Nowhere Lane – Chapter Thirty-One. A Rift in the Lute

Edging through the space between the wall of the tiny passage and its grisly occupants had been a major hurdle to Patrick.  To have to pass with his face an inch or two inches from such stark reminders of the frailty of life, even with a merciful cloak of darkness to veil them would have been trial enough, but his added conviction that one of these bodies must be all that remained of his beloved Karen so stuck in his throat he had to fight back a surge of vomit.  Rebecca got him through; Rebecca, her hand clasping his, almost dragged him past the horror – her torch set upon the steep rise of the tunnel ahead of them, her resolution putting his failing courage to shame.

The steady dripping of water from above them would cease as the floor level rose, although not before it had soaked them both and set them shivering convulsively.  Patrick in his car coat fared reasonably well, but Rebecca’s sweater was heavy with water.  She made no complaint despite her obvious suffering, though, and the passage reprieved them by ending as dramatically as it had begun.  Stone steps confronted them, eight steps, leading up to a wooden door.

Teeth chattering, Rebecca ran her torch over the door’s stout wooden planking and its rusted iron ring handle, which latched on the other side.  “This is as old as the tunnel;” she whispered.  “Shall we try and open it?”

“Can you hear anything?”

Together, they pressed their ears to the timber, listening for some sound beyond the door, but there was none.  Patrick tentatively made an effort to turn the ring.  The latch on the inside could be heard rasping alarmingly, then it jumped from its stay with a loud clank.  Patrick leant his shoulder against the door and pushed, finding virtually no resistance:  it swung easily back – so easily he almost fell.

Rebecca was also applying her weight.  She did fall, uttering a loud expletive and immediately admonishing herself “Whoops; language!”  She had pitched forward onto what felt like a rather threadbare carpet.  She regained her feet.  “Friggin’ hell!”  she exclaimed, admonition forgotten,  “Will you look at this?”  She swung the torch around her.  Speechless, Patrick followed the light as it scanned the walls and carpeted floor of the sort of living room that might grace a small rented apartment.  There were cheap framed prints on the walls, several chairs and a settee, upholstered in red cloth, beside a small table.  The only noticeably absent detail was a window.   Her beam settled upon a light switch beside a door in the further wall.

“Might as well try it,” she said.

Flicking the switch rewarded them in stuttering seconds, as the starters of two fluorescent tubes above them on a low ceiling stirred into life.  Patrick, stupified, stared about him at an electric fire upon a false grate on one wall, a standard lamp beside the settee sporting a brightly coloured shade depicting an American baseball scene, magazines, some newer, some older and well-thumbed, on the table and on one of the chairs.  Upon the settee, a plate, a knife and a fork – and on the plate, a half-eaten meal.

“Shepherds Pie, by the look of it.”  Rebecca said, wrinkling her nose.  “A few days old, though.  Someone was eating here, the old guy, I guess; looks like he had to leave in a hurry.”

Added to the same frame as the door by which they had entered was an inner door made of steel, which would have prevented access entirely, had it not been left wide open.  This door was heavily barred, with a hasp and padlock anchored to the wall.

“So, what do you think?  Servants’ quarters?”  Patrick asked, not admitting to the plethora of possibilities that nagged at his mind.

“Maybe.  Let’s see what else there is.”  Rebecca was still standing by the light switch, and its adjacent door, which she opened with little regard for caution.  “D’you wanna see if that heater works?  I’m bleedin’ perishin’!”

Beyond her door, a short passage led to others:  the first, a bathroom:  basic, but still functioning with a cabinet that had been emptied of all the bottles and potions it contained.

“There’s been some stuff in here.”  Rebecca pointed to the marks where bottles of liquid had stood.  A half-used toilet roll hung from a string on the wall.

Opposite the bathroom, a bedroom – bare floor, a single divan bed, stripped of linen, a small table with a mirror above it.  There was a yellowing Beach Boys poster pinned to one wall, a smaller picture of Manfred Mann on another.

“Surely someone still lives here.  Look at the table, those splodges of colour – it’s like someone’s been painting something.”  Patrick who, having conquered the electric fire, appeared at Rebecca’s shoulder, had the feeling he wasn’t functioning properly any more.

Rebecca detected his mood.  “Hey, Patrick, keep it together, Okay?  Those colours are creepy, though.”  She gave the table a closer look; smears of blues and reds, greens and flesh tints, sharp strokes of black.

Patrick had to speak his thoughts.  “Yeah, okay.  I just didn’t have the shrivelled little bloke I saw down as a follower of Manfred Mann.”

And she thought ‘or a wearer of stage makeup’:  she thought, but she did not say.  Instead, “You’re jumpin’ to conclusions.  Look, there are two more doors yet.  We need to check this out quickly, and then we have to get out. If you are right, the incumbent won’t want us in his home, and we don’t want to meet him!”

The remaining door on the left-hand side of the passage proved to be another bedroom.  A bare bed base, and bare walls.  Then, finally, a door that was different in so many ways from the others.

“Look at this!  It’s padded!   Heavy, too!”

The door, secured by two strong iron bolts on its outer side, was faced with black, cushioned leather.  It swung wide under Rebecca’s hand to reveal a space of almost total darkness, for the light from the living area could not reach this far.  She struggled with the doorjamb on the open side until her hand found a switch.  She flicked it down.

“Oh, f**k!”

“Language!”  Patrick reminded her.  Then he saw.

Sepid blue light faded up on a spacious chamber, the very sight of which took the breath from Patrick’s body.  At its centre, and dominating the space in every sense, stood a large, wide bed with a headboard of padded black leather.  Bedclothes of red silk were strewn about it as though it had been slept in that very morning.  The walls were also padded, again in black hide, so the light that filtering through grills in the ceiling was almost conquered by their gloom.  A stout, red-upholstered chair in Louis XV style stood in one corner.  Picture frames, four of them, lay broken upon the floor.  There was one other strange, disturbing thing about that floor – a plate of steel which was bolted to it, and attached to that, a pair of manacles.

“I need pictures,”  Rebecca said.  “Then we go.  See if you can find anythin’ that will give some clue who was here!”

“I think I can tell you who was here.”

Rebecca grabbed Patrick’s arm and turned him so he had to look into her eyes.  “See, mate, a couple of posters don’t mean a thing!  Yeah, I know what you’re thinkin’.  You may be right, but that won’t explain this room, now will it?”

“You don’t know what I’m thinking.  You can’t.  You never met the occupant of this room, ‘Becca, but I know who it is – or was.  I told you about him yesterday.  The padding?  The restraints?”

This gave Rebecca pause. “No; no it can’t be!  A madman imprisoned in the Driscombes’ cellar?  The Driscombe family?  No.”

“Why not?  Rochester kept his wife in the loft.”

“Yes, but that was… he could get in and out by the tunnel, couldn’t he?  So there’d be no reason to associate him with the house.”  The embers in Rebecca’s eyes were glowing brightly.  She grabbed his arms.  “Patrick!  Man, what a story!  If it’s true!”

“I think it might be.   There’re no windows anywhere, but I’m sure we’re under the house and, what’s more, there must be access somewhere.  I’ll see if I can find that.  You attend to business.”

So, while Rebecca busied herself with camera and flash, Patrick took the torch and set about discovering the final piece to the puzzle.  It wasn’t hard.  At the end of the passage he needed only shine the beam upward to see an aperture through which a frightened medieval Catholic might once have dropped.  This narrow shaft, and part of the iron stair-frame that had ascended through it was easily detected.  Just as it was easy to see how the staircase had been cut, quite recently judging by the brightness of the sheared metal, and the shaft itself plugged with new concrete.

“They’ve blocked it off permanently,” he said.

“And concrete takes a while to dry, which is the reason the Driscombes tried to delay the Special Branch inspection.  I’d say the upper end of that is covered by floorboards or somethin’ now.  That’s why the big steel door is open.  Whoever finished tidying up down here had to leave through the tunnel.”

Patrick stared around him.  “Isn’t it possible he just escaped?”

“I doubt it.  The place has been cleared out, apart from that half-finished meal.  From the way you describe him, your long-haired nutter wouldn’t have been much of a housekeeper.  No, this is political, Patrick, and it’s big!  This is dear bumbling old Stafford desperate to be a government minister, and not wanting to explain why he has a dangerous madman in his cellar.  As to where the fruitcake is now, that’s a separate question.  Speaking of escape, it’s time we did, too.  Come on! Switch the lights off, so nobody can discover we were here.”

Unwillingly, Patrick threw the switches as he was instructed, following the young reporter back into the darkness of the tunnel.  Reliant only on her torchlight now, he had to rush to catch up with Rebecca’s determined stride; plunging, stumbling in the scarce light, downhill, through the stone arched vaulting, only pausing long enough to edge past those three more permanent occupants, before scrabbling after a receding beam up the slope on the further side of the riverbed.  Rebecca understood a danger that perhaps, in his eagerness to uncover some further clue about the person who had lived in this anachronistic dungeon, had escaped him.  It was not to elude him for long.

“Too late!”  Rebecca stopped, so abruptly Patrick almost ran into her.

Nearing safety at the end of the tunnel, there was no sign of welcoming daylight.  The torch picked out the steps that should lead them upwards, into the ruin of Boulter’s Green.  “They’ve closed the trap.”  She muttered.  “I sort of expected this.”

“A trap it is then!”  Said Patrick, with feeling.

The torchlight shone full in his face.  “And a trap it was?  Mister Patrick!  I’m thinking of some bad, bad words!”

In the next ten minutes or so, Rebecca reiterated her entire vocabulary of reprehensible language, interspersed with dire threats, at the top of her voice, pausing to listen, now and then, for some response – any response.  There was none.

The silence imposed by that weighty barrier to the outside world was chilling.  Patrick felt the gooseflesh rising on his arms.  At last he interjected,  “I don’t think our captors are responding to threats so I suppose we have to try and get it open.  Care to join me?”

He mounted the narrow steps, positioning himself so he could apply the full pressure of his shoulder to the stone slab.  Rebecca slithered her way up to join him.  “It’s a bit intimate, isn’t it?  Do you mind?”

“Nice as your body surely is, you’re soaking wet and my mind just isn’t on it right now.  Come on, get pushing!”

Patrick’s plan was to use the strength of his legs to make one step at a time, but it quickly became evident that was not going to work.  The already heavy door had been additionally weighted down from above, and despite their best-combined efforts, the pair failed to shift it one inch.  All they could achieve was a faint sound of abrasion from the stone that had been piled up over them.

“Whoever closed it put half a house on top.”  Patrick opined.  “Rebecca, I think we’re in trouble.”

“Put your back into it, mister.  Keep trying!”

“So be it.  One, two three…”

And on, and on.  For most of a half-hour they tried, dividing their strength between leverage and an attack on the surrounding stone with hammer and chisel, the only tools from Rebecca’s bag they had brought with them from the outside, until exhaustion had diminished their effort to such an extent that to continue was pointless.

“What next, Miss Resourceful?”

“We’re not goin’ to get out this way without more tools.  Do you think there’s  somethin’ back in that apartment we can use as a crowbar?”  Rebecca, torch in hand, was already retreating through the tunnel.  “You keep chisellin’, I’ll have a look.”

She was not gone for long.  “How are you doin’?”  She asked, not climbing the steps to be beside him.

“Not well.  I’m moving some of the clay, but there’s not much room to work.  God knows how they built this thing.  You were quick; was there anything?”

“Dunno.”  Rebecca muttered, so quietly Patrick barely heard her.  “Didn’t get through.”

“What?”

“I was scared I wouldn’t get back,” Her voice was hushed,  “Patrick, I think they’ve turned off the pump.  It’s already waist deep back there.”

If he was quiet, Patrick thought, he might still be able to hear that far-off, but very heartening hum,  All he heard was the trembling fear in Rebecca’s breathing,  Yet still they should be alright, shouldn’t they?  And he tried to tie the strands of comfort together; the logic that said however low the lie of the land on this side of the river, here, at the head of these steps they were still higher than the level of the water.  The water entering the tunnel was seepage, not under any pressure, so…

“How high’s it goin’ to come?”

“Don’t worry.”

“Somebody’ll come and find us, right?”

“Someone’s bound to,” he assured her.  He did not share the thought that they had seen too much, that whoever had replaced this stone did not intend they should survive.  Shrugging off the portents of doom, Patrick turned back to his work with hammer and chisel.

#

Stafford Driscombe’s afternoon had not been pleasant.  After an edgy meeting with Leon Scherner, a fellow back-bencher whom he knew to be interested in a job at the Home Office, a contentious Commons debate required his presence in the voting lobbies, where his personal position, despite his instincts, had demanded he follow the wishes of his party Whips.

In the solace of a deep winged armchair at his gentlemen’s’ club, and behind the disguise of the day’s edition of ‘The Times’ he was able to indulge himself with half an hour of peaceful reflection.

“Stuffers, old chap.”   The voice calling time on that peace was subdued, even a little obsequious.  “May I have a quiet word?”

“Toby.”   Stafford did not have to lower his newspaper to identify the owner of that voice.  He knew it well.  “I do so enjoy your ‘quiet words’.  Have I been a naughty boy?”

“Well, I wouldn’t exactly…I mean I wouldn’t precisely…”   Tobias Simon Algernon Mountravers  Fitzwilliam Caverley-Masterson was unused to speaking confidentially to the day’s headlines, especially as he had already seen them.  “I say, lower the sight screen for a moment, would you, old thing?  Meet a chap in the eye?”

Stafford lowered the upper half of his newspaper and glared over the top of the rest.  Toby’s moustache (his only visible body hair) bristled officiously.  “Derbyshire is doing uncommonly well,”  Stafford said with heavy emphasis.  “Three hundred and twenty-something for six.  Excellent innings by Smith; should have been a century, y’know.  Good chap.”

Toby nodded.  “Standon looked a little vulnerable.  Not his wicket, really.  Too slow for the medium pace fellas.”

“What is it, Toby?”

“Ah, what was it?  Well you see, I was having a tiny word with Reggie Maudlin this afternoon, and your name came up in conversation.”

“Really.”

“Yes.  You know how anxious Ted is about his troops, especially as things are?   It is so important to keep the wheels on the wagon, everything running smoothly, no bumps and jumps at the moment, isn’t it?  We all agree.   Reggie’s sure you agree?”

Stafford frowned.  “Certainly.  We wouldn’t want to leave Ted short of a wheel.  Do I take it Reggie considers my wheel may require extra grease, Toby?”

“Good point, Stuffers; ably made.  Shall we mix a metaphor or two?  Shall we say there are one or two minor ripples on the pond – little matters Reggie feels you should take care of?  Nothing major, of course.”

“Oh no, of course not.  Nothing major.”

“So important for our beloved leader to have a strong team around him, you see.  No rifts in the lute, as the expression goes.”

“No indeed!  Wagons, ponds, lutes…awfully complicated, don’t you think?  Tell Reggie he has no need to worry.  The little matter is all in hand.”

“Jolly good, jolly good.”  Tobias Caverley-Masterson rose from his chair.   “I’ll inform Reggie, something along those lines.  He is sure we can rely upon you to keep a tight ship.”

“I am, indeed, taking care of it, such as it is, Toby.  He can have absolute confidence.”

“Excellent, old thing.  You’ll have our full support, of course, if you need it. Toodle-pip.”

As Tobias drifted away, Stafford completed a thought begun before he arrived.  The woman had to be taken care of.  As was the case with all people of Stafford’s relentlessly logical mental composition, he was capable only of seeing the woman as a problem to be solved.  She must not be permitted to obstruct his ambitions for this year, and unfortunately, (for he rather liked the little witch) she was a scandal primed and ready to happen.

Stafford watched the squat form of Tobias Caverley-Masterson retreat silently across the thick carpet of the Member’s Lounge.   With the sigh of a man who must work when he would prefer otherwise, he folded his newspaper and eased himself from his comfortable chair.  There were telephones in the main entrance hall.  He commandeered a free booth and extracted a rather battered red notebook from his inside pocket, fingers moving quickly through the indexed pages to the letter ‘L’.    Ladbroke, Lambert, Lanchester, Laughton, LeBoeuf, Lipman:  Mortimer Lipman; a chap with a boat.

Mortimer Lipman: a small memory made his lips twitch in a smile as he recalled a previous occasion when Mortimer’s boat had proved useful in remedying a minor inconvenience within one of his companies.  He recalled Mortimer’s words:  “The wonderful thing about the North Sea, old boy, if you understand them, is the tides.  Pop a champagne cork into the right spot and it won’t wash up in Norway until 1995.”

Stafford dialled the number.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Seven Altered Fortunes

Those who knew Jacintha Driscombe would have been surprised if they learned of her hatred for London.  Although she never openly expressed it, she endured the round of Kensington and Knightsbridge parties that formed so much of Stafford’s political life with gritted teeth and icy propriety, conceding to her husband’s wilder excesses only because they instilled sufficient guilt in him to ensure his loyalty to her.  When he returned from an evening of raucous indulgence she would be waiting to tell him how much damage he had done to his image, and how fortunate he was that the gossip columnists had given his particular soiree a miss.

Stafford would affect unconcern, dismissing her as a scold, and never really accepting his wife’s reminders that sobriety was a precondition for someone intent upon high office.   His conscience would be pricked, however, and he would remind himself to be more cautious next time he found himself tempted by an ample bosom.  He was always prey to temptation, was Stafford, and he was far too socially obtuse to recognize the true cause of his wife’s discomfiture.   Once, after all, she had loved London – why didn’t she now?  Jacintha would never tell him: she would never confess to the threatening train of events that haunted her dreams, if one day his behaviour should awaken the instincts of a newshound eager to expose the darker corners of her very ordinary past.  This town was full of relatives and past show-business associates all of whom would be ready to tear her, and therefore his prospects, apart.

The night of July fourteenth, nineteen sixty-four was particularly vital.  The party of itself not excessively so, only in its choice of guests, one of whom was  President of the Board of Trade, a man considered to be an invincible force in Stafford’s political party, and almost certainly destined to become its leader.  In stature Edward Heath was not particularly prepossessing, but the shake of his hand, especially if accompanied by a short exchange of views, was an ambition within Stafford’s compass, and Jacintha was coolly focused upon seeing it achieved.

Heath was not particularly susceptible to the charms of the female sex; Jacintha knew this, but for once her own frail history played to her advantage, because Heath also suffered from inglorious antecedents, being, exceptionally for a high ranking Conservative, the son of a builder and a maid.  She would never refer to this commonality in conversation, of course, but it engendered a certain ease of communication which gave her the chance to corner the great man and engage him for some time.

Despite an ancestral line founded among the Stuart kings and a mountain of family wealth (the Driscombes owned the mining rights to several mountains, most of which were full of gold), Stafford Driscombe was a very moderate politician.  It had taken Jacintha’s perspicuity, together with an unfortunate experience while shopping one Saturday in Caleybridge, to set him upon a crusade which allowed his horizons to broaden.  There was no doubt the abolition of National Service and liberal enlightenment that would soon transform a generation into what has become known as the ‘Swinging Sixties’, had created an unhealthy youth culture prone to violent displays – a general revolt against the Conservatives’ precious status quo.  Upon Jacintha’s suggestion, and with not a little cajoling which, like most of her invocations, started in the bedroom, Stafford had stepped forward as the standard bearer of those who wished to discipline the rebel ‘Mods and Rockers’ and, to use Stafford’s own words;  “Bring law and order back to the streets of Britain.”

As catch-phrases go, it was hardly ‘catchy’.  As problems went, the new-found freedoms of youth would take on many other more challenging aspects, but it afforded Stafford an opportunity to exercise his true skills, those of covert plotting and devious dealing.  In his long occupation of his parliamentary seat he had cultivated a number of friendships in the more conspiratorial depths of Home Office, and it was these, as much as any other modicum of success, that began to attract notice from The Party, notice sufficient to allow Jacintha to touch Edward Heath gently on his arm and utter words that would become fateful in their time:

“Ted, I wonder if I could introduce you to my husband?”

#

It was not sight that first informed Patrick in his awakening but touch – the soft brush of a kiss upon his forehead; so that when he raised his eyelids for a confused look at the returning world the view in the mist was of Jacqui Greenway looking embarrassed and ecstatic at the same time.  She withdrew quickly, her eyes shining and a laugh that was half a sob caught in her throat.

“You’re awake!”  She said, pointlessly.

He murmured something he would never remember.  Then he went back to sleep.

Recovery was to take months.  There were internal injuries as well as bones to heal, all of which involved intense discomfort and chronic pain.  Only a first fortnight of this time was spent in a hospital bed, the remainder at his home, Radley Court.  Gwendoline, his mother, was watchful, his sister Gabrielle attentive, Jackson, his father, for the most part absent, working as hard as ever.  Spring of the year following Karen Eversley’s disappearance was spent in long hours on the lawns with Petra, now fully healed and back to her usual obstreperous self, bouncing at Patrick in her enthusiasm, impervious to his disability and in danger of adding to it.

Now and then Jacqui’s car would venture up the driveway to Radley Court.  Patrick found himself anticipating her visits more and more eagerly because her companionship was always pleasurable and her controlled sympathy for his reduced state a balm his family somehow failed to administer.  When Jacqui visited Gwendoline would watch from a distance, reading the young woman’s heart with the same acuity she once demonstrated to Karen.  The difference was in Patrick’s reaction, which she could interpret equally well.  Nevertheless, Jacqui and her son spent hours together, sitting side by side on the grass on warm days, in the snug when it was cold or if it rained.  And the conversation was empty, while the meanings crammed within it left no room for more.

As Spring turned to Summer Patrick’s and Jacqui’s friendship deepened; but there was another – and Jacqui always understood this – who held onto his heart.

“Everybody tells me she’s dead; that she’s in a ditch somewhere, cold and returning to the earth.  I can’t see that.  I can’t accept it.  I may never find her again, yet I know she’s alive.  I can’t explain why; I just know.”

Such is the illusion that grips many who mourn the lost, that no matter how unimpeachable the evidence they will still hold fast to a belief that in some way their loved one has survived.  Nevertheless, Patrick seemed content with wishing.  Somehow he contrived to close the book on his relationship with Karen, in a way that mystified Gabrielle, who of all his family was the most persistent and the most loyal.  She had barely time to strike a friendship with Karen, yet it was she who kept searching, quietly asking questions, seeking answers.  Patrick?  Gabrielle excused her brother for doubting; maybe he just couldn’t accept that Karen’s love for him had been as deep as she herself believed.  Maybe he had succumbed to the police-inspired argument: Karen had simply left him and moved on.

There existed another reason for Patrick’s demeanour, however; one he never divulged.   Mrs Buxham, Radley Court’s ‘Morning Lady’ was so seriously overworked she could sometimes be guilty of shoddy cleaning practices; a crime for which she was never blamed because everyone except Jackson recognized the enormity of keeping a small mansion in order.  Mrs Buxham was becoming elderly: Mrs Buxham needed help.   So Patrick was less put out of temper than he should have been when, returning from hospital and still deeply ill, he was visited in his bedroom by the considerable personage of Mrs Buxham, in apologetic mode.

“I’m so sorry, Mr Patrick.  I was cleaning the room Miss Karen stayed in t’other day.  This were in the bedside drawer.  I must have missed it last time.”

She thrust a small envelope into Patrick’s hand, then retreated hastily before Patrick worked out the implication she had only entered the room twice to clean it in the last ten months.  The envelope was addressed simply:  ‘Pat’.  The slip of notepaper from within it said:

My Darling Pat,

Our time together is almost over. 

Be happy, only spare a moment now and then to remember me with fondness? 

You taught me love.  You taught me so much.

Your devoted Karen.

#

In July Paul and Gabrielle announced they would be married, and the house rattled and banged and rushed and bustled with renewed vitality.  That was the month Jacqui remembered for the first time she saw a smile reach as far as Patrick’s eyes.

“I want you in the business.”  Jackson Hallcroft told Patrick.  “You know I’ve always wanted that.  I need your help, son.  And you need mine.”

“What makes you think I could do it?”

“You’re a Hallcroft, aren’t you?  You’ve a head on those shoulders.  The market’s changing and our industry could use a few clear heads right now.”

Patrick’s view of the proposition was fatalistic.  He might as well do that as anything else, and idleness had become irksome.  Whether boredom or the prospect of a new set of company wheels enticed him, the following Monday Patrick limped through the doors of his father’s mill.  It was the first time in a lot of years he had been further than Jackson’s office to stand among those great machines which produced carpets branded with his family’s name; the immensity, the noise and the smell of dyes entered his blood and he was smitten.

Jackson Hallcroft was no easy taskmaster.  He insisted Patrick learned every aspect of the trade:  In the years which followed he was grounded by learning the milling process, acquiring the expertise needed to mind the machines, teaching himself how they worked and their capabilities.  Inch by inch he improved, seeing how his father was blinded by his own success and adding his voice to those on the factory floor who predicted the need for change.  If the history of Hallcroft Carpets were ever to be finally written, it would be said that Jackson built the business, but his son took on the new markets and won.

So time passed: the months grew into years, and the years since Karen’s disappearance multiplied.  Although she held a place she had requested in Patrick’s heart, he no longer expected to meet her around every corner, or read her name in a newspaper, or hear her voice in a crowded room.  You should not doubt his faith:  in a few days in a forgotten time, he had found love, only to have it taken from him.  Had he the means or the knowledge to find Karen he would have done so, but she was gone – vanished.  The Old Father worked a healing magic, a spell he needed if he was to live his life, and Karen became a memory consigned to an archive of that life.

It was on a day in early August of 1969.  Gabrielle and Paul now lived in a town in the North, where Paul had a job that promised a partnership later on.  Amanda (Sprog) was compensating for her erratic schooling by exhibiting the first signs of brilliance and a determination to pursue her mother’s profession with all of her mother’s skill.  At fifteen she had grown tall and statuesquely beautiful, while her rampant snobbery had dwindled to a sediment within her speech, so that it was no longer the things she said that were offensive, merely the way she said them.  Gwendoline’s hair had turned to grey.  She had become dangerously thin, inducing Patrick to conclude his mother had some illness, though she would not speak of it.  She still rode, if a little painfully.

Patrick at 29 years old, now a director in his father’s company, telephoned his friend Jacqui to suggest a meeting in Caleybridge at their usual restaurant.  At the end of the call, Jacqui replaced her receiver thoughtfully.  She and Patrick had dated sporadically through the years, although he never called them ‘dates’. They never ended with more than a familiar peck of a kiss, followed by a lonely taxi-ride home.  The pair had no relationship, as such: or fealty to each other.  Each was free to date elsewhere, and did; though with little enthusiasm or success; Patrick, whose heart was stuck in the past, would try to find another Karen when, of course, there was no other to be found, while Jacqui’s quest was more aimless but still, after all, as futile.  There was no alternative Patrick, either.

This day, though, she thought she detected some difference in his voice, which filled her with dread because she knew, deep inside herself, that her infatuation with him must find an end somewhere.  Her hope, the one romantic aspiration which sustained her, was that time would eradicate the scar Karen had left; that in some time to come he would stop re-living the two short weeks when he fell in love, and return to her world.  This had not happened, and she persuaded herself it would not happen.  The platonic years had taken their toll, so now there was a small embittered corner in her heart that almost hated him.

He was already seated at the bar when she walked in.  She had made no effort; sweater and jeans, hair only summarily tamed.  When he turned to see her and smiled his usual welcome some of the palpitations in her chest were eased.  She smiled back.

“I ordered for you.”

“Did you now?”  She said.  “You know I hate that.  I take it we’re eating here, then?”

“I thought…”

“No, that’s okay. I suppose.  I like it here.  What have I got coming; crab, or something?.”

“Oh, look, I’m sorry, Jacks.  I ordered tartare, but I can change it if you want?”

“No!”  Jacqui raised a defensive hand:  “Tartare’s fine, just fine.  I wish you’d leave me the freedom to choose, that’s all.”

There was a corner table they were accustomed to booking, and although the restaurant’s popularity was increasing now, Patrick’s status as a customer normally assured them of their place.

For a while they small-talked: Patrick had been out of town; how was Bea?  Was Bopper settling into his new promotion?  Had she sorted out the lighting she wanted for her apartment yet?  The main course came and went, but the evening had begun on a low note, and Jacqui’s impatience began to show.  “What’s this about, Pats?”

“How d’you mean?”

“Not our usual night is what I mean.  You, nervous as a cornered rabbit, that’s what I mean.  What’s going on?”

Patrick sipped his wine, nodding slowly.  “I didn’t realize I was so transparent.”

“After all these years I shouldn’t know you?  Come on, give!”

“I’m going to talk politics for a minute.”

“Must you?”

“You asked.  It’s like this, Jacks.  You know there’s an election coming up, don’t you?  Everyone thinks Labour is going to win.”

“You don’t?”

“Wilson’s not handling Ireland well, and there’s a lot of disquiet about the strength of the unions which I think will turn the country towards a Tory government.  I’ve been watching the changes very carefully, and I’m fairly convinced.  Not a landslide win, maybe, but almost certainly a new administration, and it’s going to be run by Heath.”

“I guess I agree, although I wish it wasn’t Heath.  The man has no charisma.  He reminds me too much of Douglas-Home.”

“Really?  A blue-blood against a wannabe?  Still, be that as it may, if Heath wins he’ll have us in the Common Market within the year.  I happen to think that’s his big appeal.  It’s a foregone conclusion, and ‘Hallcrofts’ have to be placed to take advantage of it.”

“So?”

“So I’m meeting a small trading mission of European buyers in London next week.  They’re on a busy schedule, and I’ll only have an hour or two with them, but I hope to open the doors to a German marketplace that’s made for us.”

“Surely it’ll be two years before the trade links are available.  And that’s if Heath does win.”

“The avenues are open now, they just aren’t free of tariffs and bureaucratic obstacles; if I’m prepared to finance some initial losses, I’ll have a very big foot in the door when those issues are removed.”

“I see that.  Pats, darling?”

“Hmm?”

“What has this to do with me?”

“I don’t speak fluent German.  You do.  Your French isn’t bad, either – better than mine.  I need an interpreter, and I was hoping…”

Jacqui groaned.  “Sorry.  Count me out.  I’m flattered you should ask, but how do I get away from work?  Pat, I can’t just take time off, not these days.  There’s too much going on.”

“Two days, that’s all I ask.  Two days in London.  I’d love it if you could come, give your moral support and all that.  I wouldn’t ask, but I just know it would work for us both.

Jacqui thought she saw what was in his mind, but it needed to remain unsaid.  Surely not?  After all these wasted years?  That trepidation she had felt when he first telephoned her for this meeting returned threefold.

“Is it what you really want?”

“I think so, yes.”  He grinned.  “I’ve taken long enough about it, haven’t I?”

Her heart answered.  “All right, if you’re sure, Pats.  I’ll work it out somehow.  I’ll come.”

So it was that Patrick and Jacqui met on Platform Two of Caleybridge’s railway station at 6:00 am one weekday morning, the seventh day after their discussion.  As always, Patrick was there first, and when he heard the click of Jacqui’s heels on the stone behind him his mind flew back to a corridor and a Conference Room in a place consigned to memory.  He turned to greet her with the recollection burning in his mind, but then his jaw dropped open and his heart leapt at the sight of the woman he saw walking towards him.  Jacqui had made an effort.

#

“Tarq?”  ‘Becca Shelley’s snappy terrier-voice travelled well.  Tarquin Leathers, three desks away, heard her above the newsroom din.

“Yes, sweet Rebecca?”

“You remember this one from your ‘Record’ days?”  ‘Becca waved a news clipping above her head.  “Six years ago.  Caleybridge.”

“Where?  Oh, home sweet home, darling!  Hang on a minute; I think so.  It was my by-line, wasn’t it?”

“None other, Babe.   ‘Heir to Carpet Baron’s Millions Jilted’.  You could write some crap in those days, yeah?”

“Newshound that I now am, I haven’t lost the gift.  Stale copy, is that what you’re saying?”

“Maybe, maybe not.”    Rebecca’s rapid rise from the dungeon of the Beaconshire County Herald to a national ‘daily’ had not been achieved by freely sharing her secrets. “I think I might take this home, run me head around it a few times.”

“What have you got simmering in that evil little mind of yours?  If I remember rightly the story was still-born.  It’s provincial dead news.”

‘Becca rose half to her feet, so she could see across the newsroom partitions to Tarquin’s desk.  She tapped the side of her nose.  “Just a feelin’, Tarq.”

“Ah, really, just a ‘feelin’?  Bollocks, my dear!  Just a tip-off.  You want to spin anything my way?”

“Nah.  It’s probably nothing, anyhow.  And whatever nothin’ is, it’s all mine.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

 

The Destiny Game

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Once or twice.”

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

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

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

“They say the luck runs.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Six months later.”

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

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

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

“Now Sophie.”

“Yes, Sophie.  Absolutely Sophie.”

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

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

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

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

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

Christian laughed.  “I did not!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, it’s a small thing, I guess….”

“What, then?”

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

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

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

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.