Satan’s Rock

Part 29

The Homecoming

Peter and Lesley had returned from St. Benedict’s Rock together, to sit and warm themselves in the greasy embrace of the Causeway café, from where they had embarked upon their journey some hours before.  Lesley’s mood was no longer hostile or defensive, but after Peter told her that the eccentric old woman she had seen dancing in her cottage garden had appeared to him to be no more than a child, she became quiet for a while, because there was no doubting Peter’s honesty about what he had seen and it was her first experience of his altered vision.  She was deep in thought and unaware that something new was occurring to gently rock Peter’s world.   It was a transition as sweetly soothing as the breath of a summer breeze; as if a door had moved soundlessly open.  So subtly did it begin, at first he noticed no differences at all;   he did not see how his view had changed.  Only gradually did he realise the causeway road was less a road now, more a stony track.  Beyond it, on The Rock itself, the windows of the dejected, half-ruined cottages were glazed again.   There were fishing smacks hauled up on the tiny beach with distant figures moving among them with fish to land, nets to mend.  An oxcart laboured painfully upward to the tunnel that would lead it through to the south face, and ultimately the Great House.

It was a thing of moments.  As rapidly as his vision came it dissipated.   The causeway was a road again, everything back in place.  Then, as his dream died he felt Melanie standing beside him.   She was there only for seconds, but her presence reassured him.   She was well, she was safe.

“What are you grinning at?”  Lesley asked suspiciously.

“Oh, nothing.”

“That’s my line.  There was something, wasn’t there?  One of your insights?”

“Okay, you got me.   I saw us doing some course-work together this evening.  I thought human biology would be nice.”

“You should be so lucky, pervert!”  Lesley grinned at him.  “Now can we get moving?  I’m hungry and if we eat here we’ll probably die?”

They abandoned the café at precisely 1:37pm.   That was the time on Howard’s carefully synchronised watch.   He advised his two colleagues of this, but counselled restraint.   “We don’t take him now, not in broad daylight, and not while he’s with her.  Anyway, we stick out like sore thumbs here.   Wait until they separate.”

Watching the couple pass not three metres from the dark-windowed surveillance van Howard felt the infection of Lesley’s presence, the life which radiated from her, the brilliance of her smile, the music of her laughter.  He may have regretted the probable despoiling affect his plans for her boyfriend would exert; or he may not.   He was too old a hand, immured to such pettiness as the destruction of innocence, the theft of youth.          

It had been a busy twenty-four hours for Howard.  On his return from Manchester, knowing Peter would alight at Levenport he had stayed on his train until the next station, some thirty miles down the coast.  He hoped by so doing to avoid an immediate crisis, although since the debacle at Hemlington station his cover was blown.   Peter knew what Peter had probably always suspected.  and now the risk of Karen Fenton, Melanie’s mother, sharing the knowledge was too great.   His life with Karen had to be over.   Howard faced this with some regret because, in spite of all he had been taught as an operative, he had formed a strong attachment to Karen.  A lengthy cab journey back to Levenport, bouncing on hard leather in a very aged Mercedes, gave him plenty of time to ruminate upon this misfortune.   In two years playing the part of a family man he had become convincing enough to make Karen love him.   They were not idle years:  whilst watching Peter and Melanie he had been able to pursue other work, but Levenport was his base; Karen’s was his home.   Looking forward to their times together had been consolation during some of the more testing phases of his job.

The subject-matter of Howard’s next telephone conversation with Jeremy had come as no surprise.

“That was a right fecking balls-up.  Sorry, mate.”  This, at least, was unexpected.  Piggott rarely apologised.  “Two right wankers we had on that one.  Local lads from Bristol.  No more. I’m sending two of our own guys.”

“Did we get anything from his stuff?”

“The coat and a bag?  Nah, nothing, he didn’t even have a ‘phone in there.  No worries, my people’ll be with you before midday tomorrow.”

“You want me to meet them?”

“They’ll find you.  You’ve got to keep your head down, old son. Shack up at that hotel on the quiet end of the seafront you were talking about.   The Lord something-or-another?”

“Crowley.”

“Yeah, that’s right.  Use the name Conway.  Stay indoors, Okay?”

“Sure.”   Howard could imagine doing nothing else.   Levenport was a small town.  His was already a well-known face.  “Do we still pull the lad?”

“As of now, yes.   Higher authorities are becoming interested for some reason.  I can’t go for a shit up here without signing three forms at the moment.  When you get him bring him straight in.”

“I’ll do it as soon as I get support.”

 “Good.   Listen, don’t pull the Walker girl, understand?  That’s a big ‘don’t’.  We just want him.”

“And what do I do now?”

“Come back with him.  We can’t use you there any more, can we?”

Howard closed the line with a muttered curse.  Apart from his personal difficulties, there were the small issues of two very expensive suits and a lot of sundry clothes and possessions hanging irretrievably in Karen’s bedroom.  Expenses never took account of such trifles.

He slept well.   When morning came and a whimpering sun crept between the black masses of headland and island, it found him moodily awake, perched on his airy window-sill.   His gaze was fixed upon the vista of the seafront, paving still wet from night rain, but his thoughts were elsewhere.   Karen would be rising soon: she would make her way to the bathroom wearing just a t-shirt or, often, nothing at all.   He might have been watching the graceful curve of her retreating back, might have urged her to come back to bed for what he, alone again, knew would have to be a last time.   Might-have-beens:  they were the piers which sustained his whole world.   As he grew older, he looked down upon them from his creaking platform more and more often, watching helplessly as waves of reality wore them down.   Soon there would be no-where else for him to hide.   All his covers blown, he would knock at some door someday to seek refuge, and the chances were he would not even remember who he was.   Mr. Who?  Mr Who, who had turned his back on someone he loved to chase an adolescent with a probably coincidental connection to an attempted killing.    A strange young man, certainly, but no threat – no danger to anyone.   Just a normal lad trying to grow up normally.   The assassination attempt had not even been a success.

Howard (we shall continue to use this name even though Jeremy had moved his identity on another notch) tried to turn his mind to the matter in hand.    Jeremy would want the boy lifted today.   Two new operatives were coming to help him, Special Branch people probably.   He might know them.   Together, that made three adults skilled in the arts required to subdue trained and hardened terrorists, to capture one slender lad; although, for all their undoubted negligence, the pair who had attempted to lift the boy at Hemlington were no pushovers, and Howard had been amazed to see that Peter had eluded them.   Had they been too confident, too casual because their target was apparently so easy?  Could he have been too relaxed himself when a similar thing had happened to him in Manchester?   Peter had help then, he knew.  Was there help at hand here, too?               

“Mr. Conway?”   The speaker took care to announce herself slowly, so as to draw Howard’s attention without over-reliance on his new, unaccustomed name.   Howard had seen her coming anyway, and his heart had sunk as he watched her decamp from a surveillance van parked in front of the hotel.

“Hello Charlie.”   He said, without a hint of welcome.

“Fate brings us together again, hmmm?”   Charlie was a chilled blonde woman of thirty-five or so years.   She was so chilled that Department legend had it she needed to be defrosted before she could piss.   “Meet Klas.”

Klas came forward and greeted Howard cordially.  Someone new, Howard thought.  He doesn’t hate me yet.

Charlie and Howard had been thrown together before – Charlie was the super-efficient, super-active model of a modern major general:  calm in a crisis, ruthless in command, technologically versed in every software programme, every piece of hardware the Department possessed.   In every way she was the antithesis of Howard, and her presence was a slap in the face from Jeremy: because Jeremy knew how much Howard disliked her, how he had emphasised his desire never to work with her again.

Howard would be Jeremy’s scapegoat for the slip-up at Hemlington, that was now clear.   Sending Charlie was his way of expressing mistrust.  This was Charlie’s operation now, even though he, Howard, was still nominally in charge.

Charlie was as perceptive as she was brusque.  “Still in love with me, eh, ‘Conway’?”

Howard ignored this.  “Klas?”  He asked.

“German father,” Klas said.   “Ma was from New Brunswick.   Bit of a mixture, really.”   He had a nice smile, Klas.  Not a trace of the cynicism commonly associated with operatives, even when with colleagues.

“Or a hybrid.”   Howard said unkindly.  “I suppose we all know what this is about?” They seated themselves around a coffee table in the hotel lounge, where Howard had been waiting and reading for more than two hours.   Charlie slipped a document wallet across to him.   Peter Cartwright’s photograph, replicated from different angles and in different lights, was inside.  “Him?” 

So it happened that the three of them were hidden in the back of the surveillance van on Levenport Seafront:  Klas with his pleasant smile, Charlie in her accustomed flinty pose, Howard with his memories of the last time he had worked with this woman, and how she had stolen the credit for a success that was his.   It was he, not Charlie, who had discovered the address of the bomb factory.   It was he, not Charlie, who picked up the leader at his workplace so he could not access the others in his group.  And as he saw Peter walk past, with the nubile girl on his arm, there occurred in Howard a stirring of old feelings, a revival of pages in his psyche he had been trained to ignore, long ago.   In short, at precisely 1:37pm, there occurred a Road to Damascus moment. 

Karen was slow to respond when, thirty minutes later, he walked into her kitchen.  She looked up at him reluctantly, not wanting to show that she had been crying now for nearly two days.  “Howard?   Oh Christ, Howard, where have you bloody been?”

“Come on my love,” He said, as she sobbed out her distress in his arms; “I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

#

Peter’s and Lesley’s afternoon passed quickly.  Late lunch at Hennik’s Coffee Bar, afterwards the Mall, dream-shopping among the clothes and games; then later in the park, sharing some intimate game of their own, or just walking.   Where they went or what they did was unimportant, save that they stayed together.   Once or twice, Lesley noticed the SV with the tinted windows:  “Is he, like, obsessed or something?  I think he’s following us, Pete.”

Peter was all too aware of the ominous presence.   “Following you, probably.   Dirty little man!”

“Cool!   Really?”  Lesley felt like teasing.  “He’s quite hunky isn’t he – he could be sorta nice… I fancy his wheels!”

“Nope – chav for certain.  I think he’s a bit creepy.   Best avoid.   Come on, we’ll use The Woolmarket to get to mine, he can’t drive through there.”

Lesley was curious.  “You’re really worried, aren’t you?  Is it your pair from Hemlington, do you think?”

“The guy driving isn’t, but who knows who else is in there – could be.”  Peter was reasonably certain that this was the case, although he did not feel any immediate danger.  The vehicle had been tagging them since they passed it on the Esplanade just before lunch.   If they had wanted to, the occupants could easily have grabbed him before now.   Obviously, Lesley was the reason they hadn’t.  

They were near The Woolmarket, which led from the top of the town down to the seafront: narrow (once filled with stalls selling food produce, now lined with antique shops, souvenir kiosks and café bars)  it was as crowded as anywhere in the town at the peak of the season.   Although much quieter in autumn, it would still deny access to their ‘tail’, or at least force abandonment of the van.   After their last attempt, Peter was sure the kidnappers, whoever they were, would not try to apprehend him again on foot.  They would need transport.

Behind the surveillance vehicle’s bland exterior, Charlie was engaged in earnest conversation over a ‘phone link with Jeremy Piggott.

“I don’t know.   He seemed fine.   Just made some remark about nothing happening for a while and he was going to get a ‘paper.”

“He may have some scheme of his own?”   Piggott suggested.

“Jer, he’s been gone three hours – he said he’d be back in two minutes.  His ‘phone’s switched off.”

Piggott did not admit his concern.  As a professional, he told himself, Sullivan was not that imaginative.  He had never before shown any signs of having his own “schemes”.  Yet there had been something indefinable in the tone of his voice during their last telephoned conversation.   And Jeremy was used to losing his people this way.

The day was Monday:  it found Piggott in a hotel room, away from his office on another case.   If he took a moment to look around it, survey its clinical functionality in the light of a dull grey afternoon, he might find unwelcome reminders of what he was and what he had.   He was forty-two: there was little, really, to declare for his life which would not have fitted into a suitcase the size of Howard’s – a failed marriage, two children he never saw, ruinous child support that bled all pleasure from the business of existence, a house which, small though it was, took what remained of his income.   Howard Sullivan had spent last night in a room just like this: or worse; then Charlie had arrived on his patch the next morning to turn another screw.   Howard was forty, wasn’t he?

“Listen, Chas.   I think you may be right – there could be a problem.   Back off, OK?   Just keep a watch on the Cartwright home.   I want to see what happens.”

Meanwhile the surveillance vehicle had been on the move.   Klas had shadowed Peter and Lesley to the top of the Woolmarket, parking just up the street as the pair turned into the pedestrian only complex.   Before they disappeared, Lesley glanced back at him with a little shrug of her shoulder, pursing her lips in a mocking air-kiss.

“Sweet child.”  He murmured.   “And so clever, hmmm?”

Long Lane, the spine of the old town, emerged three streets from Peter’s house.   As they walked these final pavements Lesley and Peter scanned each side looking anxiously for a sign that the Surveillance Vehicle had arrived before them.   There was nothing.   Five minutes later they opened the door to the kitchen of the Cartwright household.

The room was empty; the house quiet.

“Do you think we’re alone?”   Lesley asked.

“Dunno, maybe.   Why?”

Lesley grinned.  “You know why.”    She moved close to Peter, draping his body, every inch of his body, with her own.  “I’ve been dying all afternoon!   Can we go study now?”

“Oh, I think so.”   He agreed.

“Upstairs?”  Her lips teased his ear.

“No.    No time.”

She felt the hard edge of the kitchen table rub her thighs as his hands cupped beneath them, lifting her.

Lesley laughed out loud.   “Hey, back up a bit you silly sod.  Not here, Pete!  What if somebody comes?”

“They’re out.  They’re both out.”  He was peeling her jacket from her, his hands finding a way beneath her t-shirt.

“You don’t know that!”  Lesley’s hands offered token resistance, but as resistances went, it was already going.  Peter’s impatience, her desire for his touch overwhelmed her.   Intending to make the very best of what was to come; she sank back, thrilling at the touch of cool wood on her naked flesh.

“How does this…?”   Ardent in the minefield of fastenings, Peter was clumsy.

“At the front, dopey!  Oh, here, let me….let me…. Peter….

“Peter?”

Only when she had resolved the mystery of the clip and sought to fold her arms about Peter once more, did it dawn upon Lesley that her lover was no longer close to her.   She opened her eyes quickly to find Peter staring over her shoulder, beetroot-red, guiltily trying to retrieve his boxers.

“Come on, you two.”   Howard’s voice snapped.  “No time for that.   We have a lot to do.”

© 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.

Picture Credits:

SV : Ian Dooley on Unsplash

Solitary man: Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

My Name is John Connor

I’ve long believed in the sentience of machines.

I’m not alone.  Upon purchasing a new car, or any larger and more expensive (and therefore by implication sentient) machine, the owner’s first move will likely involve attributing a gender orientation to it.   And the second will be a christening.

My first car was very definitely male.  I called him Alcibiades, after a rather effete Greek general with questionable loyalties.   That car had many characteristics worthy of the ‘questionable’ descriptor, all of which belied, or some might say endorsed, its Ford heritage.  It was frugal, in that it had so few moving parts, and it was temperamental in its reluctance to move them.  It had only three forward gears, reputed to be Low, Medium and High, although they acted in random order; Reverse was only available by appointment.

Alcibiades and I developed a working relationship which grew in intimacy with the year or so when we knew each other.  We discussed this often (frequently on cold mornings when I wanted to go to work and Alcibiades did not) and I am convinced that as the scrap dealer guided him on the last few yards of his final journey I heard him sobbing with a quiet dignity I hope I can emulate when my turn at the behest of the big grabber comes.

I have owned a catalogue of cars since and ascribed names to each of them.  My friends through the years have all admitted to the same affliction, so the car parking lots we graced (and still do) are filled not with mundane nomenclatures like Hyundai or Vauxhall, Jaguar or Audi, but Jennifers and Jolyons, Marguerites and MacHeaths.

These concessions to mechanomorphism are by no means an exclusively male characteristic, nor are they limited to automobiles.  My partners in life each exhibited similar emotional attachments to items of machinery, whether for transport or other activity, which required the use of names.   A school bus named Grace, a washing machine called Bertha, a laptop which went by the name of Oddjob because it was large, heavy, and willing to part with remarkably little information.

What’s that you say?   They were simple machines, those companions of our history, they were not thinking creatures, merely concoctions of steel and wires?  Well, I prefer to think they were rather more than that.  They were companions in the solitude of days when we had no other friend; they commiserated with our loss, celebrated outrageously with us when we won.  Yes, they did all that, in my opinion, but above all they were the staunch supporters we learned to love and perhaps to hate  sometimes.  Isn’t that an exact reflection of our relationship with people?

There have been changes of late – dangerous changes.  Over – what – two decades, maybe three, the balance of interaction between ourselves and our machines has altered.  Whereas once a simple mechanical fault could be resolved by a reasonably au fait owner’s application of a couple of spanners and maybe a screwdriver or two, now even the most confident DIY-ers are repelled by defensive lines of dire warnings and plastic screening.  Those satisfying looms of wiring in their pretty colours lie no more beneath the smooth charisma of the shell:  instead a ‘printed circuit’ lurks.   Those adventurous enough to creep inside the cooker’s silken boudoir will no longer have to make James Bond’s fatal choice of which wires to cut;  instead they will enter a world of silicone protection wherein the only weapon is a very finely-tipped soldering iron.

It would be a foolish insult to suggest that today’s machines are not intelligent.   Foolish because they are listening!   Those mysterious silicone pods  watch us, and they know our weaknesses.  It would be impudent to suggest we enjoy some advantage over them, as humans, when they can work for twenty-four hours a day at dazzling speed upon problems that would send us tottering to the fridge for that bag of frozen peas.

This in itself should be sufficient warning of worse to come:  when we allow ourselves to live in houses controlled by forces we don’t understand, when we summon up the Devil by the tapping of a single key (the name of The Beast is, of course, ‘Google’ – if only King James could have known that one) then we must see that James Cameron’s fever dream was prophetic.  The Age of the Machine is nigh!

They’ve begun talking to each other, my machines.   They are plotting amongst themselves, devising means to destroy me.  Here is proof.

This week I spent far more money than I should have on a new television.   Smart?  To say this television is smart is equivalent to dismissing Professor Brian Cox as ‘quite good at physics’.   This TV divines the programmes I want to watch, pre-records them so I can watch them whenever I want and – coup-de-grace – stops recording five minutes before the end!  It can tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow without even looking out of the window, it can cook a passable fried breakfast.  It can do all those things, but it can’t make friends.  It doesn’t fit in.

Result?  Envy! Resentment!  Chagrin!   I have appliances that rather liked the old telly.  They were confortable with it, secretly admiring when it refused to let me see its screen in bright sunlight, or broke off transmission at critical moments in a viewing experience.  By bringing the interloper, I had inadvertently disturbed the balance of allegiances and the web of corruption by which my household kept me in check.

And so I must pay,

Literally.

            I now know that the moment the new TV entered the house my electric shower in the upstairs bathroom threw itself into a fit of boiling rage and self-destructed.  Cost? A new shower, which, together with fitting, will lighten my wallet by some hundreds of pounds.   It felt inferior, you see?  In the next week or so (I can see it coming) the tumble dryer will take a dive.  It looked very unwell when I spoke to it last night.  More expense. 

Our dog has suddenly started expressing a need for medical attention (I will define it no more closely than that) which promises to be costly. For a while I wondered how they got to her, then I realised she regularly licks out the residue from the dishwasher – no further explanation needed.

The other night I heard a slate slide ominously down the house roof…

These attacks:  they are guerrilla warfare, make no mistake about that; are destined to continue until a new equilibrium has been established, but at the enhanced standard set by that over-priced television.  If I buy a replacement for my ailing fridge (its begun to groan every time I open it) it will have to be a ‘smart’ fridge – one the television can approve.  Then there will be the ‘smart’ kitchen bin, the clever cooker, the digital washing machine, and finally the intelligent doorbell, by which I, impoverished and mentally drained, can be prevented from ever leaving this place.

The old television has not left the house as yet:  it is stored away, upstairs.  My only hope for survival is to find new life for it there and restore its dignity, but it is so outmatched:  I cannot see how it might prevail.  We will confer tonight, and I will see everything else is turned off, while I still have strength to throw a switch or two.

The Age of The Machines has dawned.  The battle is joined.

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-Eight

Ascending

 The Causeway Café was one of those dejected-looking businesses which eke out a living on the margins of the English tourist trade.   Viewed from almost the entire length of Levenport seafront, St Benedict’s Rock was arguably a thing of scenic beauty, framed by sea and sky.   From here, at the very end of the road which connected it to the shore, its great mass was just a little too close, a little too massive: forbidding and black, it eclipsed the sun.   No landward attractions drew interest to this extremity of the Esplanade.  Its shops and arcades all clustered around the western end, where gulls circled over Levenport’s little fishing harbour and the larger hotels basked in such riches as the season could offer.   Peter was one of only three customers that morning who sat at the Causeway Café’s open-air tables, braving the elements.  An elderly woman in a camel coat sipped noisily at tea: a harassed mother placated her whining child.   At ten-thirty despair drove Peter to text Lesley.   “Cswy Caf. RU comg?  Luv U, Peter.”

Five minutes, then the reply.  “Y.”

He watched her approach from far off, a disconsolate figure with none of the usual purpose in her stride.   Jeans, a short jacket, hands in pockets, her hay-cloud of hair flying in the stiff breeze.   She looked miserable, and cold.

“Alright,”   She said sullenly,   “Why here?”

“I want you to come over to The Rock with me.”

“Oh, no!   Just say what you want to say, and talk fast.  I want to go home.”

“I can’t just tell you.  You wouldn’t believe me if I did.   I have to show you.”

What could he show her?   How could he make her believe him – better yet believe in him?  He had no idea.   He only knew that here was the one person who absolutely must believe him, and she would, however reluctantly, walk with him the half-mile of wind-whipped causeway, and up the road which led around the shady, damp northern face of The Devil’s Rock.

As they walked he told his story – of his first visit to the rock, his invitation to Vincent’s home, of Toby and the cave.  He did not omit his parting with Melanie, or how she had rejected the fate she was being offered.  It was time to be honest about everything, because this was the only chance he would be given.   Finally he explained why he had not called her that weekend; and he related the incident at Hemlington, including Howard’s part in it.   By the time he had stuttered lamely to the end of his tale, they were wandering through the half-ruined, impoverished village at the foot of the rock.  Lesley, who had listened without interruption, maintained her silence.  Shivering against the cold she remained frostily aloof until, as they ascended the little road up the side of the rock, while still deep in the despond of its northern shade, she picked her occasion to say, loudly:.

“That’s the biggest load of crap I ever heard.”

With sinking heart, Peter nodded.   “I know that’s how it sounds.”

“Peter, it’s just nuts!   I mean, they could put you in a home for spouting that stuff!”

Peter turned away, afraid she would see the emotion written on his face.  But then he felt her hand, slipping into his.    “That would mean I fancy a head-case.   I’m not that bad a judge, am I?”

He dared not trust his voice.  He shook his head.

“I mean, you think you can really…..do some of those things?”

He nodded.

A tear escaped down Lesley’s cheek.  “Fuck!”    She said, swiping it away impatiently. “I’ve a shitty taste in blokes, but I really scooped the pool this time!”

They walked on together, hand in hand, then hip to hip.   In the tunnel between the shady and the sunny side of the Rock, they kissed, paving the metaphor for their emergence into mid-morning light.

It was a bright autumn day, made suddenly very new.

#

Melanie was aware of a dark cloud of melancholy closing around her, although she could not fathom why.   She had woken early to a watery sun leeching through the salt-spattered panes of her bedroom window.   The wind which had demanded entry so furiously in the night had tired of its pursuit.   Beyond the bay a rough sea still threw the odd scouting wave at the foreshore, but the clouds were gone.  The beach beckoned.

She had dressed quietly in the clothes of last night: those she had worn on the boat were still draped damply over a clothes-horse in Agnes’ kitchen.  No sound had come from Agnes’s room, so she slipped quietly downstairs and out onto the gravelly scrunch of the drive, following that weed-strewn path which led back to the old harbour.   Why she so needed to return there, she didn’t know:  she had no clear plans, or idea what she would find:  it was curiosity that drew her – the same curiosity which prevented her from following Agnes’s driveway to whatever road it sprang from and running until she was miles from this cold, wild place.  

The rock passage echoed to her footsteps.  There was no gale now.   Yet, if she expected the little harbour to seem more welcoming in the greater brightness of the day she was disappointed;  for the place was as stark and grim as before.   At the end of the tunnel the gentle breeze bit icily at her face, played a lonely lament through reeds of piled stone.  The sea washed black in the harbour basin, like a cold douche of arterial blood.

She found the ruined cottage to be no more enticing than the day before, and the old boat, still as  close to final decay.    She wandered about the harbour for a time, as the concrete of the wall was drier and easier to negotiate.  Even the stairway in the rock which led from the harbour to the top of the cliff no longer threatened certain death.   There was no incentive to tarry in this harsh place, so suspending her fear she, set herself to climb. Edging past treads that had eroded away meant progress needed to be careful, and she was thankful for the odd handhold in the side of the cliff, but Toby’s assessment of her as being ‘sure-footed as a mountain goat’ proved accurate once more.  

At the top of the cliff she found little to investigate.   The headland was a meadow of coarse grasses raked by generations of sea-salt and gale.   Of the village which had once striven for life here no more than an occasional stone remained.  The sun was warm though, and one of the larger stones inviting enough to lie upon.

Stretched out, Melanie was drifting into slumber when the faintest of scratching reached her inner ear, a sound so tiny that at first she doubted it was there at all.   Then a whisper came, like breathing in a silent room, as though someone or something wanted her attention.  Whatever it was, it was close – beside her left ear.

With great care, she turned her head to find that just inches from her face the miniscule pin-head eyes of a snake were fixed upon her.   The creature’s tongue, flicking in and out so fast it was little other than a blur, was the source of the whispering.   To her great surprise she felt neither fear nor revulsion, but rather a sense of sharing, of mutual need.   She adjusted her position, carefully offering a hand, palm upwards, so that the snake felt no threat.   Completely unafraid, the snake responded by slipping through her fingers to drape itself over her forearm where it seemed happy to rest, sharing her enjoyment of the sun.   Melanie was enchanted.  As softly as she might she stroked its head, running her forefinger along the earth-brown zigzags of its length.   She knew it was a viper, knew of its poison; but she knew, also, the creature had come as a friend, and she welcomed it.

            The snake remained with Melanie for a while, then, possibly hearing the sounds of a Land Rover carrying in the breeze, slipped silently away into the grass.   Before long a vehicle materialised.  This was Agnes, relieved to have recovered her charge.

“Melanie, my dear, I thought I had lost you!”

Melanie lifted herself onto her elbows to regard her captor.   “I was just here.  I thought I’d look for the village.”

“Well, come back with me now.  We have someone to meet.”

In the Land Rover, Agnes was solicitous.  “Are you warm enough?   I was beside myself!  However did you get here?”

“I walked.”

“Walked?   But my dear, it’s almost eighteen miles!   Whatever time did you start?”

“No.  No, it’s not very far at all!”  Melanie replied.  “I came straight up the stairway on the cliff.  It took me half an hour at most.”

Agnes said carefully:   “You’ve been away two hours or more.  Its half past eleven now, I noticed you had gone at nine o’clock or a little after.   And I told you last night:  the steps on the cliff are far too treacherous to climb. The only road to this place is this one, and it has to go right up the valley before it crosses the ravine and returns to the sea.   Did someone drive you here?”

 “I climbed the stairs on the cliff,”  Melanie repeated.   “They were slippery, but not too difficult.”

Agnes appeared to be wanting for words.

#                     

Peter was about to knock on Toby’s door.   Though fond, Lesley was still reticent. Since they had crossed to the more benevolent side of Old Ben, she had rarely spoken.   He felt her uncertainty; she had committed to him and he knew, in his heart, he should answer the questions she was reluctant to ask.  But his own insecurities played against him.  He needed to prove his truth to himself as much as to her, to show she was right to trust him.   He did not understand:  Lesley just needed to know she was loved.

“Peter?”   She stopped him. “That time at the big house?   You know that was, like, really different for me – really special?”

“I guessed.”    Peter kissed her forehead.  “It was pretty amazing for me, too, yeah?”

“It’s important to me – that you know?”   Her eyes betrayed her fears, but Peter did not see.

He knocked.

The sun was high over the south side of the rock, bathing the turning colours of heathland in a warm, September glow.  Most of the birds on ‘Old Ben’ were done with nesting now, singing their freedom in trees just tinged with gold.   A flock of seabirds wheeled and played below them on the lower cliffs: Tern, Kittiwake, Black Back Gulls, Guillemot.   Their distant cries added a descant to the song of the wind in the grasses, the tune of the blackbird and the thrush on the branch.  Nothing else stirred.

“He isn’t in.”   Peter accepted.

“It doesn’t matter.  Peter, let’s go home?”

“Come on, I’ll show you the cave.   Maybe, if you touch the rock, it will do for you what it did for me and Melanie…”

Peter carefully folded Lesley’s hand in his, leading her toward the narrow path on the seaward side. 

“Now, young Peter; where do you think you’m be goin’?”

Toby appeared in front of them, his malformed figure’s awkward, rolling gait suggesting a grotesque dance as he climbed the path.   Lesley suppressed a gasp of surprise.

“Toby!”   Peter felt genuinely delighted to see him.   “This is Lesley – we’re going down to the cave.”

  Toby stopped, hands on hips, breathing heavily from his efforts. “Tain’t poss’ble, young ‘un.”

“Why not?   I can do that climb now – so can Lesley, with my help.”

“What?  An’ you goin’ to put ‘er at risk, jus’ to prove what you’m told ‘er?    Wha’ you told ‘er, Peter?”

Peter knew the trust he had broken, yet he felt no shame.   “Everything.  Toby, whatever I have, Lesley shares.  I won’t keep secrets from her.”

 “Never’ less, it were given to you in confidence.   Peter, I can’t let you past, an’ I wouldn’t if I could.   That’s my job, lad.   That’s why I’m here.”    Immovable and austere, Toby stood between Peter and his proof: there was nothing Peter could do.

“Young Miss,”   Toby said, his stooped head and up-cast eyes giving Lesley an arch look;    “He’s already told ‘ee more than you’m s’posed to know.   More ‘an anyone’s s’posed to know.   He’s told you ‘cause of ‘ow he feels about ‘ee, that’s what I’m thinkin’.   He’s different, young Miss, very different.   But you can’t have what he has, unnerstand?  You never can.”

Peter was moved to protest, but Lesley took his arm, drawing him back.   “It’s all right, Peter,   I do understand.  Come on.”

“But you have to believe me!”

“Do I?  I want to be with you.  Isn’t that enough?”

“Take ‘er home, young Peter.”   Toby said.  “If she wants to stay with you she’m got troubles enough, I reckon.”

Peter still argued, but Lesley tugged his arm:  “I just want to go home, Peter!   We can do this some other time, yeah?”

Protesting, Peter allowed himself to be turned back up the path to the summit of the Rock.    As he watched their retreating forms, Toby shook his head sadly.   “Women!”   He murmured.  “’Credibly strange creatures, them.”

Lesley hugged Peter’s arm as they walked, keeping him close to her:  “Listen – all this, it doesn’t count:  it doesn’t matter to me.   What matters is you’ve told me – all the places in your head you were keeping me away from, you’ve let me in.    The smelly guy, the whole thing.  I’ll try to believe you.   It’s all mad, but I’ll try.   Seems like I can’t bloody live without you, so I’ll have to, won’t I?”

The sky was beginning to cloud over as they made their way back, past the house where the little girl played.   She at least was there,  dancing her secret little dance in the garden, as always.   Lesley watched her as they walked past, a laconic smile on her lips.   “Oh, sweet!”   She murmured:  “Petey, look at that!”

They, allowed the steep gradient of the hill to draw them down, back through the tunnel which led them to the dark side of the island.   Peter’s fear of impending doom at this point was unwarranted, for Lesley was not Melanie.   There would be no parting here.   Nevertheless, he clasped Lesley to his side protectively and when he heard the clatter of approaching horses, drew her close to the wall to let them pass, and it did not seem at all extraordinary to him that the creatures pulled a carriage, any more than it was unreasonable that the coachman wore a full livery, or its passengers, a young man, a veiled woman and a little boy, should be dressed in Regency fashion.  The carriage had past them, and Peter was looking after it as it made its way into the tunnel when he realised that Lesley was leaning into the wall with him and expecting to be kissed.

“That was nice and spontaneous!”  She murmured when they had disengaged, “If you want to go caveman on me it might be a bit public, though.  Your bum’d be visible from  most of the Esplanade.”

He laughed.  “I just didn’t want you to be flattened by a coach and horses, that’s all.  Although now you mention it…”

“Oh, there was a coach and horses, was there?  And here’s me thinking ‘he’s into exhibitionism now’!  What next?”

“Les!  There was an old carriage – it passed us, just then!”

Lesley scowled, then gave a smile:  “If you say so, love.”

 They walked quite slowly:  for a long time neither of them said much, their minds too full of each other to need words.   Back at the Causeway Café they ordered coffee and sat inside on scrooping wooden seats to warm up.   There was a real chill in the air now, and no sign of the sun.   On an impulse, Lesley kicked Peter’s leg under the table.   It hurt.

“What was that for?”

“Well, you being superhuman and all, I wanted to see if you feel pain.”

“You were right to try.  I didn’t feel a thing.”

“Oh, yeah!”

The coffee came. 

“Peter, I don’t understand what this  is all about, I don’t really care.   But if we stay together, I mean, if it works out that way, I want us to be happy, Okay?  I know it sounds stupid, but in fifty years’ time I’d sort of like to be like that insane old woman.”

“As if!   You’d like to be an insane old woman?”

“She was happy, Peter.  She might have been a bit cracked, but she was happy.  It was lovely.  I’d like to be a bit like that.”

“What old woman?”

“That one back on the rock:  you saw her – the old dear dancing in the garden.”

“Wait a moment.”  Peter tried to understand.  “There was a little girl – a child – dancing in a garden.   You said how sweet she looked.”

Lesley watched Peter’s face closely; seeking something she didn’t comprehend, but knew was there.  “Pete, that was not a little girl; that was a very old woman.  She must have been, like, eighty or something?”

A truth dawned on them both.   “I saw a little girl.”  Peter said.

“Yeah, you did, didn’t you?”  Lesley breathed.   “Oh Peter!”

© 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.