Continuum – Episode Eighteen: Venom

In the previous episode:

After her drunken attempt to seduce Celeris at the Spring Rising, Alanee accidentally stumbles upon a tiny speaker concealed within her pillow.   Portis and Ellar summon her to a meeting in which she learns some of the City’s history and discovers The Book.  She asks to meet Cassix, the Seer.

Meanwhile, in his vantage point at the edge of the Dometian disaster zone Councillor Trebec, discusses the genocide of those Dometians who escaped the destructive wall, and learns from his commander, Zess, that one aerotrans pilot is still missing…

In the deep forest a steady rain falls.  Dag Swenner has lost all sense of time, lying where he fell when he could no longer cling to the tree bough that had been his refuge for a while.  Beside him, cheek by jowl, the monster that so nearly took him from the world; his adversary then, companion now on his lonely road to death.    His ancestors are gathered in his Heaven, sombre-faced, waiting to welcome him home. 

He knows he cannot not keep them waiting long.

High in the canopy of the forest a raindrop finds a leaf and runs its length, following a vein until it ends, then drips and falls to a blue, serrate leaf  that waits below, and thence downward over half a hundred different shapes and colours on its descent to the forest floor.  From each leaf it takes a little substance, a savor so delicate and subtle it will look unchanged, taste unaltered.  It falls finally upon the lips of the man who lies dying, and its moisture comforts him.

#

Alanee is in the ante-rooms of the High Council Chambers when Valtor the Convener intercepts her.  Valtor is a small, pallid Protean with a confidential air.

“My Lady.”  He treats Alanee to a sweeping bow, making her take two surprised backward steps.  “He would grant you an audience.”

He?”

“Yes, Lady.  He! Great Sire Hasuga.”  Valtor articulates these words in a reverent whisper.

“Oh, him.  Tell him to give me an hour.  I’ve got to collect some clothes in the City.”

Such colour as Valtor has leaves his face and his jaw drops open.  His hands, effete at best, fly to cover his ears.  “Lady Alanee!  I did not hear that!  I did not hear that!  He is the Great Sire Hasuga; our sovereign benefactor!  If I take such a reply back to him my life will surely be forfeit!”

Alanee leans in towards him.  “Mister whoever you are, if he is the Great Sire Hasuga you say he is, he already heard it.  No harm will come to you or him in waiting.”  She turns on her heel and heads for the Courtyard, leaving Valtor speechless in her wake.

In her defiance of Hasuga, Alanee is not merely being self-willed.  She needs time before she confronts the strange, unnatural boy, time to assimilate all she has heard and learnt.  Ellar’s few simple explanations that should have been all she needed to join the pieces of the jigsaw her life has been, that made everything fit so neatly, will now throw up a multitude of new questions.  How in the name of the Great Habbach is it possible?  How can the deeds and actions of mankind be decided by the thoughts of a small boy?  Yet she sees it to be true, just as she sees The Book, and all the thousands of lines of unreadable language that now rest somewhere in her head, has provided her with answers – if only she could read them.

A riddle, then; but not the most confusing riddle, Alanee thinks.  How did she move The Book, lift it from its place, and why, when she did so, had she the feeling that its progenitor, its ancient father, belonged to her?  From the moment in that chamber when her eyes rested upon The Book she felt an insipient presence, another mind, another knowing, melding with her own.  It had left her now, as precipitately as it had come – where did it originate?  In The Book?   She knows she was not alone in her mind while it was with her, possessing her.  In fact, a part of her wonders if she was there at all?

She calls Sala.

Sala’s voice is ragged:  “Oh, Ba, I swear I could sleep for a year!”

Alanee says:  “I’m going to see the demon child.”

“Who?”

Then Alanee remembers.  Sala will never have heard of Hasuga.  She does not know that he exists.

#

“I have made you powerful, haven’t I?”  Hasuga is perched upon the edge of his bed, his little face creased in a leer.

Alanee stares.  “Powerful?  How?”

“You have learned about The Book.  Ellar cannot resist you now, Portis cannot match you!  I have given you power.”

“Are you telling me it was you inside my head, in that room?”

“Did you enjoy the sensation?”  Hasuga asks.  There is a vibrancy about him that is unpleasant.  His young features are twisted in a way that no longer speaks of innocence, but of bitterness and pain.  His bedchamber, too, is greatly changed.  The complex machine which consumed so much space last time she was here has grown yet more.  Rampant, it spirals about the room.  There are no street scenes to augment its composition now, it is a structure of obsession, a homage to Hasuga’s apparent fixation with snakes.

Alanee prods it.  It is cold and unyielding.  “What does it do, this thing?”

“What I want.”

“Yes, you said that last time.  It occupies most of your room, so it does something important.  What can this ….”

Hasuga cuts her off. “Watch!”  With one tendrilous finger he points.  As if his spark has given it life, the machine  transforms instantly into a serpent, a boa constrictor of whipping tail and rainbow colours that rears its head to heaven then glares down upon Alanee with cold yellow eyes.   Jumping back, for a frozen second she fears its strike, but it plays a different game.  In a rasp of friction its endless body wraps and wraps again into a tightly-wound coil at Hasuga’s side.  

Alanee’s heart rediscovers its rhythm.  She forces herself to look up at the snake’s broad head which regards her evilly, wearing an expression very like a smile.  The smile of the Music Man and his gently inveigling tune, with an enticement only the eyes of a serpent can bring.  What is within its protection?  What do those coils hide from her?  She is consumed by a wish to see what it holds within.  And as if in answer to her wish the image of the snake that was only ever in her mind fades.

Two life-sized figures materialise in its stead, each so real she might reach out to touch them and be met by flesh; and this is the more disconcerting because one of the figures is herself, her partly-clothed image engaged in some awkward, almost mannerly form of dance.  So mortified is she by this violation she does not at first identify the other figure; a man clad in a robe, as Celeris.  Celeris grotesquely aroused   For a moment she believes he might actually be real, so substantial does his image appear. He is dancing too.  The images are close to one another, almost touching.  It is clear that Celeris is in distress; as if he is in a vortex from which he cannot escape: his face is puckered, tears roll down his cheeks; he tries repeatedly to cover himself, to hide his shame.

“Stop it!”  Alanee rounds angrily upon Hasuga, “It’s disgusting!  Switch it – turn it – whatever you do – off!”

“You do not like Celeris?”  Hasuga has been watching her with what she will remember as his ‘dungeon face’; enquiry, curiosity, absorption, an utter lack of compassion. The images vanish.

“My feelings concerning Celeris have nothing to do with – with that!  That was voyeurism, exploitation.  You’ve been watching me, haven’t you?  You’ve seen me with him!”

Hasuga does not answer.  Those first emanations of malice seem to have dissipated.  Once more she believes he is emotionally uninvolved, that he sees her reaction as nothing more than a missing piece of information.  He says quietly, his voice a sibilant hiss:  “Then perhaps this will better please you.”

Beneath her feet the grey texture of the floor is altered to green.  Her toes touch the cool inquisitiveness of grass.  All around her a crowd, roaring and hungry and from somewhere – from nowhere – an agile figure in red and black appears; her man!  Kalna-meh, across the years, so real she might grab him now and hold him, stop the moment she already sees must follow; but no.

Hand-springing upwards upon muscular arms to catch a disc of 12 inches diameter between his feet, her husband’s arm eludes her as he turns to deliver the perfect pass, a thrust that will send the disc up-field where a second identically-clad figure waits, plucking it from the air then ducking as an opponent in blue and brown-striped clothes flies above his head.  With a sweeping movement of his foot, the red and black figure launches the disc so it spins with awesome speed towards two posts in the distance.  The crowd-sound reaches a crescendo.  A foot-game is in full swing.

Now the whole field is opened up for her to see.  Feeling the gorge rising in her throat Alanee chokes out in her fury:  “No!  Don’t do this!  NO!”

She stands amidst it all.  The twenty players in their contrasting strips, the vast banks of humanity that watch them,, the green of the pitch, the blue disc that never falls to earth unless a player pins it there.  And there he is, in the red and black of his Hakaani team, his dear features set in that deep, concentrated stare she knows (knew) so well!  As the disc is re-launched he is running, leaping, twisting to intercept.  He takes it on the catch-stud at the tip of his right foot, already poised for the answering shot, not seeing the blue-striped adversary who has committed to the same target, the same position.  Mid-air, mid-twist they meet foot to head, and her beloved Kalna crumples and falls to earth like a doll made of rags.  The crowd is reduced to stupified silence.  The rag-doll twists and twitches for a few last seconds in the grass, then is still.  The scene is lost in misted grey, fading until the room is normal once more..

Alanee cannot speak.  In white horror she just stares at the place which showed Kalna-meh’s final moments.

“He was your coupling?”  Hasuga’s eyes have never left her.

“Yes.  How did you…?”

“I am Hasuga.”

“You are a bastard.”  Alanee says, with gravitas.

“I know the meaning of that word.  I am not a bastard.”

“Alright then, you’re a ghoul, a monstrous little fiend!”  Alanee cannot restrain her tears.  “I loved him.  Do you understand ‘love’?  Like your love for your Mother, but much deeper, much more personal, and – and how could you show me that?  How?”

“I am Hasuga and I am learning.”  His voice remains completely dispassionate. “Go now.”

“Go?   Leave?”  Alanee can think of no riposte, no revenge she can wreak upon this creature, though she would take his evil machine and twist it around that scrawny neck if she could.  So she forces her embittered soul to execute an elaborate curtsey and drags the ruins of herself from his royal presence.

In the elevator, then later in the gardens beyond the city where she can be alone, she might weep, and does, for the images she has been shown will last with her, perhaps for all of her life..  But although the gardens are busy with the first miracles of the coming summer, no fresh green shoots can lift the djinn of grief from her soul.  Her footsteps lead her by the riverside, where few City-dwellers will see her hammer and hammer furious fists upon the guardrail until her white flesh is bruised and broken; or hear her wounded soul declare itself at one with those great white floes which snarl like wrestlers in the fast-running current.  In the maelstrom below the bridge a luckless boat left loose-moored by its painter, a workers’ boat, no more than a skiff probably used to dredge for crayfish when summer comes, is punched and crunched against the bank.

There is little enough, Alanee feels, to distinguish her own fate from that of the tiny craft.  A farmer’s girl untutored in the ways of the big city, tossed and turned as she clings to a slender thread that must at last give way…..

There is a marble bench where she sits, seeking an answer in the deep black waters, until late in the afternoon.  There were times in the hours and days that followed Kalna-meh’s death when she had thought about the value of her continued life.  If the mucous jaws of the melting river should open to invite her in, is she tempted?  Who would see?  The rail is low: the desired result is certain.  A minute, no more, in that frigid gateway to better things beyond, to a place where Kalna-meh’s open arms wait to greet her.  And Dag – is Dag there, too?  Her thoughts are confused.  Grieving, she stares into the turbulent darkness and dreams of home.

Is she sleeping?  There is a leaf – just there – upon a tree that overhangs the water:  one she has not given credence before.  A tree made peculiar by gnarled and tangled branches as though it stood upon a windswept moor.  She plucks the leaf, toys with it in her hands, not questioning how she reached it without moving from her seat upon the bench.  Then another strand of foliage, much different from the first: she takes this frond from a fern-like source at the riverside.  Then more:  she sees each leaf, each plant minutely, she knows what each will bring to her, their proper sequence.  A blue serrate example – surely out of season?  Three – four – five – six – soon twelve contrasting samples of spring growth rest within her grasp.  Such is the depth of her knowledge she can remember them all.

Now the rain; a heavy beat upon her back.  When all the leaves she holds in her cupped hands are wet from the downpour a sudden compulsion makes her clutch them to her stomach and hold them there. Although the evening air is chill a radiant warmth rises like a vapour around her

“Lady Alanee?”

The voice at her shoulder stirs her.  Instinctively she glances down at her hands, resting empty on her lap. They are – she is – dry.  No rain falls.  Was it really just a dream?

“Lady Alanee you look unwell!”  Celeris is there.  Celeris, a mirror of concern; his clear brows puckered, eyes a-brim with anxiety.

“Celeris!  Oh, Celeris it is so good to see you!”  Alanee’s delight is undisguised.

“I could not pass by.”  His hesitancy reminds her of the awkwardness of their last encounter.  She reassures him.

“I am glad you didn’t. Come, please, sit with me?  Talk to me?”

“Talk. Of course, I will try.”  He sits beside her on the bench, and the careful way he arranges the hem of his toga lifts her heavy heart.  “What shall we talk about?”

“Oh, of the coming of spring, of life and stuff – just talk!”

“Very well.  The coming of spring is very – regenerative.”

Alanee cannot help laughing.  “Lots of plants and flowers; you know, growing things.”

Does he colour just a little?  “I suppose so.”  Then he notices:  “Your hands!  What have you done to your hands?”

“Oh nothing.”  She has already forgotten the bruising she inflicted upon herself.  “They don’t hurt me.”  Unspoken, the words:  ‘Only people can hurt me’ bring forth a truth.  Physical injury is a consolation, a way to expiate the pain inside.

The gardens are quiet.  A few older couples idle on the bridge while an odd drab or two can be seen beavering among flower-beds on the hill. 

“You know, back in the Hakaan when I was a girl, spring was a season for new friendships.  After the winter rains, just to come outside and sit on a riverbank like this, maybe with a boy you’d not really talked to before, was a great adventure.  You might see something in his eyes that you liked, and he’d be shy, and neither of you could find much to say at first.  But there’d be that instant when your arm might brush with his, and your hands might touch….”  Scarcely aware of what she does, Alanee takes Celeris’s hand in hers…  “Then you might turn and find your lips were close to his, and it would be so easy to kiss; but of course….”  She turns, offering the invitation, then corrects herself swiftly, “This is not the Hakaan, and such behaviour in the Consensual City would be completely inappropriate, wouldn’t it?”

“Lacking sophistication.”  He agrees.

“Quite uncouth!”  Finally, with a laugh:  “Are your eyes really black?”

“I do not know.”  Celeris murmurs, his eyes seeming to get even blacker.  He returns his gaze to the racing river.  “The things you describe sound very attractive to me, Lady Alanee.”

For a while neither speaks.  Alanee cradles his long, sensitive fingers in her hand. 

They are alone.  Even the drabs have shouldered their tools and departed for the evening.  Her mind has a gentle music.  She thinks of the treasures she might discover were she to delve deeper into her affinity with this enigmatic man; of the secrets she might find; the pleasures she might teach.  At last, sighing, he asks if she has eaten: she shakes her head.

“I’m not hungry.”

Nodding as though he is conscious of the gravity of this moment, Celeris says: “Then I shall escort you to your door, Lady.”

“No.” Alanee declines.  “I can’t go back there.  There are cameras spying on me.  I can never go back there again.”

Celeris registers no surprise at this – which Alanee can forgive:  after all she imagines voyeurism is probably common practice in this loathsome place.  He says quietly:  “Very well; but you must have somewhere to sleep.  The hour is late.  Could I….dare I ….offer you my hospitality?  I would not intrude.”

“Aren’t there cameras in your apartment too?”  She reasons:  “They’re everywhere, aren’t they?”

“My poor Lady!”  His eyes are mirrors of her sadness.  “You would be my honored guest.  You have my word no-one will observe you!”

How quickly Alanee’s expression alters to one of open gratitude!  “Then I would be honoured, Sire Celeris.”

“The honour, Lady, is all mine.”

“Ba.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Not ‘Lady’ – ‘ba’.”  Alanee takes his hand firmly, to be rewarded instantly by his powerful, confident grip – so much in contrast to the diffidence and uncertainty in the man – as he leads her back into the City.

© 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: Jan Kopriva on Unsplash

Out of Darkness

The pavement is narrow here.  They elbow against him as they pass.  He remonstrates; they laugh at him, the children.  Nervous laughter, child laughter.

“I’m not frightened of an old man!”  One of them says.  “He looks like a paedophile, du’nn’ee?  You’re a paedophile, mister!  Dirty old ****!”

Maybe it is a conceit, he thinks, to assume the little boy’s remarks are directed at him.  I am old, he protests in the silence of himself.  That is my only crime.  The heinous effrontery of age, the obscenity of blemished flesh, of that crime alone, am I guilty. Yet it qualifies as another milestone on his descent into chaos, another small reminder that the narrow path to darkness is nearing its (and his) conclusion.  He turns for home, fleeing in his hesitant gait for the four walls that have become ever more a refuge with the advancing years.  Inside his house he need not face a hostile world, or openly parade his profane old age.  Here he may sit with his book, seeing, not the black of the words or the white of the page, but the crinkled parchment of his hands, their yellowing skin, the veins ever bluer, the brown freckles that grow and multiply.  He can study a new language, shutting his mind to the truth that he will never travel abroad again.  Is not learning a virtue in itself?

“Did you pick up your pills?”  His wife asks, knowing.

“No.”  Had that been the motivation which thrust him onto the street, put him out there?  “I forgot.  I can get them tomorrow.”

She smiles at him, her sad eyes filled with an understanding she is powerless to express.  She has been a good wife to him, faithful and selfless in her care as the storm clouds of his greater years gather above them both.  But there is no ‘both’ anymore, no unity.  Love, however deep, has transmuted into a bond of duty, and she moves around him in a different world, tidying, cooking for him, suffering the harsher edges of his fragility.  She has her own life, her ordered world.  She has her friends, she has her faith:  he has none.

He will not detain her long, she tells those friends.  Day by day she watches him fade, reads the terror in his eyes, the self-disgust.  Within the carapace of his four walls he treads the path to the end of each day, always aware how time is speeding past.  He is waiting for the one absolute certainty – afraid of it, unable to close his mind to it, reluctant, even in jest, to speak its name.  He goes to bed each night, carrying it like a raven on his shoulder, knowing it may strike before he wakes.

He seems to be in a restaurant that is not unfamiliar, although he cannot recall when he might have been there before.  There are many tables, spruce with starched table-cloths, red on white, and there are firm, reassuring upright chairs.  He is the only customer.   A waitress brings coffee to his table.  Once again, he feels he knows her too, although he cannot remember where or when they might have met.  She wears a uniform blue, he thinks, though he cannot say for sure.  Of just this he may be certain – she has the loveliness of innocence.  Such is the unspoiled softness of her cheek as she stoops to serve him he cannot forebear, but must reach up to stroke it with his hand.

He starts back, alarmed at his transgression.  He stammers:   “I’m sorry!  I don’t know what came over me!”

Her reply is gentle.  “It’s all right.  It’s meant to be.”

She does not draw back, the girl, but stoops so she is closer to him; so he can feel a brief zephyr of her breath upon his face.   Her eyes meet his, and they seem to say that if he kissed her that would be all right, too.

“I know you.”  He says, although if he were truthful he does not.

“Do you?”  Her smile is like a shaft of sunlight through rain, as she murmurs, “I seem to be affected by you.”

He begins to rise from his chair, until only inches separate their lips.

And he wakes.

For some hours into the new day the perfection of the girl is radiant in his mind; he cannot forget the sweetness of her voice; his heart is full and hopeful.   When next he dreams, might she be there, awaiting him?  And if she is, will their lips be joined in the honesty of that unaccomplished kiss?

But no matter how strong his desire, though he may deliberately put her image in his mind each time he finds himself slipping into sleep, she does not come again.  A week passes, then two.  He has pictured her walking hand in hand with him along the pathway to the beach, her bare feet splashing in the shallows, the wind in her hair.  All that, and yet he does not dream of her – or dream at all.

Then, one day when waking of itself is pain, he hears that voice again.  “You do not know me, but you will.”

The words are spoken so sweetly and so clearly he cannot do other than understand their meaning.  It is a promise.  For now he must be patient, keep her in his heart as an uncorrupted memory, because when the time comes he must recognise her face again.

In his twentieth year of another time, of maybe another place, he will be sitting in a restaurant with clean red tablecloths where he goes to read the research on  his thesis, and a girl will come to serve him coffee, and he will not know her, but his heart, his innermost soul will remember.  He will gently stroke her cheek and she will smile because her heart has remembered too.

With this certain image for his future tightly wrapped inside his mind he is ready at last to shake off the snakeskin of his years and begin a new journey.   When, later that morning, his wife discovers him she can feel no grief, because the expression those shrunken features wears is of peaceful acceptance.  He rests content.

Phtot Credit:  Alex Blajan at Unsplash

 

 

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A Place That Was Ours Chapter Two. The Bridge

I was staring down into the deep fissure formed by the banks where the town had met the river, long ago.  The water’s knife was blunted now, with neither fervour nor edge to cut its valley deeper, but the once-upon-a-time was easy to imagine…

When coal mines prospered, the river’s shore was called ‘The Fellings’, a vibrant pile of warehouses and small works stacked against the side of the valley, so tightly clustered the streets between were no more than alleys, narrow conduits leading down to the quay.  The river was a proper waterway in those days, a navigation for barges taking coal down to Bedeport, bound for steamers waiting to transport it to Europe and the world.  Days long gone.

The mines closed, one by one.  As trade diminished, so the river was neglected, until, in the early nineteen-sixties, they made a dam twelve miles upstream for a reservoir on Raddon Moor.   That was the end of the navigable water, and the end of industry on ‘The Fellings’.  Gradually those old thrown-together buildings tumbled, their windows boarded, their roofs caved.  The cobbled alleys that had rattled to a cacophony of iron wheel-rims and echoed to carters’ curses, now choked beneath the weight of lorries and cars.  Trains, like the coal, no longer came, so engineers widened an old viaduct that once used to carry the railway high across the valley, and they made it into a road bridge.   It was given a name, I suppose, but we never heard it:  we just called it ‘The Bridge’.

The Bridge was where Sue and I ended up, leaning on the stone parapet, after school that Summer Thursday. Hungry or not (a jam sandwich and a school dinner were all I had eaten in thirty-six hours) I didn’t want to go home.

I told Sue about Ma and our broken kitchen.    She nodded sombrely as I related the diary of my week, staring down at the ruined pile of The Fellings, and the river, so far below us.

“I shouldn’t worry.”  She said.  “She had a bit of a fit I reckon.  My mam throws things at my dad quite a lot.  They have a shout, she chucks a plate or two at him, then they go upstairs.”

“What, you mean like…..?”

Sue glared at me as if I was being deliberately obtuse.  “Yeah; well, they’re married, aren’t they?”

“But my Da’ wasn’t home.”  I pointed out.

“She was on her own?”

“Yes.”

Sue pondered this.   “She’s a manic oppressive, then.”  She diagnosed.  “I still shouldn’t worry.  She can get pills for it.”

“How long are they upstairs for?”

Sue giggled, nudging my ribs.   “Hours, sometimes.”

We parted, Sue to her tea and I to whatever awaited me behind a front door which, in a peculiar kind of way, no longer seemed to be mine.  I remember how long a walk it was that evening, across the town centre by the new road and through Addison’s Estate.   If I had known Trevor Bull would be out by the garages there I might have taken an even longer way.

A football smacked against my head, knocking me sideways.  As my vision cleared, it focussed on Trevor, who was leering at me.  Trevor was large and basic.  He had lips like cohabiting slugs.  “Hey, Spakker!  What’r you doin’ out?”

“Slumming, Trev.  Just slumming.”

“Oh yeah?  Get the ball for us, then.  Yeah?  Did y’hear what I say?  Get the ball for us, Spakker.”

A pair of Trevor’s hangers-on sidled into view from a burned-out garage, guffawing at what must have seemed a major diversion in their lives.  I was never able to attach names to Trevor’s sidekicks because they never went to school.  Trevor himself would visit there occasionally, usually after his da’ had been visited by the school inspectors.

The odds were three-and-a-half to one.  I retrieved the ball.  “Where d’you want it?”

“Don’t get lippy wi’ us, yer little frigger!  You got any money then?  Has mummy gived yer yer sweeties money, yeah?”

I had no cash to boost Trevor’s meagre income, and no inclination to donate if I had; the alternative, though, was to be ‘frisked’ by having my pockets torn off.  A quick calculation was necessary.   “Here.  Here’s your frigging ball!”

I punted the ball on my good foot, my right foot, with all the punch I would have used if a goal was open and Trevor was the goalkeeper.  Like a missile it flashed past his left hand to hit the side wall of one of the garages at his back.  Enough rebound remained to whack against Trevor’s calves, then pinball between his two sidekicks a few times: sufficient to afford a moment of confusion and space for me to sprint away, out of the Addison estate and back into the comparative civilisation of the South Town.  He was big and he was ugly, but I had one advantage over Trevor.  I was quicker – much quicker.  His ringing threats dwindled into distance behind me.  I was pursued for no more than a couple of streets.

Finding the front door of our house unlocked I went through all the rooms in search of Ma’.  There was no sign of her.  A five pound note on the table in the back room was accompanied by a scrap of a note in her scrawl;

‘Get your tea out’

I went to MacDonald’s – they had just opened then – and stuffed myself sick.

Our kitchen remained in wrecked condition for a couple more days, my Mam for about the same length of time.   She did reappear downstairs on Friday morning with a warning to “Say nowt to your Da’; understand?”  I got some tea that night, baked beans with egg, sausage and bacon, so I knew there had to be money in the house.   This fry-up was my favourite food in those days; a sort of apology from Ma’, though I knew the wrong that lurked in the still corners of the house had not been righted – would probably never be righted.    But I kept my side of the bargain by keeping my story from Da’, even agreeing with Ma’s explanation that she had just ‘leaned on the worktop a bit too hard’.

That Saturday the rain relinquished its hold for long enough to allow a morning stroll with Sue in bright sunshine along Rob Bentley Way to The Bridge.  I suppose I was too young to dwell on it at the time but thinking back I can see how changes were happening in my life.  A summer since I would not have dreamed that Sue Crabtree and I would be walking with one another on The Bridge. – Jonna had always been my companion then:  throughout our growing years we were sworn friends; amigos, inseparable.   Girls?  Well, girls were all right, but they had their own world, their own society.   Suddenly, though, the lines were becoming fudged, the divisions not so clear.

Sue in her shorts and a green halter top, me in a white t-shirt and jeans that had seen better days, we stopped to gaze down at the black lizard of river far below.

“It’s that high up, this!  It makes me giddy!”  Sue said.  “How can they do it?  I couldn’t, Chas.  I really couldn’t.”

“Maybe they sort of have to.  Like there’s no other way, or something?”

There was an expression in our town, known to us all.   To go ‘down The Bridge’ spoke of a final solution for some who had ended themselves by climbing over that parapet and leaping to the stony waters far below.  In our town, everyone knew someone who had gone that way.  With time and legend, the numbers had grown.

We walked on.  I was anxious not to stay.   No-one tarried longer than they had to on that bridge unless a memory drove them there, or for other, darker reasons.   Being even a distant cousin to someone who had taken the leap was sufficient to taint your name, and the memory of two unfortunate relatives blighted our family.  The association made us different in a sad, almost morbid way.  We became the earthly ghosts of those departed, the pale faces staring in at the window.

Sue said:  “Didn’t your Aunty May…”

And I cut her off.  “Yeah.  Yeah that’s right.  But I never knew her much.”

A half hour from town we left the footpath to trudge through long grass beside a farmer’s hedge, eyed as we passed by speculative sheep.   A small woodland of oak and beech led us back down to the river.  Here, where the sun could find us, in shelter from the wind, we could sit and talk about weighty things, or not talk about still more weighty things, and the time would melt away.

This was the river above the town, wooded on both sides; skittish from a playful squeeze between obdurate whinstone cliffs.  The water was deep and black and sometimes, when the hills were laden with rain it became a red roaring fury, jostling and barging through rocks which braced themselves grimly against the onslaught.  On such days it was dangerous to cross – you could stand just toe-deep in the current and the pull on your foot could make you slip   Even today, with the flow still bloated after a week of rain, the wisest thing would be to remain on the northern bank: but we were young; we were not wise.   And Sue, so nimble, leapt from stone to stone like the young deer she was.   I could only admire and follow.

“It’s wrong, you know.”   Sue stretched her shoulders.   “They don’t move.”

We had found a patch of shorter grass already drying in fierce sun.  Side by side, we sat staring at the rush of water.

“How d’you mean?”  Sue’s top exposed more of her flesh than I was used to seeing, and I was distracted by a tiny mole on her right shoulder.  “You’re not going to go on about your stick again, are you?”

Years ago, when she first came to this place – long before I knew of its existence – Sue told me she had pushed a stick into the soft ground on the higher riverbank;  just beyond reach of the water.  By standing in a certain place, her back to a certain tree, she could line the stick up with a tree on the other side of the river, her idea being to track any movement of the larger boulders on the river bed.

“They tell us how the river carries stones and rocks downstream.  They’re wrong; it doesn’t.”

“Suppose someone moved your stick?”

Sue shook her head.   “I’d know.  I think the water only moves the smaller stones.  Glaciers have to do the big stuff.”

“That’s no good, then, is it?  We haven’t had a glacier down here in years.”

Without thinking, I had let my fingertips explore Sue’s skin around that mole, intrigued, I suppose, by its slight imperfection.  My absent, soporific expression gave me away.  She flashed me a quirky smile.

“You’re not going to start getting funny, are you?”

I felt my colour rising.  What had I done?  “Funny?  Nah!”

I grasped my hands around my knees, wrapping them almost convulsively to my chest, and stared hard at the river.  And even though I knew when Sue’s hand softly brushed my neck, and I heard her say gently:  “It’s all right, Chas.”  I held myself rigid.

They kept happening!  I didn’t like them, those awkward, clumsy moments; like an afternoon by the old jetty two weeks before when Sue had planted a spontaneous kiss on my cheek, in front of our sniggering friends.

“Careful!  You’ll get him going!”  Sarah Coldbatch had warned.   She didn’t really know what she meant, of course, and neither did I, but she made it sound like kick-starting a motorbike.

“I’d better get back.”  I said, when I dared scramble to my feet.

Sue agreed.  “Yeah.”

“I’m going to football this afternoon.”

“With Jonna?”

“Yeah.”

Few words were exchanged as we walked back to the town.  Yet, if we seemed awkward, tongue-tied, there was nothing broken, or even bruised between us, and I remember Sue’s hand finding mine, and how I clasped it with new-found meaning.  No, we were faster, deeper friends.  We had simply found a new level, one which was confusing to us both.  It was something we had to work out.

As we crossed The Bridge we came upon John Hargreave, elbows resting on the same parapet that had supported us, an hour before.  John’s chin rested on his hands, and his eyes looked empty and remote, intent upon something in the far distance.

“Now then, John!”  I said. Sue joined in with my greeting.

John responded slowly.  “Chas; Susan.”  He did not turn, or acknowledge us in any other way.  Somehow, we knew he did not want our company, and we walked by.

Sue glanced back over her shoulder.  “Is he all right, do you think?”  She was concerned.

“It’s just Greavesie,” I said. “He’s deep, yeah?”  But I worried, nonetheless.

John Hargreave, the quiet, thoughtful one; whose thoughts were never spoken, but kept hidden somewhere inside him until a time of his choosing.  John Hargreave was the clever one in our little group, and we were friends, but always somehow at arms’ length.  No-one I knew had or would get close to John.

I said goodbye to Sue at the corner of Ox Terrace.  We faced each other with the same awkwardness we had felt after that moment at the river bank, filled with an emotion new to us, feeling more than a little frightened.  I thought she would just walk away, was not ready for her quick kiss on my cheek, or the squeeze of my hand.  Then she was gone.  I watched her easy, swinging gait until she was lost to view.

My birthday was still a month away, and it was suddenly important to me.  I could not wait to be fifteen.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  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.