Steps out of Time
Beyond the door of the Cartwright drawing room a sombre gathering waited. Tom Cartwright, Peter’s father, perched on the edge of an old occasional table by the wall, Lena his wife, seated with Karen Fenton on the over-stuffed sofa, lit by an old casement window behind them. Tom used this room as his reception for visiting parishioners and it was never, even in height of summer, the cosy spiritually uplifting haven he would have wished. Its window faced west, onto a dingy side street of run-down houses, and the intrusion of seasonal westerly winds through leaky panes gave supplicants who sought his guidance a stiff neck for their trouble. The apparently random nature of furnishings around the walls was, truthfully, a very careful arrangement. Each table or chair or settle concealed a place where mildew grew most tenaciously. Although Lena’s scented candles burned to reduce any odour of damp, nothing could ever take the chill from the room’s atmosphere. This late September evening seemed to have caught it at its chilliest.
Peter and Lesley’s entrance, still in some disarray, was confronted by the even cooler blast of Karen Fenton’s stare: Tom rose instantly, rushed to grasp his son’s hand:
“We didn’t know, old man. We didn’t understand what was going on.” Then, all-too-obviously observing his son’s predicament, he performed a pantomime double-take. “I should sit down, old chap, eh?”
It may have been simply nerves, or Lesley’s quirky sense of humour, or even Karen’s obvious antipathy towards her: whatever it was, the result was laughter. At first a gust of exhaled breath, hastily suppressed, then a ripple, then a wave of shoulder-shaking, tear-inducing mirth. In desperation, Lesley turned her back on the room and threw her arms around Peter’s shoulders, beating her head on his chest. “Oh fu….hell, I’m sorry!” She spluttered out. “Oh…..help!”
Lena’s comment was acid: “I assume you were about to have sex on my kitchen floor?”
“Sit down, both of you. Now!” Lena’s voice would have stopped the strike of a clock. “And you, young lady, for heaven’s sake try to behave!”
An aged armchair faced the room from beside an even older sideboard. Peter slid thankfully into it: Lesley, still suppressing her giggling fit, refused a separate chair, perching on the arm beside him. They were immediately aware they had been brought into an ongoing conversation. Peter’s father continued a line of thought as he said:
“What I can’t understand is why your ‘people’ didn’t simply come and ask us: why all the clandestine stuff?”
Howard agreed. “Bull in a china shop, I suppose. Truth is, that would have meant too many people knowing what was going on: and besides, when we told you what we wanted to do with Peter you might well have said no. As long as we were fairly sure you knew even less about this chap’s apparent talents than we did we preferred to keep you in the dark. Our way of doing business, I’m afraid.”
“See?” Peter breathed. “I told you he was some sort of secret agent or something. I knew it!”
“Be quiet, Peter.” Lena shot him an impatient glance. “So presumably, now we aren’t in the dark, we can say no?”
“I wouldn’t recommend trying. My superiors are far too keen to be put off. They do have a certain degree of latitude when it comes to playing by the rules, you see.”
“You said you thought you knew what had happened to Melanie.” Karen interjected.
“Yes.” Howard’s tone was softer. “We aren’t the only ones who are interested in these two. There are others.”
“Who?” Peter asked.
“The Amadhi, the assassins whose attempt on the US Senator you foiled – however you did it. They want to find out how. I believe there might be another group looking for you too. Until this weekend, we were pretty certain we had a head start on everyone and they didn’t know who you were. But we think they do now, although we can’t understand why they should pick up Melanie first and not you.”
“How did they find out?” Lena asked.
“They got one of our operatives, someone working inside their organisation. We believe she may have talked.”
“Oh my, did they torture her, or something? Is she alright?”
“No.” Howard said flatly. “She’s dead.”
These words fell into the centre of the conversation like a toppled headstone.
“Good Lord.” Bob Cartwright muttered. Lena’s face drained of its colour.
Howard saw Karen’s face drop and quickly added: “But if they do have Melanie (and personally I don’t think they do) she’s safe enough. They will want her talents just as much as we do. Try not to worry, my love. She’ll be OK.”
“Oh sure!” Karen groaned. “She’s in the hands of terrorists and she’ll be perfectly fine. And how do we ever, I mean ever, get her back?”
“Well, that rather depends on young Peter here, doesn’t it?”
All eyes in the room turned to Peter. Howard said carefully: “You have to tell us exactly why you’ve become so important to so many people. I know bits, but I don’t know enough. Tell us the rest.”
At once, Peter found himself staring at his own future: at the inevitable he could not avoid, at the traps he must. There was a weight of ages on his shoulders as he replied, very carefully: “No. I don’t think I will.”
“Peter!” Lesley hissed. “This is serious stuff, mate. Like, national security and everything! Wrong answer?”
“You should listen to your girlfriend, son,” Howard advised. “This is – very – serious stuff.”
Lena was less tolerant. “For god’s sake, Peter, just come out with it!”
But Peter was in command, and he knew it. “Firstly, how do I know I can trust you, Mr. Sullivan? The last time we met was on a train and the last thing you did was to try to get me kidnapped. Your ‘people’ as you call them have been following us all day. How do I know this isn’t just another way to get me? Secondly, the thing I have is not for sharing. I don’t want to share it, and I couldn’t if I did. You can’t control me, you see. I’m really no use to you – no use at all.”
“Pete!” Lesley was distraught.
“Les, don’t you see why they just followed us today? They dare not take me until I’m away from you. It would draw too much attention to us – they might have to abduct us both. He’s on a deadline, you see? This way he thinks I’ll come away with him by consent and leave you behind. He gets what he wants without having to do anything too messy or too public.” He turned to Karen. “I know you think I don’t care about Mel anymore, but she’s still a friend to us both and we do. If you want our help in finding her, you won’t go along with this either.”
Lesley said in a hushed tone; “Our help? Are you including me in this?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Is he right Howard?” Karen asked.
“No. No, believe me,” Howard assured her. “I told you the truth.”
“The truth?” Peter’s riposte was fierce. “Like you weren’t in Seaborough looking for Mel this weekend, you were in Manchester following me?”
There was a pause then, as each of the adults present looked to the others to answer. It was Karen who spoke: “Peter, I know. Howard’s told me everything.”
“Karen, you don’t have to…” Lena made to silence her.
“No.” Karen held up her hand: “He’s entitled to hear this. How can he believe us, otherwise? Howard has never shared his secrets with me before, Peter, but today, when he was ordered to kidnap you and go back with you to London, he chose a different path. If he had done what his superiors wanted, I would never have seen him again, but he didn’t. He chose to stay with me, bless him.” She reached out to clasp Howard’s hand. “We are together in this, and you can believe him.”
It was a difficult moment, filled with emotions at a level which Peter, not yet so mature in his perception of relationships, was ill-equipped to grasp. Yet grasp it he did.
Howard saw this. “OK. You put two and two together – I didn’t doubt that you would. You’re a clever chap, Peter, but here’s the bottom line, son. See, in a way, the intelligence guys were protecting you. I’m not with them anymore, as of today, and I don’t want to control you, I just want to keep you from whatever Melanie’s already into. You should understand that when you pulled off that stunt in Hyde Park, you saved Senator Goodridge, very probably the next President of the United States, from assassination. If he does become President, his foreign policy will tear the Arabian oil states apart.”
Peter didn’t care. “Everything is politics for your lot. The Establishment Suits always pump us with this stuff, don’t they? And the ‘crusties’ swalllow it every time. Then, in gets Senator Goodridge and his people tell him what he can and can’t do, and it all blows over. You want me to join your game Mr. Sullivan? I may have helped the old Senator, whether or not I meant to is something else. I’m not in this for the politics.”
Howard frowned, “Maybe not. But we first became aware of you because you caused something to happen that was political. You can’t blame those parties for taking the bait, son.”
Tom Cartwright had been quiet for a while. “What are you suggesting Peter does, Sullivan?”
“I – we – have to get him away from here. Where, I don’t know – somewhere safe. Somewhere neither our people nor theirs will be aware of. Then we have to find Melanie. With Peter’s help that shouldn’t be too hard, because I think – no, I’m as near as dammit sure – they are on some kind of mutual wavelength: they can communicate.
“Nevertheless I’m not convinced the Amadhi have anything to do with Melanie’s abduction. I believe they may have provided the spark, the information, but I just don’t see them as sufficiently interested. They would want Peter, especially if they believe they can control him.
“Whether or not you want to share this thing you have with us, I believe you when you say you can help, son. So it’s important to me to keep you in circulation – you see, Melanie’s my only interest here. I want Karen to get her daughter back.”
Peter had felt the strangeness inside him all that afternoon. It had been slumbering, quiescent, but there. Now it seemed to awaken; not in a blaze of untrammelled strength but as in the Causeway Café that morning with quiet pleas for attention, like a tiny flicker of fireflies on a summer evening. Now it became plain that there was an answer inside him he must find. He just had to shield himself from the distractions of the room.
“Les; sit on my knees?” Lesley looked at him, bemused. “Please? Like, face me?”
Lesley, with a shy smile for the benefit of their sceptical audience, did as she was asked. He sat forward in the chair so she could sit across his lap. He grasped her hands. “Look at me.” He said.
“For god’s sake!” Lena snorted, not for the first time. Peter did not hear her.
“Pete, maybe it’s not the right moment…” Lesley’s voice tailed off as she saw the absence, the deep abyss behind her boyfriend’s eyes; there was something in there, some small thing waiting to grow, wanting air, wanting to be free. It came pleading to her in small waves, this presence in the void: and although she did not know what it was, it convinced her that it needed her utterly. “Jee-zuz!” She said reverently: “What’s happening? What are you doing?”
Peter did not answer. He was focussed on Lesley’s face, using her complete absorption to feed the tiny picture he saw within him. She screened the room from him, generated a mist in which the shocked faces of its other occupants faded. He was elsewhere. He was standing by a cold sea with Lesley beside him and Melanie was there.
It took all of thirty seconds, this episode. After Lena’s protest, no-one spoke as the gravity of it became apparent, both in Peter’s cold, unearthly expression and Lesley’s equally remarkable response. Her back and arms were gripped by spasm: she took the little spark to her and it fed through her quaking body as though she were conduit to a high-voltage shock. When it finally passed, she slumped with exhaustion. Then the familiar, ordinary Peter returned, as suddenly as he had left: quickly supporting her, smiling reassuringly. “I had to do that, Les. You had to know.”
“Melanie is safe.” He told Karen. “She’s staying in a green-painted house that overlooks a small cove on the east coast of Scotland. It might take you a few days but you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.” He turned to Howard, whose jaw had dropped. “Now.” He said quietly: “Do you see why you can’t control me?”
“There are a number of those extinct fishing communities.” Howard rejoined: “It could be anywhere.”
“It isn’t anywhere.” Lesley informed him in clipped tones, “It’s on the Sutherland Coast.”
Howard maintained his air of cynicism. “If you know that much, I’m sure you also know the place’s name?”
“We do.” Peter said. “But we’re not going to tell you. Mel asked us to gain her some time. She’s learning; finding stuff out – she doesn’t want to leave there. Not yet.”
When Francine rides in a horse-drawn carriage the jolting, uncertain action is not unfamiliar to her. In her life, she is certain, she must have travelled far. Yet the little causeway on the journey to St. Benedict’s Rock that she crosses with Arthur Herrit in his carriage and pair induces a sway which she might have described as almost hypnotic, had she lived in an age familiar with the term: she feels quite light-headed, so that only the frenetic enthusiasm of her son in his excitement at their proximity to the sea prevents her from losing her equilibrium altogether. It is a sensation that becomes even more emphatic as the coachman drives them from the causeway onto this grim island with its high cliffs. As if innate knowledge has been given a conscious voice, she understands this place has some special significance to her. The road is narrow, the drop to the sea precipitous, so when they must alter course to pass the two young travellers on foot she feels quite nervous, watching little Samuel leaning eagerly out of the window and imagining the iron-shod wheels scuffing the roadway’s very edge, envisaging the death-plunge that must follow if the horses miss a step. Her fear is tempered somewhat by the sight of those two young people. How are they dressed?
“Arthur, did you see?”
Arthur has been watching young Samuel, with a restraining hand placed for safety on his belt, rather than the road. “Indeed no. Pray, what should I have seen?”
“Why those two whom we passed; walkers on the road. The young woman wore breeches of such peculiar cloth and colour, Arthur. One has to ask, what next?”
“Really? A young woman in breeches?” Arthur, faintly amused, cocks an eyebrow at his companion. “Were you outraged?”
“Not entirely,” Francine allows herself a secret smile. “Despite myself, I thought it quite becoming. One should admire such courage, one supposes, but however must she be received? Is there more to Levenport I should know?”
“I have always found it an unremarkable town,” Arthur rejoins, “Although Roper’s is a passably comfortable hotel, don’t ye find?” his voice is echoing, for the carriage has turned a corner into a short tunnel carved through the rock.
Francine reflects that Roper’s was indeed a pleasant contrast to her enforced confinement at Mountsel Park, even if her view across the water to the deceased Lord Crowley’s storm-ravaged house was one of such dereliction and tragedy. Young Samuel’s evening walk by the shore, punctuated by a perilous confrontation with a crab and his collection of aesthetically pleasing pebbles, had so lifted her spirits she had been incapable of sleep for some time. The memory of that little family expedition now accompanies them in the form of a reassuring rattle from the coach’s roof.
Shortly the sun will intrude upon them as their transport finds the Rock’s Southern side, and thereafter neither adult passenger will speak for a while, although young Samuel will fill the coach with his excitement at their high prospect of the ocean. In a while they will pass a lowly peasant’s cottage where a labourer works, and he will doff his cap as they go by, while Francine, despite herself, will inhale briefly from her vinaigrette. It will take their first sight of the ornate gateway to the Great House, with its Turkish domes teetering precipitately on the brink of their destruction, to loosen their tongues.
© 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.