Page 3 of 168

The Newquay Train

The text read:  ‘You must come and see this’.  

Lambert came.

That was in 2014, when Tamsyn and he had been searching for a house in a rural setting near Tamsyn’s childhood home for nearly two years.  Property after property had failed to meet their exacting needs, whether by reason of location, size or simple character, so when Tamsyn’s latest find hove into view around the corner of a quiet country lane, Lambert was ready to be persuaded.

“It’s an odd shape.”  Lambert commented.  “Familiar, somehow.”

“It’s a railway station,”  Tamsyn told him.  “Not now, of course, but once.  I think it’s beautiful!”

There was, Lambert conceded, something very plucky and brave about the white rendered façade of ‘Brueburn Halt’, although he would have hesitated to call it beautiful. 

“No rails, they took them up years ago, but you get your very own station platform!”  The estate agent enthused, standing on it, “Endless potential!”  He added, failing to be specific.

“My question is why?”  demanded Lambert,  “Why a station, here?  There isn’t a village for miles.”

“It is odd,”  Tamsyn agreed  “I grew up not a dozen miles from here, yet I don’t recall this station.  I imagine the line was closed before I was born, so I can’t answer you, I’m afraid.  Seeing it yesterday was like it was the first time, you know?”  

Within its doors, Brueburn Halt was a dusty time capsule, wood cracked and peeling, festoons of wallpaper in patterns and colours long forgotten shredded from its walls.  In the darkness behind its boarded windows Lambert sniffed at rising damp like a terrier, poked at plaster, winced at damp ceilings, quailed at the single foetid bathroom.

“It’ll need to be completely gutted.  Are you sure you want this, Tams?”

Tamsyn floated balletically from room to room.  “Yes, oh, yes!  We must have it, my sweetest – we must!”

“The house has been empty for two years,” The agent, a little square man, lowered his voice confidentially, “The old lady who owned it went a tiny bit do-lally in the end; used to sit outside on the platform day and night, rain or shine.  Said she was waiting for a train.  A train!  No rails, see?  They took her into care in the end, I believe.  Big white van – you know?”

“We know.”  Lambert assured him.  “I’ll put in an offer.”  He added.

Lambert honoured his pledge to ‘gut’ Brueburn Halt.  Extensions mushroomed, courtyards were paved, bathrooms proliferated like sanitary rabbits; worktops of black marble glittered in programmable lighting, windows widened, doors deepened:  no swatch of expensive fabric was left unconsidered.  Lambert did not lack sentimentality, though: through it all, the old station platform remained untouched.

There was more, you see, between Lambert and Tamsyn than could be defined in years, although the generally accepted twenty-five was certainly a disparity worth reckoning.  A banking millionaire, Lambert took pride in his wife’s beauty and admired how approaching middle age had not dimmed the child in her; her elegance, her grace – in fact, he was obsessed by her. Tamsyn, prima ballerina for one of the world’s finest ballet ensembles was his pearl beyond price. 

Loved her?  No, not that.  Valued her?  Certainly.

At those social occasions so important to Lambert’s profession Tamsyn’s radiance would draw the rich and influential unfailingly to her flame.  She raised his profile, as she would put it, above the other hippos in the wallow.  When she first met him, Lambert had been rich; with her tutelage he had become very, very rich.  Now, ready in his advancing years to retire, he was gratified when Tamsyn likewise expressed a wish to hang up her pointe shoes – and return to the countryside of her childhood.

It did not occur to her septuagenarian husband that Tamsyn’s retirement idyll might seek to replicate the simplicity and innocence of those formative years.  He could think of her cradled in none but the most perfectly satin-lined nest.  If the confines of Brueburn Halt were smaller than those to which he was accustomed, there was no reason it could not equal the sumptuousness of, say, their St. John’s Wood apartment or their summer villa at Cannes.  If she showed dissent (as from time to time she did) at his lavish tastes he scarcely regarded it, even rather liked it.  Financial despot that he was, he enjoyed a little combative friction – and he always won.

This is not to say Tamsyn was ungrateful.  She claimed to be impressed by the refreshed appearance of ‘Brueburn’ (Lambert had dropped the ‘Halt’, thinking it inappropriate), professing enthusiasm for their shared future in this peaceful spot.

“Oh, Lamby, we shall grow old here, together!”

 And if Lambert had not caught her in this room or that within the house now and then, standing alone and quite still, her expression pensive, her eyes clouded and remote, he might have believed.  Yes, she assured him, the quirkiness of the surviving station platform amused her, the open pathway of the old track bed awakened thoughts in her of long country walks with dogs, she said.  Lambert raised an eyebrow – he had not considered there might be dogs.

Of course there were no dogs, no Tamsyn, either.  If the idyll of retirement seduced her, Brueburnquickly palled.  Party season on the Riviera beckoned, and when that bored her, London society demanded her presence.  She was still, she insisted, in demand professionally.   Much the same could be said of Lambert, whose declared intention to ‘retire’ presented many challenges.   Brueburn languished; St. John’s Wood was so much more convenient.

“I don’t feel comfortable, there,” Tamsyn eventually confided to friends when she spoke of Brueburn.  “One imagines one can relive one’s past, doesn’t one, whereas truthfully one cannot?  Too much has changed.”  And with a vapid sigh:  “For the better, one must suppose….”

Throughout the summer of 2016 Brueburn remained shuttered and deserted.  Come autumn, Lambert decided to place the old station house back on the market.  One late September day he drove from London with this in mind. 

Lambert arrived at ‘Brueburn’ to find its doors already opened, the climate turned on, and his music system playing a coloratura piece from Lakme, one of Tasmyn’s favoured operas.  At first these things seemed to suggest – in fact they spawned the  hope – that his partner had preceded him, although as far as he knew she was still in London, where she was expecting him to re-join her in a couple of days.  But though he explored the much-altered station house from end to end, he found no-one.  A mystery then.  At length he decided Mrs Broadbent, who cleaned the house once each week, must have made these preparations for his coming. He contented himself with that tenuous explanation, poured himself a drink before venturing outside onto the old platform.  Here he rested, as he had hoped to do more often, immersing himself in the sounds of rustling leaves and the drying wind of the season.

Some minutes elapsed before he saw her.   Further along the platform, on an old railway bench that had escaped his notice hitherto, a girl in a printed cotton dress sat reading a paper-backed book.   

  Lambert approached her, though not unkindly, “Hello, young lady.”  The platform was part of his private property but she might not know, after all; why should she?  “What brings you here?”

Wordlessly, without lifting her eyes a moment from her book, the girl extended a hand in which she held, pinched between her forefinger and thumb, a small, green ticket.

Lambert stared at it.

“Don’t you want to clip this?”  The girl asked in a thin voice.

Intrigued, Lambert took the little piece of cardboard from from her hand.  It was stamped third class for Newquay, and dated September 24th, 1949.  “Where did you get this?”  He asked, in a tone less certain than before.

The girl inclined her head towards the house.  “Ticket office.  D’you want to clip it, mister?”

“No, you keep it.”  Lambert passed the ticket back to her.  And he found himself saying:  “They’ll clip it on the train.”  He stepped back, suddenly finding the intimacy of the space repelling and certain in the knowledge he was not wanted there.  Leaving his intended lecture concerning trespass unsaid, he retreated to the drink he had abandoned on the platform’s edge.  When he turned to look again, the girl had gone.

“Describe her to me.”  The estate agent said, when he came to estimate ‘Brueburn’ for resale.

“About thirteen, brown hair, thin and quite pale.  Tall, for her age, probably.  I didn’t see her standing up.  Cheap white cotton dress with a red print.  Roses, I think.”

The agent thought for a moment, then shook his head.  “Nope.  I don’t know anyone like that.  Local kid, though, prob’ly; I can’t know them all.  Do you mind if I have a quick look around?  You’ve done so much to the place…”

Instead of returning to London as he had planned, Lambert ‘phoned his partner.  “Tassy darling, I’ll be staying down here for a couple more days, can you manage without me?”

Tasmyn sounded piqued.   “Sweetie, you know I need to give Rory some answers.  He doesn’t have backing, and I promised him you would make up any shortfall.”

“Is this about Le Corsair?  It’s a classical ballet – surely he can’t be begging in the streets for finance.  Why do I need to become involved?”

“The subject matter is a little controversial.  I don’t think it’s been performed here for years, which is why I want to do it.”

“What do you mean, precious; you ‘want to do it’?  I thought we’d promised each other, no more leads.”

“And we had. Oh, Lamb, I have never danced Medora, it’ll be the last, I promise…”

“I think you’d better come down here.  Wrap things up as soon as you can.  I’m going to need some substantial persuasion.”

“Oh, dear – are you, Lamby?  I shall have to do my very, very best.  You’ll wait for me?  You won’t go jetting off somewhere?”

To curtail a syrup of endearments, Lambert switched off his ‘phone.  He was disquieted by events in the latter days of Tasmyn’s career, as it became evident that her talents were falling from favour and he was repeatedly asked to paper over the financial cracks.  A full-scale classic ballet promised to be rather more than a crack.  He pondered his decision to sell Brueburn afresh.  Maybe this was the time to insist their mutual retirement pledges be put into action. 

She was there again, the girl.  He came out onto the platform expecting to see her:  the same dress, the same paperback book; the same ticket?

She looked up, her intense green eyes meeting his.  “You keep pestering me,” she said.

“You’re on my property,” he replied; and when she gave no response:  “What’s your name?”

“I don’t know as I should tell you, old man comin’ after young girls, and that,”  She retorted.  “Crim’nal, that is.”  She returned to her book.  “I’m Janice, Janice Brathwaite.  My dad’ll come after you.  He’s fierce, my  dad.”

“Well, Janice, you’re trespassing.”

“I’m not.  I’m waitin’ for a train.”

Lambert felt as if he was struggling against something – a weight of atmosphere surrounded the girl.  “There are no trains anymore, Janice; the tracks are gone, do you see?  There’s no ticket office, because the station’s my house, now.”

“I’m goin’ to London.”  

“Your ticket – the one you showed me yesterday  – that said you were going to Newquay.”

The girl rounded on him, her voice rising to a scream.  “LONDON.  T’is LONDON I’M GOING!”

Lambert found himself being blown backward as if by a gale.  The pressure to put distance between himself and the girl was irresistible.  He turned and almost ran back to the shelter of his house with Janice’s voice screeching after him every step of the way.  “LONDON! LONDON!  LONDON!”

Only when he was safely indoors did he look back up the platform from a staircase window. There was no sign of the girl.

Later that evening he Googled ‘Janice Braithwaite’ on his laptop, his search returning only current Facebook references and a few genealogy hits, none of which seemed to apply to a little station called Brueburn Halt, or its long-forgotten estate.  Undeterred, he found the name of the largest local newspaper and paid his way into its archives where, by refining his search to the date of Janice’s ticket, he found the news item he sought.

Railway Death

A tragic accident at Brueburn Station occurred yesterday, when a local man was hit by a train travelling to Newquay and Penzance.  The man, who appears to have fallen from the platform, was pronounced dead at the scene.  Services on the line were suspended yesterday, but are said to be running as normal this morning.  The deceased was named as Norman Talbot Braithwaite.  He leaves a wife and daughter.  Relatives have been informed.

Lambert lay awake long into the night, more than once hearing, when the night was free of other sounds, what he thought to be the thunder of a distant train  – the chuff of smoke and steam, the click-clack of carriages, the hoot of a warning whistle.   When at last he slept, he dreamt of his house as once it was – ticket office, waiting rooms and platform canopy with the tracks laid afresh and gleaming with use.  And when he woke he knew what he must do.  As soon as he had cleared his business calls he returned to the search engine.  He remained there some time.

That afternoon the girl was there, seated and reading as before.  Ignoring the forbidding aura that surrounded her, he walked right up to the seat, which was a long bench, and sat down beside her.

“Hello Janice.”  He said.   She did not reply.  “I’ve read a lot about you,”  Lambert went on.  “About the competitions you won.  You were very good, even when you were only seven or eight years old.  But that was almost seventy years ago.  How old are you, Janice?”

“Thirteen.  I’m thirteen.”   Lambert sensed a wave of antipathy – he could describe it no other way – pushing against him.  Janice was producing her ticket again.  “I’m waiting for my train.  I’m going to London.”

“Your ticket says Newquay.”

“Then it’s wrong.  WRONG!  I’m going to LONDON!”

“Don’t excite yourself, girl.”  Lambert told her, resisting the urge to retreat, no matter how strong it became.  “Why don’t we talk about the first time you came here?”

“Nothing to say.” The full weight of Janice’s will thrust at Lambert, physically moving him away.

“You came with your Dad, didn’t you?” As if at the turn of a key, he felt Janice’s resistance suddenly stop.  She got to her feet, and stood wide-eyed, staring down at him.  He looked her up and down, the slight figure in her cotton dress, and he knew.  He was certain. “Your Dad was taking you to school in Newquay, but you didn’t want to go to school, did you?  You wanted to go to London to begin doing the thing you loved and to make a living from it – even at such a tender age you knew you could do that.”

“But he wouldn’t let you, would he?  It was a spur of the moment thing.  No sign of the ticket clerk, few people on the platform, the train rolling in.  You were so gifted at judgement of balance it took only the slightest push, might not have seemed deliberate at all.  He didn’t fall beneath those wheels, Janice, you pushed him.”

“Pushed him.”  The girl repeated the words slowly, rolling them around in her head.  “Pushed him.”

Satisfied, Lambert turned and walked away.  That was why she returned here, he told himself.  He didn’t know how often she was doomed to re-enact that dreadful day – he didn’t care.  She was no more than an empty ghost to him now.  When he turned around, she would be gone.  And she was.

The hour had turned six when Tamsyn’s car rolled onto the forecourt of ‘Brueburn’ and its svelte, exquisitely coiffured driver emerged to Lambert’s effusive greeting.  “Tams, my sweet love, you have no idea how lonely I’ve been!”

“Oh, Lamb, I’m so sorry!  I had the most dreadful, dreadful drive!  The traffic, my dearest!  But are you well?  You sounded so serious on the ‘phone.”

“Never better my sweet, never better!  We have serious matters to discuss.   It’s an enchanting evening, so when you have quite recovered come and join me on the platform:  I’ll have your Moscow Mule dressed and ready.”

Very well, my dear, if I must.  Although even the platform is somehow a little bit disturbing. One does one’s absolute best to love it here, doesn’t one?  I shall be with you in a trice!”

Tasmyn’s ‘trices’ were usually on the long side, so Lambert was well prepared by the time she floated from Brueburn’s interior garbed in yards of expensive silk.  “I’ve made an effort for you, darling, you see?”  She shuddered.  “Oh, god, this place gives me the creeps!  Why on earth did we imagine we might ever live here?”

“We did not make that decision,”  Lambert replied mysteriously,  “We were invited and we came.  You look so very beautiful tonight, my dear: if beauty were ever eternal it would find its home in you.”

“Lamby, what a sweet thing to say.”  Tasmyn’s eyes squinted against the evening sun,  “You didn’t tell me we had a guest?”

“Ah, the girl!  You can see her too.  I’m so glad, I thought I was going slightly insane.  She’s our resident ghost, Tasmyn.  Come and meet her – she’s quite memorable.”

“Memorable – whatever do you mean?  I’m not in the mood to socialise, dearest, especially with a ghost, if that’s what she is.  She looks rather too substantial, to me.  Anyway, I do believe she’s coming to meet us.”  Tamsyn’s eyes, wanting glasses she would never wear, narrowed.  “What’s her name?  She looks oddly familiar…”

“She does?”  The distance between the two females was now no more than a dozen yards.  Both stopped.  Disbelief was reflected on each of their faces.  Lambert; he had to believe.  He had known that afternoon, when the girl got to her feet; now, walking and standing, her turned out hips were too obvious.  “Tams, my darling, you should have told me your real name.”

There were times, Lambert had learned, when the truth defies rational explanation.  He had travelled widely and seen enough to know this to be true. 

“Lambert, what have you done to me?”  Tasmyn’s voice pleaded.  “What have you done?”

“I’ve brought you to face your past.”

No further words were spoken.  The two figures stepped towards each other and embraced.  And when the embrace was ended, only one very old woman stood on the platform at Brueburn Halt.  As she wavered and seemed she might fall, Lambert came to her, supporting her.  From her quivering fingers he took a small, green ticket.

“You won’t be needing this now.”  He said.

© 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

Blackbird

Of all the seasons. Spring in England is the most capricious.  Not that I don’t love a bit of caprice – I do – but she can get a bit wearing sometimes.  She never tires of invention and sometimes, well, you just yearn for a little permanence, you know?

Anyway, to put you in the right mood (you may have to turn your volume up a bit) I’ve popped in an anthem from a feathered tenant.  He requested it.  He has dreams of Spotify.   I’d like to say he is a trouble-free occupant of Stalagbaybush 23, but don’t let the dulcet tones fool you.   When he’s got his kids on the ground he’s murder!  He hides them under a leaf, or the shed, or anything else he imagines will provide cover because they can’t fly, and he doesn’t seem to know how to give lessons.   Then he flies around the place screaming his head off at anything or anyone he imagines might come near:

“I’ve got my kid on the ground!   He’s scrawny and he’s got no feathers so leave him alone!”

And of course the cat at number forty-two pricks up her ears, and promises herself she’ll take a look over there after lunch,

After twenty-four hours or so of non-stop hysteria my over-diligent parent’s screeching subsides.  Of the scrawny youth there is no sign – it has left us, though whether in the glory of flight or in the throat of the cat from number forty-two I have no way of knowing.   Just occasionally I will see a semi-feathered lump perched on my fence, beak opened demandingly while his father, who now looks smaller than he, pumps him with ‘special treats’, so I guess the family has known success.

I cannot claim, any more than my Blackbird friend can, that April has been a mellow month:  seventeen frosts to start our days, where ‘usually’ (I like that word when describing English weather) we might expect seven.  Rainy days?  Few, or none.  By afternoon the garden, like my Blackbird friend, is in full song; rich in the verdant greens of emerging youth, bright with colour, loud with bees, hoverflies and an elderly wasp who doesn’t seem to have learned his place.   The sun is not fierce, but it is warm enough.  There’s a chair, and a whisky waiting because I am that lucky man whose wife is a fanatical gardener.   She can take pleasure in creating life and I can spare the odd moment to watch.  

For the Blackbird, for every creature in Spring the emergent garden, the burgeoning heath is a place of business.  For me, it is a chance to listen, a season to enjoy however exhausting are those occasional rain-pursued retreats.  The life of the early season is a testament to youth that brings back to me the garden of my childhood home, the garden I described in ‘Hallbury Summer’, a book I serialized here a year or two ago.  There is no stream to burble by, where I am living now, no ‘pop’ of water-voles, few dragonflies; but the sounds, they are the same, the scents never change, and my sheer joy in the annual miracle is as fresh now, as it ever was.

Satan’s Rock

Part Four

An Invitation

Petergunn2:   Hi Mel!  

Melatrix:     Hi Babes – feeling better?

Petergunn2:  Yeah – sorreeee.

Melatrix:    Cool!   Favour 4 me?  JJJ?

Petergunn2:  Ask and it shall b given – if it doesn’t cost me.

Melatrix:    Remember that photo I took of u?   On the prom last Easter?   Can u mail it me?  I have some ideas.

Petergunn2:   WHAT ideas?

Melatrix:     OK, don’t worry then.   Like I care?

Petergunn:   Yeah, right. Look in your inbox.  And Mel?  Don’t give me lizard feet this time!

Melatrix:     Ta babes.

In the privacy of her room Melanie could, and sometimes did, cry hopelessly in those weeks and months when she knew her mum and dad were preparing to part.   Peter helped her.  He had a way of making the day easier to face.  When her father finally left and she missed him and the things she had share only with him, she told Peter those things, and Peter found the words to comfort her.  Tonight, as she played idly with the picture of her friend, morphing his image this way and that, she was reaching a time in her life when she was beginning to wonder just how important he was to her.    

#

Peter had no idea what thoughts drew him across the causeway towards the rock on the morning following his exams.  A prospect of two free periods at class would not be justification enough, nor would the wafted guitar music announcing that Vincent, the Rock’s incumbent mansion owner was at home, have sufficed.  Faint strains from a succession of old songs, they were, middle-of-the-road stuff from the sixties and seventies:  “Brown Sugar”, “Maggie May”, “Aquarius”: they had a magical quality, so that when the final notes died away there was a feeling of loss,  but they would still have failed to turn his feet in their direction.  He had heard them too often.

If he tried to form a picture in his head of the ageing rock star who played them, perched up there on the ramparts of Crowley’s fantasy castle, the images were faded and confused.  They lacked the clarity of his younger years when Vincent had first come to Levenport.  Then he had lain in bed at night for wakeful hours, just imagining.  This morning his academic prospects, the pictures of his future, concerned him more.   Yet here he was.  Why?

It had seemed no time at all before he came upon that seagull.  It had perched, motionless, with one wing partly extended, on a piece of driftwood sticking out of the sand, apparently sunning itself.   The diamond-mark was clearly visible on its neck, the same hard eye watching him as he wandered toward it.

“You liked the music?”  Asked the seagull.

“You’re not real.”  Peter accused him.

“I said, darling chap,” The gull repeated slowly; “Did you like his music?”

The words are forming inside my head, Peter thought.  Is this how schizophrenia starts?

“It’s all right, dear, you don’t have to speak if you don’t want to;” the seagull said testily.  “He wants to meet you.  Come on!”  

And with a few lazy wing-beats it was sky-borne, arrowing through wheeling flocks of its brethren towards the rock. There were a hundred gulls over the bay that morning yet the bird’s identity was never in doubt, for while the others dived, turned, soared upon the breeze, the diamond gull’s direction never varied.   When it perched, a tiny white fleck, atop one of those ludicrous Bavarian towers, Peter saw it clearly, even fancied it may be beckoning to him:  the words “Come – now!” rattled in his head with jangling insistence.

“Alright – I’m coming!   Shut up!”  He reprimanded the bird, forming the words in his mind.

“Oh!   Hissy-fits now!   So sorry!”

What?

So without real justification other than an imagined conversation with a seabird he found himself wandering through a hamlet of fishermen’s cottages that adorned the man-made platform at the foot of St Benedict’s Rock.  The builders of The House had created this platform to assist their labours:  the cottages had sprouted like fungi from it after the carpenters, the masons and the forgemasters left.   Once, the fisher people had populated its quay with boats.  Just two remained, scarcely seaworthy fishing smacks, their rotting hulls slapping and gurgling in the oily water.

 Throughout all of his sixteen years Peter had come to the island maybe five times.   The aggressive wildlife which inhabited the place was kept in check by Levenport’s council; its lurid history of warriors and monks with pagan rites was largely forgotten.  There were holiday lets on the rock, although, perhaps because it was so far removed from the hub of the town, tenancies were rare.   Certainly a necrotic air hung about the tiny houses with their peeling paint, clustered mushroom-like around echoing back-lanes. The rock frowned darkly overhead, depriving them of sun.   Lichens dripped in the cold dampness.   An unkempt dog snuffled by.

Peter, (already doubting the moment of unhinged reason that had brought him here), strode quickly through the little street, anxious to be free of its chill.   But if he had hoped for better from the road which ascended the rock itself he was to be disappointed; for although the narrow path that had long ago led teetering Benedictines to their lofty cells had been widened, burrowing in places into, and in one case through, the sheer basalt, the ocean breeze howled icily of ghosts of the past, dredging up shuddering memories of misery and murder from resources within Peter’s mind.   Around each new bend shades of marauding Vikings lurked: cold monks drifted by, their empty faces set in grim smiles: Quimple the mad architect’s flailing body plummeted past on its fatal fall.

Three small dwellings clung to the landward side of the rock, optimistic summer rents – no-one would winter here.  The first, a fresh-painted Hobbit House, leaned precariously from amid a tangle of greenery, bushes planted in imported earth which made some attempt to soften the stark angles of the stone.   Above it, on the opposite side of the road, two further hovels had fared less well.   Wedged against the rock itself, they awaited final destruction with roofs agape and walls crazed by ominous cracks.   Black windows, their glass long gone, stared sightlessly towards the shore.  It was many summers since anyone had sacrificed their vacation to these.

After climbing westward for almost a half-mile Crowley’s road cut through the rock in a tunnel sufficiently high for a coach and horses, with coachmen aloft in the prevailing fashion, to pass. Dim electricity lit this burrow from algae-green lantern glass recessed in the walls. Peter hurried through, fearful of the shadows it contained and a little revolted by the very specific graffiti daubed over its sides.

Emerging from the tunnel he might have thought of  himself as entering a different dimension. The island’s south side was brighter, sunnier.  Here the road turned first south, then east, rising upon a gentler slope through wild meadow with trees below him to his right, among which were several compact cottages, all well cared-for and one or two obviously occupied.   As he walked by the front yard of one of these a little girl was engrossed in a kind of skipping game: she grinned at him as he passed – a pretty, vacant grin that somehow spoke of more than greeting.  He scuffed his shoes, a self-conscious “hello” playing around in his throat. A little way behind the houses, screened from the  road by trees, the land fell away in great cliffs to the sea. Above the road on the left clumps of wild rhododendron obscured Peter’s view of the summit and the house which topped it.  Further up, at the road’s final turn, a solitary white-washed cottage was the only sign of habitation.  It was a really small house, maybe one room upstairs and one down, with a lean-to shed on the back.   Gingham curtains in the windows spoke of bygones, their torn dirtiness told of neglect.   A tin bath, an axe, several garden tools hung along the lean-to wall in an orderly rank, though, and the large garden running downhill from the rear was well cared for.

“Now what be you doing ‘ere?”   The voice was amiable and slow, but it alarmed Peter enough to stop him in his tracks.

“I’m going to The House.” He turned to address a full-figured man standing at the cottage door, regarding him with a bland expression.   He noticed with passing interest that the man had no trousers on.

“Are you now!”   This wasn’t a question.   The man hoisted at sagging, stripey underpants.   “What makes you think you can go there?”

Peter thought quickly.  “I’m invited;” he said – which was true in part, at least.

“Are you now!”   The man repeated.  “Who do you be, then?   You got an ‘ppointment?”

“I was asked to come this morning,” He refrained from admitting his invitation had been issued by a seagull.  “I’m Peter Cartwright.”

The man was silent for a moment, while he appeared to chew upon something: ‘Maybe I disturbed his lunch’,   Peter thought.

“Are you now!   Peter Cartwright, eh?”  Peter got ready to run.

“Well, you carry on now, young Peter, you’m expected, you are.   Tell them at the gate they’re to let you past.  Tell ‘em Toby said so.”   The man turned to re-enter his cottage, adding for information: “I’m Toby.”

Toby closed the cottage door behind him, leaving Peter rather wishing he had not seen the back of those underpants. 

Expected?  How could he be ‘expected’ when really a spur-of-a-moment decision was all that had brought him here?   Did that remarkable bird talk in the heads of other people too?   Peter considered himself a logical sort of person, not given to impulses, and this was just so, so impulsive of him!   Perhaps if he turned back, now…

But he had come so far; and if he did turn back, well, then he would forgo the very slender chance, if he somehow was invited, to meet the wild guitarist whose sounds filled him with so many special feelings,and to get to see the inside of The Great House, the Crowley House, a place he had ached to explore ever since he was a small child.   Hidden still from his sight, he nonetheless knew that the gatehouse was just around the next bend.   So, gathering his courage, and with the feeling that his whole life was approaching an irrevocable moment of change, he walked on.

The gatehouse had lost its three Imperial Russian domes the night old Crowley died: one completely removed by the storm, the others unsafe and demolished shortly afterward.   They had never been replaced, so what now stood before Peter, whilst imposing enough, was a gatehouse of relatively modest and sober proportions, where a moderately modest and sober gatekeeper waited for him behind a pair of modern wrought-iron gates.   This smiling, fully-trousered figure greeted Peter with a friendly: “Hello old boy, what brings you to us?”   He sounded like he had been an officer in the army, but his hair would have better befitted a roadie.   “Can I announce you?”

“Hello, I’m Peter.”  Said Peter, feeling somewhat reassured:  “Toby says you’re to let me through.”

“Righto!”  The gatekeeper picked up a telephone from a box on the wall, waiting for a second or two before the line opened at the other end, then saying: “Vincent, someone quite youthful called Peter is here…”   He glanced in Peter’s direction, whispering: “Peter who?”

“Cartwright.”

“Peter Cartwright.  Are you expecting him?”

The voice from the other end was an explosion of sound, which the gatekeeper, with a chuckle, played six inches from his ear.

“You can go on up;” he told Peter, “I think he’s going to like you.”

Beyond the gate, a driveway led through a walled garden with perfectly trimmed lawns to the house itself, a brick-built curved regency façade of three storeys with rows of high windows to welcome the sun.   Its walls were crenulated at roof level, as if to repel some enemy or another, while at each end the slim rocket-tubes of Bavarian towers sprouted like forced asparagus.   Splurged exuberantly into the centre of the facing wall were the great black timber doors of the house, twelve feet in height; these in turn dwarfed by a huge arch, inset with carving and glass of every imaginable colour.   Peter had never seen this view of St. Benedict’s House, which his father dismissed as a ‘half-arsed mosque’, and had to search for his own description of its outlandish marriage of styles.   ‘Disney plays Royal Crescent’ was all he could come up with.

He had almost reached the doors at the centre of the Arabian Arch when, with a clank of metal which made him jump and a somewhat musical grinding noise which made him cringe, they swung open.

         Before him a vaulted hallway of palatial proportions rose to the building’s full height, culminating in a vast dome of glass.   To right and left the sides of this space were formed by the galleried ends of each floor of the house, linked at their further extremity to a perfectly oval glass stairway, railed with chrome, which ascended to each landing in turn.   Central to the back wall, behind the stairs, a huge portrait of a rock star playing on a darkened stage exuded Vincent Harper’s presence: and in the centre of the pink marble floor of the hall stood the man himself.

“Peter! Mate!  Are we glad to see you!  I was beginning to think you wasn’t coming, you know?”

© 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 picture by Mohb Zuber Seifi from Pixabay

Guitarist by Clk-Free Vector Imaging from Pixabay