Meeting on the Motorway

He was driving home, not for the first but the third time this week, and he was tired.

Paul’s weariness  was an insidious thing, .  It had begun not weeks but months since, an insistent fatigue beyond sleep’s cure with roots that grew a little deeper each day, spread a little wider each week; so now it invaded his very bones.  He felt older, much older than his forty-two years.  Today he had worked late and far from home, swaddling that tiredness in a further layer of exhaustion. 

Almost as indistinct, the traffic of the motorway processed about him in sound and rhythm, fast and vast, marauding or crawling, assertive or furtive.  A tune – a slow ballad – a lullaby to woo him into sleep.   His eyelids were heavy, his reason was blurring.

The mile-post for a service area found him just in time:  even then he almost missed it, sinking eyelids hiding the warnings, an articulated trailer unit veiling the essential final sign until he was forced into an ugly lane-change.  The car park beckoned him and he fell into it, slumping back in his seat.  With the tensions of the road dispersed nothing could arrest the orderly march of slumber. Recognising the futility of defence, he surrendered unconditionally.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look absolutely wrecked.”

At some point he must have wakened then taken a decision  to leave his cocoon in search of food.  His steps must have led him to this café, his payment app to the stack of meat, cheese and mayo which leered back at him from this plate. 

“You aren’t actually going to eat that, are you?”

He couldn’t remember ordering the food, although it seemed sustaining enough to answer a need.  Clearly, he had slept for some hours, a simple truth his digestive tract insisted he acknowledge.

“I rather think I might,” he said, and “Who are you?”

He must have dozed again, that was the explanation.  While he was in a torpid state this young woman must have slipped into the seat across from his, but why?  The café was less than crowded.  There were whole tables to spare.

“Hi,” She said brightly, “I’m Seph.  Nice to meet you!”  She removed the heavy-looking spectacles through which she had been conducting her examination of his choice of comestible and extended a hand so absolutely inviting that, caught unawares, he almost kissed it.  Convention stepped into the line of fire just in time with an admonishing finger.  He shook the hand.  “Paul,”  he said.  “I’m sorry, how did …?”

“You needed me.”

The forthrightness of the statement alerted prickling, suspicious hairs on the back of Paul’s neck.

 Awake now and thinking, it didn’t take much working out, really, did it?  Easy to watch for such travellers as he:  Mercedes in the car park, expensive business suit, new, high-end ‘phone…  She was certainly convincing, he told himself, allowing his eyes free rein; a ‘class act’, her hair darkly frizzed to emphasize the portrait of a perfectly-featured face, the widest of soft mouths, the bluest of blue eyes.  A pale blue cloud-blue shift dress draped over shoulders otherwise bare, free of straps and encumbrances.  But still…

“I needed you.  Really.”  He placed some cynicism behind the words.

“Yes,”  She said.  And when she said it, when her eyes insisted his should meet with them, he felt himself melting.  “You’re not happy, are you?”

Now what on earth would make her say that?  “I’m on my way home,” he replied defensively.  “When I get home, I’ll be happy enough.”

It was a lie.  He dreaded going home.  “You’re very direct,”  he accused her.

Home?   A very expensive roof protecting a string of complex and irresolvable debts; remortgaged many times in the cause of his his business activities.  The domain of Adrienne, his wife; very much her domain, her furniture, her colours, her choices – bought without sanction because he was never there, always working.

“Is it my home?”  did he say that aloud?  Seph’s smile of understanding seemed to suggest she had heard everything, even the thoughts he was sure he had not spoken aloud.

“There’s someone waiting for you there?”  She coaxed, settling her hand on the table so her fingers played gently with the tips of his own.

“My wife.  Are you conducting some kind of confessional?”

“Do you love her, your wife?” 

He wanted to frown, to show he was affronted, but somehow he was drawn into an answer:  “This is getting a little too personal, isn’t it? What was your name?  Seph?   I mean, considering we’ve never met before, Seph.”

Seph leaned her elbows on the table, letting her chin rest prettily upon her interlocked fingers,  “I’m genuinely afraid for you, Paul.   It’s three o’clock in the morning, it’s a summer dawn; if love and happiness are waiting at the end of your journey, what are you doing here?”

“I had to pull over to rest.”  Just by reminding himself, he stirred a cloying mist of sleep.  Why was he so, so tired?  Adrienne slipped back into his thoughts, bringing contemplation and silence…

  Oh, there was a presumption of love.  There was a history, a time when there had been something between them they could excuse as love, when Paul was the beautiful young man and Adrienne his feminine equal, courted by an eager succession of suitors.  Perhaps Paul was the man Adrienne had been looking for, then.  Perhaps his relentless energy, his quiet, distant manner satisfied her, for she was never a passionate woman and she had few sexual needs.  Salivating young grads with nervous, uncertain eyes who danced on her strings amused her, but never tempted.  Paul saw her as she was, focussed; and she was drawn to his perspicacity.

That was then, and maybe it was a flawed foundation for a marriage, a mutual admiration rather than a friendship, a partnership rather than a passion: now it was a floor show, played out on their public stage.  In private, it was ice.

 “That will be cold,”  Seph interrupted his thoughts, rescuing him from despondency.  She directed his leaden eyes to the plated enormity stacked before him.  “If there’s anything worse than grease, it’s cold grease.”

Paul had to agree.   He was hungry.   But the challenge which confronted him was, in construction, a burger, and he hesitated to engage in the two-handed assault that threatened to release missiles of gherkin and cascades of mayonnaise while under the scrutiny of this attractive companion.  He was drawn to her, wasn’t he?  He was intrigued.

“Knife,”  She said, producing one from somewhere and sliding it across the table.

Paul accepted it.  “Do you work here or something?”

“No.  You hate her, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,”  his mouth was half-full.  “Hate who?”

“Adrienne.”

Paul stopped chewing, staring into Seph’s eyes as he sought some answer to a question so obvious he almost baulked at asking it;  “How do you know my wife’s name?  Do I talk in my sleep, or something?  Have we met before?”

“Have we met before?   Let me see…”  Seph’s hands slipped below the table and came up with a small notebook.  With her spectacles replaced halfway down her nose she flipped pages.   “Well, no.  No, we haven’t actually met.   Do you think I look too stern in these?  He says they make me look stuffy.  What do you think?”

Had Paul been in a mood for honesty, he would have replied that in his opinion she looked beautiful, but he saw a small advantage.  It seemed unlikely someone so lovely, and so overtly happy, would not be in a relationship.   “’He’?   Is ‘he’ your boyfriend?”

She pouted, an admission perhaps that she had been caught out?  But then there was a trace of a smirk,  “I wouldn’t call him that, exactly.  Anyway, we were talking about you.  I know all about you, Paul; you and Adrienne.  I’ve been studying you both for a few months now.”  She slid the spectacles right down to the end of her nose, treating him to a penetrating look over the top of them.  “Stern, yes?”

Genuinely, Paul was beginning to feel a little out of his depth.  Although this woman’s research begged explanation, he still favoured his initial theory.  This was a pick-up; a very professional one, but nonetheless…“Is this a regular haunt of yours?” He asked brutally;  “Cruising the motorway stops for tired professionals with fat wallets?”

“I see, sir,”   Seph took off her glasses;  “So I assume this is a practice of yours, trawling for chicks at night in tawdry dens of lust like Knutsford Services?  Fat professionals with tired wallets?”  But her eyes were liquid.  She looked solemn and genuinely sad.   “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I’m not for sale.   Not even for rent.”

“Then what are you, what is it that you do?  Where DO you work?”

“Wherever I am needed.  At the moment, that’s here.”

“I don’t need you,” he tried to say it kindly.  “Look, Seph, I’ve no idea where you’re coming from, so let’s agree to a moment of honesty, shall we?  You seem, for reasons only you can explain, to be interested in the state of my marriage.   Well, if I admit it isn’t the best marriage in the world, and from your perspective it must seem pretty depressing, can we close the subject and get down to whatever this conversation is really about?  Can we dispense with the subtleties?”

“No!”  Seph gripped his hand fiercely, then released it as quickly and sat back in her chair,  “This is a one-time offer, Paul.   One stop only, no repeats.  Do you know what I see?  Someone who’s ruled by life, Paul.  A caged soul.   It isn’t your fault, perhaps; you have the fast car but someone else is driving.  Nor is the fault Adrienne’s, because a woman like her was raised with expectations and her choices have failed her.   But you are not free and I must free you, yes?   That’s why I sat down at this table.  That’s why you have to take my hand, now, and let me guide you.  Please?”

Paul felt he had to shake his head because the sleep was coming in storm clouds.  Suddenly, it seemed imperative to think clearly, but clarity wouldn’t come.  He strove for an answer.  “See, Seph, that’s just how it is.  It’s the life I’ve got.    There are moments in it you could call happy.  If I’m prepared to settle for that version, and I am, although you are the most wonderful-looking reminder of the youth I once had, you must accept I don’t want rescuing – even by you.” 

“So,” Seph sighed,.  “You don’t need my help, then.  You’re going home and you’re ‘happy’, Paul.”  She shrugged.  “An opportunity missed.  I’m very glad for you.”

“Thank you for the thought,” he replied generously, “It was nice to meet you, Seph.”

A slow smile of kindness, tinged with regret, played across her face.  She rose gracefully from her seat, turning to follow the aisle to the doors, her blue dress floating about her – reeds in a stream, the rush of breeze in the willow.  He watched her go.

“Seph?”  

What made him do it?   Adrienne made him do it, the future in that hard voice, those acerbic jibes, waiting at the end of his road.  The darkness made him do it.

Then out of the darkness came Seph, taking his hands, drawing him to her.  “I was rather hoping you were going my way,”  she said sweetly.  “This is the very best thing!  Thank you, Paul!”

“My car’s in the car park,”  he said.

“We don’t need a car,” Seph replied.

© 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 Five of Conversations

Foreign Deceptions and Home Truths.

Edkins, aged family retainer and butler though he was, reacted immediately to the menacing intruder’s attack on his master.  About to seek his instructions for the midday meal, he had been close by, close enough to see and describe both rider and horse.  At Arthur’s side in an instant, his expression was one of more than usual concern,  “Are you hurt, sir?  Should I summon the Watchmen?”

“No, no,”  Arthur quickly recovered himself.  He had been surprised but was not, in his own estimation, of a mettle to be be intimidated by such a trespass.  He leaned across the balustrade, addressing a huddle of anxious upturned faces gathered on the driveway below.  “Robinson, ride with a few of the stable boys and make sure that villain is not still on the Park, will you?”

Robinson, his chief ostler, was a sturdily-built man known not to baulk at a fight: “Aye, sir.  Will we take a staff or two?”

“To defend yourselves only, I think.  I am uninjured.  We should not respond with harm.”

In Arthur’s mind,there was no doubt his assailant had  long gone.  Were he not, and if the lads from the stable should discover him, he was also fairly certain Robinson, being of an uncharitable disposition, would place his own interpretation upon their defence of themselves..  

His hour of peaceful contemplation rudely ended, Arthur retired to his library until luncheon.  He would be of a mood to put the extraordinary event behind him, were it not for the mad rider’s words.   What imagined cause had he to claim ‘the woman’ was his?  Arthur presumed this reference was to Francine.  Did that man contribute to the cause of her guardian’s anxiety?    He decided he must forgo delicacy and urgently discover more about Francine.   At his library desk he wrote a note to Abel Montcleif, his business manager in Mountchester and secured it with his seal before summoning a houseboy.

#

On the Esplanade at Levenport and leaning against the steel railing that kept the unwary or the inebriated from plunging fifteen feet to the beach, Peter could not wipe out the memory of his – as he saw it – disastrous exam.  Whether he accepted its historical title of St. Clement’s Rock, or acknowledged the superstitious sobriquet given to it by those who lived in its shadow, the sombre height of ‘Satan’s Rock’ now all but hid a descending sun, a gloomy reflection of his thoughts.  Exercising his little pocket of expertise in matters of the Rock’s history helped him, did it not?  In some measure was this not the start of his demise, just as once a single failure had begun Horace Crowley’s downward spiral?  Such thoughts in one so young were ridiculous, of course, but they fed his mood.  And he could claim a cause:  he needed to complete the picture, to find the final piece to his personal puzzle – what had become of Toqus?

Lord Crowley did not know of his architect Quimple’s demise when he took ship for warmer climes, leaving his wife in charge of affairs at home,  Toqus stood at the old Lord’s side as he left England, believing his house on St. Clement’s Rock would be finished by the coming spring.  The noble Lord was greatly troubled with more immediate matters.   Powerless to correct the slide of his personal fortunes he embarked upon a very carefully planned programme of visits to those of his wealthier acquaintances who enjoyed a bet or two, and who, like himself, were wintering abroad.  Not entirely surprising, then, that he turned to gambling as an extreme measure – he had been, after all, the beneficiary of many of Prinny’s wilder wagers – and perhaps his early success, given the shrewd manner of so many of his past campaigns, might have been expected:  not the rapidity of his later losses, though, which had nothing to do with shrewdness or control.

There happened to be a young Contessa whom he met one warm September evening as they took the air on the balcony of a villa belonging to one of Crowley’s gaming companions.   She a radiantly beautiful young woman of twenty years, he an ailing soldier soon becoming sixty, he was flattered by her attentions enough to fall, as many an old man will, into her maelstrom of charm.   And he would suffer for it, soon enough. Who could tell if she saw anything in him beyond his money? Let us record part of a letter from the Contessa to her closest confidante, written a little before Christmas 1825.

“The dullness of this place is only relieved by a most amusing companion.  My dearest Yleni, I believe I have a suitor!  His title is Lord Horace Crowley, but he insists I call him Rollo!

Lord Crowley is a man of such blunt manners one may think him coarse upon first acquaintance, yet I am persuaded he has much gentleness in his soul, and his courtesy to me is that of a true gentle-person.   Oh, Yleni, I am quite disgracefully besotted by my English Lord!   He has monopolized my time far too easily these last months; he lavishes his generosity upon me ceaselessly – there seems to be nothing for which I may not ask!

He is terribly old, I fear, but has land and money enough.  Am I very wicked, do you think?” 

   Only one redeeming feature of this liaison would save Crowley from utter ruin – the Contessa‘s letter acknowledges it:

“A manservant accompanies him whom he calls Toqus.  This man seems never to leave his side and he is most distracting!  He is, as I believe, of Moorish descent, certainly of a pallor which would hide him well were the night too dark, and of a size which could fairly support the roof to this villa should the walls collapse!

“At times one could be forgiven for feeling as if this Toqus had some curious hold over Rollo.  I find him disturbing, and confide I should be quite grateful if he would just not be there.  But when I suggest to Lord Crowley that a certain amount of privacy might be attained were the man dismissed; even when, dare I say, there should be some temptation in the prospect, he is most reluctant to allow the creature from the room.  I swear this Toqus seems to have us both in his power, and the way he regards me, with such rude discernment, has me quite frightened!”

So, while the balmy Mediterranean winter soothed Crowley’s lungs, he paid court to a pleasant young woman a third his age, who, to give her justice, promised him nothing in return.   It was a long winter.

When the lovely Contessa left in the spring she took a sizeable amount of Crowley’s diminished fortune with her: jewels, rich fabrics, gold trinkets and favours, much of the money he had lavished upon her, even small items of salon furniture for which she had expressed desire, all joined the very practical and efficient train that followed her on her progress through Europe.

Devastated at the Contessa’s loss to him and ravaged by guilt, Crowley sought to recover what he could by a final desperate round of wagers,  none of them successful.   His credibility, ultimately his credit with his friends guttered like a spent candle; and the seizure which struck him, one hot summer evening on the Avenue des Libes, very nearly snuffed him out.   Had Toqus not been there to rescue him he would have died.   Passers-by, meaning well, recoiled in revulsion at the sight of the great black fellow who knelt beside Crowley’s lifeless form, alternately apparently kissing him on the mouth and beating his chest – and disgust turned to amazement when Horace Crowley, his pallor that of stone, was seen to be suddenly coughing back to life.

Meanwhile, in England, Lady Crowley was subjected to a visit by an extremely attractive young man – several visits, in fact.

When Quimple the Architect took his death-plunge, all work on St. Benedict’s Rock stopped.   Quimple had been, after all, more than just the planner of the great house: he had been its executor too.  Although he left behind him drawings, bills, sketches and notes which would guide future construction, he left no management structure, no master of works – he had done all of this himself.  So a crew of labourers and craftsmen who were accustomed to remuneration at the end of each week saw no prospect of further wages, and left. 

The great house was still roofless, open to the torments of the weather.  And winter set about the merciless business of destruction.

Into this rusting breech stepped one Matthew Ballentine.  Peter knew little about Ballentine, except that he was a gentleman who, unlike a great majority of his peers, apparently enjoyed an active life.   While others such as him might be found sailing uncharted southern seas or hacking through snake-infested jungle, Matthew Ballentine seemed to like exploring closer to home.    When Quimple made his dramatic exit it drew some attention from the national press which Ballentine, then at his London Club, read with interest.   He took coach for Levenport the very next day.

First sight of Crowley’s intended mansion was a shock for most.  When Ballentine saw it he was dumbfounded.   Half-raised Bavarian towers, Russian domes, Moorish courtyards and castellations, all within one design:  the result, applied to the uneven summit of the rock, being hideous confusion.  Ballentine was something of a draughtsman:  not an architect; no, no-one had ever addressed him thus, but a skilled artist with a natural appreciation of form.   So for some little while, as Peter imagined him, he must have gazed at the amoebic sprawl that crowned St. Benedict’s Rock with horror:  then he would have begun to laugh.

Three weeks after this Ballentine sought out Lady Crowley in her country estate.  He found a woman, who, though now well into her thirties, had lost none of her classical beauty.

For her part, Lady Elizabeth might have been equally pleased with the tall, elegantly dressed man who stood to greet her in her drawing room that afternoon: he had a natural charm which floated her through the usual pleasantries with unaccustomed ease.   Peter could imagine their conversation:

“You wished to see me with regard to the property on St. Benedict’s Rock, Mr. Ballentine?”  Her voice was flute-like, musical:  but when she spoke of the house, Ballentine fancied he detected a tension in her tone.

“I did.”   He approached the essence of the issue delicately:   “Such an enterprise must be extremely demanding of your husband’s time?”

“Indeed it is.”

“And the distance involved, given his extensive occupation here, must be taxing.”

“That too.”   Elizabeth studied a Turkish urn which graced a corner of her withdrawing room carefully.

“And then there was the sad affair of Mr. Quimple….”

“True.”  Ballentine suddenly found himself gazing into the depths behind Lady Elizabeth’s eyes – they were not tranquil depths.  “May we dispense with this verbal quadrille, sir?”

“Certainly.”   He breathed.  He was captivated.

“You are aware that my husband is not here.  You will know that he is presently in France, for his health, leaving me to deal with all of his affairs. You no doubt also know that the house of which you speak is in an intolerable state with no work being done upon it.   I have my hands full with this estate, so your intention is to – what – perhaps offer my husband a sum to purchase the place?  Enlighten me, Mr. Ballentine?”

“No ma’am. Not that.”

Elizabeth suppressed a resigned sigh.   Of course, no one would want to buy it now.  No-one would ever want to buy it.  Still, there was something in this man that encouraged confidence.  Whatever his scheme, she might be dangerously tempted.

“I know that communication with the South of France must be difficult, so such a negotiation would be awkward at this time:” Ballentine said.  “For the present – I have some comprehension of architecture, ma’am – I would like to offer my services to ensure the house is safely completed.”

“Indeed, Mr. Ballentine?”  Elizabeth treated him to a tiny smile.  “Then you would be most welcome, for I assure you I have no idea how the situation might be remedied otherwise.   But you do not look like a man who builds houses for an occupation.  Tell me, were I to gain my husband’s agreement to such an arrangement, what would be your interest in this?”

Ballentine returned her smile with one of his own.  It was the gently understanding, knowing smile of a man who had done his research well.  “To complete the house would require a large sum of money – freeing capital amounts of such a size might be difficult?”

Lady Crowley understood.  “Ah!”  She said simply.   Should she confide in this man? If ever there was a time to lay cards on the table, it was probably now.

“There may be some things, Mr. Ballentine, which you do not know.  I am not, for example, in communication with my husband.   Oh, I know where he is, but he does not write to me.  Nor does he send me anything else.   When poor Mr. Quimple died there were…debts…which, with no authorisation from Lord Crowley, are difficult to settle.  Then there is the matter of this estate.  I have to deal with issues here which are unmanaged.   The Estate Manager my husband put in place was of no use and had to be dismissed, so I have to do the work myself.”

“You must find all this extremely distressing.”

“It is.  So you see, sir, the demands of the St. Benedict’s house are far more than just architectural.”  His eyes were kind: oh, so kind!   “Mr. Ballentine, I confess I am at my wits’ end!”

“Then,” said Mr. Ballentine; “You must, I beg you, accept my offer of help?”

“So may I believe your interests are also more than simply architectural?”

Ballentine paused before replying, stirred inwardly by Elizabeth’s implication and the emanations he knew already passed between them:   “Indeed they are, Ma’am.  Very much more.”

© 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.

A Land Under Siege

To be absolutely clear, I am in favour of self-isolation or quarantine, if you prefer, where necessary.   I fully appreciate the efforts of the National Health Service in meeting the challenge of COVID-19.  I am desperately sad for all of those families who have lost loved ones, and I feel the pain of those thousands who are fighting for their own survival, either suffering the disease, or from annihilation by DEBT.

I think it is time to ask some questions.

In UK at the moment, there is no media coverage for anything apart from the virus, its effects, and ‘Our heroic National Health Service’ .  Presumably other things are happening in the world, but we do not hear about them.  The news media has a job.  It is to report the news.  It is not doing it.

Saturation-level propaganda is a bit of a speciality where the British Establishment is concerned, so whenever terminology like ‘The National Health Service’ is subtly adjusted to read ‘Our National Health Service’ we know we are being manipulated towards sympathetic patriotism.   ‘Our National Health Service’ is incomparable; it is the best in the world, and so on.

No, it isn’t.

It is better than some, it is worse than others.  It is streets behind the German equivalent, for example.  The heroes are the people on the ground who struggle with the limited tools they have been given, because ‘Our National Health Service’ only serves the poor bloody infantry.  Anyone who can afford it ‘goes private’, including those poverty-stricken doctors who quietly accumulate small fortunes from their private clientele.

Shutting a whole country has further, less publicised effects.  It all but eliminates small business, leaving the field clear for the better-padded moguls to move in.  And small businesses will fail to sustain an artificially low unemployment figure, because a lot of those people living on the margins will soon be forced to return to the ranks of the unemployed.

Debt and the inability to service it may be manifested in destroyed dreams, broken relationships and ruined lives.  Confinement to some is intolerable, especially to those who live alone, or those whose mental state is already disturbed.   A government’s task is clearly to walk a fine line between prudence in terms of the virus’s spread and preserving financial stability – or at least that is what it should be doing.  So when we are told a plateau in the number of those contracting the virus has been reached, only to have it dismissed as ‘the eye of the storm’ and be advised that quarantine will continue for a further three weeks, we are entitled to question.

Be a conspiracy theorist for a moment.  No-one doubts the authenticity of the virus, or the need for some response to it, but it is, in some ways, very convenient.  It serves, for example, those who would wish to further increase the funding and influence of the National Health Service.  Make no mistake, the British Medical Association holds our medical profession in an iron grip, and it advances the cause of doctors, their working conditions and their salaries, very well.   It serves the interests of those wishing to delay or reverse the process of Brexit, because nobody is talking about EU issues now; and it serves a Chancellor who prepared a huge giveaway budget that defied the basic rules of economics, and will now ‘have’ to be scrapped.

Hastened by COVID, in years to come High Streets will be rearranged, Malls closed, on-line marketing and working from home will become the norm.  If there is a future for small business in this country, and if we can continue to steer clear of the EU reef, and if property prices are forced to a realistic level, then it will have redressed some of its terrible cost.

If, however, it merely becomes a tool for the Establishment, a series of excuses for promises broken, the embryo of a police state and a vessel to sail back into the jaws of Federalist Europe many thousands of people will have suffered and died in vain.

I’m sure the conspiracy theories cannot be true.  No sovereign government or its organs would stoop so low as to use a profoundly dangerous virus to further its own ends…

Would it?