Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-five

Among Stones

Morning had advanced some few hours: the sky, which promised much at first light, now contained a threat of dreadfulness to come.   Melanie, who had worn no coat when she set out to explore the seafront at Seaborough the previous morning, struggled with oilskins twice her size as the plucky little trawler thrashed into a mounting sea.   Despite the restrictions of those clumsy garments it was good to be topsides now, safety line clipped to the rail, spray misting and spattering her face:  nobody seemed concerned that she should stay there, braced against the starboard thwart, as long as her companion stood with her.   This the boy seemed happy to do, as if she were in his personal charge.

“Would you call this a storm?”  She asked, lifting her voice above the wind.

“Nah, noothin’ this.   Not yet.   Be fierce later, though, I reckon.  The’s looky we’s pottin’ the’ ashore, lass.”

A headland loomed large, a backcloth of gaunt cliffs almost black against the chopping grey water.   They seemed to be heading into a small bay or river- mouth, Melanie could not tell which.  “What’s your name?”   She asked the boy, aware their time together was almost over: she would miss his reassurance.

“Daniel.  I’m Dan’l.”   The boy shouted back.

“Pleased to meet you, Daniel!”  And she was.  There was no anger, no resentment in her heart for being stripped of her possessions and plucked from the quayside at Seaborough:  it was almost as though she had expected, even hoped it would happen.   Wherever this was, this tiny cove, her music was telling her she was meant to be here.

Both watched in silence as the cliff-face became closer, ever higher.   Gradually the fervour of the open sea subsided, until their vessel chugged against no more than a light swell, its engine echoing against the bare stone.   Rounding an outcrop, the inlet became a tiny harbour, part natural, part man-made, hewn from the rocks.   The faceless figure in the wheelhouse reversed the little boat’s propeller to deaden all speed before a burst of throttle pivoted it almost ninety degrees into its narrow mouth.   Daniel leapt from stern to shore, then shore to prow and back again, tying off lines to rusted iron rings set in the wall.  He grinned down at Melanie, proffering a hand to help her from the boat.

“The’ll be glad o’ this, I reckon!”

After such time on a pitching deck, Melanie nearly fell over as her feet refused to accept the unmoving concrete jetty.  Daniel held her arm while she found her balance.

“Foony feelin’ tha, the foorst time.  Soon passes.”

She had never seen a harbour this small.   They had come ashore in a refuge sandwiched between dark and oppressive cliffs so restrictive there could be room to berth no more than three small boats. Grey was the colour of everything, fading to black in those large expanses of cliff-face where no light penetrated or would ever penetrate.  Crumbling paths and crazed concrete in the wall seemed to suggest that the harbour had been unused for many years.  No other boats were moored here, the only evidence of previous occupation being a stack or two of rotted lobster before a rough stone cottage built against the cliff, beside which a rotten row-boat, its name still readable as Daisy-May, languished.  The hovel, the harbour, the whole place reeked of abandonment and decay.

“Oh, my god!”  Melanie groaned.

It began to rain.

“’Tis a special place, this.”  Daniel said quietly:  “There’s not many as cooms here, now.”

Stamping against the cold, Melanie searched about her for a reason why she should be one of the few who did. “So what do we do now?”

“The’ll be met.  Oop there.”  The boy waved towards a set of stone steps that had been carved into the cliff face. Below them the boat’s engine revved impatiently. “Sorry lass, but us’ll need the’ skins: us can’t afford te lose ‘em, like?”

“You’re just going to leave me here?” She protested.

“You’ll be met.”   Daniel repeated. “This ‘ere’s a tidal harbour, see?  An’ we’re right close to the end o‘t tide?   Now lass….”

Meekly, she complied, dragging the stiff, oilskin cape over her head.   It had not been a warm garment, but she felt its absence instantly and keenly.   Left with just a thin sweater which fell fashionably short of her jeans, the chill on her bare midriff was like an electric shock.  

Daniel grinned apologetically: “Good luck, eh?”

He loosed the lines from their rusty hold, tossing them onto the trawler’s already cluttered deck.    Then he moved from shore to ship as the trawler instantly backed out of harbour.   Minutes and a final wave later it was gone, passing from sight beyond the outcrop,.   leaving Melanie to face a loneliness so frigid and profound it settled upon her like an icy cloak.

Heavy with ice, raindrops spattered onto the stone jetty where they refused to melt, but lay in a carpet of half-hail ready to hurl her from her feet.   These same raindrops ignored the thin cloth of her sweater and bombarded mercilessly straight through to her skin.   A swirling gale was driving, moaning among the rocks like a banshee chorus.

Quitting the harbour wall was not a difficult decision:  sandwiched between those frowning cliffs, moving as briskly as she dared in  inappropriate shoes she made, slipping and gripping, for the comparative shelter of the cliff.   If shelter was what she craved, the cottage seemed a logical choice.   She headed there first, but there was, she quickly realised, no ‘welcome’ mat.   The window-glass, though intact, was crusted with age-old grime and the plank door weathered clean of paint.   A red-rusted padlock held it shut.   Peering inside yielded only bleary darkness.   Nothing human lived in there, though she feared other things might.

A voice.  She was sure she heard a voice, mournfully intoned in the gale.   There was an incentive, if no other existed!  Weather or no weather, she had to find a way out of this place.

A narrow track followed the foot of the cliff toward the stairway Daniel had indicated.   Obviously the fisherman or men who had used this refuge must have had access to the outside world:  this track was apparently  their only means of escape and now hers, therefore she should follow it to its conclusion; but the closer to it she became the more it convinced her it was a stairway to certain death.   Melanie who we have already seen was an adept and relatively fearless climber knew her limitations, and this was far beyond acceptable risk.  Some steps had completely crumbled away, others were worn steeper by the boots of generations, all were coated with hailstones willingly coagulating into sheet ice.  No handrail existed, or ever had, and no grips or stages in the sheer cliff wall offered to steady her slight frame against the ravages of that gusting wind.

So intense was the storm’s bombardment she might have missed it.   The path did not end at these steps:  a narrow ledge, battered by the sea, passed them by.  It might lead nowhere, it was perilously thin yet almost welcoming as an alternative so she accepted it gladly. 

Fifty or so metres from the harbour, this track turned a corner to the left, disappearing into a natural fissure in the cliff.   With high grey walls to each side this seemed as though it must be its finality.   She prepared herself to accept failure, but the track did not end there.   It became a tunnel, short and unlined, which plunged straight through the cliff into daylight at its further end: and standing at the further end was a tall, broad figure.  

 “Now here you are!”   The figure cried in a hearty, indisputably feminine voice.  “And I was thinking you might have missed the tide!”

 “You can call me Agnes.”   Said Agnes, striding forward through the tunnel to identify herself.   “Save us, child, you’re soaked through!   Did they not give you a coat, at least?”

“I’m glad to meet you,” Melanie returned the introduction politely, “I’m Melanie Fenton.”

“Yes, my dear.  I already know that.  Why, you’re shaking!  You must be frozen!”

“I thought I was going to have to climb those steps.”

Agnes to boomed with laughter, a loud,  pleasant, unthreatening sound.  “Save us, Melanie, I’m really glad you didn’t.  I’ve never had the courage to go up or down those.  They would kill me, I should think!”

There was little to see of Agnes, Rain-washed spectacles protruded from a bundle of protective scarf topped by a sou’wester hat.   A massive waxed coat, layered over who could tell how many sundry jackets and cardigans cocooned the remainder of her, with only Wellington boots showing beneath its dripping hem.

“Come along, dear.  We have to get you inside.”  She encompassed Melanie’s shoulder with a huge gloved hand, ushering her roughly into the hole through the rock.   But the gesture was not violent or ill-meaning:  there was a kindness about the muffled Agnes, Melanie thought.  Anyway, she had no alternatives in mind – once again, that inexplicable sense of mission prevented her from offering resistance to whatever befell her; this seemed to be the way fate intended.

Elsewhere…

The cathedral cloister was a cool and quiet place to walk, or to contemplate, on a hot September afternoon.   Other than an occasional marauding crow, the bird sound from the green was of blackbirds, of finches and sparrows.   Water poured in plainsong over a central fountain.  An odd tourist or two, meandering between photographs, struggled by on a guidebook and a prayer.   A well-furbished middle-aged woman rubbed at an interesting brass.

Two men of God strolled here, although only one, a Bishop, wore The Cloth.   Ronald Harkness was he.  The spry tee-shirt and jeans guy on his left, although appearances would have deceived, was a Franciscan monk.  Neither, in appearance, represented the most acceptable face of their shared faith.  They looked like a pair of bedraggled crows.

“If your information is accurate,” The monk was saying; “We must move quickly.”

They came to a place where a wooden bench faced the quadrangle.  “I do not think we should act in haste:” Bishop Harkness said, seating himself.  “Essentially, we have matters under control.”

A chaffinch which had been feasting a few meters away upon some seed scattered by a tourist, edged carefully back for a venturesome peck or two, one wary eye on the newcomers. 

“My Lord Bishop, never was there a time when it was more vital that we act, and act with speed.”   The monk perched beside Harkness, on the edge of the wood:  “This boy is a wild card.  If he is what our people say he is, who can imagine what his capabilities are!”

“No.”  Harkness shook his head.  “I am not inclined to think he will interfere with our plans. I do believe to restrain him now will stir up too much unwanted silt.   Too many others are interested in him and he is young, untried in his arts – if art he has.”

“You seem doubtful about the boy.   I am not sure I share your doubt.”

“I met him.  He seems very ordinary to me – and very young.”

“He found the vault at Crowley.”

The Bishop shrugged.  “There was nothing to find, surely – we sanitized that site two years ago, didn’t we?”

“We are in no way certain,” The monk replied:  “Yet if they are what we believe they just might be, this young couple, how can we be complacent?”

Frowning, the Bishop flicked with his foot, putting the chaffinch to flight.  “If, and it is a very big ‘if’, they get together.   Even then, I wonder whether these old legends have any credibility in a modern world…”

“We have old legends of our own.”  The monk reminded.  “Some of those are true, are they not?  You are watching the boy?”

Harkness nodded.  “We are.   The girl has dropped from sight, but I have no doubt she will turn up again.   However, without each other they are nothing more than the nuisance we have had to endure for years.  Divide and subdue?”

“But the boy has dropped from sight, too, has he not?”  The monk asked.

The Bishop registered mild surprise.  “Now, how did you know that?”

“We have our sources.”

“Ah, your ‘sources’.  So I have to terminate the employment of another perfectly good secretary.  Very well, yes, you are right, he has gone off the radar for a day or so; but we shall get him back.   Our girl picked up with him in Manchester, but then he performed some sort of Houdini trick.  My guess is they have him and he is being briefed.   We couldn’t stop that if we tried.”

The monk raised an eyebrow:  “And by ‘they’ you mean….so you do think he is Toa?”

“I did not say so.  They may think he is, and I intend to find out.  The Toa are interested in him, which is all I know.”    Harkness shrugged.

The monk spread his hands.  “You see?  My Lord Bishop, we cannot know.  We tacitly acknowledge that there are rats in our basement which need extermination, but we also favour improvements to our hygiene that are taken delicately and at our own pace.”   His voice dropped, his intensity increased.  “If these people are given rein that could be out of our hands; things are moving towards a crisis.   In my view we have to take positive action.   We have to stop the boy, and to stop him now.”

“I cannot agree.  Just suppose what you say was true:  we have always been able to talk to the Toa.  We have always negotiated.  If we declare war, as you suggest, we only exacerbate the problem.  Leave us to handle the boy, and to find his girl-friend.   This is our mission, after all?”

The monk considered this.   “You might negotiate with them in their weakness, certainly.  But if they find their strength?”

“I do not see it as a problem – you do.  We must agree to differ.”

Conversation lapsed, as conversation will on such sunny days, into silence.  At length the men went their separate ways; Bishop returning to his See, the monk to his monastic duties.  But the subject would not end there.   Later that day, the monk made some calls.  A meeting was arranged.

#

Fortified with hot coffee and some of Estelle’s special pancakes (“We have to fill you up, you need your strength”) Peter stood on Vincent’s pea-beach drive, waiting for the car which would transport him back to Manchester.   His hosts waited with him, huddled in coats against a fresh morning breeze.

Since parting with the one he knew as Simeon, he had struggled in his private thoughts.   Supposing, he reasoned with himself, all the conversation, the manipulation and hallucination of the last twelve hours were true?   Suppose he and Melanie really were all that stood between the world and a fatal error – what  –  a nuclear war, famine, some kind of plague?  The permutations were endless.

He knew with certainty now that, however much he might wish it, there was no turning back.  Promises that he would be able to live comfortably in the care of Simeon’s cult while he shared with Melanie the care of the ultimate computer hung around his head like the corpses in a game-keeper’s parlour: so much less desirable than the things he must leave behind.  This so-called ‘gift’ was always going to take more from him than it gave – Melanie’s friendship, already gone;  Lesley’s love, Lesley’s gentleness, Lesley’s sweet voice, her bright, clowning smile – they would be next.   He was marked and almost certainly his fate was decided not just for now but for all his years.

Peter’s miasma was dispelled by a crunch of tyres on gravel and the toot of an impatient horn.    Parting with Vincent contained an implicit promise: that their next meeting was not far away.

“We’re close, Pete, man, OK?  If we’re needed, we’ll be there.   Watch your mail now, and try to be comfortable with yourself.   We’ll see you soon.”

Stepping into the car, Peter looked up to see a seagull perched upon the ridge tiles of Vincent’s house roof.   Even at that distance, he was able to pick out the yellow diamond mark on its neck.

He spoke inside his head, knowing his words would find their target.  ‘If I can get the Truth Stone to reply to me,’  he asked,  “How do I perform the reset?”

‘I was hoping you would work that out, Petie-Pooh,’ the seagull replied.  ‘Personally, I don’t have a clue.’       For a split instant, the gull became Simeon again; then it reformed into a gull and flew away.

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

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Freefoto from Pixabay
Trawler: Andre Costargent from Pixabay
Cloister: Peter H. from Pixabay

.          

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Fifteen.         An Audience with Amanda

Day would have to pale the room before Karen could study Patrick’s sleeping head on the pillow, letting her fingers lightly trace the livid bruise on his cheek.  Then the tears would rise as she faced the sheer immensity of her feelings for him, and her sorrow for the loss she was certain must come.

 

Since the fox’s cry she had not slept, but lain awake in commune with her demons, wondering how next to proceed.   Her heart had made a number for the days before the hammer fell.  Three.

Pitifully few.

Pitifully few but she could count them.  She felt she knew him now, this enemy – how he thought, how he acted.   Today would be his day of finding out; where she had she moved and with whose help?  So he would be processing information, just as she, in the course of her profession, would expect to do.   Perhaps he had not troubled to discover where Patrick lived:  today he would learn.  If indeed he did not work alone, there would be those awaiting his reports with whom he must talk today.

Tomorrow?  Karen quietly slipped from the bed, parting those dramatic curtains to peek out at the red rising of a beneficent sun. All the grounds of Radley Court were spread before her, still wearing their monochrome cape of night.  She braved the chill air of the opened window, relishing the liberation of nakedness – for Gabby’s nightdress had been discarded long before – without fear of a town’s thousand windows and prying eyes.  Not so tomorrow, for tomorrow he would be out there, somewhere, watching, planning.  Tomorrow she would feel his eyes upon her.  That was how it had to be.

He had plans to make – support to be organized, because this time he must be sure he would not fail – when and where, and with what to strike; how to get away.  That was her third day.  Beyond it there was nothing.

At breakfast, Karen wanted to compliment Gabrielle’s taste in clothes, but Patrick’s sister was not at the table.

“She’ll be out riding with Mum.  They exercise the horses early on mornings like this.  Paul and Dad will have gone to work, by now; which just leaves us.  I think we should give Petra the chance to help you walk off all that food.”

Karen seemed to have discovered a morning appetite previously unknown to her.  So far she had dispatched a bowl of cereal, an egg, fried bread and two rashers of bacon.

“Oh, Pat! (suddenly mortified) Am I being a pig?”

“Worry not.  I always had a soft spot for pigs.”

Petra was an enthusiastic companion who chased every stick as if it were the last stick on the planet, and ran perpetually.

“Like a rhinoceros on purple hearts?”  Patrick offered, citing a stimulant drug popular in Caleybridge that year.

Beyond the lawns, Radley Court’s grounds consisted of well-tended woodland, of deciduous oaks, beeches and stately elms that soon concealed the lovers from the blank, glazed stare of the house.  They walked arm in arm without the embarrassment of discovery while the creatures of the wood preserved them from silence; a disaffected red squirrel raging from a sweet chestnut bough, a stonechat chipping out its lonely proclamation to the mate it had yet to meet, redpoll and blackcap competing for the best of the treetop villas and crows far above them wheeling and squabbling.

Rhododendron bushes veiled the way ahead, so the sudden appearance of a lake surprised Karen.  The tree cover opened out to a vista of blue sky and there it was, nestling amid a gauze of willows that drooped tragic fronds into the shallows.

“It’s more of a big pond, really,” Pat said modestly.  “And before you think about stripping off for a swim, it’s bloody cold in there at this time of day!”

To Karen it was a lake – a serene, romantic mirror to the morning sky into which Petra, to whom it was no surprise, dove like a porpoise.  She had no fear of the cold, although she would not swim for long without regaining the shore and shaking herself vigorously.  By this means Karen discovered the temperature of the water for herself without needing to swim in it.  There was an old bench beside the lake which had already been found by the sun.  They sat there together.

“I could get used to this,”  Karen said, meaning it.  A couple of moorhens emerged from the foliage in front of them and swam away, more irritated than alarmed.  “You live in a very special place.”

Pat nodded.  “I can imagine how it must seem.  I wouldn’t deny its beauty, although I see it a little bit differently, I suppose.”

“How so?  This is a piece of paradise, isn’t it?”

“Well, custom and habit may play their part, but no, it isn’t that.  My dad doesn’t have a major shareholding in African mining, or his own oil concessions.  He has to work for every penny he gets, and this place – well – it isn’t the cheapest prize.  I rarely spent time with my father as I grew up.  As soon as I was old enough I was packed off to boarding school, and when the holidays came he was always working.  He still is.  Nothing’s changed.  Oh, he has all this charm and charisma; certainly.  He charms people, and he loves to do it:  that’s the secret of his success.  But when It comes to Gabby and me, or even Sprog, we don’t get a look in, I’m afraid.  You know what they say of us, we ‘nouveau riche’?  That we are always looking over our shoulders.  It’s true.  We are.”

“I haven’t met Sprog,”  Karen said.

“Consider yourself fortunate.”

They sat in silence for a while, and she contemplated Pat’s words until the haunting of last night’s conversation and its unanswered questions filled her.  The chill that visited her raised goosebumps on her arms.  This was day one.

“Let’s go back.”  She said.

Patrick saw the shadows of fear painted on her face.  He took her arm, drawing her to him, and over brushed them with a kiss.  “Stop thinking about him, love, alright?”

“I could eat you!”  She murmured.

“See?  Pig.  I knew it.  I feel a nickname coming on…”

“Oh no, don’t you dare!  This is so unjust! I’m a fat sow, condemned to live with my ugliness…”

“Karen, darling, you’re beautiful – and you know it, so no sympathy-milking; it does not become you.  Now, where was I?”

Their play, hidden in the protection of the trees, might have reached a more fervent level were it not for Petra who, seeing them engaged in such a fun wrestling game, joined in with her usual gusto.  Petra had been swimming.  Petra was very, very wet.

Their ardour dampened considerably by Petra’s attentions, the pair walked or ran the three hundred yards of open lawn between themselves and Radley Court.  Out of respect for the hall carpet they harried their four-legged companion around the east side of the house, intending to use the back door and kitchen for a ceremonial paw-drying.

“What’s in the barn?”  Karen asked, referring to an ancient brick building so positioned at the north-east corner of Radley Court as to be hidden by trees from the main driveway. The same gravel which surfaced the forecourt led up to its doors.

“I’ll show you.”  Patrick said.  “We’d better see to old sog-dog first, though.  It’s a no-Petra zone.”

Passing the loose boxes Karen was made to giggle and curl a little because Patrick was kissing her neck and his hands were getting extremely expressive.  In danger of being pinned against the tack room wall she wrenched herself free and burst, laughing, through the kitchen door with Petra and Pat in pursuit, to meet the slightly disapproving stare of Mrs Buxham., who was cleaning ‘her floor’ at the time.  They towelled Petra, a ritual she relished, before leaving her in Mrs B’s reluctant care.

“It was the original stable block,”  Patrick explained, as he led the way back to the barn.  “Dad gutted it a long time ago – before I was born, I think.  And he got into a lot of trouble because it’s a protected building, or something.”

“I still think it looks like a barn,”  Karen said.

Patrick persuaded a pair of wide doors sufficiently apart to provide entry.  In the darker space within the stable building Karen had to blink to accustom her eyes in the subdued light, then blink again to believe what she saw.

“This is where the mower lives,”  Patrick told her.

It was not the mower, a ponderous machine with gleaming brass controls squatting at the end of the building, that drew a gasp of wonder from Karen, nor was it the orderly rank of machinery occupying space to its right; a big lathe, a bench saw, an industrial drill and two other large fixed tools the purposes for which she did not understand. Neither did the amazing array of spanners on the walls, or a rack above her head supporting block and tackle catch her eye.

“Wow, Patrick!”

No, it was the three cars parked with their rear bumpers to the wall on the opposite side.  The first, and nearest was a gleaming white sports car.  Beside it, and looming imperiously above it, were the statuesque carriage lines of a fine old luxury saloon, complete with great brass lamps and a ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’ mascot at its prow.

“Dad’s pride and joy,”  Patrick said, sounding reverential.  “He thinks they’ll be worth a lot of money one day.  The one at the back..”  he waved a hand at some skeletal remains Karen would not have recognized as a car… “That’s a Vauxhall Tourer, or at least what’s left of one.   He’s restoring it.”

“Did he restore these?”

“I think so.  He restored the Jaguar XK120 – the white one – anyway.  I think he did the Silver Ghost, I’m not sure.  When Gabs and I were younger he used to take us to Harterport in that.  It was slow but we loved it!  You’re really high up in there.”

“Show me?  Are we allowed to touch?”

“Each other or the car?”  Patrick gave Karen a suggestive look.  “There’s no-one here to stop us.”

Her hand was cool.  He took it in his to guide her past the white Jaguar, witnessing her nervous fingers as they stroked its sensuous curves.  He opened the big door of the Rolls Royce for her then supported her on the step.

“I feel like a queen.”  She announced, settling back into the seat.  She laughed.  “I thought these seats would be soft, Patrick.  They’re really hard!”  Then she caught his eye, saw the purpose in it.  “Dare we?”  She asked.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m running out of feasible alternatives,”  Patrick replied.  He repeated her phrase:  “Am I allowed to touch?”

“Are you serious?  In the back seat of a Rolls Royce?  Sir, you are about to fulfil one of my most treasured fantasies!”

At midday, Jackson returned for lunch, so the whole Hallcroft family were gathered.  Karen and Patrick had returned to their bedrooms to change by that time, but they still met an array of very knowing glances as they entered the breakfast room together, forcing the blood to Karen’s cheeks and evoking a rich, low chuckle from Gabrielle.  They even achieved Gewndoline’s wry smile, in spite of those misgivings Karen was certain she inwardly retained.

The surprise of that party, if surprise was the word, was ‘Sprog’, Pat’s younger sister.  Amanda Hallcroft-Smythe (she insisted upon the full title) bore her nickname with equanimity, though she showed tolerance for little else.  Gabby introduced her.

“Amanda, this is Karen, Patrick’s friend.  Karen, this is our youngest.  She is eight years old.  Don’t let her put you off childbirth, will you?”

Amanda advanced upon Karen.  She was small and dark with wide green eyes, and relatively stocky, her mother’s build, although she affected elegance to the best of her ability.  She extended a limpid hand.  “Eight-and-a-half, actually.  How do you do, Miss Eversley?  I have heard so much about you.  Do you ride at all?”

Karen looked down at the stubby fingers, wondering for a moment if she was expected to kiss them.  “How do you do, Amanda? I’m afraid not. I take it you share your family’s love of horses?”

“Not horses, Miss Eversley.  Riding.  You see, one cannot love a horse.”

Pat snorted:  “Therein lies a tale!  First names, Sproggy, please?  Can you stop trying to act like a duchess, at least for lunchtime?”

Amanda glared at her brother, then gave Karen a brilliant smile.  “As you see, my brother is capable of extreme vulgarity.  I am sure the two of you will get on very well with each other.”  And she stalked back to her chair.

Over lunch, while his little sister at the far end of the table was relating the details of her night’s sleepover with a fashionable friend to anyone who cared to listen, Pat confided in Karen. For one of tender years, Amanda had a very firm opinion of her place in the world.  It was a world peopled only by desirable acquaintances and littered with the trappings of comfort.  Her conversations were achingly rich in references to ‘Oinks’ and ‘Trogs’ whom she perceived as a constant threat, and to the consumer comforts she either already enjoyed or would acquire in the future.  Her mother dismissed Sprog’s pretentiousness as a ‘passing phase’ which, in Patrick’s mind, was only an excuse to avoid dealing with the problem.  True, Gwendoline was a little put out to discover her youngest daughter’s professed ‘desperate love’ for riding was superficial (which meant Bella the Shetland that had been bought specially for her led a very leisurely existence) but rather more vexed when Amanda proclaimed that she saw herself seated upon nothing less than a Palomino or a stallion of eighteen hands, and took the amiable advances of little Bella as a personal insult.  There ensued a regime of particularly nasty teasing of the animal and when eventually she was persuaded to mount Bella, the creature had developed a negative attitude which she expressed by depositing Amanda in the mud.

Bella became, therefore, a particular blemish upon Amanda’s clear vision: the pony wasted little respect on the child and did her best to bite her whenever she ventured near enough, which was rarely.  Bella was not Amanda’s only source of disquiet, though, for she equally did her best to avoid Mrs Buxham and Mrs Beatty, neither of whom had time for her opinionated eight-years-old ways and pronounced her a very rude little girl.  Privately between themselves, they used more definitive terms.

Amanda had reached a natural break in her discourse, which involved taking a breath.  She thrust a look loaded with daggers down the table.  “I assume you are discussing me?”

“Yes.”  Pat said brusquely.  “There’s a lot to discuss.”

“In prerogative terms, no doubt.”  Amanda pronounced.  “Miss Eversley, I hope you will think better of me than my brother’s slanders suggest.”

“I will, I promise.”  Karen said, trying to ignore sniggers from Gabby.

“Oh, that is most satisfactory!  I think we could be friends, you know?”

“I’m sure we shall be.”

Patrick nudged her.  “You sound like Elizabeth Bennet.”

In some curious fashion, Amanda contributed to the conviviality of that meal with her family, who had a unique way of accepting oddness and making it comfortable.  The cold platter of salads and meats ebbed upon a tide of conversation until only the plates were left.  Amanda was first to break ranks, declaring a need to ‘continue with her studies’; after whom one by one the diners excused themselves and dispersed.

Gwendoline and Karen were in the hall when the telephone rang.  Gwendoline picked up the receiver, then, without saying a word, covered the mouthpiece with her hand.  “Karen?  It’s a male voice; asking for you.”

Patrick had entered the hall.  “You haven’t told anyone you’re here, have you?”

Gwendoline said:  “I’d say he seems to know.”

Karen glanced back at Patrick.  His face was pale.  “No.  No, no-one.”

“Don’t answer it!”  Patrick warned.

“Someone was bound to find out,” Karen replied.  “I think I have to.”

Hand shaking, she took the receiver from Gwendoline.  “Who is this?”

“Miss Eversley!”  The voice on the line was not unfamiliar.  “I’ve been looking forward to receiving your progress report.”

“Mr Purton?  I’m afraid I don’t have much for you yet.”

“Really now?  It’s been a week, hasn’t it?  And you’ve been asking lots of questions of a lot of people. I seem to remember impressing upon you the sensitive and confidential nature of the matter.  Miss Eversley. I trust you with this work, and when I place my trust in someone, I expect results.”

The formal note – the reversion to her surname – did not escape Karen.  “I’m not alone here, Mr Purton, so I can’t discuss your case.  When I complete the picture rest assured I shall present it to you.”

“I believe I shall need an interim report!”  Purton snapped.  “I suggest we meet tomorrow – say my office at three?”

“I’m away at the moment,”  Karen said cautiously.  “Perhaps next week?”

“Not a considerable distance to travel, Miss Eversley, is it?  Eight miles?  I’ll expect you.”

The line went dead.

Karen replaced the receiver slowly, her mind full.  “He wants to meet at his office tomorrow afternoon.”

“It’s a trap!”  Patrick said.

“At the council offices in working hours?  He can hardly have a fatal stabbing in mind,”  Gwedoline was circumspect.  “Nevertheless…do I gather you believe this man to be implicated in your stalker’s affairs, Karen?”

“I didn’t.  It’s true the case I’m investigating for him seems tied up with Boulter’s Green, but we can’t prove any direct connection.  He wants a report on that tomorrow, and he isn’t happy.  There was something else in his voice, though.  I’d almost say he was panicking, you know?”

“The thing is, sweetie,”  Gabby said.  “What do you want to do?”

“I think I want to go and see him,” Karen said.  “It sounds almost as though someone’s putting pressure on him, and I’m curious.  If he is involved in something more complicated, maybe I’ll find out.”

To her surprise, Patrick agreed.  “I’m due a bandage change tomorrow afternoon, and I promised I’d pay Jacqui a visit. So we’ll kill three birds with one stone – or would that be two?”

Gwendoline frowned.  “Can we explain how this man knows you are here, Karen?”

“No.  I suppose someone saw Pat and me together.  With Pat working at County Hall, it would only be a matter of looking up a home address.”

“If that someone was our Mr Nasty,” Patrick reasoned.  “It would all link up rather conveniently, wouldn’t it?”

His mother pursed her lips thoughtfully.  “It seems rather an odd telephone call; not one I imagine this Purton man would have been comfortable making. Karen, if you’re agreeable, I have a suggestion…”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

The Destiny Game

 

” I’d say it has all to do with names.”  Kevin’s eyes were drawn to the window, and a row ofRaindrops beech trees beyond his friend’s water-logged garden.  He was in reflective mood.

“What are you saying now?”  Christian asked.   “Names?  I thought we were talking about relationships?”

Outside, the blackened sky delivered rain like a flagellation, whipped up by a strengthening gale to be hurled against the glass.

“Listen to that!”  Kevin murmured:  “Nature’s baptism, yes?  ‘I name this house’?  Baptism, you see?  Baptism is where the fatal blow is struck. There you are doing your mewling and puking and definitely not in control of the situation, while your future is decided by two well-meaning but deluded parents and a scary old man who throws water on you.  ‘I name this child’.  If I’d been in any condition to know what they were doing, I’d have risen up from the font and severed their heads.  ‘Kevin’!  My god!”

“I’m a strong believer in fate, yet I refuse to believe so much is decided by a name.”

“No, fate has nothing to do with it!  It was some fiendish kink in the curtain of the Grand Plan.  Someone said ‘condemn this one to a life of misery.  Name him Kevin’.  I can hear them laughing even now!  Names strike at the very fabric of a relationship.  I mean, ‘Kevin’, you know?  The hard ‘K’?  Women will never freely date a Kevin.  And it isn’t exactly a superhero’s name, either, is it?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. You’ve got some hard ‘K’s batting for your team.  Consider Clark Kent.”  Christian adjusted position in his armchair, carefully perching his glass of whisky on the arm whilst reaching for a poker from the hearth.  He thrust at the fire that burned brightly there, agitating it into a volcanic profusion of sparks.  “Look at my name.  I’m living a lie.  I’m agnostic at best.  You can’t seriously hope to convince me that your misfortunes are attributable to your parents’ dismissive choice of name!”

Kevin turned away from the window and the depression of greys crowding his view.   “Dismissive.  You don’t know how accurately that describes my parents.  Did you ever meet my father?”

“Once or twice.”

“Which was about as often as my mother met him.  My baptism was probably his last stand.  He stayed long enough to ensure I was irrevocably Kevined then left for the pub and never came back.”

“Please, permit the poor man some justice!  You were mewling and puking all over him, remember.  And he must have been rather more present than you imply, because I remember his being in the house when we played together as children.  Was your mother his third wife?  Not strong on that whole bonding for life thing, was he?”

“Like father like son, is that your inference?”  Kevin shook his head.  “I thought I’d laid that ghost long ago.”

“They say the luck runs.”

“And I don’t believe that. It isn’t luck, it’s design.  Incidentally, it’s a skill you have, and I apparently lack.  After all, we’re much of a muchness, you and I;  I don’t see myself as particularly ill-favoured, or you, forgive me, as particularly handsome.  We’re roughly the same height, the same weight; our personalities are similar; yet here I stand, left in the departure lounge of yet another failed relationship, without the faintest idea where I went wrong.  And here are you, flying business class in this immaculately kept house with Svetlana who is, you have to admit, an exquisite testament to womanhood…”

“Who can be a little – shall we say – eccentric at times.”

“I will stick to exquisite.  After fifteen years she still looks as beautiful as the day you introduced me to her.  And you still dote on her, I can see that.  Fifteen years!  Can I tell you my experiences of those fifteen years?”

Christian chuckled sympathetically.  “There was Melissa.  She was a lovely girl!”

“With some lovely friends.  a whole cohort of lovely friends, mostly male!  Then Claire, and Michelle…”

“Six months later.”

“Alright; that was brief even by my standards.  But Alicia…”

“Ah  Alicia!  She was a shredder, wasn’t she?”

Kevin gave a grim nod.  “Ribbons, literally.  I couldn’t go out, sometimes.  Scar tissue is so unsightly.  And now…”

“Now Sophie.”

“Yes, Sophie.  Absolutely Sophie.”

Kevin sighed, feeling his eyes smart from a revisited sadness.  He crossed to his friend’s sideboard and the whiskey glass that awaited him.  “Teach me, Chris!  Let me share your gift.  And while you’re about it, tell me where in the known universe is there a Svetlana waiting for me?”

Christian’s finger traced an imaginary picture on the arm of his chair as he tried to frame an answer for his friend.  Somehow the picture seemed to resemble Svetlana. “I don’t know, Kev.  I could say there’s someone out there, someone you’ve yet to meet; but that wouldn’t hack, would it?  I think it’s just fate – no more and no less.”

“Fate!  Nonsense, my friend. You have a seduction plan.  It’s time you publicized!  I want answers, before age and bachelorhood place my assets beyond recall.  Come on, give!”

“If I had a plan it would be rather rusty by now, but honestly, I have nothing to impart!  Svetlana and I were one of life’s chance encounters; no more, no less.”

“You met her on the Internet.  She posted on a dating site.  Or, wait – YOU posted on a dating site!”

Christian laughed.  “I did not!”

“I used to believe she was a mail order bride.  For years I was convinced you were holding out on me, in spite of her perfect English.”

“Oh really!  She came to this country when she was ten.  Her father’s a ‘something’ with Debrette Cooper – the bankers?   All right, I never told you how we met, did I? So I will, if only to show you how strong a hand fate plays in these things.  It was pure chance.  I was in the middle of an aisle in the middle of a supermarket in the middle of an evening, trying to decide which size of Cornflakes I should pick and this glorious woman just walked up to me and said: ‘Hi’.

supermarket aisle“Amazing! I shall need details:  haircut, aftershave, manner of dress…”

“Amazed was I!  Was I wearing aftershave?  I don’t remember.  Dress?   Casual, I suppose.  What else?  Anyway, back to lovely lady and ‘Hi’.  What could I do but respond?”

“I suppose you could have hidden behind the Cornflakes.  But obviously you didn’t.  I should point out that details of dress are important, however.  What did you do?”

“I said ‘Hi’ right back at her.  Quite courteously but avoiding one of those leers you do so well.  I wasn’t going to be intimidated, you see.”

“Heavens no, why should you be?  Though that is true – we men do find beauty intimidating.  So there you are, you see – technique stepping in.  Memo to face: ‘avoid leer’.  And?”

“And?”

“Sort of ‘what next’ and.  As in ‘and what next’?”

Ah yes!  She gave me that quirky smile of hers and took a little blue card from her purse.  She came right up close to me, slipped it into my trousers pocket – bold as you please – then just walked away.  But oh, the quick touch of those fingers slipping into my pocket; and what a walk!”

“Stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself!  So let me guess, her ‘phone number was on the card?”

“A soft blue colour, that card.  It was nothing special – I mean, she hadn’t had fifty printed, or anything like that.  I think it was a business card for a hair salon, or something.  You’re right, she’d written her number on the corner.  And her name.”

“So that was how it all began?  Yes, of course it was.  You called, you dated, you lasted.  I shall  want precise dating procedure – details, please?”

“You really are missing the point!  The Fickle Finger of Fate had already played the trump, so to speak.  The date, all the dates, were perfect.  We matched – perfectly.  Over a dinner table, at a bar, walking beside the river, it was as though we read each other’s thoughts and we never really needed to speak.  We were married within a month, we’re still together.  We still love each other.  And I never told her.”

“Never told her what?  Oh, Christian!  Intriguing.  There’s was a secret between you?”

“Hear me out. I couldn’t tell her how I worried about that first encounter: a beautiful woman who freely gave me her number.  Was I so incredibly lucky, or was this an approach she had a habit of making?”

“One hates to coin the term ‘promiscuous’…”

“Yes, one’s choice of word could be kinder, too, couldn’t it?  Anyway, eventually the subject came up in conversation.  Apparently the shopping basket was my Ace of Hearts.  I had no idea that Tuesday night in that particular supermarket was ‘singles night’, or that if you carried a hand basket containing cheese and Cornflakes, on that particular aisle, it said you were seeking a companion.  It was a code.  Svetlana knew, I stumbled into it.  Fate, you see?  She was carrying the same items, if I’d looked.  I didn’t. I didn’t even think about that.  How could I have known?”

Kevin  frowned.  “But that’s not a secret, not now.  Although it’s likely to guide my feet towards the supermarket at issue next Tuesday, it’s information you both share.  What’s the story?  What’s the big, humungous confidence you have kept to yourself for fifteen years?”

“Well, it’s a small thing, I guess….”

“What, then?”

“In that supermarket, all those years ago – which means nothing now, of course…”

“Oh, no!  Of course not.   But something you never told her…”

“I was  shopping with my aunt.  It was her basket I was carrying, while she was checking out the toiletries in the next aisle.  The cheese was hers, the basket was hers.  I wasn’t shopping for myself at all, not in any sense.   You see what I mean?  Fate, Kevin.  Just fate.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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.