Meeting on the Motorway

He was driving home, not for the first but the third time this week, and he was tired.

Paul’s weariness  was an insidious thing, .  It had begun not weeks but months since, an insistent fatigue beyond sleep’s cure with roots that grew a little deeper each day, spread a little wider each week; so now it invaded his very bones.  He felt older, much older than his forty-two years.  Today he had worked late and far from home, swaddling that tiredness in a further layer of exhaustion. 

Almost as indistinct, the traffic of the motorway processed about him in sound and rhythm, fast and vast, marauding or crawling, assertive or furtive.  A tune – a slow ballad – a lullaby to woo him into sleep.   His eyelids were heavy, his reason was blurring.

The mile-post for a service area found him just in time:  even then he almost missed it, sinking eyelids hiding the warnings, an articulated trailer unit veiling the essential final sign until he was forced into an ugly lane-change.  The car park beckoned him and he fell into it, slumping back in his seat.  With the tensions of the road dispersed nothing could arrest the orderly march of slumber. Recognising the futility of defence, he surrendered unconditionally.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look absolutely wrecked.”

At some point he must have wakened then taken a decision  to leave his cocoon in search of food.  His steps must have led him to this café, his payment app to the stack of meat, cheese and mayo which leered back at him from this plate. 

“You aren’t actually going to eat that, are you?”

He couldn’t remember ordering the food, although it seemed sustaining enough to answer a need.  Clearly, he had slept for some hours, a simple truth his digestive tract insisted he acknowledge.

“I rather think I might,” he said, and “Who are you?”

He must have dozed again, that was the explanation.  While he was in a torpid state this young woman must have slipped into the seat across from his, but why?  The café was less than crowded.  There were whole tables to spare.

“Hi,” She said brightly, “I’m Seph.  Nice to meet you!”  She removed the heavy-looking spectacles through which she had been conducting her examination of his choice of comestible and extended a hand so absolutely inviting that, caught unawares, he almost kissed it.  Convention stepped into the line of fire just in time with an admonishing finger.  He shook the hand.  “Paul,”  he said.  “I’m sorry, how did …?”

“You needed me.”

The forthrightness of the statement alerted prickling, suspicious hairs on the back of Paul’s neck.

 Awake now and thinking, it didn’t take much working out, really, did it?  Easy to watch for such travellers as he:  Mercedes in the car park, expensive business suit, new, high-end ‘phone…  She was certainly convincing, he told himself, allowing his eyes free rein; a ‘class act’, her hair darkly frizzed to emphasize the portrait of a perfectly-featured face, the widest of soft mouths, the bluest of blue eyes.  A pale blue cloud-blue shift dress draped over shoulders otherwise bare, free of straps and encumbrances.  But still…

“I needed you.  Really.”  He placed some cynicism behind the words.

“Yes,”  She said.  And when she said it, when her eyes insisted his should meet with them, he felt himself melting.  “You’re not happy, are you?”

Now what on earth would make her say that?  “I’m on my way home,” he replied defensively.  “When I get home, I’ll be happy enough.”

It was a lie.  He dreaded going home.  “You’re very direct,”  he accused her.

Home?   A very expensive roof protecting a string of complex and irresolvable debts; remortgaged many times in the cause of his his business activities.  The domain of Adrienne, his wife; very much her domain, her furniture, her colours, her choices – bought without sanction because he was never there, always working.

“Is it my home?”  did he say that aloud?  Seph’s smile of understanding seemed to suggest she had heard everything, even the thoughts he was sure he had not spoken aloud.

“There’s someone waiting for you there?”  She coaxed, settling her hand on the table so her fingers played gently with the tips of his own.

“My wife.  Are you conducting some kind of confessional?”

“Do you love her, your wife?” 

He wanted to frown, to show he was affronted, but somehow he was drawn into an answer:  “This is getting a little too personal, isn’t it? What was your name?  Seph?   I mean, considering we’ve never met before, Seph.”

Seph leaned her elbows on the table, letting her chin rest prettily upon her interlocked fingers,  “I’m genuinely afraid for you, Paul.   It’s three o’clock in the morning, it’s a summer dawn; if love and happiness are waiting at the end of your journey, what are you doing here?”

“I had to pull over to rest.”  Just by reminding himself, he stirred a cloying mist of sleep.  Why was he so, so tired?  Adrienne slipped back into his thoughts, bringing contemplation and silence…

  Oh, there was a presumption of love.  There was a history, a time when there had been something between them they could excuse as love, when Paul was the beautiful young man and Adrienne his feminine equal, courted by an eager succession of suitors.  Perhaps Paul was the man Adrienne had been looking for, then.  Perhaps his relentless energy, his quiet, distant manner satisfied her, for she was never a passionate woman and she had few sexual needs.  Salivating young grads with nervous, uncertain eyes who danced on her strings amused her, but never tempted.  Paul saw her as she was, focussed; and she was drawn to his perspicacity.

That was then, and maybe it was a flawed foundation for a marriage, a mutual admiration rather than a friendship, a partnership rather than a passion: now it was a floor show, played out on their public stage.  In private, it was ice.

 “That will be cold,”  Seph interrupted his thoughts, rescuing him from despondency.  She directed his leaden eyes to the plated enormity stacked before him.  “If there’s anything worse than grease, it’s cold grease.”

Paul had to agree.   He was hungry.   But the challenge which confronted him was, in construction, a burger, and he hesitated to engage in the two-handed assault that threatened to release missiles of gherkin and cascades of mayonnaise while under the scrutiny of this attractive companion.  He was drawn to her, wasn’t he?  He was intrigued.

“Knife,”  She said, producing one from somewhere and sliding it across the table.

Paul accepted it.  “Do you work here or something?”

“No.  You hate her, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,”  his mouth was half-full.  “Hate who?”

“Adrienne.”

Paul stopped chewing, staring into Seph’s eyes as he sought some answer to a question so obvious he almost baulked at asking it;  “How do you know my wife’s name?  Do I talk in my sleep, or something?  Have we met before?”

“Have we met before?   Let me see…”  Seph’s hands slipped below the table and came up with a small notebook.  With her spectacles replaced halfway down her nose she flipped pages.   “Well, no.  No, we haven’t actually met.   Do you think I look too stern in these?  He says they make me look stuffy.  What do you think?”

Had Paul been in a mood for honesty, he would have replied that in his opinion she looked beautiful, but he saw a small advantage.  It seemed unlikely someone so lovely, and so overtly happy, would not be in a relationship.   “’He’?   Is ‘he’ your boyfriend?”

She pouted, an admission perhaps that she had been caught out?  But then there was a trace of a smirk,  “I wouldn’t call him that, exactly.  Anyway, we were talking about you.  I know all about you, Paul; you and Adrienne.  I’ve been studying you both for a few months now.”  She slid the spectacles right down to the end of her nose, treating him to a penetrating look over the top of them.  “Stern, yes?”

Genuinely, Paul was beginning to feel a little out of his depth.  Although this woman’s research begged explanation, he still favoured his initial theory.  This was a pick-up; a very professional one, but nonetheless…“Is this a regular haunt of yours?” He asked brutally;  “Cruising the motorway stops for tired professionals with fat wallets?”

“I see, sir,”   Seph took off her glasses;  “So I assume this is a practice of yours, trawling for chicks at night in tawdry dens of lust like Knutsford Services?  Fat professionals with tired wallets?”  But her eyes were liquid.  She looked solemn and genuinely sad.   “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I’m not for sale.   Not even for rent.”

“Then what are you, what is it that you do?  Where DO you work?”

“Wherever I am needed.  At the moment, that’s here.”

“I don’t need you,” he tried to say it kindly.  “Look, Seph, I’ve no idea where you’re coming from, so let’s agree to a moment of honesty, shall we?  You seem, for reasons only you can explain, to be interested in the state of my marriage.   Well, if I admit it isn’t the best marriage in the world, and from your perspective it must seem pretty depressing, can we close the subject and get down to whatever this conversation is really about?  Can we dispense with the subtleties?”

“No!”  Seph gripped his hand fiercely, then released it as quickly and sat back in her chair,  “This is a one-time offer, Paul.   One stop only, no repeats.  Do you know what I see?  Someone who’s ruled by life, Paul.  A caged soul.   It isn’t your fault, perhaps; you have the fast car but someone else is driving.  Nor is the fault Adrienne’s, because a woman like her was raised with expectations and her choices have failed her.   But you are not free and I must free you, yes?   That’s why I sat down at this table.  That’s why you have to take my hand, now, and let me guide you.  Please?”

Paul felt he had to shake his head because the sleep was coming in storm clouds.  Suddenly, it seemed imperative to think clearly, but clarity wouldn’t come.  He strove for an answer.  “See, Seph, that’s just how it is.  It’s the life I’ve got.    There are moments in it you could call happy.  If I’m prepared to settle for that version, and I am, although you are the most wonderful-looking reminder of the youth I once had, you must accept I don’t want rescuing – even by you.” 

“So,” Seph sighed,.  “You don’t need my help, then.  You’re going home and you’re ‘happy’, Paul.”  She shrugged.  “An opportunity missed.  I’m very glad for you.”

“Thank you for the thought,” he replied generously, “It was nice to meet you, Seph.”

A slow smile of kindness, tinged with regret, played across her face.  She rose gracefully from her seat, turning to follow the aisle to the doors, her blue dress floating about her – reeds in a stream, the rush of breeze in the willow.  He watched her go.

“Seph?”  

What made him do it?   Adrienne made him do it, the future in that hard voice, those acerbic jibes, waiting at the end of his road.  The darkness made him do it.

Then out of the darkness came Seph, taking his hands, drawing him to her.  “I was rather hoping you were going my way,”  she said sweetly.  “This is the very best thing!  Thank you, Paul!”

“My car’s in the car park,”  he said.

“We don’t need a car,” Seph replied.

© 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.

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty

Marionettes

Jeremy Piggott’s phone bleated piteously enough to make him answer it.

“Hi Jerry, its Sullivan.”

“Howard, how nice!   I thought you’d forgotten us.”

“Nothing to report, Jerry old thing; until now, at least.   Whole issue’s gone a bit stale, if you ask me – my prospective stepdaughter’s out of the picture….”

“That was a pun, I take it – since she created the bloody picture?”

“Oh very good!”

“What is our boy up to, then?”  Piggott asked:   “Exams and such?  Being ordinary?”

“Well yes, actually.”  Sullivan replied.  “Apart from the physical differences we spoke about last time – lads do grow around about his age, don’t they?  He’s picked up with this rather nice little girl (surname Walker, Lesley;  I’ve asked office to get some background) and they have a pretty warm thing going, I can tell you.   He took her to the house at Crowley yesterday, so he’s obviously still obsessed with the history issue…”

“Did they find anything?”

“I don’t know:  I’m curious about that.  I went over the place myself quickly afterwards and there’s something odd.  It’ll be in my report.  History wasn’t all they were researching, by the way.   A certain little girl will have paid a visit to a chemist’s this morning, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Okay, send the photos – I’ll see if there’s anything in the gen. on this Walker girl.   Cartwright hasn’t been back to the rock, or met up with your girl?”

“Photos should be in your mailbox.   And no to both:  in fact, my young friend with the stepdaughter potential is still as mad as a cat with him: I doubt if they even speak.    Look, how much longer should we keep this up?   Melanie senior is spewing wedding bells whenever she opens her mouth, so it’s getting difficult to side-step, if you see what I mean?”

“Maybe for years.  Cartwright could be a sleeper, your Melanie girl may take us off on a different route?  I don’t know, perhaps it is time for a change.  I’ll keep you posted.”

“Right’o.  Just a thought, hm?   Take care, Jerry.”

The line closed, leaving Jeremy Piggott, British Secret Service, to ponder events in Levenport.  Howard Sullivan’s brief  had been to keep tabs upon Peter Cartwright, but the whole investigation had begun to look like a dead end.  Since his bureau had traced this boy; he whose printed image adorned the scrap of floating paper which saved a Senator’s life, surveillance had revealed little or nothing.  Yet a burning question remained:  why the picture?  A clue, a signpost to something more?

“Someone’s pulling your strings, Jerry old mate.” Piggott mused.  “You’re a bloody marionette, that’s what you are.”

            He dialled a number from the phone’s memory.   “George,”   He said when a voice answered.  “Levenport file.   I’m sending you some stuff on a family called Walker, focus the daughter.  Pictures follow.  Check it out.  Then I want a conference call tomorrow morning with anyone still on the case.  Circulate the appropriate memo, will you?”

Piggott replaced the ‘phone, settling down to an interrupted viewing of a television soap for which, were he quite honest, he had little regard.

In the meanwhile, returning from his day at Crowley, Peter Cartwright had to submit to some well-meaning interrogation by his mother and father.   Lena’s horror was limited initially to the state of his clothes.

“Well, you might as well throw those away.”

“I can’t!  They’re designer jeans!”

Bob, who knew both where Peter had been and who had been there with him, was concerned for different reasons; but he was wise enough not to say so.   There were questions he did not need to ask – the alterations in his son’s demeanor told him all he needed to know.

“Well, Peter my son, the Crowley place must have impressed you mightily, that’s all I can say.  He seems to have brought most of it back with him, doesn’t he, darling?”

Lena was fussing:  “Go up and run a bath.   And get those clothes off you, for heaven’s sake!  I’ll do what I can with them.”

There was an interlude while Peter went through the business of undressing, and Lena ran his bath for him, collecting his soiled clothes from outside his bedroom door.   She re-entered the kitchen, laden with these, to find her husband in reflective mood.

“Odd, I’d say.”

“What?”

“Well, I had a call from our novice Bishop today.  He asked about Peter again!  Again!  And I told him where Pete was going today.  Strange thing is, he seemed to know already.”

Lena frowned, “You’re imagining it,” she said.

Somewhat later on this same evening, Peter finally broke free of parental curiosity and bathing rituals for long enough to switch on his PC.    There was one email with an enclosure.  

Hi Peter:

You deal with this.   I can’t.

Melanie.

He opened the enclosure.  It read:

Hiya:

You don’t know me, or I you, so I’m hoping I can convince you I’m not some pervert by using a phrase that’ll mean something:  ‘ the stones are awake’, gettit? Because it’s vital that we meet.  

Here’s the plan.  For the weekend of 8th September you and Peter are going to stay with an old school friend, Mary Wilson, who’s moved to Mancheste.  Birthday?  House party?  You choose.    You’ll forget to take your mobiles, so you’ll be difficult to trace.   You and Peter can both use this same story – the pitch is that there will be six of you going.   That’s just in case you’ve got parents who worry (Sorry, but I don’t know your parents!).

 Train tickets to Manchester for you both on the reference number below.   You’ll be met at Piccadilly, and measures taken to see you aren’t followed.

  Look, this is for real.  Keep it between yourselves.   We believe you are being watched, so be careful.   I know how iffy this looks but if you travel together and if I add that Vince Harper gave me your email I hope that will be enough to persuade you.

 Bung this in your trash straight away.  It’s got a little gizzy all its own to take care of it from there.   Then wipe your history and we should be safe enough.

PS.  If your parents get suspicious or I haven’t earned your trust,  don’t worry – we’ll set up something else.   Remember, no mobiles.   See you soon!

The mail concluded with ticket references.   There was no signature.

Peter thought for a moment, and then sent to Melanie:. 

 “I’ll go.  Are you coming?” 

He waited for a reply, that night and the next day.   Nothing came.

#

These early days of September were the countdown days, last precious remnants of the long summer break.   Lesley and Peter spent as much of this time as they could together, although it was littered with tedious bouts of revision.  For light relief Lesley practised on an acoustic guitar, melodically enough to inspire Peter to join in with vocals until he lost the key so entirely she made him promise to stick to his intended mathematics-based career choices. For most of the time they could work in each other’s company:  their disagreements were rare.

Peter dwelt less and less upon thoughts of Melanie in these days.  He was loyal to his friendship with her, even a little guilty at allowing Lesley to eclipse her so completely, but he could not relate to her if she wanted no contact with him, and the silence was thunderous.    So he went on with the business of preparing for his final year with fewer backward glances than he might.  And he was taken by surprise when Lesley gave him the news.

“Melanie’s gone.”

They had broken from studies for a morning coffee at Hennik’s.

“What?”   Peter could not help a reaction:  “How do you mean, ‘gone’?”

“Like – gone – gone away.   To live with some relation or another up-country, I think.  She’s changed to another college.  She won’t be back next term, for exams or anything.”

Lesley studied Peter’s face, trying to suppress the tiny lump which kept coming back into her throat:   “You still fancy her, don’t you?”

He came to himself.  “No.”  He said, rather too quickly.  “No, I don’t.   I never – I mean we never…..we were just friends, Les.  But I hoped we still would be, you know?”   

There was a wisp of betrayal in his girlfriend’s eyes.   “No.”  Peter repeated more carefully.  “I could never feel for Melanie the way I feel about you.  I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.  You know that really, don’t you?”

Lesley tried to tell herself she did.

“It was just a shock.”  Peter reasoned.   “I mean, why?   I know she didn’t get on with that Howard bloke who lives with her mum, but surely…”

“Exam year?   Has to be a good reason, doesn’t there?   The reason is you, Peter dear; or rather, us.”

‘This honesty thing is out of control,’ Lesley thought to herself: ‘What are you doing to me, Petey?  I’m turning honourable!’   She said:   “Mel may just have been a friend to you; but to her you meant a great deal more. You were, like, the love of her life?   Oh, don’t look like that!  I’m sure of it.   I shouldn’t say these things to you, but I can’t help it.  Mel is – or was – my friend too, yeah?”

Wisely, Peter made no reply.  He could not tell Lesley what he believed to be the real reason for Melanie’s departure, any more than he could admit to the bereft feeling now clawing at his heart.   Okay, so maybe there had been something deeper there, once, but what use was there in revisiting it now?   Melanie had gone; not in flight from a lost love, but running from the inevitable. Like his, her life had changed irreversibly:  that email had to have been the catalyst.   She did not want to be found so easily again.

Lesley meanwhile knew, despite Peter’s pretense, that he thought a lot of Melanie; that they had been more than simply friends.   She was also aware of a mystery in Peter, a part of him she had yet to see.  There were no deliberate lies or subterfuges, no evasive moments or avoided looks:  but he had something within him that was hidden.     All of which would not matter, if her relationship with him had not become, that afternoon at Crowley, at once so simply definable and so complicated:  she was very young, but she was also very much in love.

“Don’t you dump me, Peter.”  She warned him:  “Not ever, do you hear?”

Hidden away in her bed room under the guise of shared homework, Peter did his best to reassure her he would not.

#

Lena Cartwright led a chaotic life: this was the construction she always placed upon her ‘higgledy-piggledy days’ as she called them, when anyone asked why she seemed to be flying about for no reason.   Should any of her friends try to pin her down to an itinerary, or to delicately suggest that, for all her rapidity, she was actually going nowhere and doing very little, she was inclined to fall back upon ‘her art’ and given to explaining that artists don’t think in the same way as other people.   These were the only times when she would refer to ‘her art’ at all:  for the most part she kept her paintings very close to herself.  They were personal to her, the hours she spent in her studio, and very carefully unrecorded.  Production was slow.   A sherry bottle was usually present.

This is not to say Lena was lacking in work or commitment: she had plenty of both.  Long ago, she had forfeited all pretensions to “High Art”.   Her talent, she knew, would never rival Rauschenberg or Hockney, she had no great message to leave to the world.   But that did not inhibit a modestly profitable stream of local commissions, seaside views alongside sketched portraits and a smattering of graphics.   Besides, she had, as she put it to anyone who would listen, ‘a vicar to run’,  in her role as a vicar’s wife.   Altogether these things, generally, filled her day from eight o’clock breakfast to eight o’clock supper. 

Lena exercised one strict discipline; she would never drink in the presence of her only son.   These days Peter was usually somewhere other than home, he touched base more and more rarely, so the sherry bottle was wont to stray into the kitchen as well as her studio, guaranteeing her affability for the evening to come.   On this particular Saturday,  Peter being elsewhere, the mistress of the house could be found doing a little desultory baking when a knock on her kitchen door announced a very distraught Karen Fenton.

 “I didn’t know where else to go.”  Karen said.   Her face quivered on the brink of collapse.

“Come in, love.  Come in.”     Lena shepherded her friend hurriedly indoors.   As soon as the door was closed, Karen broke down.  

“Oh god, I had to come to you – I’m so sorry, I didn’t want to do this!”

Clutching Karen’s sobbing shoulders in her arms; Lena guided her into her kitchen.    “Sit down and I’ll make some coffee – or maybe you’d like something stronger?   What’s happened?”

“Melanie.”   Karen said simply:   “Has disappeared.”

This was not a Richter-scale shock.   Peter had already told his mother that Melanie had ‘left town’.

“She’s moved to Saurborough, hasn’t she?  To your sister’s?”   Solicitously pouring  solace from the sherry bottle, Lena presumed this was the cause of Karen’s misery. 

“You know she and Peter aren’t close anymore?”  Karen sniped,  “Lesley Walker, now, isn’t it?    A  focussed young lady is Lesley.  She sets out her stall really rather well, doesn’t she?  But the let-down wasn’t exactly gentle, Lena dear, was it?   No ‘Let’s still be friends’; no ‘Let’s still see each other, just play it cool for a while’?”

Lena would not be goaded.   It was the old vicar’s wife thing again.  She knew how to resist such crudely cast bait.  “Ah, the young!”  She went for a fatalistic sigh and very nearly made it:   “My lord, it’s hard to believe we were like that once.  Karen, I’m deeply sorry for the hurt Peter caused her, you know that. But we can’t live their lives for them, darling!”

 “No.   No, we can’t I suppose.   And Peter wasn’t the only reason.  Apparently – Christ, I didn’t know – she really hates Howard!  Hates him!  I suppose that happens, doesn’t it?  I mean, just because I love him, it doesn’t mean….”   Karen accepted the proffered glass, pausing to drink.  “She wanted to get away:  start fresh somewhere. I said it was a shame, with it being exam year, and everything, but it seemed for the best.”

Lena listened as her friend recounted how Melanie had left to stay with Bianca, Karen’s younger sister.    Bianca was no stranger to her niece and at last Melanie appeared happy – happier than she had been for some time.   Then the hammer fell.

“She sent me a text.”  Karen said:   “She never texts to me.  Everyone else, yes, but when she wants to tell me anything she likes to talk, you know?   But then, suddenly, a text!    It just said that she was well and I wasn’t to worry.   All day after that I went about trying to tell myself there was nothing wrong.   It was half-past seven when Bianca called.  She hadn’t come home.  Oh, Lena!

“This was yesterday.   No-one’s seen her since yesterday morning.  The police found her ‘phone – it was still switched on – in a waste-bin in bloody Thorngate.  That’s about thirty miles away!  Someone’s got her, I know they have!”

Melanie had left her aunt’s house early, determined to take advantage of some September sun.   She had declared her intention to go for a walk on the beach, but had, in fact, been last seen heading for the fish-dock further up the seafront.   The police?    An officer had visited Karen this morning.    Oh, they were doing everything they could, but really, apart from circulating her description, what else could they do?

Where was Howard?

He’d gone up there, to Saurborough; rushed off early that morning – strange, though, that he hadn’t contacted Bianca as expected. 

“He hasn’t called me either.”   Karen managed a wry smile:   “I suppose it’s possible I’ve lost both of them….”

The sherry bottle had joined them at the table, a centre-piece of telling significance, its level sinking like sand in an hour-glass.    In the dwindling light of a late summer afternoon the two women faced each other both through it and around it, and the words hung unsaid for a long, long time.

“Lena,”   Eventually breaking the silence, Karen spoke carefully; “The policewoman who came to see me said violent abductions are more likely to happen at the end of the day, you know, after dark?   Disappearances in the morning, well, sometimes there’s a plan, like running away with somebody, or something?   It got me thinking.”    She drained her glass.  “Lena, where’s Peter?”

Karen’s words cut through the gentle gauze of sympathy like a woodman’s axe.  Lena bridled:   “Good god what do you mean?”

“I mean, is he here?”

“Well, no.  He’s away for the weekend.  An old schoolmate is having a bit of a birthday and he’s staying over,”   Lena was brusque;  “My stars, Karen, just now you were censuring him for dumping Melanie, are you now saying he’s abducted her?   That’s nonsense, surely!”

“Am I the only one who’s noticed?  There’s something between Peter and my daughter – something that has nothing to do with relationships.  It’s a sort of connection which I know is there but I can’t put my finger on.  Don’t tell me you haven’t seen it?”

 “Well,”  Lena scrabbled her mobile ‘phone from the worktop beside the ‘fridge and tapped Peter’s speed-dial angrily;  “We’ll find out!”.

In the pause which followed, Karen said:    “You don’t believe they could be together?   I do.   I’ve tried to add up the possibilities, and that is one.  It really is one.”

Faintly, from above them in Peter’s bedroom, they both heard Peter’s ring tone. 

© 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: Sagar Dani from Unsplash

Bottle: Vinotecarium from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Eighteen

From Dust

An echo created by the splitting impact of wood on stone dwindled to silence in the gloom.

Lesley remained frozen with her arms akimbo, just as they were when the casket fell from them, saying nothing, just staring at the shattered wreckage on the floor.  She was visibly distressed.

“Les?”  Peter coaxed her her. “It’s was just an empty box, yeah?  Those stones were in there to make it seem like it was full.” 

She shook her head vehemently.  “It wasn’t.  Someone – he was resting there!  Where is he, Peter?  Who took him?  Where’s he gone?”

At first Peter thought Lesley must have spotted a plate like those screwed to the other coffins, identifying their occupants; but though he scanned, using the light from his ‘phone, he could see nothing.  “He?   How are you so sure it was a ‘he’?”    This prescience in  Lesley was new to him, so he could not be blamed for being surprised as she came to herself, rounding upon him almost angrily;  “No!  No, I can’t be sure!  How would I know that?”

For now the answers could wait.   “We’re both getting spooked.  Let’s get out of here.”  He decided.

As he closed the grille, Peter wondered whose hand had rifled the padlock – were there others as interested in the Crowley story as he?   Lesley’s conviction that the little box had once contained a male child, though free of any proof, was so strong it could not be ignored – but then someone, for whatever reason, placed stones inside to make up weight, presumably so that a burial would look convincing.  Or maybe not – maybe whosoever rifled the lock had entered here to take the little body from its rest. Why?   What had he, Peter, missed?  He replaced the padlock, trying in his turn to make it look as if it had not been opened. 

Lesley remained subdued for some while.   She pretended interest in other features of  the garden, but Peter could sense her preoccupation.  At last, in the midst of a paved circle  less overgrown than most she stopped before the remnants of a sundial, placing her hands upon it for support.  Then she simply squatted on her heels, dropped her head so her cascading hair would hide her face, and wept.

Peter withdrew; she did need him to comfort her.   Disconsolate as he might feel, he had to allow his friend space for a private sorrow he could not explain, but knew to be real.   Lesley had found something in that cold place which had meaning for her, something which had brought a necessity to grieve, so he settled down at the edge of the paving to wait, slotting this new piece of the Crowley family’s chequered past into his mind.   Whose was the child for whom such desecration was necessary?  He had to assume it to be Lady Elizabeth’s, and a son, if Lesley was right.  Had Ballentine been the father? 

“Are you going to sit there all day?”   Lesley’s toe nudged him.  He looked up at her red eyes and she smiled apologetically.  “Sorry Petey.   I’m a sentimental bitch sometimes, honestly, you wouldn’t believe.  Come on, we were looking for a way into the house, weren’t we?”

It took them a while.  Finally, at the rear of the old mansion they came upon a wide, cobblestoned yard fringed on one side by the house itself, on two others by buildings which had once been stables.  Corroded tethering-rings lined the walls, while the middle of the yard was dominated by a long stone trough, part-filled with stagnant water and the haunt of a million flies.  Close by, Peter spotted a loose shutter on one of the house’s smaller windows.   Crowley’s defences were breached.

The rotted shutter lifted away without effort, dropping with a clatter onto the cobbles.   Behind it, the structure of its window had been smashed aside so a substantial body could pass through.

“We’re not the first!”  Lesley hissed.

“Squatters!   What if they’re still inside?”   Peter suggested in his creepiest whisper, pleased to see Lesley’s shoulders tighten in alarm.

“You go first then.”   She whispered back.

Some clambering later, they stood blinking in the dim light of a small ante-room.   The walls, their green paint peeling, were hung with impressive growths of mould.

“Try not to touch the paint.”  Peter advised:   “I think that green used to have arsenic in it.”

From the room they discovered  a passage leading into the belly of the house.  Deprived of light, oppressed by the reek of damp and aided only by illumination from their ‘phones, they had to grope their way.    “Oh piggit!”  Lesley swore as she tripped over some rubble.   “Peter, this is seriously scary!”

“There’s a door here.”   The door fell with a crash.

Lesley yelped:  “Don’t DO that! “

They stepped over the old hardwood door into a large hallway, which, had the main entrance not been boarded up, should have afforded them access to the house.   This cavernous space reached two storeys high.  Windows from the first and second floors, unboarded, lit up a long, curved staircase fringed by moss-damp panelled walls.     Beneath their feet, a black granite floor which must once have shone with polish, above their heads a roof-level dome of broken stained glass panels, now a nesting-place for birds.  Panicking wing-sounds were all that broke the silence. 

“Wow!”   Lesley shivered at her own echo.   “Castle Dracula!”

They wandered out into the centre of the dusty floor, gazing around at a room which had no furnishing, no covering, not even a shredded drape to soften its air of ruin and decay.   Lesley felt she wanted to throw open doors, beat out the boards from the windows, let in the sun.   Peter saw at last how, aside from all the external paraphernalia of Turkish domes and Moorish towers, Horace Crowley had wanted to reproduce his home when he drew up his first madcap plan for St. Benedict’s.   This was how the Great Hall would have looked when the place was completed, centuries ago; the one a pattern for the other.   It must have been an influence strong enough to have affected even Matthew Ballentine, who had paid homage to this part of the old man’s dream in his finished house.

These recollections apart, he did not see a ghostly Crowley stalking the hall, or get any sense of the past he knew the house to have.  He felt nothing to connect him to the place.

“Last one to the top!”  Lesley yelled, racing off up the stairs.

“No!”  Peter came to himself with a jolt.  “Don’t, Lesley!   The stairs won’t…”

A threatening creak confirmed that the stairs wouldn’t.   Lesley, feeling them lurch, stopped dead.  “Oh!   Oh, shit!”   With a hideous splitting sound the whole bottom section of the staircase tipped to one side.   “It’s bloody Titanic all over again…Peter?   PETER!”

Peter was beneath the place where she clung to the stair rail, some twelve feet above his head.   “Over the rail!” He yelled:  “Jump, Les!”

“Oh no!”   Lesley groaned, as the stairs lurched again.

“Come ON!  It’s easy.   I’ll catch you!”

If there hadn’t been a second splitting sound Lesley might have delayed longer, but this final warning was enough.   With a squeal of fear she clambered over the crumbling banister and launched out into space.   Peter had only a split second to align himself with her ‘phone light’s flicker and to perfectly time her fall, rolling backwards as he caught her against his chest.   The lower stairway crashed to earth beside them, powdering to a billowing, choking dust cloud that enveloped them both.    It took a long, long time to clear.  When she could at last start to make out some detail, Lesley found herself lying on the floor beside Peter.   Gingerly, she tested her legs and arms to see if they still worked.   Between wheezing breaths, she managed to gasp out:  “Is there anything in this place that doesn’t fall down when you touch it?”  Then, seeing Peter in improving light, she bubbled into a half-choked effort at laughter.   “Am I the same colour as you?”

Peter coughed,  “Yep.”

Lesley coughed back, “Did I damage you?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, Jesus, let’s get out of here.” 

Eyes caked and hawking inhaled dust, they picked themselves up, discovering bruises with every move.  Once erect, they leant against each other in mutual support before, bearings regained, they were ready to limp painfully back through the darkened passage.  Blinking through streaming tears, like two weary pilgrims they staggered towards the light.

“Do you think anyone heard the noise?”   Lesley said.  “That was one serious crash!”

“Dunno.  Soon find out!”

Restored eventually to the sunlight of the stable yard, they sat on the edge of the horse-trough and Lesley, quivering with delayed shock, buried her face in her hands.   Peter stretched out an arm and she responded instantly, draping herself against him as if his strength alone could quell the thought of dying, crushed among the timbers of that forgotten place.    “Oh, Peter, I’m being a bit of girl, aren’t I?”

“You’ve been badly frightened…”

“I’m not really like this!  I’m not!”

“It’s a reaction and it’s natural, love.  You don’t have to prove anything to me.”

“My hero!    You did a sort of Superman thing.  You saved me, didn’t you?”  Lesley brushed back dust-clogged hair so she could look up at him with eyes that shone through the tears,  He knew then that she had not missed his use of that old four-letter word but he was not about to take it back, so he licked a patch of her forehead clean and kissed it.

“Personally, I’m very glad you are a girl.  It makes you lighter to catch.  Somehow, though, we’ve got to get cleaned up, or they’ll never let us back on the train.”

They were masked in dust.  Lesley beamed white teeth.  “I don’t think we passed a laundrette.  We need water.”  She wrinkled her nose up at the horse trough; “No, not that!” The flies buzzed appreciatively, “Come on, let’s explore.”  

Arm-in-arm the pair limped in the direction of the only land they had not investigated thus far, that of the great park beyond the stables.  This offered them instant reward with the pleasantly tranquil prospect of a lake complete with reeds and waterfowl, presided over in gallant dereliction by a row of stone statues.  A bank of wild flowers and herbs led down to the water’s edge, basking in the hot sun.

They turned to face one another.  Lesley, who seemed to have shed her unselfconscious manners for the afternoon, shuffled awkwardly, “Well?”   She murmured.

“Well,”   Peter felt equally awkward.  “You first?”

“Not likely!”

“Together then.”

“Yeah…together.”

“’Course, we don’t have to, like, take off everything, do we?”  Peter said.  “We can keep the small stuff on.”

“Yes, of course!  Keep the smalls! No worse than the beach, yeah?”   Lesley agreed, trying to remind herself what ‘smalls’ she had put on that morning, and adding under her breath, “Mine are full of grit, or something.”

“Right then!”   Peter hooked his thumbs under the hem of his t-shirt and slipped it over his head, then Lesley did the same with her camisole top and it took him longer to recover.

She was already unhooking her jeans when she caught his stare;   “What?   It’s a bra, innit?   Are you seriously repressed?”  Peter was speechless, unable to avert his eyes from diaphanous fragments of cloth that revealed far more than they concealed.   Suddenly, the after-shock of her fall came back to Lesley:  suddenly she was shy, shaking and unsure, and she drew her arms across her chest:  “What’s the matter – haven’t you ever seen…?”

“Not yours.  Not you.”    He was in the presence of beauty that was new to him.  She overwhelmed his senses so, that seeing her quaking and apart from him, he could not do other than reach out; for hands, for arms, for shoulders, taking her to himself.  She did not resist.  For a long while, neither spoke – a while in which her shivering found calm in the warmth of his body; and for a long while neither moved, other than to comfort and caress.

At last, when he dared trust himself to speak, Peter murmured in her ear, “Should we…?”

And she kissed his neck before she answered, very simply; “If you want.”

He had never wanted anything more in his life.

Later, much later, when early evening was taking the last heat from the sun, Peter woke from a sleep of peace.    He looked across to his left and there Lesley lay naked beside him, still sleeping.  Amazed, he studied the perfect face of innocence, unlined by guilt or sorrow or time, which nestled in that white-straw nest of hair, and he made a promise to himself that he would never betray that beauty.  With a frond of thyme, he gently traced the arc of her forehead, followed the profile of her nose, brushed across her lips.

Lesley twitched and opened an eye.   “Hiya!  She whispered:  “Who are you?”

“I was about to ask the same.  I just thought you might know the time, ‘cause my ‘phone’s dead.   I think it’s wet.”

She snorted:  “Really?   You’re surprised?”  She hoisted herself onto her elbows. Before rolling across his chest to rummage in the grass for her ‘phone:   “Oh, Peter?  What time’s the train back?”

“Six-fifteen, I think.”

“Do you know what the time is now?”

Hastily they collected the clothes that they had somehow found space from each other to wash in the lake, then spread upon those warm stone statues to dry.   They forced themselves, laughing, into their still damp jeans.   Peter, the quicker to dress, sat pruriently watching Lesley smooth unwilling denim over her long legs, listening as she lamented her wild hair. 

One older than he might have remarked how his eyes, his ears, his thoughts were all consumed by her: how he hardly spared a parting thought for the estate he had envisaged so often, and come so far to see.   In exchange he had a new far greater discovery than those old stones could ever yield, so he would not care. Yet somehow he had expected something of Crowley House that was missing, although he could not be certain what it was.  Perhaps Lesley had discovered it in his stead; in a tomb she had found by who knew what guidance, and in a mysterious box with a new tale to tell.  If he had not shared her emotive connection to that cold place, he had seen how profoundly it affected her.

   No ghosts lingered.    The house was just a ruin, tottering on the verge of demolition.  The grounds were ill-drained, weed-strewn and forgotten.   Only the trees retained any secrets:   he tore his eyes from his prettily disarranged companion to look across at the tall sentinel elms that hid this park from the civilised world, as if  they might just have something to say:  but they remained silent.   Not even a newly-risen breeze could ruffle them.

A flash of reflected sunlight from deep within those trees caught his eye.  He looked again and – yes – there it was; a momentary flicker, now gone.

“Come on, Les, let’s go.”   He felt uneasy:  “We’ll miss that train.”

They inspected each other for any mud that had escaped the washing process.

“Look at us!”  Lesley said brightly:  “Two scarecrows!  Will they let us on, do you think?”

The statues, which in their role as clothes-horses had suffered a final ignominy, watched them leave.

On the journey home Peter and Lesley sat together, her head against his shoulder, half-sleeping as the miles rushed past.   And Peter asked again, because hecould see Lesley had recovered from her experience in the vault, how she could be so certain the broken casket had contained a little boy, and she answered, from the edge of sleep:  “Because I held him in my arms.  Just for a second I held him, Peter.  One day I’ll find him again.  I will!”

© 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.