The Lady in the Wood

The Lady in the Wood

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From the horizon of my memory there was, had always been, a lady in the wood.

Walking or running among the fallen of an autumn morning when I was very young I met her there, picking wild herbs and toadstools from among the trees.  This was in the year my mother first sat me down before a piano.  The lady’s clothing was new to me, so as I described her to my father I likened it to the piano keys.  I did not mean it unkindly, Such was the picture I had of her, which would stay with me over time.

My father explained that the lady lived alone in the wood, and I must always be polite to her, so the ‘Piano Lady’ joined my list of those to whom I must always be polite, which in those days was just about everybody.   Was she another aunt, like the ones who visited at Christmas?

“She is not one of your family, Dominic.  Sister Augusta is a recluse, a very religious person.  In many ways, we are her guests.”

This seemed strange to me.  The wood was ours, a part of the ‘grounds’ surrounding our home.  Why was it acceptable for this oddly-clothed lady to live so freely among us, almost as though we were honoured by her presence?

“She’s a bride of Christ.”

“Does she talk to Him?”

“Quite possibly. I wouldn’t be qualified to judge.”

Further answers would trickle down to me gradually, with the years.  Long before I was born, my mother told me, Madders End was a priory.  The peaceful acre of green patrolled by our mower each summer once yielded to the feet of a dwindling order of nuns who tended vegetables in the walled garden where roses now grow or chattered noisily through echoing corridors where I ran, roller-bladed and played chase with a streak of white fur called Taffy.

For centuries Madders End novitiated a steady supply of fledgeling nuns, earnest women who craved the peace to be found within its doors.  But as centuries change fashions and devotions must alter too, so there came an age that brought no new brides to plight their troth to Christ.  One by one His ancient harem kept their appointments with Him in Paradise until so few remained they could no longer sustain their living at Madders End. The old house came up for sale.  My parents saw the place and loved what they saw.  They bought it, the house and all its grounds together – the stony beck which runs down to the River Madder past the orangery, the tranquil little garden alight with spring flowers where those who gave their love to God now rest, and the wood – the five-acre wood, with its solitary tenant.

Sister Augusta, like the little garden, came as part of the deal, her right to remain enshrined as a condition of purchase.  Years before, hearing the priory had a ‘hermit’ in its midst, a benefactor had supplied Sister Augusta with a caravan which was pitched, at her request, within the five-acre wood.  When the Church moved the last two of her Sisters in Christ to a care home Sister Augusta remained, stubbornly self-sufficient and really quite charming, to become my constant companion throughout those special growing years.

Our relationship began with the simple, direct language of childhood.  “How old are you, Sister?”

She looked genuinely perplexed.  “Do you know, I’m not sure.  How old do you think I am?”

“A hundred and fifty.”

“Well, that must be about right.  How old are you?”

“I’m six and three-quarters.”

“You’re very brave, coming into the woods alone.”

It was neither a very large wood nor a very attractive one.  No tree was particularly tall, or statuesque.  There was a lot of ground cover, brambles and the like, over which an anaemic mob of silver birches and struggling oaks milled like hungry gulls.   Early conversations between Sister Augusta (“You must call me Gussy, it’s easier”) and I were conducted sitting on a fallen birch log she favoured as a place for contemplation.  When winter came I would visit her at ‘home’, bringing newspapers from our house and a casserole or two prepared by my mother.

Sister Gussy’s caravan, for some reason, possessed no wheels.  It rested on railway sleepers to one side of a clearing in the wood, glaring defiantly out from the undergrowth with its big windows at one end, buried deep in verdure at the other.  Inside it was as clean and austere as you might expect, its only furniture a bed, a table, two elderly leather chairs and a little cooker that hissed and hiccupped its way through a cylinder of gas tucked from sight beneath its skirts.

Skirts?   Yes, ‘skirts’ were a distinctive influence in Sister Gussy’s décor.  From the heavy velvet divide shielding the dormer end of her caravan to the odd pieces of cloth that draped from curtain wires over every cupboard, nook and cranny; wherever there might be doors there was a ‘skirt’ instead, and each ‘skirt’ had an identity of its own. If Gussy needed the pewter dish from which she ate I would find it ‘behind the rabbits’, a shelf covered by a fragment of child’s pyjamas with a rabbit print; so, too, for her religious artefacts (behind the pink stripes), her toiletries (the pandas), and so on.

“So much better than cupboard doors which are forever falling off, or swelling and becoming stuck when the weather’s wet, you see?”

She had very few cubby holes in that caravan and very few possessions.  With a child’s frankness, I pointed this out to her in one of our early overtures of conversation.

“I have all I need.”  Gussy told me.  “The Lord provides, but He is a bit naughty sometimes, because He lets me forget where He puts things.  He is particularly mischievous in the spectacles department!”

Gussy’s heavy, brown-framed National Health specs were a constant vexation to her.  “They persist in hiding from me the moment I turn my back.”

The only other structure in Gussy’s clearing was a small wooden hut discreetly tucked away in the overgrowth behind the caravan, which she referred to as ‘The Necessary’.  The remaining open ground was her garden, planted with neat rows of turnips, carrots, beans and every naturally rooted comestible you could think of.  There were clamps of potatoes, forcing pots of rhubarb, stakes for peas to climb and raised beds full of herbs, although the visual clinicity of this earthly paradise was rather ruined by an array of polythene cloches and netting.

“The birds are absolute terrors, you see?  They are convinced they need my food more than I,”  Gussy explained, musing, as an afterthought,  “Perhaps they do.”

A small bed of marigolds grew discreetly in one corner of the garden.  I remarked upon these being her only flowers.

“Flowers are rather sinful, aren’t they?  An indulgence.  The Lord said I can get away with marigolds because they are quite nice as a tea and good for the skin, but He knows the truth, you see.  I believe I pointed out that chrysanthemums are very tasty too, but He thought that was a step too far.”

Many were the enchanted hours I spent, child and later youth, talking and reading with the ascetic recluse of our woods, while my family shared in the bounty of her garden because, like all well-tended gardens, it unfailingly exceeded its carer’s needs.   Her protest:  “I shall never eat all these!” as she sent me home with a trug full of goodness became familiar to our kitchen.  She might have shamed us for our feckless treatment of grounds that had once fed an entire priory; now so devoted to lawns and vanity they produced not so much as a lettuce, but she never did.

If I have given the impression that we had our darling Sister entirely to ourselves I have misled you. The winding lane by which, at some distant time presumably, the caravan had made its way to Gussy’s clearing was frequented by others too.  Father Macalbee, our local priest, visited once a week to take her confession, and I remember an acutely shy old man in a black coat who I unwittingly interrupted one day, deep in discussion with her.  I was about to retreat but he spotted me and retreated sooner.  He had a car parked in the lane.  He drove away.

“That is Paul,”  Gussy told me,  “A dear friend!  I am obliged to him for the provision of this caravan, and I have known him since the days when our priory prospered.  Alas, we are not so young these days, but he has been most generous to our church and he does not forget me.  We often pray together.”

For whatever reason, it may have been a visit to the caravan of a supplicant with a media presence, or maybe even an initiative by The Church itself, Gussy’s reputation as a solitary all at once became ‘viral’, and spread far and wide.  As I grew to youth I saw more and more visitors make the pilgrimage up the muddy lane to her door; some who sought only her blessing or her company, others who wanted scraps from the plate of her wisdom, which encompassed much.

In a media-savvy generation the fame of such a good and truly honest person was inevitable, my father said, and it seemed he was right, for soon executives in big cars came creeping over the ruts in the lane, bearing offers from newspapers, radio, and television.  Gussy responded to them all with enthusiasm, never once showing impatience with those who trampled her garden or intruded upon her devotions.

“I have become rather a failure as a recluse,” She confessed when I light-heartedly accused her of straying from her mission; “I have to tell myself I am doing the Lord’s work, and I never take a step without asking Him.”   Her face split into a delighted smile; “If only I didn’t enjoy it so much!”

Our family watched Gussy’s first television appearance on a morning show, unsurprised by her calm, almost lyrical defence of her God but afraid for her then, and with reason.  Soon she was holding down a regular spot on national television, contributing short accounts of episodes in her life which exemplified triumphs of faith.  Those stories were compiled as a book that, if it did not exactly top the sales charts, at least made royalties she could pass on – as she passed on any fees – to her beloved Church.

Throughout these adventures the caravan remained Gussy’s retreat, her garden her consolation. As her travels made increasing demands on her I saw her less frequently, as much my fault as anyone’s because I was immersed in my studies, you see, with the Royal Academy beckoning.  I was committed, by this time, to my music.

Sitting at my bedroom window the other day I recalled the last conversation we shared before I departed for college.  I asked her if she felt there could be any chance she could return to her former life.

She pondered my question gravely for a moment.  “If God asked it of me, of course I would.  He makes the running, Dominic, not me.  If He tells me I am more useful spreading His word, I can’t refuse, any more than you can close the lid on your piano when the world means you to play.  I know you do not share in my belief, but I assure you He lives and moves in us both.”

“You must miss it; the peace, the turning of the seasons, all that?”

“Bless you, they still turn.  I am still here, much of the time.  I miss my few special friends.  You, I shall miss when you are away; Paul, I miss him, too.”

“He doesn’t visit you anymore?”

“No.  His years are a heavy burden, and Paul is a very private person – he rejoices in solitude, you might say, as much as I.  With all the dashing to and fro I have to do these days, he is put off, I think.  I haven’t seen him for almost a year now.  It is God’s will.”

I met Sister Augusta just once more, a year later, on the very day I returned from Academy for the winter break.  Previously, between terms I had called at the caravan,  finding it locked and the precious little garden neglected.  I knew she had many engagements; everyone, it seemed, wanted a share of her: ‘a piece of her’ to echo my father’s words.  I would hear news of her successes from all over the world, from the Americas, Australia, Europe – she even had an audience with the Pope. So when my father told me she had come home, that November, I was almost surprised until the look on his face told the rest of the story.

“A friend of hers, someone called Paul, died this summer, and it seemed to rip the heart out of her,  She’s very ill, Dom.  Too ill to live on her own anymore, so Father Macalbee has arranged for her to be cared for by the nuns over at Monckton Delaval.  She knows you’re home today, so Father Macalbee is bringing her here, because she especially asked to see you.  You should prepare yourself, my boy.  She’s extremely frail. Much has changed.”

In my young years I had yet to be close to one who was dying.  The Gussy who Father Macalbee helped from his car outside our door was not the bright star I had known, but a shrunken husk of a life no more than a step or two from eternity.   She brought a parcel wrapped in brown paper which the good Father carried for her and placed by her chair.

She spoke with difficulty, “It is a picture given to me by my blessed friend Paul, who has left us, so I thought it fitting it should come to you and your wonderful family.  It is a gift, a token of my gratitude, now my work here is done.

“The land is yours, now.  I have arranged for my caravan to be transported to Monckton Delaval: the good sisters there are taking me in, and that is my legacy for them.  God will always protect you, and I pray we shall both have some small memory of each other.”

Mercifully quickly, within a week, my dear Gussy was dead, and I was left to mourn, as we all mourned.  She asked, at the last, if she could be buried alongside her Sisters in the little garden where the spring flowers grow, and we gathered there to watch her take her place in earth I like to believe is made warmer by her presence.  That, we thought, closed the book upon our life with Sister Augusta.

The picture she gave us had a place of honour on our dining room wall.  It was old, an oil painting on board of a pleasant country scene featuring a stone monument beside a river.  My father thought it looked Dutch but of no special merit.  Its value was in the gift.  Gussy wanted us to remember her by it, and this we did.  Before long, though, it began generating memories of its own.

My father’s curiosity led him to some old catalogues.  What he found he laid before us all in the dining room.  What he suspected the internet seemed to confirm.  We deliberated for a long time before we telephoned the police.

An art expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum shared our suspicions, and a representative from a Boston art gallery seemed jubilant that Govert Flinck’s seventeenth-century ‘Landscape with Obelisk’, stolen from his gallery many years before, had been found.

The police acted quickly, and it was good that they did, because the sisters of Monckton Delaval were already stripping Gussy’s old caravan down when they arrived and declared it a crime scene.  Within a false inner wall they discovered three more stolen works of art and more than four hundred thousand pounds in used bank notes, a bequest their priory would never get to spend.

Gussy ’s shy friend Paul, later investigations discovered, as Paul Massingberd, international criminal, had every reason to be shy.  To his unwitting friend, he had given a generous ‘gift’ – a caravan large enough to conceal a portion of his ill-gotten gains, in case forced retirement curtailed his gangland income.  He died, though, before he had a chance to make any withdrawals.  No-one was ever charged.

I like to think that Gussy would have been greatly amused by this turn of events, and beyond the reach of mortal man she could quietly smile, as she saw a fresh aspect of her life’s story unfold.  After all, she had lived most of her life in poverty, sleeping within a few inches of a fortune.  She couldn’t have known, could she?

Photo credit: 

Banner: Marc Pell from Unsplash

Joshua Applegate on Unsplash. 

Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

© 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.

Hansel and Gretel

 “Bettina has farrowed.”  The letter said in my Uncle Owen’s stilted terminology.  “Ten perfect little piglings, four boys and six girls.”   I was shown the picture.  A cluster of grinning faces sniggered back at me.

“Ten!”  I was impressed.  Lots of things impress you when you are six.

“Poor Bettina!”   My mother sympathized. “Perhaps Emil will take you to see them when we visit next month.”

Emil and Mitzi, his wife, were the bailiffs at Uncle Owen’s farm in the New Forest.  The German couple were nice people, and the congenial Emil, particularly, always had time for me.  

Owen’s ‘farm’ had few agricultural references, which set it as much apart from the farms surrounding my home in the West Country as a monastery from a hermit’s cell.  Yes, there was a herd of cattle, and there were tumultuous chickens, irascible geese and implacable ducks.  And there were pigs, of course.   But all these were a backcloth:  the star performer was the farmhouse.   The farmhouse was Uncle Owen’s showcase.  

Uncle Owen was ‘Something in the City’ (the City of London, that is).   He had bought the farm for weekend entertainments to enhance his business, so the house reflected this.  A long, thatched building with exposed timbers, it gazed serenely out over an acre of manicured lawn towards two sagacious chestnut trees. To the east a driveway lined by firs and rhododendrons, to the west a tennis court – my uncle’s preferred sport was tennis, at which, despite his large frame, he was a formidable exponent.

On hot days we would lunch beneath the panoply of the chestnuts, on wet days in the brown heat of the farm kitchen.  I would eat frugally and say nothing.  And on this particular afternoon Emil took me to see Bettina’s litter.

“You see they are not little piglets anymore.”  He said, lifting me so I sat on the wall of their yard.  They weren’t.

Twenty little eyes looked up at me, assessing me instantly.  Ten healthy mouths muttered conspiratorially. 

“We are weaning them.  Really they are already weaned, I think, but for a few days more they stay with Bettina.”  Emil informed me.  “We have to get them back to her now.  Would you like to help me do this?”

I needed no second bidding.  Inside the yard, with its gate closed behind us, I watched as Emil opened a loose box to reveal the recumbent Bettina, still massive with milk, resting within.  She did not bother to rise.  Ten healthy pig-children regarded me with renewed interest. 

“We go each side, I think.”  Emil advised.

The pig-children would not give up their freedom easily.  I remember my enjoyment of the chase, and I am sure the pigs were having just as much fun.   Furthermore, they taught me respect.  They showed me their skill in evasion, their fleetness of foot, their wicked sense of humor.  As Emil and I cornered one group they split into two, then into pairs.  They teamed up, then divided again.  They twisted, they turned.  They made dummy runs to wrong-foot us, and one even became cheeky enough to push my legs from under me so I fell flat on my back.  After a few seconds of uninterrupted view of an azure blue sky, the face of a triumphant piglet appeared, grinning down at me.   Several minutes of pure entertainment later, during which Emil and I were comprehensively out-maneuvered, Bettina’s delinquent children finally consented to be herded to her bosoms.  It was their decision, not ours.

I needed washing.  So did my clothes.  How somehow I avoided censure I can’t recall, but probably it was because Emil came to my defense.  Anyway, upon learning of my adventure my mother laughed for at least five minutes, and that evening when I wafted in to dinner everyone very pointedly sniffed.    In that and other ways I think the memories of my chase stayed with me for a week, not least because next day I was made to ride home in our car beside an open window.  It was a cold journey.

Family crises arose even more frequently than usual that year, so we were back at the farm no more than a month later, recuperating from the debt collector wolf-pack which frequently set up camp outside our home.

I asked to see the pigs.  Emil and Mitzi exchanged glances.  Eventually, Emil gestured to me.  “Come.”  He said.

The yard, scene of our epic chase, was deserted.  A farm was a business Emil explained: selling young pigs was one of the ways it made money, and I think I understood his euphemistic use of the word ‘selling’ sufficiently and was as yet young enough to need to choke back my regret.

“But these two we keep!”  Emil said grandly.

The little building, with its open space at the front surrounded by a low wall, was designed for pigs and, to my joy, two young pigs occupied it.  Two young pigs who seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, full of squeaky eagerness as they shoulder-barged each other to the wall to greet us.  A boy and girl both well on their way to adolescence now, I swear they remembered me, just as I swear the boar was the very same one who looked down upon me from the sky on the day of our epic game.

Emil and I leaned upon the wall, communing with them for a while.  Then he said:  “You know we have no names for them.  You can name them if you like.”

I must have spent most of that day there, just talking to those pigs; and they, in their turn, talked of their view of the world, one strangely reminiscent of my own:  they expressed sadness and understanding for the loss of their brothers and sisters, and lamented that Bettina, now returned to the field with the other pigs, seemed to have no time for them.  They accepted my gifts of apples with magnanimity.  I became their friend.

You do not – and this is important to all those of you who do not know – make a pet of a pig.  You befriend him.  If he doesn’t like you he can be quite fearsome, and he is never yours to do with as you will.  He has a mind of his own, and he meets you on your own intellectual level.  He will happily discuss matters of import with you but he will have opinions of his own, and though he may be far too courteous to freely express them, you will know by the little give-aways in his attitude when he disagrees with yours. 

“Did you think of their names?”  Emil asked me as we prepared to leave.

“Hansel and Gretel” I said, remembering my bedtime story of the two lost children.  “We’ll call them Hansel and Gretel.”

At home I kept their picture on my wall.  Each night in the instructed ritual of prayer I mentioned the two pigs.  I talked to them from the threshold of sleep, vividly dreamt of them, drew them in my exercise book.  

It was Christmas before I would return to the farm – a family Christmas with a small host of guests, most of whom I have forgotten now, and several of whom I never really knew.  Through the beery greetings and the waves of conversation I sought the only two friends who were special to me.

The little pig-pen was empty.

Panic-stricken, I plunged into the forest of humanity in search of Emil.  I found him with Mitzi in the kitchen, operating the machinery of food.  As I tried to enter he barred my way.  “For little boys it is dangerous in here.”

“Where are they?” I demanded, tearful by this time.  “What’s happened to Hansel and Gretel?”

I could not miss the solemnity in his tone.  “Ah, little man!”  Emil said. “They grow too big to be together in the pen now, you see?  Your Gretel, she is with the other pigs but you may not recognize her.  Pigs, they grow up fast, you know?”  He smiled indulgently.  

I swallowed hard.  “And Hansel?”

“Hmmm?”  

“Hansel.  Where’s Hansel?” 

Emil sighed, and a wisp of cloud dimmed the bright blue of his eyes.   “Hansel is gone.”  He said.

Gone?  The big kitchen table was prepared for dinner, a bright red and white gingham cloth laid crisply across its knurled wood top.  The brasses which lined the kitchen walls flickered in red sympathy with the fire burning in the open hearth, a fire before which a spit was slowly turning.   Busy elsewhere, Mitzi spoke sharply to Emil in German.  With a pat on my shoulder the big man stood aside so I could see – so I could watch, as with a cup of its collected juices he basted the creature that was turning on the spit.  And I knew.  Although I was just a child I saw and felt through all my heightened senses the tragedy of men’s greed, in the rich smell of meat in that big room and the expressions the bailiff and his wife could not conceal, I knew.

So I saw Hansel just one more time.   I saw him in the humiliation of death, those philosopher’s eyes sightless, disported on a bright red and white gingham cloth before a raucous, baying audience of salivating revelers who laughed at my distress, rebuking me when I ran from the sight.

There would be other visits to the farm, visits which, as a child, I was forced to make, but they were not made willingly.  I never got over a feeling of revulsion whenever I entered the farm kitchen, or the spark of disgust which grew in me with the years for Uncle Owen‘s over-indulgent friends.  The memory of a brief acquaintance is evergreen, and though they are long departed, I keep Hansel and Gretel alive in my heart.

Satan’s Rock

Part Eight

A Revealing Breakfast

Breakfast was a substantial meal in the Cartwright household, for which Peter was grateful in spite of himself:  the after-effects of his doped lunch at St. Benedict’s House and his turbulent visions had ruined his appetite for a while, but abstinence was not natural to him.   The smell of sausage, bacon and eggs that greeted him on the stair wafted strongly as he opened the kitchen door, so he was surprised to see his mother and father sitting at a bare table.   His father looked up with what was meant to pass as a woeful expression while his mother tried not to appear too bored.

“Sorry, old chap, but there isn’t any breakfast this morning,.” said his father, with a peculiar snort.

“Oh, Dad, you’re going to tell me the pig got better,” Peter said.

“Yes!  Yes!”   His father collapsed into giggling laughter; “How did you know?”

“You told me the same joke last week; twice, and once the week before and several more times since Christmas.  I think you got it from a Christmas Cracker.” 

Mrs. Cartwright set three plates of food on the table.  “Your father likes it,” she explained.  “He doesn’t know many jokes.”

“Dad,” Peter asked, as his father underwent a sniggering and very moist recovery,  “do you remember when we did a family trip to London?”

Bob Cartwright mopped his face with a tea towel.  “Yes.   Yes I do.   Dinosaurs!”

Peter raised an enquiring eyebrow.  “We went to the Natural History Museum,” his mother reminded him, “Have you forgotten?   I suppose you have; you were only five, after all.  There was an exhibition of actual sized dinosaur automata.   You thought they were real and you were absolutely obsessed, not frightened at all. It took us ages to tear you away.”

Yes, Peter remembered.   He often, still, made drawings to recapture  those images.   “Where else did we go?”

“Oh, everywhere!  We went to the tower of London, saw the Palace…”   Lena recollected.  “What makes you suddenly ask about London now, I wonder?  It must be at least ten years ago.”

“Almost exactly,”  Bob Cartwright chipped in,  “It would have been April 25th.  That’s the date today, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”  Peter was noncommittal, “It’s just curiosity.  I seem to recall enjoying it, that’s all.”

“You did, darling.   Well, apart from one bit.”

His mother’s remark seemed to resonate with something Peter could not quite find in his own memory.  “How do you mean, mum?”

“Bless you, you don’t remember The Tube, do you?   Well, maybe that’s a mercy,” 

“No,”  Peter prompted her:  “Tell me?    Was there a problem?”

“Somewhat, Pete,” his father reflected. “It wasn’t very pleasant, that’s all.  It was my fault, too; all my fault, really.”

His mother gave one of those gentle smiles she so carefully stage-managed and saved for ‘deep family moments’. “Your father worried we wouldn’t get back to Waterloo in time for the train, you know?    So we took The Tube – The Underground.”     She went on:   “Everything went swimmingly until we got to the top of the escalator (it was one of the deeper stations) and then, well…..”

“All hell broke loose.”  His father cut in.  “You screamed, you fought, you scratched.   You were terrified of the thing for some reason.”

“I carried you.”  Lena went on.  “You were so frightened I thought you were having some sort of fit.   You kept shouting about falling, and towards the bottom you were struggling to breathe.  It was just a panic attack, I think; though I was really, really worried for a while!”

“You soon got over it once we were down, though.”  Bob said.  “You liked the tube train.”

“Where was this, mum?  What’s the Tube Station called?”

“Hyde Park Corner, darling.”   Peter’s mother regarded him with concern.  “We had spent some of the afternoon in Hyde Park, you see, because the memorial is close by – for the Australian Forces.”

“That was the reason for the trip,” his father explained.  “Paying respects, you know?  I had an Australian college friend whose father died in the war.  I don’t know if they still hold a ceremony every April 25th, but I recall the date well – Anzac Day.”

As he readied himself for college, Peter’s mind was racing.  Falling – drowning – things which seemed to fit the feeling in his dream.  Hyde Park Corner was not a street, though.  It was a junction of several streets.  

He explained this to Mel as they walked together, but she seemed to have tired of the subject.  “That’s a fa-a-a-bulous pic you sent me.  It’s so absolutely you!”  She enthused.

Peter frowned.  “It isn’t that special.  Have you been photo-shopping me again?”

“Might have been – a little,” Mel smirked.  “Did you ever consider what life might be like…”

“Oh, what?  What did you do to me this time?”

“As a female?”   She laughed out loud at the ill-timed swipe of a school bag which missed her by a foot.  “Pathetic!”

“You’re bringing it to college, aren’t you?  Making me a laughing-stock all over again?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that.  All right, I did – once.  I was stupid and I’m sorry.”

“So where is it?”

“It’s at home, somewhere.  I did a print-out and I was going to show it to you, but I couldn’t find it this morning.  The window was open so maybe the draught blew it under the bed, or something.  I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“You leave it at home, I’ll feel safer.”

Mel asked, after a pause:   “all those soldiers you saw marching – were they in modern uniform?”

“Battledress, why?”

“Describe it to me.”

Peter dredged in his memory for the marching figures in his vision, their empty faces grey, staring ahead.   His head filled with their despair, their hopelessness, their pain.  “Hats, trench coats, boots.  You know.”

“Hats, not helmets; like bush hats?”

Peter nodded as the lightbulb, always glimmering, flared brightly. “Anzacs!   They were Australian soldiers, yeah?   And the big man, the dark man, he could be, like, Death, or something!” 

“Right!”  Melanie crowed.  “Whatever’s on Vincent’s mind has to do with that memorial, my little possum!    Quick!   Find your ‘phone!”

#

By the time Vincent managed to contact Alice the morning had advanced another hour.

“How are you, sweetness?”

“Look, Vince, I’m busy.  I don’t have time for social calls.”  The day had not improved since some idiotic man had interrupted her morning jog.  “Have you got anything else for me?”

“I have.  It’s about the Aussie War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.  Oh, an’ he thinks there’s a lot of deadness involved.”

“The kid gave you this?”  Vincent’s words put Alice’s mind in turmoil:     “How the hell could he know?”  

“It is on the itinerary, then, is it?”

“I…no point in pretending…yes, it is.    Anzac Day.  Expressing solidarity with the Australians – honouring their part in the conflict, and all that.  Our boy’s laying a wreath there this morning.”  She checked her watch.   “Christ, he’s leaving the American Embassy in five minutes, and it’s only a couple of blocks!  Vince, you’d better be right!”

Alice had to consider carefully what she should do.  An anonymous tip-off on her personal ‘phone had begun all this.  Something distinctive in the caller’s voice had convinced her of its authenticity, and it was this disquiet she had shared with Vincent.  Then Vincent had validated it a little further by producing the boy, and inducing the boy’s disturbing response.  But he was still just some unknown youth in a distant seaside town, who should not have even known the Very Important Person was in the country!  Did she believe him?  

With the motorcade already on its way it seemed pointless to try to stop it.  She could already hear their derision when she told them a student psychic had predicted an assassination attempt.   Eventually, she would have to explain the inexplicable to someone, but right now… She tapped out numbers on her ‘phone.

“U.S. Embassy, please.”

Hal Bronski was already in the car when an operative from within the bowels of Grosvenor Square called:

“Are you serious?”

“Sir, she recommends you abort.”

“Son, we only abort for earthquakes and tidal waves.  This is British Security again isn’t it?”

“Yes sir.  I had no choice but tell you.  She insisted I log the call.”

“Well, son, you tell those loons that we don’t listen to crank calls.    If we did, we’d never go any damn place.   Oh, and son?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be sure to log the call.”

From the foremost limousine in the small motorcade that swung out into Park Lane, Hal linked to the Very Important Person’s car.  His man should always be told of any irregularity, and Hal never failed in his duty.

“Sir, we have been advised of a possible situation.  We’ll be going to code amber.”

“Is it serious, Hal?”

“Sir, it’s amber.  We take everything seriously.  But this is filtered through British Security, so I wouldn’t worry.  We’ll just close the cordon a little, that’s all.”

“’O.K. Hal, you know best.”

From his vantage point overlooking the large, tree-fringed island in traffic that encircled the memorial to Australian forces dead, Salaiman Yahedi watched as the Very Important Person’s police escort  scythed through London traffic, clearing a path into the heart of the island. There, beside an arched monument to the Duke of Wellington the limousines rested, and Yahedi knew at once that someone had warned of a threat for, instead of alighting as he normally would, the Very Important Person remained in his car until a human shield formed; then, when he emerged to greet the Australian Ambassador, they stayed much closer than was usual.   Yahedi was unconcerned.   Had he not been at a window with such an advantage of height he might have been worried; but at all times, even now, he had a chance of a clear head shot, and the range, though not inconsiderable, was nothing to a shooter of his ability.   Not yet, though,: not yet.  Yahedi waited patiently, watching the Very Important Person make his way through a small band of dignitaries, staying back from the window to avoid the sharp eyes of the security cordon, and those of the rather more untidy bunch of British agents.

The ceremony was brief.   Someone presented the Very Important Person with a wreath and he stepped forward, away from his security yoke, to lay it at a strategic point before the long wall of tablets which formed the memorial.   Then, with heads bowed, the Very Important Person and the Ambassador stood side-by-side, remembering the sacrifice of those whose names adorned the wall.   Yahedi still waited, his target hidden for this minute of silence by the security cordon.  There would be a moment, a time when the party retreated from the wall, turned in that half-military fashion politicians always try to adopt, to walk back to their cars.   He gave the mechanism of his rifle a final check before slipping its muzzle through the hole he had made in the window.    Carefully, methodically, he took aim.

The Very Important Person stepped back from the memorial, turning on his heel.

As he did so, a  sheet of paper floated right past his nose.  He dodged it instinctively.

Thwack!     A single bullet snicked off the pavement, cracked against the concrete barriers, and whined away into the trees.

Even as the spent bullet ricocheted, Hal was running, wrapping his Very Important Person in a chest high-high hug to cover him with his own body.  In a few seconds his team had gathered in a protective shield as Hal rushed him back to his car.

“Stay down sir.  Are you hit?”

“No, I don’t think so, Hal, I think I’m all right.  By the way, I never got to ask you….?”

But the conversation, if there had ever been one, was over.  Doors slammed.  The motorcade, with its Very Important Person safe inside, left at speed.

Mayhem followed, as police bristling with firearms moved in to cut off traffic on the adjoining streets.  Amongst the howling sirens, the rushing to and fro of those who had come too late, and the frenetic departure of those who had stayed too long, the only static figure was that of a stubby and slightly sweating Jeremy Piggott, British Security, who could be seen examining a piece of paper which had somehow saved the Very Important Person’s life.   It was a sheet of A4 Copy printed with a curious picture of a boy’s head, superimposed upon the body of a woman wearing a skimpy evening dress.   He looked at it cryptically for a while, then at the sky whence it had apparently come.

“Do you believe in divine providence, Jeremy old son?”  He asked himself:  “No, you do not.”

He flagged down a passing member of his team.   “I want to know who this is, and I want to know soon.”   He said, passing on the sheet of A4; adding:  “The top bit, of course, not the body.”

Across the road in that third-floor room Salaiman Yahedi patiently and carefully cleaned the gun and window glass before he returned to his own suite on the first floor. The gun was left behind on the third-floor, in the room which bore ample evidence of occupancy, by someone with a false name and passport who booked it the previous week.

            Yahedi knew the bullet had missed; was upset, of course, that so carefully constructed and expensive a plan had failed; but he knew also that there would be another time, and another plan.  Now, though, he was booked into this hotel for a further two days.   Yahedi liked London, and enjoyed the company of the woman his employer had sent to act as his wife during his stay.   He resolved to spend those few days learning more about both.

© 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