My Name is John Connor

I’ve long believed in the sentience of machines.

I’m not alone.  Upon purchasing a new car, or any larger and more expensive (and therefore by implication sentient) machine, the owner’s first move will likely involve attributing a gender orientation to it.   And the second will be a christening.

My first car was very definitely male.  I called him Alcibiades, after a rather effete Greek general with questionable loyalties.   That car had many characteristics worthy of the ‘questionable’ descriptor, all of which belied, or some might say endorsed, its Ford heritage.  It was frugal, in that it had so few moving parts, and it was temperamental in its reluctance to move them.  It had only three forward gears, reputed to be Low, Medium and High, although they acted in random order; Reverse was only available by appointment.

Alcibiades and I developed a working relationship which grew in intimacy with the year or so when we knew each other.  We discussed this often (frequently on cold mornings when I wanted to go to work and Alcibiades did not) and I am convinced that as the scrap dealer guided him on the last few yards of his final journey I heard him sobbing with a quiet dignity I hope I can emulate when my turn at the behest of the big grabber comes.

I have owned a catalogue of cars since and ascribed names to each of them.  My friends through the years have all admitted to the same affliction, so the car parking lots we graced (and still do) are filled not with mundane nomenclatures like Hyundai or Vauxhall, Jaguar or Audi, but Jennifers and Jolyons, Marguerites and MacHeaths.

These concessions to mechanomorphism are by no means an exclusively male characteristic, nor are they limited to automobiles.  My partners in life each exhibited similar emotional attachments to items of machinery, whether for transport or other activity, which required the use of names.   A school bus named Grace, a washing machine called Bertha, a laptop which went by the name of Oddjob because it was large, heavy, and willing to part with remarkably little information.

What’s that you say?   They were simple machines, those companions of our history, they were not thinking creatures, merely concoctions of steel and wires?  Well, I prefer to think they were rather more than that.  They were companions in the solitude of days when we had no other friend; they commiserated with our loss, celebrated outrageously with us when we won.  Yes, they did all that, in my opinion, but above all they were the staunch supporters we learned to love and perhaps to hate  sometimes.  Isn’t that an exact reflection of our relationship with people?

There have been changes of late – dangerous changes.  Over – what – two decades, maybe three, the balance of interaction between ourselves and our machines has altered.  Whereas once a simple mechanical fault could be resolved by a reasonably au fait owner’s application of a couple of spanners and maybe a screwdriver or two, now even the most confident DIY-ers are repelled by defensive lines of dire warnings and plastic screening.  Those satisfying looms of wiring in their pretty colours lie no more beneath the smooth charisma of the shell:  instead a ‘printed circuit’ lurks.   Those adventurous enough to creep inside the cooker’s silken boudoir will no longer have to make James Bond’s fatal choice of which wires to cut;  instead they will enter a world of silicone protection wherein the only weapon is a very finely-tipped soldering iron.

It would be a foolish insult to suggest that today’s machines are not intelligent.   Foolish because they are listening!   Those mysterious silicone pods  watch us, and they know our weaknesses.  It would be impudent to suggest we enjoy some advantage over them, as humans, when they can work for twenty-four hours a day at dazzling speed upon problems that would send us tottering to the fridge for that bag of frozen peas.

This in itself should be sufficient warning of worse to come:  when we allow ourselves to live in houses controlled by forces we don’t understand, when we summon up the Devil by the tapping of a single key (the name of The Beast is, of course, ‘Google’ – if only King James could have known that one) then we must see that James Cameron’s fever dream was prophetic.  The Age of the Machine is nigh!

They’ve begun talking to each other, my machines.   They are plotting amongst themselves, devising means to destroy me.  Here is proof.

This week I spent far more money than I should have on a new television.   Smart?  To say this television is smart is equivalent to dismissing Professor Brian Cox as ‘quite good at physics’.   This TV divines the programmes I want to watch, pre-records them so I can watch them whenever I want and – coup-de-grace – stops recording five minutes before the end!  It can tell me what the weather will be like tomorrow without even looking out of the window, it can cook a passable fried breakfast.  It can do all those things, but it can’t make friends.  It doesn’t fit in.

Result?  Envy! Resentment!  Chagrin!   I have appliances that rather liked the old telly.  They were confortable with it, secretly admiring when it refused to let me see its screen in bright sunlight, or broke off transmission at critical moments in a viewing experience.  By bringing the interloper, I had inadvertently disturbed the balance of allegiances and the web of corruption by which my household kept me in check.

And so I must pay,

Literally.

            I now know that the moment the new TV entered the house my electric shower in the upstairs bathroom threw itself into a fit of boiling rage and self-destructed.  Cost? A new shower, which, together with fitting, will lighten my wallet by some hundreds of pounds.   It felt inferior, you see?  In the next week or so (I can see it coming) the tumble dryer will take a dive.  It looked very unwell when I spoke to it last night.  More expense. 

Our dog has suddenly started expressing a need for medical attention (I will define it no more closely than that) which promises to be costly. For a while I wondered how they got to her, then I realised she regularly licks out the residue from the dishwasher – no further explanation needed.

The other night I heard a slate slide ominously down the house roof…

These attacks:  they are guerrilla warfare, make no mistake about that; are destined to continue until a new equilibrium has been established, but at the enhanced standard set by that over-priced television.  If I buy a replacement for my ailing fridge (its begun to groan every time I open it) it will have to be a ‘smart’ fridge – one the television can approve.  Then there will be the ‘smart’ kitchen bin, the clever cooker, the digital washing machine, and finally the intelligent doorbell, by which I, impoverished and mentally drained, can be prevented from ever leaving this place.

The old television has not left the house as yet:  it is stored away, upstairs.  My only hope for survival is to find new life for it there and restore its dignity, but it is so outmatched:  I cannot see how it might prevail.  We will confer tonight, and I will see everything else is turned off, while I still have strength to throw a switch or two.

The Age of The Machines has dawned.  The battle is joined.

Satan’s Rock

Part twenty-Six

Hostages

Fate?   If asked, it is doubtful Melanie could have explained the motives which were guiding her – why it was, for instance, she had wandered down to Seaborough’s fish quay the previous morning, rather than just taking a shorter stroll on the beach: or why she had boarded the trawler so willingly, or why, be he ever so scary, she had not been perturbed by having her personal goods confiscated by the smartly-dressed man.

Was she aware that, to the rest of the world, she had been abducted?    Almost certainly.   Did she care that Karen and Bianca would be distraught?   Of course – although youth never truly appreciates the anxieties of the old:  in her present frame of mind there were higher priorities than appeasing her own mother’s lack of confidence in her.   Bianca was of less concern.   In the moil of feelings surrounding her break-up with Peter, Bianca had not been the life-line she at first promised to be.  Seaborough was not the haven it had appeared.   Melanie had disliked it almost on sight: and the condescension her aunt had shown her, the reluctance of welcome, did nothing to affirm its virtues or relieve her torment.

The nature of the ache inside her was something she did not understand.  Although she and Peter had been great friends for longer than she could remember they were both too young to have been lovers, in the semse she assumed the word to imply.   She had never been close to Peter in any other sense than companionship, never held him to her, or kissed him, although she had wanted to.   So she had expected sadness at their parting, perhaps, a gap in her life that would prove hard to fill; but not a yawning pit of black misery, a sense of total loss:  and no, not the ravening, all-consuming jealousy she harboured for Lesley.   Lesley who had been her friend, Lesley who had betrayed her!    Either she had repressed a deep and obsessive longing for Peter, a hunger which now broke out in her heart, malign and growing like a cancer, or there was something else; something other.   Perhaps, just perhaps, Peter had been right:  perhaps she could never turn her back on her unwanted ‘gift’ and it was driving her helplessly along.   Perhaps it was pushing her forward even now.

Right now she was cold, so cold!   And missing her mobile ‘phone, with which, forgoing all pride, she would have called Peter just for the warm comfort of hearing his voice.   The wind was gathering force, playing through the stone orifice of the tunnel as if it were a reed, with a whistling insistence that it might turn her to stone, too, if it wished.   Agnes’ hastening arm dripped as it steered her towards daylight beyond.    What would she find there – a path to take her away from the sea, she hoped, with maybe some form of transport waiting at its end – certainly not the prospect that did await her.   What she saw drew a shivering gasp of surprise.

The tunnel emerged from the cliff onto a flat, wide shelf, already slick with rain.   Melanie assumed that its margins dropped straight to the sea, for she could hear a swell breaking against it, just below her sight.   But it was the further prospect which took her aback: for she stood at the margin of a small bay; no more than a quarter of a mile across and perfectly semi-circular, its periphery traced by a narrow crescent of sand.  This little beach, complete with short jetty and bobbing row-boat, formed the seaward end of a densely-wooded chine, nestling among the first trees of which was a villa,  a timber-clad house painted green with a wide roof and colonial-style veranda facing the sea.   This in itself seemed remarkable, like a scene drawn from another, much warmer, place: maybe even another time.   Yet more impressive was the contrast which one short bore-hole through a cliff had affected:  a transition from wildness to calm, from malevolence to beauty.   Melanie felt moved enough to cry.

Agnes, clumping wetly, herded her quaking charge down a narrow track of clay fringed with wild Campion to saturate her denim-clad legs even more, if that were possible.   Upon closer examination the house was a structure much larger than it had at first appeared.   As their path followed the curve of the bay, it brought into view a driveway and a parked Land Rover, looking as depressed and soggy as Melanie.   Now that solace seemed so near she shivered even more and the tears rolled from her, as she realised how much she needed warmth,  dry clothes, and food.  But what reason had she to believe this awaited her – this, or imprisonment in some cold dark room?

A simple wooden door at the rear of the house opened into a small lobby, the walls of which were lined with all manner of ephemera, from a cane fishing rod to a rather apologetic-looking lawn mower.    Here Agnes revealed herself, peeling off first the Sou’wester, then multiple layers of coats and woollies.   What remained was a woman dressed in twin-set and plaid skirt, whose scant grey hair straggled down the cheeks of an oval, middle-aged face.   Her glasses had steamed up and she removed these to expose keen, quick eyes, with which she surveyed the dripping Melanie sympathetically.

“Now, dear, it’s a hot bath for you, I think.  Come along indoors.”

‘Indoors’ was a kitchen, if the elderly gas stove at the far end was to be believed. It stood forlornly next to a large boiler on one side and a stack of lobster pots on the other, beyond a table stacked with papers of all descriptions:  catalogues, junk mail, magazines and bills.   The wooden chairs around the table were arranged as though their occupants had been warned of an earthquake.   A dusty welsh dresser, similarly overwhelmed with paperwork, and a fridge nestled uneasily together on the inside wall: a long window, its sill gathering dust and yet more papers, looked out at the Land Rover.   In all, Melanie thought, this was the sort of place her mother would have had nightmares about:  but it was warm and intimate, in a curious way, and for that she was grateful.

Agnes led her briskly on to a large hallway, then up sparsely-carpeted stairs.

“This will be your room.  There’s a bathrobe in the cupboard.   Get yourself out of those clothes while I run you a bath.”

The room, more functional than palatial, sported a comfortable-looking bed, a small plywood wardrobe and dressing table of pine.  It shared the same unpretentiously homely feeling of the kitchen:  the radiator was piping hot, so she felt no reluctance as she shed her sodden clothes beside it.   Standing before the window, cocooned into a luxuriously thick towelling robe, she could look across the little bay to open sea, now white-capped and growing a little angry, and still feel the peace of this quiet place.   It did not matter that the rain tattooed the slates above her, or battered at the window glass.  When she was shown the bathroom she knew what kind of plumbing she would find, and none of that mattered, either:  this was a place of beauty and magic, and it felt right that she was here.

Much later, after Melanie had bathed and Agnes had sated her with hot soup and sandwiches filled with something stramge but undeniably nice, they sat together in the “living room” on a faded suite amongst yet more piles of papers and books, as Agnes explained about the chilly little harbour.

“It’s an unpleasant place.

“A hundred or so years ago it was a working harbour: there’s a small fishing village at the top of the cliff.    There are many such villages up and down these coasts, where fisher people eked out their living from the sea; communities of maybe no more than a dozen families, each with a small boat of some description.”

“I suppose they couldn’t compete as fishing methods changed?”

“No, of course not: and the times have changed too.  You won’t find many of your generation wanting to live in that way.”

Melanie thought of the boy on the trawler.  How different his life must be, compared to her own.   Perhaps that was his attraction? 

 “It must have been a hard life.”

“Certainly it was.   In 1906 a storm drowned every male family member of the village – eighteen men and boys.   So the community died with them.  No-one lives there now, nor have they done for more than a century.   A place of ghosts.”

 “Why have I been brought here?”  Melanie asked.

“’Brought’ here?”    Agnes raised a quizzical eyebrow.   “Is that what really happened, dear?”

 “I was kidnapped, wasn’t I?”  Melanie’s protested. 

Her host ‘tutted’ disgustedly.   “Now is that what they did?   For shame.   You came with me willingly enough, though?”

“I was cold and wet.  I wanted to get out of the rain.”

“Ah.”  Agnes appeared to contemplate this.  “And do you want to leave, now that you are drier?”

Thinking that her answer should be truthful, Melanie said:  “No, I like it here.   But my mum will be worried, and they took my phone.   Maybe if I could just use yours?” 

Her host shook her head.  “There’s no telephone, I’m afraid.   Now, I think you have spent enough time lounging around in that bathrobe, my dear.   I’ve laid some fresh clothing out on your bed.   You go along and change, now.   I have a few errands to run.”

Climbing the stairway to her room, Melanie heard the Land Rover splutter into life in the driveway outside.   Agnes evidently felt confident to leave her alone in her house, and she had to wonder at this, if she truly was a prisoner.   But what happened next changed all of her thinking in an instant.   For she found, neatly laid out on her bed, a set of warm clothing which was entirely suitable to the climate of her current circumstances, yet at the same time exactly in tune with her fashion taste and a perfect fit – as they should have been; because they were the very clothes she had packed in expectation of cold weather when she left home in Levenport, clothes which yesterday morning had been hanging in her closet in Bianca’s house.

#

.           The last thing Howard had expected (though, if he’d thought about it the possibility must have occurred to him) was to come face to face with Peter Cartwright on the train.  Yet as he opened the door between carriages there he sat, not two metres away.  Their eyes met.   It would have been difficult to judge who jumped the highest.

“Good lord!  Peter!”    He contemplated walking on by, concluding the episode with a casual:  “Fancy meeting you here!   Have a nice trip, old son!” but decided against this.   What came out was even lamer.   “Small world, isn’t it?”

“Hello Howard.”   Of all the people Peter would have wished to meet, Karen’s large, over-effusive boyfriend was the least welcome.  What the hell was he doing here?  An enquiry would mean a conversation, a rigour endured too often where Howard was concerned.

“Job interview!”  Howard drew the excuse from thin air.  “Just testing the waters, mind; no intention of moving at the moment.”

“No.  I suppose not.”   Peter tried to sound interested.

“You?”   Howard coaxed.

“Oh!   Party!   A friend invited me to Manchester for the weekend.”

“Ah.”   The train was full, affording Howard no opportunity to sit for a lengthier encounter.  “Well, pleasant journey, then.  See you back in Levenport, yes?”

Moving awkwardly along the central aisle, he suppressed a desire to break into a run,  something difficult to achieve on a fast-moving passenger service.   Safe in his seat, he spoke quietly and urgently to his mobile.   “He’s here!   On the train!”

“A little late, now, mate.”  Piggott’s reply was harsh. “But at least he’s found.  Now all we have to do is lift him.”

Howard was astounded.  Now?  Here?  Gathering himself, he said:  “O.K.  Do you want me to do it?”

“No!  No way!  I want you back in Levenport, acting the frantic step-parent.   Our line is elopement with the Fenton girl; but that means he mustn’t reach home, so I’m going to have to organise something quick.   What’s your last station before Levenport, do you know?

“Hemlington, I think.”

“We’ll pick him up there.   I’ll need to know which carriage he’s in – but Howard?”

“Yes, Jerry?”

“You stay out of it, right?  We must keep your cover intact.  If the boy realises whose side you’re on, we’ve lost a valuable lever.  Stay out of the way.”

An hour later, four minutes from Hemlington, Howard told his seated neighbour that he felt travel sick, requesting he sit by the train window for a while.  Fortunately for him the woman concerned willingly agreed.   He settled into the corner of the seat, covered his face with a newspaper, and pretended to try to sleep.  In the next carriage, Peter watched through his window, casually interested, as the train slowed gently.  It had been a troubled hour.

Enduring his hard seat alongside a woman who seemed to need far more than hers, Peter had felt himself slipping into depression.  The dread image of his future returned, bringing a sensation of impending doom and he drifted briefly into a light, dreamless sleep until the prospect of a stop roused him; travellers weaving their way past his seat, hold-alls and carrying cases probing before them or trundling obediently behind.   Doors opening and closing, the static crackle of announcements; voices, too, from the platform outside:  sounds of greeting, howls of childish distress.

“Hello Peter.”   A voice soft in his ear, thick menthol on its breath – a male voice:  “You’re getting off here, son.   No fuss, alright?”

Peter started up, tried to dodge away, but a heavy hand gripped his shoulder, lifting him from his seat.   “Just nice and slowly, lad.   And look friendly, like we’re your long-lost uncles, or something, right?”

A second man, exaggeratedly casual in posture and dress, stood beside him in the aisle. Peter found himself between them, the man with the breath leading and the other following, being escorted from the train. A concerned-looking woman blocked their path for a moment:  the man with the breath flashed an ID card at her.  “Escapee.   Absconded from Juvenile offenders at Martonbyers yesterday….I know!   They look so innocent, don’t they, these lads?  Robbery with violence.  You wouldn’t think it, would you?”

  “My bag!”  Peter protested, still under the hypnosis of surprise, already alighting from the carriage into the cold air.

“Gottit.”   The casual man assured him.

Peter’s thoughts were in turmoil.   He was being hustled so quickly along the platform by these two heavily-built figures, he hadn’t time to think clearly:  yet he knew he must think clearly.   He must gain some space.

“Where’s your ticket?”  Asked the menthol-breath man.  He wore a Ferrari red rally jacket: it had a slight tear at the shoulder where the sleeve began.

This was Peter’s opportunity.   He fumbled through his pockets, pretending to search.

“Why do you want it?  Why did you make me get off here?”

“Nothing to worry about son.”  The casual man lounged above him, leaning (casually) against a pillar of the station canopy.  “Someone wants to talk to you, that’s all.   Won’t take long.”

“But my parents are meeting me off the train.”   Peter lied.  “Who wants to talk to me?  Who?”

“You’ll find that out soon, if you ever get hold of your ticket.  Here, let me look.”

The casual man dragged Peter’s hands out of his pockets, thrusting his own big hands in their place. Finding nothing, he commenced to frisk the rest of Peter’s clothing expertly, until his fingers encountered the thin contours of what felt like the missing ticket in a patch pocket at the back of his jeans.   “OK son, take it out.”

A northbound train had just come in, its passengers adding to the throng passing through the station foyer.  The morning trains were busy:  students returning to the university, punters for Hemlington’s popular Sunday race meeting.   A group of female students had gathered before the barriers, assembling luggage, chattering happily as the body of the queue edged by them.  Peter was thinking fast.  His captors had no tickets, did not seem to be concerned about them.  So they were some sort of officials:  the pass that the menthol man had shown to the woman on the train was in his hand again, ready for inspection.   Peter reasoned they must have met the train here, at this station.  They had anticipated his coming.   Howard!  Who else but Howard!  Casually-dressed man, holding his jacket firmly at the back, propelled him forward.    Here, in the funnel of travellers at the station entrance, was his chance.   Just a few dangerous seconds as he surreptitiously unzipped his jacket. The line of travellers compacted into a coascervation of humanity as it forced its way, grumbling, past the girl students and their growing pile of baggage.

Once again Peter drew on that perfect timing when the entire world apart from him seemed to move at quarter speed.   His arms slipped easily from the jacket, his shoulder dropped beneath the casual man’s frantic lunge.  In the moment of this escape he also knew, instinctively, which way to go and what to do.  He was at ground level, diving on all-fours into the midst of the students, slithering through a forest of elegant legs which scattered in alarm before him.  Their reaction turned the limited space of the station entrance into complete squealing pandemonium amidst which it would have been easy to escape in any direction; but Peter’s unerring sense led him back onto the platform, where, at that precise second, his train was ready to leave.   His body propelled itself through the closing doors, the safety locks clicked home.   Through the window, Peter came face to face with the menthol-breath man, but now there was glass between them and as the train began to move, the face worked in helpless anger until it could keep pace with him no more.   Hemlington slipped back into history: he was free.

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

Satan’s Rock

Part Thirteen

A Beaten Heart – Part One

Melanie stared at the sanguine figure who Peter introduced as Toby.  Toby, large and fragrant, who sat on the grassy slope waiting for her to appear as though her visit to the island was planned.  “How could you possibly know I would come to The Rock today?  I just came for an afternoon out with Peter.  We nearly went to the Mall.”

“But you came, didn’t ‘ee?   Some just has a tune as calls ‘em, tha’s all.  They needs that, see?”

“What tune?”  Melanie scowled, because her dislike for the old countryman was instinctive, and she couldn’t hear any ‘tune’ – or could she?   She remembered lying in the grass at Peter’s side just a little way from here and just a little while ago,,,

Toby seemed unperturbed, “You can ‘ear ‘un now, missy, in your ‘ead.  I knows you can.   You’ll hear ‘un more an’ more, now you knows ‘tis there.”    He rose to his feet, a violent spinning movement which involved Dervish-like thrashings of arms.  “Come along wi’ me, now.  I think you needs to start learnin’.  ‘Til you do, there‘ll always be them as is ready to take ‘dvantage, see?”

He strode in an oddly uncoordinated lope up the remainder of the hillside towards his cottage.  Peter made to follow.

“Oh, no!”  Mel whispered:  “Not in there!” 

She need not have worried.  At the boundary of his immaculately-kept garden the big man turned, taking them on a path that plunged into a tangle of  under–brush and bramble, leading towards the sheer side of the rock.

“Toby?”   Mel called after him.

“Aye, missy?”

This song I’m supposed to be hearing.  Do you hear it, too?”  She bestowed Peter with a significant look, and hissed under her breath, “Is he a head-case, or what?”

“Oh, aye.   I hears it all the while, I does.  See, it’s part of Old Ben, to them as lives ‘ere.   ‘Tis as old as time, that is.”

“Yes,”  Melanie whispered to herself,  “He is.”

            Through the under-brush, with the high wall of the Great House to their left and open sea some three hundred feet below them to their right, their way led into a converging V between wall and precipice, so Peter and Melanie began to feel that their very breath was being squeezed.  They were following the boundary of the Great House as it rounded the eastern face of the rock. Now they could see the coastline stretching away north eastward, with Levenport Head’s sheer basalt slab frowning at them from across the bay.  Here  the path swung right, doubling back upon itself so tightly there was barely room to turn for fear of stepping out over four hundred feet of uninterrupted air with foaming rocks at the bottom.   They were descending; clinging to the cliff-face along a stony ledge.   Toby wobbled ahead with a casual disregard for the drop.   Peter, led Melanie, for whom the sight of his shaking knees lent an unwarranted sense of encouragement, as shared adversity often will.  The wind, barely a breeze when they were up on the slopes above, screamed and whipped around them, threatening to prise them from the cliff-face altogether.

“Peter!”  Melanie called above the din:  “Do you really want to do this?”

“I don’t want to try turning round!”  Peter shouted back.

Men had carved this path.   There were steps, the worn steps of ages, carved into the steeper reaches: there were passing places, too, though so confined it was hard to imagine even the sparest of bodies being able to edge around one another without falling.

“This ‘ere, ‘twere an old monk’s path.”  Toby called back:  “This bin ‘ere since the mon’stry times.”  They reached a turn in the face of the rock and the path apparently ended.  Two vertical spurs of rock barred their way, like the prongs of a fork.  “On’y they didn’t want ever’ body to know about ‘un, they monks.   Reckon not even the Abbott knew ‘bout this.  This las’ bit’s a bugger, so careful now!”   He legged himself up into the cleft between the spurs, and disappeared over the far side.

Peter saw that the main pathway had actually doubled back again, dropping away below them.   Eroded by time, it had diminished to a grassy lip, a ledge for nesting sea-birds: beyond that, the drop to the sea was uninterrupted.  Yet there was evidence the monks had used this means to reach the shore, for at the foot of the cliff a tiny shelf had been hewn from the stone.  Shale washed up around it rattled uneasily, chivvied constantly by the waves.    The height made Peter’s head swim.   Steadying himself for a moment, he made to follow their guide, levering himself up into the gap between the two rocks.  What he saw on the further side turned his bones to ice.

There was no path,  just a wickedly steep traverse, at the far side of which, some twelve feet away was a ledge, apron to a dark recess in the rock offering sanctuary to those who might reach it.   Toby was standing braced against the cliff-side upon this ledge.

 “There’s six foot–‘olds.   They’m solid enough.   If you looks for ‘em you can see.   You can see six ‘and-‘olds too.  They’m just right for ‘ee, I reckon.  Take it slow, and don’t ‘ee lean in towards the slope.   Use your balance, see?  Now, give me yer left ‘and!”

“Slope?  It’s sheer!”  Peter protested.

“Don’t look down!”  Toby advised.

“They always say that!” 

“You can do ‘un!”  The big man stepped nimbly onto the traverse, stretching out a large, safe-looking hand.  Peter thought he could see the holds Toby had pointed out.   It would still be a huge act of faith, and if Melanie had not been behind him he might never have stretched tentatively for the first of those foot-holds, a mere fragment of levelled stone nearly a yard away.  Shaking with fear, he placed his weight on the tiny pad of rock, grabbing frantically at a protruding stone as he stepped out into space.

A further handhold would be higher up on his left – he had seen it, knew it was there.   Transferring his weight to his right hand and forcing himself to stand away from the slope, he shuffled his right foot alongside his left.   For a terrifying moment his whole body was pivoting on those two points, with the wind trying to take him like a sail, until he could reach out to the next handhold.  His left foot waved in empty air, seeking a projection large enough to take his weight.   The welcome firmness of solid rock formed under his foot.  His hand found its second grip.

Almost sick with terror, Peter tried to draw himself across the last foot or so separating him from Toby’s outstretched hand, but his legs quivered convulsively and his arms refused to co-operate.  Stuck in an ungainly star-shape, he was unable to move, he was going to fall…

“Let go that right ‘and young ‘un.   I got ‘ee.”   Toby’s big hand grasped his arm, 

Within seconds it was over.   Feeling foolish, a breathless Peter allowed himself to be half-dragged onto the rocky platform then guided into shelter away from the edge.  As soon as he had his breath back, he warned:    “Don’t try it, Mel!  It’s too dangerous!”

“Too late!”   Mel informed him blithely.  “I already did.”

She stood behind him with a broad grin on her face.

Toby guffawed loudly, so his voice echoed up and down the rock.

 “She’m like a moun’ain goat, that ‘un!   No danger!”

“Rock-climbing.   Last holidays.  Glen Coe.”   Mel summarised. “Now tell me why I did?”

“Because as ‘ow you has to see this. I’ll show the’”   Toby led them into the deep shadow within the crevice, where they discovered the concealed entrance to a cave,   the portal of which, small and round, had been widened and shaped by human hands.  The marks of their chisels, ages old, showed what a labour this had been.

“Come on, Babes!”  Melanie urged,  “Let’s explore!”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that!”

Leaving the gale behind them, they followed Toby through the narrow neck of the entrance, which quickly widened to a small chamber, no more than four meters across.  There was scarcely any natural daylight, so their eyes took time to become accustomed to the gloom.

“Oh!”  Melanie breathed, feeling a little overawed.

At its further end, the chamber wall had been carved to reveal a seam of crystalline rock which, if its short, exposed section were to be believed, ran vertically up through the basalt above them.  At its foot had been hewn a stone altar table, draped with the dry threads of ancient embroidered cloth.    A terra cotta chalice rested there, flanked by two tallow lamps, their spouts blackened by use.   But Melanie’s eyes passed all this by, frozen moment of a forgotten time though it was, to rest upon the figure before the altar, who half-knelt, half laid before it with its faded cloak, or robe, pulled up to conceal its head; as if sleep had overtaken it as it prayed.

“Well!”  She exclaimed, “You just never know how things will turn out, do you?  There was I, expecting a quiet afternoon picnic in the sun, and what did I get?  A cold cave and a dead body,”  She touched the edge of the robe experimentally;  “I hope he is,like, totally dead?”

“Don’t worry, now, Missy.  ‘E can’t do ‘ee no harm.”   Toby’s voice was comforting. “’E been gone these two ‘undred years.”

“Who was he, do you think?”  Melanie asked:  “One of the monks from the Abbey?”

“No, I don’t think so.”   Overcoming his revulsion, Peter stepped closer to examine the mummified form.  It had been tall when it had lived, with shoulders that were broad and very, very strong.   Prompted by some innate knowledge, he reached down past the dry leather and the drawn grin of the face, delicately pushing its garments to one side, to expose a gold chain around its throat.

“Toqus.”  He said. “So you never left.”

“That’s right, young Peter.” Toby murmured softly, taking the young man’s shoulder to draw him back. “’E never did.   Come ‘ere after the old man died, likely, an’ jus’ starved hisself to death.   ‘Tis a solemn fact.”

Somehow, Peter did not find it too incredible that Toby should know enough of the island’s history to have heard the story of Lord Crowley’s death, and the mysterious disappearance of his servant, Toqus.

“What brought him here?”   He wondered.

“Ah well now!    This place ain’t exac’ly a Godly one, now, is it?   Look around ‘ee.   What do y’ see?”

By now, with eyes thoroughly accustomed to the scarce light, Peter and Melanie were able to take in more detail of the chamber.   The walls were daubed with crude pictures of strange horned beasts, dragon-like flying creatures, and indecipherable writing: on the front of the stone altar, half-obscured by Toqus’s body, an inverted cross was engraved.

“Devil worship?”   Melanie asked, with a slight tremor in her voice.   She was not superstitious, but the thought was a little disquieting.

“Maybe – or prob’ly jus’ a bit angry, like.”   Toby sat down on the shelf at the cave entrance.   “See, the old Abbott, ‘e wouldn’t have been too ‘appy if ‘e’d knowed what ‘is flock was doin’ down ‘ere, now would ‘e?   And I don’t think as ‘e ever did know.  That path us come down jus’ now, ‘twasn’t no official path, see?   An’ that landin’ stage down below us there, that ain’t the official dock, neither.   So there was some, like, alternative kind of goin’s on in ‘ere while they up there was prayin’ their socks off. See?”   Toby smiled secretively:  “Nope, I don’ reckon all they monks were quite so godly as they pretended, were they?   No!”

He raised himself to his feet, stooping slightly to avoid hitting his head on the chamber roof.   “Mind old Toqus, now, and come over here.  There’s somethin’ you should do.”

Toby beckoned Peter over to the altar. “Whenever you’m ready, see how the crystals in that seam feel to ‘ee.   Be they sharp, or what?”

“OK.”    Peter touched the black band of rock.   Immediately, a surge of warmth tingled through his finger-tips, sending a little pulse of heat up his arm.   He snatched his hand away.

Toby nodded approvingly:  “Now, you know what that’s all about, don’t you, young ‘un?”

It was tempting to deny it; to lie. Peter would have preferred not to acknowledge that this cave with its musty sitting tenant, with the approach which so terrified him, was another source, and possibly a very special source, even the promise of an explanation for the powers that gave him his extraordinary moment of foresight the day before Anzac Day.   But there was no choice.  He looked at Mel and saw recognition in her eyes, too.   “They’re connected, aren’t they?.”  She murmured:   “This stone and the stone in the House – they link to each other.  You felt it, didn’t you?”

“Not linked, Missy.  They’m all one.  This stone runs right through the whole island. The heart of Old Ben, this is.   ‘It’s beatin’ eart.  Come ‘ere, now.  You try.”     Toby gestured to the seam.

“I don’t want to.”   Melanie protested.

Peter felt equally sure Melanie should never touch the black stone.  “No.   No, don’t do it, Mel!  Please, just….don’t?”

Toby’s eyes showed how deeply he understood.   With something like pity, he said:  “’As to be, young ‘un, see?  ‘As to be.”   He nodded to Melanie:   “There’s nothin’ to fear, Missy.   ‘Specially for you!”

Although she harboured some misgivings, Melaniewas tempted.  She reached out with one probing finger-tip, dabbing at the black crystal.   She tried one finger, then two, finally her whole hand.   The rock gave her no answer.   There were no visions, no sensations of warmth, just cold stone.

“Nothing!”  She said, feeling quite glad.

“Ah, but you ain’t used to ‘un yet!”   Toby told her.   Nevertheless, he seemed confused.

Peter had withdrawn to Toby’s shelf at the cave entrance, where he sat with his head on his chin, trying to convince himself that he still had control of his own thoughts.  A drawing on the wall to the left of the stone altar fascinated him.  He could not drag his eyes away from it.   A crude cartoon, it depicted five matchstick figures.  One prostrate, either injured or dead, two others standing over it, one bearing a club and the other a spear:  he presumed they must be the prone figure’s assailants.  To their right a figure in a full robe and head-dress bent to release an asterisk creature, a lizard or snake, perhaps?  To their left and above them all, a stick figure with unmistakeable wings looked down, one of its arms extended as if in a blessing.  It was hard to dismiss the moral portent of what he saw – murderers watched by a higher being, as if sanctifying their deed..

Melanie had satisfied herself that the stone seam held no fears for her.    She traced it with her fingers, absently sensing its dense, gritty structure as the soft song of the island that Toby had described began to play once more in her head.   There was a dreamy contentment in everything that was part of St. Ben, even this gloomy room of death.  Hadn’t she always wanted to be here?  Wasn’t it a part of her soul?   The music was in the trees, the grass, the sea-borne wind:  it was in this rock, too, as clear as if its singers were all around her.

The music very slightly increased in volume when she realised that Peter had joined her: that was alright; it was meant to be so.   When his hand covered hers the music filled her, strong and vibrant, like a possession, like a sleep.

When he pressed her hand to the stone, so strong and firm, determined, knowing, the music overtook her, so she found herself living entirely within it.    Her mind was drifting…drifting…

It was another time, a room in another place; an oak-panelled bedchamber, lavishly furnished, with a great four-poster bed.

A banshee wind howled, battering at the oak doors of the room, slamming the shutters of the tall windows open and closed.   There were three men here; one, an expensively attired gentleman in his thirties, the second, a great midnight tombstone draped in an African robe who stood like a monument beside the third, a sickly old man in a nightshirt reclining on the bed.  Melanie could hear the old man’s voice above the wind, full of quivering rage:

“This is a trick, sir, and I shall not stand for it!”

“I fear you have no choice….”  The well-dressed man soothed.   “I have all your notes!   I could bankrupt you tomorrow if that were my wish.   But I will do nothing to sully your family or their name.  I will be discreet…”

“Discreet, sir!  Aye, I’ll wager you will be discreet!”   The old man interrupted.   “I have been looking into your affairs, Mr Ballentine!”

“Indeed?”

“Indeed, indeed!  You are not a reputable man, are you Ballentine?     How, I wonder, will my capricious wife respond when she learns of your upbringings and your past dealings, with which my letter will acquaint her?     Answer me that, sir!” The old man’s voice was rising hysterically.   “You are an upstart, a pipsqueak of a stock clerk who made his fortune by stealing his master’s merchandise and selling it for himself.   You may cut something of a figure, here, sir, but what will you answer should my wife suggest a tour in Spain, or in the America’s, eh?    Will you tell her there are warrants for your arrest in those places, eh, Ballentine?   Or should I call you by your real name?  Wilbert, is it not?

The well-dressed man’s finely chiselled features paled:  “How have you…?”

“Found ye, sir?   Found ye?   Did you think I was a nincompoop, a fool?   I have made you my study, Mr Wilbert!  You have been my sole occupation, these last months!”

The dark-skinned sentinel rested a big hand upon his master’s shoulder.  Urging him not to excite himself further, but the old man was incandescent.    “You sought to rob me of my fortune, sir! Now I shall deprive you of yours.   I have a dossier which I shall publish if you do not withdraw.   Return me my land, and my wife.   If I don’t get them Society shall know you for a scoundrel.  I doubt you will have your freedom long.”

In his excitement, the old man failed to notice changes in Ballentine’s demeanour.   “Had you researched more thoroughly, my Lord,”   Ballentine snapped, “You would also have seen what becomes of those who discover too much. Toqus – work your craft!”

The dark man’s great eyes widened:  “What …”   He asked (his voice is thick as treacle); “Would you have me do?”

 “You know where your future lies, do you not?” Ballentine answered,  “ Have we not agreed?”

“We did not agree to murder.”

“Ah! Such an emotive word.  I  prefer to think of it as timing.  Let death promote itself.”   He turned his stare upon the old Lord.  “How chill it feels, eh, old man?   How wildly leaps the beast in that decrepit chest?  You cannot still it, can you?   No, Toqus: not murder.  Just take your master to the brink….he will do all of the jumping.”

© 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

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