Satan’s Rock

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

.          

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-Four

Of fish and Fishing

Peter’s slumber, in a welcoming little bedroom at the north corner of Vincent Harper’s cottage, was deep, and awash with dreaming. Yet, as with all such nights, the only dream he would carry into memory would be the last; his dream before waking. 

He stood beneath a burning sun upon a hill.  Around him and stretching to infinity were grasslands uninterrupted by hedges, or roads, or any natural feature save an occasional clump of scrubby and rather apologetic trees.  Groups of animals grazed, moving lazily, their tails flicking at a drifting mist of flies. 

One of the herds passed close enough so he could see they were not unlike Wildebeest though smaller, and hear as they spoke among themselves in tones curiously evocative of weeping.

As he looked on, a commotion in the grass behind the creatures exploded and a huge cat with gaping jaws and grotesque tusks for teeth sprang from cover.  Its intended victim had no time to turn or run before raking claws and those great teeth put it to death.    Legs crumpling beneath it, with its last breath the poor creature emitted a long, sobbing cry.   The herd scattered. and Peter woke up.

Slowly, as sleep receded, he became aware of breathing.  He was not alone.  His first disorientated thought was that he was back in Levenport, that he and Lesley had taken some time from study and they had fallen asleep together.   He probed softly, half-expecting to be rewarded with the thrill of her warm flesh.   Instead he found a coarse, tight pelt of fur.  It took only a second to realise that this was not human skin, that the owner was much, much larger than Lesley.   He opened his eyes to come face to face with the big cat of the plains, its fantastic fangs still scarlet with blood, eyes angry and lips drawn back in a long, slow feline snarl. Its eyes were craven and yellow, its big paws tensed to strike.  It disappeared.  Daylight peeked through the curtain, and the smell of frying food wafted through the gaps in the planked door.  Just to be sure, Peter pinched himself/

Estelle greeted him in the kitchen.

“Hi.  I was going to give you a shout, but blubber-ball downstairs said you’d be awake.  Are you OK?   You look like you saw a ghost.”

Thirty minutes later, with a calming plate of bacon and eggs inside him, Peter was ready for Vincent when he emerged from that mysterious door.  “Come on, Pete.  This is what you  came for.”

Peter follow Vincent down the flight of stone steps the door concealed.  Halfway down Vincent paused;

“One thing, man; be prepared – a bit of a shock, this.”

Another door: to a basement room, obviously; and their footsteps must have been heard because that oddly familiar voice bellowed from within:  “Not you, Vincent, I need the woman to attend to me.  I demand it!”

  “She’s washing another bale of your clothes, you old f****r!”  Vincent responded unceremoniously.  “We need a bleedin’ laundry!   Keeping you clean’s an industrial enterprise!”   Over his shoulder, in a more modulated voice, he said,  “Come in Pete.  If he throws something at you, throw it back!”.

“Blame me!  My dear, it’s so convenient!  Blame me!”    The voice was suddenly petulant, a soft received English accent with a peculiar dryness, almost a rasp.  Now Peter was sure of its owner, though he hadn’t expected to find him here.

“Right!  Sure, I will!   All I ask, Simeon, is you keep your shirt clean for just, like, an hour or something, huh, baby?   Maybe if you don’t eat for an hour, try that?”

“Not eat?  For a whole hour?”  Expostulated the voice,  “I need food, my dear!  Need it!   You know I need it!   Get me fish.”

“Later.”

“Not later, NOW!”

Peter managed to pass through the door without molestation, into a well-lit space which had all the appearance, although windowless, of a normal sitting room.  A pendant light in the centre of its ceiling provided the illumination; walls were painted a predictable magnolia; wooden features in a contrast tan.  A darker tan carpet fitted the entire floor.   A television of mammoth proportions graced one wall, an over-stuffed chair, a low settee and a smaller upright chair ranged around a large glass occasional table central to the room.

Peter’s attention instantly focused on the occupant of the room – a most unusual-looking human who Vincent introduced:

“Peter, this is Simeon.”

Simeon was seated in a low armchair.   The floor around him was covered by a pair of protective sheets in the form of plastic shower curtains, one bearing a penguin motif, the other a single full-length graphic of a nude female.  

 Simeon’s person could best be described as a vast jelloid balloon topped by a completely hairless head.   Into this, like craters of the moon, were sunk two large, saucer eyes, pinhole nostrils, and a mouth uncluttered by more than the necessary minimum of teeth.  

The lower layers of the apparition were clad in a voluminous pair of blue trousers, partially zipped to respectability:  the upper ones a clean white cotton shirt with cruelly tortured buttons and short sleeves.  The trousers were, like everything else in the immediate vicinity, decorated with splurges of food.   The shirt was not, as yet, though its fate was clear.

A breakfast plate rested neatly upon the shelf of Simeon’s torso.  Peter guessed at Eggs Benedict which Simeon steadily transported to his mouth with both his hands.  Mastication was a very open affair.  Sauce dripped and spattered.   The clean shirt became unclean extremely quickly, especially when speech took place.

“Is this the boy?”  Simeon assessed Peter with a disbelieving stare.   “Bigger than I remember – much bigger.”   He extended a podgy hand, inviting a handshake.   Peter flinched away.

“Sorry!”  Simeon apologised.  “Bit messy, it’s true.  I have difficulty eating this trash, you see.  Bloody stupid idea, leaving sauce all over the place.”

Estelle had followed Vince and Peter into  the room.  “He has difficulty eating anything politely.”  She commented.  “He’s a PIG!”

“Of course he has difficulty;” said Peter a little sententiously, because he was certain now his first encounter with Simeon’s voice had been on Levenport seafront.  “He’s more used to having  a beak.  He’s really a gull.”

Simeon exploded into laughter, a voluble bellow which scattered hollandaise sauce like napalm.   “A GULL!  Of course I am.  You see, my pretty little waitress, how you wrong me?   Dear boy, how well we shall get on!   Simeon Ward-Settering, MSc, BSc, MA, BA, DD, MD, CD, VD, OD, Eton and Balliol here.  How do you do?”

Simeon resumed his gorging:  massaging the remaining contents of the plate into a wad, he stuffed this into his mouth, to be swallowed by a single gulp.

“There. I am replete!   Vincent, you sweet soul, bring me those towels, will you?”

There were towels in a pile by the door.   Four or five were needed, before Simeon looked anything like clean, another two to mop detritus from the table and floor.   To withdraw the shower curtains, Vincent had to prompt Simeon to raise himself, which he did with some difficulty.    Peter noticed that movement induced a ripple effect across the uneven contours of his body, and a made a sloshing sound.

“Not my dear little Popsy!”   Simeon affected grief as the nude woman curtain was taken.  “Do bring her back soon, won’t you?   I shall miss her frightfully!”

“You’re a dirty old bastard.”  Estelle told him, as she gathered up the soiled towels.   There was some humour in the statement, but not too much.

“I know; my failing.  Sit down – Peter, isn’t it?  Vincent, you have told our friend here what this is about?  Broken the ice, as ‘twere?”

“Yeah.”

Peter gingerly lowered himself into a chair which looked relatively free of food.

“I’ll leave you boys to it,” Estelle said with meaning.  “I have to do laundry.”

“Fish!”   Simeon shouted at her retreating back.

 “Vincent and I, we go back a long way.”  Simeon cocked an eye at Vince, “He didn’t tell you that, did he?”

Vincent shook his head.  “I left it to you, mate.”

“I first appeared to Vincent after a concert in California.  My path was smoothed by several mind-altering drugs…”

“What a gig that was!”  Vincent laughed,  “He tied me up, literally!  I thought I was having a bad trip.”

“I did a thing with a python materialisation – a favourite of mine at the time.  In retrospect a bit cruel, I suppose.”

“I was that spaced out I thought he was God!”  Vincent exclaimed,  “As you can see, he wasn’t”

 “Now, let us be serious,” Simeon exclaimed.  “We met before – you’ve worked that out, you clever thing – so it is time for you to know who I really am.”

“You were that gull on the rail at Levenport,”  Peter said,  “That’s how I first saw you.  You spoke to me, but inside my head, not with a voice like now.  .  You  invited me to meet Vince, didn’t you?”

Simeon spread lily-pad hands:  “I confess it all, guv’nor.  Guilty as charged.   I suspected you shared our receptiveness, but I had to find out. ”

Vincent grimaced,  “Quite useful timing, in the event.”

“My dream?”  Peter muttered, “That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?  How many times do I have to keep saying this?  It was just a dream!”

Simeon affected a sigh of patience:  “Dear child, remember what happened.   You touched the Truth Stone, and it flooded your head with pictures.  You passed out, but you weren’t asleep.  Then you found another part of the Stone in the Toa shrine, and you repeated the exercise there.  Denial of this is pointless!  Accept your gift!”

“Truth Stone?  Toa shrine?  You mean that cave, the one with Toqus’s body in it.  Who are the Toa?  Come to think of it, you haven’t told me yet what you are.”

“The Toa are a religious sect that existed secretly within the Catholic Church until the Middle Ages, and probably in other multitheistic religions long before that;”  Simeon answered.   “Unheard of for four hundred years, they are active again because they know, as do we, that the stones are awake.  As to who I, and possibly you, are?  I don’t precisely know.  We call ourselves Ethereals, but that is only a name. 

“The species that thrived on this planet for a hundred million years, and those who went before them, ‘documented’ their knowledge and their law by some means in stone.  I and some of my predecessors are possibly older, even, than they.   I believe we were once the readers of those records.   If you think of stone as the ‘hard drive’ on which their lore was stored, then we were the lasers that read, and possibly also wrote, that information.”

Peter was struggling:  “That’s pretty radical.  So you must be really old.  I mean, if you were reading their stuff. I mean, seriously?”

“I have to accept I may be very, very old.  Having no physical body apart from those forms I assume for convenience from time to time so people, humans, can better understand me.  I could be as old as the stone itself.   Time relies on substance, and as far as I know I,  and the few brethren who have shared this state with me, have no physical form at all.”

“Supposing I believed all this?  Like I’m sitting in a room with a ghost who looks like the Michelin Man on acid, and he isn’t really there.  He’s what…invisible?  Where do I fit in with that?”

“We can no longer read from the stones.  More importantly, dear boy, we can no longer write into them.  We can’t ‘programme’.  That means destiny is set upon a path we can’t control, and something desperate must inevitably happen.  We had to find someone from your generation with the power to interact with that resource…”

“And you’re it, Pete.”  Vincent cut in.   “Because we’ve seen that you can interact with the Truth Stone.  You’re lovely girlfriend, too, if we can find her, but we think maybe one of the others has got her.”

“Melanie’s not my girlfriend,” Peter reminded them. “Others?  What ‘others’?”?”

 “Others who want to use the stone ‘drive’ for their own ends,” Simeon replied.  “The Toa, some other religious groups and extremists who think they can earn from the power it could give them.”

“Alright,”  Peter said, “What do you want to use it for?  How do I know you’re not another bunch of mad scientists, or whatever?”

  Vincent took the question.  “I suppose you don’t.  You would have to judge us by what we ask you to do, if you can do it.”

“Which is?”  

“Perform a reset, if you like.  Wipe the catastrophic event which has caused the error and if possible extract the information we need to get ourselves back on track.”  Simeon tried to look persuasive – an expression that didn’t sit easily on his moon of a face.  “Not much of an ask, Petie Pooh, is it?”

Vincent cut in with a grimace:  “It’s urgent, Pete. We have to get you back to the Rock and get this sorted like yesterday, man, and I don’t know if I can help you.  It would have been better if we hadn’t had to drag you up here to tell you all this, but I daren’t go near the place at the moment.  I don’t think they know about you, but they know me, and I’m a prime target.”

“Why should they – whoever – target you?”

“For the same reason I sought out Vincent at that California concert,” Simeon answered more soberly; “His is the House on St. Benedict’s Rock.  The place where you touched that black stone – the Truth Stone – is your best hope of accessing the information we need and re-establishing control – as Ethereals must have done, I am sure, for millions of years.  It’s the only place, as far as we know, where the Truth Stone is exposed.”

“What’s to stop ‘them’, whoever they are, from simply moving in and taking over?  If all they need is this Truth Stone?”

“It isn’t all they need.  They need you, Pete.  You or your friend, ideally both.  Together you’re the lynchpins.  You’re the readers.”   

#

Melanie had never slept on a small boat before.   The coastal trawler, a sturdy craft built for the short, choppy waves of inshore waters, made few concessions to the inexperienced: and Melanie was scarcely a sailor.   After struggling for a couple of queasy hours against forces dedicated to tipping her from the hard wooden shelf of her bunk, trying to blot out the bang of waves against a hull only inches from her right ear, she surrendered.   Midnight found her on the foredeck, staring emptily towards lights on a distant shoreline.

“Thinkin’ o’ swimming for it?”   The deck-hand, for that was what Melanie assumed he must be, was a spindly youth in a shabby navy sweater.   “’Tis further ‘an it looks.”

“Where are we, exactly?”   She asked.

“See those lights there?   Those’d be Peterhead.   Us’ll be losin’t coastline in a while:  crossin’t mouth of Mor’y Firth.    Could get rough.   Lucky to ‘ave it this calm, time o’ year.”

“How much further are you taking me?”

“Not far enough, nice lass like the’.   Us’ll be dropping the’ off tomorra morning.”

“Where?”

The boy shook his head:   “can’t tell the’ that.”

So it was to be somewhere in Scotland: the north, too.  What; an island somewhere?

Melanie recalled her first conversation with the boy.   She had not intended, when she left Bianca’s nice seaside semi-detached that morning, to wander as far as the fish-dock: she still wondered why she had.   But, having done so, and having leaned over the rail to watch the vessels departing on the tide, it was natural to someone of her enquiring mind to ask questions of this frail-looking youth, who was stacking white plastic trays on the deck of a neat and sweetly-painted green boat.

“Coom aboard if the’ likes.”

She did like.   It never occurred to her there might be -; what – danger – adventure?

“Tha’d not like it, where us has te’ live when wor ut sea, mind.   Coom on, Ah’ll show the’.”

It never crossed her mind.

She marvelled at the little galley:  the smallness, the compactness of it all.   And the forward cabin: two bunks, a locker, no room for more.

            A quite different figure was from nowhere, all at once standing behind her, removing any thought of retreat; a tall man dressed un-nautically, blunt though not unkind of speech.

“We’ll want your possessions:  purse, mobile.  PDA if you have it.   Now, please.”

A man brooking no dissent: impatient of delay.

“Now, please!”

He blocked the door: or was it a hatch, now she was on a boat?

“Gaffer!”  The boy whispered.   “The’ better do it like.  Do like ‘e says, lass.”

How had it happened?   What had brought her here?   The pulse of the diesel was noisy, the throb of its dissent endemic to the steel of the hull.  Unaccountably, though, she was hearing music.  Oh, not a radio, or anything: no, this was inside her head:  like the music of the rock.

© 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:

Feature Image Dinosaurs Darius Sankowski on Pixabay

Fish: Gregory Moses on Unsplash

Trawler: Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part 23

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.”

“Hello 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.

Image Credits:

Header Image: Julian Hochge Sang-huepD on Unsplash
Cat: uros-miloradovic on unsplash
Sailing Ship: Enzol from Pixabay