Satan’s Rock

Part Thirty-One

A visitor of Distinction

There was no inaccuracy on Peter’s part:  he relayed Melanie’s message to the gathering in his parents’ living room exactly as she sent it; she was, indeed, learning.  Her day, which began by climbing a perilous flight of cliff-side steps without suspecting supernatural assistance had altered the balance of her relationship with Agnes, her host, quite profoundly. Agnes who knew, (and explained with some reverence) that many of those steps had crumbled and collapsed into the sea almost a century ago, drove her the miles of winding road she would have had to walk, had she reached the headland where she was found by any natural means.  But they did not return to Agnes’s villa by the sea; instead, they drove on to the local town, and Melanie suffered the unique experience of changing her clothes into ‘something more suitable’ which Agnes had the forethought to bring, in the back of a Land Rover

The hotel appointed for the meeting Agnes had arranged was uniquely Scottish: a high-fronted building of severe grey stone with windows glowering defiantly over a town square in which small businesses rippled around like eddies in a wind-stirred pond.  Within its doors there was a feeling of warmth and oak, mellowed by voices in highland tune.  Agnes was recognised by the desk-clerk who nodded towards the lounge, wherein, beneath a slightly moth-compromised stag’s head, sat a man of distinction.

Melanie knew, immediately, that this man was important to her.   Rising to his feet with effortless grace, the man took her hand and raised it to his lips in a perfunctory kiss.  She was taken so completely by surprise by this that she almost snatched the hand away:  no-one had ever greeted her so before.

“Lady Agnes” He said in a voice which trickled like honey; “You bring me a jewel of exquisite beauty.   Welcome, my dear Miss Fenton.”

Such a greeting should have caused Melanie to recoil: from any other man it would have seemed insincere, sleazy, almost.  Not from this man.  His dress was immaculate; the dark suit of finest cloth, the shirt radiantly white, his tie tastefully blue. When she looked up into his face, his olive skin taut with muscle and remembered pain, she saw the scars which traced a pale lattice there, and caught the magic of his deep brown eyes, her Lawrence, her Arabian Knight, her saviour from herself.  She was speechless: she shook, but not with fear.  No, even though his face was the face of a devil, she could not feel fear from him.

“Let me introduce myself.  I am Marak.  This will be a strange name to you, because I am from a far-off land.  Please, let us sit?  Would you like something to drink, some wine, perhaps?”

Melanie tried to speak but no words came out.  So she just nodded assent.

“This, I think.”   Marak selected one of several bottles from a table beside his chair, pouring into a sparkling glass.  “You see, I am prepared.   I, myself, do not drink: you must forgive me.   Lady Agnes?   A fine peat-cured malt, I believe?”  – Another bottle, another glass.

Dazed, Melanie tried to take in her situation. 

“You are asking yourself why you are here.”   Marak said.   “So I must tell you.”

And he did.

Her meeting at the hotel was not a long one, yet in its space Melanie grew by several years.  She felt she fully understood, now, her place in the universe.  Although until this precise hour she had never heard of a society called ‘The Toa’, still less had an appreciation of the mystical universe it believed to exist, Marak’s depiction of it was so enticing, so sympathetic to her own interpretation of her ‘gift’ as to convince her utterly.

 There was nothing in Marak’s account of his beliefs, of his assertion that a bridge between life and death existed, that seemed less credible than Peter’s chosen path.   It was much more acceptable to her that she might be a prophetess whose powers would lend substance to spiritual contact, to bring comfort to the grieving.   She little knew that the bereft people of Marak’s philosophy were nations not individuals, or that the Toa’s spiritual gateway to a paradise world was most frequently opened by a bomb.   How would she?  After all, Bianca, her own mother’s sister, was a believer.   How could her aunt’s straightened middle-class morality be even suspected of seeking such a devious route to salvation?

Taking tea with Agnes that evening, back at the old lady’s seaside retreat, Melanie felt she was about to take a seven-league stride in her life.  She wished for it, even relished it.   She had met with someone who could be a big part of her future:  if she could only just bear the next twelve hours – then she would be with him again!

In early evening with the sun still bright, Melanie left Agnes to her book and took a walk along the shore of the little bay.  She did not want, particularly, to return to the chill, blighted harbour beyond the tunnel, but her steps seemed to draw her there.    It was as if the two adjacent arms of the sea were connected in some way other than the physical – as though the tunnel somehow formed a link between the present and the past. Was this how she had performed her small ‘miracle of the steps’ that morning?   But if she hoped, emerging from dark tunnel to scant light on the harbour side, that she might see the little place as it had been in happier times – bustling with fisher folk, landing boxes crammed with the sea’s rich pickings, she was to be disappointed.  The tiny harbour was cold and deserted.

At the foot of the flight of steps she paused, half-expecting to be able to repeat her morning’s climb, but they were as she had seen them the day before, eroded and insurmountable; so she turned her attention seaward where, far off, a lonely boat bobbed, so tiny that it dipped from view often and again in the folds of ocean.  

“Where are you, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was at once distant and near; inside her head and yet as far away as that little boat.  She was neither surprised nor scared by it – it was Peter’s voice.  It came with a warm music she had heard before, and it was like a cup she might raise or put aside as she chose.  “Hello, Peter!”  Her mind replied.   She told him where she was, knowing it did not matter, for tomorrow she would be gone.   She did this because, through it all, her mum remained a tiny hook upon reality, an anchor she could draw in if she had to go back to all that one day.   And, after all, Karen was her mum.   She should not worry – her daughter was in charge of her world.  

Melanie scanned the tiny harbour one last time.   She would never, ever forget this place.   Shuddering, she turned away from that little piece of hell with honour in her heart for those had toiled there, but gladness that she would not return.

#

In the dusk high above Levenport a white gull wheeled and drifted with the freshening wind.   At any time in any day there might be a hundred such gulls in just this patch of heaven, but this day it was almost alone, for a couple of trawlers had discarded waste from their catch out in the bay, gathering its brethren in a screeching host.   Enjoying the wind, proud of its skill in riding it, the great bird seemed to dance to its own private music.  Over a town like Levenport there were wind eddies and thermals:  baffles provided by high buildings, warm, rising air from commercial flues, cold tunnels rushing in from the sea.   Swerving upward on a draught, almost stalling at the peak of the lift, delicately twitching the angle of its flight feathers into a dive before turning tail to a gust, hurtling forward like a graceful arrow and round again, this gull was simply playing: having fun.   Yet the bird’s eyes never rested.  It watched everything.

The gull seemed fascinated by the way the waste of human occupation was taken by the wind.  How it, too, swirled and turned, twisted and tumbled.  Paper, plastic cartons, detritus and dust all formed their separate patterns: they were like another tide, a different sea.   The gull was professorial in its study of these movements:  it knew them minutely, predicted them to perfection.

An attentive onlooker might have noticed the creature’s flight pattern was not, in fact, random at all:  they might have seen how its earlier separation from the predatory host in the bay had led it first to circle above St. Benedict’s House for long enough to witness the House owner’s Ferrari bringing him home on a visit he had not intended to make; or observed that the gull’s navigation took it close to one street, and at last to one particular roof.  It watched the lights from inside the house beneath, and the van with two humans inside parked just a little down the road.  After a while, it descended to rest, perching upon the high, narrow stack of the Cartwrights’ household chimney.  Preening itself, combing rebellious feathers delicately with its viciously hooked beak, the gull seemed to be waiting for something.             

The warning found Vincent in his bathroom.  Vincent was covered in soap.    “Why?”   He complained out loud.   “Why does this always bloody happen just when I’m having a shower?”

Melanie had just returned from her contemplative walk along the shore deep in melancholy, to sit on one of the wooden seats which graced Agnes’ veranda.  She was resisting the first evening chill, reluctant to go indoors to Agnes’ well-meaning but drab conversation, and unprepared for the image of a naked middle-aged man which suddenly blasted across her brain.   She shrank instinctively from the image of a follically impoverished head with a pair of mighty ears, a wrinkled, gaunt body, and what other features she tried not to envision!   Yet however it  repulsed her with its nudity this figure was familiar to her in some way.   It went almost as rapidly as it arrived.  A Wrong number?   Was that a feature of telepathy she might encounter again? Squirming afresh at the recollection: she returned to her thoughts.

#

As thoughts go, among the gathering in the Cartwright household Lesley’s may perhaps have been the most challenging to read.   When Peter had related the nature of his gift had she convinced herself that it did not matter if the guy she was with was a little eccentric, a bit harmlessly loopy, as long as it felt so good to be with him? This was merely an aspect of his personality she could compartmentalise, set aside from the person she had discovered:  the person who, however inappropriately, she knew she might actually love.  But now?   Well, now there was no point in denial:  if the other simple little tests of the day had not been enough she had felt the mad heat of sheer power that shot through their clasped hands as he made contact. It had torn into her body – she had seen Melanie as clearly, perhaps, as he.  There was no denying that Peter was everything he claimed to be.   So how might she go on, knowing that truth?  Knowing all that she knew?.

“We don’t have very much longer;” Howard’s words intruded:  “We have to move you, son, and we have to do it soon.”

Peter made no reply, for Lesley’s face betrayed those same doubts he had seen long ago in the features of someone else he held dear.  His world was collapsing.

“Peter?”  His mother’s voice drew him from his thoughts.   Lena’s own comprehension had been stretched in the past few minutes.  Although she had seen changes taking place in her son, maybe even known something a little more than natural was happening to him, she could not, would not, accept what she had just witnessed.  Worse, she could see how completely Karen was taken in, the unjustifiable relief her dear friend took from this – this adolescent fantasy!   Karen was already preparing to leave with body language that made clear she would not stop until she reached this Scottish cove.  

Karen believed; Lena didn’t.   Yet everything had begun to drop into place: the urgency of the duplicitous Howard, the manner of Melanie’s disappearance.   Married to a clergyman, Lena’s life was moulded around her propensity for rationalisation, for finding a truth behind the lie.  But who was telling the truth this time? 

Peter understood his mother’s torment.   “Mum,” he said,   “Go to the window in the front room.  Keep back from the glass, look down the street and you’ll see a van parked on the other side of the road, about fifty meters away.  Howard’s ‘people’, a man and a woman, are inside it.  They‘re watching this house.”    His mother hesitated.  “Please?”

At first Howard did not take the bait, but after  Lena had exited, he asked:  “How do you know there’s a woman in there?  Is that a guess?”   Charlie never showed herself on surveillance:  she always stayed behind the driver, out of sight.

Peter replied:  “You mean Charlie?  I can see her.”

“My god you are real, aren’t you?  In that case you’ll see we have to get out.  Now!”  Howard sprang into action, proudly unboxing skills that had lain unused for many years.  “We’ll need a diversion….”

“It’s all arranged.”  Peter cut in.  “Howard, I won’t be going with you.”   His tone was detached, his eyes on Lesley, who had wandered away and now stood with her back to him, looking  through the small window into Lena’s studio.  He knew she was close to tears.

Lena returned: if she had left the room with any purpose, that purpose had deserted her.  She looked smaller somehow, and not a little confused.    “It’s there.”  She said simply.  “You can see that?”

“Peter,”  Tom Cartwright reasoned:  “I would say that Sullivan here does have a point, you know.  Mightn’t it be better to keep out of these people’s way for a while?”

“I will dad.   But I’ll do it….”  Peter hesitated, concentrating still upon Lesley’s back; “…..on my own, I guess.   I’ll leave in a while, Mr. Sullivan, but not with you.    You have to help to find Melanie.”

Howard’s frustration was evident:  “But it’s like throwing you to the lions!”

Everyone was standing now.   Karen said, more in an expression of reverence than anything else: “Total self-belief.   He has it, don’t you think?”   And, making to gather her coat and handbag, she added:  “Peter, I believe in you.   Thank you. Howard darling, can we go?”

“It seems I’m robbed of choice,”   Howard said, defeated.

Each left the room in their turn; Karen and Howard by the back gate, which led out into an alley behind the street.  This was accepted by Howard, knowing it would fool no-one: without Peter, though, he was not a target yet.  He might be followed, if his colleagues had extra man-power to do it, but they had been briefed to abduct Peter, not him.   Sensing Peter’s need to be alone with Lesley, his father spoke softly to his wife and they, also withdrew, although Lena couldn’t resist mentioning she was “Going to clear up in the kitchen.”

Lesley’s expression was inscrutable.  “Well, that put a damper on the mood,” she said quietly.  “I think I should go too.”  She headed for the door.   Peter held her arm.

“Les?   Please don’t?”

“Why not?   I mean, you don’t need me to keep these bastards away.  You’re bloody superman, or something.”

“It isn’t my fault.  I didn’t ask for this to happen to me.”

“Yeah, I know.   Look mate, I’ve got something to sort out, Okay?”

“What?  I can explain everything – I haven’t hidden anything from you.  Don’t, break us up, please?”   Peter pleaded.  “I need you!   All this, this stuff; I can’t handle it on my own.”   Lesley gave him a rueful grin.  “You should.  You’re good at it.  You’re scary, you know that?  Really scary!”

“And you don’t – like – me enough?”

“Oh, hey!”  She came to him then, stroked his cheek fondly:  “What’s the cliché?  It isn’t you, it’s me?  You’ve been telling me everything, but s’pose there are things I haven’t told you, yeah?  Stuff of my own?”

“What ‘stuff’?” 

“Oh, just ‘stuff’.  It’s like I took a path I thought was sweet, and calm, and sunny, and after a few steps I realised it wasn’t.  I was seeking one thing, and I found something else.  Something just as fabulous, maybe:  I dunno.  I can’t work that out.  Like I said; ‘stuff’.”

“So you’re parting with me?” 

“Yeah, for a bit.   You’ll be alright.  With – all that – how couldn’t you be?  I need a bit of space, Pete, that’s all.”

Lesley turned on her heel and walked from the room, just as he remembered Melanie’s parting with him one not so distant morning on the road to St. Benedict’s Rock.  Moments later, Peter heard the front door close behind her.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-Eight

Ascending

 The Causeway Café was one of those dejected-looking businesses which eke out a living on the margins of the English tourist trade.   Viewed from almost the entire length of Levenport seafront, St Benedict’s Rock was arguably a thing of scenic beauty, framed by sea and sky.   From here, at the very end of the road which connected it to the shore, its great mass was just a little too close, a little too massive: forbidding and black, it eclipsed the sun.   No landward attractions drew interest to this extremity of the Esplanade.  Its shops and arcades all clustered around the western end, where gulls circled over Levenport’s little fishing harbour and the larger hotels basked in such riches as the season could offer.   Peter was one of only three customers that morning who sat at the Causeway Café’s open-air tables, braving the elements.  An elderly woman in a camel coat sipped noisily at tea: a harassed mother placated her whining child.   At ten-thirty despair drove Peter to text Lesley.   “Cswy Caf. RU comg?  Luv U, Peter.”

Five minutes, then the reply.  “Y.”

He watched her approach from far off, a disconsolate figure with none of the usual purpose in her stride.   Jeans, a short jacket, hands in pockets, her hay-cloud of hair flying in the stiff breeze.   She looked miserable, and cold.

“Alright,”   She said sullenly,   “Why here?”

“I want you to come over to The Rock with me.”

“Oh, no!   Just say what you want to say, and talk fast.  I want to go home.”

“I can’t just tell you.  You wouldn’t believe me if I did.   I have to show you.”

What could he show her?   How could he make her believe him – better yet believe in him?  He had no idea.   He only knew that here was the one person who absolutely must believe him, and she would, however reluctantly, walk with him the half-mile of wind-whipped causeway, and up the road which led around the shady, damp northern face of The Devil’s Rock.

As they walked he told his story – of his first visit to the rock, his invitation to Vincent’s home, of Toby and the cave.  He did not omit his parting with Melanie, or how she had rejected the fate she was being offered.  It was time to be honest about everything, because this was the only chance he would be given.   Finally he explained why he had not called her that weekend; and he related the incident at Hemlington, including Howard’s part in it.   By the time he had stuttered lamely to the end of his tale, they were wandering through the half-ruined, impoverished village at the foot of the rock.  Lesley, who had listened without interruption, maintained her silence.  Shivering against the cold she remained frostily aloof until, as they ascended the little road up the side of the rock, while still deep in the despond of its northern shade, she picked her occasion to say, loudly:.

“That’s the biggest load of crap I ever heard.”

With sinking heart, Peter nodded.   “I know that’s how it sounds.”

“Peter, it’s just nuts!   I mean, they could put you in a home for spouting that stuff!”

Peter turned away, afraid she would see the emotion written on his face.  But then he felt her hand, slipping into his.    “That would mean I fancy a head-case.   I’m not that bad a judge, am I?”

He dared not trust his voice.  He shook his head.

“I mean, you think you can really…..do some of those things?”

He nodded.

A tear escaped down Lesley’s cheek.  “Fuck!”    She said, swiping it away impatiently. “I’ve a shitty taste in blokes, but I really scooped the pool this time!”

They walked on together, hand in hand, then hip to hip.   In the tunnel between the shady and the sunny side of the Rock, they kissed, paving the metaphor for their emergence into mid-morning light.

It was a bright autumn day, made suddenly very new.

#

Melanie was aware of a dark cloud of melancholy closing around her, although she could not fathom why.   She had woken early to a watery sun leeching through the salt-spattered panes of her bedroom window.   The wind which had demanded entry so furiously in the night had tired of its pursuit.   Beyond the bay a rough sea still threw the odd scouting wave at the foreshore, but the clouds were gone.  The beach beckoned.

She had dressed quietly in the clothes of last night: those she had worn on the boat were still draped damply over a clothes-horse in Agnes’ kitchen.  No sound had come from Agnes’s room, so she slipped quietly downstairs and out onto the gravelly scrunch of the drive, following that weed-strewn path which led back to the old harbour.   Why she so needed to return there, she didn’t know:  she had no clear plans, or idea what she would find:  it was curiosity that drew her – the same curiosity which prevented her from following Agnes’s driveway to whatever road it sprang from and running until she was miles from this cold, wild place.  

The rock passage echoed to her footsteps.  There was no gale now.   Yet, if she expected the little harbour to seem more welcoming in the greater brightness of the day she was disappointed;  for the place was as stark and grim as before.   At the end of the tunnel the gentle breeze bit icily at her face, played a lonely lament through reeds of piled stone.  The sea washed black in the harbour basin, like a cold douche of arterial blood.

She found the ruined cottage to be no more enticing than the day before, and the old boat, still as  close to final decay.    She wandered about the harbour for a time, as the concrete of the wall was drier and easier to negotiate.  Even the stairway in the rock which led from the harbour to the top of the cliff no longer threatened certain death.   There was no incentive to tarry in this harsh place, so suspending her fear she, set herself to climb. Edging past treads that had eroded away meant progress needed to be careful, and she was thankful for the odd handhold in the side of the cliff, but Toby’s assessment of her as being ‘sure-footed as a mountain goat’ proved accurate once more.  

At the top of the cliff she found little to investigate.   The headland was a meadow of coarse grasses raked by generations of sea-salt and gale.   Of the village which had once striven for life here no more than an occasional stone remained.  The sun was warm though, and one of the larger stones inviting enough to lie upon.

Stretched out, Melanie was drifting into slumber when the faintest of scratching reached her inner ear, a sound so tiny that at first she doubted it was there at all.   Then a whisper came, like breathing in a silent room, as though someone or something wanted her attention.  Whatever it was, it was close – beside her left ear.

With great care, she turned her head to find that just inches from her face the miniscule pin-head eyes of a snake were fixed upon her.   The creature’s tongue, flicking in and out so fast it was little other than a blur, was the source of the whispering.   To her great surprise she felt neither fear nor revulsion, but rather a sense of sharing, of mutual need.   She adjusted her position, carefully offering a hand, palm upwards, so that the snake felt no threat.   Completely unafraid, the snake responded by slipping through her fingers to drape itself over her forearm where it seemed happy to rest, sharing her enjoyment of the sun.   Melanie was enchanted.  As softly as she might she stroked its head, running her forefinger along the earth-brown zigzags of its length.   She knew it was a viper, knew of its poison; but she knew, also, the creature had come as a friend, and she welcomed it.

            The snake remained with Melanie for a while, then, possibly hearing the sounds of a Land Rover carrying in the breeze, slipped silently away into the grass.   Before long a vehicle materialised.  This was Agnes, relieved to have recovered her charge.

“Melanie, my dear, I thought I had lost you!”

Melanie lifted herself onto her elbows to regard her captor.   “I was just here.  I thought I’d look for the village.”

“Well, come back with me now.  We have someone to meet.”

In the Land Rover, Agnes was solicitous.  “Are you warm enough?   I was beside myself!  However did you get here?”

“I walked.”

“Walked?   But my dear, it’s almost eighteen miles!   Whatever time did you start?”

“No.  No, it’s not very far at all!”  Melanie replied.  “I came straight up the stairway on the cliff.  It took me half an hour at most.”

Agnes said carefully:   “You’ve been away two hours or more.  Its half past eleven now, I noticed you had gone at nine o’clock or a little after.   And I told you last night:  the steps on the cliff are far too treacherous to climb. The only road to this place is this one, and it has to go right up the valley before it crosses the ravine and returns to the sea.   Did someone drive you here?”

 “I climbed the stairs on the cliff,”  Melanie repeated.   “They were slippery, but not too difficult.”

Agnes appeared to be wanting for words.

#                     

Peter was about to knock on Toby’s door.   Though fond, Lesley was still reticent. Since they had crossed to the more benevolent side of Old Ben, she had rarely spoken.   He felt her uncertainty; she had committed to him and he knew, in his heart, he should answer the questions she was reluctant to ask.  But his own insecurities played against him.  He needed to prove his truth to himself as much as to her, to show she was right to trust him.   He did not understand:  Lesley just needed to know she was loved.

“Peter?”   She stopped him. “That time at the big house?   You know that was, like, really different for me – really special?”

“I guessed.”    Peter kissed her forehead.  “It was pretty amazing for me, too, yeah?”

“It’s important to me – that you know?”   Her eyes betrayed her fears, but Peter did not see.

He knocked.

The sun was high over the south side of the rock, bathing the turning colours of heathland in a warm, September glow.  Most of the birds on ‘Old Ben’ were done with nesting now, singing their freedom in trees just tinged with gold.   A flock of seabirds wheeled and played below them on the lower cliffs: Tern, Kittiwake, Black Back Gulls, Guillemot.   Their distant cries added a descant to the song of the wind in the grasses, the tune of the blackbird and the thrush on the branch.  Nothing else stirred.

“He isn’t in.”   Peter accepted.

“It doesn’t matter.  Peter, let’s go home?”

“Come on, I’ll show you the cave.   Maybe, if you touch the rock, it will do for you what it did for me and Melanie…”

Peter carefully folded Lesley’s hand in his, leading her toward the narrow path on the seaward side. 

“Now, young Peter; where do you think you’m be goin’?”

Toby appeared in front of them, his malformed figure’s awkward, rolling gait suggesting a grotesque dance as he climbed the path.   Lesley suppressed a gasp of surprise.

“Toby!”   Peter felt genuinely delighted to see him.   “This is Lesley – we’re going down to the cave.”

  Toby stopped, hands on hips, breathing heavily from his efforts. “Tain’t poss’ble, young ‘un.”

“Why not?   I can do that climb now – so can Lesley, with my help.”

“What?  An’ you goin’ to put ‘er at risk, jus’ to prove what you’m told ‘er?    Wha’ you told ‘er, Peter?”

Peter knew the trust he had broken, yet he felt no shame.   “Everything.  Toby, whatever I have, Lesley shares.  I won’t keep secrets from her.”

 “Never’ less, it were given to you in confidence.   Peter, I can’t let you past, an’ I wouldn’t if I could.   That’s my job, lad.   That’s why I’m here.”    Immovable and austere, Toby stood between Peter and his proof: there was nothing Peter could do.

“Young Miss,”   Toby said, his stooped head and up-cast eyes giving Lesley an arch look;    “He’s already told ‘ee more than you’m s’posed to know.   More ‘an anyone’s s’posed to know.   He’s told you ‘cause of ‘ow he feels about ‘ee, that’s what I’m thinkin’.   He’s different, young Miss, very different.   But you can’t have what he has, unnerstand?  You never can.”

Peter was moved to protest, but Lesley took his arm, drawing him back.   “It’s all right, Peter,   I do understand.  Come on.”

“But you have to believe me!”

“Do I?  I want to be with you.  Isn’t that enough?”

“Take ‘er home, young Peter.”   Toby said.  “If she wants to stay with you she’m got troubles enough, I reckon.”

Peter still argued, but Lesley tugged his arm:  “I just want to go home, Peter!   We can do this some other time, yeah?”

Protesting, Peter allowed himself to be turned back up the path to the summit of the Rock.    As he watched their retreating forms, Toby shook his head sadly.   “Women!”   He murmured.  “’Credibly strange creatures, them.”

Lesley hugged Peter’s arm as they walked, keeping him close to her:  “Listen – all this, it doesn’t count:  it doesn’t matter to me.   What matters is you’ve told me – all the places in your head you were keeping me away from, you’ve let me in.    The smelly guy, the whole thing.  I’ll try to believe you.   It’s all mad, but I’ll try.   Seems like I can’t bloody live without you, so I’ll have to, won’t I?”

The sky was beginning to cloud over as they made their way back, past the house where the little girl played.   She at least was there,  dancing her secret little dance in the garden, as always.   Lesley watched her as they walked past, a laconic smile on her lips.   “Oh, sweet!”   She murmured:  “Petey, look at that!”

They, allowed the steep gradient of the hill to draw them down, back through the tunnel which led them to the dark side of the island.   Peter’s fear of impending doom at this point was unwarranted, for Lesley was not Melanie.   There would be no parting here.   Nevertheless, he clasped Lesley to his side protectively and when he heard the clatter of approaching horses, drew her close to the wall to let them pass, and it did not seem at all extraordinary to him that the creatures pulled a carriage, any more than it was unreasonable that the coachman wore a full livery, or its passengers, a young man, a veiled woman and a little boy, should be dressed in Regency fashion.  The carriage had past them, and Peter was looking after it as it made its way into the tunnel when he realised that Lesley was leaning into the wall with him and expecting to be kissed.

“That was nice and spontaneous!”  She murmured when they had disengaged, “If you want to go caveman on me it might be a bit public, though.  Your bum’d be visible from  most of the Esplanade.”

He laughed.  “I just didn’t want you to be flattened by a coach and horses, that’s all.  Although now you mention it…”

“Oh, there was a coach and horses, was there?  And here’s me thinking ‘he’s into exhibitionism now’!  What next?”

“Les!  There was an old carriage – it passed us, just then!”

Lesley scowled, then gave a smile:  “If you say so, love.”

 They walked quite slowly:  for a long time neither of them said much, their minds too full of each other to need words.   Back at the Causeway Café they ordered coffee and sat inside on scrooping wooden seats to warm up.   There was a real chill in the air now, and no sign of the sun.   On an impulse, Lesley kicked Peter’s leg under the table.   It hurt.

“What was that for?”

“Well, you being superhuman and all, I wanted to see if you feel pain.”

“You were right to try.  I didn’t feel a thing.”

“Oh, yeah!”

The coffee came. 

“Peter, I don’t understand what this  is all about, I don’t really care.   But if we stay together, I mean, if it works out that way, I want us to be happy, Okay?  I know it sounds stupid, but in fifty years’ time I’d sort of like to be like that insane old woman.”

“As if!   You’d like to be an insane old woman?”

“She was happy, Peter.  She might have been a bit cracked, but she was happy.  It was lovely.  I’d like to be a bit like that.”

“What old woman?”

“That one back on the rock:  you saw her – the old dear dancing in the garden.”

“Wait a moment.”  Peter tried to understand.  “There was a little girl – a child – dancing in a garden.   You said how sweet she looked.”

Lesley watched Peter’s face closely; seeking something she didn’t comprehend, but knew was there.  “Pete, that was not a little girl; that was a very old woman.  She must have been, like, eighty or something?”

A truth dawned on them both.   “I saw a little girl.”  Peter said.

“Yeah, you did, didn’t you?”  Lesley breathed.   “Oh Peter!”

© 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 Twelve

Warm Summer Lightning

In the heat of  afternoon, thunder threatened.  Beyond  Francine’s opened windows, the world hung, muted by  expectation.  No birds sang.  She lay upon the bed Arthur’s household had prepared for her, listening to the mutter and cursing of the elements, suffering the clinging heat which, though she wore the briefest of shifts from her limited wardrobe, brought a bloom of perspiration to her cheeks.   Earlier, a doctor summoned from the nearby village of Thorpe Harkness, had declared her injured arm sprained but unbroken, bandaged it and prescribed bed rest.   It was too hot!  Although she lay on top of the covers their fabric clung to her, defying any attempt at sleep.  So when someone’s knuckles rapped  upon her door she was wide awake.

“Come in!”  Expecting her maid, the invitation was issued without thought.  Too late she discovered her visitor was Arthur.  He stood framed by the doorway, hesitant, and unable, for an instant, to avert his eyes from the vision before him.

“Arthur!”  It was a small cry, embarrassed as it was confused, “I thought…I mean, I rang for Peggy…”  With her good hand, Francine probed for a sheet that might restore her modesty only to find she was lying on top of all the bedclothes,   The hand flapped helplessly.  Her face reddened in a furious blush.  “Forgive me!”

“No, no, no!”  Retreating, Arthur struggled to articulate; “The fault is all mine.   I will call upon you later, when you’re…”

He withdrew hastily.

She called after him.  “Please stay!”  She had’nt rung for her maid.  Why had she said it?  What possible excuse could she have for saying it?

Why did he turn?  What possible defence could he offer for this behaviour?  “If you…I mean, do you not..?”  Alone with a lady of respectable reputation, in her bedroom, and she in a state of such undress?

She read his thoughts, laughed at herself.  She laughed aloud, then rebuked herself immediately for laughing so loudly.  “There is such heat in this room,” She said; “Will you stay and sit with me for a while?”

Advancing as  a man guilty of outraging common decency at every step, Arthur drew up a chair beside Francine, whose eyes sparkled with delight, reminding him how bewitching she really was.   “Why do I feel I remember you?”  He asked. “When I am certain we have not met before this year?”

She raised her injured arm slightly, gesturing towards the ewer on her nightstand.  “I feel ridiculous!  One petty injury so disadvantages me I cannot reach a cloth to bathe my face, Arthur.  Could you…?”

“Of course.”  He stood once more, his back turned to her as he drenched a flannel in cool water from the jug.  The thought of his muscled thighs, clothed though they were to respectability by his breeches, so awakened her that she almost lost herself when he turned to her once more.  Then cold water dripped upon her arms and breasts and she giggled girlishly.

“You saved my life, sir, today.”  She murmured through the cloth, as using her good hand she bathed her face luxuriantly; “And now it feels as though you have saved it again!  Ah, this revives my spirits so wonderfully!”

“It was your son who saved you, ma’am,” Arthur returned, “Young Samuel discovered you were not abed, then led us to your aid.  He is a fine fellow.”

“Then I have another debt of gratitude,” She declared.  “Is my little frog quite well?/”

“Exuberantly so, ma’am.  He has made a confidante of your maid.  Peggy and he conspire together in the servants’ hall.”

“And I am forever in your debt.  Ah, me!  So many obligations!”   Francine drew the wetted cloth from her face, slipping it over her chin and throat to her shoulders, gently stroking her pale skin with its moist relief.  A tiny trickle found its way beneath the hem of her shift before vanishing into the cleft between her breasts,  Arthur was captivated,   “You watch me closely, sir,”  she chided him kindly,  and it was his turn to blush.

With no further comment she reclined for a while, the exposed part of her bosom draped by cold cloth.   When its pleasing effect had dissipated, she asked, in altered tones and with candour, “Why are you so disturbed by the thought that we might have previously been acquainted?  What do you think it is that exists between us?”

He pondered that question deeply:   “I feel – no, I am sure – we have met before.   On each occasion when we speak of this I grow more certain, yet I cannot explain it.  I can tell you the story of my life in some detail and find nowhere that you might fit within it; nevertheless…”  He spread his hands.

Once again the searching intensity of Francine’s stare sought his eyes, and were they the window to his soul she would surely have opened it.  “Is it not as if there were a locked room somewhere that we shared?”  Her long fingers absently guided the cloth to the limits of her neckline and began to seek beneath her shift as if they mimicked the action of his hands, for she desired his touch quite shamelessly.

Then the moment was passed, and he had seen and felt the same temptation.  Arthur rose to his feet. 

“I must go!”  He exclaimed, afraid of himself.   He took her hand in both of his.  “Francine, whatever this is, the answer must be found, and I am certain it hides within your vanished history.  You may be sure we shall uncover the truth.”

Don’t! Stay!  Her inner voice wanted him to remain, but he retreated purposefully and her door closed briskly behind him.  She knew as well as him the constricts of reputation which had demanded that he leave, yet her heart and her body saw no reason to resist their mutual passion, and if his hands and his morals had strayed, she would have made no complaint.  Was she so permissive, so morally dissolute?    Of one thing she felt certain:  this Arthur was the man whom she and Maud Reybath, her ‘sister’ from Bleanstead so urgently sought.  Although its mechanism was beyond her understanding, Francine knew a gate was rapidly closing, a gate only Maud could help her to find.  A message must be sent to Bleanstead somehow, confidentially and without delay…

The room, far darker now, flared with sudden lightning.  Thunder cracked in a fusillade of fury.  The storm had begun.

#

Peter and Melanie made pilgrimages to The Devil’s Rock together a few times after Peter’s first visit to St. Benedict’s House.   For his part, maybe, Peter wanted to justify the description he had given Melanie of the Great House, to introduce her to Vincent and Alice.   It was important Melanie should be with him if he were ever able to visit there again.  From those late March days to this, though, the house had been locked and silent, its gatehouse closed.

 The seagull, the bird with the diamond mark on its neck, never reappeared.

Melanie came with him for reasons of her own.   She had fallen in love with the place.  The rock, with its dark and light sides like the two hemispheres of the moon, its rugged wildness and big, wide open skies was reflective of her mood right now.  She needed the sunshine of the seaward slopes, warmed to the cosy little homes, full of summer visitors, which nestled there.   And sometimes she needed the damp twilight world of the landward ruins as much.   The old rock was a mystical playground, somewhere to release the child which was still so vital a part of her.  Here she felt welcomed, and at home.

Then there was a deeper, more brooding affinity.   Why, when she so hated thunderstorms, for instance, did she always feel drawn to this place when the weather was at its height?   Why did she so want to stand on the roof of that Great House and actually feel the lightning playing around her?   Frightened for herself, she would make a shuddering withdrawal from these thoughts, but they always came back when the next storm brewed.  Her mother’s bedroom window directly faced the rock across the bay:  she would stand sometimes for an hour there, gazing through driving rain at its craggy outline, her head filled with wild dreams.

Last, though by no means least, there was Peter.   One reason why the rock always seemed so special was Peter: being with him on this island just fitted somehow, as though the last piece of a jigsaw were slotted into place.  In the deepening of their friendship Melanie was finding a meaning – something she  was happy to accept and let grow.   For the moment, let it suffice that there was nowhere she would rather be than here, sunbathing on the grassy slope of the south side, lying beside Peter.   Let the grass be a little wet: the sun had been scarce for a while; it did not matter.   Time would cease to have meaning.

“What things did he ask about me, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was close:  she felt his breath on her cheek.

“Hmmm?”   Melanie opened one eye.   “Are you asleep, Mel?  Well no, not now, Babes.”

His eyes were a bright, disquieting blue.  ‘I wish he would kiss me.’   Her thoughts said.    She raised herself on her elbows quickly:    “Who – what are you talking about?”

“Howard.   You said he was asking about me.  What did he ask?”

Howard’s first question had been ‘Is Peter your boyfriend?’ and very quickly without thinking she had said ‘yes’ but she would not tell Peter that.

“He asked what we liked to do together; what you were like, where you lived….usual stuff.”

“You didn’t tell him anything about …..”

“This place?   Your little nightmare?   No, of course not.”   Melanie giggled.   “I did say you were a bit strange sometimes.”

“Did he react to that?”

“How do you mean, ‘react’?  Did his tummy start to wobble sinisterly, did ectoplasm flow from every orifice – what?”

“Ask more questions….”

“He was, well, a little probing.   But I didn’t give anything away.   Why are you so concerned?”

Peter shook his head.  “I don’t like him.  I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a feeling: don’t tell him about the dream, Mel?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”    Mel started to get to her feet. “And speaking of feelings, its time we moved on, I’m afraid.”

“Do we have to?  It’s really peaceful here.”

“Yes, we do.”  Mel insisted.   She was afraid of herself:  afraid if she stayed in this desultory conversation, dreaming and talking and talking and dreaming, she would allow unsaid words to be said, let secrets out.

“Why?”

“I want to see if the House is still locked up.  If this Vincent of yours isn’t here today, he should be.   No-one should miss a day like this.”   It was an excuse, but it was one she knew would work.  Peter was as anxious as she to find Vincent at home.

“Okay!”   In a sudden burst of energy Peter leapt to his feet:   “First one to the top!”

“Oh, no – not a race!  You are so juvenile sometimes!”   But she watched his retreating back and the strength of his legs as they thrust against the sharp incline, and a little groan escaped her lips.   She followed with a resigned heart.

The pair had long since discovered a path which, although steep, wound its way directly up the southern aspect of the rock.   Leaving the holiday cottages below, this path led through a minor forest of rhododendrons.  The only habitation in sight, occasionally through gaps in the undergrowth above them, was Toby’s cottage.

Peter clambered up the rocky track, oblivious to Melanie’s wanton stare.   Soon he was struggling through the bushes and she was out of sight.   In the midst of the rhododendron maze, suddenly, there was a sense of loneliness:  a harmonizing with the isolation of the island.   He heard, in the hovering air, the sounds of violence and betrayal from its past.  How many lives had perished on these slopes?   How many dreams and aspirations had been broken here?   Village fishermen drowning in shattered boats pulverised against the rocks below: the abbot watching as his monastery was torn stone from stone; Crowley’s ashen visage at a window of the House, knowing (Peter was sure he knew) how his wife’s lover planned and schemed at his coming end.  And more, and more stories, more and more unsettled accounts.   He heard them, these tormented souls, muttering in the rush of breeze among the grasses, lurking in the trees below.   An eruption waiting to happen: a vendetta against this terrible place, ready to be repaid.

“Well now young Peter!”

The voice was right behind him and so surprised Peter that he only just suppressed a yelp of alarm.

“What be you doin’ ‘ere maister?  The house bain’t open today, you know.”

“Toby.”  Peter breathed:  “We…..er….my friend and I, we’re just visiting the island.”

“Friend, eh?  Don’t see no friend.”

“No…she’s…she’ll be along in a minute.”   Peter tried to regain some self-possession:  “How are you, Toby?”

Toby did not, in fact, look very well.   His always puffy, debauched face was an unnatural pink, and his eyes had a furtive look.  He had improved significantly in one regard, however, for which Peter was grateful.  Seeing Melanie labouring up the path behind Toby he was very glad the cottager was fully clothed.

Melanie found herself being introduced to a grubby, rather bulky man in a check shirt and the nearest thing to moleskin trousers she had ever seen outside a costume museum.  She considered that if the wind were to blow in another direction she would be able to smell him.  The prospect was not pleasant.

“Hello Toby.”   She said.

Toby reached forward to grasp her shoulders with his big, spade hands.  Melanie saw how this movement induced another, a quite convulsive dip of his head and neck.   She felt a pain in him – not acute, not suddenly onset, but suppressed; a lifetime-old ache of deformity.   She sensed it, and Toby’s eyes met her’s in a moment of communion.

“Well now, everybody knows my name!”  Toby grinned, displaying a broken picket fence of grey teeth:  “You’m welcome, missy.  We don’t get too many volupshous young ladies up ‘ere.”   The compliment slithered like an eel from a jar.  Melanie felt her skin creep. She took an involuntary step backward.

“Isn’t Vincent here?”   Peter stepped in hurriedly.

“Bless you no. Not been here these two months gone.  Left the day after you was last here, young Peter.”

“And Alice?”

Toby looked puzzled.  “Alice?   Don’t know no Alice.”

“But she was here when I was here.  Volupshous young lady – very tall with black hair.”

“Oh, ‘Er!   Now I know ‘oo you’m meanin’.   But bless you she don’t live ‘ere.   Never saw ‘er before that day you came.   Never seen ‘er since.”

As this conversation proceeded, Peter learned more about Vincent.  The guitarist and songwriter was too wealthy, in Toby’s opinion.  One house was enough for any man, especially one like St. Benedict’s, but Vincent had three.  In the winter he was to be found in Monaco, and sometimes, when business called, in Los Angeles.  In Toby’s opinion after all that a yacht was a terrible extravagance, but Vincent had one of those, too.  Anchored in the – well, Toby had difficulty with the name of the sea, but it had all them islands in it.

 “Caribbean?”  Peter suggested helpfully.

 “Ah, yes. That ‘un.”   Toby nodded sagely, lapsing into a sort of rumbling, guttural sound which sounded much like an elephant’s stomach. Then he added:   “Nothin’ that man ‘asn’t seen, mind.  Nothin!”

Toby seated himself awkwardly on the grass, clearly ready for a leisurely conversation.  He went on at length, then, about the rock star – his ‘rowdy bliddy instrument’ and the shenanigans that went on within the closed gates of the Great House.  Toby’s head was bowed (Melanie had already defined the area of his disability to the vertebrae of his neck, and kept getting sharp reminders of the hurt it caused him) so he had to engage their attention by looking from the top of his eyes, an unintentionally reproachful look, like a mild accusation.   Melanie and Peter sat opposite him, listening dutifully.

As she listened, Melanie began to find a musicality in Toby’s voice which lulled her, so that she forgave him those first leering introductions and began to see him as a part of this island, at one with the birds and the wind-song of the afternoon.   There was a song to the whole place.   Somewhere in her inner ear she could hear it, feel it, wanting to come through.  And although it told of a thousand sorrows it was not an unhappy song, but one of hope.  Try though she might, Melanie could find no malice in St. Benedict’s Rock.   The song was enchanting, maybe bewitching, to her.  It drew her towards it with the gentleness of approaching sleep….

“Old Ben be talkin’ to you, eh, missy?”   Toby’s words floated towards her on a raft of cloud.  They were for her, pertinent to her alone, entering her mind with acuity so precise she thought Peter might not even hear them.  She felt a jabbing pain in her right arm.  Peter was nudging her.

“Wake up, Mel!”

Mel shook herself out of her reverie. ‘Old Ben be talkin’ to you….’   Had she dreamt the words?   Was the rock talking to her?

“Toby, when Peter came here, you said he was ‘expected’ didn’t you?”  She found herself asking.

Toby’s face creased in a frown.  “Aye.  Expected he was, yes.”

“By whom, Toby?   Was it Vincent who invited him?”

“Mr. Vincent, he knew young Peter was coming, yes.”

“But he didn’t invite him.   It wasn’t Vincentwho sent the bird.”  Even as she said it Mel realised how ridiculous the whole premise was.   A globe-trotting millionaire with a trained seagull?

Toby looked at her, then at Peter.   “Well, of course not.  Mr. Vincent was part of it.  ‘E knew as how it was happ’nin’, that’s all.  ‘Aven’t you worked it out yet, then, you young ‘uns?”

“Worked out what?”    Peter felt that he was being incredibly dense.

“Well, Mr. Vincent ain’t ‘ere today, is ‘e?  But you be. You’m expected.”

“But….hang on a minute…”  Peter reasoned.  “You were surprised to see me, weren’t you?   You asked me what I was doing here.”

“True.”  Toby pursed his lips.   “But I didn’t say ‘twas you as was expected now, did I?”

Slowly but surely the truth dawned.  Melanie felt emptied.   “Me?”  She asked:  “I’m expected?”

Toby grinned a set of intermittent teeth again.  “See?  Now you’ve got it!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Felix Mittermeier on Pixabay

Old Cottage: Werner Weisser, Pixabay.