Satan’s Rock

Part Eighteen

From Dust

An echo created by the splitting impact of wood on stone dwindled to silence in the gloom.

Lesley remained frozen with her arms akimbo, just as they were when the casket fell from them, saying nothing, just staring at the shattered wreckage on the floor.  She was visibly distressed.

“Les?”  Peter coaxed her her. “It’s was just an empty box, yeah?  Those stones were in there to make it seem like it was full.” 

She shook her head vehemently.  “It wasn’t.  Someone – he was resting there!  Where is he, Peter?  Who took him?  Where’s he gone?”

At first Peter thought Lesley must have spotted a plate like those screwed to the other coffins, identifying their occupants; but though he scanned, using the light from his ‘phone, he could see nothing.  “He?   How are you so sure it was a ‘he’?”    This prescience in  Lesley was new to him, so he could not be blamed for being surprised as she came to herself, rounding upon him almost angrily;  “No!  No, I can’t be sure!  How would I know that?”

For now the answers could wait.   “We’re both getting spooked.  Let’s get out of here.”  He decided.

As he closed the grille, Peter wondered whose hand had rifled the padlock – were there others as interested in the Crowley story as he?   Lesley’s conviction that the little box had once contained a male child, though free of any proof, was so strong it could not be ignored – but then someone, for whatever reason, placed stones inside to make up weight, presumably so that a burial would look convincing.  Or maybe not – maybe whosoever rifled the lock had entered here to take the little body from its rest. Why?   What had he, Peter, missed?  He replaced the padlock, trying in his turn to make it look as if it had not been opened. 

Lesley remained subdued for some while.   She pretended interest in other features of  the garden, but Peter could sense her preoccupation.  At last, in the midst of a paved circle  less overgrown than most she stopped before the remnants of a sundial, placing her hands upon it for support.  Then she simply squatted on her heels, dropped her head so her cascading hair would hide her face, and wept.

Peter withdrew; she did need him to comfort her.   Disconsolate as he might feel, he had to allow his friend space for a private sorrow he could not explain, but knew to be real.   Lesley had found something in that cold place which had meaning for her, something which had brought a necessity to grieve, so he settled down at the edge of the paving to wait, slotting this new piece of the Crowley family’s chequered past into his mind.   Whose was the child for whom such desecration was necessary?  He had to assume it to be Lady Elizabeth’s, and a son, if Lesley was right.  Had Ballentine been the father? 

“Are you going to sit there all day?”   Lesley’s toe nudged him.  He looked up at her red eyes and she smiled apologetically.  “Sorry Petey.   I’m a sentimental bitch sometimes, honestly, you wouldn’t believe.  Come on, we were looking for a way into the house, weren’t we?”

It took them a while.  Finally, at the rear of the old mansion they came upon a wide, cobblestoned yard fringed on one side by the house itself, on two others by buildings which had once been stables.  Corroded tethering-rings lined the walls, while the middle of the yard was dominated by a long stone trough, part-filled with stagnant water and the haunt of a million flies.  Close by, Peter spotted a loose shutter on one of the house’s smaller windows.   Crowley’s defences were breached.

The rotted shutter lifted away without effort, dropping with a clatter onto the cobbles.   Behind it, the structure of its window had been smashed aside so a substantial body could pass through.

“We’re not the first!”  Lesley hissed.

“Squatters!   What if they’re still inside?”   Peter suggested in his creepiest whisper, pleased to see Lesley’s shoulders tighten in alarm.

“You go first then.”   She whispered back.

Some clambering later, they stood blinking in the dim light of a small ante-room.   The walls, their green paint peeling, were hung with impressive growths of mould.

“Try not to touch the paint.”  Peter advised:   “I think that green used to have arsenic in it.”

From the room they discovered  a passage leading into the belly of the house.  Deprived of light, oppressed by the reek of damp and aided only by illumination from their ‘phones, they had to grope their way.    “Oh piggit!”  Lesley swore as she tripped over some rubble.   “Peter, this is seriously scary!”

“There’s a door here.”   The door fell with a crash.

Lesley yelped:  “Don’t DO that! “

They stepped over the old hardwood door into a large hallway, which, had the main entrance not been boarded up, should have afforded them access to the house.   This cavernous space reached two storeys high.  Windows from the first and second floors, unboarded, lit up a long, curved staircase fringed by moss-damp panelled walls.     Beneath their feet, a black granite floor which must once have shone with polish, above their heads a roof-level dome of broken stained glass panels, now a nesting-place for birds.  Panicking wing-sounds were all that broke the silence. 

“Wow!”   Lesley shivered at her own echo.   “Castle Dracula!”

They wandered out into the centre of the dusty floor, gazing around at a room which had no furnishing, no covering, not even a shredded drape to soften its air of ruin and decay.   Lesley felt she wanted to throw open doors, beat out the boards from the windows, let in the sun.   Peter saw at last how, aside from all the external paraphernalia of Turkish domes and Moorish towers, Horace Crowley had wanted to reproduce his home when he drew up his first madcap plan for St. Benedict’s.   This was how the Great Hall would have looked when the place was completed, centuries ago; the one a pattern for the other.   It must have been an influence strong enough to have affected even Matthew Ballentine, who had paid homage to this part of the old man’s dream in his finished house.

These recollections apart, he did not see a ghostly Crowley stalking the hall, or get any sense of the past he knew the house to have.  He felt nothing to connect him to the place.

“Last one to the top!”  Lesley yelled, racing off up the stairs.

“No!”  Peter came to himself with a jolt.  “Don’t, Lesley!   The stairs won’t…”

A threatening creak confirmed that the stairs wouldn’t.   Lesley, feeling them lurch, stopped dead.  “Oh!   Oh, shit!”   With a hideous splitting sound the whole bottom section of the staircase tipped to one side.   “It’s bloody Titanic all over again…Peter?   PETER!”

Peter was beneath the place where she clung to the stair rail, some twelve feet above his head.   “Over the rail!” He yelled:  “Jump, Les!”

“Oh no!”   Lesley groaned, as the stairs lurched again.

“Come ON!  It’s easy.   I’ll catch you!”

If there hadn’t been a second splitting sound Lesley might have delayed longer, but this final warning was enough.   With a squeal of fear she clambered over the crumbling banister and launched out into space.   Peter had only a split second to align himself with her ‘phone light’s flicker and to perfectly time her fall, rolling backwards as he caught her against his chest.   The lower stairway crashed to earth beside them, powdering to a billowing, choking dust cloud that enveloped them both.    It took a long, long time to clear.  When she could at last start to make out some detail, Lesley found herself lying on the floor beside Peter.   Gingerly, she tested her legs and arms to see if they still worked.   Between wheezing breaths, she managed to gasp out:  “Is there anything in this place that doesn’t fall down when you touch it?”  Then, seeing Peter in improving light, she bubbled into a half-choked effort at laughter.   “Am I the same colour as you?”

Peter coughed,  “Yep.”

Lesley coughed back, “Did I damage you?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, Jesus, let’s get out of here.” 

Eyes caked and hawking inhaled dust, they picked themselves up, discovering bruises with every move.  Once erect, they leant against each other in mutual support before, bearings regained, they were ready to limp painfully back through the darkened passage.  Blinking through streaming tears, like two weary pilgrims they staggered towards the light.

“Do you think anyone heard the noise?”   Lesley said.  “That was one serious crash!”

“Dunno.  Soon find out!”

Restored eventually to the sunlight of the stable yard, they sat on the edge of the horse-trough and Lesley, quivering with delayed shock, buried her face in her hands.   Peter stretched out an arm and she responded instantly, draping herself against him as if his strength alone could quell the thought of dying, crushed among the timbers of that forgotten place.    “Oh, Peter, I’m being a bit of girl, aren’t I?”

“You’ve been badly frightened…”

“I’m not really like this!  I’m not!”

“It’s a reaction and it’s natural, love.  You don’t have to prove anything to me.”

“My hero!    You did a sort of Superman thing.  You saved me, didn’t you?”  Lesley brushed back dust-clogged hair so she could look up at him with eyes that shone through the tears,  He knew then that she had not missed his use of that old four-letter word but he was not about to take it back, so he licked a patch of her forehead clean and kissed it.

“Personally, I’m very glad you are a girl.  It makes you lighter to catch.  Somehow, though, we’ve got to get cleaned up, or they’ll never let us back on the train.”

They were masked in dust.  Lesley beamed white teeth.  “I don’t think we passed a laundrette.  We need water.”  She wrinkled her nose up at the horse trough; “No, not that!” The flies buzzed appreciatively, “Come on, let’s explore.”  

Arm-in-arm the pair limped in the direction of the only land they had not investigated thus far, that of the great park beyond the stables.  This offered them instant reward with the pleasantly tranquil prospect of a lake complete with reeds and waterfowl, presided over in gallant dereliction by a row of stone statues.  A bank of wild flowers and herbs led down to the water’s edge, basking in the hot sun.

They turned to face one another.  Lesley, who seemed to have shed her unselfconscious manners for the afternoon, shuffled awkwardly, “Well?”   She murmured.

“Well,”   Peter felt equally awkward.  “You first?”

“Not likely!”

“Together then.”

“Yeah…together.”

“’Course, we don’t have to, like, take off everything, do we?”  Peter said.  “We can keep the small stuff on.”

“Yes, of course!  Keep the smalls! No worse than the beach, yeah?”   Lesley agreed, trying to remind herself what ‘smalls’ she had put on that morning, and adding under her breath, “Mine are full of grit, or something.”

“Right then!”   Peter hooked his thumbs under the hem of his t-shirt and slipped it over his head, then Lesley did the same with her camisole top and it took him longer to recover.

She was already unhooking her jeans when she caught his stare;   “What?   It’s a bra, innit?   Are you seriously repressed?”  Peter was speechless, unable to avert his eyes from diaphanous fragments of cloth that revealed far more than they concealed.   Suddenly, the after-shock of her fall came back to Lesley:  suddenly she was shy, shaking and unsure, and she drew her arms across her chest:  “What’s the matter – haven’t you ever seen…?”

“Not yours.  Not you.”    He was in the presence of beauty that was new to him.  She overwhelmed his senses so, that seeing her quaking and apart from him, he could not do other than reach out; for hands, for arms, for shoulders, taking her to himself.  She did not resist.  For a long while, neither spoke – a while in which her shivering found calm in the warmth of his body; and for a long while neither moved, other than to comfort and caress.

At last, when he dared trust himself to speak, Peter murmured in her ear, “Should we…?”

And she kissed his neck before she answered, very simply; “If you want.”

He had never wanted anything more in his life.

Later, much later, when early evening was taking the last heat from the sun, Peter woke from a sleep of peace.    He looked across to his left and there Lesley lay naked beside him, still sleeping.  Amazed, he studied the perfect face of innocence, unlined by guilt or sorrow or time, which nestled in that white-straw nest of hair, and he made a promise to himself that he would never betray that beauty.  With a frond of thyme, he gently traced the arc of her forehead, followed the profile of her nose, brushed across her lips.

Lesley twitched and opened an eye.   “Hiya!  She whispered:  “Who are you?”

“I was about to ask the same.  I just thought you might know the time, ‘cause my ‘phone’s dead.   I think it’s wet.”

She snorted:  “Really?   You’re surprised?”  She hoisted herself onto her elbows. Before rolling across his chest to rummage in the grass for her ‘phone:   “Oh, Peter?  What time’s the train back?”

“Six-fifteen, I think.”

“Do you know what the time is now?”

Hastily they collected the clothes that they had somehow found space from each other to wash in the lake, then spread upon those warm stone statues to dry.   They forced themselves, laughing, into their still damp jeans.   Peter, the quicker to dress, sat pruriently watching Lesley smooth unwilling denim over her long legs, listening as she lamented her wild hair. 

One older than he might have remarked how his eyes, his ears, his thoughts were all consumed by her: how he hardly spared a parting thought for the estate he had envisaged so often, and come so far to see.   In exchange he had a new far greater discovery than those old stones could ever yield, so he would not care. Yet somehow he had expected something of Crowley House that was missing, although he could not be certain what it was.  Perhaps Lesley had discovered it in his stead; in a tomb she had found by who knew what guidance, and in a mysterious box with a new tale to tell.  If he had not shared her emotive connection to that cold place, he had seen how profoundly it affected her.

   No ghosts lingered.    The house was just a ruin, tottering on the verge of demolition.  The grounds were ill-drained, weed-strewn and forgotten.   Only the trees retained any secrets:   he tore his eyes from his prettily disarranged companion to look across at the tall sentinel elms that hid this park from the civilised world, as if  they might just have something to say:  but they remained silent.   Not even a newly-risen breeze could ruffle them.

A flash of reflected sunlight from deep within those trees caught his eye.  He looked again and – yes – there it was; a momentary flicker, now gone.

“Come on, Les, let’s go.”   He felt uneasy:  “We’ll miss that train.”

They inspected each other for any mud that had escaped the washing process.

“Look at us!”  Lesley said brightly:  “Two scarecrows!  Will they let us on, do you think?”

The statues, which in their role as clothes-horses had suffered a final ignominy, watched them leave.

On the journey home Peter and Lesley sat together, her head against his shoulder, half-sleeping as the miles rushed past.   And Peter asked again, because hecould see Lesley had recovered from her experience in the vault, how she could be so certain the broken casket had contained a little boy, and she answered, from the edge of sleep:  “Because I held him in my arms.  Just for a second I held him, Peter.  One day I’ll find him again.  I will!”

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

Satan’s Rock

Part Sixteen 

Pieces of Silver

Jeremy Piggott felt the sneeze approach as certainly as he had felt the cold itself coming:  an onrushing tide of mucus that was irresistible, although he tried his best to suppress it.  He patted desperately at pockets, knowing the wet mess of his handkerchief would not be there.  He had discarded it in disgust on his way here; thrown it into a bin on the street. 

Foolishly. 

Oh god, what could he DO?  

As the last and biggest wave broke, frantic inspiration betook him to snatch his hat down over his face, just in time to control the explosion.   Reprieved, he mopped the copious residue with the hat before hesitantly replacing it on his head.   His vision cleared.   The young woman across the table from him, with an expression on her face which was difficult to read, was proffering a paper serviette.

“Oh t’anks.   B’oody code.”   Jeremy said.   He took the serviette and blew his nose noisily.  The café was crowded – people noticed.    “Right!  Bus’ness.”

Producing a large envelope from his briefcase, Piggott passed it to the woman, who opened it carefully, avoiding wet fingerprints.

“Dis is who you’re involved wib.   His nabe is Mahennis Bourta, and he’s Moroccan.  Nice, middle incomb flabbily, father wab a chemist: they moobed to Lyon when he wab very young, so there’s little to fide in the Borth Abrican connection.  Seebs to have been recruited at udiversity, trained in Afghanistab.”

Alice Burbridge, for it was she, studied the photograph with her dark, searching eyes.   “Bourta’s his real name: no aliases?”

Piggott nodded.   “He seebs to be a facilitator, a’d maybe a bit of a policeban.  He does what he says he’s doi’g at the moment:  helpi’g to discober what was on dat piece of paper.”

“He can’t get to the photograph?”

Piggott shook his head, reaching for another serviette which an understanding waitress had thoughtfully placed in a glass in the centre of the table.  “Nobe.”   He blew his nose with great thoroughness.   “Bud he may be able to tap into the chain furber down.  We hab the boy under surveillance. Maybe, just maybe, he can find a way in.  Whad’s he said to you?”

“He says he can.”  Alice pursed her lips.  “These people are serious professionals.  If he says he can I’m inclined to believe him.   I’m worried for the boy.”

“The girl too.  There are two ob them now.”   Jeremy caught Alice’s surprised look.  “Oh, nothi’g to worry about – well, nothi’g new.   She’d the one who compode the picture, we believe.   Our operative’s got her covered too.   Thi’g is, we aren’t sure if the Amadhi are aware of her:  obviously we’d rarber dey weren’t.”

“So far as I know they have no idea as to the identity of the boy, and no-one has mentioned a girl.”   Alice frowned.  “If you don’t mind, Jerry, I will worry, just a bit.  I know what they do to girls when they have no other use for them.”

“Which is why you should be watching your own back, Alice,  But carry on doi’g what you’re doi’g for the mobent.  We don’t want to hab to pull you out, yet.   Just try to gib dem as little as possible.  Now, take a look at the seco’d photograph.”

Alice started then quickly recovered herself as she turned over the sheets, revealing a photograph of a man entering a restaurant.   Though taken from some distance away, the likeness was undoubtedly that of Yahedi:  “He was at the meeting.”

Jeremy availed himself of another serviette.   “He’b dangerous.  Watch out for hib.   De point ibs, Alice, we know he’b in town.   We strongly suspec’ he’s the trigger man.   If he and Bourta get together – they’re old associates – if you even see them together you’re to bail out, do you understa’d?  Don’t hang around, get yourself to a safe house and call the boys in.   We’ll take it from there.”

“Fine.”   Alice nodded:  “Is there anything else you particularly want from this Bourta guy?”

Jeremy was thoughtful.  “I dink I want to know the sabe things they do.   I want to know how the b’oody hell this boy and his girlfr’e’d managed to bugger up a professional assassinatiob wib a sheet of A4 and a bird.   I want to know who else is involved, apart from your rocker person, and what they’re after.   So if the Prince and his Amadhi know more than I do about that, I’d like to be up to speed.”

Jeremy sat back and sipped his coffee as Alice read through the notes he had given her concerning first Bourta, then Yahedi.   She memorised the important parts carefully, page by page.   Of Bourta:  “Oh goodness!  He’s into that, is he?”

Jeremy nodded seriously:  “Not all fun and frolics, is he?    The only time anyone got close to making a case stick on him was after he butchered a prostitute in Italy.  He managed to wriggle out ob it with a stro’g alibi, but we know he did it, id’s sort ob a signature ob his.   He can’t hab sex without it – and I saw photographs ob the girl afterwards: it was grim viewing, I can tell you.”

Did you get anything on the Arab?”

“The one at the meeti’g?”    Jeremy pulled another envelope out of his pocket, extracted a photograph.  “Is this him?  Dis is frob  a separate file we hab on the Prince.”

Alice looked at the photo and nodded:   “Think so.  It’s not very clear.”

“No.   He keeps in the background a lot.  He’b one of the Prince’s personal frie’ds, quite wealthy.  Mohammed Al Fait; better known as Marak.  English education.   Got his money as a mercenary soldier, back in the African wars, and was possibly in Bosnia too.  He’s a strange one.”

“Strange?”

“Deep into mysticism, heads up a little spiritualist sect of his own – The Portal, I think it’s called – meets each month in Cairo.  An unusual combidation, dat – Arab mercenary and spiritualist.”

The meeting over, Alice Burbridge returned Jeremy’s envelope to him and rose from her chair.   Her brief handshake would have seemed to anyone who chanced to see it the natural conclusion to a business meeting, perhaps a deal.   She would leave first, Jeremy watching her tall figure as it melted through the crowded bar.  Then he would call for the check.  Through the window beside their table he saw her make the street, huddling her coat around her against the onset of April rain.   Instinctively   he scanned road and pavement to see if anybody else was watching her departure, but there was no sign she had been followed.  He suppressed a small shudder; a premonition maybe?  It was a sensation he had felt before and did not like it: yet there was nothing he could do to help or protect this woman – she had made the choice to live with danger – thrived, excelled within it.  If she had run one risk too many, if she had said one wrong word or stepped, however unknowingly, out of line, she knew what the price would be. 

Jeremy Piggott sighed a fatalistic sigh, because that was the nature of the game they both played.  As he prepared himself for the seasonal gale that was blowing outside he realised his hat had stuck itself fast to his head.

At around the time of Alice’s meeting with Piggott, Peter and Lesley were lounging in the college library with browsers at full stretch. Peter had European History galloping around in his head; Lesley was unashamedly checking out the Dolce and Gabbana homepage.   An item in the Microsoft news section drew Peter’s attention.

“Wow! See this?  Adrian Hettman’s dead.”

 “So?”   Lesley did her best to sound bored. “Like, who was Adrian Hettman?”

“He was big cheese at Hettman-Patton: American tech giant – into the hardware for integrated defence systems.  Building a factory near Bristol next year.  There’ll be some cool jobs!”

“Riveted is what I am.   And Adrian Hettman is the cheese thingy of Hettman-Thingy, right?”

“Was.”

“You know, I get to learn a little more with you every day?  How snuffed he?”

“You’re just dying to know, aren’t you?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Heart attack.    Found dead in his hotel room in New York.     He was sort of a hero for me when I was into tech stuff.   I had his picture on my wall. Jeez Les, he was fifty-four! He seriously didn’t look it.”

“Surgically enhanced:  they’re all at it.  I’m depressed now.  Do you think I’d look good in these?”

A few days after this Peter dropped by the church of St. David’s, hoping to catch his father ‘at the office’. His actual motive was an attack of financial embarrassment not unrelated to the higher costs exacted by Lesley’s companionship, but between college pressures and work he realised he hadn’t actually talked to Bob Cartwright in the best part of a week, despite sharing the same roof.    In childhood Peter had often helped his father, performing some of the menial duties necessary to his Living.  He had grown into St. David’s through Sunday School, learning the craft, as it were, at the pulpit.  Now he rarely took any interest in religious affairs:  almost never came to the Church, or plied the streets with the Parish magazine.

“Dad, the ‘Big Issue’s’ got better street cred.”

‘St. David’s’ was an unimposing structure, wedged between commercial buildings like a bride at a football match.  A couple of sad saintly statues gazed down from alcoves, a meek spire poked apologetically from the roof.  Nevertheless its brick blandness attracted a loyal band of worshippers, more, maybe, to hear Bob Cartwright’s inflammatory sermons with their appalling jokes than out of a duty to God.

Entering the main door Peter nearly collided with a woman and her child.

This was unremarkable in itself (a steady trickle of visitors might pass this way on a Wednesday afternoon, Bob’s day for a ‘surgery’ ) had there not been something about this couple which stuck in Peter’s mind.  The woman, though she was middle-aged and malnourished, her features underscored by the heavy lines of experience, had an aura of energy about her, deep sadness, febrile hope:  the child following in her wake,although he was very, very young, reached for Peter’s hand and grasped it, fleetingly, as he passed by.   When they had gone, Peter stood in the aisle for several minutes, overwhelmed by the emotions emanating from those two people.

He discovered his father in the sacristy.

“Who were they – the pair who just left?”

Bob looked puzzled.  “Pair?   No ‘pairs’ been in for more than an hour, old lad.

Just Marilyn Glossop.”

“Wasn’t she the car accident woman?”

“That’s her.  Lost her husband and two children.   Tragic lady.”

“And she still has faith.”

  “Brilliant, isn’t it?”  Peter’s father smiled, sadly.  “Or it would be.  But I think maybe faith, for Marilyn, is just the bit of flotsam she clings to.  Like her new partner – they cling to it together as they cling….look, son, I shouldn’t discuss my parishioners’ personal lives with anyone, not even you.   What do we want then – a few pieces of silver?”

“Notes will do, Dad.  Just notes.”  Peter did not know quite from where his words sprang – even what compelled him to say them.  “If you have her ‘phone number, Dad, you should call her.   Tell her before – I don’t know – before she does something.   Tell her she has the child she needs – it’s a boy, and it’s in her now.   Tell her that.”

Once the words were out he recoiled, anticipating his father’s reaction – annoyance, amusement, sarcasm?  No, none of these.

“Now there’s an odd thing.   I was worried, too.   Something about the things she said…..”  Bob came to himself.   “So, it’s fortune-telling now, is it?  Or gynaecology?”

Peter shifted uncomfortably.  “You don’t seem too amazed.”

Bob smiled gently: “Well, it’s a bit of a surprise.  Sometimes, I’ve found, faith manifests itself in odd ways.   But it is faith, nonetheless.  And I will ‘phone her, son, just as soon as you’ve bled me dry for another week.”

In the process of delving into his wallet, his father raised the matter of a new Bishop appointed to the Diocese.

“Ronald Harkness.   He’s going to drop in tomorrow:  address the foot-soldiers, pep-talk, and all that.  He wants to meet you.”

Me?  Why would a Bish want to meet me?”

“Haven’t the faintest.   It’s most peculiar.  He was quite insistent: something about engaging with the family as well as the churchman; didn’t seem to be worried that Lena is away, though.   Perhaps he’s measuring you up for a collar.  Ten-thirty.  Can you make it?”

“S’pose.”

#

Some cruel twist of malevolent fortune directed Melanie’s feet to the Esplanade that morning.   Of late she had taken to avoiding the wild days when she and Peter had once loved to walk to college this way together, with salt spray in the air and the gale whipping  waves to flagellating fury against the sea wall.  

So why today?

So why today, when Peter was there, facing the storm, and Lesley was with him, rapt in him, staring out to the Rock as she had once done, lost in the moment – lost in each other?

She had never seen Lesley looking as disordered as this, with her naturally silky hair frizzed around her face, careless of clothes rumpled about her; or Peter looking so tall, so broad of shoulder, so happy.   There was no mistaking the change, no mistaking the fondness in Lesley’s eyes as she turned his face to hers, or the lingering sensuality of her kiss.  

Her original destination forgotten, Melanie spun on her heel to walk, to half-run away from the thing she had dreaded seeing, and could stand to look upon no more.  As she staggered through her crumbling world, as she blindly went from street to street she fought back unreasonable tears – why was she so angry?  Why should she want to cry?   Was it not inevitable this would happen?  To know Lesley was to love her, and now Peter clearly – oh, that look in his eyes! – loved her.   Yes, loved her: and that was that.   They were bloody made for each other, weren’t they? 

Later, much later, she returned to the  Esplanade.  Sitting beneath the burden of her guilt in the shelter where she and Peter had rested together so many times, Melanie gave way to all of her jealousy, all of her pain, and broke her young heart.

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

Satan’s Rock

Part Fifteen

New Alliances

Peter watched Melanie’s retreating back as she walked quickly away.   Her last words to him:  “I don’t think we should see each other for a while,.” and the cold marble lump in his stomach prevented him calling after her. Did she hesitate, hoping that he would?  He wanted to see reluctance in her step, but in his heart he knew this was something she must resolve on her own.    For some time he remained there, on the St. Benedict road, churning over sorrowful thoughts in his head, before he too started unwillingly for home, with his emotions brimming.   He could not contemplate life without Mel.

#

In the days and weeks that followed, Peter saw little of Melanie.     She was neither waiting on the Esplanade in the morning, nor was she to be found at the Mall when he was there.  She even stayed away from college for a while: not yet strong enough, perhaps, to overcome those inevitable meetings; passing between lectures, in the library or the canteen during study time.  When she did come back she would barely return Peter’s greeting, which, in a way, saved pain for them both.   She made her desire to end their friendship so obvious that eventually Peter tired of attempts to make contact; wearied by unanswered emails and texts, he resigned himself to his loss.

The injustice, in Peter’s eyes, lay in Melanie’s reasons for their separation.   After all, he would have as gladly dropped the baton the Rock had passed to them as she, if he could believe it possible that the force which lurked there was so passive as to let him go.   But he well knew that this would not happen and he knew that Melanie, though she chose to deny it now, was no more immune than he.   He could be fearful, if he allowed himself, of the consequences for her when she faced this truth alone; but he could not change it.   He had to respect her choice.

Meanwhile, he was altering.   Others noticed this first: Lena, his mother, seeing him enter her studio one afternoon was struck, not just by how tall he had become, but by his developing physique:  “My word. Peter, how you have growed!  Are you doing weight training, or something?”

“It’s the steroids.”   Peter explained lamely.  “The little sods keep biting my legs.”

“Well, you slow down, Peter dear, or I shall have to accept you’re inheriting your father’s terrible sense of humour, and feel compelled to paint you.”

“Agh! No; not that!”

Then there was a small flame of self-confidence, which flickers inside everyone who knows that they are, for some reason, different from the crowd.   Peter had always been the quiet child, the loner, the unobtrusive intellect at the back of the class.  He had never exactly been troubled by bullying, but there were those who, back in his school days, he was content to avoid.   The redheaded Ross ‘Copper’ Copeland  had been one such.

Ross, completely and utterly ginger from his shock of untidy thatch to his toenails,   had densely-freckled skin  and  a fine, fluffy beard  which grew untamed around his features in the same angry hue.  His physique – a girth best described as ‘ample’ – arms and wrists tapered thickly down to short, stubby, carriage-bolt fingers; his walk the stamping stride of a Sumo and the  fight in every stare from his steely green eyes meant the world would step aside for Ross Copeland; it was easier that way.

At school, Copper had supplemented his income and his diet from the resources of his fellow students.  Because it pleased him to think of himself as a ‘businessman’ rather than a thief, he had a number of  ploys – ‘selling’ some trivial or useless item to his victim, or offering  protection ‘insurance’ to those with courage enough to resist.  

After school had ended Peter and Copper went their separate ways.  One a  college student, the other an apprentice highways engineer, their paths should never have crossed.   But Levenport was a small town, and Copper’s instinct for commerce flowered among the dark corners and fetid alleys where small white packets were stock in trade.

Peter was wandering through the Woolmarket, a system of narrow streets on the East Side, when Ross  caugh up with him: 

“Hello Worm.   Haven’t talked to you in a while, have I?”

Copper’s considerable form blocked Peter’s path; a little gaggle of hangers-on sniggering in his wake.

“Hello Ross.”  Peter was amazed at his own relaxed reply:  “So true.   We must catch up.  How are the guinea pigs?  Win any prizes?”

This brought a suspicious glance, because Ross did not generally let his hobby be known:  “They’re all right,” He said staunchly, looking very like a large guinea pig.  Then, with the light of ‘The Fancy’ glinting in his eyes, “Got a couple of ‘Thirds’ last week.”

Somebody behind him quickly stifled a giggle. “Look here now,”   Copper went on, hurriedly, “I’ve got something you’ll want.”   He began ferreting around in his trouser pocket, producing, at length, a tattered ‘Get Out of Gaol Free’ card from a Monopoly game.   “Useful, eh?”

Peter looked at the crumpled item: “And still warm, too.”

 “Only a score, to you Worm.   Special price.”

“Twenty pounds!   For that?”   Peter was incredulous.  “Sorry Ross, none on me.  Catch you later!”   And he walked away.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder. “I’m sorry you don’t like my merchandise, Worm, really I am.   It’s a very good opportunity.   Maybe you needs some business education, do y’ think?”

“Seriously?”   Amazed by how rapidly his eyes could move and focus, Peter rounded upon Copper, who was totally unprepared for what came next.   “Would you like to begin teaching me now?”   Outfaced, Copper stepped back.  Somehow, Peter found he was able to detect the precise position of Copper’s feet, analyse his point of balance so as to know exactly when, where, and how hard to lunge.    In a breath, Ross Copeland was lying on his back on the pavement, with Peter standing over him, offering his hand:   “Geez, sorry Ross, must’ve tripped?  Here you go!”    And Copper, maybe slightly winded, allowed himself to be helped up.

It was a huge moment, one in which the reputations of both youths hung by a thread. 

“All right then, Cartwright….”   Copper began, his complexion boiling to a bright pink.

“Worm.”  Peter gently corrected him. In a low, confidential voice, he added:  “You used to call me ‘Worm’.  I miss that.” A gathering throng of onlookers tittered nervously.

Copper glared.   His anger rested upon Peter’s face, which was smiling, although his eyes were not. “We’re not at school anymore, Ross.  If you want to try and re-educate me, you’re going to have to do it the hard way.”    And he walked away again.   This time no heavy hand restrained him.

The importance of this re-balancing of strengths was not lost upon Melanie.   At the time of Peter’s confrontation with Ross she was elsewhere, but the buzz traveled quickly.   As is the way with rumor, the details had already changed.  Peter was accredited with having worsted Copper in battle.   She tried to fit this piece of the jigsaw into the image she kept of Peter; an image already visibly transformed.  It only added to her misery.

It was a time of trial.  The autumn of that year was punctuated by examinations, tests of many different kinds.   There were challenges for which there were simply not days enough, so that the weeks, the months, the seasons plunged into each other with unrecognised speed – autumn into winter, winter becoming spring. No summons came from the powers or the personalities that dwelt upon St. Benedict’s Rock, so Peter began to forget that visionary day in Toqus’ cave:  greater things occupied his mind.

As Peter grew strong, Melanie became beautiful, a melancholy, gentle girl with large, dark eyes and a soft smile which betrayed a wisdom beyond her years.   Neither found any relationship which matched the one they once shared: each dallied briefly with new love, then turned away.   It seemed that although they were not together anymore, they were never far apart.

Perhaps if Melanie’s home life had been happier, she might have sloughed the skin of Peter more readily:  her aversion to Howard was undying, though, and it looked unlikely he would go.  So she was left with reminiscences and might-have-beens, and a reputation with the local lads for being remote and cold.    She fell deeper into depression, and her mother Karen might have seen this, had she wished, and were she not already weary of the tightrope she walked between her lover and her daughter.   Howard tried; she could not blame Howard, but the gulf of Melanie’s mistrust was too wide for either of them to bridge.

Howard, in fact, remained something of an enigma.  A haze of mystery surrounded this large, ungainly man who, whenever questioned closely concerning his work  role at Catesby’s, the local heavy engineering Company, would be evasive, attributing his involvement ‘more to the sales side’.   And it was true he spent long periods away on business, with a predilection for suits with collars rather than suits for boilers.

There was something further that Karen might have seen:  did she not wonder why, when Melanie had declared the cessation of her friendship with Peter, Howard had seemed so concerned?  Why did Howard, normally not much exercised by Melanie’s affairs, earnestly entreat her to think again?   Then, when it was clear that the relationship had died, why did he go to such lengths to remain in contact with Peter?

To supplement his meagre finances, Peter had taken a job as car cleaner at Ensell Street Motors, a main dealer with showrooms in the town.  Howard transferred the servicing for Karen’s car from her local garage to this firm at some extra expense, apparently just in order to gain some conversation occasionally with ‘the Cartwright lad’.  Since Peter was only employed for two days in a week, around his college commitments, this was a fairly unrewarding means to keep in touch, but Howard seemed content with it.

Peter had, by now, got past his early dread of Howard, so that he was willing to engage in some discourse with him, although he never enquired after Melanie, or acceded to Howard’s persistent suggestions that they “get together over some computer stuff.”  Peter often considered that Howard might be stalking him:  the guy turned up at the oddest moments; around the corner from the café where he stopped for coffee, or on the Esplanade where, despite his commitments and the march of time, he often still walked.

Did Melanie notice these things?  Perhaps.  She noticed most that Howard was more and more a part of her life; that Karen took less care to keep them apart.  And as the seasons passed, their alienation grew.

Then, when it seemed that affairs were at their lowest point, there was Lesley.

Melanie was still socially gregarious enough to have a small, but much-treasured circle of friends.   Trisha, the eldest of three sisters and a serious student, her alter ego, Kate – who had never, to Melanie’s certain knowledge, been serious about anything – and Lesley.  ‘Trish and Kate were both local girls, they had grown up in the same town.   Lesley was an outsider who had moved to Levenport a year or so ago to stay with an aunt after a family break-up.  The four of them would communicate often through college, where they studied the same subjects, or on the Net, from time to time.  The most sacrosanct of their meetings took place each Saturday across the road from the Mall, at a café called Hennik’s.  Seated at one of the outside tables, they sipped latte and shared their news.

 “I just think it’s so the right thing,”   Kate was saying:  “I mean, this town’s, like, numb, isn’t it?”

They were discussing Trisha’s results, which made her certain of a place at St. Andrews for the coming year.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”  Trisha said:  “I couldn’t stay here for another three years, I‘d start biting my nails for a hobby.  It’s tragic already.   I‘ve only been off studies for three weeks and its s-o-o boring.”

“Get a job, girl!”  Kate urged: “A little currency might help, yeah?”  She added, to Melanie:  “Your Peter has, hasn’t he?  He looks so cool in those overalls.”

“He’d look cool in anything.”  Trisha’s voice betrayed just a hint of reverence.

There was then a drop in the conversation, because Kate had broken a taboo by mentioning Peter’s name and each of the companions knew this.  Melanie’s permanently ruptured heart was common knowledge among them, something which, though they thought it unnatural, they never broached as a subject.

“He isn’t my Peter.”   Melanie said carefully, after a moment or two.

Kate chuckled:    “Have you tried snapping your fingers?”

“It’s true, then?  You finally laid the ghost?”  Trisha touched her friend’s hand. “Does that mean you’re moving on at last?”

“I guess, I suppose    It isn’t like we were ever serious, or anything,   We were just friends.”  Melanie managed a weak smile.   “I’m a bit of a wuss, aren’t I?”

“Oh, get real!”  Kate came back:  “We know you two were joined at the hip for years.”

“And that was, like, years ago.  We aren’t ‘joined’ any more.”

“Big move!”  Kate was respectful.  “Mind you, we do all think you’re mental.”

“No, she isn’t.   He isn’t everybody’s idea of love walking, is he?”  Said Trisha.   “I mean, not long ago most of us thought he was a geek?”

“Not any more.”  Kate came back.  “You’re doing a good thing, Mel.  You really are.  It’s just that he’s, well….”

“…..He’s the silverback?  Don’t I know it?”   Melanie twisted her fingers in her hair.  And she said, with a detectable sadness:  “It’s not like we were ever married or anything…”

“Oh, bless!”  Kate sympathised.  There was a reflective pause.

“So you two are really, finally and definitely, over?”  Lesley had been listening to the conversation quietly.   Lesley, who was deep and intelligent and fun; who had an overt personality and so many qualities which boys, distracted by her long legs and melting curves, never really cared about.   Ash blonde Lesley, for whom it seemed all the most trending clothes had been specifically made, and whose weakness, undeniably, was anything to do with the male sex.

“I know that tone.”  Said Trisha.

“Well, that makes him a free agent, doesn’t it?”  Lesley said defensively.  “And he is, like, fanciable, yeah?”

“Alpha male!”  Kate agreed.

“Oh, Lesley!”  Trisha chided:   “You wouldn’t do that to Mel, would you?”

“NO!”   Lesley protested:  “No, of course not!”

“Serious, Mel?”   Trisha asked:   “There’s no way back?  Face it, he’s so hot right now?   Before we let Foxy loose on him?”

“Here!”  Protested Lesley: “As if I would!  And I’m not, like, a dog or something!”

Nevertheless, on Monday morning, when Peter took the seaside route to college, someone was clearly waiting for him, leaning with their back to the rail which warded the sea wall.  Someone tall and undeniably feminine, even while her long coat whipped about her and her blonde hair tangled in the breeze.

“See?”  Said Lesley,   “I knew you’d come this way!   Walk with me, Peter?”

            This was one of those dramatic mornings when the sky was heavy with cloud and spray fizzed off the sea; the sort of weather Peter relished, but not what he would have expected Lesley to enjoy.  In fact, she looked as if she was enjoying it hugely.

“It’s really blowing, yeah?”  She shouted above the noise of the foreshore.   “Isn’t it perfect?”

“I like it.”   Peter responded.

“Me too!”  Lesley snuggled her pretty chin into the collar of her coat.  “It’s real!”

#

Maud Reybath squinteded at the hooded figure who stood before her door, masked by darkness.  “Come in.  Were you seen?”

“I stayed in the undergrowth away from the road, then I followed the backs of the houses.  I do not think so.” 

Shepherding her visitor into her hallway, Maud peered past him, glancing anxiously up and down the village street.  Difficult though it was to tell under the cloak of night, she could discern no sign of life. She closed the door carefully, to find her visitor, whose habit was rank with the scent of damp bracken, shedding the sandals from his rugged little feet. She, motioned him to lower his hood and he did so, revealing sharp features arranged around a hairless cranium.  His stature and girth were small, his anxious grey eyes darted and switched hither and thither, as if he did not believe them to be alone.

“I  am commanded to bring you this,” he said,  “On pain of my life.”   He retrieved a sealed scroll from beneath his clothing, offering it to Maud.  She broke the seal without hesitation, “It was delivered to us by a  child.” 

“Her son?”  Maud responded, a little too quickly.

The man looked puzzled.  “Perhaps.”

She quickly scanned the neat handwriting the scroll revealed.  Its import was simple and direct;  

“My dear Maud,

 The man I encountered when last I visited with you at Bleanstead, one Arthur Herritt, Esquire, is undoubtedly The Pilgrim.   I presently enjoy his hospitality at Mountsell Park by the City of Mountchester, but I fear I may have to move ere long:  I am discovered, I think.

With Sincere Affection,

Francine

 Could she disguise the delight, or relief in her eyes?  Maud turned away so her face might not be seen.   “Very well.  You should take refreshment.  I have bread and some good fowl to restore your energy. You have many more miles to travel this night.  I will write a further message for you to deliver, which must be  for the eyes of the Brotherhood alone, do you understand?  For their eyes alone.”

© 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.