Part Twenty-five

Among Stones

Morning had advanced some few hours: the sky, which promised much at first light, now contained a threat of dreadfulness to come.   Melanie, who had worn no coat when she set out to explore the seafront at Seaborough the previous morning, struggled with oilskins twice her size as the plucky little trawler thrashed into a mounting sea.   Despite the restrictions of those clumsy garments it was good to be topsides now, safety line clipped to the rail, spray misting and spattering her face:  nobody seemed concerned that she should stay there, braced against the starboard thwart, as long as her companion stood with her.   This the boy seemed happy to do, as if she were in his personal charge.

“Would you call this a storm?”  She asked, lifting her voice above the wind.

“Nah, noothin’ this.   Not yet.   Be fierce later, though, I reckon.  The’s looky we’s pottin’ the’ ashore, lass.”

A headland loomed large, a backcloth of gaunt cliffs almost black against the chopping grey water.   They seemed to be heading into a small bay or river- mouth, Melanie could not tell which.  “What’s your name?”   She asked the boy, aware their time together was almost over: she would miss his reassurance.

“Daniel.  I’m Dan’l.”   The boy shouted back.

“Pleased to meet you, Daniel!”  And she was.  There was no anger, no resentment in her heart for being stripped of her possessions and plucked from the quayside at Seaborough:  it was almost as though she had expected, even hoped it would happen.   Wherever this was, this tiny cove, her music was telling her she was meant to be here.

Both watched in silence as the cliff-face became closer, ever higher.   Gradually the fervour of the open sea subsided, until their vessel chugged against no more than a light swell, its engine echoing against the bare stone.   Rounding an outcrop, the inlet became a tiny harbour, part natural, part man-made, hewn from the rocks.   The faceless figure in the wheelhouse reversed the little boat’s propeller to deaden all speed before a burst of throttle pivoted it almost ninety degrees into its narrow mouth.   Daniel leapt from stern to shore, then shore to prow and back again, tying off lines to rusted iron rings set in the wall.  He grinned down at Melanie, proffering a hand to help her from the boat.

“The’ll be glad o’ this, I reckon!”

After such time on a pitching deck, Melanie nearly fell over as her feet refused to accept the unmoving concrete jetty.  Daniel held her arm while she found her balance.

“Foony feelin’ tha, the foorst time.  Soon passes.”

She had never seen a harbour this small.   They had come ashore in a refuge sandwiched between dark and oppressive cliffs so restrictive there could be room to berth no more than three small boats. Grey was the colour of everything, fading to black in those large expanses of cliff-face where no light penetrated or would ever penetrate.  Crumbling paths and crazed concrete in the wall seemed to suggest that the harbour had been unused for many years.  No other boats were moored here, the only evidence of previous occupation being a stack or two of rotted lobster before a rough stone cottage built against the cliff, beside which a rotten row-boat, its name still readable as Daisy-May, languished.  The hovel, the harbour, the whole place reeked of abandonment and decay.

“Oh, my god!”  Melanie groaned.

It began to rain.

“’Tis a special place, this.”  Daniel said quietly:  “There’s not many as cooms here, now.”

Stamping against the cold, Melanie searched about her for a reason why she should be one of the few who did. “So what do we do now?”

“The’ll be met.  Oop there.”  The boy waved towards a set of stone steps that had been carved into the cliff face. Below them the boat’s engine revved impatiently. “Sorry lass, but us’ll need the’ skins: us can’t afford te lose ‘em, like?”

“You’re just going to leave me here?” She protested.

“You’ll be met.”   Daniel repeated. “This ‘ere’s a tidal harbour, see?  An’ we’re right close to the end o‘t tide?   Now lass….”

Meekly, she complied, dragging the stiff, oilskin cape over her head.   It had not been a warm garment, but she felt its absence instantly and keenly.   Left with just a thin sweater which fell fashionably short of her jeans, the chill on her bare midriff was like an electric shock.  

Daniel grinned apologetically: “Good luck, eh?”

He loosed the lines from their rusty hold, tossing them onto the trawler’s already cluttered deck.    Then he moved from shore to ship as the trawler instantly backed out of harbour.   Minutes and a final wave later it was gone, passing from sight beyond the outcrop,.   leaving Melanie to face a loneliness so frigid and profound it settled upon her like an icy cloak.

Heavy with ice, raindrops spattered onto the stone jetty where they refused to melt, but lay in a carpet of half-hail ready to hurl her from her feet.   These same raindrops ignored the thin cloth of her sweater and bombarded mercilessly straight through to her skin.   A swirling gale was driving, moaning among the rocks like a banshee chorus.

Quitting the harbour wall was not a difficult decision:  sandwiched between those frowning cliffs, moving as briskly as she dared in  inappropriate shoes she made, slipping and gripping, for the comparative shelter of the cliff.   If shelter was what she craved, the cottage seemed a logical choice.   She headed there first, but there was, she quickly realised, no ‘welcome’ mat.   The window-glass, though intact, was crusted with age-old grime and the plank door weathered clean of paint.   A red-rusted padlock held it shut.   Peering inside yielded only bleary darkness.   Nothing human lived in there, though she feared other things might.

A voice.  She was sure she heard a voice, mournfully intoned in the gale.   There was an incentive, if no other existed!  Weather or no weather, she had to find a way out of this place.

A narrow track followed the foot of the cliff toward the stairway Daniel had indicated.   Obviously the fisherman or men who had used this refuge must have had access to the outside world:  this track was apparently  their only means of escape and now hers, therefore she should follow it to its conclusion; but the closer to it she became the more it convinced her it was a stairway to certain death.   Melanie who we have already seen was an adept and relatively fearless climber knew her limitations, and this was far beyond acceptable risk.  Some steps had completely crumbled away, others were worn steeper by the boots of generations, all were coated with hailstones willingly coagulating into sheet ice.  No handrail existed, or ever had, and no grips or stages in the sheer cliff wall offered to steady her slight frame against the ravages of that gusting wind.

So intense was the storm’s bombardment she might have missed it.   The path did not end at these steps:  a narrow ledge, battered by the sea, passed them by.  It might lead nowhere, it was perilously thin yet almost welcoming as an alternative so she accepted it gladly. 

Fifty or so metres from the harbour, this track turned a corner to the left, disappearing into a natural fissure in the cliff.   With high grey walls to each side this seemed as though it must be its finality.   She prepared herself to accept failure, but the track did not end there.   It became a tunnel, short and unlined, which plunged straight through the cliff into daylight at its further end: and standing at the further end was a tall, broad figure.  

 “Now here you are!”   The figure cried in a hearty, indisputably feminine voice.  “And I was thinking you might have missed the tide!”

 “You can call me Agnes.”   Said Agnes, striding forward through the tunnel to identify herself.   “Save us, child, you’re soaked through!   Did they not give you a coat, at least?”

“I’m glad to meet you,” Melanie returned the introduction politely, “I’m Melanie Fenton.”

“Yes, my dear.  I already know that.  Why, you’re shaking!  You must be frozen!”

“I thought I was going to have to climb those steps.”

Agnes to boomed with laughter, a loud,  pleasant, unthreatening sound.  “Save us, Melanie, I’m really glad you didn’t.  I’ve never had the courage to go up or down those.  They would kill me, I should think!”

There was little to see of Agnes, Rain-washed spectacles protruded from a bundle of protective scarf topped by a sou’wester hat.   A massive waxed coat, layered over who could tell how many sundry jackets and cardigans cocooned the remainder of her, with only Wellington boots showing beneath its dripping hem.

“Come along, dear.  We have to get you inside.”  She encompassed Melanie’s shoulder with a huge gloved hand, ushering her roughly into the hole through the rock.   But the gesture was not violent or ill-meaning:  there was a kindness about the muffled Agnes, Melanie thought.  Anyway, she had no alternatives in mind – once again, that inexplicable sense of mission prevented her from offering resistance to whatever befell her; this seemed to be the way fate intended.

Elsewhere…

The cathedral cloister was a cool and quiet place to walk, or to contemplate, on a hot September afternoon.   Other than an occasional marauding crow, the bird sound from the green was of blackbirds, of finches and sparrows.   Water poured in plainsong over a central fountain.  An odd tourist or two, meandering between photographs, struggled by on a guidebook and a prayer.   A well-furbished middle-aged woman rubbed at an interesting brass.

Two men of God strolled here, although only one, a Bishop, wore The Cloth.   Ronald Harkness was he.  The spry tee-shirt and jeans guy on his left, although appearances would have deceived, was a Franciscan monk.  Neither, in appearance, represented the most acceptable face of their shared faith.  They looked like a pair of bedraggled crows.

“If your information is accurate,” The monk was saying; “We must move quickly.”

They came to a place where a wooden bench faced the quadrangle.  “I do not think we should act in haste:” Bishop Harkness said, seating himself.  “Essentially, we have matters under control.”

A chaffinch which had been feasting a few meters away upon some seed scattered by a tourist, edged carefully back for a venturesome peck or two, one wary eye on the newcomers. 

“My Lord Bishop, never was there a time when it was more vital that we act, and act with speed.”   The monk perched beside Harkness, on the edge of the wood:  “This boy is a wild card.  If he is what our people say he is, who can imagine what his capabilities are!”

“No.”  Harkness shook his head.  “I am not inclined to think he will interfere with our plans. I do believe to restrain him now will stir up too much unwanted silt.   Too many others are interested in him and he is young, untried in his arts – if art he has.”

“You seem doubtful about the boy.   I am not sure I share your doubt.”

“I met him.  He seems very ordinary to me – and very young.”

“He found the vault at Crowley.”

The Bishop shrugged.  “There was nothing to find, surely – we sanitized that site two years ago, didn’t we?”

“We are in no way certain,” The monk replied:  “Yet if they are what we believe they just might be, this young couple, how can we be complacent?”

Frowning, the Bishop flicked with his foot, putting the chaffinch to flight.  “If, and it is a very big ‘if’, they get together.   Even then, I wonder whether these old legends have any credibility in a modern world…”

“We have old legends of our own.”  The monk reminded.  “Some of those are true, are they not?  You are watching the boy?”

Harkness nodded.  “We are.   The girl has dropped from sight, but I have no doubt she will turn up again.   However, without each other they are nothing more than the nuisance we have had to endure for years.  Divide and subdue?”

“But the boy has dropped from sight, too, has he not?”  The monk asked.

The Bishop registered mild surprise.  “Now, how did you know that?”

“We have our sources.”

“Ah, your ‘sources’.  So I have to terminate the employment of another perfectly good secretary.  Very well, yes, you are right, he has gone off the radar for a day or so; but we shall get him back.   Our girl picked up with him in Manchester, but then he performed some sort of Houdini trick.  My guess is they have him and he is being briefed.   We couldn’t stop that if we tried.”

The monk raised an eyebrow:  “And by ‘they’ you mean….so you do think he is Toa?”

“I did not say so.  They may think he is, and I intend to find out.  The Toa are interested in him, which is all I know.”    Harkness shrugged.

The monk spread his hands.  “You see?  My Lord Bishop, we cannot know.  We tacitly acknowledge that there are rats in our basement which need extermination, but we also favour improvements to our hygiene that are taken delicately and at our own pace.”   His voice dropped, his intensity increased.  “If these people are given rein that could be out of our hands; things are moving towards a crisis.   In my view we have to take positive action.   We have to stop the boy, and to stop him now.”

“I cannot agree.  Just suppose what you say was true:  we have always been able to talk to the Toa.  We have always negotiated.  If we declare war, as you suggest, we only exacerbate the problem.  Leave us to handle the boy, and to find his girl-friend.   This is our mission, after all?”

The monk considered this.   “You might negotiate with them in their weakness, certainly.  But if they find their strength?”

“I do not see it as a problem – you do.  We must agree to differ.”

Conversation lapsed, as conversation will on such sunny days, into silence.  At length the men went their separate ways; Bishop returning to his See, the monk to his monastic duties.  But the subject would not end there.   Later that day, the monk made some calls.  A meeting was arranged.

#

Fortified with hot coffee and some of Estelle’s special pancakes (“We have to fill you up, you need your strength”) Peter stood on Vincent’s pea-beach drive, waiting for the car which would transport him back to Manchester.   His hosts waited with him, huddled in coats against a fresh morning breeze.

Since parting with the one he knew as Simeon, he had struggled in his private thoughts.   Supposing, he reasoned with himself, all the conversation, the manipulation and hallucination of the last twelve hours were true?   Suppose he and Melanie really were all that stood between the world and a fatal error – what  –  a nuclear war, famine, some kind of plague?  The permutations were endless.

He knew with certainty now that, however much he might wish it, there was no turning back.  Promises that he would be able to live comfortably in the care of Simeon’s cult while he shared with Melanie the care of the ultimate computer hung around his head like the corpses in a game-keeper’s parlour: so much less desirable than the things he must leave behind.  This so-called ‘gift’ was always going to take more from him than it gave – Melanie’s friendship, already gone;  Lesley’s love, Lesley’s gentleness, Lesley’s sweet voice, her bright, clowning smile – they would be next.   He was marked and almost certainly his fate was decided not just for now but for all his years.

Peter’s miasma was dispelled by a crunch of tyres on gravel and the toot of an impatient horn.    Parting with Vincent contained an implicit promise: that their next meeting was not far away.

“We’re close, Pete, man, OK?  If we’re needed, we’ll be there.   Watch your mail now, and try to be comfortable with yourself.   We’ll see you soon.”

Stepping into the car, Peter looked up to see a seagull perched upon the ridge tiles of Vincent’s house roof.   Even at that distance, he was able to pick out the yellow diamond mark on its neck.

He spoke inside his head, knowing his words would find their target.  ‘If I can get the Truth Stone to reply to me,’  he asked,  “How do I perform the reset?”

‘I was hoping you would work that out, Petie-Pooh,’ the seagull replied.  ‘Personally, I don’t have a clue.’       For a split instant, the gull became Simeon again; then it reformed into a gull and flew away.

© 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: Freefoto from Pixabay
Trawler: Andre Costargent from Pixabay
Cloister: Peter H. from Pixabay

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