Part Thirty-One

A visitor of Distinction

There was no inaccuracy on Peter’s part:  he relayed Melanie’s message to the gathering in his parents’ living room exactly as she sent it; she was, indeed, learning.  Her day, which began by climbing a perilous flight of cliff-side steps without suspecting supernatural assistance had altered the balance of her relationship with Agnes, her host, quite profoundly. Agnes who knew, (and explained with some reverence) that many of those steps had crumbled and collapsed into the sea almost a century ago, drove her the miles of winding road she would have had to walk, had she reached the headland where she was found by any natural means.  But they did not return to Agnes’s villa by the sea; instead, they drove on to the local town, and Melanie suffered the unique experience of changing her clothes into ‘something more suitable’ which Agnes had the forethought to bring, in the back of a Land Rover

The hotel appointed for the meeting Agnes had arranged was uniquely Scottish: a high-fronted building of severe grey stone with windows glowering defiantly over a town square in which small businesses rippled around like eddies in a wind-stirred pond.  Within its doors there was a feeling of warmth and oak, mellowed by voices in highland tune.  Agnes was recognised by the desk-clerk who nodded towards the lounge, wherein, beneath a slightly moth-compromised stag’s head, sat a man of distinction.

Melanie knew, immediately, that this man was important to her.   Rising to his feet with effortless grace, the man took her hand and raised it to his lips in a perfunctory kiss.  She was taken so completely by surprise by this that she almost snatched the hand away:  no-one had ever greeted her so before.

“Lady Agnes” He said in a voice which trickled like honey; “You bring me a jewel of exquisite beauty.   Welcome, my dear Miss Fenton.”

Such a greeting should have caused Melanie to recoil: from any other man it would have seemed insincere, sleazy, almost.  Not from this man.  His dress was immaculate; the dark suit of finest cloth, the shirt radiantly white, his tie tastefully blue. When she looked up into his face, his olive skin taut with muscle and remembered pain, she saw the scars which traced a pale lattice there, and caught the magic of his deep brown eyes, her Lawrence, her Arabian Knight, her saviour from herself.  She was speechless: she shook, but not with fear.  No, even though his face was the face of a devil, she could not feel fear from him.

“Let me introduce myself.  I am Marak.  This will be a strange name to you, because I am from a far-off land.  Please, let us sit?  Would you like something to drink, some wine, perhaps?”

Melanie tried to speak but no words came out.  So she just nodded assent.

“This, I think.”   Marak selected one of several bottles from a table beside his chair, pouring into a sparkling glass.  “You see, I am prepared.   I, myself, do not drink: you must forgive me.   Lady Agnes?   A fine peat-cured malt, I believe?”  – Another bottle, another glass.

Dazed, Melanie tried to take in her situation. 

“You are asking yourself why you are here.”   Marak said.   “So I must tell you.”

And he did.

Her meeting at the hotel was not a long one, yet in its space Melanie grew by several years.  She felt she fully understood, now, her place in the universe.  Although until this precise hour she had never heard of a society called ‘The Toa’, still less had an appreciation of the mystical universe it believed to exist, Marak’s depiction of it was so enticing, so sympathetic to her own interpretation of her ‘gift’ as to convince her utterly.

 There was nothing in Marak’s account of his beliefs, of his assertion that a bridge between life and death existed, that seemed less credible than Peter’s chosen path.   It was much more acceptable to her that she might be a prophetess whose powers would lend substance to spiritual contact, to bring comfort to the grieving.   She little knew that the bereft people of Marak’s philosophy were nations not individuals, or that the Toa’s spiritual gateway to a paradise world was most frequently opened by a bomb.   How would she?  After all, Bianca, her own mother’s sister, was a believer.   How could her aunt’s straightened middle-class morality be even suspected of seeking such a devious route to salvation?

Taking tea with Agnes that evening, back at the old lady’s seaside retreat, Melanie felt she was about to take a seven-league stride in her life.  She wished for it, even relished it.   She had met with someone who could be a big part of her future:  if she could only just bear the next twelve hours – then she would be with him again!

In early evening with the sun still bright, Melanie left Agnes to her book and took a walk along the shore of the little bay.  She did not want, particularly, to return to the chill, blighted harbour beyond the tunnel, but her steps seemed to draw her there.    It was as if the two adjacent arms of the sea were connected in some way other than the physical – as though the tunnel somehow formed a link between the present and the past. Was this how she had performed her small ‘miracle of the steps’ that morning?   But if she hoped, emerging from dark tunnel to scant light on the harbour side, that she might see the little place as it had been in happier times – bustling with fisher folk, landing boxes crammed with the sea’s rich pickings, she was to be disappointed.  The tiny harbour was cold and deserted.

At the foot of the flight of steps she paused, half-expecting to be able to repeat her morning’s climb, but they were as she had seen them the day before, eroded and insurmountable; so she turned her attention seaward where, far off, a lonely boat bobbed, so tiny that it dipped from view often and again in the folds of ocean.  

“Where are you, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was at once distant and near; inside her head and yet as far away as that little boat.  She was neither surprised nor scared by it – it was Peter’s voice.  It came with a warm music she had heard before, and it was like a cup she might raise or put aside as she chose.  “Hello, Peter!”  Her mind replied.   She told him where she was, knowing it did not matter, for tomorrow she would be gone.   She did this because, through it all, her mum remained a tiny hook upon reality, an anchor she could draw in if she had to go back to all that one day.   And, after all, Karen was her mum.   She should not worry – her daughter was in charge of her world.  

Melanie scanned the tiny harbour one last time.   She would never, ever forget this place.   Shuddering, she turned away from that little piece of hell with honour in her heart for those had toiled there, but gladness that she would not return.

#

In the dusk high above Levenport a white gull wheeled and drifted with the freshening wind.   At any time in any day there might be a hundred such gulls in just this patch of heaven, but this day it was almost alone, for a couple of trawlers had discarded waste from their catch out in the bay, gathering its brethren in a screeching host.   Enjoying the wind, proud of its skill in riding it, the great bird seemed to dance to its own private music.  Over a town like Levenport there were wind eddies and thermals:  baffles provided by high buildings, warm, rising air from commercial flues, cold tunnels rushing in from the sea.   Swerving upward on a draught, almost stalling at the peak of the lift, delicately twitching the angle of its flight feathers into a dive before turning tail to a gust, hurtling forward like a graceful arrow and round again, this gull was simply playing: having fun.   Yet the bird’s eyes never rested.  It watched everything.

The gull seemed fascinated by the way the waste of human occupation was taken by the wind.  How it, too, swirled and turned, twisted and tumbled.  Paper, plastic cartons, detritus and dust all formed their separate patterns: they were like another tide, a different sea.   The gull was professorial in its study of these movements:  it knew them minutely, predicted them to perfection.

An attentive onlooker might have noticed the creature’s flight pattern was not, in fact, random at all:  they might have seen how its earlier separation from the predatory host in the bay had led it first to circle above St. Benedict’s House for long enough to witness the House owner’s Ferrari bringing him home on a visit he had not intended to make; or observed that the gull’s navigation took it close to one street, and at last to one particular roof.  It watched the lights from inside the house beneath, and the van with two humans inside parked just a little down the road.  After a while, it descended to rest, perching upon the high, narrow stack of the Cartwrights’ household chimney.  Preening itself, combing rebellious feathers delicately with its viciously hooked beak, the gull seemed to be waiting for something.             

The warning found Vincent in his bathroom.  Vincent was covered in soap.    “Why?”   He complained out loud.   “Why does this always bloody happen just when I’m having a shower?”

Melanie had just returned from her contemplative walk along the shore deep in melancholy, to sit on one of the wooden seats which graced Agnes’ veranda.  She was resisting the first evening chill, reluctant to go indoors to Agnes’ well-meaning but drab conversation, and unprepared for the image of a naked middle-aged man which suddenly blasted across her brain.   She shrank instinctively from the image of a follically impoverished head with a pair of mighty ears, a wrinkled, gaunt body, and what other features she tried not to envision!   Yet however it  repulsed her with its nudity this figure was familiar to her in some way.   It went almost as rapidly as it arrived.  A Wrong number?   Was that a feature of telepathy she might encounter again? Squirming afresh at the recollection: she returned to her thoughts.

#

As thoughts go, among the gathering in the Cartwright household Lesley’s may perhaps have been the most challenging to read.   When Peter had related the nature of his gift had she convinced herself that it did not matter if the guy she was with was a little eccentric, a bit harmlessly loopy, as long as it felt so good to be with him? This was merely an aspect of his personality she could compartmentalise, set aside from the person she had discovered:  the person who, however inappropriately, she knew she might actually love.  But now?   Well, now there was no point in denial:  if the other simple little tests of the day had not been enough she had felt the mad heat of sheer power that shot through their clasped hands as he made contact. It had torn into her body – she had seen Melanie as clearly, perhaps, as he.  There was no denying that Peter was everything he claimed to be.   So how might she go on, knowing that truth?  Knowing all that she knew?.

“We don’t have very much longer;” Howard’s words intruded:  “We have to move you, son, and we have to do it soon.”

Peter made no reply, for Lesley’s face betrayed those same doubts he had seen long ago in the features of someone else he held dear.  His world was collapsing.

“Peter?”  His mother’s voice drew him from his thoughts.   Lena’s own comprehension had been stretched in the past few minutes.  Although she had seen changes taking place in her son, maybe even known something a little more than natural was happening to him, she could not, would not, accept what she had just witnessed.  Worse, she could see how completely Karen was taken in, the unjustifiable relief her dear friend took from this – this adolescent fantasy!   Karen was already preparing to leave with body language that made clear she would not stop until she reached this Scottish cove.  

Karen believed; Lena didn’t.   Yet everything had begun to drop into place: the urgency of the duplicitous Howard, the manner of Melanie’s disappearance.   Married to a clergyman, Lena’s life was moulded around her propensity for rationalisation, for finding a truth behind the lie.  But who was telling the truth this time? 

Peter understood his mother’s torment.   “Mum,” he said,   “Go to the window in the front room.  Keep back from the glass, look down the street and you’ll see a van parked on the other side of the road, about fifty meters away.  Howard’s ‘people’, a man and a woman, are inside it.  They‘re watching this house.”    His mother hesitated.  “Please?”

At first Howard did not take the bait, but after  Lena had exited, he asked:  “How do you know there’s a woman in there?  Is that a guess?”   Charlie never showed herself on surveillance:  she always stayed behind the driver, out of sight.

Peter replied:  “You mean Charlie?  I can see her.”

“My god you are real, aren’t you?  In that case you’ll see we have to get out.  Now!”  Howard sprang into action, proudly unboxing skills that had lain unused for many years.  “We’ll need a diversion….”

“It’s all arranged.”  Peter cut in.  “Howard, I won’t be going with you.”   His tone was detached, his eyes on Lesley, who had wandered away and now stood with her back to him, looking  through the small window into Lena’s studio.  He knew she was close to tears.

Lena returned: if she had left the room with any purpose, that purpose had deserted her.  She looked smaller somehow, and not a little confused.    “It’s there.”  She said simply.  “You can see that?”

“Peter,”  Tom Cartwright reasoned:  “I would say that Sullivan here does have a point, you know.  Mightn’t it be better to keep out of these people’s way for a while?”

“I will dad.   But I’ll do it….”  Peter hesitated, concentrating still upon Lesley’s back; “…..on my own, I guess.   I’ll leave in a while, Mr. Sullivan, but not with you.    You have to help to find Melanie.”

Howard’s frustration was evident:  “But it’s like throwing you to the lions!”

Everyone was standing now.   Karen said, more in an expression of reverence than anything else: “Total self-belief.   He has it, don’t you think?”   And, making to gather her coat and handbag, she added:  “Peter, I believe in you.   Thank you. Howard darling, can we go?”

“It seems I’m robbed of choice,”   Howard said, defeated.

Each left the room in their turn; Karen and Howard by the back gate, which led out into an alley behind the street.  This was accepted by Howard, knowing it would fool no-one: without Peter, though, he was not a target yet.  He might be followed, if his colleagues had extra man-power to do it, but they had been briefed to abduct Peter, not him.   Sensing Peter’s need to be alone with Lesley, his father spoke softly to his wife and they, also withdrew, although Lena couldn’t resist mentioning she was “Going to clear up in the kitchen.”

Lesley’s expression was inscrutable.  “Well, that put a damper on the mood,” she said quietly.  “I think I should go too.”  She headed for the door.   Peter held her arm.

“Les?   Please don’t?”

“Why not?   I mean, you don’t need me to keep these bastards away.  You’re bloody superman, or something.”

“It isn’t my fault.  I didn’t ask for this to happen to me.”

“Yeah, I know.   Look mate, I’ve got something to sort out, Okay?”

“What?  I can explain everything – I haven’t hidden anything from you.  Don’t, break us up, please?”   Peter pleaded.  “I need you!   All this, this stuff; I can’t handle it on my own.”   Lesley gave him a rueful grin.  “You should.  You’re good at it.  You’re scary, you know that?  Really scary!”

“And you don’t – like – me enough?”

“Oh, hey!”  She came to him then, stroked his cheek fondly:  “What’s the cliché?  It isn’t you, it’s me?  You’ve been telling me everything, but s’pose there are things I haven’t told you, yeah?  Stuff of my own?”

“What ‘stuff’?” 

“Oh, just ‘stuff’.  It’s like I took a path I thought was sweet, and calm, and sunny, and after a few steps I realised it wasn’t.  I was seeking one thing, and I found something else.  Something just as fabulous, maybe:  I dunno.  I can’t work that out.  Like I said; ‘stuff’.”

“So you’re parting with me?” 

“Yeah, for a bit.   You’ll be alright.  With – all that – how couldn’t you be?  I need a bit of space, Pete, that’s all.”

Lesley turned on her heel and walked from the room, just as he remembered Melanie’s parting with him one not so distant morning on the road to St. Benedict’s Rock.  Moments later, Peter heard the front door close behind her.

© 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.

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