Continuum – Episode Sixteen: Pale Knight

The story so far:

Alanee continues to revel in the luxury of her City wonderland, unaware how her interactions with Hasuga, or even her dreams can have consequences in other parts of the country. 

This morning, Sala has woken her with news of the first sunrise of Spring, and in their favorite haunt, Toccata’s, suggested there is a possibility that Dag, the aerotran pilot, may still be alive.  Now, Sala further suggests, might be a time to celebrate the portentous dawn.

Alanee cannot quite see what all the fuss is about.  She has seen the sun rise; not a sight she has too often greeted before, but just a sunrise, nonetheless.  But then, she reasons with herself, she is used to Hakaani summers, long hot days when often she might wish for snow; a change of colour; relief from the breath-sapping heat. Snow never comes to the Hakaan.  Winter is grey, winter is wet with monsoon rains that turn streets to rivers, every open space into a lake.  Those rains drive life into shelter, create their own kind of hibernation.  Yet winter is also short, so when spring emerges it is not so great an event: here though, in the Consensual City, she can see how they might welcome release from the bonds of snow.

She might also attune to a sense of gratitude, for this dawn has been a harp-string of superstition so taut the air itself twanged in its thrall.  And that has snapped now.

 Sala leads her along avenues lit by smiling faces, through tumults of greeting and exchange, past a rowdy queue of fur-swaddled young adventurers by the express elevator.  Their humour is infectious.  Alanee begins to join in.

The Grand Park bustles with people of all ages; more frivolous adults, in spite of the hour, gathered in groups around bars that have been set up on the pathways and already drinking freely.  And yes, there are children here too – the first she has seen in the city – maybe a hundred, boys and girls alike, parties of them dressed in yellow uniform  jackets and pants that finish just below their knees, singing and dancing in an area to the west side of the park.  Leaders in blue cat-suits watch them, accepting the admiring glances of the adults, but fending off any closer attention.  Clearly, there are boundaries.

“We would ask you not to speak to the children, Lady.”  An official-looking woman in blue steps deliberately between Alanee and a fair-headed boy who has strayed too close.

Alanee is struck by a sensation of wrongness; a hollow place behind the child’s eyes evincing not infancy but great age.  As he watches her, and he does, avidly, as though she has some special meaning for him, his face does not change expression.  He begins to join in with the words of a song struck up by some of his near neighbours, but even that fails to dispel the sense of utter void.

“Move along, Lady.”

The blue woman’s voice bears an authoritative edge.  Sala grabs Alanee’s hand.  “We’re not allowed to communicate with them, ba.  Come on, she’ll get upset.”

At the far end of the water that runs the length of the Grand Park the drabs have erected a structure like a great honeycomb resting on its edge.  It towers perhaps a hundred feet into the roof of the city.  If Alanee wonders at its purpose she is not kept waiting long.  While Sala gets drinks from a nearby bar she watches a young man emerge above the throng, stripping off his white toga as he begins to climb the symmetrical staircase of cells.  When he has reached about half-way he throws himself backward –  to loud cheers from a certain section of the crowd – probably his friends – and plummets, legs waving inexpertly, into the lake.  No sooner has he splashed from view than others take up his challenge, half-a-dozen naked forms both male and female, shinning like monkeys up the frame to dive, with greater or lesser grace.  The cheering becomes widespread.

“They’re mad!”  Sala shouts above the clamour as she hands Alanee a glass of green liquid. “Someone will get hurt – it always happens! This way!” 

Jostling and jostled, the friends push through the throng and out into the South Avenue, away from the Park.  Alanee is inclined to protest, but mollifies almost instantly when she hears music.

South Avenue, the communicating link between the higher level apartments of the residential city and the commercial area, is the conduit Alanee took the first time she ventured out alone.  Here she met the Music Man, and fears she might meet him again: the embarrassment of his intimate approach remains with her.  It is a highway with many tributaries, a maze of side alleys and twisting lanes that contain mysterious, un-coloured doors, blanked windows and precarious ladders.  Sala tows her into one of these alleys where the music – ribald, raucous, Mansuvene dance music – beckons loudest.

Carousing in this narrow passage is at its most advanced: Alanee suspects that for many citizens the dawn celebration started rather earlier than warranted.  Yet there is no disapprobation evident in the steady trickle of humanity moving through, over, and around various acts of debauchery that obstruct the length of this confined space.  All propriety is suspended.  Everyone, it seems, is enthralled by the music, in volume so intense it is almost physical.  Beyond a final corner they are confronted by an open square some fifty yards wide.  It is filled with people; young people, dancing people, people given over to rhythm.  On a dais at the centre of the square, beneath a small pavilion, a group of musicians are playing for all their worth.

“Dance, Alanee-ba!  Dance!”  Sala is already swaying to their fast, pulsating beat.  Glass in hand, Alanee joins her; hips bucking, head and soul surrendering to sound.  Around them are men and women, Mansuvene, Dometian, Proteian, Hakaani and many other races Alanee does not recognise, all on one mission of unselfconscious joy.

A hand from the crowd reaches out, takes Sala’s arm.  She turns and squeals a delighted greeting:  “Rabba!  Darling!”  to a slender Mansuvene man whose embrace is already too close for dancing.  “Alanee ba, this is Rabba!”

Alanee waves her glass, spilling most of its contents:  “Greet, Rabba!”  She drinks the rest.

Fingers close around her own forearm. She turns to find herself looking straight into the eyes of a tall, broad-shouldered Hakaani man with a smiling, strong face and body to match.  She allows her eyes to scan his full length.  “Wow!”

“Greet, Lady – dance?”

“Greet, …whoever you are.”   She dances.

He is Delfio, he is from the plains, he shouts above the din.

“Alanee – Balkinvel!”  She shouts back.

“Greet you, Alanee!”

“Greets you too, Delfio!”

He has a sense of rhythm – his body interprets the music.  His eyes are brilliant and kind.  She does not know him – she does not need to.  Everything about him calls to her and she is content to be within the moment, to indulge in the ritual.  Two people tugged by a single wire for a time – they dance on.

#

“It’s you.  I should have known it would be you.  You found me here.”

Lady Ellar looks down into Cassix’s eyes and smiles.  “You are the Seer.  Where else would the Seer be but in the Watchtower on such a morning?”

She kneels so her lap may support his head, cradling him.  She did, indeed, find Cassix here, but not leaning upon the sill of the great window gazing out into the firmament as she had expected.  No, she found him prostrate upon the cold flagstones of the floor with his face ashen and no sign of movement, none at all.

“Are you ill, my Cassix?  Is there a wound we may heal?  What is wrong?”  She cannot betray all the care she feels for the man:  it would be inappropriate, not only because of their high position in the State, but also because she is fairly sure he feels nothing in return.  He is a Seer, and that is all one human frame can absorb.  He has no space for the other things, the vin ordinaire of life.

He struggles to sit.  “No.  No, I have a thirst, no more than that.  I will recover in a moment.”  Yet so simple a struggle is almost too much for him; air comes to his lungs in gasps, veins throb in his temples.

Ellar sees how his eyes avoid the window; how he stares at the floor, or down into his own lap.  “The Continuum?”  She asks quietly.

He meets her look.  “Yes.”

“But it is a good spring dawn.  This will be a wonderful year, will it not?”

Cassix does not reply.

#

“Another drink?  Yours was Cassene, wasn’t it?”

They are edging towards the bar.  There have been several ‘another drinks’ and Alanee’s head is hazed with the alcohol.  She and Delfio have become much better acquainted.  He knows she was married once, a widow now – she, that he is a materials technician who works in the bowels of the City – one of those unseen protectors who keep wheels turning, cold from the door, light in the world.  He believes he once lived in Parnisfae, a village on the Plains some hundred miles from Balkinvel.   No, he has never seen her village.

When Alanee asked it he requested the band play the Talleh, national folk-dance of the Hakaan.  Its steady sledgehammer beat threw the whole crowd into a frenzy, not least Alanee herself, for whom the memory of the tune was so poignant she danced her heart out, and cried too – unashamed:  why not?  The words spoke of her home, the music the same she once danced to with Kalna-meh, on the night of their coupling.

Now, with another drink of impish green liquid in her hand, she is tired of Delfio.  She does not know why.  He is warm, and caring, and quite funny in his way.  She has kissed him three times; drunken, hungry kisses.  He realises, because she told him, that she can never re-marry (‘that’s the law, isn’t it?) so there can only be one course for their encounter to take.  In a way, a very present way, she wants that.  Her body is awake: her skin is moist with a heat she recognises, not just part of the effort of dancing.  But she is tired, and inebriated, and in another way she would be rescued, taken somewhere else.  Sala has passed her a few times, each time with a wave and a knowing look, each time in someone’s arms (not Rabba – he has been superseded not once, but twice to Alanee’s knowledge) and anyway she would not interrupt her friend.  With increasing desperation she casts about her – and sees him.

Like a pale cloud, Celeris moves through the thick of the revelry unsullied, apparently untouched:  white robe, white face, that astonishing albino hair.  He passes easily within her vision, so she could not miss him if she tried.

“Excuse me!  Someone I know!”  Alanee shouts – Delfio raises an eyebrow, though he recognised the signs some while ago.  “I’ll be right back!”  She lies.

He walks quickly:  the crowd divides for him, she struggles to make a path.  Before she can finally catch him he has left the square, striding down a side alley different to that which brought her here.

“Sire Celeris!”

He turns, his dark, dark eyes light up to see her,  “My Lady Alanee!  This is an unexpected delight!”

“Yes,” She says, “It is.”   Then, with humility:  “Sire Celeris, would you very kindly rescue me?”

He switches on his mischievous smile.  “Rescue you?”

Alanee shrugs:  “A true Lady should not admit that she is a little the worse for wear?”

“Ah!”  Celeris strokes his chin with long fingers.  “Tsakal, I think.  I know the very place.”

“You’re not in too much of a hurry?”

“For you, my Lady?  And on such a day?  Never!”

He comes to her, feeds a supporting arm around her waist and she, giggling at the difference in their heights, rests a hand on his shoulder, which, however poor in flesh is rich in understanding.  There is comfort there.

They find a café on the South Side, not far from Alanee’s apartment:  “It is a short distance to run, should the need arise.”

They sit on firm, Spartan seats.  The café is quiet, almost deserted, because everyone is out in the yards and squares of the City drinking.  He buys tsakal, placing a small shot-glass of perl beside Alanee’s cup.  Alanee looks at it doubtfully.

“A parachute, a soft landing.  I would not want you to feel miserable or ill.  Drink it slowly, take the tsakal at the same time.”

Conversation flows easily.  He had some business in the financial quarter, it could wait:  was she enjoying the Dawn Celebration?

“Yes, I am.  Parts of it I don’t understand, though.  Why does everyone seem so feverish?  It is only another spring:  it comes every year?”  She thinks she has explained herself badly:  “I mean, they act as if it was their last spring ever.  Or is it just me?”

“Parts of our history have been swathed in darkness.”  Celeris says mysteriously:  “There have been dark ages in our time when the sun never rose.  Although they were long ago, the mark of those times remains upon my people.  They never wake expecting a day, they are just grateful when it comes.”

Alanee shakes her head, sips at her tsakal.  The café overlooks South Avenue, with its constant movement of people:  people who are less purposeful now, stopping to hug one another and to renew acquaintanceships.  From above, this too is a form of dance, a passing of hands, a dignified, slow gavotte.

“Do you like it here?”

She has drifted away in her mind:  “Sorry?”

“Last time we met you were waiting to know your fate.  Do you know it now – is it a good fate?”

“I think so.  I really have no idea.”  She feels she is in a dream; a place from which she cannot return.  His presence is bewitching her somehow, she feels sure.  “Why are you so kind to me?” 

His laughter is sweet, a music in itself.  “How would I not be ‘kind’, as you put it?  Lady Alanee, surely you must comprehend – you are a very pleasing, very attractive woman.  All the world, I’m sure, would have you as their friend if they could!”

So flattered, she should blush, yet doesn’t.  “I don’t know anything about you!  Who are you?  What do you do?  Why do so few people know you?”

“Who am I?  I am Celeris.  You can call me Sire Celeris, if you wish, though I don’t wear my titles on my sleeve as some would.  What do I do?  Well, I suppose the answer must be nothing.  I conduct a little business to pass the time, though I do not need to; I read, I become very learned and I pass my days convincing myself I have a role to play in the City – which may or may not be true.  Why am I so little known?”  He pauses to breathe at this answer.  “Could it be I am not worth knowing?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean….!”

Celeris holds up a hand.  “I’m very sure you didn’t.  Believe me, Lady Alanee, I have a realistic view of my place in this world.”

“Call me ‘ba’.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“All this ‘Lady Alanee’ stuff.  I don’t want to be ‘Lady Alanee’.  Call me ‘ba’.”

He laughs, but he colours, too.  “All the drink….”

“Yes, and it may be I am a little the worse.  But I am never uncertain about these things.  Celeris, you are ‘ba’ to me.”

What does she see in his coal-black eyes then – amazement, puzzlement, wonder?  Her next words are quite deliberate.  “When I needed you, you came to my side.  When I think of you, I think of all that is good in a man.  I am tired now, Celeris my ba.  Take me home.”

Obediently, this pale young man guides her from the tsakal-house and along the avenue to her apartment.  They walk slowly, he supporting her waist, she with her arm about his shoulder as before.  At her door he would turn away but she restrains him with a persuasive hand.

“Don’t leave me here.”

“You live here.”

“Don’t leave me, ba.”

She draws him inside, leading him with her hands about his wrists.  She leads him thus through the inner door to her living room.  As the door slips closed behind them her arms encircle him, inviting him to kiss her but he does not respond, so she goes to him, taking those cool, thin lips in hers and making them open to her, and now he does respond, but clumsily, like a child.  Like the child in his face.

“Lady!”

“I’m sorry.  You must forgive me.”  She steps back, confused, embarrassed.  “I’m drunk.  I said that already, didn’t I?.”

Celeris’s hand detains her.  It is thin yet surprisingly strong.  “Please, do not apologise.  I am curious.  Would you….do that again?”

Curious?  Alanee returns to the kiss, this time with hands behind his head, draping the length of her body against his own spare frame.  And this time he responds willingly, almost expertly.  His kiss is as powerful as hers is compliant.

She draws back, a dark chuckle rising in her throat.  “Curious now?”

Her own boldness surprises her, and without the confidence of liquor she is sure she would not, should not be doing this, yet she needs him with every fibre of her being.  She scatters her message in kisses over his sallow cheeks, his brow, his eyes – returns to his lips, plying them, nipping, gently biting.   His breath is hot.  The arousal she seeks in him is beginning, begins.

Celeris’s hands grab her arms.  He wrestles her away – pushes so hard she almost falls.

“No!  NO!”  His face, normally so pale, is red as damask; his expression one of pure, open-mouthed horror.  He stares down at himself, sees Alanee’s eyes follow his, and turns quickly away.

The mood is shattered to a thousand shards and lies unswept.  Habbach!  Has he never…?  She wants to go to him, to explain something he clearly does not understand.  He will not afford her that chance.

“Lady, I have to leave!”

“Celeris….”

He is gone, through her door at almost a run.  Disarranged, she may not follow him.  Instead she can only stare at the empty space he has left.

Amazed, confounded, Alanee storms to her room and throws herself onto her bed where she pounds her pillow and kicks her mattress in frustration, then bursts into cynical laughter at the thought of Celeris racing through the City in so obvious a condition;  then screams and bites the pillow in fury once more.  Her teeth close upon something small that yields with a faint crunching sound.  She spins into sleep.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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.

Photo Credit: Levi Guzman on Unsplash

Hallbury Summer – Episode Ten Interrupted Steps

 

The story so far:

 On the morning after encountering the deceased Rodney Smith’s vengeful brother, Joe Palliser receives a mysterious letter.  A mission for his aunt gives him cause to explore more deeply into his memories of the village, and while preoccupied with this he renews his acquaintance with mother and daughter of the wealthy Forbes-Pattinson family.

Tom Peterkin, best friend of his young years invites him out for an evening, during which he learns that the murdered Violet Parkin was daughter to Ben Wortsall, locally reputed to be a witch.  Returning that evening, Tom’s parks his car on Wednesday Common, where Joe at last admits to his friend that Marian, the woman he had claimed to be his wife, is dead. 

A last rattle of breeze through the bracken fluttered and died, and as it seemed to Joe the tiny creatures and floating things caught in the headlights’ beam were synthesizing to some unwritten music; the flotsam of life joined in solemn, courtly dance – a pavane for Marian.

“You better tell me the rest, boy,” Tom said quietly.

So Joseph did.

“Sometimes we went on sales trips together, but mostly Marian worked from her London office through the week, and stayed in our flat in Earls Court.  On weekends, she went home to Sussex.  Before we met, she used to take the Friday night train; but as we got to know each other better she stayed over on the Friday more often than not, and went home on the Saturday morning instead.

“Friday became her night to unwind.  We’d have a few drinks, I’d get in some stuff and we’d try a bit of this; bit of that.  It started with the odd pill, you know, to get things more lively?  Then there was coke, and maybe acid, but never too much – never too heavy.

“Six weeks is it now?  Friday.  It seems like yesterday, Tom, believe me.  I got some gear from a guy I used on Fulham Market. Marian liked sex.  I think we were good together.  She was…well, she was inventive, she liked to play, and the night started out that way; but then she went wild, absolutely wild – fierce, almost savage.   I can’t explain – I’d never known her like that – no boundaries, no taboos; nothing barred.   She was so controlled, you see, normally; but not that night.  She was really angry, shouting at me, coming at me with her fists.  It was like she was desperate, forcing me to give her what she needed and doing everything she could to make it hurt.  All she wanted was to give me pain.  If I tried to get away; just go to bed and shut the door on her she wouldn’t let me go.  I couldn’t even turn my back without her clawing me, hitting at me…”

Joe drew breath; needing the break.  The microbial dance lit by the headlights had ceased, its participants hanging suspended as if the orchestra had finished playing.  The song was over.  Beside him, Tom offered nothing:  no encouragement, no support.  At length, Joe continued.

“Well, sometime it must have stopped.  I can’t remember, you see?  The first thing I know it’s morning; I’m in bed and it’s late:  the clock says eleven-thirty.  Marian should have caught the nine o’clock train; but there she is, still lying beside me.

“I was that stupid I just thought she was tired, she’d slept in – not surprising, after all that happened the night before.  I brought coffee back to bed, then I tried to wake her.  She wouldn’t wake up!  I tried and tried, Tom!”

Joe and his genie were face to face now, with the black tidal wave of its power straining against the glass of its bottle, ready to burst forth and drown him with merciful insensibility.  But the glass remained intact.  He was unsteady, he was dizzy, but he did not blank.

“I knew it really.  I knew she’d gone.  There was some of the stuff beside her on the pillow, like she’d tried to score again, or something.  I don’t know, because I can’t remember what happened.  I can’t remember anything except how scared I was.  I have no recollection of going to bed, I don’t remember her joining me.”

After a long pause, Tom asked: “You think you killed her?  Is that what you’re saying?”

“No.”  Joe’s tongue wrapped itself around that negative.  He dredged deep.  “Yes?  I have no bloody idea!  What made her behave like that – bad gear?  I took it too.  She was – there was some bruising on her body.  I can’t explain that, either.  Did I do it?  Did she?”

“So you could have killed her.”

“I panicked, Tom.  I told you she had a separate flat upstairs.  She only slept there if her husband was visiting.  I carried her up.  No-one saw, no-one heard me, but oh-my-god it was a struggle, she was so cold and stiff…I laid her in her bed like she’d simply gone to sleep, cleared up all the gear and dumped it in the food waste bin at the back of a restaurant we used to go to on Coulter Street.

“I wiped or washed anything in our flat that might connect to me, put all the bed-linen in a bag and took it to the Laundromat – left it there in one of the machines.  I just went.  It was Saturday evening by then and other than personal clothing there wasn’t much to carry really.  Everything in our lives was hers.”

It was a long time before Tom said anything.  “The filth, what about they?  Did they find yer?”

“Not so far.  I went to my brother’s place and just laid low, waiting to be found, basically.  I wasn’t.” Joe recollected the Detective Sergeant’s visit and his dark looks; “At least, I don’t think so. I heard nothing more, until yesterday.  Yesterday I got a letter from Marian’s solicitors asking me to contact them.  ”

“You’d be easy enough to trace, I’d ha’ thought.  Her people at work, they knew about you:  you weren’t invisible.  No, I’d say if the cops haven’t caught up with you by now they aren’t looking.  They probably think you left afore she died, or sommat.”  Tom shook his head gravely:  “So that’s why yer not yerself, ah?”  he mused.  “Think I understand, boy.  But I don’t see you got anything to worry about.  You did pretty well, ‘sfar as I can see.”

He cranked his car into life, backing out onto the road.  It seemed Joe had done pretty well.  He had opened up to Tom and his mind had stayed with him.  As his friend dropped him off he cautioned:  “Tom, this mustn’t go further than us, yeah?”

Tom reassured him; of course it would not.  “’Tis sommat to think on, though, ah? There was I thinkin’ you was quiet for quite a diff’rent reason tonight, Joe.  See ‘ow wrong I can be?”

From the look in his eyes, from the timbre of that rich shire voice, Joe saw that Tom had connected some of the dots – he knew.

“You’ll do the right thing, boy.  I’m certain o’ tha’.”   And he drove away.

In his sleep that night, Joe hung suspended somewhere between dream and memory, and it was no longer Sarah’s face that watched him in the darkness, but that of his best friend’s wife.

#

“Fancy your chances, do you?”  She arched an eyebrow, bringing his confidence instantly to its knees.  Green eyes – she had almost iridescent green eyes.

“Some.”  He stumbled:  “Maybe.”

“Alright.  I’ll dance with you.”

It was a local hall, a local band.  They jived awkwardly, because he was far too nervous to lead.

She wore a cream blouse, a flared skirt which whirled about her as she spun.  She moved with natural grace, as though she were born to dance.

They shouted to each other above the music.  “What are you doing out without your mate?  Everybody thinks you and Tom Peterkin are queer for each other!”

“We’re not! (He was so sensitive to those little jibes, back then!)  Dunno what he’s doing tonight.”

When the music finished; “Buy me a drink, then?”

Emma Blanchland was no stranger.  Even though they had gone to different schools, they had met from time to time; shy smiles, muttered ‘hello’s’.  She had just been one of the local girls until that night.

Why had he decided to go to the dance in Fettsham on his own?  Maybe because a member of the band was Ian’s friend; maybe just because he was tired of being alone, wanting to torture himself with more rejection.  He didn’t know.  But Emma was there, and the girl was no longer simply someone walking by – she was a young, vibrant woman with an expressive face, a slim waist and long legs which revealed a tempting glimpse of stocking-top when she danced.

He bought her drinks; they learned to laugh with each other.  After the ordeal of meeting, the evening passed pleasantly to a point where even Joe’s dancing improved.  They smooched through the final number.  In the car park he copied a smart-Alec remark of Tom’s, glancing meaningfully down at her skirt.  “What colour are they, then?”

“Cheeky sod!  They’re red.  And if you think I’m going to prove it for you, you’ve got another think coming!”

“Some other time, then?”

She glared.  “I should change the subject, if I were you.  Now, are you going to take me home?”

He drove her in the Pilot.  He did not drive fast.  At her door, they kissed – just a quick peck, just once.

Three days later Joe was walking on a shopping street in Braunston when he met Emma almost head-on.  At first, he was unsure if the girl in a dark brown coat walking arm-in-arm with a broad-shouldered young man actually was Emma; but as they drew closer there was no mistaking those green eyes.  They met his, and she curled inside at the sadness she saw.

That evening Joseph sat in his room packing another set of wasted fantasies into the bulging closet of his self-esteem.  Love, he had decided, was an illusion, something he always aspired to but was destined never to reach. There was something in his psyche that was tuned to disappointment, something unlovable about him that had consigned him to a life of loneliness.

These and other such maudlin thoughts were rudely interrupted by his Uncle Owen, who bellowed up the stairs:

“Joseph!  There’s someone at the door for you!”

He stumbled downstairs and there she was, jeans and a white sweater, a little half-smile that opened a minuscule window to the woman inside:  Emma, who blurted:  “Look, before you say anything, I don’t usually do this kind of stuff, right?  I don’t, Joe.”

He replied with a crestfallen shrug – a gesture which had become so much his.  “You’re with someone else – it’s alright.  It’s allowed.  I’ve no right to you, I don’t…I don’t have any claim on you.”

Emma shifted from one foot to the other, looking about her with an air of desperation. “Come with me!  Come on!”  She reached out, grabbed his hand, dragged him from doorway to lane, marched ahead of him, ignoring his protests – which, to do him justice, were neither persistent nor loud.

At the bend by the poplars she turned onto Wednesday Common and there, in the secret shadow of a beech hedge she took both his hands, so she could look into his eyes.

“He….see, Joey, he is my boyfriend, yeah?  But…Okay, you talk about ‘owning’.  He doesn’t ‘own’ me.  I enjoyed the other night, with you.  I really did, and I’d like us – if you want – to go on seeing each other, yeah?  I’d like that, very much – if you want?”

And Joe smiled so broadly he almost cried because, yes, he did want.  And she was leaning back against the hedge and looking up into his grey eyes with that incredible green of her own and she was waiting:

“Emma, can I kiss you?”

“If you don’t I’ll break your bloody neck!”

That was their first real kiss.  But it was something much, much more.

There comes an interlude in the stressful process of growing that some will call a rite of passage,  when the child learns that balance of nature which must exist between male and female, the initiatives each has to take, those areas of self each must surrender.  Their kiss engendered the ‘spark’ – that unreasoned and unreasonable connection between boy and girl; the outrageous influence of fate upon choice, the indefinable glue that is ‘attraction’.

Hitherto, love for Joseph had meant worship:  but whereas Sarah was a goddess on a pedestal, an alabaster idol demanding adoration, Emma was real; she was a laughing, entrancing equal who could turn him this way and that, should she want.  Yet she would tread softly with such adolescent devices because in Joe she saw a lifetime ahead:  the children she wanted to be hers, a home like her parents’ home, the sleepy contentment of age.  In Joe she saw the boy who would become the man who would become the partner.  She saw a pattern for her life.

They became not lovers at first – they became friends: fast friends, bonded so closely both thought the ties might never break, no matter how far they were to be apart.

They did not hurry into love.  For if Emma was so certain of her feelings, Joseph was less easily convinced of his.  Emma knew about Sarah of course; she had met her with Joe several times when they were together, and she was quick to realise that her new friend still measured her against his former love.  Emma was patient, happy to be a kissing friend while their affinity to one another grew.  She was content to be real while Sarah was a dream, but she would not commit entirely to Joe until she saw, not the reflection of Sarah in his eyes, but her own.

Then, one rainy morning in Spring, everything changed.  Both were working in Braunston in those days, he for Mr Carnaby, the solicitor; she for a department store on Bridge Street. To cheat the rain Joseph decided he would take his car to work, so, thinking that Emma might go with him, he called at her door.  There was no answer.  Rollo, the family dog, a large, clumsy Alsatian, was silent.  Emma’s father was away so Joe knew her mother, who also worked, would normally have woken her daughter before she left.  He banged the door more loudly, then, when there was still no response, he tried the latch.  It opened.  Reasoning that further clamour might draw the attention of the whole village, he thought it sensible to go inside.

He called up the stairs:  “Emma?”

“Joe?  Oh, Joe, is that you?”   The faint reply, not from above stairs but from beyond the house, led him out by the kitchen door into Rob Blanchland’s small, tidy garden.  There he found Emma in her nightdress crouched on her heels, her dressing gown thrown over her shoulders, staring at a space between geometrically precise rows of cabbages and beans.

“Oh, Joe.  I’m glad you’ve come.  I didn’t know what to do.”  Her voice trembled with emotion.  “I loved him so!”

Joe drew closer.  The space in the vegetation resolved itself into the inert form of Rollo, who lay with his teeth bared and open eyes, lifeless on the wet soil.  The dog’s back was arched as though frozen in mid-stride, mud plastered on his brown fur.  Joe reached down to touch his cheek:  it was already cold.

“He’s gone, Emm.”

Emma nodded.  “I let him out just as usual.  You know what he’s like, flyin’ out the door like a big soppy grey-hound?  He’s half-way down the garden, and he just leapt in the air, and …..”  Her face creased.  “He’s too heavy for me, and I can’t just leave him there.  Joe, can you…?

He went to her, took her by the shoulders to raise her up.  “It was probably a heart attack or a stroke: I shouldn’t think he felt anything. Come inside, you’ll freeze out here.”

Emma submitted mutely, shaking with the chill as she allowed Joe to pull her dressing gown around her and cradle her back to the warmth of the kitchen.  He put a kettle on the range, then taking the old dog’s favourite blanket from his basket he returned to the garden, where he wrapped it around Rollo and carried him to the tool-shed, leaving him to lie in state on the dry wooden floor.  Rollo was an amiable companion.  He would be missed.

By the time Joe returned, Emma seemed to have recovered somewhat, though her shoulders still shook.  Joe kissed her forehead, then instructed her firmly to take a hot bath and dress in some dry clothes.  With a rueful smile, she directed his eyes to her feet. reminding him she had been barefoot in the garden – her feet, like her hands, with which she had tried to stir Rollo into life, were covered in grey mud.  So Joe carried her upstairs,  and stood her in the bath while he washed her feet, inducing some reluctant laughter because she was ticklish between her toes.   Running fresh water so she might bathe, he left her then.

“I’ll make some tea.  Come down when you’re ready.”

Minutes passed:  five – ten……

Emma called out:  “Joe!”.

Joseph rushed to reply, afraid lest…lest what?  “Yes, what is it Emm?”

“Can you bring me my tea?”

So he did.

Hours later, warm and dry in her bed, Emma opened sleepy eyes to smile at the face on the pillow beside her.

“Let’s start this day again;” She said. “Good day to you, Joe.”

And those words, in a way, were spoken with sadness.  But there, in the first blush of Rollo’s tragic morning, came affirmation – something profound was begun.

Photo Credit:  Matthew Miles on Unsplash

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.