Satan’s Rock

Part twenty-Six

Hostages

Fate?   If asked, it is doubtful Melanie could have explained the motives which were guiding her – why it was, for instance, she had wandered down to Seaborough’s fish quay the previous morning, rather than just taking a shorter stroll on the beach: or why she had boarded the trawler so willingly, or why, be he ever so scary, she had not been perturbed by having her personal goods confiscated by the smartly-dressed man.

Was she aware that, to the rest of the world, she had been abducted?    Almost certainly.   Did she care that Karen and Bianca would be distraught?   Of course – although youth never truly appreciates the anxieties of the old:  in her present frame of mind there were higher priorities than appeasing her own mother’s lack of confidence in her.   Bianca was of less concern.   In the moil of feelings surrounding her break-up with Peter, Bianca had not been the life-line she at first promised to be.  Seaborough was not the haven it had appeared.   Melanie had disliked it almost on sight: and the condescension her aunt had shown her, the reluctance of welcome, did nothing to affirm its virtues or relieve her torment.

The nature of the ache inside her was something she did not understand.  Although she and Peter had been great friends for longer than she could remember they were both too young to have been lovers, in the semse she assumed the word to imply.   She had never been close to Peter in any other sense than companionship, never held him to her, or kissed him, although she had wanted to.   So she had expected sadness at their parting, perhaps, a gap in her life that would prove hard to fill; but not a yawning pit of black misery, a sense of total loss:  and no, not the ravening, all-consuming jealousy she harboured for Lesley.   Lesley who had been her friend, Lesley who had betrayed her!    Either she had repressed a deep and obsessive longing for Peter, a hunger which now broke out in her heart, malign and growing like a cancer, or there was something else; something other.   Perhaps, just perhaps, Peter had been right:  perhaps she could never turn her back on her unwanted ‘gift’ and it was driving her helplessly along.   Perhaps it was pushing her forward even now.

Right now she was cold, so cold!   And missing her mobile ‘phone, with which, forgoing all pride, she would have called Peter just for the warm comfort of hearing his voice.   The wind was gathering force, playing through the stone orifice of the tunnel as if it were a reed, with a whistling insistence that it might turn her to stone, too, if it wished.   Agnes’ hastening arm dripped as it steered her towards daylight beyond.    What would she find there – a path to take her away from the sea, she hoped, with maybe some form of transport waiting at its end – certainly not the prospect that did await her.   What she saw drew a shivering gasp of surprise.

The tunnel emerged from the cliff onto a flat, wide shelf, already slick with rain.   Melanie assumed that its margins dropped straight to the sea, for she could hear a swell breaking against it, just below her sight.   But it was the further prospect which took her aback: for she stood at the margin of a small bay; no more than a quarter of a mile across and perfectly semi-circular, its periphery traced by a narrow crescent of sand.  This little beach, complete with short jetty and bobbing row-boat, formed the seaward end of a densely-wooded chine, nestling among the first trees of which was a villa,  a timber-clad house painted green with a wide roof and colonial-style veranda facing the sea.   This in itself seemed remarkable, like a scene drawn from another, much warmer, place: maybe even another time.   Yet more impressive was the contrast which one short bore-hole through a cliff had affected:  a transition from wildness to calm, from malevolence to beauty.   Melanie felt moved enough to cry.

Agnes, clumping wetly, herded her quaking charge down a narrow track of clay fringed with wild Campion to saturate her denim-clad legs even more, if that were possible.   Upon closer examination the house was a structure much larger than it had at first appeared.   As their path followed the curve of the bay, it brought into view a driveway and a parked Land Rover, looking as depressed and soggy as Melanie.   Now that solace seemed so near she shivered even more and the tears rolled from her, as she realised how much she needed warmth,  dry clothes, and food.  But what reason had she to believe this awaited her – this, or imprisonment in some cold dark room?

A simple wooden door at the rear of the house opened into a small lobby, the walls of which were lined with all manner of ephemera, from a cane fishing rod to a rather apologetic-looking lawn mower.    Here Agnes revealed herself, peeling off first the Sou’wester, then multiple layers of coats and woollies.   What remained was a woman dressed in twin-set and plaid skirt, whose scant grey hair straggled down the cheeks of an oval, middle-aged face.   Her glasses had steamed up and she removed these to expose keen, quick eyes, with which she surveyed the dripping Melanie sympathetically.

“Now, dear, it’s a hot bath for you, I think.  Come along indoors.”

‘Indoors’ was a kitchen, if the elderly gas stove at the far end was to be believed. It stood forlornly next to a large boiler on one side and a stack of lobster pots on the other, beyond a table stacked with papers of all descriptions:  catalogues, junk mail, magazines and bills.   The wooden chairs around the table were arranged as though their occupants had been warned of an earthquake.   A dusty welsh dresser, similarly overwhelmed with paperwork, and a fridge nestled uneasily together on the inside wall: a long window, its sill gathering dust and yet more papers, looked out at the Land Rover.   In all, Melanie thought, this was the sort of place her mother would have had nightmares about:  but it was warm and intimate, in a curious way, and for that she was grateful.

Agnes led her briskly on to a large hallway, then up sparsely-carpeted stairs.

“This will be your room.  There’s a bathrobe in the cupboard.   Get yourself out of those clothes while I run you a bath.”

The room, more functional than palatial, sported a comfortable-looking bed, a small plywood wardrobe and dressing table of pine.  It shared the same unpretentiously homely feeling of the kitchen:  the radiator was piping hot, so she felt no reluctance as she shed her sodden clothes beside it.   Standing before the window, cocooned into a luxuriously thick towelling robe, she could look across the little bay to open sea, now white-capped and growing a little angry, and still feel the peace of this quiet place.   It did not matter that the rain tattooed the slates above her, or battered at the window glass.  When she was shown the bathroom she knew what kind of plumbing she would find, and none of that mattered, either:  this was a place of beauty and magic, and it felt right that she was here.

Much later, after Melanie had bathed and Agnes had sated her with hot soup and sandwiches filled with something stramge but undeniably nice, they sat together in the “living room” on a faded suite amongst yet more piles of papers and books, as Agnes explained about the chilly little harbour.

“It’s an unpleasant place.

“A hundred or so years ago it was a working harbour: there’s a small fishing village at the top of the cliff.    There are many such villages up and down these coasts, where fisher people eked out their living from the sea; communities of maybe no more than a dozen families, each with a small boat of some description.”

“I suppose they couldn’t compete as fishing methods changed?”

“No, of course not: and the times have changed too.  You won’t find many of your generation wanting to live in that way.”

Melanie thought of the boy on the trawler.  How different his life must be, compared to her own.   Perhaps that was his attraction? 

 “It must have been a hard life.”

“Certainly it was.   In 1906 a storm drowned every male family member of the village – eighteen men and boys.   So the community died with them.  No-one lives there now, nor have they done for more than a century.   A place of ghosts.”

 “Why have I been brought here?”  Melanie asked.

“’Brought’ here?”    Agnes raised a quizzical eyebrow.   “Is that what really happened, dear?”

 “I was kidnapped, wasn’t I?”  Melanie’s protested. 

Her host ‘tutted’ disgustedly.   “Now is that what they did?   For shame.   You came with me willingly enough, though?”

“I was cold and wet.  I wanted to get out of the rain.”

“Ah.”  Agnes appeared to contemplate this.  “And do you want to leave, now that you are drier?”

Thinking that her answer should be truthful, Melanie said:  “No, I like it here.   But my mum will be worried, and they took my phone.   Maybe if I could just use yours?” 

Her host shook her head.  “There’s no telephone, I’m afraid.   Now, I think you have spent enough time lounging around in that bathrobe, my dear.   I’ve laid some fresh clothing out on your bed.   You go along and change, now.   I have a few errands to run.”

Climbing the stairway to her room, Melanie heard the Land Rover splutter into life in the driveway outside.   Agnes evidently felt confident to leave her alone in her house, and she had to wonder at this, if she truly was a prisoner.   But what happened next changed all of her thinking in an instant.   For she found, neatly laid out on her bed, a set of warm clothing which was entirely suitable to the climate of her current circumstances, yet at the same time exactly in tune with her fashion taste and a perfect fit – as they should have been; because they were the very clothes she had packed in expectation of cold weather when she left home in Levenport, clothes which yesterday morning had been hanging in her closet in Bianca’s house.

#

.           The last thing Howard had expected (though, if he’d thought about it the possibility must have occurred to him) was to come face to face with Peter Cartwright on the train.  Yet as he opened the door between carriages there he sat, not two metres away.  Their eyes met.   It would have been difficult to judge who jumped the highest.

“Good lord!  Peter!”    He contemplated walking on by, concluding the episode with a casual:  “Fancy meeting you here!   Have a nice trip, old son!” but decided against this.   What came out was even lamer.   “Small world, isn’t it?”

“Hello Howard.”   Of all the people Peter would have wished to meet, Karen’s large, over-effusive boyfriend was the least welcome.  What the hell was he doing here?  An enquiry would mean a conversation, a rigour endured too often where Howard was concerned.

“Job interview!”  Howard drew the excuse from thin air.  “Just testing the waters, mind; no intention of moving at the moment.”

“No.  I suppose not.”   Peter tried to sound interested.

“You?”   Howard coaxed.

“Oh!   Party!   A friend invited me to Manchester for the weekend.”

“Ah.”   The train was full, affording Howard no opportunity to sit for a lengthier encounter.  “Well, pleasant journey, then.  See you back in Levenport, yes?”

Moving awkwardly along the central aisle, he suppressed a desire to break into a run,  something difficult to achieve on a fast-moving passenger service.   Safe in his seat, he spoke quietly and urgently to his mobile.   “He’s here!   On the train!”

“A little late, now, mate.”  Piggott’s reply was harsh. “But at least he’s found.  Now all we have to do is lift him.”

Howard was astounded.  Now?  Here?  Gathering himself, he said:  “O.K.  Do you want me to do it?”

“No!  No way!  I want you back in Levenport, acting the frantic step-parent.   Our line is elopement with the Fenton girl; but that means he mustn’t reach home, so I’m going to have to organise something quick.   What’s your last station before Levenport, do you know?

“Hemlington, I think.”

“We’ll pick him up there.   I’ll need to know which carriage he’s in – but Howard?”

“Yes, Jerry?”

“You stay out of it, right?  We must keep your cover intact.  If the boy realises whose side you’re on, we’ve lost a valuable lever.  Stay out of the way.”

An hour later, four minutes from Hemlington, Howard told his seated neighbour that he felt travel sick, requesting he sit by the train window for a while.  Fortunately for him the woman concerned willingly agreed.   He settled into the corner of the seat, covered his face with a newspaper, and pretended to try to sleep.  In the next carriage, Peter watched through his window, casually interested, as the train slowed gently.  It had been a troubled hour.

Enduring his hard seat alongside a woman who seemed to need far more than hers, Peter had felt himself slipping into depression.  The dread image of his future returned, bringing a sensation of impending doom and he drifted briefly into a light, dreamless sleep until the prospect of a stop roused him; travellers weaving their way past his seat, hold-alls and carrying cases probing before them or trundling obediently behind.   Doors opening and closing, the static crackle of announcements; voices, too, from the platform outside:  sounds of greeting, howls of childish distress.

“Hello Peter.”   A voice soft in his ear, thick menthol on its breath – a male voice:  “You’re getting off here, son.   No fuss, alright?”

Peter started up, tried to dodge away, but a heavy hand gripped his shoulder, lifting him from his seat.   “Just nice and slowly, lad.   And look friendly, like we’re your long-lost uncles, or something, right?”

A second man, exaggeratedly casual in posture and dress, stood beside him in the aisle. Peter found himself between them, the man with the breath leading and the other following, being escorted from the train. A concerned-looking woman blocked their path for a moment:  the man with the breath flashed an ID card at her.  “Escapee.   Absconded from Juvenile offenders at Martonbyers yesterday….I know!   They look so innocent, don’t they, these lads?  Robbery with violence.  You wouldn’t think it, would you?”

  “My bag!”  Peter protested, still under the hypnosis of surprise, already alighting from the carriage into the cold air.

“Gottit.”   The casual man assured him.

Peter’s thoughts were in turmoil.   He was being hustled so quickly along the platform by these two heavily-built figures, he hadn’t time to think clearly:  yet he knew he must think clearly.   He must gain some space.

“Where’s your ticket?”  Asked the menthol-breath man.  He wore a Ferrari red rally jacket: it had a slight tear at the shoulder where the sleeve began.

This was Peter’s opportunity.   He fumbled through his pockets, pretending to search.

“Why do you want it?  Why did you make me get off here?”

“Nothing to worry about son.”  The casual man lounged above him, leaning (casually) against a pillar of the station canopy.  “Someone wants to talk to you, that’s all.   Won’t take long.”

“But my parents are meeting me off the train.”   Peter lied.  “Who wants to talk to me?  Who?”

“You’ll find that out soon, if you ever get hold of your ticket.  Here, let me look.”

The casual man dragged Peter’s hands out of his pockets, thrusting his own big hands in their place. Finding nothing, he commenced to frisk the rest of Peter’s clothing expertly, until his fingers encountered the thin contours of what felt like the missing ticket in a patch pocket at the back of his jeans.   “OK son, take it out.”

A northbound train had just come in, its passengers adding to the throng passing through the station foyer.  The morning trains were busy:  students returning to the university, punters for Hemlington’s popular Sunday race meeting.   A group of female students had gathered before the barriers, assembling luggage, chattering happily as the body of the queue edged by them.  Peter was thinking fast.  His captors had no tickets, did not seem to be concerned about them.  So they were some sort of officials:  the pass that the menthol man had shown to the woman on the train was in his hand again, ready for inspection.   Peter reasoned they must have met the train here, at this station.  They had anticipated his coming.   Howard!  Who else but Howard!  Casually-dressed man, holding his jacket firmly at the back, propelled him forward.    Here, in the funnel of travellers at the station entrance, was his chance.   Just a few dangerous seconds as he surreptitiously unzipped his jacket. The line of travellers compacted into a coascervation of humanity as it forced its way, grumbling, past the girl students and their growing pile of baggage.

Once again Peter drew on that perfect timing when the entire world apart from him seemed to move at quarter speed.   His arms slipped easily from the jacket, his shoulder dropped beneath the casual man’s frantic lunge.  In the moment of this escape he also knew, instinctively, which way to go and what to do.  He was at ground level, diving on all-fours into the midst of the students, slithering through a forest of elegant legs which scattered in alarm before him.  Their reaction turned the limited space of the station entrance into complete squealing pandemonium amidst which it would have been easy to escape in any direction; but Peter’s unerring sense led him back onto the platform, where, at that precise second, his train was ready to leave.   His body propelled itself through the closing doors, the safety locks clicked home.   Through the window, Peter came face to face with the menthol-breath man, but now there was glass between them and as the train began to move, the face worked in helpless anger until it could keep pace with him no more.   Hemlington slipped back into history: he was free.

© 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 Nine

The Coming of Howard

Morning was slow to discover Francine’s recumbent form, the sunlight needing to creep over the bole of the uprooted tree before it could find its way into the pit that forest giant had created; lighting first upon her back, then, when it had enough warmth to offer, bringing a gentle glow to her cheek which caused her to stir.  Had she slept?    Had she fallen?

The blessing of the sun was welcome, for the rock beneath her, so possessive of her whole being the night gone, was warm no longer.  It was merely stone now, and whatever mystic properties it might have harboured to entice her had fled, leaving her with a sense of loss so intense it brought her near to tears.  There would be precious little time to grieve, however, because she was not alone.  Footsteps were shuffling behind her, and the sound that roused her to complete wakefulness that of heavy breathing, loud enough to all but eclipse the gentle rustling of the wind.

“Here!”  A man’s voice thick with accent, a foreign burr, although of what origin she could not tell,  “It is her!  It is the woman!”

Another voice  answered.  Someone not yet sharing his companion’s position in the pit yet, possibly not even in view.  “You’re certain?”

“Yes, certain!  Yes!  Come, help me – we must get her out of here!”

The other voice’s owner, making complicit sounds, was drawing nearer.  Hands that were not gentle closed about her shoulder.   “You, woman!  You must come with us!  Get up!”

Francine tried to shake herself free.  The rough hand grabbed her wounded arm from under her  and she screamed at the pain.  “Sir!  I beg you…”  She twisted her head angrily, to find herself looking into eyes so cold they conveyed the utter futility of begging.  He was as bronzed, this man, as he was lean – as he was strong, but there was no mercy in him; no kindness.  He began dragging her, half-carrying her because her feet would not, to the side of the pit where his companion stood watching dispassionately.

“Help me here!”  Francine’s captor snarled.  “Take her arms!”

But now there were – were there not – other voices.  English voices raised in a hue and cry.   Desperate to resist this man, Francine wrenched herself away, shouting,  “help me!  A rescue!”  As loudly as she could.

With muted expletives the bronzed man caught her again by that painful arm,  clamping a hand across her mouth and she bit down upon a finger, or maybe two, as hard as she could.

“This way!”  A voice she knew;  “See him?  Take him down!   Shoot, man!”

In immediate answer the lusty thunderclap of a fowling piece echoed in the cold air and the man who had been reaching down to hoist her from the pit rocked backwards with an agonized yell.    New voices were all about Francine now, gaining substance in the shapes of men – two at least of whom had guns.

With their appearance her captor became the captured; the pit a bear trap in which he was the wild creature, snarling his fury.   He clutched Francine to his chest, shielding himself as he backed towards a trodden ramp of mud that seemed his easiest ascent. 

“You, fellow!  Give yourself up!”   Arthur!   Arthur was there, standing at the lip of the depression with a duelling pistol.  “You have no means of escape, sir!  Release the lady now, do you understand?”

It occurred to Francine at that precise moment that her captor was unarmed.  Had he been in possession of even a knife this was the moment he might be most expected to have it in his hand.  It occurred to her also, as it probably already had to those assembled, that without help from the top of the slope this creature would be hard put to keep her between him and Arthur’s party when he attempted to climb from the pit.  His companion was no longer in evidence –  she judged that he had either fallen or fled.    Francine was not a great burden but she could be an awkward one, and if she were a dead weight…

Francine fainted – or at least, she appeared to do so.

She heard the shot, felt the arms that clawed at her jerk as she fell,  and the body that she was pinned against become as limp as she.   Then there were other arms, many arms to raise her up, cradle her and carry her.   And the only arms she wanted to carry her were there, and they were Arthur’s.

#

It was a parched springtime, that year.   Day followed day, week followed week with little rain. Late April was hot: lengthening days, longer and longer hours of sun. In early May the first storms began.

Peter, who loved fierce weather, walked Levenport Esplanade en route to his lectures many times with thick mists of cloud overlaying the town and rain lashing the pavements in untamed percussion.  On such days The Devil’s Rock was a grey shadow, Saint Benedict’s House a shrouded Valhalla barely visible at its peak.    When lightning flickered behind them rock and house were silhouetted like some great behemoth from the mythology of the sea: if the lightning struck, as it sometimes did, a white trace joined house to sky for a telling moment, a brief pathway between earth and heaven.   Then the thunder banged so loudly it seemed the basalt itself would split, and dry echoes crackled around Levenport’s sheltering cliffs.  At times like these Peter could easily imagine he was listening to a conversation of the gods.

Melanie rarely joined Peter on such tempestuous journeys, she being deterred by such practical difficulties as hair, wet clothes, and a nervousness of thunderstorms.    On finer days, though, she often met him on the Esplanade, and as the summer became ever wetter and less welcoming, spent more and more of her evenings wandering the Arcades with Peter, or ‘hanging’ with him in his room.  The reasons for the growing closeness of their companionship were defined one evening at the beginning of May. Their conversation was drawing to a close upon a reflective note.

Melanie asked,  “Did you ever hear from Vincent again?”

Peter shook his head,  “No, not after that phone call.   It’s really strange, thinking back to all that.  I suppose everything was OK, though.  I mean, that guy didn’t get shot, did he?”

When the attempt on Senator Goodridge’s life was broadcast on the television news its effect on the pair was sensational:  yet neither Melanie nor Peter knew how Goodridge’s life was saved because the details were never announced.   Peter had managed to persuade Melanie that his piece of clairvoyance was a one-off: some kind of anomaly or trick which they should keep as a confidence between themselves.  He had his own reasons for this as we shall relate, but it was true that he had not been contacted by anyone, and assumed that the mysterious purpose of his visit to St. Benedict’s House had been met.

Melanie did not disguise her jealousy.  “Shame.  You get to go to all the interesting places.  I should like to see that house, and your tablet of stone.  I wonder what would happen if I touched it?”

“Probably nothing.”  Peter shrugged,  “I think the things I saw had more to do with those iffy cakes of Alice’s than any stone.”

(But this was a lie.  He still dreamed those images, and one of them in particular haunted him.  He feared, really feared, that in some way and for some reason Melanie might one day get to touch the rock, to see the things he had seen)

“Alright,”  Melanie said,  “play it down if you want to.  Me, I think you’re a great seer – which, incidentally, makes you just a little bit creepy….”

“You speak truth.  As for creepy, I do occasionally get an urge to read the thoughts of your innermost mind.  Isn’t that normal?”

“Normal?   Lol.   Speaking of creepy (which you are) do you know my beloved mother has gone out tonight?   I am alone in that big dark house?   Don’t wait up for me, that’s what she said!”

Peter smirked,  “Do you want me to come over and look after you?”

“What,expose myself alone to the tender care of a letch like you?  Er….no!”

“Letch, now! Better dust off the garlic then.”

“Yeah, cheers.   Night babes!”

The next morning was a wind-blown and rainy one.   The more surprising for Peter, then, that he found Melanie waiting for him, sitting huddled in one of the shelters on the Esplanade.   Her face was traced from recent tears.

“Hey, “He greeted her, “Whassup Mel?”     Peter could not remember seeing Melanie cry.

 “I had to get out of the house.”  She said miserably.

“Why?”

“This morning I came downstairs and there was a man I’ve never seen before in the kitchen.   He was just, like, wearing underpants or something. It was horrible!”

“Ah!”   Said Peter.

“Alright, go on; tell me it had to happen.  I know – I knew it.   Mum’s a good looking woman, entitled to a life and all that….stuff.   It still doesn’t help when it does happen.  She’s my bloody mother!”

“It may not have happened;” Peter suggested gently: “I mean, he may just have slept on the couch, or something?”

“Oh, it did!   You should have seen her when she came down.   She was drooling all over him…it was just sick!”     Melanie wiped her hands across her face. “Oh!  Oh, and his name’s Howard, she insisted on telling me!   Howard!  As if I wanted to know his bloody name!”

“You’re upset.”  Peter sympathised, putting his arm around Melanie’s shoulders.        Truthfully, he had known that Karen, Melanie’s mother, would find a new companion.   His mother, Karen’s friend, who was expert in divining the nature of people, had told him so.  “She’s not a woman who likes being single” she had warned.   “Melanie is going to have to come to terms with that.”  Well, the prophesy had proved to be right – rather sooner than anyone (except maybe Karen) would have wished.

Even so it was difficult to accept, not just for Melanie, but for Peter too.   His own family lived in an oasis of calm amid troubled seas; for whatever you could imagine Bob and Lena to be, they were metaphorically joined at the hip.  You could not imagine them as separate from each other.   Once, in the days when he first knew her, Karen had appeared to Peter to have something of this same unity with her first husband, Marco, because children of the age he was then do not enquire into the stability of relationships, and his friendship with Mel had not deepened enough for her to trust him with tales of late night arguments, long absences, icy silences.   But whatever Karen was as a person then, she was very different now.

“Maybe he’s not….well, you know, permanent?”   Peter suggested lamely, aware even as he said it that his thoughts had led him in the wrong direction.

“Oh!   So my mother sleeps around now, does she!”   Melanie grinned at him weakly.  “Peter, will you come home with me tonight?  I mean, I don’t want him to be there again and me to be on my own, yeah?”

Peter hugged her shoulder: “Sure Mel, ‘course I will.”

And, after college that evening, Peter did as he promised.

Thus began a routine which developed:  before long Peter was walking Melanie home on a regular basis, and soon he was staying for half an hour, or an hour, in which the pair might go through their college work together or play video games.

Peter became an accepted visitor at Melanie’s house.   Karen seemed to see the value of his companionship.   She was not unaware of the tumult that a new man’s presence in her life would cause, or so determined as to ignore her daughter’s feelings; and if Peter, who was mature for his years, might buffer the effects of this collision she was thankful enough.   After that first ill-judged night when she had let passion overcome discretion and then seen the gravity of her error in Melanie’s face, Karen kept her relationship with Howard at arms length for a while.  But she knew where it was leading: and certainly Melanie would have to live with this.   Then, on a more practical level, as Mel spent a greater and greater proportion of her life with Peter, visiting him in the evenings, spending time with him at weekends, she was able to devote more of her own time to Howard.

Nevertheless, Karen trod carefully.   She made certain Howard was never there when Melanie returned from college, and she always told her daughter when he was to visit.   If she planned time away, she took care to involve Melanie, no matter how grudging the response.   With a delicate balancing act always in her mind, she juggled the lives of the people she loved (or was growing to love) in such fashion for a while: and, for a while, it seemed that things might be working out.

#         

When the hot summer northerly is blowing, an aircraft landing at Al Khubar must approach from the sea, where the runway is built out upon a man-made peninsula into the Bay of Ulman, or as it was known in early pirating days, the Sea of Thieves.

On such a summer day an airliner, heading first out to sea, will drop steeply as a stairway from the clear, azure sky and, as it passes below two thousand feet, turn tightly eastward for its final approach.   The cabin has been made quiet by the precipitous descent, until that banking turn.   Then it is common for an almost unanimous gasp of admiration to be drawn from strangers’ lips, as they get their first view of the miracle that man has worked upon the shore of the bay.   For the city of Al Khubar is such a testament to the capability of man to create beauty, that all those who have not seen it before, and many, too, who have, will be awestruck at the sight.  The graceful arch of the Sharm-Ayah suspension bridge which spans the whole bay stands so high you feel the plane might easily fly beneath it: then beyond, in the marinas of the western shore, line upon line of the most elegant yachts that were ever built lie at anchor.   But it is not these which draw the stranger’s eye; nor is it the smooth half-moon of verdant green grasses and trees which follows the shoreline so precisely from West to East.  No, all this is lost; for beyond the bay, beyond the green park-land which consumes two and a half hundred thousand precious gallons of water a day; beyond even the eight-lane highway which skirts the Park’s northern rim, stands such a city as western eyes have never seen.   Towers of tinted steel and white concrete rise in perfect symmetry.   Where there is a sickle-shaped skyscraper rising a thousand feet to the east, another to the west must be just the same.  Galleried glass tiers of shops and offices rise in steps, their profile clover-leafed into courtyards, storey upon storey.   Each courtyard is a space with trees and grass to sit, or stroll, or meet with the trams which network the city at every level.  The dome of the Great Mosque is the hub of lawns and hedged gardens which spread from it like a wheel, two great fountains behind it firing jets like crossed swords into the sky.   In a land where water is wealth there are even canals here, bisecting the new city with Venetian roads.   Amidst all of this the old town of Al Khubar sits, antiseptically white, within its defensive walls.   And amidst the old town, its walls even higher, stands the mighty palace of His Majesty King Assan.

Salaiman Yahedi had seen this sight so often down the years, yet it surprised him each time with its capacity to rob the body of breath.   As one who had long been stateless, Yahedi had no particular preference for any of the great cities of the world:  each was an interlude, a brief stop-over, a job to be done.  Yet, for all that, Al Khubar and its people drew him as certainly as any homecoming could.   He always felt a tinge of regret that he could not rest longer here.

After the air-conditioned plane had delivered him through the air-conditioned gate to Arrivals, and he had collected his minimal suitcase, Salaiman scanned the busy air-conditioned terminal for faces that he knew.   Mahennis Bourta stood out easily from the crowd.  The big Moroccan was at least half-a-head taller than most: his face, a tight, muscular mask of sinew and flesh, was split by a horizontal gash of a smile.

“Yahedi my friend!    Allah be praised!   Why, you look so well!”

The wide, slashing grin vanished as the pair made their way through the throng.  “I have a car for you.   I am to take you to the Hyatt, where you are booked in under this name.”   Bourta slipped a passport into Yahedi’s hand.  “Sleep Salaiman. We are to meet tomorrow at the usual place.”

“Really, so soon?   What is the mood, Bourta?”

“The mood, my friend, is that London did not go well.   The mood is not good.”

“There were reasons – not of my doing.  These things happen.”

“Ah!”  Bourta said, expressionless.  “There were bigger reasons, Yahedi, bigger than you know.   Here is the car.  We will talk in the morning, and |I urge you.”  He rested his hand on the assassin’s arm, “To prepare yourself.”

   © 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:     Harry Grout on Unsplah

 Sangga Rima Roman Selia on Unsplash

Tarpington’s Grass

Tarpington’s Grass

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“Last night, at around half-past-three, the garden waste bin moved.”  Peregrine Rubeltopf sighed, closing the little notebook and passing it to Vicki, who opened it again, upside down.  “Not much to be gained from an entry like that.  No details.  I mean, how did it move?  Where did it move?  For what reason did it move?”

“It was an event.  It didn’t need a reason.”  Vicki Blomquist stated with finality, placing the matter beyond question.  She tried to find the page Peregrine had closed upon, unaware she was turning to the wrong end of the book.  “I presume that was his last entry?”

“Event, event!”  Marcus Batt cried impatiently.  “It can’t just be dismissed as ‘an event’.  Tarpington has disappeared – there must be more to it than that.  Why was he awake at half-past-three?  How could he see if the bin moved – in the darkness?”

“Perhaps he heard it?”  Peregrine craned his neck to see out through Tarpington’s kitchen window.  Three plastic wheelie bins, Recycling, General Waste and Garden Waste, were sitting beside the path in an orderly row.  “They don’t look as if they’ve moved at all.”  He said.   “What’s Chipperby doing out there?”

“Investigating probably,”  Marcus said.  “Chipperby’s always investigating.”

Peregrine frowned.  “Isn’t that why we came?”

“No, it most certainly is not.”  Vicki had taken up a stance in the middle of Tarpington’s kitchen,  her eyes raised towards the ceiling and her hands spread in a gesture of supplication,.  “Oh Mighty Ones, hear us!  We await you!  Show us your beneficence we beg you, and allow us to extend to you our humble welcome!  Ah, each day brings you nearer,   I feel it; I feel it! Peregrine – can’t you feel it?”

“She’s gone off on one again,”  Marcus said.  “She’s beginning to twitch.”

“Well, he’s definitely not here, and no-one’s seen him for days.  He could be on holiday?”  Peregrine suggested.  “No, scrub round that.  Tarpington never goes on holiday.”

Outside in the passage, Saul Chipperby was seeking clues to substantiate his friend Donald Tarpington’s cryptic final note.   A member of the ‘Lallybridge Alien Life Society’ or LALS for several years, he sometimes found their collective company a little overwhelming; but that was not to say he disbelieved their mission; oh, no.  Lallybridge was a hub for alien activity, Saul was convinced of that.  Hadn’t he seen those mysterious silver discs in the eastern sky sunset after sunset, heard the strange hum that persisted behind the moan of a north wind, the creak of the trees in the birch wood on the night when the blue light shone from behind St. Wilfrid’s Hill?

Donald Tarpington had gone – abducted, without a doubt.  Like seventeen-year-old Shona Trott from the Post Office and Glen Tebbit, the butcher’s boy.  They had been returned, fortunately – found together in Margate six months later with no memory of their miraculous experience.  And Shona was carrying what would inevitably be an alien child.  But Donald Tarpington, he was a member of LALS. His abduction could only mean the visitors were ready to make contact at last!

Saul wasn’t sure what evidence of Donald’s abduction there might be.  When the Society met on the first Tuesday of each month, signs of alien activity were freely discussed, and scorched circles generated by great heat from landing craft featured highly in those discussions, but when it came to specifics – size and so on – no-one had actually seen one.  Nevertheless, scorch marks on the concrete could not be discounted, in Saul’s opinion, any more than signs of a struggle, or a pungent alien type smell.  There was a pungent smell certainly, but it emanated from the three neatly aligned wheelie bins.  He approached them cautiously, opening them one by one; first the blue Recycling bin, which was half-full, then the General Waste bin which was black and very full, and then the green Garden Waste bin…

“Don’t tell them I’m here.”

The creature was a caterpillar, wasn’t it?  Except that it had limbs – or possibly tendrils, it was difficult to tell.  It was certainly very green, as a mallard drake’s head is green, and it spoke:  well, it sort of spoke, because its words entered Saul’s head by means other than his ears.

“I won’t,” said Saul, astonished at his lack of astonishment.  The creature’s eyes were large, dreamy and the clear blue crystal of a mountain lake.

“Can you get me food?  I’m hungry.”  The creature’s thoughts read.  “I simply love these little short things, but I seem to have eaten nearly all of them.  They taste delicious.  What are they?”

“Grass cuttings.”  Said Saul.

“What on earth is Chipperby doing?”  Peregrine demanded, watching his LALS colleague passing back and forth beyond the rear window of Tarpington’s lounge, into which room the quorum had adjourned and within which they were helping their absent host by downsizing his decanter of vintage port.

Peregrine opened the window, shouting, “What are you doing, Chipperby?”

“Mowing the lawn,”  Saul replied.

“Good lord, why?”

“It needed to be cut.”

“Did you check out the Garden Waste bin?”

“Where do you think I’m emptying the grass box?”  Snapped Saul.

Vicki Blomquist’s ‘Event Temple’ took a further half hour and two more generous measures of port to complete, during which time Marcus and Peregrine prowled around their erstwhile friend’s home, ostensibly looking for anything which might help them understand the method of his abduction, while allowing their focus to constantly stray into criticism of his choice of underwear or his loudly coloured ties.  Their efforts were curtailed by Vicki’s loud proclamation:  “Griselda’s been abducted too!”

The assembled company were jointly rendered aghast.  Griselda Burdock, a member of LALS like themselves, had been prevented from joining their investigations at Tarpington’s house by a need to visit Sainsbury’s supermarket. They were expecting to join her for a post-abduction drink at the Skinner’s Arms later that evening.

“Her aunt’s texted me three times,” Vicki told them.  “Griselda returned from shopping, it seems, without ever re-entering the house.  “The bags of shopping were abandoned, their contents scattered on the path by the side gate.  That was three hours ago!”

“Did her Garden Waste bin move?”  Saul enquired, with what he hoped would sound like a thin veneer of sarcasm.

“I think we’d better go and check this out.  It sounds to me like they’re finally ready to invade.”  Said Marcus, with gravity.  “Her aunt’s place is only three streets away.”

“Yes,”  Saul agreed.  “I’ll come back here later and clear up.”

“This must be reported,”  Peregrine said.  “It’s a major news story, at least!”

Saul, Vicki and Marcus greeted Peregrine’s enthusiasm with sad, downcast eyes.  The people at the local paper would, as usual, laugh and offer unkind suggestions as to the real reasons for their colleagues’ absence, and if they were lucky enough to avoid a charge of wasting police time, the reactions of the local constabulary would run along similar lines.  The LALS reputation for extravagant claims of alien invasion was well established in Lallybridge.

“Where are you going with that wheelie bin?”  Miles Purvis called across the road as Saul Chipperby rumbled past.  “It looks heavy!”

“I’m taking it up to the Tarpington place,”  Saul responded.  “It’s Griselda Burdock’s.  While she’s away I’m getting both bins emptied from Tarpington’s house. It’s easier!”

“I suppose,”  Miles said doubtfully, trying to follow Saul’s logic.  “By the way, has Chipperby Lawn Services got a slot free to cut my back garden this weekend?  Great idea for a company, that.”

“I’ll maybe have some space on Sunday.  I’ll give you a call.”

Saul was not unaccustomed to the odor of fermenting grass, although its smell was the more malodorous for being confined within the walls of Tarpington’s living room.  Wherever he looked there was grass – grass in bags, grass in boxes, grass in basins, grass in bottles.  He wondered what Tarpington would make of it if he returned unexpectedly from the holiday Saul still darkly suspected might be the cause of his absence.

“Circumstances dictate cases.  I wouldn’t object in the slightest.”  It was the familiarity of the voice in his head that made Saul jump.  He shot a glance at the two creatures, one dark green, the other dark blue but remarkably similar in every other respect, that lay entwined comfortably on Tarpington’s brown leather corner unit.  Two pairs of dreaming eyes returned his look.

“Donald?”  Saul frowned.  This didn’t make sense.

“Of course, dear chap.  Who else would I be?”  The dark green creature’s response filled his mind.

“And you can address me as Griselda,”  ‘Donald’s dark blue companion’s ‘voice’ was equally familiar.  “Although we aren’t, actually.”

“That much we can agree, at least,” Saul said. “You bear no resemblance to Griselda – nor you to Donald. You actually look more like, well, caterpillars, I suppose.  You do know that, don’t you?”

“Caterpillars.”  Blue Griselda exchanged glances with Green Donald.  “That could present a problem.”

“It would explain the appetite,” Green Donald agreed.  “Could I have another bag of cuttings, by the way?”

“By all means!”  Saul slid a box of cut grass across the floor in the creature’s direction.  “You haven’t explained who you really are, yet.  What has happened to Donald and Griselda – I mean, you’ve given me their names, but…”

“We’re placeholders.”  Blue Griselda jumped into his thoughts.  “You can think of us as exchange students, if you like.”

“We’re Zoggians,”  Green Donald continued.  “The Donald and  Griselda you speak of have been teleported to our Mothership for modification, and we’re keeping their place for them until their treatment is complete.”

“The difficulty with teleportation – it’s a new system for us – is displacement of matter.”  Blue Griselda explained.  “If we break a creature down into its constituent atoms and then remove them we leave a hole.  That can cause quite a commotion!”

“But nothing like the disturbance that will result when we try to put them back!”  Green Donald added.  “So we swop – two Earth people out, two Zoggians (that’s us) in.  We’re keeping a window open for their return, when they’ve been upgraded to Zoggian specification.”

Saul was incredulous.  “Donald and Griselda are being turned into Zoggians?”

“Obviously!  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a Zoggian?  New, increased functionality, superb telepathic communication (including teleconferencing and augmented visuals) and full connectivity for our sensory navigation package – and that’s just to begin!”

“If you attract our gold package, for less than five pounds a month you can even download your own music on Zoggify!”  Blue Griselda chimed in enthusiastically.  “Although, this caterpillar thing does seem to be a bit of a problem.  We were supposed to appear identical to the earth creatures we are body-sitting for, but something seems to have become confused.”

“I found you in the garden waste bin,” Saul found himself explaining to Green Donald.  His long-held belief in alien abduction was helping him overcome the profound shock of seeing his convictions validated. “You could easily have got mixed up with a caterpillar or two in there.”

“And I sent up my transmission pattern for you to copy,” Green Donald mingled his thoughts with Blue Griselda; “So we are the same, effectively.”

“Which doesn’t solve our problem,” Blue Griselda reminded him.  “Am I the only one who feels a little stiff this morning?”

High summer approached and Saul’s Lawn Services business fell into decline as an increasing weariness overtook him; so he was quite glad to arrive one Sunday at the Tarpington house to discover not a pair of voracious caterpillars but two extremely large dry chrysalids, one green, one blue, in their place.  Even then he refrained from informing the membership of LALS (the Lallybridge Alien Life Society) what had passed.  Only when, upon a regular weekly visit, he thought he detected movement in one of the chrysalises, did he summon them to the Tarpington house, relating all that his larval companions had told him.  The members were not pleased.

“Why didn’t you inform us earlier?”  Marcus demanded.  “We might at least have averted the chrysalis crisis.”

“They asked me not to,”  Saul replied.  “I think they were afraid of publicity.”

“And now look what’s happened!”  Cried Peregrine.  “They’ve turned to bloody rock!  Vicki dear, what are you doing?”

Intoning the words of an unintelligible mantra, Vicki Blomquist was busily producing cards decorated with mystic symbols from her handbag and positioning them around the room, glancing frequently up to a point on the ceiling for reference.  “I’m generating the Event Temple, Peregrine.  One of us has to, or Donald and Griselda won’t find their way back, you see?”

“I think they will,”  Saul responded.  “The blue one’s splitting;  look!”

A tiny fissure had opened in the Blue Griselda chrysalis.  Marcus, ever thoughtful, brought a bath sheet from Tarpington’s linen cupboard and held it up, ready to preserve the hatching alien’s dignity as she returned to Earth.  “I don’t care whether she’s still one of us or not, she deserves a little respect,” he excused himself (somewhat lamely, Peregrine thought).

The assembled company would have to wait a further half-hour, regaled by Vicki’s chanting, before the familiar head of Griselda Burdock finally appeared, her hair passably well styled, and looked around her. She registered no surprise at the presence of her welcoming committee as, giving a final heave she rose, thrusting the two halves of her chrysalis from her.  Marcus, about to bring her the towel, froze.  Griselda looked down at her large, bedraggled wings and her six furry legs.

“Dammit!”  She 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.

Image Credits:

Featured Image – Thomas Budach from Pixabay

Grass Mower: Ulrika Mai from Pixabay