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The Goatherd

Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall, and Jacintha’s hand covered it with gentle fingers.   “It feels so special, here.”  She said, her voice subdued almost to a whisper.  “I just know we could be so happy, darling.  This has to be our house!”

Beside them an Agents’ ‘For Sale’ board rattled.   “The view is to die for.”  Martin admitted.  “You can see miles from those French doors in the kitchen, absolutely miles!”

Martin would never confess that, even with the aid of thick spectacles he always wore these days, horizons could be no more than a haze.  He could see the house, though.  Yes, he could see that.

It was a truly tempting piece of architecture:  five bedrooms, palatial bathrooms, open-plan kitchen and diner ( “The heart of the home, darling,” Jacintha insisted; “The heart of our home!”), living room, study, and so on.  A double garage with a loft above, a half-acre of wild, heather-strewn land.   Yet it was the last house on High Croft, a development of eight newly built houses, the other seven of which had been bought long ago.   Why had no-one wanted it – or was it merely a matter of a price Martin already considered cheap?  Could he make a cheeky offer?

“Alright, my sweet.  If you like it, it’s ours.  I’ll call the Agents.”

Jacintha smiled her satisfaction, suppressing a little whoop of joy within.  It would never do, in her relationship with Martin, to express emotion more honestly.   Martin must be expected to conform to certain conditions, as must she.  He was, after all, somewhat short of her image of the perfect man, but she took pride in his apparently limitless wealth, and his predilection for spending it on her.  He was also good company; even mildly amusing, at times.

Martin found his mobile ‘phone in his breast pocket.  The ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in noisy reminder. 

“It’s a little windy here.”   He said.  “There was a pub just down the hill:  I can make the call indoors.   Last one there buys the first round!”  

As her husband bounded away Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered-looking, waxed jacketed man who witnessed this humiliation from the further side of the road.  She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reverted to an elegant walk.  Ahead of her, Martin’s outburst of fun was already over.  He was looking back for her with an embarrassed smile.

The pub was unpretentious, but comfortable.   Jacintha picked a window table with a settle while Martin ordered drinks.

“You looking to buy that house up top of the hill?”  The Landlord responded, wrestling with the new experience of preparing a Harvey Wallbanger.  “It does get cold in the winter, mind.   You can get snowed in for a month sometimes, easy.  There was a time no-one’d think of building anything up there, not even a bothy.  It’s three hundred feet above the treeline, isn’t it?”

Martin joined Jacintha on the settle by the window.   “The landlord thinks we’re mad.”

“Perhaps we are, a bit.”   Jacintha murmured.  “I love the open moors, darling.  The air is so fresh up here!”

“And there’s so much of it!”  Martin agreed.  “I’ll get the deal sewn up.”  He delved for the Property Agent’s specification sheet, lining up a telephone number to tap out on his mobile.

“The wind up there, it blows forever.”

The voice caught Jacintha and Martin by surprise.   Their eyes rested upon the figure who had watched their feeble attempt at a race not long since, and who stood over them, staring intently at Jacintha, now.  Upon closer examination Jacintha could see this was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills she considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features.   Finding she was breathing too fast,  she collected herself hurriedly.  “Does it?”  She responded lamely.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  It’s wonderful.  I love to feel the wind on my face, it’s so…so inspiring!”

‘Happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you…’ Martin blinked behind his glasses – what had brought that into his head?

“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?”  The man said flintily, with a jaw that hardly moved when he talked and lips so thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth they almost twanged. 

“I believe so.”   Affirmed Martin with as much masculinity as he could muster; aware the proprieties had not been observed, and more aware than Jacintha, perhaps, of how pink she had become.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…”

“Abr’ham.  That’s my name.  You can call me Abe.”  The man waved an airy hand towards the other occupants of the pub.  “Most everybody does.

 “That used to be Meg’s place, there.  You wouldn’t think it, would ‘ee?   Oh, not the ‘ouse, o’ course.  It’d make Meg laugh, in that high squeaky voice of her’n, all that nice clean porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Stone, ‘er place were, with flags for a roof and a door o’ planks she borrowed off the loose boxes from the Squire’s stables.”  Abe interrupted himself long enough to inject a conspiratorial look,  “Not that Squire knowed.”

“Really, Abe?.”  Martin gave the newcomer one of his mildest smiles;   “She sounds like a real character.  Did you know her well?”

“Know ‘er?  Why bless you, yes.  Ever’body lives up ‘ere knows Meg.”

There was an uneasy pause.  Martin broke it.  “I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Martin; this is Jacintha, my wife.  I would guess you know a few things concerning the house?”  He didn’t wish to seem inhospitable.  This man gave the impression of living locally; a villager, maybe.  “If we tempted you with a drink, perhaps you could fill us in?”

“Well, I thank you kindly.  Yes, I could use a pint of Draught.”

 “I’ll get us all another round.”  Martin said. 

No sooner had Martin departed for the bar, than Abe had taken his place on the settle next to Jacintha.  “I adore the house!”  She self-consciously smoothed her skirt over her thighs.

“You’ll be ‘appy there wi’ ‘im, will ‘ee?”  Abe said.  “You’m a strong woman, I can see that.”  Martin brought the drinks.  “You’re def’nitely going to put in an offer, then?”

Martin set the glasses on the table.  Piqued at losing his seat, he pulled a chair from an adjoin table with some assertiveness.  “I think so.  We are, aren’t we, Darling?”

“Oh, yes!”  Jacintha breathed.  “Wild, open moorland like that, full of myths and legends – I couldn’t ask for more!” 

“My wife is an artist,” Martin explained, failing to keep all trace of irony from his voice.  “She writes.  And paints.”  He added as an afterthought.  “Tell us about this Meg?”

Abe sipped from his pint of draught.   “Ah!  Crooked Meg, she’m better known as…”

“Oh, why?”  Jacintha cried.  “What did she do wrong?”

“Meg?  Meg done lots that was wrong, but it aren’t the reason for her name.  No, Meg was a goatherd.   She was a goatherd because that’s what her father did until the day he died, and there was a herd of goats to feed, so Meg just took ‘em over.  Ever’one has to make a living, and that were Meg’s.”

“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”

“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here.   They smelt unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too particular how they fed their beasts.  Very few of ‘em had land of their own; theirs was a poor living and they couldn’t afford it, so they just drove their herds about the lanes, letting ‘em graze off the verges, or, if no-one were watchin’, off a legit’mate farmer’s crop, which, o’ course, being goats, they strip to the soil – leavin’ nothing!”

“Gosh!”  Jacintha was enraptured.  “That must have made the landowners awfully cross, mustn’t it?”

“That it did, Missus.”  Beneath the table, Jacintha felt Abe’s hand grip her knee.  “It did madden old Jacob Morrow, when he found ‘er in his cornfield, that’s for sure!”

“I imagine so.”  Martin’s face wore a perplexed look.  “I imagine ‘old Jacob Morrow’ would have taken measures to stop her?”

“Measures?  Oh, ‘er took measures alright.  Jacob were a poor tenant farmer see?  He couldn’t afford to lose all that corn she were takin’.   No-one blamed him.  Not at all.”

“Blamed him?  Oh my gosh!  Blamed him for what?”  Jacintha’s hand was engaged in a covert tussle with Abe’s hand which, having found its way to her leg, seemed reluctant to leave.

“He took after ‘er, see?   An’ she ran, ‘cause he weren’t a good tempered man, and he’d have beat her senseless.   Well, she don’t have time to open the five-bar gate, do she, so she clambers over.  Done it many times afore, no problem for Meg, not that.  If’n this time ‘er hadn’t caught ‘er foot in the third bar, and fell back-over!   You might say it saved ‘er, in a way, ‘cause with ‘er screaming  Jacob got frightened and lef’ ‘er alone.”

“God, that’s horrible!”  Jacintha whispered.

“Horrible, aye.”

Abe quaffed deeply from his pot of beer, which had miraculously emptied.  He pushed it across the table to Martin.  “Thank ‘ee kindly?”

“Another?”  Martin offered, not without reluctance.

“Aye, same again since you’re buyin’.”

“Yes, alright.”

While Jacintha’s husband was away at the bar Abe had two free hands, so he deployed both of them.  As Jacintha’s initial flattery at this attention was wearing thin, she used counter-measures.  Abe discovered, as had Martin years before him, that Jacintha’s annoyance could be quite painful.  Even a waxed jacket could not absorb the full force of rebuttal from elbows like Jacintha’s.

Martin’s return was a little quicker this time.  “ What happened to her?”  He demanded as he set down Abe’s second pint; “What happened to Meg?”

 “ Some say ‘er back were broke, some say her hips.  Still she dragged hersel’ two mile to get home, ‘cause they made ‘em tough, back then, and there weren’t no doctorin’ if you was poor.   She healed bad, though.  Ever after that she were bent over back’ards like a billhook, she were.  That’s why she’m called Crooked Meg.”

“Poor woman!”

Abe nodded into his replenished beer.  “Poor woman, ah!”

“Yes, it is an engaging tale.”  Martin, who was not oblivious to Abe’s rueful massage of a bruised rib, was sceptical.  “One thing puzzles me, er…Abe.”

“Ask away.”  Abe said.

“At the beginning of your story you spoke about this woman as though you knew her personally.     You said she had a squeaky laugh, if I remember.  Yet a tragedy like hers couldn’t happen today, could it?  This took place – what – a hundred years ago?”

“More like two…”

“So how….?”

“Oh, Meg’s still around.”

The silence was palpable.  It was Jacintha’s turn to break it;  “Sorry…did you say…?”

“I said Meg’s still around, Missus.  Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time.  Where you’re going to be livin’, you’ll come across ‘er a lot.”

Martin frowned:  “So this is a ghost story?”

“Well, some might call it that, but only from a distance, if you see what I mean?  See, this isn’t the end o’ the tale.   Affer her accident. Meg couldn’t herd her goats no more, ‘cause she were crippled, so she took after gettin’ ‘erself a husban’.”

“Not easy, I imagine.”  Jacintha muttered. 

“No, she weren’t exactly a pretty dish.  But those were desp’rate times and they had desp’rate people in ‘em.  She married Ben Stokesley, she was the only one who would.  They was a foul family, them Stokesleys, and no sane woman would have had ‘em.  Some say Meg weren’t sane, though, even then.”

“After all she’d been through….”

“Exac’ly.  He were a drinker, were Ben, like all his kin.  Most the time he were too drunk to stand, and when he could stand he beat Meg until she bled, poor woman.  He didn’t hardly never work, an’ she couldn’t, so they never had nothing.  They was so poor they did eat grass from the hill from time to time, until one day Ben went out and sold Meg’s house from under her.  It were hers and her father before ‘er.  Meg couldn’t stand no more.

“When she found out, crippled as she was, demented as she was, poor screaming soul, she tore that house apart, stone by stone, timber by timber; and when Ben come’d home, roaring drunk having poured the money he’d got for the ‘ouse down he’s throat, she picked up the heaviest stone and she crushed he’s skull.   That’s where they found ‘er next morning, still sitting on Ben’s body and shouting out like the spirits of the moor were a-hunting in her head.”

“Dear Lord!  Whatever happened to her?” 

“No-one rightly knows.  Some said she was took to ‘Sessions and hanged, some that she were put in an asylum, because her madness wouldn’t ever free her.  But there was some….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”

Jacintha was ashen.  “No, please, you must.  Go on.”

“Well, some say the Stokesley family came affer ‘er before no law could have her.  Some say they did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch.  Them as says those things believe she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn.  Ever’one agrees though – ask anyone here – that they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year heard her screams jus’ at sunrise, just afore the day comes.  Her house was razed to the ground, you see, nothin’ left.  But it was her home, and she don’t take kindly to anyone else living there, even with their fancy porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Some say she’s lookin’ for revenge, but them’s just tales. I don’t want you to worry none, now.”

“Not worry!” Exclaimed Martin, aghast.

“Didn’t you wonder how ‘twas such a grand ‘ouse stands empty?  For more ‘n two hundred years no-one dared build on that land for fear of offendin’ Meg.  But there ‘tis.”   Abe sighed.  “There ‘tis.”

 “Oh, Darling, this is awful!”  Jacintha might have been referring to Abe’s pat on her thigh, which she took to be a warning of renewed assault; Martin interpreted her otherwise.

“Yes, well.  Yes.”  He decided.  “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!” 

His wife attempted a delicate manoeuvre that would allow her to rise from the table without closer, and more intimate, contact with Abe.  In this she failed.   Her face passed within inches of his flint-sharp features as he murmured.   “Pity!   Still, us being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?”  He turned to Martin, whose pale countenance might equally be expressive of fear or anger,  “You’ll be quick to put that offer in, now, will ‘ee?”

Martin stumbled. “Yes.  Well, no.  Perhaps not yet.   We may take a little longer to consider it.” 

“We do have one or two other properties to look at.”  Jacintha explained hastily.  

Abe watched his two drinking companions scuttle from the dark mood of the public bar into bright forenoon sunshine.  The Landlord called over:   “They was in a bit of a hurry, weren’t they, Mr Abrahams?”

“Yes George.  Yes, they were.”   Abe agreed, as he ferreted for his mobile ‘phone.  Holding it beneath the light from the pub window, he tapped out a number.  “Marcus!”  He hailed, in a voice that had lost all of its rustic burr:  “It’s Jocelyn, dear boy; Jocelyn Abrahams.  Marcus;  that house on the High Croft estate – ‘Woodlands’?   It’s been empty for a year now – if you remember, I told you at the time no-one would pay three hundred and fifty thou for it.   A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I?  Anyway, I’m on something of a buying spree at the moment, so have you thought any more about my offer?  Two-seven-five, yes.   Oh, you’ve got a view, have you?  Well, if they don’t bite, you just call me and I’ll be in your office in the morning.  Close it straight away!  Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better.   Of course,  you can rely on me.  I’ll look forward to it.”

© 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.

Header Image: Capri23auto on Pixabay.

Cherie

“Are you not going to talk to me, then?” 

“Yeah, of course – if you want, like.”  Martin knew he was blushing.   The girl with the long sun-kissed legs confronted him as he stepped out of the elevator cage.  Jack, his mate, followed him, making a sound of appreciation in his ear which, had he been a horned toad and not a bricklayer, might have sounded like a mating call.  

“’Cos you wolf-whistled me yesterday, didn’t you?”

“Did Ah?”  That was different.   Yesterday Martin was two storeys up, looking down from the scaffolding.  This was face to face.   A paragon of all that was beautiful, standing a couple of feet away.

“So I thought you fancied me.  Was I wrong?”

Her eyes were a dark challenging blue, lips full and wide.  Her hair was black, her teeth even and very, very white.  She was wearing the same red top as yesterday.  The same blue denim shorts.

“No.”  He muttered.  “No, you’re – you’re not wrong.”  He had only dared to whistle because Jack had done it first.

“Well, what we going to do about it then?  It’s all right, you can talk to me you know.  I won’t break.”

#

“So what ‘appened?”  Jack had returned with their fish and chip lunch.  “Hey, I bet you embarrassed yerself, you!”

“No – no I didn’t!”  Martin defended.  “Of course I didn’t!”

“Spent five minutes thinkin’ o’ dead cats, then!   She were tasty, her.”

“Aye.”   His mate was right about the cats.  “She’s real nice, like.  We’re goin’ out Thursday.”

“Yer lucky bustard!    Why Thursday?”

“As good a day as any, i’n’t it?”

“What’s her name?”

Martin thought for a moment.  “Don’t know.  Never as’t her.”

#

Her name was Cherie.  Introductions had to wait until Thursday, because Cherie did not appear again on the town square below the building site in the following few days, though Martin hoped for a sight of her.  By the morning of the appointed day he was already wondering if he had done the right thing.  Martin was always uneasy in the presence of eligible girls – their disguised interest, the giggling, the sotto voce comments whenever he was near, made him nervous and on edge.   Jack, who couldn’t understand his reticence, teased him.

“I don’t know what yer’ve got, lad, but I wish I had it.  Yer’d not catch me blushin’ and hidin’ in corners, I can tell thee.”

#

Martin wore the shirt his favourite on-line store said would look good on him, the three-quarter trousers that they said would match the shirt.  He drenched himself in the men’s cologne someone gave him for Christmas two years before; and in all fairness he felt quite self-confident when he hit the street.  As he approached the meeting place he had agreed with Cherie, however, his eyes settled upon her shortest dress of darkest red, and that confidence began to evaporate.

For her part, Cherie had to weigh her recollection of the half-naked, dusty male god from the scaffolding against the shop window figure who wafted to greet her on Mathesons’ corner.   As he approached, her practised smile twitched a little and almost faded – her full red lips closed over those white, white teeth.   But still, she persuaded herself, at least he had made an effort; and really, once she had changed sides to stay up wind, he was quite a creditable companion on the street.  Eyes were drawn.  She liked that.  She hugged his arm.

“Go clubbin’ yeah?”

Martin’s confidence graph took a further plunge.  “Ah’m not mooch of a dancer, like!”

“Why man, you’d be fine.”  Cherie produced a small polythene bag from her purse.  “You tried some of these?”

Martin eyed the little white pills within the bag with suspicion.  “What are they, like?”

“They make you dance!”

And dance Martin did;  wildly.  And if a few toes got trodden and if a face or two got elbowed no-one seemed disposed to make a point of it.  And Cherie?  She was delighted.

It was half-past-two before the pair left the Hot Licks Club.  Martin had somehow endured seven hours of closeness to Cherie’s graceful, swaying body without doing anything that would make his mate Jack ashamed of him.   Around the back door behind the dustbins, his supply of dead cats ran out.

#

“Chuffin’ ‘ell!   Yer look like the eight-forty-nine from Newcastle ran over yer!”   Jack commented the next morning.  “Good night, was it?”

“It were all right, like.”  Martin blinked at his watch.   “Eight-forty-nine’s not due yet, like.”

“I know, lad.  I know.”  Jack soothed.  “It’s joost an expression, see?”

“Ah.”

“Well, gan on then, what were she like?”

“She were all right, like.”  Martin wasn’t at all sure he remembered what Cherie was actually like.  He had a vision in his head of an undulating goddess, but it was fogged.  Those little white pills were responsible.  He had never taken anything of their like before, so he had never been ‘up’.  And never having been ‘up’, he was unprepared for coming ‘down’ – which he was heavily in the process of experiencing.   That morning, after he nearly fell from the scaffolding twice, his foreman put him in charge of stores.

Jack caught up with him at the rear of the site at lunchtime.   “I’m off to get t’ fish and chips, yer havin’ the usual?”

“Ah.  Awreet.”  Martin assented unenthusiastically.

“That right you got another date with yon Cherie lass?”

“Aye.  Ah think so.”  This was another of the things he was unable to recall clearly.  “Saturday, I think, like.”

“Well, there’s someone out the front to see yer.”  Jack told him.  “Have fun, lad!”

#

Cherie stood waiting by a forklift with the sun behind her so Martin could not immediately read her expression, though he might have been disappointed by the modesty of her floral summer dress.

“Ah.”  Martin said.

“Hello Martin.”  She said.  She sounded upset.

A tall figure hidden from sight behind the machine stepped into view.  “This is your Martin?”  His accent was thick and heavy with Eastern European inflections.  “You are lucky boy, Martin.  Yes?”

“Ah.”  Martin said.  “Who’re you, like?”

#

Jack and Martin sat eating their fish and chips together.

Jack was chuckling unsympathetically. “Yer’ve put yer foot in it this time!”

“Ah didn’t know she were only sixteen!”  Martin moaned.  “She never said, like, did she?”

“Oh aye!  Like she would!   And he was her brother, this big bloke?”

“Ah.  One of eight.  Eight brothers!”

“Chuffin’ ell!  What sort of people have that many kids?”

“Ah’m aboot to find out.  Her muvver and favver want to see me tonight!  About my ‘plans’.”

“Plans?  Chuffin’ell.  Yer nivver planned owt in yer life, lad!”

“Anyway, this brother of ‘ers, this Dimitri, he says it’s alright for ‘er to see me, like, because sixteen’s quite old to still be single, where they cooms from.   I think they want me to marry ‘er, like!”

Jack’s hell chuffed once more.   “It’s ridiculous, that.  I mean, yer didn’t do nothin’ to her, did yer?  I mean, first date and all?”

Martin probed the fog mournfully.  “Ah don’t rightly remember.  Ah think ah might ha’ done.”

#

Over the weeks that followed Jack’s lunches became solitary affairs.   Cherie brought sandwiches and other more exotic treats to sit with Martin in the park while she regaled him with details of the wedding dress she wanted, the celebrations that people of her country enjoyed on such occasions, and his duties as a bridegroom.  Cherie’s brothers acted as chaperones:  their small, packed household reverberated to the beat of raucous folk music,  while he sat in silence for hours.  His hosts prattled happily in their own language.  Only Cherie  spoke to him in English. 

#

“Where is she now?”  Jack asked.  It was the first time he and Martin had shared their lunch in quite a while.

“She’s off gettin’ fitted for the dress.”  Martin explained.  “It’s not that I don’t like, ‘er, like…it i’n’t her so much – it’s her fam’ly.  Wor can’t get away from ‘em, like!”

And Jack said:  “Still, lad, it’ll be awreet once tha’s married, won’t it?”

“Ah, well that’s the thing.    ‘Er favver wants us to work for ‘im.  Ah’m fam’ly now, ‘e says.  Ah says, ah’m norra plumber.  ‘E says, that’s awreet, ‘e’ll teach us, like.  Boot ah don’t want to be be a bluddy plumber, do ah?   Ah’m ‘appy wi’ the bricks, like!”

“Well, tell ‘im that.”

“Oh ah, you try!  An’ Cherie’s brothers, see?  They works for ‘im awready, an’ he don’t pay them ‘ardly nowt.  Ah’m spendin’ more time wi’ them than ah am wi’ Cherie.   It’s all the heavy hand on the shoulder an’ ‘you be a good lad an’ do what Papa wants’.   And ah’m buyin’ all the drinks, like!”

“Let me think.”  Said Jack.

#

Jack, at forty-one, could have looked upon his young friend’s plight from a mature perspective and concluded that Martin’s fears would resolve themselves, given a little time.  But he was concerned.  Martin’s brow was furrowed, his complexion pale.  He seemed to be sagging beneath the burden, not of his relationship with a pretty girl who, despite her tender years, Jack rather liked, but the grasping aspirations of her father and her brothers.

The girl’s horizons could not extend beyond her family.  It was a powerful influence, and Martin needed some inspiration to introduce a little slack to those natural ties.   The trouble was, good and honest as his young friend was, Martin had never suffered the pangs of inspiration.   Ideas were not his strongest suit.  A vissicitude of fortune needed to step in.

Which was why, on one warm weekday evening, Jack was to be found stuffed into his best suit, standing outside a church hall beside a board that announced a meeting of the ‘Jesuit Society’.

“Hello, love!  Are you a newbie?”   She was smartly dressed in blue, with her hair coiffed neatly beneath a dark navy hat.  “I’m Ethel.  Come on in and let me introduce you.”

In the ensuing two hours Jack experienced more religion than had passed his way in a lifetime of resolute agnosticism.  It was, he justified to himself, suffered in a good cause, especially as it offered every opportunity to socialise with Ethel, who was a member of a mysterious ‘Committee’, and a perfect receptor for his plan.  Oh yes, Jack had a plan.

“That’s why I’m ‘ere!”  Jack proclaimed.   “I think it’s terrible, the way these bloody fanatics is pollutin’ our religion (pardon my language, Ethel).   They’re weedlin’ their way in, makin’ all these heretical changes!  They’re ruinin’ our Church!”

“Oh, I agree!”  Ethel said.  “Er…who, exactly, love?”

“Them Scientologists!”

“Oh aye, them.”  Ethel nodded.

“Aye, and I’ll do better than ‘who’; They’re everywhere!  I’ll give thee an example!  Right in this diocese, like, there’s someone actually pretendin’ to take instructions in the faith who’ll be getting’ married at the Sacred Heart in six weeks.  He’s a known Scientologist, is ‘im, but he’s marryin’ there before the altar, bold as yer please;  and into a good Catholic family, an’ all!”

“Oh, my good Lord!”  Ethel said.

“Yes!   An’ once the canker starts, mind, in a good God-fearing fam’ly like that, it spreads.  Blasphemy, that’s what it is.   Blasphemy!”

Ethel laid a reassuring hand on Jack’s arm.  “I so agree!”

#

“Ah don’t understand it!”  Martin exclaimed, as he buttered his thirtieth frog of the morning.   “One minute ‘er fam’ly’s all over me, like; next minute they won’t speak to me!  T’wedding’s off!  Father sommat-or-other from the church comes ter see Cherie’s Da’ and tells ‘im ‘e won’t marry us, an’ him and ‘er brothers are at me fer bein’ a Judas, like!  What have ah done?”

Jack grinned.  “Seems like tha’s got theself a bit o’ space, lad.  Tha’s what tha wanted, weren’t it?”   It was time to ignite the spark of inspiration.  What does Cherie think about it?”

“She says I should ha’ told ‘er I was a Scy-tologist or sommat, an’ I says I weren’t.  Ah’m Church of England, man!”

“Strange ‘ow things works out.”   Jack nodded, sagely.  He knew that however robustly his friend defended himself there was no possibility Father Kelly would change his mind and consent to conduct the marriage.  Once the Jesuit Society had their teeth in the hem of his cassock it was more than his life was worth.   “Does she still want to marry yer, lad?”

“Oh ah.   She’s dead unhappy.”  Martin flushed and muttered into his chest:   “She says she loves me, like.”

“Yer can still get married then, can’t yer?”

“Ah don’t see how.  ‘Er parents won’t consent no more an’ she’s under age.  Us’d have to wait two year, an’ ‘er brothers are talkin’ about  ‘er gannin’ back to ‘er home country.  They.ve got some mate of ‘er favver’s as they wants her to hook up ter.  Nah, it’s all off, far as ah can see.”

#

“Gretna Green?”   Cherie’s face lit up.  “We can really get married there?”

“Ah.”  Martin nodded.  “Or anywhere in Scotland, Jack says.  Sixteen’s old enough up there, see?  We can nip off on the quiet, soon as y’like.  Ah can get the train tickets fer tomorrow morning…”

“Oh, Martin, that’s brilliant!”

“We’ll have to be careful, mind.”   Martin looked deeply into his girlfriend’s shining eyes and through them saw, for a moment, another kind of reflection – that of a doorway hanging open – a path to freedom, and though he was unsure he wanted it, a way of escape.

“Of course, if you didn’t want to do it…”   She was giving up her family, her brothers, her home.  She only had to show doubt, and he would sympathise:  he would understand.  After all…

Cherie stopped his train of thought in its tracks.  “Not want to?  Don’t be daft, Martin man, of course I want to!”

“Anyway;”   She patted her stomach.  “There is another little problem.”

© 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: Scaffolding, Hebi B, from Pixabay

Dancing Girl, Graphic-Mama team on Instagram

Audience/Club, Pexels, from Pixabay

Russell Grimley

“You want your usual?” 

“Has she been in yet?”  Russell Grimley was on edge.  Sol Abrahams’ café, just across the street from his flat, was his sole supply of victuals in this last year, but just lately his erstwhile girlfriend had taken to eating there too.

“Marika?  No.   She don’t come in this early.  You want your usual?”

Russell gave a single eyebrow response.  Ever since Sol had introduced him to his special breakfast pasties he had eaten nothing else – they were too addictive.   “And coffee.”  Sol completed his order for him.  “I’ll get it for you.”

Russell bolted his food down, almost choking in his haste to escape an encounter with Marika, who he felt sure was stalking him, and to keep an appointment at his doctor’s surgery. 

He had no faith in the power of medical doctors to heal, and he had no faith in Doctor Staffana.   Even this morning’s act of attending Doctor Staffana’s waiting room, crammed as it was with the sniffling and the coughing, set his nerves to jangle mode.  However, the wait gave him time to wonder at Marika’s vengeful persistence, since they had mutually agreed they could not live with each other anymore.   Did she still feel aggrieved, just because he had sold her revolting pet dog while she was out at work?

“Does it hurt?”   Doctor Staffana gripped one of his shoulder blades with a vigour that threatened to tear it off.  Russell yelped.

“When did you first notice this?”  The doctor prodded the other shoulder blade.

“A couple of nights ago.”

“It was the pain, you felt?”

“No.  It hasn’t hurt at all, until you did that.  I just had the sensation of lying on two tennis balls, or something.  Then, last night, worse.”

“I think we must refer you, although I warn you, the waiting list for this specialist is very long.  In the meantime, take this course of antibiotics.  Any allergies?”

#

Mr.  Greybasin, the specialist, studied his notes, stared over the top of them, then hid behind them completely.   At length he allowed them to float to his desktop.  

“You have been coming to see me for six months, Mr.  Cringey…”

“Grimley.”

“It says here you are Cringey.  Are you not Cringey?  You seem to have the same complaint?”

“Never mind.  Cringey will suffice.  Can we do something?  This is getting worse!”

Worse?   Much worse.  The deformation of Russell Grimley’s shoulder blades was now so noticeable he was, in appearance, a hunchback.   At work, his specially made jackets and his built-up shoes had failed to disguise the prominence of the bones or control a peculiar hopping walk that seemed to go with them, and had earned him a street name: ‘Quasimodo’.

Mr Greybasin turned to his computer screen, perused the information upon it for a few seconds, then made some experimental stabs at the keyboard.

“Your case is most interesting.   Most int-er-est-ing.   Yes.  The concensus seems to be you have a genetic condition we call Proteus Syndrome.   Have other members of your family suffered similar bone overgrowths?”

“No!”

“Well it has manifested itself rather late, which is probably to your advantage, as it appears to have restricted itself to your scapulae.  There are those very pronounced clavicles, and we have to keep an eye on your spine, but the distortion may never spread further.”

“What are you saying –  I’m like the Elephant Man?   Can’t you do anything?”

“Your condition is very rare – however, we have come a long way since Mr. Merrick: there are certain drug treatments…”

#

In the months that followed Russell Grimley’s life became intolerable.  His condition worsened, prohibiting any attempts at sleeping, as had always been his custom, on his back.  What was more, his rapidly altering centre of balance caused his gait to degenerate into a series of hops which made the stairs from his apartment to the street almost beyond his capability.  Sol Abrahams was the first to acknowledge these changes.

“You don’t look well, Russell!  Why  are you walking so odd?   Do your feet hurt you, maybe?”

Soon after, Grimley’s employers, feeling that his profile no longer matched theirs, sacked him.   And now there was pain, sometimes so acute Russell felt that his shoulder blades must burst with the agony.   One afternoon, as he lay on his side in his bed with no reason to get up, they did burst.

Or at least, that was how it felt. It felt as if the blades had turned upon their axis and, true to their name, slashed like razors through the flesh of his back.  His screams echoed through the rooms of his fourth floor flat, turning heads far below in the street.  Unconsciousness, sweeping over him in a merciful grey veil, was his saviour at last.

#

In time he must wake, Russell told himself:whilst wondering how, if he was as unconscious as he thought, he was able to make such an objective assessment.   Colours whirled about him; his head sang to him in plangent tones.  Was he awake after all?  Was he drugged?

Russell tried blinking to clear his vision, once, twice, then again.  He tried turning his head to one side.  Yes, his eyes were capable of functioning, that was certain, but what they saw made little sense.  He was looking down through a whirlpool of detail to a central, stiletto-sharp object: the object, he suddenly realized, being Sol Abrahams’ nose!   So strangely altered was Russell’s vision it took him a moment to recognize Sol, a moment more to see that the café proprietor, standing in the doorway to his emporium, was looking back up at him.  There was nothing between them but the clear vista of the street, and Sol’s eyes were wide with terror!

#

Detective Sergeant Oliver Wadforth ran tired fingers through his hair, reluctant to meet the gaze of the strange apparition that faced him across his desk.   “Let’s get this straight.”  He said.  “You were perched on your windowsill, and you wanted Mr. Abrahams to help you?”

“Yes.  Although I prefer the word ‘sitting’ to ‘perched’.”  Russell was resisting a powerful urge to bang his mouth on the edge of Wadforth’s desktop. Speech was unaccountably difficult.  “I panicked!”

You panicked?   Imagine what that poor old man felt, standing in front of his shop, when he saw you looking like that, perched in a fourth floor window?  And then, to make matters worse, when you swooped down on him with those – those…”

“These?”   Russell asked helpfully, stretching his shoulders.  They were very new, his wings, and they felt stiff.

“Don’t!”  Wadforth made a grab for his paperwork, which whirled like butterflies before the draught Russell created.  “Don’t flap those things in here!”

“I didn’t think!  I mean, when did I learn to fly like that?  I woke up to find myself on my windowsill and I just wanted to get down to him, to ask what was happening to me, that’s all.  It all seemed so natural.  Will he be all right?”

“I won’t lie to you.  It was a heart attack.   He’s doing OK.   But what the hell do I do with you?  Technically, you’ve committed no offence, although there should be some law to stop you doing it again.  So I can’t charge you, but nor can I let you walk out of here like – well, like that.”

“You could call my doctor.  He’s been following my case.”

#

Mr Greybasin’s notes seemed to occupy him for a long time, a space Russell filled by banging his mouth on a peanut bar his receptionist had thoughtfully provided.   Eating was yet another of the myriad things that were proving more difficult as the hours passed, because he no longer possessed arms or hands to hold onto food, and he had yet to learn to use his feet, the talons of which still protruded through the wreckage of a pair of shoes.   Eventually Mr Grebasin looked up.

“There can be no doubt about it.”  He said.  “You are a bird.”

“Is it curable?”  Russell asked.

#

The ‘Cringey’ remained the City Zoo’s star exhibit for much of that year, and eventually it seemed Russell’s life story would be reduced to a placard that explained him to a host of curious visitors, who came to stand in open-mouthed awe before his cage.  His twelve-foot wingspan was majestic, his dark, green-tinted plumage a wonder to behold, so when he exercised in the ample space the Zoo provided his soaring flight filled the audience with admiration. 

His keeper was kind enough, though perplexed at his unique condition:  “Why, I know you must be lonely, like; but I’ve no idea where we’ll ever find a female to keep you company, and there’s the truth.”

Russell had long forgotten how to talk in anything other than a series of squawking cries, so when, in late November, he noticed Marika standing among his devotees he had nothing he could say, nor anywhere to hide.  The piercing focus of his eyes could not miss the smirk upon her face, forcing him to pause, humiliated, in the middle of shredding a dead rat his keeper had provided for lunch.

Thereafter Marika came every day; she came to his cage, and stood watching him or sat on a close-by bench, often eating one of Sol Abrahams’ special pasties.  She would flaunt the food before him, agitating him until he could no longer stay on his perch, but flew around his enclosure, seeking refuge.  Sometimes he even skulked in his night-box until she went away; but then, sometimes, too, he would vent his inner anger with a screeching sound he had invented, glaring down upon her with baleful looks.  And so matters endured right through the winter, until upon one early March day he noticed how large and loosely fitting was the coat Marika had thrown around her shoulders, and how she stooped.  Was it his imagination, or had her walk taken on a peculiar, halting gait?  No, there was no doubting her disability, and as it increased her visits became less frequent.  In May, they ceased altogether.

“It’s a miracle!”  Russell’s keeper enthused one day in June while cleaning out his cage.  “A perfect female match for you m’beauty, and a companion at last.  I’d start doing a bit of nest-building, if I were you!”

© 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