Satan’s Rock

Part Seventeen

A Country House

Peter had only met Ronald Harkness’s predecessor once, and that was purely by accident.   He had come to his Dad’s church on an errand and Bishop Penrose was there,.  Penrose was a  polished and shiny golden delicious of a man whose inner sweetness oozed from him: one of those for whom there was no possible career or destination other than faith.   Peter had liked Bishop Penrose.

There was little that was fragrant or remotely fructose in Bishop Harkness.   The churchman who greeted Peter’s gaze as he answered his father’s call to their front room next morning was a spare, crow-like figure.  His long head, with black, sparse hair clinging untidily to its summit, tapered like a rugby ball at chin and cranium,.  His large eyes flickered eagerly from blackened sockets.   A prominent nose hooked over the upper lip of a mouth which might have been gouged out of his skin, so narrow and level a slit did it present.  He was dressed in an attempt at informality; Arran sweater, beige sports slacks, brogues, but there was nothing informal about his presence.  If Penrose was apple, Harkness was medlar; if he were a man of the cloth it was sackcloth – if he were a man of God, Peter instantly decided, his was a most unusual god.

Harkness greeted him in a voice which came from a long way behind his teeth.   “You must be Peter.  How pleasant to meet you.”

From the moment he entered the room, Peter noticed, those eyes never left him.  Although he continued for some time in conversation with his father, Harkness looked only at the son.  After a few minutes, the new Bishop slapped his hands on his knees and stood up.

“Now, Bob.   I should like to have a few words with your fine young man, here.  I suppose we might take a turn in the garden, hmmm?   Would you accompany me, Peter?”

It was a strange request, but then the whole interview had a somewhat bizarre tenor.

“Is that all right with you, Peter?”  Bob Cartwright asked faintly, and Peter shrugged, and said that it was.

There was very little garden.   Harkness placed himself in the centre of what there was of it, with his arms folded, as he looked the pastor’s son up and down.

“So you’re Peter.”

“So you’re the new Bishop.”   Peter sat on the edge of a part-demolished wall, one of his father’s early attempts at a cold frame.

“Do you believe in God?”   Harkness’s words stabbed through the air metallically.   “No, I thought not.  I suppose if I asked you your religion you would say something like Buddhist, or ‘Jedi’ maybe; or something else.  It is awkward isn’t it, being a Pastor’s son, nowadays?”

The man’s attitude was nuanced towards hostile:  Peter prickled inside, but could do nothing to rebut it.  Harkness was his father’s superior, in a sense, and he would not have harmed his father’s interests for the world. He thought carefully before replying.

“Dad’s very good; he manages it for both of us.”

Harkness fixed him with a bird-like stare, turning his head to one side as a blackbird will when it hears a worm moving in the soil. There was no mistaking the inquisitorial intensity of that look, or the weight of unsaid words that were repressed behind it.

“You are still very young.”  The churchman suddenly commented.  “That surprises me.”

“What does?”  Peter could make no sense of this.  “I go to university this year.”

Harkness glanced at him sharply, as though he thought the answer facetious.  But seeing nothing other than innocence in Peter’s expression, a look of doubt, almost of incredulity, spread itself across his face.

“Never mind.”  He said at last, slowly, as if laying something to rest in his mind.  “These are momentous times, you see.   I have to be sure.  I wanted to ask you, Peter.   I wanted to urge you.  Stay upon the chosen path, God’s path.  At your age the choices may seem tempting, but there can be only one right choice.  D’you see?”

“S’pose.”  Such Jesuitical fervour was difficult to confront.  Peter found himself unaccountably fascinated by his own feet.

“Your father needs your support, lad.   These are troubled times, you know?”

“I wouldn’t let Dad down.”

Harkness stepped closer: too close; an invasion of space, an assertion of power.  The Bishop was staring right into his soul, striving to see beneath the innocence.  “Really?   Really, Peter?   I wonder, you see.  I do.”

After this interview was concluded and the usual pleasantries had been observed, Bishop Harkness took his leave.   Father and son saw him from their door, and as he retreated, Harkness cast a warning look of some severity towards Peter. He called back over his shoulder: “Remember my words, young man!”   Bob Cartwright heard this, and was perplexed.

“You know, old son, I could swear he actually came to see you, rather than me.  What do you make of that, eh?”

“I think he’s a sleaze.”

“Certainly he might take some getting used to.”  Bob raised a smile.  “Some of our distinguished brethren are like that.   We’ll rub along, I guess – at a distance.”

At that point the subject closed, and was not raised again.   But Bishop Harkness had left Peter with a feeling of violation that would take a long time to forget.

#

Lesley was in the middle of  a mathematics dilemma  when her ‘phone whirred:

 “Hi Pete.”

“Hi Les,   Missingg me?”

“Didn’t I just walk home with you?      Wasn’t that, like, an hour ago?”

“Two hours, ten minutes and forty seconds.  Admit it, your eveing’s empty without me.” 

“I’m sorta busy.  Okay, be useful.  What’s a perfect number?”

“Six.”

“Oh, very good…” 

“Or twenty-eight, or…I’ve forgotten.  Les, it’s my birthday tomorrow.    Weather forecast’s fine.   Fancy a day in the country?”

“Say the word.  I love country and stuff.   Six?”

“There’s a place I always wanted to see – called Crowley House.  Thought I’d go.  Lay some old ghosts.  Are you up for it?”

“You know me, Pete.  Always.   Six?”

“A perfect number.  Always the sum of its factors.  Six equals one plus two plus three?”

“Oh, yeah – why didn’t I see that?”

“Fabjous.  See you at the railway station, Nine o’clock!”

“Nine o’clock!   What am I – an owl?” 

 They met at the station.  Lesley, in spite of early morning blues, felt lightness in her step whenever she spent time with Peter.   She had always known that something extra went on beneath the shy, arch look of those deep eyes.  But somehow, in the last year or so, the intensity of his nature had become passion.  Physically too, he was higher and wider, more confident in his voice and his walk.   Lesley, who had always sworn not to become involved with Melanie’s first love, found herself drawn so strongly!   Peter was not a ‘trophy’, or simply the right one to be seen with.  She wanted, and she hoped.  She needed him. 

As for Peter?  Well, he did not question his feelings for Lesley.  Even before the sweetness of their first kiss she seemed to have slipped seamlessly into his life; arm into arm, hand into glove.   It was if she had always been there.  

Strangely, the only time he thought about her looks or her figure were those first moments of meeting; as now when she padded softly in her trainers across the ticket hall to greet him, cream camisole top just short enough to expose a margin of stomach that was firm and flat, jeans so well fitted they might be made for her alone.  These were things Peter saw in Lesley from a distance, that power to turn heads, even in a musty railway station at nine o’clock in the morning.

“You look nice!”   He would say, with honesty, and she would blush briefly, because when he said it to her it meant something more than just a compliment.

“Always.”   A twitch of a smile, a quick peck of lips;  “I didn’t do a card.  Happy Birthday!”

“What’s in the bag?”

“I brought drinks.  It’s going to be hot.”

Then the first greeting was over, and immediately he was with her all that was forgotten:  she was just Lesley.   Lesley, whose pale hair flew about her like a wraith when she ran, who could burst into laughter, suddenly, for no real reason except an insight into the joke of life.   Lesley was – well, fun;   just fun.

Peter learned something though, on the train.   Lesley did not talk much in the mornings.   After half an hour spent sitting across the table from her and feeling the welter of her stare, the rhythm of the rails began to get to him.  His eyelids felt heavy and he began to doze.   A violent kick on his ankle brought him back to wakefulness.

“Don’t you go to sleep on me!”

“Sorry!”   Peter rubbed his ankle.

Lesley glowered at him.   “You don’t get me out of bed at this heathen hour then go back to sleep yourself, Peter!  Nobody drops off on me!”

Peter sighed.  “I was just getting bored:  this is the most conversation I’ve had out of you in hours.   You’re just sitting over there sticking pins in my fith-fath.”

“I’m not!  Really!   I’m just not a before-noon type of person.   Mornings are for cockerels and stuff.”

“You get up on college days.”

“Have to, don’t I?  Anyway, lectures are interesting, not dreary and dull like you.”

“Oh thanks!”  Peter considered for a moment.  “All right,” He said:  “Something interesting, yeah?”

He had never told Lesley about his fascination with St. Benedict’s Rock and its colourful past.  Perhaps he had been frightened to appear in too studious a light; for Lesley, although a brilliant student, never betrayed an interest in such things.   Now he decided to take the chance, to explain his reason for their journey.  He related as much of the Crowley history as he knew, whilst leaving out any reference to visions or instances of foresight, and omitting the story of the cave.   Lesley listened intently, as she always did, or at least appeared to do, until he had finished.

“That’s it?”  She asked.

“That’s it.  I want to see the house where those characters lived.  I want to imagine them at home, receiving visitors in the drawing room by the fire, or riding around their estates in the afternoon.”

“Wicked!   ‘Long as we don’t actually meet them: like, their ghosts or anything?”

“All that.   It wasn’t too boring?”

“Stultifying!”   Lesley grinned.   “I stayed awake, didn’t I?”

Peter did not know what he expected to see, or feel, the first time he saw Crowley.   Whether the tall iron gates of his imaginary picture were really there, or if the circular drive led around an island of rhododendrons as it did in his dreams.   When, in his sleep, he had visited this troubled house it was always a warm, beautiful day in late spring, with sunlight bathing a red sandstone mansion.   The grass and leaves were always verdant green, the paths lit with flowers.  Somehow, no matter how rank the corruption which seeped from within, Crowley House evinced a message of hope, a triumph over penury and despair.   This was how he imagined it would be.

“Oh-My-God!”    Lesley breathed.

Two miles from their railway stop and a mile, by Peter’s calculation, from the nearest habitation, they came upon it around a bend in a narrow country lane.   There were gates, indeed, and they were high.   They were also closed, their open ironwork permitting a view of a circular drive which once might have harboured rhododendrons, but now surrounded only rough turf.  The approach was lined, six on each side, by crumbling statues in the classic mode, cracked and blackened from generations of neglect.   Beyond these, to west and east were gardens which, though they must have been the envy of all who strolled in them a century ago, were nothing now but a mass of tangled growth.   Bramble had skeined itself about decaying ornamental furniture, the trunks of parkland trees, banks where battalions of flowers once laid siege to ponds and fountains, arbours and colonnades: all gone now.

Beyond this battlefield, at least two hundred metres from the gate, the façade of Crowley House looked as if it would rather not receive visitors.   A tall, Jacobean edifice four storeys high, with severe windows, the slab front of the house had very few features other than its glass, much of which was broken on the upper floors, and all of which was boarded up at ground level.  If in some long-gone time Crowley House had intimidated its poor artisan creditors, now it seemed itself to be rather frightened and mistreated.  Window frames, doors, railings slotted into walls of soft sandstone, were etched by erosion.   A roof missing as many tiles as the roof of Crowley must have admitted most of the weather: the sandstone chimneys rising from it, whittled to spindles by the winds of time, could have emitted little smoke.   Only the warmth of the sun saved it, casting a glow over the pitted stonework, in which slight, delicate touch of light there was a glow of remembrance.   This was a house with a past.

The gates were padlocked and chained.   Upon them, as old as their last coat of paint, a faded notice declared the house:

‘Open to the public

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,

May to October.

Admission £1.00.

No dogs allowed.’

Above this, and somewhat newer, a board which said:

For Sale.   Country Estate with sixty acres of pasture.

Nifton, Soper and Jakes, Land Agents’.

The front doors were planked over.   The place was deserted.

Peter felt overwhelmed by great sadness.   “I’m sorry, Les:   I expected better than this.”

“What?  Don’t be a dope.   This is just – so – cool!   I love it!  Come on!”  Lesley set off up the road, following the boundary:  “There has to be a way in.  Look, through here!”

In fact there were several ways in; places where the ill-maintained wall which once surrounded the whole estate had given itself up to nature.   Although the owners or their agents had attempted to fill these spaces with barbed wire, they posed no deterrent to a determined teenager.

“Careful!  This might be scratchy!”

   Lesley quickly threaded her way through, Peter, more reluctantly, tagging behind.

“Aren’t we trespassing?  What if someone sees us?” 

“Oh, yeah!  Like who?  Who would care?”  Lesley swore at a retributive bramble, kicking it into submission.   “We came all this way – go back without seeing the place?  Like, I don’t think so!”

They surfaced from a tangle of undergrowth to find themselves in the gardens at the side of the house.

“Oh!  Look at this!  Come on, Petey, be a brave boy!”

Feeling slightly miffed by his new appellation, Peter allowed himself to be led as an enchanted Lesley discovered Crowley for herself.   She ran from him to hide behind the walls of the old vegetable gardens, laughing so much in the ensuing fun-fight that she fell into a rotted cucumber frame and had to be helped, squealing, from the midst of an advancing army of bugs.   At last she made for the house, gazing up in awe at its lofty walls, kicking at the weed clawing at its footings.   “Let’s go inside.”  She said, as if they had only to open the front doors.

Nailed composite boards proved more substantial opposition than the boundary wall.   Window after shuttered window had to be rejected as they walked the entire length of the frontage and found no means of getting through: nor was there any sign of weakness on the south side of the house.  Here trees and undergrowth encroached upon the pathway, so much so that they had to detour a little into the woodland to find a way around.   Again it was Lesley who led, kicking at the cloying net of ground ivy as she brushed past low branches, pushed aside festoons of natural curtain.   At one such moment, her keen eye picked out, in the trees to their right, a small, unnatural-looking mound.

“Hey, check this out!”

 The outline of a stone arch was half-buried by long grasses woven into bramble, which defended and disguised it as though they wanted it to be forgotten. 

“What do’y’ think, Petey?  Like an ice house, or something?”

Flailing away with the stoutest sticks they could find, the pair thrashed a path to the squat, stone building.  A low doorway, defended by a padlocked iron grille, barred their path.  Peter shook at the rusted bars.

“Probably.  Yeah, an ice house or something.”

“It had outer doors, wooden ones.”    Lesley had found the unhinged remains of planks in the undergrowth.   “Why were these taken off?”

His suspicions aroused,  Peter fingered the rusted padlock, testing it for strength.   It opened instantly.   The lock had been forced, a clean, quite recent scrape in its mantle of rust showing where a crowbar had been inserted.   Breathing quickly, they  heaved the grille aside on creaking hinges.

“Yay!”  Lesley exclaimed.

There were steps beyond the grille, leading down into darkness.   Suppressing a shudder at the onset of cold and damp, Peter led the way, guided by a metal rail let into the stone wall.  Lesley kept close behind him, her hand gripping fiercely at his shoulder as she tried to stop her knees from shaking.

“Secret passage?”   She whispered.

“No.   No, this is all there is.    I know where we are now.  This is the family vault.”

They alighted from steps into a gloomy chamber, barely illuminated by tiny leaded windows set into the stone of the upper walls.   Lesley lit up her ‘phone.”.

“Wow!”   she exclaimed  reverently:  “Dead people.”  Then; “Not much marble, or nothing.  Almost like they didn’t want anyone to know they were here.”

The sides of the chamber were lined with openings, each intended to admit a full-sized coffin, but of these there were only three that, once the dust was brushed aside, declared themselves by silver plaques to be the last resting-places of Lord Horace Crowley, Lady Elisabeth Crowley, and Matthew Ballentine.

“Only one generation,”  Peter whispered, half to himself; “No ancestors here?”

“Almost like this was their secret,” Lesley agreed, relishing the conspiracy; “Their hiding place, in death.  Oh Peter, this one was just a child!”   She lit up a shelf at the far end of the chamber supporting a casket no more than a metre in length.   There was no silver plaque upon this lid, no name.  A child, then, certainly, but whose?   In his studies of this ill-fated family, Peter had uncovered no mention of an heir.   Lady Crowley had been childless, as far as he knew.   And the chamber revealed another small inconsistency.   The bodies of the Crowleys were laid side-by-side; that of Matthew Ballentine separated from them on the opposite wall.  Had Elizabeth, finally regretting her betrayal, expressed a wish to lie with her husband?

The little child-casket aroused Lesley’s curiosity.   She probed the tiny coffin with affectionate fingers.   It was as if some distant memory bound her to this sad remnant of a short life.  Her questing arms seemed to need to embrace it, to take it to her.   Carefully, almost tenderly, she reached into the aperture wherein it was laid, gripped the box.   Then she drew it out.

Hearing the scraping sound, Peter suddenly realised what was happening.

“Les!   What are you doing?”

Lesley did not answer.  She had pulled the coffin almost clear of its resting place, supported longitudinally in her arms.   Small as it was, it was too heavy for her strength.   Foreseeing doom, Peter made to help her, diving to grab the further end of the box as it cleared the edge of the stone.   He was too far away and he was too late.

For an eternal moment the casket hung in Lesley’s failing grasp:  then it fell.

The wooden box had languished  in the damp and the dark for nearly two hundred years, as had the flagstones upon which it fell; but the flagstones had survived the centuries free of decay:  the box had not.   With a splintering crash it deconstructed upon the stone.   In horrified silence Peter and Lesley stared down at the wreckage.  

“Well now!”   Exclaimed Peter.

The coffin contained no evidence of a body, no matter how small.

“Why would they bury two rocks?”

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

Image Credits: Patty Jansen, from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Ten

Al Khubar

Peter’s first encountered Howard, the man who seemed to be stepping into Melanie’s father’s role when he called to collect her, at the outset of a Saturday afternoon they planned to spend together.   ‘Brickwood’, Melanie’s home, stood on a hill above Levenport’s ‘Old Town’.  It was a large house of brick and hung tile walls beneath a vast, high-pitched roof which, should it ever emulsify and fail, would be entirely beyond her mother’s means to replace.

Marco, who was Melanie’s father and Karen’s first husband, had bought it.   If it had not been Karen’s own choice, she forbore to say so; instead suffering the woodworm, creaking stairs, multi-paned windows and huge polished doors in the name of married love.   Since Marco’s departure in his Porsche she had become less constrained, often openly cursing the large, cold rooms with their perpetual resources of spiders and dust.

A tall, fair-headed man answered the door.

“Hello.  You must be Peter.”   The figure who filled the doorway, at least six-two or three in height and of what could best be described as a solid build, was dressed in a blue sloppy sweater and brown chino’s which did nothing to flatter his waistline or each other.  There was no evidence that he cared one jot about this.   In fact, his whole demeanour seemed to suggest that he was careless about most things.   “Come in, son.”

What was it that made Peter so resentful of total strangers who called him ‘son’?   He sought what he always did in a meeting with anyone new: a straight eye and an honest expression:  he found neither here.

“Hi!”   He said, shyly. “Are you Howard?”

“You got me gov’nor!”  Howard raised his hands in a mock surrender.  Peter winced.

 “I am the same.” 

“I’m pleased to meet you.   Melanie and I were going across to St. Ben’s: is she ready?”   Peter asked, as politely as he could muster.

“Oh sure, sure.  No hurry though.  Come on in and wait, Peter.  Do you want a drink, or something?  Coke, eh?”

Peter slid uneasily into Karen’s kitchen, declining the offer of a drink.

“Well, I’ll have a coke, anyway, I think.   Sit down, son.  Tell me about yourself.   What do you like to do?  Fishing?   Music?  What hobbies have you got, Peter?”

“Er….computers, and …. reading I suppose….”  Peter answered, with the uncomfortable feeling he was twelve years old again.   Howard poured himself a glass from the refrigerator and, tasting it, clearly did not much like what he drank.  But he brought it to a chair opposite Peter and dragged himself into the seat with a tortured scroop of wood on tile.   Sitting across a table from this full-on and truly quite massive figure, Peter was at a complete loss.

“Really?  Computers, eh?  Just games and stuff, I expect?”

“Well, some games.  But I’m more into programming…..”

“Are you good?”   There was a palpable wall of antipathy building itself across the table:  Peter felt it and he was pretty sure that Howard did too.   Yet it seemed that in some strange way he, Peter, was the one in control.   When he ventured to look into the large man’s eyes he was sure he saw anxiety there – an almost spaniel-like desire to please.

Melanie’s feet were to be heard clattering on the stairs.   She was nearly knocked backwards by the wave of relief that hit her as she entered the kitchen.

“Hi Mel!”   Cried Peter,   “Are you ready?”

Rising to his feet and more than ready to leave, he felt his shoulder gripped by a detaining hand.  This action was so firm as to make Peter think for a fleeting moment that he might be under arrest, or something.

“I’m quite good with computers;” Howard said.  “Maybe we can get together sometime, Peter, Hmm?  I might be able to help.”

Managing a few non-committal words of gratitude, Peter struggled free , taking Melanie’s hand (something he very rarely did) as he steered her towards the door.   Not until he was in the clear, outdoor air beyond it did he regain his composure, recovering his breath as he led the way, almost running, into the street.

“Hey, slow down!”  Mel protested: “What on earth did he do to you in there?”

“Wow, Mel!”

“Well, I told you he was sort of odd.”

“Yeah, but ….look, sorry Mel, but he’s surreal.    I don’t remember seeing him before – is he new in town?”

“He just moved here.   From the Midlands, he said.”

“What’s his work – what does he do?”

“He’s an engineer, or something.   He works for Catesby’s.”

Catesby’s:  a big local factory building bridges.   Peter tried to picture Howard building bridges.  “Weird.”   Was all he could say.

Melanie wasn’t sure why she felt so upset.   Was this not so, so similar to her own first reaction to Howard?   Had he just tried to break ice with Peter the way he had with her? 

“I’m sorry you don’t like him.”   Wait a minute!  Was she defending him now?  “He’s asked such a lot about you.  I think he was looking forward to meeting you.”

This, for reasons which rushed in upon him like a flood tide, was not good news to Peter.   There was something wrong with Howard; the whole thing,   the set-up.

“Did he ask you to wait back a few minutes so he could talk to me?”  he asked.

“Well, not in so many words, but – yes, I guess he did.   Oh Peter, was it that bad?”

Nothing he could tell her would adequately express what he felt inside.   He didn’t know why, but he knew instinctively: Howard and he were enemies.

#

Al Khubar came alive in early morning, a teeming anthill of activity rushing to beat the sun.   Yahedi left his hotel at seven, before morning prayers when the temperature was still in the low thirties, accepting the hot wall of air which greeted him as he left the controlled climate of the New City like a blessing from Allah.   He loved the heat, but he would not endure it in a suit, as westerners did.   The street market was already wide awake, bustling with life.   The stall he sought was there as usual; its proprietor sitting exactly where he expected him to be.

“You do not change, old man.  You are the ageless one.”

“Ah, but my heart and my head still work!”   The old man cackled through black teeth:  “My cloth is still the best cloth – I have saved it for you, honoured friend.”

Yahedi smiled in gratitude, knowing that the stallholder had no memory of him and would forget him completely as soon as he had gone.   He bought traditional Arab clothes, the robe of white, the thobe, a red chequered cloth headdress or ghutra, and a tagia to keep the ghutra in place.  He haggled enthusiastically, shook the old man’s hand in the traders’ way, the quick slap of palms between two who have struck a bargain.   Then he returned to the Hyatt to change and to eat.  There was an hour for rest and reflection before he must once again venture into the Old City, and his business there would be important – important enough to have drawn him half-way across the world.

When Salaiman again emerged from the New City, the sun was a laser of fierce heat which boiled the north wind into a skin-stripping blast.   His new headdress flapped and rattled against his cheeks, the white thobe he had bought wrapped around his legs.   They were flimsy enough, these defences, but they were the best that could be had and he was graceless enough to sneer inwardly at the fat, sweating westerners who passed him with their brash unmelodic voices, seemingly always raised in complaint.  These unfortunate souls, who lived solely for the purpose of circulating money, had some driving ambition to make the entire world look exactly the same. In their ideal universe the Old City district of Al Khubar would soon have a MacDonald’s at every corner, a Wal-Mart in its fountained gardens.   Their concept of a different culture was no more than an extension of their own.  They would be satisfied only when this beautiful city’s heritage was reduced to a couple of lifeless ancient shrines which they could photograph beneath air-conditioned domes before returning to steak and fries  in their western hotels.   All the rest, the colours and sounds and shapes and emotions and the religious vitality of the place, would be grist to the corporate mill, ground down to serve the rapacious appetites of the ‘suits’.   Allah forefend!  Were there not already two MacDonald’s in the New City?  Did not five of those elegantly sculpted skyscraper hotels rest in western hands?  

            Yahedi directed his sandaled feet away from the business district, into the maze of narrow alleys which networked the old town.  Here was anonymity.    Among these white stuccoed chasms he was just another citizen.  He walked with purpose for he knew his route well; yet every now and then he would stop, listening for the echoes of  pursuing feet.  At any unusual sound or movement he would double back, deliberately losing himself in the labyrinth for a while.  He did this three times, not in the certainty of being followed, merely because he thought it might be so.

Yahedi took an hour to reach his destination.  A squat, blanched concrete taxi office stood upon the west side of a street which backed onto the Palace walls.   Beyond a faded green panelled door he was greeted by a familiar spiced-meat smell and the customary zing of flies.   The sole occupant of the office, a tubby male of middle years, had his teeth buried in a sandwich of  prodigious proportions.

“No taxi!”   This apparition grunted, showering his desk with crumbs in the process.  “Come back two o’clock.”

“I would like to go with my child to Kafjiha tonight.”   Yahedi stated.

The fat man made a gurgling noise, possibly indigestion:  “Will it be a return fare?”

“Just for me.   My child remains in Kafjiha with my father.”

The sandwich waved at the door.  “Across the street – the third door to the left of the alley.  Do not knock.  They will open if they know you.”

Yahedi, leaving, heard a click as the fat man picked up the ‘phone.

It was a plain wooden door in a plain mud and plaster wall.  Bourta, Yahedi’s friend, opened it as he approached.   “I said I would greet you personally!”  He grinned.   “Did you have any trouble?”

“No, the town is already asleep.   Am I the last, then?”

“By no means!   Come, let us make ourselves known to the Prince.”

The door gave entrance to a narrow passage that was nearly filled by Bourta’s broad form as he led Salaiman along its length.  They passed a small arbour with a seat fitted into the left-hand wall wherein sat a pale-skinned woman of uncertain years, dressed in fatigues.  She was perched uneasily upon the hard wood of the bench, an AK-47 resting across her knees.   In the poor light Yahedi could not read her face or see her eyes, or notice how they followed him with the  half-interested appraisal a tiger might give a passing rat.

At first, the passage was lit dimly by a glass roof high over their heads, where a bird, once brightly coloured, its wings now tawdry from panic and futility fluttered, unable to escape.   But then, at a sharp turn to the right, the way plunged abruptly into darkness. 

Wooden steps led precariously downward.  This was no longer a passage but a hole, rough-hewn into a great mass of brick and rock.   A burrow made by man-rabbits; a warren beneath the very walls of the Royal Palace itself.   Yahedi, twenty-first century assassin, knew this tunnel well.   Thirty steps to descend, then it became a passage once more, though the light did not return.   Each time he groped his path through this one, with companions or alone, Yahedi mused at the naiveté of those whose great wealth and power persuaded them that such measures were necessary or even desirable:  a secret passage, in Allah’s Holy Name!   Was this some kind of game to these people?     Did the Prince imagine that his family, or the rest of the world for that matter, was unaware of his associations and meetings?   He, Yahedi, moved freely in the world knowing that his every step, his every word and gesture, was likely to be watched.   He devoted the better part of his waking life to evasion, spent much of his considerable fortune upon disguise:  but never once did he persuade himself he could gain more than a few precious days, or hours, advantage over those who would capture him.   All of his twenty passports bore names which were known; today he had another, number twenty-one; by tomorrow, if not already, this name, too, would be attributed to him.    Surveillance?   That was a part of the net which would follow him forever, just a few steps behind.  Then there were the spies, the infiltrators, the professional moles, the turncoats, the traitors…the list was endless.

Oh, yes, this passage would have been a secret once:  for a few days, even weeks perhaps, the Crown Prince Shumal might have held clandestine meetings in his rooms with those who had trodden this path.   Then an aide would have become suspicious, or one of those who had cut the tunnel would have succumbed to ambition or torture, or maybe both.   From then on the secret way would have been permitted to exist, not because it was a secret, but precisely because it was not.  Because it was useful to know that those whom the Prince wished to meet in secret would pass this way, and those were the people a Prince’s enemies might wish to investigate.  Thus, Yahedi passed through with his head bowed, unspeaking:  wherever the camera was, he did not want to show his face to it. 

            As the tunnel began to re-ascend, a winding, upward stairway which led into the Prince’s private apartments, he had time to consider: the London affair had ended unsatisfactorily, but in the normal course of events that would not be sufficient to warrant a personal audience.  A sealed envelope, a further instruction, was the usual procedure.  So why this rare summons from the Prince?  Bourta had spoken of greater things.  Had the balance within the ruling family changed?   Everyone knew of the struggle for power which had followed the illness of the old King, of the ascendancy of his son El Saada – Saadi, as he was known:  an extravagant, spoiled wastrel never likely to secure the succession; a vassal in whose hands the oil state of Khubar’s place in world politics might just remain safe, but only for a generation: for Saadi was a known homosexual, a crime in itself in Al Kubhar, as well as the predestined end of a royal line. Was this the reason?  Was Shumal, the Crooked Prince, ready to assume his heritage at last?   Did he have work for a killer like Salaiman Yahedi?

Bourta turned the stone handle which rolled a marble relief to one side, admitting them both to the Royal Apartments.   The Crooked Prince himself was waiting for them.

“Blessings of Allah upon you, and upon you, my friends.   Come, take some tea with us.”

Prince Shumal was the uneasy head the crown of Khubar would rest upon, should the Crown Prince El Saada not survive.   The second of only three sons born to the old King, his public image, like that of the heir to the throne, was well-washed and gauzed:  his photographs, hung discreetly below those of his elder sibling, showed a clean-shaven accountant-like visage, gazing benignly at the world through horn-rimmed spectacles.   Unfortunately, this laundered version of his appearance meant he could rarely appear to his subjects in the flesh.   When he did show himself, it was always whilst riding behind the shaded windows of a limousine, shrouded in traditional royal dress.  In such disguise, no-one could see he was sitting upon a box.

“The Prince,”  a British Royal had once said valiantly after meeting him;   “Is a person of great character and unique charm.”   Adding confidentially to his Aide-de-Camp;   “Whom I hope I shall never have to meet again.”    He didn’t.

Prince Shumal’s stature (he was no more than four feet six in height) was never referred to; nor was his rampant habit of nose-picking, or his lascivious manner with the palace servants, especially the female ones.    He was a Royal personage, after all.   And in so many ways Shumal was a much better proposition than Ashedi, the youngest son of the old King, who was widely acknowledged to be an idiot.  Prince Shumal, for all his negative qualities, had a mind like a knife, and all the presence and confidence which rank and money could bring.   He was also a subversive, and a champion of the poor: as unlikely an angel as you could wish to meet, Yahedi thought:  what if heaven is made up of all such as him?

Yahedi accepted the Prince’s offer of tea (it would have been unforgivably discourteous to refuse), taking this opportunity to glance around at the other occupants of the room.   The apartment itself was unchanged since his last visit:  a modern, lavishly appointed air-conditioned flat, decorated in deliberately unostentatious colours:  matt browns, subdued greens.  There were two doorways, or rather arches, each of simple, square-carved marble, which led on to the Prince’s private rooms.   Two windows led out onto balconies, these heavily curtained against prying eyes.  The floor was cool grey marble. A vast flat-screened television all but filled one wall, while others were covered with tapestries – Mohammed with the angels, Martha with her boy-child at the holy well – all very devout and many as old as the palace itself.  His fellow visitors –  Bourta of course, a man of obviously Indian extraction in western dress he vaguely recognised and another in traditional dress he did not – fitted uneasily into this marriage of old and new.   They perched upon sumptuous leather couches which formed a circle in the centre of the room, sipping at their tea.   All waited.

There was a rumbling sound of stone on stone.   The marble relief panel slid aside and two more guests stepped into the room.   The first to emerge was a tall Caucasian male, slim and athletic in build.   This man, Yahedi decided instantly, was an American, and a man of some means.   His surgically enhanced face, his unnaturally bright eyes shining through thick spectacles, even his deliberately casual clothing exuded wealth.   And everything about him spoke of youth, of vitality – only the thin, papery skin of his hands, where they protruded from the sleeves of his expensive sweater, betrayed his real age. Yahedi guessed at sixty.  He might have been more.

“Hi fellas!”   Said the American, with a shuffle of his feet, almost a little dance, then a wave to encompass everyone in the room.  “Hi Sheik!”

The deliberate effect, the calculated travesty of etiquette gained the attention it sought.   Everyone in the room formed an immediate impression of the American.

A second visitor stepped out of the darkness, blinking at the onset of light.    This person instantly drew Salaiman Yahedi’s attention:  not because she was a woman, or because she was quite remarkably beautiful, although that should have been enough, but because he had seen her before and he never forgot a face.   Today she was smartly but modestly dressed in a business suit, her head covered according to custom, but when they met before she had been jogging and wearing tracks.   He had almost tripped her, one early morning in Hyde Park.

   © 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.     

The Insect

The Insect

Sometimes the span of a lifetime is needed to make an assessment of people.

Provincial – that defined Tark’s self-image in the early nineteen-sixties.  An insurance clerk with artistic pretensions and a deeply dissatisfied perspective upon his small-town existence, he had convinced himself of one thing; his destiny was to devote his life to art, however confused he was about the direction his artistry should take.   A short-lived stint as a junior reporter on a short-lived local newspaper had punctured his faith in his ability as a writer.  His capacity for clearing a room when he sang, coupled with absolute incomprehension of the finger-skills needed to master an instrument seemed to eliminate a future in music.   Those inclined to criticize were apt to say he lacked even a hint of talent.  In his own mind he was a genius waiting to flower – at something.

Blagging being as prevalent in the nineteen-sixties as it is today, if Tark’s parcel of ineptitudes had been wrapped in a more presentable package with a greater sense of style he might yet have passed as ‘gifted’, but Tark’s assets were buried deep, tilthed over by a six-feet-one stick insect’s  body and supported on legs so bony even drainpipe jeans struggled for grip.   His feet, sized fourteen and shaped like spades, were equally ill-equipped for a generation which saw toes as an obscenity and punished them by thrusting them into ‘winklepicker’ shoes.  Tark persevered with a cheap black pair which reshaped with time into something resembling a pair of rearward-facing armadillos, complete with tails.

 His appearance was of an under-confident, slightly spotty example of ‘modern youth’.  If he was ready to flower he showed very little sign of doing so.  The only buds he exhibited were red and topped with white blisters.

Given such ammunition, Tark’s low self-esteem manifested itself in aggressive responses to any number of situations; repressed silence at parties, inarticulate rudeness when confronted and on his rare voyages into the everyday a slouching gait along the pavements of the town, studying his  reflection in each shop window as he passed.

Which was how he bumped into Natalie.  He wasn’t looking where he was going, nor was she; maybe they were sharing the same shop window, she from one direction, he from the other.  Their heads met with a noise befitting a cricket analogy; leather on willow.

“Ouch!”  Natalie explored her forehead with tentative fingers.  “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”

Terrified she would bleed, Tark launched into a profuse apology which reached crescendo with an offer of coffee, an obvious solution as the next window belonged to a coffee bar.

Natalie conceded.  “I was going in there anyway.  You’re buying.”

Those two words (‘you’re buying’) Tark subsequently discovered, were intrinsic to Natalie’s survival as a student.  It was a habit she never broke.

From such unpromising beginnings, great things are often born.  They introduced themselves; he discovered she liked Danish pastries.  She was studying Fine Art at the local art college, finishing her course after her parents had moved away, so she was living in digs.  Her evenings were in need of filling and she had thought of Amdram – did he know anybody?  It so happened he did.

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, that meeting was the point at which Tark’s world began to expand.  There were few immediate signs; this slightly ungainly girl, not classically good-looking, but with an engagingly expressive face and serious eyes, seemed interested in him at a point when he believed he was the least interesting person on Earth.  While they were visiting the coffee bar, she also appeared to be interested in a wild-looking and very hairy student who sat at another table.  As she left the coffee bar she crossed to the wild-looking student’s table where money was covertly exchanged for a small packet.

That was one thing Tark wasn’t buying.

Within a week the lump on Natalie’s forehead had subsided, Tark had joined a drama club, spent an evening watching Jacques Tati movies and learned there were things in the world to smoke other than tobacco.  Within a month their friendship had become very close – that was Tark’s impression, anyway.  One evening he asked her if she would like him to pose as her life model.  

She looked at him oddly.   “I mostly do landscapes…but if you want?”

Winter came, the Amdram turned into a production, prompting an odd flatterer or two to suggest Tark should go to drama school, but he was vaguely uncomfortable with the authenticity of the praise.  Nevertheless he sought some artistic outlet and his typing was still abominable, so he stretched a few muscles and read a bit of Stanislavski.  Natalie continued to paint.  His uncertainty was not a failing she shared.

For all the increasing security and depth of their friendship, Natalie drew one very firm line:  sex was out.   Nudity fazed her not one jot, she liked shedding the restriction of clothing and was happy for Tark to do the same as long as he would not  interpret that small permissiveness as anything more.  Her career, she would insist, was everything.  She could not risk the accident of pregnancy, so, although those around them might make assumptions, and though they often spent days and nights together, they maintained an awkward celibacy:  awkward, at least, from Tark’s point of view:  it fed into his bubbling cauldron of anger.

One spring evening they were sitting in the garden of Tark’s family home; Natalie had her sketch pad with her, doing quick studies of whatever took her eye at the time, while Tark tried to describe his only encounter with a ruby-tailed wasp.  He must have failed dismally in the attempt because she suddenly pushed her pad onto his knee.

“Draw it.”

Was that a moment of revelation?   Did the magic memory of his meeting with that unusual creature transfer itself to paper?  When he had finished he stared at his effort and his effort stared back.  All his miserable, self-deprecating hostility glared from the fudged lines.  At first he tried to hide his abysmal effort, but Natalie was not to be so deceived.   She snatched the pad from his hand.

“It speaks to me,”  she said.

“It was only an insect,”  He replied humbly.  

“Oh, it’s much more than that.”

The insect, of course, was Tark; how he saw himself – how he was, very possibly.  If Natalie saw that too, she was far too polite to say so.

So, no revelation, then; yet a crumb to tempt him to see through the superficial self-image he had built for himself to something far more genuine.  Natalie forced that to happen, not by encouragement, just by her example.  Matters had moved forward; if he wanted to be around her he had to conform; he had to contribute.  To be with her was to see the world as an artist would see it – as she saw it.  He had to add something interesting of his own to earn her approval.

Tark found focus.  Every waking moment when he wasn’t engaged in clerkery was filled with things to sketch, different media to try, exploration of methods, foraging for board, or scavenging for paints.  Now that he and Natalie shared a new affinity, techniques fascinated him.  Although he felt hopelessly dwarfed by her talent, he had found somebody at whose feet he was willing to study.  For the first time in his life he had some sense of direction.

They began working together, painting scenery for the Amdram group’s next production.  He began to develop a plan for much more, telling himself they might have a life together, sharing a workshop, a studio, perhaps a partnership.   In retrospect he might have been better advised to share his vision with Natalie, but he didn’t.  Not then.

The aspect of his new companion’s personality that he never fully understood or equalled was the depth of her unswervable determination.  She fed it into her work, so every stroke of her brush was a conversation with the medium, and little of her dialogue with Tarq on those occasions had any significance at all.   From the most basic exchanges:

Tarq:   “Shall I get lunch?

Natalie:  “Wonderful.”

Tarq:    “What would you like?”

Natalie:   “You choose…”

To the more serious issues:

Tarq:   “We could set up a studio together!”

Natalie: “ That sounds like an idea.”

Tarq:     “I’ll look into it, then.”

Natalie:  “Why don’t you?”

He would get food in and she would ignore it. He was too broke to pursue the idea of a studio, which was fortunate, because she never mentioned it again.

That same vagueness pervaded everything in Natalie’s life other than the journey of paint from brush to canvas, so Tark should not have been surprised when, at the conclusion of her college course she announced that she intended to stay on for another year.

“I’m not ready for London yet.  I’ve more to learn.”

What could he deduce from this; should he be encouraged?  Natalie was always reticent, never gave reasons willingly, but he believed, poor mortal, that she was staying for him.

Come their second summer, Tarq had convinced himself enough of their relationship to take some first tentative steps towards a life with Natalie.   After all, had it not endured for almost two years?  They worked together whenever possible and he began evening classes at her college, through which he discovered a penchant for pottery.  With determination unusual for him, he persuaded his parents to part with money for a wheel and a small kiln.   Given the opportunity he would have discovered the many shortcomings of being wedded to clay – even his own mother kept her distance – but by good fortune or bad the issues of grey sludge spread no further than his room, because a week later Natalie had an announcement to make.

“I’m going to France.”

Tark’s first response was gaping disbelief, “What?”

“Jenna, Toms and Becs are putting a trip together.  Toms has a studio down there, near Cavalaire-sur-Mer, I think he said.  Oh, and Tazza’s coming – probably.”

Tark’s second response was;  “When?”

“Monday, if we can get a ferry.”

“For how long?”

“The summer.  We might stay on.  I don’t know.”  Natalie added, lamely, “Come, if you like?”

A year since, such a move would have been beyond Tark’s comprehension, but his love for this strange, enigmatic girl had altered him enough to reply hesitantly:  “Okay.”

“Alright, then, I suppose.  We’re all putting in.”

Didn’t it, you might ask, occur to Tark to question Natalie’s willingness to leave him behind?   How did he channel the anger he felt?   Secretly, in his clay-spattered room; and being insufficiently skilled to express himself by throwing a pot, he banged a board onto his easel and threw paint at that instead, expelling whole tubes of colour, splashing at it with slip clay for good measure.   Then he took another board and did the same, and another until he had no more paint, and no more board, and no more desire ever – ever- to become an artist.

Yet he still went to France.

He was broke: paints were expensive, brushes too.  So he sold his potter’s wheel and his kiln to pay his passage.   He endured an uncomfortable van journey in ever-increasing heat with a bunch of art students he barely knew, because although he could forgo the art, he could not be separated from the artist.  His feelings had rooted themselves too deeply.

Natalie took to the South of France with alacrity, Tark stuck to her like a second skin, at first.   There were necessary changes.   Toms owned their apartment, so rent was not a consideration.  Food though, and materials; they had to be paid for.  Toms mysteriously popped up with both from time to time, though not reliably: the company had to earn money, if only to eat.    Becs spoke French fluently, and with the tourist season in full swing, quickly found work.  Toms found evening jobs for himself and Tark at a local supermarche.   Natalie painted obsessively, Tazza sat in a corner and played guitar.   Jenna?  Well, Jenna found hotel work, but Jenna was ‘with’ Toms.   

With the resilience of the young, the group adapted to their new situation, which on the surface seemed idyllic.   Toms was one of the Art College tutors and Jenna was a student, so the others were there to lend some propriety to a very inappropriate relationship.   Becs, a darkly introspective girl with pretensions as a portrait painter, spent most of her days sketching any tourist with a wallet, Tazza, who declared himself a musician, did no work at all, predating on whoever had food available, while Jenna played with a canvas she had insisted on bring with her in the van.  Everyone shared freely in her work and no-one understood it.

Of the group, only Tark and Natalie painted assiduously, whenever they could.  Tark’s work reflected the outlier he felt himself to be, apologetic, almost desperate.  The heat disagreed with him, almost everything that could bite bit him: he had never travelled abroad before, only possessing a passport by chance because his parents had once considered going on holiday to Madeira.  Those around him were all friends; they had a level of communication he did not share.

He worried Tazza.   “Tark, mate, you should get out more!  Get down on the beach a bit, yeah?  Get some sun, man!”

Their apartment had a terrace, so Tark wondered at Tazza’s logic and anyway sun was the last thing he wanted.   His paintings, half-completed dashes of sorrow, the work of a day, sometimes less, piled up.   Although he shared a room with Natalie, he scrupulously observed her celibacy  rules, and they hardly spoke.

Then one day, about four weeks after their arrival, Natalie said:   “I’m pregnant.”

Tark knew he could not be the father, of course.  At last he found a voice for that well of anger that he kept so repressed.   “Who is it?  And do you want to tell me when?  I mean, before you dragged me down here, obviously.”

“I didn’t drag you anywhere.  Tazza’s the father. If you must know.  We were doing it at my pad.  You kept leaving me to go to night classes.  So don’t try to put the blame on me. ”

“They’ve been seeing each other for months,”  Becs said at breakfast,  “That’s why she didn’t go to London.  We thought you knew.”

Tark had one more exchange with Natalie before he left, when, with a commendable absence of bitterness, he wondered why she had felt so free to put her career at risk with Tazza, rather than himself.

“I like him.  I needed you, for the support, that was all.  Somebody there, you know?  We could never have stayed together, though.  You’re not a real creative, Tark.  You must see that.”

That might have been the last Tarq heard of Natalie.  He returned home, found a new job because work was plentiful in those days, and he almost, but not quite, resumed his self-conscious, self-isolating life – with just this difference: in his chosen solitude, in the peace of his room and for reasons entirely different to before, he continued to paint.

A year would have to pass before the doorbell announced a visit from Margo, the lady who ran the Amdram club.

“Can you paint the sets for our next show?  The chap we used last year tries, but he can’t really do what you do.”

“Natalie isn’t with me, now.”

“So I was told.  I never really liked her contribution, anyway, to be frank; too fussy.  I’d prefer if you did it on your own.”

This surprised Tarq, but he agreed.  He painted the sets.  By a stroke of fortune that wasn’t really a stroke of fortune because Margo set it up, someone from the regional opera company came to see his work and asked him to do their sets, too.  Soon, a wider audience began to express interest in his paintings.

And there, I suppose, the story rests.  You will probably have guessed by now that ‘Tarq’ is a pseudonym, not our hero’s real name.  Even in this day and age, few painters gain notability and wealth in their lifetime, but ‘Tarq’ has certainly achieved this.  Nowadays his signature on a painting is worth millions.  To this day he remains an artist of note, although his genius has never exceeded that of the group known as the ‘Avant Cavalaire-sur Mer’ triptych, with their unique blending of paint and clay.

The last time I saw him, I asked if he ever got in touch with Natalie again. I knew that she had never reached Art College in London as she planned, electing instead to follow a rock band on a tour or two.   Tarq knew where she was, he said, because she had written to him asking if he would like to paint with her again.   He told me he refused her request.

He remains a very private, and to strangers, a very lonely figure.  His face is not well known, but should you be in Sacramento, in the area, say, of the K Street Mall, and should you notice a gaunt, septuagenarian beanpole of a figure who lopes rather than strides, with his eyes fixed on his own reflection in the windows of the stores, it is likely to be him.  Lately, I am told, he is seen sometimes in the company of a woman who has the hands of an artist.  They walk together but they never talk.

I like to think that she is Natalie.

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

Image Credits: Featured Image: 5598 375 from Pixabay

Artist with Easel: Bridgesward from Pixabay

Cavalaire-sur-Mer: RD LH from Pixabay