A Silent Wisdom
Vincent Harper was standing behind a table laden with food and the paraphernalia of cooking. He seemed smaller than Peter remembered him, in fact shorter than himself: and his lined face in a caught-in-the-act smile of welcome added to this impression, as did the quantity of flour and grease adorning his apron, grey shirt, forearms, and face. The wild guitar player in an apron: it was difficult to assimilate. Peter tried not to betray his amusement, but of course Vincent noticed.
“Been doin’ some baking, Pete. You eaten, man?”
Peter had not, at least since his burger that lunchtime. It was now evening. The kitchen, a warm, enchanted place laden with shining copper, wrapped itself around him as he accepted offers of bread just baked and cakes so fresh they crumbled to the touch with large brown earthenware mugs of tea to wash them down. Ignoring the pain of his bruised hands Peter set about the feast while Vincent, saying or doing little except to offer more when he felt it needed, or to cut another slice, or pass a different pot of jam, was content to watch.
“Good stuff, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Peter answered truthfully. It was so easy to dispense with formalities and slip into familiarity with this man, in spite of the difference in their ages. “What are you doing here, Vince? Why didn’t you say it was you in your email?”
“Staying out of sight, mate.” Vincent began clearing plates. “After our little session back-along, you and I, it wasn’t safe for me to stay on the Rock. Too many inquisitive people who know what I’m all about will be looking for me. Can’t even trust email, not with these guys. They are seriously heavy: seriously.”
“What are you – and what exactly is this all about?”
Vince would have answered, had not a door in the opposite wall of the kitchen burst open, admitting a woman in a green bathrobe and slippers that should have been fluffy, had they not suffered visible food damage.
“He wants fish, now! Have we got any bloody fish?” She stopped short as she saw Peter. “Oh hi! Oh, wow, Vincent, is this him?”
“Peter, this is my lady, yeah? Her name’s Estelle. Estelle, meet Peter.”
Estelle was not at first encounter elegant or possessed of Alice’s frail beauty, although with acquaintance her inner grace would find the light. There were ways about a movement of her hands, or a quickness of her look, which in time could draw the attention of a stranger and make them a fast friend. The same could be said of her voice, which, with her Mid-Atlantic accent to enrich it, was deep, almost boyish. In her welcoming smile there was the self-consciousness of the surgically enhanced; leading a critical eye to that strategic placement of her dark hair which covered sins of age not quite effortlessly enough to convince. To Peter, whether she was thirty-five or fifty-five mattered little, for her greeting was warm and genuine, and her inner softness beckoned: he instantly liked Estelle.
Vincent asked: “Is he ready to receive visitors?”
“Not yet.” Estelle said. “He’s still eating. I have to clean him up first.” She took Vincent’s arm, and, with an apologetic look at Peter, led him out of the room, part-closing the door behind them. Beyond it, Peter overheard her saying, sotto-voce, “Vince, is this quite all right, huh? I mean, the old creep tried to grope me just now! He’s got fingers everywhere- he makes me crawl!”
“Sorry, sweetheart. He’s hard to take, I know. He won’t stay here after tonight, yeah?”
“OK. I’ll just mop him over a bit. You find him some goddamn fish for his supper. If he’d only just stop eating!”
Vincent grinned around the door, then re-joined Peter. “Someone you should meet.” He explained, as Estelle departed, presumably to renew her confrontation with the ‘old creep’, “But not for a bit. Come on through to the front room, Peter mate. I owe you a few answers.”
Departure from the kitchen and all its temptations was a wrench, but Peter took it well. Estelle, in the haste of her leaving had left her door ajar, so as he passed he was able to hear raised voices from what he took to be a basement. The words exchanged were undistinguishable if their sentiment was not: one of the voices belonged to Estelle, the other, a tenor with an hysterical edge, struck a chord in Peter’s memory. He could not recall where, but he was certain he had heard that voice before.
Beyond the kitchen a narrow, timber-clad corridor led to a parlour as Dickensian and out of character with the Vincent Peter knew as it was possible to be. Soft upholstered wing chairs in old brocade, drawn up each side of a luxuriously deep Chinese rug, stood like sentries before a large fire-blacked grate where a crackling wood fire burned cheerfully. Its flickering glow threw into sharp relief a dark wooden sideboard loaded with Spode and Meissen that leant against a further wall. Windows of warped and shrunken joints moaned softly in the September wind, their prospect of valley and open moor framed by heavy curtains of dusky red velvet. A cat had curled itself contentedly on the soft pile of the rug.
After ensuring Peter was ensconced in one of the chairs, Vincent perched on the sill of the window and began to talk in a voice so mellifluous and comforting that Peter might have been lulled into sleep, were this not an explanation of so much that he did not understand. He hung, riveted, upon every word.
“I’m not all I seem, Pete. There’s stories about me livin’ in houses in LA and havin’ a yacht down Barbados way. Not true. Oh, yeah, I’ve got the place at St. Benedict’s: that’s where I play at bein’ twenty-one again and do me music. And I put it about that I’ve got all these other places. But it isn’t me; not any more. I lived all that once, but now I’m getting older I find meself spending more and more time here. It’s my hideout, yeah? Oh, and me and Estelle, we’re together, you know? Have been for ten years now. She’s a great girl, see?”
“Toby told me you were single. Didn’t have any regular companions, he said. I thought you were with Alice.”
“Nah. Alice? Just a mate, Pete, like you. Again…” Vince spread his hands: “not something I talk about. Doesn’t fit the image, yeah? The rocker thing.
“Sometimes;” He went on, “I like to sit here and watch the dale through this window. In the spring the curlews come, in autumn the geese pass by. And for all the years that I’m here, they come and go just the same. To all of us living things, man, bird or beast, the land don’t seem to change. That stream, curlin’ along the valley bottom there, it’s been there longer than any man can remember, and it’s always looked just the same as it does now.” He smiled reflectively, leaning forward to catch Peter’s attention. “But through thousands of years that stream cut this valley. It made the slope where this house stands! It worked and worked, for time beyond memory, to carve the groove it needed to get it to the sea. Think of that, Pete! Think of the time that took!
“Looking out there, mate, I‘m so amazed how little, we know. Us, Homo-whose-‘is-face; everyone assumes that we sort of spewed out of some genetic witches’ cauldron somewhere and started world domination. Adam and Eve, y’know: all that? We view other species we share the planet with along the barrel of a gun, most often, or fattenin’ up prettily in a field, just for the privilege of being eaten by us.”
He turned from the window, suddenly fierce. “It wasn’t always like that. It wasn’t never meant to be that way at all!”
“Life started in the sea,” Peter said cautiously, trying to dispel some of Vincent’s surprising anger; “Single-cell creatures, then fish; amphibians, eventually. I know the dinosaurs developed from the first amphibians, the birds evolved from them, the smaller ones, that is: Mammals came along and the larger reptiles perished because of climate change, or maybe….no-one knows, really.”
“Or maybe because they over-stretched their food sources, got too bloody big and so over-populated they couldn’t survive? Anything sound familiar, so far?”
Peter nodded. “It’s one explanation, I guess, but there are others – volcanic activity polluting the atmosphere, a meteor strike?”
“Could be, mate,” Vincent agreed. “Could be. Thing is, the thing to remember, they were a dominant species long before we came along, a dynasty of creatures which were powerful and clever enough to rule their world.”
“They died out, though.”
“After a hundred million years during which their world changed mightily, for a lot of which they must have been walking a tightrope between their numbers and their resources? Millions of years of learning, of gathering wisdom? Perhaps they did die out, but now, Pete;” The guitarist leaned forward to emphasise his words, “Perhaps their intelligence didn’t.”
Peter didn’t take the bait at first. He sipped from the mug of tea he had brought with him from the kitchen, contemplating a response. At last he said, slowly, “So if Archaeopteryx was, as I’ve read it, a dinosaur that evolved into a bird, he’s flying around now with an IQ of umpteen-hundred-and-ninety-nine. Why wasn’t he the dominant species instead of us? What about crocodilia, aren’t they a hundred and twenty million years old, or something? They could have literally had us for breakfast if they’d wanted, couldn’t they? They’ll have missed a chance there.”
Vincent laughed, “No, it wasn’t quite like that. For a start, there’s a little matter of equipment, yeah? Like the old opposable thumbs thing? The birds aren’t fluttering about with huge brains – for a start they wouldn’t be able to fly. Put it this way, Pete: You’re learning for your Degree, how do you remember everything? How are you going to pass on the things you’ve learned?”
“It’s all on my laptop, I suppose. Disks, flash drives, things like that.”
“Exactly! You’ve got something not permanent, but more durable than you or I. Now the big lizards didn’t have laptops. For a long time we had no idea what they did have, but now, just maybe, we’re getting close to an answer. That’s real exciting, yeah?”
The guitar-player waved at the atmosphere with a manic finger, and sounding for a moment not unlike Toby: “We’ved always known the kind of wisdom that’s gathered in a hundred million years doesn’t die. It’s there, somewhere, and god knows we need its guidance, because we’re feckin’ up, man. How long has Homo-what’s-his-face been around? Not even one million years, and we’re already well on the way to extinction. Too many of us, too much plundering and too little planning!”
The cat, at this precise juncture, elected to forgo its warm nest by the fire and slink gracefully over his hands to sit upon the window sill. From there it climbed the scaffold of Vincent’s arms with its front legs and began elegantly grooming his stubble with its rough tongue. Vince and Peter both collapsed, for a moment, into laughter.
“Oh, bleedin’ ‘ell!” Vince cried, his sides aching. “Animals, yeah?”
He raised the cat up in his hands, cradled it and began chucking its chin. “See, this stupid creature, he’s got more stuff locked inside his head than you’d ever credit. He knows when a car’s coming at least half a mile before it arrives – and if Estelle’s in the car he’ll be ready for her in the kitchen twenty minutes before she pulls in. He can sense a storm; he can tell if you’re ill. How does he do all that – and much more besides? We put it all down to ‘instinct’ because we don’t have ‘instinct’ anymore and we don’t understand it.”
Peter’s quizzical look betrayed his thinking. “Anymore? Meaning we had it once and we lost it?”
“Yes, Pete! Precisely, mate! Not very strongly, maybe, but we did have it, before we got too civilised, too wrapped up in our fully-lined and comfortable world. Like those dinosaurs, we’ve lost touch.”
“So you’re saying the thing we call ’instinct’ is knowledge left for us by reptiles?” Peter’s furrowed brow betrayed the seeds of a headache. “That’s kind of hard to believe, Vince!”
“It is, isn’t it? And it isn’t quite like that, to be fair, because we’ve just picked on one previously dominant set of species whereas that knowledge is the sum of everything that’s gone before. Think of it a source of wisdom without being too specific as to its origins, and you’re there.”
Vince’s narrative was easy to understand, simplistic even, but he could not see where it was going to lead: clever extinct dinosaurs, pollution and all the warning signs of impending disaster; what did they have to do with his being brought here? “I’m sorry, I…”
“I know,” Vincent nodded; “I found it hard enough to take in, at first. But this is all about you, and that girl of yours.”
“She is not ‘mine’. Anyway, me? What have I got that has any bearing on species extinction?”
“You rediscovered instinct. You had a moment, only a moment, but you tapped into that knowledge, A couple of moments, actually –Toby told me about the cave.”
“No! I just had a sort of dream!” Peter’s denial was vehement. “ I wouldn’t have understood it, even, if Mel hadn’t helped.”
Vincent chuckled and shook his head. “You can’t run from it. Let’s start from somewhere else, just for a minute, Pete. Do you understand Time?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Ah, but do you? If I said to you, time is the process of aging, would you accept that? You should live, God willing, for your three score years and ten, and that’s a good long life, to you. But a fruit fly lives no more than a day or so, and that’s a good long life to a fruit fly.
An elephant’s life is more like ours in terms of years, but this puddy-tat, he’ll be lucky if he gets fifteen years. That’s what time is – a perception; the way we see things through aging.”
“I gues so, but…”
“So what’s a good long life to a rock?”
“But rock’s aren’t living organisms, so they don’t count.”
“Pete, we wouldn’t know if they were living organisms, because with a life-span of billions of years, their metabolism would be undetectable to us. Nevertheless, mate, they do age. They erode, too, just like us. Think about it!” Vincent urged.
Peter, with the warm room and the dimming of the light closing around him, felt his eyelids getting heavy, He wasn’t sure if he could believe what Vincent was saying, and he couldn’t, after the rigours of the day, absorb anything more. Vincent, watching him, saw the advancing clouds of sleep and grinned. “Sorry old lad, a bit much, ain’t it? Bed for you, I reckon, Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to him downstairs.”
A mile after luncheon at The Royal Oak Inn at Mountchester, Arthur Herritt’s landeau took his guests, Francine Delisle and her son Matthew on the turnpike, which followed the course of the River Leven for some miles. This was a scenically gratifying journey, the road being forced by the Chewlett Hills to run close by the waterside, drawing young Matthew’s fascinated gaze with uninterrupted views of the navigable river, in width by now almost a full estuary. Question followed question:
“Uncle Arthur…” (Arthur had acquired the honorary rank of ‘Uncle’) “Why are no boats going to Mountchester? They all seem to be headed for the sea.”
It was true; whether sailing ships, or barges, or mere dredgers, all traffic was headed west.
“The river is tidal here, Matthew, and the tide is ebbing. They are using it to draw them towards the sea.”
“What if one should want to go the other way?” Matthew objected.
Arthur smiled, “Why then it would endeavour to sail, given a fair wind, or wait for the tide to turn. The Master would put into Levenport harbour and pray for a good westerly to blow him home in the morning.”
“What if it couln’t?” The boy was rapt, his chin resting upon his hands on the lowered covers of the carriage.
“Matthew!” His mother rebuked him sharply.
“No, Mama, I mean if its cargo was needed urgently? Or the ship required repair?”
“Then the Master might resort to kedging,” Arthur explained. “An anchor boat must row ahead of the ship, and drop its anchor so the crew might wind it in on the capstan. A second anchor is then transported forward after the manner of the first, and the action repeated all the way up river. That’s very hard work. As of custom, the larger ships dock in Levenport anyway, and off-load their cargoes onto barges. Only the smaller ones make sail all the way up to Mountchester.”
“It must be dreadful slow.” The boy said.
“It is, Matthew. We hope that Mr Telford might one day install a tidal lock for us, although I fear it will be a long time hence.”
Matthew sighed weightily. “You are right, Mama. I no longer wish to become a sailor.”
It was late afternoon when their Landeau rolled onto Levenport’s esplenade.
“I have taken the liberty of reserving rooms for us at Roper’s Hotel here,” Arthur informed his guests. “It is a respectable establishment, indeed I believe Lord Crowley himself stayed here. In the morning I intend an expedition to the island, I would be honoured if you would join me?”
Later that evening, Matthew accompanied his mother and his adopted ‘uncle’ for a leisurely walk on the waterfront in the gloomy shade of St. Benedict’s rock. It was a pensive, abnormally quiet affair, during which the boy could not help but sense his mother’s odd distraction, which he attributed to the large and largely ruined house across the Bay. It was hard to ignore it, for the legacy of the Christmas storm had left a large part of its structure in disarray, and the wreckage of part of it lay in a tangled heap at the foot of the rock which had once supported it. Yet it seemed to Matthew there were other reasons for his mother’s peculiarly restrained excitement, and being worldly for his age, he wondered if she could be quite trusted to behave acceptably in the night ahead.
© 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: Julian Hochge Sang-huepD on Unsplash
Cat: uros-miloradovic on unsplash
Sailing Ship: Enzol from Pixabay