. He could not contemplate life without Mel.
In the days and weeks that followed, Peter saw little of Melanie. She was neither waiting on the Esplanade in the morning, nor was she to be found at the Mall when he was there. She even stayed away from college for a while: not yet strong enough, perhaps, to overcome those inevitable meetings; passing between lectures, in the library or the canteen during study time. When she did come back she would barely return Peter’s greeting, which, in a way, saved pain for them both. She made her desire to end their friendship so obvious that eventually Peter tired of attempts to make contact; wearied by unanswered emails and texts, he resigned himself to his loss.
The injustice, in Peter’s eyes, lay in Melanie’s reasons for their separation. After all, he would have as gladly dropped the baton the Rock had passed to them as she, if he could believe it possible that the force which lurked there was so passive as to let him go. But he well knew that this would not happen and he knew that Melanie, though she chose to deny it now, was no more immune than he. He could be fearful, if he allowed himself, of the consequences for her when she faced this truth alone; but he could not change it. He had to respect her choice.
Meanwhile, he was altering. Others noticed this first: Lena, his mother, seeing him enter her studio one afternoon was struck, not just by how tall he had become, but by his developing physique: “My word. Peter, how you have growed! Are you doing weight training, or something?”
“It’s the steroids.” Peter explained lamely. “The little sods keep biting my legs.”
“Well, you slow down, Peter dear, or I shall have to accept you’re inheriting your father’s terrible sense of humour, and feel compelled to paint you.”
“Agh! No; not that!”
Then there was a small flame of self-confidence, which flickers inside everyone who knows that they are, for some reason, different from the crowd. Peter had always been the quiet child, the loner, the unobtrusive intellect at the back of the class. He had never exactly been troubled by bullying, but there were those who, back in his school days, he was content to avoid. The redheaded Ross ‘Copper’ Copeland had been one such.
Ross, completely and utterly ginger from his shock of untidy thatch to his toenails, had densely-freckled skin and a fine, fluffy beard which grew untamed around his features in the same angry hue. His physique – a girth best described as ‘ample’ – arms and wrists tapered thickly down to short, stubby, carriage-bolt fingers; his walk the stamping stride of a Sumo and the fight in every stare from his steely green eyes meant the world would step aside for Ross Copeland; it was easier that way.
At school, Copper had supplemented his income and his diet from the resources of his fellow students. Because it pleased him to think of himself as a ‘businessman’ rather than a thief, he had a number of ploys – ‘selling’ some trivial or useless item to his victim, or offering protection ‘insurance’ to those with courage enough to resist.
After school had ended Peter and Copper went their separate ways. One a college student, the other an apprentice highways engineer, their paths should never have crossed. But Levenport was a small town, and Copper’s instinct for commerce flowered among the dark corners and fetid alleys where small white packets were stock in trade.
Peter was wandering through the Woolmarket, a system of narrow streets on the East Side, when Ross caugh up with him:
“Hello Worm. Haven’t talked to you in a while, have I?”
Copper’s considerable form blocked Peter’s path; a little gaggle of hangers-on sniggering in his wake.
“Hello Ross.” Peter was amazed at his own relaxed reply: “So true. We must catch up. How are the guinea pigs? Win any prizes?”
This brought a suspicious glance, because Ross did not generally let his hobby be known: “They’re all right,” He said staunchly, looking very like a large guinea pig. Then, with the light of ‘The Fancy’ glinting in his eyes, “Got a couple of ‘Thirds’ last week.”
Somebody behind him quickly stifled a giggle. “Look here now,” Copper went on, hurriedly, “I’ve got something you’ll want.” He began ferreting around in his trouser pocket, producing, at length, a tattered ‘Get Out of Gaol Free’ card from a Monopoly game. “Useful, eh?”
Peter looked at the crumpled item: “And still warm, too.”
“Only a score, to you Worm. Special price.”
“Twenty pounds! For that?” Peter was incredulous. “Sorry Ross, none on me. Catch you later!” And he walked away.
A hand fell heavily on his shoulder. “I’m sorry you don’t like my merchandise, Worm, really I am. It’s a very good opportunity. Maybe you needs some business education, do y’ think?”
“Seriously?” Amazed by how rapidly his eyes could move and focus, Peter rounded upon Copper, who was totally unprepared for what came next. “Would you like to begin teaching me now?” Outfaced, Copper stepped back. Somehow, Peter found he was able to detect the precise position of Copper’s feet, analyse his point of balance so as to know exactly when, where, and how hard to lunge. In a breath, Ross Copeland was lying on his back on the pavement, with Peter standing over him, offering his hand: “Geez, sorry Ross, must’ve tripped? Here you go!” And Copper, maybe slightly winded, allowed himself to be helped up.
It was a huge moment, one in which the reputations of both youths hung by a thread.
“All right then, Cartwright….” Copper began, his complexion boiling to a bright pink.
“Worm.” Peter gently corrected him. In a low, confidential voice, he added: “You used to call me ‘Worm’. I miss that.” A gathering throng of onlookers tittered nervously.
Copper glared. His anger rested upon Peter’s face, which was smiling, although his eyes were not. “We’re not at school anymore, Ross. If you want to try and re-educate me, you’re going to have to do it the hard way.” And he walked away again. This time no heavy hand restrained him.
The importance of this re-balancing of strengths was not lost upon Melanie. At the time of Peter’s confrontation with Ross she was elsewhere, but the buzz traveled quickly. As is the way with rumor, the details had already changed. Peter was accredited with having worsted Copper in battle. She tried to fit this piece of the jigsaw into the image she kept of Peter; an image already visibly transformed. It only added to her misery.
It was a time of trial. The autumn of that year was punctuated by examinations, tests of many different kinds. There were challenges for which there were simply not days enough, so that the weeks, the months, the seasons plunged into each other with unrecognised speed – autumn into winter, winter becoming spring. No summons came from the powers or the personalities that dwelt upon St. Benedict’s Rock, so Peter began to forget that visionary day in Toqus’ cave: greater things occupied his mind.
As Peter grew strong, Melanie became beautiful, a melancholy, gentle girl with large, dark eyes and a soft smile which betrayed a wisdom beyond her years. Neither found any relationship which matched the one they once shared: each dallied briefly with new love, then turned away. It seemed that although they were not together anymore, they were never far apart.
Perhaps if Melanie’s home life had been happier, she might have sloughed the skin of Peter more readily: her aversion to Howard was undying, though, and it looked unlikely he would go. So she was left with reminiscences and might-have-beens, and a reputation with the local lads for being remote and cold. She fell deeper into depression, and her mother Karen might have seen this, had she wished, and were she not already weary of the tightrope she walked between her lover and her daughter. Howard tried; she could not blame Howard, but the gulf of Melanie’s mistrust was too wide for either of them to bridge.
Howard, in fact, remained something of an enigma. A haze of mystery surrounded this large, ungainly man who, whenever questioned closely concerning his work role at Catesby’s, the local heavy engineering Company, would be evasive, attributing his involvement ‘more to the sales side’. And it was true he spent long periods away on business, with a predilection for suits with collars rather than suits for boilers.
There was something further that Karen might have seen: did she not wonder why, when Melanie had declared the cessation of her friendship with Peter, Howard had seemed so concerned? Why did Howard, normally not much exercised by Melanie’s affairs, earnestly entreat her to think again? Then, when it was clear that the relationship had died, why did he go to such lengths to remain in contact with Peter?
To supplement his meagre finances, Peter had taken a job as car cleaner at Ensell Street Motors, a main dealer with showrooms in the town. Howard transferred the servicing for Karen’s car from her local garage to this firm at some extra expense, apparently just in order to gain some conversation occasionally with ‘the Cartwright lad’. Since Peter was only employed for two days in a week, around his college commitments, this was a fairly unrewarding means to keep in touch, but Howard seemed content with it.
Peter had, by now, got past his early dread of Howard, so that he was willing to engage in some discourse with him, although he never enquired after Melanie, or acceded to Howard’s persistent suggestions that they “get together over some computer stuff.” Peter often considered that Howard might be stalking him: the guy turned up at the oddest moments; around the corner from the café where he stopped for coffee, or on the Esplanade where, despite his commitments and the march of time, he often still walked.
Did Melanie notice these things? Perhaps. She noticed most that Howard was more and more a part of her life; that Karen took less care to keep them apart. And as the seasons passed, their alienation grew.
Then, when it seemed that affairs were at their lowest point, there was Lesley.
Melanie was still socially gregarious enough to have a small, but much-treasured circle of friends. Trisha, the eldest of three sisters and a serious student, her alter ego, Kate – who had never, to Melanie’s certain knowledge, been serious about anything – and Lesley. ‘Trish and Kate were both local girls, they had grown up in the same town. Lesley was an outsider who had moved to Levenport a year or so ago to stay with an aunt after a family break-up. The four of them would communicate often through college, where they studied the same subjects, or on the Net, from time to time. The most sacrosanct of their meetings took place each Saturday across the road from the Mall, at a café called Hennik’s. Seated at one of the outside tables, they sipped latte and shared their news.
“I just think it’s so the right thing,” Kate was saying: “I mean, this town’s, like, numb, isn’t it?”
They were discussing Trisha’s results, which made her certain of a place at St. Andrews for the coming year.
“I’m really looking forward to it.” Trisha said: “I couldn’t stay here for another three years, I‘d start biting my nails for a hobby. It’s tragic already. I‘ve only been off studies for three weeks and its s-o-o boring.”
“Get a job, girl!” Kate urged: “A little currency might help, yeah?” She added, to Melanie: “Your Peter has, hasn’t he? He looks so cool in those overalls.”
“He’d look cool in anything.” Trisha’s voice betrayed just a hint of reverence.
There was then a drop in the conversation, because Kate had broken a taboo by mentioning Peter’s name and each of the companions knew this. Melanie’s permanently ruptured heart was common knowledge among them, something which, though they thought it unnatural, they never broached as a subject.
“He isn’t my Peter.” Melanie said carefully, after a moment or two.
Kate chuckled: “Have you tried snapping your fingers?”
“It’s true, then? You finally laid the ghost?” Trisha touched her friend’s hand. “Does that mean you’re moving on at last?”
“I guess, I suppose It isn’t like we were ever serious, or anything, We were just friends.” Melanie managed a weak smile. “I’m a bit of a wuss, aren’t I?”
“Oh, get real!” Kate came back: “We know you two were joined at the hip for years.”
“And that was, like, years ago. We aren’t ‘joined’ any more.”
“Big move!” Kate was respectful. “Mind you, we do all think you’re mental.”
“No, she isn’t. He isn’t everybody’s idea of love walking, is he?” Said Trisha. “I mean, not long ago most of us thought he was a geek?”
“Not any more.” Kate came back. “You’re doing a good thing, Mel. You really are. It’s just that he’s, well….”
“…..He’s the silverback? Don’t I know it?” Melanie twisted her fingers in her hair. And she said, with a detectable sadness: “It’s not like we were ever married or anything…”
“Oh, bless!” Kate sympathised. There was a reflective pause.
“So you two are really, finally and definitely, over?” Lesley had been listening to the conversation quietly. Lesley, who was deep and intelligent and fun; who had an overt personality and so many qualities which boys, distracted by her long legs and melting curves, never really cared about. Ash blonde Lesley, for whom it seemed all the most trending clothes had been specifically made, and whose weakness, undeniably, was anything to do with the male sex.
“I know that tone.” Said Trisha.
“Well, that makes him a free agent, doesn’t it?” Lesley said defensively. “And he is, like, fanciable, yeah?”
“Alpha male!” Kate agreed.
“Oh, Lesley!” Trisha chided: “You wouldn’t do that to Mel, would you?”
“NO!” Lesley protested: “No, of course not!”
“Serious, Mel?” Trisha asked: “There’s no way back? Face it, he’s so hot right now? Before we let Foxy loose on him?”
“Here!” Protested Lesley: “As if I would! And I’m not, like, a dog or something!”
Nevertheless, on Monday morning, when Peter took the seaside route to college, someone was clearly waiting for him, leaning with their back to the rail which warded the sea wall. Someone tall and undeniably feminine, even while her long coat whipped about her and her blonde hair tangled in the breeze.
“See?” Said Lesley, “I knew you’d come this way! Walk with me, Peter?”
This was one of those dramatic mornings when the sky was heavy with cloud and spray fizzed off the sea; the sort of weather Peter relished, but not what he would have expected Lesley to enjoy. In fact, she looked as if she was enjoying it hugely.
“It’s really blowing, yeah?” She shouted above the noise of the foreshore. “Isn’t it perfect?”
“I like it.” Peter responded.
“Me too!” Lesley snuggled her pretty chin into the collar of her coat. “It’s real!”
Maud Reybath squinteded at the hooded figure who stood before her door, masked by darkness. “Come in. Were you seen?”
“I stayed in the undergrowth away from the road, then I followed the backs of the houses. I do not think so.”
Shepherding her visitor into her hallway, Maud peered past him, glancing anxiously up and down the village street. Difficult though it was to tell under the cloak of night, she could discern no sign of life. She closed the door carefully, to find her visitor, whose habit was rank with the scent of damp bracken, shedding the sandals from his rugged little feet. She, motioned him to lower his hood and he did so, revealing sharp features arranged around a hairless cranium. His stature and girth were small, his anxious grey eyes darted and switched hither and thither, as if he did not believe them to be alone.
“I am commanded to bring you this,” he said, “On pain of my life.” He retrieved a sealed scroll from beneath his clothing, offering it to Maud. She broke the seal without hesitation, “It was delivered to us by a child.”
“Her son?” Maud responded, a little too quickly.
The man looked puzzled. “Perhaps.”
She quickly scanned the neat handwriting the scroll revealed. Its import was simple and direct;
“My dear Maud,
The man I encountered when last I visited with you at Bleanstead, one Arthur Herritt, Esquire, is undoubtedly The Pilgrim. I presently enjoy his hospitality at Mountsell Park by the City of Mountchester, but I fear I may have to move ere long: I am discovered, I think.
With Sincere Affection,
Could she disguise the delight, or relief in her eyes? Maud turned away so her face might not be seen. “Very well. You should take refreshment. I have bread and some good fowl to restore your energy. You have many more miles to travel this night. I will write a further message for you to deliver, which must be for the eyes of the Brotherhood alone, do you understand? For their eyes alone.”
© 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.