The Lady in the Wood

The Lady in the Wood

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s a bride of Christ.”

“Does she talk to Him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A hundred and fifty.”

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

“I’m six and three-quarters.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He doesn’t visit you anymore?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: 

Banner: Marc Pell from Unsplash

Joshua Applegate on Unsplash. 

Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

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

Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts

I try, within my limited abilities, to offer a variety of stories, thoughts and whimsies on this blog, so, if this is a bit of a romp I hope you will forgive me.  It’s a four-part story, which may not be for absolutely everybody, but it has been great fun to write!

(Incidentally, ‘stories, thoughts and whimsies’; so much better than that ugly word ‘genre’, don’t you think?)

It was Julian’s brother Freddy who made the discovery.  Julian, in commodities, had bought the island after a particularly successful season’s trading (he saw it advertised in The Times under ‘Property for Sale: Estates and Other’).  Freddy, staying in the house as Julian’s guest – a flamboyant, noisy one at that – was in the habit of taking walks in the early morning. This was how the discovery was made.

The Island of Aga was six miles from north to south, a mere mile across:  much of the terrain was naked rock, impassable without climbing experience.  Its few navigable paths were strewn with sudden descents and precipitous drops which made walking hazardous. The best morning stroll the island could offer led to the top of its highest point, Ben Adderhochie, from where, on a clear day, you could see the Scottish mainland, then down through a deepening series of rifts and clefts to the little Skaeflint’ae Beach. This beach was the stuff of legend, the cliffs around it permeated by tiny caves where smugglers were said to have hidden contraband which lay there still, along with its attendant ghosts.  There was a path to the beach, but Freddy was never one for paths.  He was slipping and sliding off-piste as it were, down the side of a little granite gorge when he made the discovery.

At first, when the bird flew past him and headfirst into the rock, Freddy thought it was just one of those hideous accidents which sometimes overtake our treasured wild creatures.  When a second one did more or less the same, he put it down to coincidence – but a third?

On the stony floor of the gorge he discovered a quite liberal scattering of little wild things, many of which appeared to have suffered the same fate as the birds.  Perplexed, Freddy sat down upon a user-friendly rock to try and make sense of all this.  That was when he heard a gentle hissing sound, and began to sniff the air for himself.

Rowena Parfitt was Julian’s wife and a woman of principle who, when she had taken Julian for better or worse had freely accepted that Freddy was the worst of the worse.  She tolerated him, but with a suppressed, implacable hatred; which was why, when he burst in through the kitchen door at seven o’clock in the morning yelling at the top of his voice:  “Eur-eeee-ka!!  You-bloody reeka!”  It was more than a woman of principle could bear.

Rowena picked up the heaviest plate she could find and threw it at Freddy.  The plate missed.  It spun out into the back yard, shattering against a gatepost (to the mild chagrin of the goat that happened to be tethered there at the time).

“Oh, good shot!”  Cried Freddy.  “Eureka, me little darlin’!  Get Julian!  Come and see what I’ve found!”

An hour later Julian and Rowena stood at the top of the little gorge staring down at Freddy as he alternately lifted and lowered a sizeable flat tablet of stone.

“On – off.  On – off!  It’s like a blasted stove, my loves!  Natural gas!  Find of the century, I’d say!”

At such moments of supreme accomplishment (and it is fair to say he may have been a little heady with his find), it was always Freddy’s custom to extract one of his largest Cuban cigars from his top pocket and light up for a deep, luxurious inhalation of that unique tobacco.  In spite of earnest entreaties from the top of the cliff, this morning would not be an exception.

Only after he had telephoned the coroner did Julian fall to some careful thinking.  By the time the local doctor arrived on a boat from the mainland to issue a death certificate, he and Rowena, not without difficulty, had borne Freddy’s mortal remains back to the house, laying him out informally on their dining room floor by a large open fire.

Rowena plied the doctor with some of her best amber nectar.

“The boat journey would be very cold at this time of the season, Doctor Creggie.”  Julian suggested, joining his wife in the kitchen.  “Have you much work around the islands at the moment?”  He topped up the good doctor’s glass.

“Aye, aye.”  Creggie affirmed.  “A great deal too much, ye ken?  All ye city folks gannin’’ tae the back o’ beyond and no experience of what a winter can be like, ye ken?”  It was very good Scotch.  He willingly took a second glass, stayed on for some excellent conversation and a third, generous measure.  At last he said:  “Well, now, I must’nae miss the tide.  Where is the puir man?”

“Oh, he’s in the dining room where he fell – terrible thing.” Julian said.  “I suppose you won’t have seen many cases like this?”

“Ye ken?”  Rowena added helpfully.

“Cases like what?”  Creggie enquired, attempting to cock a quizzical eyebrow and missing by several millimetres:  it really was exceptionally fine whisky, and if it was not quite good enough, Rowena had augmented it with a little something of her own.

“Spontaneous combustion:  our family is prone to it, unfortunately.  There was my great uncle Herbert, wasn’t there darling?  Oh, and my niece Jasmine.  Went up like a torch, poor dear.”

Rowena chipped in:  “Didn’t your grandfather…?”

“It was always suspected: although medicine was not as advanced then.  They didn’t have Doctor Creggie’s skills, did they, Doctor?”

Doctor Creggie, though mellowed by alcohol, was still dubious about recording a death as ‘spontaneous combustion’, but when he saw poor Freddy, who was in a very derelict state, and he thought of all the problems with obtaining a second opinion in this remote location, he finally concurred.  Besides, Rowena’s little ‘addition’ to his drink was taking effect:  “Now I must awa’ back tae the boat.  Ye’ll need tae make arrangements for the puir man.  He can be buried here, of course, but I’ve nae doubt his nearest and dearest’ll want him hame.  Meanwhile, I would put him somewhere a little cooler, ye ken.  Er…could ye direct me to the lavatory, now?”

Julian and Rowena watched, hand in hand, as the government boat with Doctor Creggie safely wedged aboard sailed back towards the mainland.

Rowena, whose hatred of Freddy extended even after death, insisted they remove his carcass to the back of the woodshed.  There they left him, propped between some bags of cement and a rusty plough of the horse-drawn variety, which Julian had pledged to restore when he had time.

“Right,” said Julian.  “I have things to do.”

A retired commodities trader has friends in curious places:  one of Julian’s was the disaffected son of a wealthy Nigerian land-owner, whose nefarious stock market activities had been a source of entertainment in the past.  Mwabe Mbabe Junior had been quiet of recent years, producing little to match his past triumphs:  “Diamond Concessions of Nigeria”, the “Mbabe International DNA Modification Corporation” and the briefly meteoric “Global Mall Shares Limited” had all long since become unhappy memories, their investors wiser, poorer men.  These days Mwabe Mbabe busied himself with begging letters on the internet and finding ways to leverage non-existent companies using the mythical backing of his father.  Julian ‘phoned him.

“Julian, my darling!”  Mbabe was effusive:  “What do you have for me?”

A few days after the undertakers came to scoop up Freddy and return with him (along with a bag of cement to which he had become inseparably attached) to the mainland, a dark, smartly suited figure stepped off the island-hopping boat.  He brought a considerable amount of luggage.  One or two of the suitcases rattled suspiciously as the boatman hove them ashore.

“Will ye want me back this year?”  The boatman enquired:  “Or at all?  Are ye moving in?”

The man was a seismologist whose speciality was discretion, whom Mwabe Mbabe had employed once to survey certain portions of his father’s estate when the old man was on a business trip to Europe.  His suitcases were stuffed with equipment.  He was tall and swarthy, with bright eyes and a haunting smile, and when Rowena saw him her heart leapt.

After settling in, the man (his name was Mahadis), accompanied Julian to Freddy’s gorge.  Mahadis was  impressed.

“I will check this out.”  He said.

For the next several days Mahadis busied himself setting up his experiments.  The island terrain was not the friendliest he had ever worked in, nor was the necessary secrecy easy to maintain, as that crowning glory of offshore living, the Royal Air Force, seemed to revisit every ten minutes at several hundred cacophonous miles per hour on a level at which, if the pilot could not see what Mahadis was doing, Mahadis could see what the pilot did.

Then came one of those days when the normally brisk breeze became a host of screaming demons.  On such a day the drops of endemic rain were freezing darts.  In such a gale two people were needed to push the front door closed.  Julian had gone to the mainland to replenish supplies, so the two people pushing together were Rowena and Mahadis.

“He won’t come back tonight,” said Rowena.  “Do you need more blankets?”

Two days elapsed before the seas moderated and Julian was able to return, by which time Rowena had supplied Mahadis with many more blankets.  Such affection was impossible to entirely disguise:  it betrayed itself in a multitude of little touches and covert looks, which Julian, no fool, could scarcely avoid noticing.  He needed Mahadis, however, so nothing was said.

Nothing, that is, until the seismologist’s work was complete.

“This is my report;” said Mahadis over breakfast one morning while Rowena gazed rapturously at a mole on his neck.

Julian riffled the wedge of manuscript.  “Difficult to visualize.”  Was his verdict.  “Come on, let’s get our boots on and you can show me.”

From the summit of Ben Adderhochie they could see the entire Island.  To the west, the mountain dropped in sheer cliffs many hundreds of feet to the sea:  they could look down upon the backs of gulls and Shearwater wheeling in the wind eddies far below.  To each of the other three main compass points, the island descended more gradually:  back to the house in the north, towards South Beach and Freddy’s Gorge, and more steeply towards the distant mainland (which could be seen on a morning as clear as this) in the east.

To Julian’s initial surprise Mahadis paused here, rather than continuing the descent to Freddy’s Gorge.

“Over there,”  Mahadis said, waving in a northerly direction;  “Beyond the house on the north shore, three places with substantial natural gas reserves that may be easily drilled.  I have put down markers.  Over there: (this time a gesture towards Freddy’s Gorge) another two, in addition to the one you have found.”

Julian’s eyes had been widening with this:  he said:  “Really?  Six places.”

“Six.  From at least two separate subterranean sources.  You are rich, my friend.”

“Wow!”  Said Julian.

“So, my work is done.  Now I will leave.  There is the matter of my account?”

When you tell a man he owes you forty thousand dollars, especially if you have been intimate with his wife, it is best not to do so at the top of a very high cliff.  The gulls and Shearwater in their wheeling flight parted politely to let Mahadis through.

As he walked back to his house, Julian was having a re-think:  rich, after all, was something he already was; a man of his intellect, of his imagination, should not just content himself with riches.  No, there was more to be gained.

Indoors, he lost no time.

“Mwabe;”  He told the telephone:  “We need another partner.”

“Ah!”  Said Mwabe Mbabe,  “I knew you would say that.  I have just the fellow!”

This was the moment, Julian decided, to take out insurance.

“Mwabe.  You wouldn’t think of double-dealing with me, now would you?”

“My dear chap!”

“Because I still have contact with a Mr. Luigi, you see?”

Mr. Luigi was a powerfully connected gentleman who had been persuaded to invest heavily in ‘Global Mall Shares Limited’.  Mr. Luigi had never found out how his millions had been mishandled, although he continued to investigate.  Should he ever discover Mwabe Mbabe’s part, there would be nowhere for the Nigerian trickster to hide.  The Luigi affair was a major contributor to Mbabe’s decision to take early retirement.

“My dear sir!”  Protested Mwabe again, his voice higher by a semi-tone.

Satisfied, Julian rang off.

Julian’s relationship with his spouse now entered a fairly volatile phase:  Julian’s explanation that Mahadis had left by sea very suddenly, though true in itself, gained only limited credence.

“He’s taken none of his equipment.”  Rowena pointed out.

“He won’t be needing it.”

“I didn’t see the boat.”  Said Rowena.

“I didn’t say anything about a boat.”  Replied Julian.

“Bastard!”  Said Rowena, secretly wondering why she could not stifle a shiver of admiration which vied with the grief in her throat.  Later, when Julian had exited to seek out Mahadis’ markers, she reduced the family crockery by twelve very good quality plates.

From this point on, matters proceeded apace, so fast that Rowena’s agony passed unnoticed by Julian, although it was to return to haunt him later.

A small group  of ‘fishing boats’ arrived at the island, their crews, all of olive-skinned appearance, staying long enough only to cap the six natural gas vents Mahadis had discovered.  They were, for the most part, uncommunicative, although Julian (never one to pass up an opportunity) managed to sell them the better part of Mahedis’ seismographic equipment.

Shortly after the departure of the ‘fishermen’ there hove onto the horizon a much larger vessel.  The ‘Xanadu’ was long, and elegant, and gleamed white in the late summer sun like some marvellous visitor from another world; which, in its way, it was.  Far too large to approach the little jetty which welcomed visitors into Julian’s domain, the ‘Xanadu’ anchored in deep water.  A launch which served as the yacht’s tender beetled across the gap from ship to shore, to be steadied against Julian’s jetty as the master of ‘Xanadu’ disembarked.

© 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.

Picture Credit: MW from Pixabay

The Cabinet of Jarvis Poulter

Another short story ‘sprung’ from the archives – I hope you will like it (I am writing more stories, BTW, they just take a while).  In the meantime, if you like these, there are many more to be found on ‘Black Crow Speaks’ – click on the cover picture on the right, here, to visit those  little darlings at Kindle who are just waiting for your call…

Jarvis Poulter studied the ancient cabinet carefully, the two ornately carved doors in the upper part, three gracefully slender drawers beneath and taloned feet which snatched fiercely at the saleroom floor. Olive wood or cedar, it was undeniably scruffy, its corners knocked and cracks showing here and there, but Middle-Eastern in origin and utterly in keeping with the theme he planned for his bedroom.   He measured it, squinting through half-moon spectacles at the small figures on his tape.       Just a little alteration would make of it a wardrobe, and the drawers below were ideal for his meager collection of sweaters and his nightwear.  Yes, perfect.

Poulter positioned himself so he might be seen from the rostrum.

“Lot 421, a cabinet, believed to be Moroccan.   Fifty for it?”  The auctioneer asked.

Silence.  Rows of inattentive heads, noses buried in catalogues.

“Forty then.  Twenty!  Come on, must be worth that?”

Silence.

“Alright.  Last chance.  Ten.  I’ll not go any lower…”

“Five.”  Piped Poulter in his thin nasal voice.

“Got to be ten.  Want it?”

Poulter sniffed.  “Alright.”

“Ten then.  Anybody?”  Catalogues shuffled uncomfortably.  “Ten it is.  Sold.”

Poulter was pleased with the price.  He told the auction porter this, as he helped maneuver the cabinet onto his pick-up truck.

“Well, you certainly got a lot of tonnage for your money.”  The porter grunted, from the heavy end.

 Poulter would not enjoy his drive home.  Never a natural driver, other traffic terrified him so the quiet roads, before rush hour really started, were a blessing.  He felt uneasy, though, because something, somewhere, was knocking.

Was it a wheel bearing?  His mechanical sense was no better than his road sense, but someone had told him once that a worn one of those would make a knocking noise.  So – was it a wheel bearing?  He looked down towards the place where he thought the noisy wheel might be.  It could be.  It would be another repair bill!  His local garage-man would rub his hands together with ill-concealed glee – Poulter was his most gullible customer.

Corner!  CORNER!

Preoccupied was he with the wheel Poulter had forgotten the road entirely, and the road, with a justifiable dislike of being ignored, sought retribution.

Panic!   Hauling on the wheel, Poulter managed to yank the old pick-up back into line.  It skidded; it slewed. 

It bounced.  

With crunch and thud Poulter’s prized cabinet unshipped itself and crashed onto the road.  He drew to a halt with a heartfelt groan, hardly daring to confront the consequences of his foolishness by looking in the mirror.  When he did, the sight offered little consolation; for there was the cabinet, lying drunkenly upon the tarmac:  it was not the cabinet which drew his eye, though.  It was the prostrate figure lying half-pinned beneath it!

“Oh, my Sainted Aunt!”  Exclaimed Poulter.  (Poulter often summoned his Sainted Aunt in times of crisis).   “I’ve killed someone!”

‘Someone’, however, was still moving.  By the time Poulter reached him, his victim, uttering a stream of invective, was wriggling free of the wooden tombstone.  A small man of apparent middle age in working overalls, he shouted angrily at Poulter:  “Bloody hell!  What d’ye think ye’re doing, yer old fool?  You bloody near slaughtered me then!”

“I’m sorry.  I’m really, really sorry!”  Poulter jabbered as he dabbed at tears of relief behind a grey handkerchief.  “Are you – are you badly hurt?”

“Dunno.”   To Poulter’s amazement his victim was clambering to his feet, dusting himself off.  “Nay, no harm done, lad!  Don’t upset yerse’n, now.  But lissen, next time brake before the corner, right?  Drive into it, don’t try and brake ‘alf-way round!”

“Yes, yes.”  Humbled, Poulter tried to make amends.  “Look, can I give you a lift anywhere?  Are you going far?”

The little man stared at Poulter intensely for a moment, as if a decision was needed.  “Aye,” He said.  “Awreet.  But first we’d better get this big coffin of your’n back on t’ truck.  Back up, will ye?”

For so small a figure the little man was surprisingly strong.  Together he and Poulter managed to restore the cabinet, distressed but entire, to its place in Poulter’s pick-up truck.  

“Now tie it down tight, lad!”

Poulter drove away with his new passenger breathing rather heavily beside him.   A horn sounded its impatience.

“Call me Albert.”  Said the little man.  “What’s tha name, lad?”

“Oh, I’m  – please call me Jarvis.”  Poulter rarely revealed his Christian name, but there was something very easy and familiar about  Albert.  Could he have found a new friend?  Jarvis Poulter had few friends.  In fact, he reflected as he pulled out onto the main road, he had no friends.

A squeal of brakes; angry shouts; things which happened to Poulter a lot, and for reasons he didn’t entirely understand.

“Bloody Stephen!”  Said Albert.   “Yer a right twaddy of a driver, Jarvis!   Yer nearly mashed that poor lad!  He wouldn’t mind so much if ye got going, but ye’r that slow!”

“I am, aren’t I?”  Poulter agreed.  “I wish I could do it better.”

“Sorry?”

“I said I wish I could drive quicker.”

Albert tightened his seat belt.   All of a sudden, for some reason, Poulter’s foot slipped across to the pick-up’s clutch.  His hand flicked down to the gear lever and he dropped a gear.  His right foot tweaked the accelerator just enough, and the pick-up answered him with a throaty roar.   As his speed in the new gear increased, Poulter eased his steering to the right and pitched into the bend in front of him.   The back of the vehicle, notwithstanding the weight upon it, drifted gently.  The tyres sang.  Ahead, evening traffic was gathering. 

“What’s happening?”  Poulter cried.  His hands, his feet seemed not to belong to him.  He was a marionette on mysterious, unseen strings, his limbs dancing over the controls, his balance perfectly attuned to the pick-up’s new-found vigor.  “I can’t stop!”

Fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour, lanes of traffic on each side, yet somehow a path – a snaking, narrow path – between.  Eighty, ninety!   Now weaving an impossible course, touching gas, brakes, opposite lock on the corners, controlled drift through swerving lane-changes.  Sirens, blue flashing lights behind him at first, then receding.

“Lost ‘em!”  Albert said triumphantly.

“Help me, please!”  Screamed Poulter. 

“Nay, lad!  Tha’s doing awreet by tha’sen.”

Cars, lorries, buses, traffic great and small flashed by as Poulter, gibbering, clung to the wheel.  Traffic lights turned green in fright at his approach, open-mouthed pedestrians and protesting cyclists parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses, and in a matter of moments the pick-up had come to rest outside Poulter’s home.   The engine switched itself off.  Frozen in horror, Poulter stared through the windscreen as overheated metal ticked back into shape.

“What have I done?  What have I done?”

Albert glanced about him.   “Well, I think yer’ve driven ‘ome.  This isn’t my ‘ouse, so it must be your’n.”  He undid his seat belt.  “Right, let’s get this cabinet off t’ back and inside, then ye’d better take the truck soomwheer and park it.”   Poulter seemed incapable of movement.  “Coom on, son.  The filth’ll be round in a minnit!”

“The police?  Oh my god!”  (Somehow Poulter’s Sainted Aunt was just not adequate on this occasion).  “But they’ll trace me!   Their computers…”

“Aye, they’re bloody fast nowadays.  So it’s a good job y’ reported it stolen yesterday, in’t it?  But if yer think about it, t’ thieves aren’t likely to have brought it back to your house, so yer’d better take it soomwheer they might ha’ left it.”

“No!  I mean no.  You see, I didn’t report it stolen!”  Poulter shook his head helplessly.

Albert ‘s leathery face creased in a slow smile.  “Aye, lad.  Yer did.”

Much later, when Poulter’s cabinet was safely indoors and after the police had visited him with the news they had recovered his vehicle (‘Joyriders, probably sir. You should get it back in a couple of days’) Poulter faced Albert across his kitchen table.   With the help of several pills his mood had recovered.  “What was it?”  He demanded.  “You did that to me, didn’t you?”

“I don’t see how yer can say that!  You were driving!”  Albert replied.  “Yer made a wish, didn’t yer?  Yer got yer wish.”

Poulter’s laugh was a particularly abrasive, braying sound.  “Wish?  What wish?  Absolute nonsense!  You crossed the road without looking!  I had to swerve to avoid you.  After you collided with my cabinet I was unnerved – and then you were rude and aggressive about my speed.   I reacted.  That’s why I drove so irresponsibly!”   Though this version of events had scant regard for the truth, he rather liked it.  It would do no harm to reapportion some of the blame.

“Nay, lad!”  Albert said quietly.  “Ah weren’t hit by t’cabinet.  I were inside it.”

Poulter sniggered.  Poulter guffawed.  Finally, Poulter snorted. 

Albert said:  “Ah’ve been trapped in theer, lad, I have.”

 “Don’t be ridiculous!”  Poulter snapped.  “You simply can’t be serious!”

But Albert was serious.  And the sincerity written on his face was sufficient to convince.  “Yer moost ‘ave heard me knockin’, lad.  Yon’ cabinet’s got a false back, see?  T’crash loosened it, otherwise there’s no way out.”

Poulter shook his head.  “ Oh, really!  When did you get in?  How long were you in there?”

“Oh, about four hundred year this time.  That’s if yer stick to t’Gregorian calendar, o’ course.”

A long silence.  Eventually,  Poulter began to cackle, a noise that was, if anything, even more unpleasant than his snigger, or his guffaw, or his laugh.  “Four centuries?  Wishes?  You’ll be telling me you’re a genie next!”

“Aye lad.  Ah don’t like the word, but tha’s what I am.  That’s me.”

“You really believe this, don’t you?”  Poulter sneered.  “Alright, so, if I were to wish for a royal banquet to appear before us on this table, right now, you could make it happen, I suppose.”

“I wouldn’t mind sommat to eat, if tha’s offering, but I won’t do that, no.”

Can’t do that, you mean.”

“Won’t.  See, there’s a lot of competition amongst us genies, and I’ll not waste points lowerin’ me’sen to grantin’ that kind of wish.  I like a challenge!  Then again, tha knowst how it goes.  Yer only get three wishes, don’t yer?  Be careful what yer wish for.  Yer got two left.”

Poulter was of a mind to make a further derisive comment, but something prevented him.  After all, the events of that afternoon defied explanation.  “Are you really telling me you can grant wishes?  I mean, was it you who fixed it so the police thought my pick-up had been stolen?”

“Aye, that were me.  Now, ‘ave yer or ‘ave yer not got sommat to eat?  My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut!”

It was the least Poulter, convinced though he was that he had a madman for a house guest, could do to oblige, so he sought out some eggs and potatoes in his kitchen and began preparing a simple meal.  As he worked, he called through the opened door:  “How old are you, Albert?”

“I don’t rightly know.  Age doesn’t come into it really.  I live life in both directions, y’see – sometimes forwards in time, sometimes back.   T’earliest client I can remember were near on two thousand year ago.”

“Really!”  (worth another snigger)  “Who was that?”

“Why, it were soom chap who had a big speech t’make.  There were about five thousand in t’audience and they was all starvin’.   Honestly, I didn’t want to do it, not many points in it, see?  But he wished for me to feed ‘em.  Five thousand fish suppers, he said.  Think o’ theet!”

“And you did it anyway?”

“Aye, I had to.  They would have killed me!  He told ‘em I were t’catering manager.”

Poulter nearly set fire to his frying pan.  “What else did he wish for?”

“‘E wished for a couple a’ things – used oop his three, any rate.  He were a talented lad, ‘im, mind. Could do quite a bit o’ it for hisself.”

“Amazing.”  Poulter said drily.  “Any others I might know?”

“What d’yer want, bloody references?   There were that big fat chap; you might ‘ave ‘eard o’ ‘im.”

“Fat chap?”

“Aye, called ‘isself Henry, or sommat.  Wore soom right glitzy clothes but ‘e stank sommat awful.   Not easy for a lad like that to pull.”

“King Henry the Eighth?”

“That’s the chap!  He wanted a bootiful Queen, he said.  Ah sorted ‘im out a right tasty lass, but ‘e couldn’t hold onto ‘er.  Sliced ‘er ‘ead off in the end.  See, here’s the thing:  you got to be so careful what you wish for, or it turns out bad.  Ah daresn’t tell you what ‘appened to the fella wi’ the fish suppers!”

Poulter’s culinary efforts, rudimentary though they were, formed the foundation for a very pleasant evening.  By the time Albert and he had concluded their meal, cleaned up (Albert proved almost as fastidious as Jarvis himself), and gone on a tour of the feast of collectables in Poulter’s upstairs room, it was late.  Feeling hospitable, he offered Albert a bed for the night.

Albert surveyed the made-up bed in the spare room.  “Aye, that’ll be grand!”  Albert said.

After his day’s adventures sleep evaded Jarvis Poulter.  Preposterous though his house-guest’s claim to status as a genie was, he could not entirely wipe the idea from his mind.  The driving incident was still fresh, and would remain so for some time.  So, as he often did, he read from one of the many art volumes piled upon his bedside table and, as he often did, paused to admire a picture of a favorite sculpture, that of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’.  His eager eyes devoured the graceful curves of the woman cradled in her lover’s arms and he thought how wonderful it must be to own such a perfect work:  how magnificent it would look, as the centerpiece of his upstairs collection.  How he wished…

So close to the edge of sleep, Poulter might not have noticed the first ominous creaking from his bedroom ceiling, but he certainly noticed the splintering explosion of timber and plaster that followed.  He certainly saw the plummeting progress of what appeared, in flashing past, to be a large white boulder which would be impeded not at all by the floor of his bedroom, nor by the floor of the kitchen below that.  Only God’s good earth stopped it, with a house-shuddering crash, on the concrete floor of the basement.  There it rested, obscured by a veil of dust.

“By ‘eck, lad!”  Albert exclaimed as he and his host stared into the crater.   “Tha’ needs stronger floors than theet.  Yon’ lump weights better than a couple a’ ton, tha’ knows.”

Jarvis, speechless, watched as the dust below them cleared.  Broken in two by its fall, Rodin’s masterwork was still clearly recognizable.    “But I didn’t wish for this!”  He wailed.

“Well, yes, lad.  You did.  One left now, mind.  Use it carefully, like!”

Poulter greeted the morning through fingers which clasped his head in abject despair.  His newspaper’s headline, concerning a mysterious ‘Theft of the Century’ from the Tate Gallery, could do nothing to improve his mood.

“What do I do now?”  He asked Albert, plaintively.  “My house is ruined, and I have a priceless stolen artwork shattered in my cellar.  Oh, my Sainted Aunt, what on earth am I to do?”

“I won’t lie to thee, lad.   Yon sculpture’s goin’ t’ be missed.  An’ the police’ll be wanting to know about things as go bang in the night, if you catch my drift.  If I were thee I’d make meself scarce for a while.”  Albert advised.  But then he added:  “O’ course, yer do still have one wish left…”

“Right now,”  Poulter admitted.  “I wish I could hide somewhere no-one would ever think of looking for me.  But I don’t suppose that’d be possible, even for you.”

#

The auction house porter groaned as he saw a familiar old pick-up, with an equally familiar Moroccan cabinet aboard, waiting by the saleroom doors.

“Not again!”  He said to the wiry man in overalls who emerged from the vehicle.

“’Fraid so.”  Said Albert.  “He wants it put in for t’next sale.  Gi’ us a hand, will thee?”

“Why is it so heavy?”  Complained the porter.

“Well built, lad; like me!”

After much labor the cabinet was restored to the saleroom. 

“I’ll get the paperwork.”  Said the porter.

“Aye.  You do that.”  Agreed Albert.   He had already seen the large Chinese urn which stood a little further down the aisle.  As soon as he was sure the porter’s back was turned he took the lid off the urn and wriggled down inside it, pulling the lid back after him. 

With no-one to sign for it, the auction house agreed their best course was to sell Jarvis’s cabinet, and to donate the proceeds to charity if its owner was never traced.   The following week’s sale saw the cabinet depart at a bargain price to a new bidder, much to the porter’s satisfaction, because thereafter that strange, troublesome knocking sound in the echoes of the saleroom would finally cease.

After a few years Jarvis’s deserted house would be sold off to a developer, when the remains of the marble sculpture would finally be discovered.   It was recognized instantly, of course, but the demolition man, fearing publicity and delay, set about it with his rock spike and reduced it to hardcore.

As for the Chinese urn, it would change hands many times.  Valuable as it was, no-one seemed anxious to keep it for long, and eventually it would find its way back to China where, inexplicably, its owner threw it off a cliff.  

© 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.