Nowhere Lane – Chapter Nine. Outrage

 

No escape.

The man’s big hand clamped to Karen’s mouth reduced her cries to muffled gasping as she fought for breath.  In seconds his arm about her waist had lifted her bodily from behind, carrying her into the shadows beneath the bridge.

Once hidden from the street above, he spun her around.  Her mouth was freed and she tried to scream but her breath had gone.  She kicked out, made a lunge which he countered, throwing her back until she was pinned against the cold stone of the arch.

His maniacal eyes were inches from her own,  his lank hair whipping across her face, his wide mouth bared in a snarl.  A hand tore at her clothes, touching her, and she had a scream in her head but no sound would come.  One heavy knee thrust her legs apart with a power beyond any resistance she could offer, forcing her open to him.  His weight was pressed against her, his hardness seeking, his intentions all too clear.

Then came the blow.

It shuddered through her, the harsh resonance of flexing bone.  At first she thought it was her own head that had cracked and split open.  But then her assailant began to fall backward, and still held by him she was being dragged away from the wall. The man’s mask of wanton fury had been replaced by glazed surprise and pain.  Another body, determined and strong, interposed itself between them, breaking his grip and slamming him against the guardrail at the margin of the river.  The steel met the dark man’s lower spine and before he had a chance to rebound his legs were swept from beneath him, pitching him backwards into the racing current.  As he hit the water, he gave tongue to a canine howl.

“Jesus!”  Patrick said.  “The company you keep!”

Karen struggled for breath.  Her eyes cleared, slowly, took in a lump of rock lying on the path, the bludgeon with which Patrick had administered that telling blow.

“Are you hurt?”  Pat’s concern was readable even in gathering darkness.

Karen’s knees were in severe danger of giving way, and she was not sure whether she had suffered damage or not, but she did her best to smile bravely.  “Only my dignity.”  She assured him, rearranging what she could of her clothes with shaking hands.  “Do you think he can swim?”  There was no sound from the river.

“Right now I don’t really give a s**t.”  Pat replied crudely.  “I expect he can, but the flow under here is a bit quick, so he’ll be a way downriver before he can get out.  All I want to do is get you safe.  Can you walk okay?”  He slipped his jacket from his own shoulders to hers.  “Maybe we shouldn’t hang about too long, just in case your amorous friend comes back for another try.”

Outrage is a strong emotion, one that grabs you somewhere deep and hangs on, not for an hour or two, but a year or two, or a lifetime.  Karen would not forget that first moment of real terror in her life, in spite of all that would happen later – never forget that face in hers, those hard, vice-like hands.  Pat, who read her so well, held her close to him, knowing how strong she would want to be, yet how she needed his support.

A whispered “Thank you,” was all she could do to repay him.

He gently took her hand; then, with his supporting arm around her waist guided her from the gloom beneath the bridge into the last grey light of evening.

“He would have done it to me, you know, if you hadn’t been there?  He would have – I couldn’t stop him.”

“I know.”

“I tried to stop him, Pat!”

“Don’t talk, my love.  I understand.”

#

When Patrick brought coffee to Karen’s bedroom the next morning, she had just woken, her eyes still laden with sleep and her arms, their developing bruises exposed, outside the bed covers.  She managed a smile, had he slept well?  He told her yes, her sofa was every bit as comfortable as he could wish, neglecting to mention how long he had lain awake, waiting for morning and listening for the tall, lank-haired nightmare of last evening to return.  It never did.

“You followed me.”  Karen accused him mildly.  “Last night, from the pub.  Do I have to worry about you?”

He knew that was only half-way to a joke.  “Am I a dangerous obsessive, you mean?  Perhaps, where you’re concerned.  Mostly, though, I was worried for you.  I didn’t want to think of you walking home alone.”

“You were right.  You saved me, didn’t you?”

“You needed help.  Any dangerous obsessive would have done the same, seeing another dangerous obsessive trying to muscle in on his obsession, I mean.”

“Don’t become too obsessed, Pat,”  Karen said seriously.

“Too late.”  He confessed.  “I can be serious too, Karen.  You need protection.”

“We’ll have to report it – what happened, I mean.”

“I already have.  I used your ‘phone.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“What did they say?  Will they start dragging the river, or something?”  The smile vaporized.  “Oh, Pat!  What if we’ve killed him?”

Patrick did his best to offer her the same reassurance he had spent a sleepless night practising on himself.  “You mustn’t worry!  To be honest, the police didn’t seem too concerned. They’ll take a look down there, but the guy I spoke to made the point that apart from where it runs under the bridge, the river’s never more than waist deep.  He said they’d send someone round to see us ‘in due course’, whatever that means.”

Karen reached out for him – a hand stroking his – a gesture that sent little waves of sensitivity chasing around his body; because he was surrounded by the warm scent of her bedroom and he had spent too many hours imagining.

“You did the right thing,”  Karen said.

”I have to keep you safe.”  He stumbled over his words.  Her eyes were two deep lakes of mystery looking into his, her lips were parted in invitation.  Her uninjured hand caressed his arm as softly as ripples on a foreshore.  He wanted her.  He wanted to say how much he wanted her, but the timing was wrong and the words wouldn’t come.

“I was stupid last night, taking the river walk when I should have stayed on the street.  If I’m careful, I’ll be fine.  Oh, Pat, I’m so lucky to know you!”  She raised herself from her bed and the covers fell away.  The little blue nightshirt that hung so loosely about her breasts invited him to take it from her.  Her breath in the inches of space between their mouths was hot and needing.

Karen’s eyes filled with alarm.  “Oh my god, what time is it?”

“About ten, I think.  Don’t panic – no work today; it’s Saturday.  Le weekend!”

She scrabbled for the edge of the bed.  “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“You were in shock.  You needed sleep.  Whatever is the matter?”

“Pat, get out!   Go away!  Go home, or wherever it is you go on a Saturday.  Go and play your game of polo, or something.”

“Polo!?” 

And, as he hesitated:  “I have to dress, Pat.  Now, please?”

“Ah!”  He caught on.  “My presence might be difficult to explain, mightn’t it?  Okay, I’m leaving.  Can I just write him a note?”

“No!”

He was tidying Karen’s sofa and still trying to collect himself as she rushed past him on her way to the bathroom, gathering her dressing gown about her as she ran.  He wrote his home telephone number to remind her, on the corner of a magazine that was lying on her table and left.  She did not say goodbye.

Not five minutes later, Karen’s buzzer sounded.

“Tim!  Hello!”  She was still in her dressing gown.  Framed in her apartment doorway, Tim Birchinall looked bigger than ever.

“Hello sweetheart.  Am I too early?”

“Early?  God no.  I overslept.”  Had he put on weight?  Auburn hair, cut to police regulation, eyes of solemn brown she once told him were appropriate for a policeman, those same strong features that could start a girl dreaming without effort.  He had called her ‘sweetheart’ – that word would have meant so much to her once.

Her expected kiss of greeting must have been lacking because his eyes darkened momentarily.

“I’m still not…you know…”  Why did she feel the need to excuse herself?

“Conscious?  Listen, I’ll come back…”

“No!  I mean, no, that’s silly.  I’ll just…look, you just wait here; read or something.  I’ll throw some clothes on.”

Tim grinned impishly:  “Can I help?”

“Not this early in the morning, Tim dear, no.”  She chided him, suppressing an inner jolt.  It was his first expression of anything like a sexual interest in her for a very long time.  “Make us a coffee and cool down.  I’ll be quick, I promise.”

She called from her bedroom as she dressed – jeans, a sweater against the colder morning that would hide her arms.  How was his journey?  Was his car behaving?  What had he been doing with himself?

“Training, and more training.  I’ve joined the rugby team, though I doubt if I’ll get a chance to play.  The competition for places is really stiff.”

Tim had a question of his own. Did she still insist upon a career as an investigator?  As she emerged, fully dressed, from her bedroom, he had coffee waiting and she was just beginning to tell the story of her two missing persons, stressing their apparent connection to Boulter’s Green.  Had he ever heard of the place? Her words fell into a still pool of silence.  She only became aware Tim was staring at her when she met that stare, looking up at him for his answer.  His expression was almost one of anger.  “Tim?”

He collected himself.

“There’s a tiny tale to tell about that place.”  He said slowly.

“Anything is welcome?”

“About four years ago we pulled in a heroin user who had a real atmosphere about him, if you know what I mean.  He was wandering about town in the early hours and we thought he was a vagrant, new to the area.  Turned out he was more disorientated than anything because he gave his address as Boulter’s Green.  We checked it out on the map.  There’s nothing there.”

“’We?’  Who’s ‘we’?”

“Ray Flynn and I.  We worked together, remember?”

“You were partners.  What happened?”

“I’m not sure I can recollect.  The narco kept insisting he lived at this Boulter’s Green place and he didn’t want to go back.  Anyway, he was really thin; undernourished, you know?  And high as a kite.  So we took him in.  The story, and it may be nothing at all, concerns what happened to him.  We followed the usual procedure; banged him up downstairs for the night to straighten out, and left the Station Officer to sort out Social.  Trouble was, he disappeared!”

“What?  Who disappeared; the Station Officer?”

“Well, I suppose you could say both.  When we went back to the Station at the end of shift to tie up paperwork, his cell was empty.  I asked, but there was a different officer, someone we didn’t know, on duty.  The Station Officer who admitted him had gone home sick.  The officer on duty claimed he had no knowledge of a detention.  It was all a bit weird.”

“Didn’t your report prove…”

“There was no trace of it.  It had been ‘lost’, apparently.  He hadn’t been booked in, either.”

“Any idea…?”

Tim took Karen’s hand.  “No, darling, none.  Quite a lot of things get ‘lost’ around the Beaconshire force and a wise little constable learns to accept it and refrain from questioning.  Certain wise little PIs might adopt the same policy.”

“I want to know who he was, this H addict.”  Karen insisted.  “I want a name.  Would Ray Flynn remember?”

“Ray?”  Tim laughed. “He’d forgotten it by the next day.  No, you won’t find out.  It’s a long time ago.  Seriously, love, I should leave the Boulter’s Green thing alone.  Be very careful.”

“Is that a warning?”

“I know you.  If I tried to warn you off, it would just make you more determined.  But I do advise caution; I really do.  Now, can we find something else to talk about?”

Karen sighed.  “Okay – what?”

“Us.  Let’s talk about us. I should have walked in on you,”  He said earnestly,  “Just now – I should have taken you to bed.  I could have done, couldn’t I”

“I wouldn’t have appreciated it, and it wouldn’t have been like you – what’s the matter, Tim?”

“Then I wouldn’t have found out, you see?”

“No, I don’t see.  What are you talking about?”

“If I was a more passionate bloke…  I miss you, very much.  I still want you.”  His voice was unsteady.  “But I decided to respect your privacy and make us some drinks instead.  I went to the kitchen for cups.  The cups were dirty …”

“Yeah?  I’m sorry – I must have forgotten to wash them up last night.”

“Two cups, both warm…”

Karen’s heart skipped a beat.  “Ah.”

“Somebody drinks black coffee, you drink white.  Somebody prepared a breakfast tray…”

“I often make my breakfast on a tray..”

“And somebody wrote their ‘phone number, here,” Tim picked up a magazine from her table.  “This is not your writing, Karen, is it?”

“It could be a client’s.  I forget.”  She walked past him to the window where her view of the town would distract her from his stare.  “Bea was here last night.  She stayed late, so she slept over.”  Why was she lying when she had no need to lie?

“Where was Bopper?”

“I don’t know!  She ‘phoned him – to say she wouldn’t be home.”

“Or,”  Tim said.  “Someone else was here before me today, before you were dressed; someone you didn’t want me to know about.  You had breakfast from a tray together, where – in your bedroom?  They left not long before I arrived and they were in a hurry, which is why they dashed their number down on a magazine cover.  Alright, it could be just a girlfriend, but I’m quite good at this police stuff, and I’d stake my money on that being a man’s handwriting.  You see how it looks?  I just want an answer, darling.  I’m entitled to that, aren’t I?”

Below Karen’s window the town was already wide awake; roads and streets of houses, no one of which would be free of lies.  She said carefully, “Okay, yes.  Someone was here, but we didn’t…that is, he…he slept there, on the sofa.”

“Karen, what’s happening?  What’s wrong between us?”

Karen was tired, and her defences were down.  “If you’re so good at ‘police stuff’ you should be aware of the need to check your facts.  Nothing happened here.  I’ve nothing to be guilty of; but yes, there is something that needs to be said.”  She took a breath.  “This doesn’t feel right.  We don’t feel right anymore.  That’s not because of anyone else, it’s simply between us.”

“Is it something I’ve done?”

“It doesn’t have to be anything anyone has done.  You went away, which didn’t help.  Now and again you just reappear, and it feels like I’m greeting a stranger.  Nobody else has been in my bed, Tim.  That’s in spite of the fact that we’ve met five times since you went to London last year – how many times have we slept together since then?”

“I don’t count, Karen…”

“Nor do I, but this is easy.  Start with ‘one’; and it wasn’t exactly great, was it?”

“Okay.  Okay mea culpa.  With the new job and everything, I just haven’t – well, it hasn’t felt…”

“Right?”  With a sigh, she turned to him, placing her hand on his chest.  It was a chest she liked to touch when she wanted to actually feel his heartbeat, sense the gentle rise and fall of his breathing.  “Exactly!  Tim, darling, I’m not greedy, but what about my needs?  I have to rest content with being the little woman, accepting whatever you’re prepared to give?”

He grasped her shoulders, his eyes betraying his desperation:  “We could rectify that right now, if that’s what you want.”

Karen had to restrain a laugh, a bitter laugh which would have been cruel. “You have no idea how unattractive that offer sounds to me, especially this morning.  Have you listened to a word I’ve been saying?”  She paused for breath, trying to keep her thoughts level.  “We live in different worlds now.  We used to be together all the time, now we’re never together, and when we are we’ve nothing to share.  Just accept it, my love.  Go back to London; live your new life, yes?”

There were words of contrition she could have said, even then.  They were churning inside her:  a part of her longed to retract everything and fall into Tim’s arms because it would be so easy, it would feel so…so comforting.  No.  She had taken the step she had dreaded.  She had crossed the line.  There would be no reparation and there would be no tears – not, at least, until after; when he had gone.

“Let me get you out of this godforsaken backwater.  Come with me – come to London!  We’d be together all the time there.  We could start again!”

Karen made no answer.  She turned her head away to stare miserably through the window.  The glass was speckled with first splashes of rain.

Tim sighed.  “I guess that’s a ‘no’ then.”  He said at last.  “Look, this’ll change, I know it will.  I’m staying at the County Hotel.  If…”

“The County!  That’s a big splash!”  Karen tried to smile.

“Well, I had a special night planned.  I’ve booked dinner, so if you change your mind – about anything – call me?  Will you?”

Her heart couldn’t sink any lower; she had no more she could say.  She just nodded, trying to avoid the tears she knew were filling his eyes too.  One quick squeeze of his hand:  no turning back.  Tim Birchinall walked out of her apartment, and out of her life.

#

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear – Karen knew this because she was awake.  She had been awake for most of that night, striving with her conscience, fighting off visions of strange, angry men who wanted to hurt her for reasons she could not understand, though she spent all of the dark hours trying.  Like a tiger caged she prowled her apartment, waiting for the buzzer to sound, or the thud of a heavy shoulder on her door.

She lasted until nine-thirty, through mouthfuls of toast, cups of coffee and magazine reading, before picking up the telephone.  A   woman’s voice answered.  Wealth and privilege oozed through every vowel.

“Hello.  Did you want to speak to Patrick?”  A mental image of hundred-brushed flaxen hair was inescapable.  “Are you perfectly certain you have the correct number?  Patrick Hallcroft-Smythe?  Oh, my god, has he got a girlfriend at last?  We simply must meet – I’m Gabrielle, his sister?  He should have mentioned me but I don’t expect he did.  Do hold on to that receiver thingy and I’ll see if I can find him.  Super to speak to you, Karen!”  Gabrielle’s retreating voice was still audible.  “Patrick’s found himself a girlfriend!  Oh, my God!”

Karen waited.  She held on for what seemed to be minutes, waiting for that rustle telephone receivers make as they nestle into your ear.  “Hello – Karen?”

“I threw you out yesterday.  I was rude.  We didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“Absolutely no need.  I trust everything went well?  Listen, can I apologize for my sister?  She’s quite impossible, I’m afraid.”

“I didn’t think so.”  Karen paused, summoning her courage.  “Pat, I hope you won’t judge me for being forward, or anything, but would you mind coming with me this afternoon?  I’d like to have a look at this Boulter’s Green place and I’d value your thoughts.”

“It’s a fine day.  Why not?  I’ll pick you up at – what – two?”

“We’ll take my car.  Make that two-thirty.  And from my parents’ house – where you picked me up the night we went to the Stones concert?  I believe I might invite myself to family lunch!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Nineteen – Moments From the Grown-up Years

I recall the afternoon so well.  Angie and I were both at home, for once, when the telephone rang.  It was a call – no, it was the call I had been expecting.  I remember Angie’s face as she watched me answer it, set and serious, those intense eyes of hers giving her message of defiance at the news we both already knew must come.

The caller was my agent, Allen Ranton.  The conversation was brief.  When I replaced the receiver, Angie was coiled tightly, overwound.   “Well?”  She demanded, her voice unusually harsh.

“Ranton’s cut the deal,”  I said.  “Torley want me.”

Angie nodded.  We stared at each other, shaken by the arrival of a moment we had both dreaded.  “That’s it, then.”  She said.

“I can’t turn them down.”  It should have been a joyous occasion, the final gesture which announced my arrival on the big club scene; we should have been cavorting in a crazy circle, dancing for sheer delight.  Neither of us felt like dancing.  Angie began clearing our coffee mugs from the table, already with her back to me, already walking away.  “Ange, the money’s unbelievable!  You’d be able to have whatever you wanted…”

“It’s not about money.  Money doesn’t matter to me, Chas; ah thought you knew that…”

“Nor is it for me.  A big Premiership club, the chance to play in Europe, that’s what matters to me!  But Ange, we’d be able to try for a baby, properly, I mean…”

“Don’t do that to me!  Ah’m not goin’, man!  Ah dinna care what’s at the end of it, it’s two hunderd an’ fifty mile away.  Ah’ve a life here, an’ work, an’ friends, y’kna?”

“It’s my life, Ange.  It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of.”

She turned back to me, putting the mugs aside so she could wrap her arms around my shoulders and kiss me.  “I know, Chas.  I know.  But I have my life too.”

Upon the Sunday of the week following Ranton’s call, Angie and I set out to visit Malcolm and Debbie, Angie’s parents, in Casterley, because we would not keep our decision to split up a secret from them:  they were precious in Angie’s life and they had become very special friends in mine.

The diversion was Angie’s idea.  “D’you remember that little wood where we walked a few year ago, Chas?  Ah’d like to go back there again.”

“The Step Wood?”  I remembered it well.  Glad enough to delay what might prove an unpleasant interview with Angie’s Mum and Dad, I found the road that would lead us to the wood easily enough, and turned off our regular Casterley route.  From this, the Carlton end, the diversion would consume several miles, so I settled back to enjoy the drive while Angie called her parents on her new mobile ‘phone.  The length of our search matched the length of her conversation.

“It’s here somewhere; I can see the trees – and there’s the stone bridge!  Oh, Chas!”

I did slow down enough to be certain, but the high wire fence with its tethered warning signs against trespass left no room for doubt.  Behind it, the full-leafed flora of our Step Wood crowded up and thrust fingers through the wire, like a prisoner crying for escape.

Angie was genuinely moved.  “Why would someone do that?”

“I guess it’s private land.  It’s quite a new fence, so maybe they’re going to develop it.  Houses or something.”

We completed our drive in silence.

There are some who will talk about ending a relationship as if it were a habit, like drinking or smoking, that can simply be given up.  Others will speak of recriminations, of bitterness and fights, or again of their tugs-of-war over custody; and there are some, all be they relatively few, who will confess to ‘remaining friends’, whether genuinely or not.  One thing, though, is common to all of us who stand on the further shore; an extra line among the many on our brow that is deeper and reminiscent of a scar.  It is indelible – it will never be erased.

I cannot say that Angie and I were ever truly finished.   For a long time after I moved out of our Carlton apartment we continued visiting each other, spending some time together when we could; but although I longed for her we were never man and wife after the day I packed my last bag.  Were we friends or just two people in the grip of a habit we could not break?   I don’t know.

I was, and I am, proud of Angie; of all she has achieved, and the part I played in helping her to reach the goals she so richly deserved.  Her love of life is as infectious as ever, the light in her eyes as bright, but there is a place on her forehead she cannot disguise when she frowns – a furrow as deep and livid as a scar – as deep as my own.

The dawn of the Premiership was too much for Casterley Town’s delicately balanced finances.  They plunged into a cess-pool of health and safety demands, tottering ticket sales and years of unpaid debt, closing their turnstiles for the last time at the season’s end.   Within weeks the bulldozers had moved in, clearing the grey old stadium away to make room for a new manufacturing plant that a company called Wesfane Electronics claimed they needed for construction of their industrial coolers.  The story that Mack Crabtree had bought the stadium and its debts for a minuscule sum, then settled the debts and sold it on to Wesfane for a small fortune took time to leak out and was of little consequence to the local population, who mourned the loss of their football club only briefly before transferring their allegiances to Bedeport Rovers.

I watched Casterley Town’s departure with no sense of loss, only commenting to John Hargreave in one of our last telephone conversations that I thought the new industrial unit seemed very small to be in the business of assembling big industrial coolers.

John sounded cynical.  “Doesn’t really matter Chas, man.  Have you any idea how hard it is to get an industrial cooling unit off Wesfane?  I checked them out.  The trade’s barely heard of them, and they reckoned their order book’s stacked up for years ahead. Not taking any more orders, is what I was told.”

“Maybe that’s why they need the extra production?”  I suggested.

“Aye, maybe.”

I did no more than glance at the little book John Hargreave bequeathed to me for a few years.  I had no superstitious fear of reading it,  only a healthy dislike of anything to do with pen and paper which would have to be overcome by something startling, like the words ‘I AM ON FIRE’ in capital letters.  John’s book contained nothing so dramatic, being rather page upon page of close handwriting which I took to be diary entries, only relieved by some curious letters and figures on the last two pages that I decided on initial inspection to be not worth the pain of deciphering.   My boat was moored above the tidal lock at Bedeport until recently, and somehow the book ended up in a cupboard above the stateroom berths.   Somehow?  This is how…

Footballers and their families necessarily spend much of their time in each other’s’ laps.  Mostly, because there is no alternative, we do our best to make the social scene enjoyable, but there are times when my yen for solitude kicks in, and my best defense against the world is open water.  I enjoy sailing, so although the round trip from my southern home was more than five hundred miles if I had a break I would take off for Bedeport and spend a day or two days at sea.  Which is how I happened to be wandering the streets of that town one Friday night, trying to decide whether I wanted to eat ashore, or deplete provisions on the boat before I sailed.

I spotted her first, in a new Italian restaurant I had not tried.  She was sitting alone at a table laid for two, and judging by the dejected slope of her shoulders, laid bare by a black halter dress, she had been there for some time.  She looked up as I approached, probably hoping I was someone else.

“Chas!”

“Hello Nel.  Fancy meeting you here!”

“Dare I call it my local stomping ground?  No, probably better not to.  I’m on my third one of these.”  Nel gestured towards a nearly drained Martini.  She said ruefully:  “My companion for the evening’s a little late.”

“How late?”  I asked.

“I think it must be two hours – nearly.  Hell Chas, I’ve been stood up, haven’t I?”

“You’ve tried his ‘phone?”

“It’s on message.”

“Okay, that’s a yes, then.  You must be hungry, will you have dinner with me?”

“Why not?  I hope that didn’t sound too eager?”

“Not eager in the least,”  I told her, signalling to a hovering waiter that his landing pad was ready at last.  “What will you have?”

Until that night I had scarcely spoken to Nel on other than business affairs, yet we were friends.  Over the next two hours, though, we poured out our personal lives, assisted admirably by a bottle of wine and two further Martinis.  Business matters received not one mention.

“I don’t normally go on dates.”  Nel informed me as she polished off the last of our dessert, “Does it show?”

“Not obviously.   I can’t understand the mentality of anyone who could stand you up.”

“I’m not good at dates.  I don’t do relationships, you know, Chas.  I don’t even have a cat.”

“I didn’t know, although I sort of guessed you weren’t married.  I mean, no rings or anything.”

“Oh bloody ‘struth, no!  Marriage?  Stick marriage!   Mummy and Daddy taught me all I needed to learn about bloody marriage.  Did you know they decided to divorce right in the middle of my GCE ‘A’ Level Exams?  I’m upstairs studying while they’re downstairs screaming at each other!  No, no marriage for me, young man!  No!”

“It isn’t always hereditary.”  I looked up to meet her green eyes staring dreamily at me.

“You’re lovely, Chas!  You’re a beautiful, brilliant young man and if I could meet someone like you I’d marry them tomorrow; but don’t worry!”  She slapped the table for emphasis.  “You’re too young for me, dear boy.  Much, much too young!”

“I wish you’d stop treating me like I was still in short trousers,”  I told her.  “Anyway, you’re not my grandmother; what’s the difference between us?  A few years?”

“Ho – ho!  And a few more, sweetie. Are we done here?”

I scanned the empty plates.  “I guess so.”

“Good.   Not that I don’t mean – thank you for the meal, and stuff – because I do.  I do. I was ravenous, in fact.  Now I’ll just pop to the restrooms and then we’ll head for – oh, frig!”  Nel’s attempts to rise teetered for a moment at the edge of disaster.  “Chas, darling, I wonder if you would mind steadying my arm?  Just as far as the bathroom, darling – not inside, you understand?  Nothing so personal.”

So I helped her to her feet as decorously as possible, then steered her on her course towards the restroom, trying to disguise a smile as our anxious waiter snatched a chair from her path.  Nel drew herself up as she passed.  “I’m a lady of poise and elegance, you know.”  She informed him.  “You’re lucky to be enjoying my patronage.”

While Nel was indisposed I called a taxi, settled the bill and provided three autographs, because the maître had recognized me and spread the word.  I prayed none of them had called a photographer. For the ten minutes before Nel re-emerged I was a sitting duck.

Somehow we made it to the pavement.   The taxi made it shortly after.

“Can you drop me at the West Dock,”  I told the driver, “and take this lady on to Casterley, please?”

“No, man – no way!  Ah can tak’ yer down the docks, like, bur Ah’m not gan ter Casterley this time o’ neet.”

Nel blinked owlishly at me.  “What time of ‘neet’ is it, might one enquire?”

“Half past twelve.”  I told her.  I started waving money:  “Not even if I…”

“Nah, nor even if tha’ waves the Croon Jools.  Ah’m not poor, an’ ah’m finished fer the neet affer this.”

“North Docks it is then.”  I said.

“Chas!  What am I going to do?  You aren’t going to drive me home, sweetie; not after the drinks you’ve had.”

“We’ll spend the night on the boat.”

“There’s a boat?” As our taxi turned onto the quayside the North Docks Marina came into view.   I nodded in the appropriate direction.  “That one?  Is that yours?”  Nel sounded impressed.  “Driver, you may take us to our yacht.  I did not know you possessed a boat, Chas.”  Then, drawing nearer to our destination:  “Not that it matters; I couldn’t get down there if I was stone-cold sober, darling.   Aren’t there stairs, or something?”

We managed the transition from shore to jetty by means of a ladder which really wasn’t very testing, although it brought forth a variety of girlish noises from my companion.

“Oh my god, is that one yours?” She padded along the jetty behind me, letting me carry her heels, swaying dangerously as I released the cover that allowed access to the well deck.  Shore to ship would prove our greatest challenge, extracting a series of squeals and a frankly undignified jump which culminated in a tangled heap on the deck.   Face to face we appraised each other.

“Oh, Charles, you are naughty!”

“No I’m not!”  I replied, firmly.  She smelled of Coco Chanel with essence of distillery.  I helped her to her feet.  “Would you like some coffee?”

“God, no!”

“Well then, it’s bed for you.”  I unlocked the hatch to the after stateroom.

“There you go again!  Control yourself, Charles!  You’re behaving like a dreadful animal, you know.”  I turned up the light.  “Oh, my lord, is that all bed?”

“Most of it.  The head –sorry, the bathroom – is right there. I know it looks like a cupboard but it contains all the facilities you want – including a shower.  Have fun!   I’ll put some heat on for you, and I’ll be in the forward berth if you want me.”

Nel picked up a dog-eared little book that was lying on the coverlet.  “What’s this?”

“Nothing important. Something I brought up with me to have a look at this afternoon.  Just pop it in one of the overhead cupboards if it’s in your way.  I hope you sleep well.”

It was close to ten am when Nel’s head appeared in the hatch that separated the well deck from the saloon.  I was at the table with coffee in my hand.  “Hi!  Want some?  It’s in the pot.”

“Yes, please.”

“You didn’t want any last night,” I challenged her.

“Oh, Chas, I was dreadfully drunk!  I’m really sorry.”  She gestured down to her black dress, “I’m ready for my walk of shame!”

“Don’t go yet.  Do you want something to eat?”

“You must be kidding, right?”

“I am, actually, yeah.  But don’t go.  Come sailing!   Two days off the coast; its beautiful out there this morning and the weather forecast’s great!  We’ll have fun!”

“Your favourite expression.  But no, I can’t Chas.  I’ve got to feed my poor cat…”

“You haven’t got a cat.”  I accused her.  “You admitted as much, last night.”

“I did?  All right then, I want to look after my dress; this isn’t exactly sportswear.”

“Wear these.”  I picked up a neatly folded outfit of grey slacks and a fleece, and tossed them to her.  “I even have a pair of rope soles about your size, I think, and a storm jacket.  It’s alright, they’re all perfectly clean, they were only ever worn once.”

Nel sighed.  “I’ll try them on,” she said.  “You can really sail this boat alone?”

“Of course.  It’s not that large, and it’s a motorsailer; it practically sails itself.  The trickiest bit is getting out of the marina.  You can crew for me if you like.”

“Or I could submit to the demands of my tortured body by stretching out on the cabin roof and going to sleep?  I should have brought my cossy.”

“No,”  I told her.  “This is the North Sea.  You shouldn’t.  You’ll come, then?”

“Yes, Charles.  Thank you for inviting me.”

So, for the next day and a half we sailed, and once her initial frailty had passed, Nel was an enthusiastic, very competent crew, meaning we were able to keep the boat under sail for much longer.  We made our way up the coast as far as a little abandoned fishing harbor I knew that was set into the granite cliffs, and we moored there for the night.  Nel was aglow, her eyes shining as we ate together in the galley.  I had never seen her like this.  It occurred to me, therefore, that I had never seen her truly happy.

“This is a wonderful experience.”  She said.

“For those who take to it,” I agreed, “There’s nothing better.  Maybe we might do it again sometime?”

“Yes.  Oh yes! They were really seals!  I’ve never seen so many in one place!”

Snugly clad against the sunset wind, we climbed worn-down stairs cut into the rock that fish wives had once used to carry boxes of their catch up from the tiny harbor to their village at the cliff-top.  They were steep and narrow, those stairs; in bygone days glazed with fish juice to a treacherously slippery sheen, now tamed by the sure-footedness of our rope soles.

We sat together at the headland on a ruined wall for an hour or more, watching the sea’s darkening mood as the sun set behind high hills at our backs.  Nel had snuggled against my shoulder and I moved to kiss her because it seemed so natural.  Because I had never kissed Nel before, no matter how much I’d wanted to.  She blocked me, her hands against my chest.

“Woa!  No, Chas!”

I drew back a few inches, stroking her cheek.  “You don’t like me so much now you’re sober, huh?”

“You know it isn’t that.  But I meant what I said last night (what I can remember of it); I’m too old for you, darling.  It won’t work!”

“I’m not asking for a lifetime’s commitment, Nel.  Just so you know, the difference in our ages matters not one jot to me.  Never mind, I’ll keep my distance if that’s what you want.”

Nel smiled, running her fingers through my hair.  “It’s what I want.”

Back at the boat, our wind-scorched lungs pleaded for rest.  Nel seemed especially fatigued, so we made our way to our berths, and searched in the wave-lapping darkness for a sleep that never quite arrived.  Time eddied and drifted, so I had no idea what hour it was when I heard my cabin door click gently off its latch.

“I’m cold,”  Nel said.

“Really?  Shall I turn the heating up higher?”

“No.”

“Do you want to…”

“Yes, please.”

I tried to discern her form as she stood beside me in the darkness; “What on earth are you wearing?”  I asked.

“Unless there’s something I’ve forgotten, nothing at all.”

The next morning the sun woke us through the window of the forward cabin.  Nel, rebuffing my refreshed enthusiasm, slipped from the bed and struck a pose with her back to me in the doorway.

“Venus De Milo?  What do you think?”

“Please, she was built like a tank!”

“Aphrodite at the bath?”

“No bath.  Anyway, she was another one with a small head.”

“Speaking of small heads…”

When Nel returned some minutes later, she was holding that little book – John’s diary – in her hand.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking of – things – so I took a look at this.”

“It’s a diary,”  I told her.  “John Hargreave, my best friend, kept it before he died.  He went down the Bridge, you know?”

“I remember that, yes. Most of the writing in here is just fantasy stuff.  Key sequences for games and such.  It’s just these last two pages that puzzle me.  Lists of letters and numbers…do they mean anything to you?”

“I’m clueless, I’m afraid.”

“I think they follow the diary dates; for instance, all these figures in this block apply to the 12th of the month.  See this? LBEWHT727MB1812WE HCL19. What can that mean?”

“I have no idea;” I replied honestly.  “Have you any thoughts?”

“Maybe.  Look at the last entry:  WE1225MB1403, scrawled very quickly, I’d say, almost as if he was in a hurry.  Chas, I love this sort of detective work; may I…?”

“Of course.  Go for your life.  But I should warn you, this is all history.  John, bless him, was dead and buried a few years ago, now.”

“It’s probably nothing, but old secrets fester, and people get careless with the years.  I’ll see what I can discover.”

“We ought to set sail, I said.

We ran before the wind most of the day, using the time gained to navigate close to the Farrin Islands, sending Nel into transports of delight as ever-curious seals swam almost within reach.   When we finally made landfall at Bedeport it was early evening, but Nel politely rebuffed my invitation to dinner.  We said our goodbyes, awkwardly, on the quayside.

“Are you going straight back to Torley?”  Nel asked.

“No, I’m going to take the boat to be refuelled first.  Where’s your car?”

“Up in the town.   Can I send these back to you?”  She gestured to the clothes she had borrowed, never knowing they had been last worn by Angie.

“I can get back up here next week.  Shall we…?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you said you loved the sailing….”

“I did, before we – before I – slept with you.  Now, I’m less certain.”

“I’m that bad in bed?”

“No – oh, no.  Quite reverse.  I’m a little scared, to be honest.  Look, I’ll ‘phone you, Chas.  Thank you for a lovely time!”

Nel gave me a kiss that was a peck and just a little more.  Then she turned her back, putting a skip in her step as she walked away.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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