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The Kingfisher

The white house on the corner had been the village inn, as Ariel remembered it.  Now it was someone’s home. There were flowers on the forecourt where benches and tables once stood – that same someone had built a low wall around the flowers and lavished it with white render, butter-thick.  The old inn sign with its painting of a barge was gone; its bracket, carelessly daubed with splashes of white paint still clung to the front of the house, naked and neglected.  Reluctantly, as it seemed, the new owners had permitted one sign to remain, hanging from their pristine gable end. ‘The Marina’ it said, and waved a wind-stirred finger into Basin Lane.  Ariel followed it, her hand sweeping lazily over the steering wheel, for she knew this turning well.

 Leaving the village street behind, she felt herself plunging, almost tumbling, back into her past.  In this hired car she was driving along a country lane she had walked very many times; amid choirs of humming bees, hedges rich with white flumes of cow parsley, garlands of campion and wild rose.  A short mile with sun on her face, or sun in her heart?

A bow-wave of memories washed before her, threatening tears as hired metal savaged the overgrowth, wheels bucked over wrinkled tarmac, around narrow bend after narrow bend.  

And one final bend.

 As the curve unwound high hedges like drapes were suddenly swept apart to reveal the old weathered gate, as always, hanging open; inviting access to that rough dolomite rectangle Abel could never be persuaded to finally lay to concrete.    There was no sign:  the visitor might as well turn here – Basin Lane led nowhere beyond this.  Customers’ cars strewn, rather than parked, in woeful disorder: fewer than she remembered.  And the path which was the final part of her journey, carving a way down through tangles of columbine and nettle to the boatyard and the canal.

Ariel parked up alongside a gaunt blue Range Rover of uncertain years. She drew a deep breath, seeking inside herself for the same vitality that once had filled her lungs on her every visit here without need for invitation.  The intoxication was not as it had been.  She felt its loss acutely – what had happened here?  Not the neglect; the charisma of Abel’s touch had never reached as far from the water as this, but the sadness!  There was no other word to describe it, she thought.  What once had seemed carefree was now heavy with care – the wild hedge and sedge that once danced and rustled in a mischievous breeze now huddled for shelter from raking gusts of air that were hostile and chill.  The day was warm enough, so why did Ariel shudder before that wind; was there something deeper in her soul than mere apprehension at seeing him again?  Was the wrong she had done to him here, hanging on the air of this place like a pall – hanging over her head like a judgement?  ‘Abel, I’m sorry, I should have stayed with you.’  She rehearsed the speech in her head, the words she would never really say.  She finished aloud:

 “I should never have left.” 

Standing to stretch cramped muscles, she glimpsed the high roof of the boat house peeping above a weed forest.  Its presence reassured her, gave her courage, even eagerness, to descend the path.  

Twenty yards, no more; careful to avoid wasps milling around a discarded carton oozing something red and sweet, wondering with every step what changes, if any, she would find and hoping her foreboding was wrong and there would be none; the grey concrete with the wooden boat house that stood in defiance of change at its head, the veranda with its ancient steamer chair that had been her source of comfort on many a hot summer noon, the little row of jetties with maybe a narrow boat or two tethered between, the reflective calm of the old canal sleeping darkly beyond?   So short was the path she could not be kept waiting long.  In a few tentative paces that familiar vista was spread before her and yes, all that was old seemed substantially the same, if a little more weed-bestrewn and somewhat smaller than matched her recollection.  But it did not stand alone.

So he had built it at last!  Her heart rejoiced!

The house was new – single-storey, low and sleek.  Sliding windows open to their vista of the canal, newly painted frames and doors glistened faultlessly in the glare of sun.   It was not large, as houses go:  its green tiled roof, its modest glazing, even the rise of three steps which aligned it with the boathouse, spoke of modest practicality that was so unmistakably Abel.

And here too, when at last she could tear her eyes away from this most surprising of additions to the boatyard and cast about her, was Abel!  She started; unprepared, though heaven knew she should have been, to see him straightaway.  She had envisaged seeking him out, entering the cool dark of the boathouse, or checking the cabin of a solitary narrow boat tethered to one of the jetties.  But no, he was here, in open view.

Clad in once-white overalls he was painting antifouling onto a hauled-up river cruiser of a kind she knew he hated and she had no doubt it was he, though his back was turned, by the square set of his shoulders, by the firm plant of his feet upon the ground.  Why had she travelled so far, not really believing she might find him so easily, or find him at all?  

Approaching him, taking these last few steps, might be the most difficult of her life.   He straightened as she drew near, sensing her presence, but he did not turn around.

“It took you long enough.”   Abel said.  Those softly-spoken vowels, that imperturbable drawl.

She could not imagine he would recognise her step after so long, so had he mistaken her for someone else?  “I know.”  Ariel dug deeply to discover her voice.   “I had…things to do.”

She moved to stand beside him – to his left, as she always had, which suddenly seemed so natural to her, as if in a few steps she could make the years vanish, slip back into the envelope of her past.  “You built the house,”  She said.

“Ten years.”  He replied, inducing a flutter in her heart.  Without so much as a glance, head  known it was she?  The years, the months, the days: had he been counting them too? 

“Is it that?”  She struggled again to find words.  “Yes, I suppose it is.”  She said.

“I thought you were coming back after lunch.”

Ariel smiled a smile that expressed the breeze of contentment she felt; and she turned tear-filled eyes to feast upon Abel’s remembered face, praying she would see her happiness reflected there.  What had she hoped; that he would be exactly as she remembered – that same humour, that same tacit, complacent grin?  Her imagination danced!  He had missed her when she did not return, missed her so badly that he had taken time to consider those things which, whilst once they drew her to him, had finally sent her away.   And he had built the house!  In her heart she wished, she hoped, she prayed.  Had he built it for her, prepared with that eternal patience of his to wait forever if necessary, in case she returned to him?

Then she looked deeper and saw there was more than hope in his face – there was pain..  She saw the change in him.

He was older, of course; his wind-harrowed skin etched and stretched by winters of frost and summer heat, but it was no fierce attack upon his featuress, this weathering, for compared to some the canals were a gentle mistress.   No, it was not a history of seasons that she could trace in his lean features.  It was a ghost.   He read her concern.   “Lot of things different.”  He said.

The relaxed, easy drawl of his younger voice was the same, but there was a tension, even a bitterness behind those eyes.  She bit a lip that threatened to quiver.  “What happened, Abel?”  She nodded to the glass fibre boat he was working on.  “What are you doing with this?  You used to despise these things.”

“Steel boats are expensive now, and there’s some can’t afford the tariff.”   Abel slapped a brushful of paint at the exposed hull.  “It wasn’t a good investment, believe me.  The bloody thing cracks like an egg if it gets in a collision.  I’m forever repairing it.”

“You haven’t answered me.  What happened?”

He made no immediate reply but continued with his painting, as if he were searching for an answer that would satisfy, and yet keep his private truth concealed.   At last he said:   “Dad died, seven years ago.  I had to close his yard, it was too expensive and there was no way I could keep two running.  He had debts, you see.  We sold two of the boats to shoulder that, and then a couple of winters ago we got more rain than Noah could have coped with.   The river burst its banks up at Chalferton and overflowed into the canal system.   It did a lot of damage.  The navigation’s still closed up at Handyard’s Lock, so we’re just on a branch, for a while.” He smiled, but only with his lips.  “A few misfortunes, really.”

She said gently:  “It’s good to see you, Abe.”

“And you.”  He nodded tersely.  “You married, I heard it said.  To a rich American, was the word about.  What brings you back here?”

“Yes, I was married, for a while.”  Ever since her flight had left New York she had wondered how she would answer just this question.  She could claim she needed to visit her parents, anxious for her father in his advancing years – or maybe she needed to put distance between her and the man she was leaving.  There was some truth in that. New York had crowded her, the rush and hustle of city streets made her frightened and the pace of each day tore her inner peace – that precious peace she knew with Abel – into shreds.  Could she tell him the truth she had denied to herself; that her journey was really to find him: how much she had missed him, thought of him, worried for him every day for ten years?  And now she was standing at his side, how could she tell him all she wanted was to fall into his arms? 

“I’m not married now.” Ariel murmured, half to herself.  “Or I won’t be, in another three weeks.”   She forced herself to meet Abel’s eyes.  “We both have sad stories, don’t we?”

“Looks like it.”  He matched her stare.  “It didn’t work out, then?”

“It isn’t his fault.  His work takes him away for weeks at a time.  But me and the big city?  I’ve been on my own a lot, these last ten years.”

He grunted. “Seems like you should have stayed, then maybe things would have turned out better.”  

“You never asked me to.  That was all you had to do – ask.  I would have stayed.”  It was all she could manage to keep the tremor from her voice.  Why hadn’t he asked?  For all the years they had spent together they had been fast friends, and he must have known how much she loved him, yet he had never given her cause to hope he cared for her in return.  She drew a breath, saying;  “I’m sorry about your Dad.  I always liked him.”

“Yes, he was a miserable old bugger, but he had his ways.  It’s a pity one of them wasn’t writing cheques.”  Abel frowned, avoiding her gaze.  “It really is good to see you.”  He repeated, as if he was striving for sincerity.  He had thought her his friend, believed they would always have that closeness, and he wanted so badly to say how he had missed her, and tell her of the betrayal he felt when she left without warning, left when he needed her most.  All these things he might say, but could never say, now or then.  “Are you staying in the village?”

“No.  Mum and Dad moved to Frebsham five years back; but then you’ll know about that.”

“I did hear.   Forty miles.  That’s a long way.”

Like another universe to you’, Ariel thought.  “I’ll maybe stay in town for a couple of days.”  She said; and then, when he made no reply, but was still, and remote, lost inside himself:  “Look, you’re busy…”

“What will you do now – stay in England?   I mean, if you’re divorced…”

She smiled faintly.  “Not quite.  Not yet.  I’ll have to fly back, to finalise things, you know?  I’ll maybe look for a job up Frebsham way;  I don’t know.”

“Well, while you’re here you must stay for lunch.  I’ll get cleaned up…”

“No!”  She said it too quickly, bit back on the word.  “I mean, no, thank you.  I ought to get back to town, get booked in somewhere.  It’s the high season…”

“We were friends!”  He blurted out.   “We were friends most of our lives, you and I!”

“Yes, I know; and we’re strangers now.  My fault – all my fault.   I should have been there when you needed… I just wanted something – I don’t know; something more, I suppose.”

How had she believed a reunion could succeed where the past had failed?  Yet she was sure that love was there, and still she hoped – hoped to hear the staccato fracture of ice; to have him reach for her, take her in his arms and make the world come right!  For all her pride, she could not conceal the plea in her eyes, or dare to speak, lest her voice should give her away.  

“Lunch in twenty minutes!”  It was a call from the boathouse.  “Abey you demon, you’ve got company!   Why didn’t you say?  Shall I lay for three?”

A figure stood, fresh-faced and smiling, in the door of the boathouse, with one hand against the jamb.

“No, she isn’t staying!”  Abel called back.   And to her:   “It’s a pity, though.  Peter’s a lovely chap.  We’ve been together three years now.  I’m sure you’d like him.”

At that instant, Ariel’s eyes were drawn towards the cool waters of the canal.  For a second, no more, sunlight flickered on the blue iridescent flight of a kingfisher.

© 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

Galleons and Gold

                                     

Samuel Trimble visited the City with metronomic regularity.  On Mondays and Thursdays, his plump over-coated figure alighted from the ten-fifteen train, pausing on the station platform to lid his thin hair with a Homberg.  Then he walked – down the hill from the station, through the City’s narrow cobbled streets, beneath timbered houses which frowned and leaned above his head, sharing confidences with one another.

      Samuel’s destination was a coffee shop housed in a time-worn building, with timbers in its lime-plastered ceiling as craggily genuine as its little front door, which forced a stoop, even for one of Samuel’s diminutive stature.  At ten forty-five, having purchased a newspaper, Samuel Trimble could be found in his usual seat by an old brass bed-warmer in the corner.

“Coffee, sir?”  The waitress always asked.  She had brought him coffee without asking, once. 

Samuel had stared at it for a very long time before saying in his tight, lisping voice:  “I wanted tea.”

Screened behind his newspaper Samuel remained oblivious to the other regular visitors to the cafe: an old lady always asleep; head back, mouth open – so thin and pale a stranger might think her dead. Two men, thirty-something’s whose theatrical conversation was laden with ‘darlings’ and ‘Oh my’s’ at a big table by the counter:  a bickering young couple next to the window who made up quite physically before they left hand in hand, besotted. 

His ears were closed, too, to kitchen drama:

“What do you mean he wants Worcester sauce?  Worcester sauce on my cheese?   I don’t do.”

“He says he wants it.”

“Tell him no.  NO!  What is he – peasant?   Throw him out!”

“And his missus wants goat’s cheese and coriander.”

“That I do.”

“No point if you want me to throw him out.  She’ll go with him!”

“Don’t you get your cheeky with me, Miss!”

 The two theatricals gossiping, Sotto voce:   “Oh, my god!   She didn’t?

“In his face, my dear – right in his face I was mortified, I can’t tell you!”

 Samuel, who had shared this room with these people so often, never once exchanged as much as a greeting.  What was it, then, on this particular day, that made him lower his newspaper?

 “Young woman; we require a table for two.”   A grand dame with a thick film of slap on her wide, large-featured face and a voice that could re-route the ‘Nimitz’, she stopped every conversation in the café.   All eyes but Samuel’s turned upon the woman.  One of the theatricals gave a snicker of laughter, provoking a smack on the fetlock from his friend.

Samuel’s gaze was focussed upon the woman’s companion: much younger; of maybe twenty or twenty-five years – a girl dressed in a magpie’s nest of short imitation leather bomber, bee-stripe top and loose khaki cargo pants.  A pair of red thong sandals flapped beneath thin feet.  Her lank blonde hair hung to her shoulders, yet such a face!  A slender, porcelain oval with a small mouth and large, very dark eyes set in an expression of permanent wonder.     

The waitress indicated a table opposite Samuel’s. 

“It will have to do.  Bring us tea – two teas.”  Like a galleon, the big woman crossed the floor of the café in full sail and Samuel ducked as she swept past.  Her companion followed in her wake, a circling gull. 

The waitress brought them tea.  “Anything to eat?”

The woman glared:  “If we require food we shall summon you.” 

While the rest of the cafe’s interest in this pair had already begun to fade Samuel was completely absorbed.  He could not take his eyes off the slim, shy girl whose big eyes were cast demurely down into her teacup. She was the target of her bombastic companion’s bumble buzz of subdued conversation and clearly being castigated to a point, so Samuel thought, where she was almost reduced to tears!

He tried to divert his attention, he really did!   He concentrated fiercely upon his newspaper, shutting out the drone of verbal bullying; but a loud expostulation from the big woman put paid to all that.   Chair thrust back, look of thunder on her coarse features, the woman stormed towards the counter, trumpeting “waitress!” so loudly the cutlery tray rattled.  

“Yes, madam?” 

“Young woman, does this establishment normally allow standards like these?”

“What do you mean?”  The waitress’s voice was sullen, and a little shaky.

“This cup, girl.   It is cracked!  Well?  Replace it for me.  Come along now!”

As the offending item was exchanged Samuel Trimble’s eyes were drawn upward upon some invisible thread to be met fully by the eyes of the girl, whose lips moved to form a single word.  He could not hear the word, but he could read her lips:  there was no mistaking their meaning.  She had said, simply:   “Help.”

Behind him, the big woman boomed:   “And we do not expect to pay for our tea!”  The girl’s eyes dropped quickly.   The moment had passed.

How long did Samuel remain in the coffee shop?  He stayed longer, much longer than was his custom, determined not to leave until the girl, then to…then what?  He had no clear idea. 

“Another cup, sir?”

“No thank you.  No.”

“Pretty, isn’t she?”  Said the waitress, with a smirk.

Samuel made no answer – he could not.  Samuel’s ship upon the ocean of life, composed entirely of routines, each day planned so carefully he knew precisely what he would be doing on this day in another month, or even another year, had never tacked across the bows of a member of the opposite sex for more than the briefest  of encounters.  When women spoke to him (which was not often, because he could scarcely be called handsome or even interesting) he became tongue-tied.  He would be foolish or rude.  

Alone in the house bequeathed to him when his mother died, living on an inheritance eked out carefully from week to week he had never married, never worked for his living, and never loved anyone other than his mother.  So the waitress’s question, innocent as it seemed, was of such toxicity to Samuel that he quivered before it.

“I’ll get your bill.”  The waitress said.

And yet, when the two women rose to leave Samuel followed them!  Whether in an outburst of gallantry for the younger one’s plight, or merely to satisfy his curiosity he could not have answered.  He only knew he must not lose sight of the waif-like girl.  Every eye in the cafe watched him leave.  The old woman woke up;  the theatricals paused in their gossip to exchange conspiratorial smiles.

Samuel’s quarry followed the main street.  He kept well behind them, affecting nonchalance with such success that even passers-by with no notion of his purpose began to eye him with suspicion.  He held back so far that when they turned into an alley he almost lost them.

Samuel had never walked this lane before.  It was oppressively narrow – a twilight of overhanging tudor antiquity.  The girl’s slippered feet echoed noisily in front of him.  His own leather-shod heels clacked.

Did he notice when the large woman disappeared?    He was so intent upon the girl he missed her departure.  Had she passed through a doorway into one of these high old buildings?   He had no idea – any more than he understood how it came to be that suddenly the girl was standing right in front of him.

“You came then?”  Her voice was full of rich colours.  “I thought you would.”  She reached out to take his hand.  “Come on.”

Her hand was small and cool.  There was a doorway, then dark, dark stairs.  On a second landing, by milky light through leaded glass, the girl stopped.   Only one door, a very ancient door, led from the landing.

“These are my rooms.  You can come in if you’d like?”

 Samuel stammered.  “Your er…your mother.  Will she mind?” 

“Oh, her!  No, she isn’t here.”

“I thought you asked me for help?”

“Yes, I did.  I do need your help.”  The girls tone changed, so that somewhere (Samuel could not quite place it) a little sob entered her voice.  “It’s cold out here:  please, won’t you come inside?” It was quite cold.  Why had he not felt himself shivering before?

The door was heavy, so the girl had to lean against it before it would swing open.    She beckoned to Samuel, smiling for the first time; and her smile lit her face so sweetly that Samuel’s marble heart was instantly beguiled.  Mutely, he followed her. 

A warm lavender-scented room greeted him, with hangings of thick red brocade about its walls and bare flames licking at logs in a large open hearth.  The chimney piece was ancient, with its old-fashioned cooking equipment of firedogs and a spit still carefully blacked and in place.   A ceiling of unpainted beams frowned down upon a carpet so well worn it was mostly canvas, and a pair of upholstered chairs which stood either side of the fire.   These chairs, once richly clad in scarlet velvet were more distressed and threadbare than the carpet.  Two dusty leaded windows gave light to the room; a battered mahogany sideboard stood against the wall between them.  Other than the hangings, the only adornments upon the walls were five small paintings, each a portrait of some kind.

“Ancestors?”  Samuel asked.

The girl repeated her smile:  “Just paintings.”

For Samuel, the faded luxury of this room was familiar:  he had never the means to renew those items in his home which, by dint of long use, needed replacement.  So he was looking at a reasonable facsimile of his own sitting room. 

“Why me?”  He asked at last, gaining confidence.  “Why ask me for help?”

“You look kind.  You look…”  The girl moved close to him, gazing wide-eyed into his face:  “lonely.”

That word plunged, like a well–aimed arrow, into Samuel’s soul.  “Oh!”  he said, more in shock than anything.  Then:  “Why – I mean how – do you need help?”

The girl shook her head:  “I can’t tell you, yet.  You’ll think me …look, please sit down.  Can I bring you wine?”

“No, no thank you.”  Samuel responded, sitting down in one of the chairs all the same.  “Just tell me!”

“You’ll think badly of me.”

“I won’t!”  Samuel protested.  “I really won’t!”

“Very well then!”  The girl took the other chair.  “This is how it is.  That woman you saw me with, she isn’t my mother – she’s my landlord.”

Samuel began to wish he had not insisted.  Solitary though he might have been, he was not a fool, and the girl was right; he was thinking badly of her.  “Go on.”  He said, in his chilliest voice. “This is about money, isn’t it?” 

At once the girl’s features creased:  a tear formed quickly in her eye and toppled.  “Oh, you see?  I knew.  I just knew you wouldn’t like me!”

We have said that Samuel was unaccustomed to any form of intimacy with women, and the girl’s obviously genuine distress took him aback:  “Now, now!”  He tried to placate her:  “You are behind with the rent, I suppose:  by how much?”

“A thousand.”

Samuel stood up, brushed the front of his coat, picked up his hat.   The girl sobbed.  As he reached the door, her small form slipped in front of him, her delicate palms rested against his lapels.  “Please stay?  I didn’t ask you for the money.  Have some wine with me?”

“Young woman, I couldn’t help you with such a sum!”  Samuel protested.  “You should have budgeted more carefully, for heaven’s sake!”

“No, no!  I’m not behind with my rent!  My brother – he’s an artist – he came to stay with me for the summer, and she says I owe her double rent because he was here!   I don’t know which way to turn, I don’t!  She’s an evil, grasping woman!”

Large eyes, soft breath, quivering, slightly pouting lips – was it any surprise that Samuel wavered?   He had to step away from the intensity of that stare, wrest his eyes from the girl’s bee-stripe top and the gentle swell of her breasts.  He did so on the pretext of studying the small paintings on the wall – five of them, each a portrait of a different subject:  a warrior, a prosperous-looking Victorian grandee, a roughly-shaven priest with a strong jaw, a very regal gentleman with a posture of extreme hauteur, and a merchant of some sort in regalia festooned with jewels.

“What do you want?”  He asked when he had recovered himself. “You say you don’t want money; what do you want?”

“Why, your help – your strength!  The moment I saw you I knew!  You could stand up to her – tell her she’s wrong!   I need you to tell her she’s wrong!”

Samuel sighed.  “Where does she live?”  He asked.

The large woman’s green-painted door was near the entrance to the alley.  How long Samuel bumbled and fumbled outside it is uncertain: certainly to knock upon it took extreme courage. 

“Who are you?”  The woman boomed, filling the doorway with her presence. “I’m busy.”

Hesitantly Samuel entreated on the girl’s behalf.  The grand dame was dismissive: 

“That wastrel!   Don’t spend your sympathy on her!   One tenant, one rent; two tenants, two rents.  I believe that’s perfectly fair!”

If he was seeking a kernel of humanity within that obdurate painted shell, he did not find it.  “She owes me the money.”

“She doesn’t have it!”

Those needle eyes stared, rather as a cobra assesses a mouse.  “Do you?”

Samuel’s blood rose.  “I’m certainly not going to pay it for her!”

His indignant riposte brought forth a smile from the woman.  It did not have the same effect as the girl’s smile, but her tone altered.  “Why not, now?  A gentleman like you who comes to town regularly?  A nice little arrangement I’d say.  You pay her arrears, she repays you.  I’m sure you could think of some service she might provide?”

Samuel’s beige face turned as completely scarlet as was possible.  “How dare you!”  He stormed.  “Even to suggest such a thing of a young lady of reputation!  Even to suggest that I might be capable of…of…”

“Of what, dear?  Of needing what all men need?  Is that so bad?  And you might find your little angel to be a lot more demon than you expect.  But still…”  The grand dame shrugged:  “If that’s how you want to leave it..”

No, that was not how Samuel wanted to ‘leave it’. He was outraged, true, but he was also acutely aware of his failure.  He was failing to intercede with the dragon woman, and he was about to fail someone who had just brought a moment of beauty into his dull slab of life.  This monster was too free with her language, bereft of morality, for his dulled mind.  He shrank inside, and he turned away.

“I tell you what:” The woman said; “I’ll make you an offer, dear.  I know the girl has no money, and it’s only a matter of time before she skips; so here’s an idea for you.  I have a love of gold – I can’t account for it, I can’t excuse it, but I do.  Bring me two gold sovereigns for her debt.  Do that and I’ll clear her arrears.  Bring me one gold sovereign a month for her rent as well, if you like.  Think about it.”

Samuel could trust himself no more.  He stalked out of the alley and into the street where, having already outstayed his normal visit to the City, he headed briskly back towards the station.  But he did think about it.  On the train home, on the walk from the station, all through that night he thought about it; and by morning the ghastly woman’s proposition didn’t seem so bad.  It was only immoral, he told himself, if he took advantage of the girl.  If he was merely her benefactor it was an act of charity.

So the very next morning he returned to the City.   A numismatist in a tiny shop by the river who had never seen him before greeted Samuel like a long lost brother, and in no time at all Samuel, poorer by several hundred pounds, was knocking on the big woman’s door clutching two gleaming sovereigns in a desperate hand.

“I do so love that picture!  Saint George, God bless him!”  The woman enthused.  “Now remember – one of these a month!”

Standing on the landing of the second floor Samuel half-hoped the girl would not be at home, yet half of him was equally anxious she should answer her door.  She did.

“I’m so glad to see you again!  Come in!”  She said.

Only when he was inside the room did Samuel realise how little the girl was wearing:  a white shirt that looked very like a man’s shirt, bare legs and feet.  In a stammered sentence or two, he told her what he had done:  as he explained, her eyes became as wide as saucers, until she could restrain herself no longer.  She threw herself against his chest, her arms about his neck as she wept out her gratitude:  “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!  There’s so much kindness in the world!”

Samuel had never experienced the emotions he was experiencing now. He had never felt the soft warmth of a young woman’s body against his own, and even the padding of his overcoat could not disguise the sensation of those unfettered curves.  

“It’s nothing; nothing!” He demurred, almost incoherent with embarrassment.”Your rent – um – I’ll – um – just until you get back on your feet, you see?  That’s all.”

Sensing his discomfiture, the girl stepped back:  “You’d do that for me?  You’d pay my rent?  I can’t let you do that!”

“Your landlord and I – we have an arrangement.”

The girl studied him in solemn silence for quite a while.  “You really are very lonely, aren’t you?”  She said.   “Will you come and keep me company sometimes?”

“I – I don’t know if I should…”

“Would you like some company now?”   Her nod towards the door at the far side of the room, the one Samuel assumed must lead to her bedroom, somehow contrived to be at once innocent and suggestive. Samuel coloured immediately.

“Oh, no!  No, I couldn’t – I mean, I wouldn’t…”

She smiled and squeezed his hand affectionately:  “You are very nice, you know; and you are very kind.  A lot of men….”  She left the sentence unfinished.

Samuel turned to leave with a thousand words of his own unsaid.  Where was his courage?  “But if…”  he blurted out,  “if I could come and talk to you sometimes – just talk?”

She laughed:  “Yes, of course.  I would like that!”

 “One thing…”  Samuel said.

“Yes?”

“Your name?”

“Miranda.”

If he had wings he would have flown those stairs; as he would fly them many more times over the coming months.  So light of heart was he that it never occurred to him to ask how Miranda had learned his name, any more than he had asked her landlord how she knew he came so regularly to the City. 

There were a lot of things Samuel Trimble would learn over the course of that winter:  he would, for example, learn to track the price of gold, because the large woman proved to be expertly equipped to do just that:  when the value of the metal fell, she would always take care to remind him of it, and she would accept nothing less than the extra full sovereign to make up her price.

“No half-sovereigns!  Can’t abide them!  No Krugerrands, either.  Don’t you try to get away with that!”

Yet when the gold-price rose the rent was never less than a sovereign.

“Trying to short-change me, are you?  Remember, this is a special price you’re paying!”

He would learn about love.  Gone was Samuel’s twice-weekly routine:  He was so often in the City now he scarcely saw his home.  His visits to Miranda grew more and more frequent, he stayed longer and longer.  It was only natural therefore, that such fast friends should greet each other with a kiss – only to be expected they would hug one another.

Then came the day he found Miranda in bitter tears, and the hearth cold.  She hadn’t enough money for firewood, she lamented, and he told her not to mind – he would pay for the firewood.  That was when, at last, it happened.  Samuel did not go home that night; nor did Miranda want him to.  It was daylight before he left, and when Miranda, with her hands clasped behind his neck, told him:  “You’re mine, now.”  there was something indefinable in her voice.

By February the need for firewood had spread to include food, by March clothing too.  Yet when Samuel gently suggested he might move in with Miranda permanently, or she should come to live with him, she rebuffed him firmly.

“You don’t see, do you?  You’re like an uncle to me: a warm, cuddly uncle who comes to visit!  It wouldn’t be right if you stayed.  I’d feel sort of tarnished if that happened.”

So the affair continued into the heat of the following summer, and the succeeding winter too. Miranda appeared never to have work of her own, though she seemed to have enough money for most of the time, and Samuel never enquired what she did to earn it.  As for himself, he had never been happier:  in fact, before he met Miranda it would have been difficult for him to define what happiness actually was. And yes, he was naive enough, or perhaps wise enough, to accept the course he was set upon without question.   But a financial storm was brewing: his incessant conversion of his scant resources into gold drained his account at the bank.  The numismatist, whose own wealth had increased considerably, began to turn back his cheques – when the numismatist didn’t, the bank did.

In the spring, a slimmer, more worried Samuel began seeking employment.  He tried, really hard, but there were few interviews and those there were went badly.  No-one wanted a self-important middle-aged man in an overcoat and a homburg hat. 

Finally, there came a day the anticipation of which had filled Samuel with dread. 

“There’s no money left.”  He told the large woman.  “I’ve given you all I have.”

The woman stared at him.  “Well then;” she said.  “It seems our little arrangement is at an end.”

Sadly, and a little more humbly than the first time he had negotiated with the gorgon, Samuel nodded and turned away.

“Of course,” The woman said; “The money isn’t quite all, is it?  There is still the little matter of your house?”

“My house?”  Samuel repeated stupidly.  “You want my house?”

“Let’s call it another ‘Little Arrangement’ – ‘Little Arrangement B’, so to speak.  Make over the deeds of your house to me, and we’ll say no more about rent.”

“But where will I live?”   Samuel was so lovelorn by now he would have gone through hell and barbed wire for Miranda, but the prospect of homelessness dropped a cold stone of reality into his over-warmed heart.

“With her, if she’ll have you.  Or you can still live in the house, for a while at least.  Just transfer the ownership to me.  You can be my tenant, dear.  It’s not an entirely unfamiliar status, is it?”

This night, Samuel did not go home.  Maybe in his desolation he hoped for wisdom from Miranda’s sweet lips, some encouragement that would help him find a way back to the surface of his troubled sea.  He found none.   Oh, she wept for him!  She laid her guilt before him, lamented how it had been she, and no other than she, who had brought him to this pass.  But answers?   No.  There were no answers.

“There’s only you.”  He told her:  “I live only for you!”

She said:  “And have you been happy?  Are you happy now, despite it all?  Did I not bring something to your lonely life?”

Samuel, through his tears, had to admit it.  She – she alone – had the power to make him happy.

The next morning, with a new resolve based upon nothing but unreasonable hope, Samuel confronted his solicitors.  Within a month, the dragon would have his house – the house his mother left him, his last ties with a miserable, solitary past.  And he left their chambers with a smile, because he was embarking upon a journey entirely new to him.

“This is my brother.”  Miranda said.  “He has come for the summer.  He’s an artist, you know.  He would like to paint you.”

Her brother was a cadaverous, grey figure with spiders for hands and sticks for legs.  He had a smell of dust and the grave about him, but Samuel sat for him that May, and though the portrait he produced was rather small, it was exquisite in form and detail, so that Samuel could almost see his living flesh move within it.

“He is ready.”  Miranda said when she answered her door one morning in early June.  Samuel had slept at his house the previous night and was not yet returned. 

The large woman nodded:  “He has no more to give us.  It is time.” 

Samuel’s greeting when he arrived that afternoon was not as he expected:  later the numismatist, the waitress from the coffee shop, the two theatrical thirty-somethings, the young couple and the old, old woman would be there too; for the party was in his honour, though he could not know it.  The logs burned fiercely in the hearth and the spit wheel turned.  

 A rich, delicious scent of roast pork wafted right across the City and the old buildings, the old timbered buildings leaned closer to one another, nodding with their own secret wisdom.

You would not find a resident of Samuel’s village who noticed when he disappeared.  Few of them recall when the young woman first arrived at the Trimble house; it is so long ago.  Yet she remains, her exquisite frail beauty unaltered by the years. 

Fewer still have entered that house: a young man or two may be seen there from time to time, but none have stayed more than a season or so.  The older, loud woman who she claims to be the mother holds everyone in fear, so there are not many witnesses to the striking row of little paintings, six in number, that adorn the drawing room wall.  The most recent of those depicts a vaguely familiar image of a plump man in a homburg hat.

Once in a while visitors from the City come.  Then there is feasting at the house and a delicious aroma of roast pork floats upon the envious air. 

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Featured Image: Tamegreaves from Pixabay

The Patient Sea

THe Patient Sea

Another ‘short’ from my archives, but a quite special one for me, for reasons I can’t expand upon here.  I hope you enjoy it.

The dusk had reached a late, frosted luminosity, as yet too bright to submit to the superiority of the car’s headlights.  A red line topped the western hills where the sun had been, a thin amber voile that misted from it faded upwards into deep blue.  Above the driver’s head the vault of sky he could not see was probably dark by now.  There were probably stars.  Was there a moon tonight?  He could not remember.

Ten more miles.

Davy knew his way too well; far, far too well.  He knew the last bend that parted the black mass of  woodland like a curtain.  Beyond, furniture of high buildings and a carpet of town lights, their crazed lines marching across one another to the blinking, blackening sea; and the sea quiescent beyond them, its patience infinite, waiting.  Far-off, a lighthouse thrust a spoke of brightness across the sky – a slowly rotating lance, its beam questing but finding nothing – nothing but clouds, white and ghostly, mildly put out at its disturbance of their privacy.

Oncoming cars, vans, lorries, flared past, a ceaseless procession; some blinding, some not.   There would be a turning soon.  A meeting of roads.

And a decision.

An hour ago he had driven from the airport knowing that he must arrive at this place, and now it was before him he could not suppress the eagerness in his heart.  Beneath a bridge the motorway; a glowing train of busy traffic beckoning, a magic carpet ride to hearts that welcomed him, love it was his place to accept.  Turn here, and in only a few hours his car wheels would crush the gravel of that familiar drive.  Love, food and rest:  he need only make that turn.  

And yet…

As if some other arms controlled the wheel – as if neither car nor mind were truly his – he did not turn.   The bridge guided him instead above the motorway, towards the town.

He knew his way here, too.  The wide main street, the sea road, San Bernardo Towers, the Cherrington Hotel standing gaunt upon its own headland, a little avenue with its attendant lines of beech trees, and in a line of cream-washed villas a cream-washed villa with a curving drive.  A door flung wide, arms flung wide.

“Davy!  Davy you darling!  What a surprise! How wonderful to see you!  My lord you look different, you do!  Have you grown?” 

Belle, big and laughing, her ursine hug so warm and sincere:  how often had she greeted him with these same glad tears?  Had he eaten, had he been away?   “There was one of those newsfeed things about you.  Were you really in Hollywood?  You’re quite the star, aren’t you?  You’ll stay for supper.  You will.”

“Thank you.  I was on my way home.  I just had to say hello, to remind you I was still alive.  I’m not really a star, you know.  Far from it.”  He added deferentially.

“But you’ll stay for supper?”

Through the front door with its Deco geometry, into the hall and familiar glow.  Parquet honey floor, walls half panelled in oak, half painted in Buckingham cream; stairs to a higher floor.  Davy raised his eyes.   “Do you still let the room?”

“You know, I think you were my last tenant!  It’s just a store-room now.  We inherited some money when Robert died.  I’m quite comfortable these days.  Do you want to see it?”

HIs fingers played upon the smooth polish of the banister rail.  “No.  I’ll rest content with the memory.   Look, I mustn’t keep you….”

“Don’t be silly!  I have pasta already prepared, and it’s Friday night, you know?   Una and Ros will be here any minute, I should think.”

Ah, he thought.  “You still have your Friday nights, then?”

He had expected, or hoped it would be so.  That was why he was here, was it not?  Or why he dreaded to be here?

The living room was still the same – chintz and comfort.  They ate pasta on their laps, talked with their mouths full.  Belle was effusive.  “You’ve changed so much, you know!  Filled out – and I don’t mean that unkindly.  I almost didn’t recognise you, Davy.”

“I was a student when I was here.  Students are always thin.”

The lean years.  The hours of practice in that little upstairs room.  The drama school with its impassioned principal, the desperate gathering of hopeless aspirants hanging on her every epigrammatic jewel.  How would he ever have risen from such beginnings were it not for Belinda’s father:  his contacts, his coaching?  It was often said of Davy’s profession that success was thirty percent talent, seventy percent luck.  Luck had come in the form of a party one Islington night, and the beguiling black eyes of Belinda.  Luck was a promise – she would be playing in her father’s production at the Haymarket and Davy could get the juvenile lead.  Then another promise.  They would marry in the spring.

Sated, Davy was only vaguely aware of the doorbell’s call.  Perhaps he was thinking of Belinda and how soon he would be with her.  Just two hours away she would be waiting, expecting him.  He would be late, and he knew the cruelty of his wilful neglect.  He needed to be cruel.

“You remember Davy, don’t you?”  Belle was urging Una forward, her hand in the small of the petite German frau’s back.   Davy smiled.  Yes, they had met once or twice.  Una; shy, quiet, burbled acknowledgement.   “And Ros?   You remember Davy?”

He smiled as a reflex.  He smiled to cover his pain, seeing his hurting mirrored in Rosalind’s eyes – a flicker, no more.  But her response was steady.  “It’s been a long time.”   She said.

“How are you?”

“Oh, quite well.”  

Belle’s smiling eyes flitted from Rosalind to Davy; as eyes might when following verbal combat.  Belle would have gossip to share later.

“Let’s have drinks.”  She suggested.

It was an evening of tales, of questions gently rebuffed, impertinences humorously countered, reminiscence and reflection.   Trivial Pursuit around Belle’s rosewood table and red wine to sip away the hours.  Davy, whose presence the older women found exotic, needed to do little to fulfil expectations other than be there, yet there was a wire about him, a tautness they might not expect.  Rosalind was quiet, almost withdrawn.  She spoke rarely.  Davy’s eyes kept finding her.  She avoided their gaze, although she could not mistake their meaning.

Time slipped by.  Twice Davy’s mobile phone vibrated in his pocket, twice he ignored it.  The women’s conversation washed around him, buoyed him up on its eddies and swirls, yet failed to disguise Rosalind’s icy silence. 

The clock in the hall struck ten.   “I should go.”  Rosalind said.  “I have to start early tomorrow.  I work Saturdays now, you know.”

Davy affected a sigh.  “Me too.  I promised I would be in Dorchester long before this.”

Belle was genuinely alarmed.  “Davy, you can’t!  You’ve been drinking, my dear.”

“Only a little.  I’ll take a turn on the Esplanade first, to freshen up.  Then I’ll come back for the car.  I won’t disturb you.”

“You dear boy!  I’ve found you, and all at once I’m losing you again!”

“I found you, remember?  And I will again. Thank you for tonight, Belle.”

The villa released Rosalind, and Davy beside her, from its grasp.  A chill October breeze came off the sea.

“I thought I might take a stroll along the Undercliff.”  Davy said.

“You know I go home that way.”  Rosalind said.

“Let’s walk together then.”

“Yes.”  She wore a long coat with a high collar that framed her face and tucked in below her chin. 

“You still live in Bardshire Crescent?”

“Yes.”

He complimented himself on his memory.  She struck out ahead of him, leaving him to watch the easy grace of her gait and listen to the rhythmic click of her heels on the paving.  “You needn’t follow.”  She murmured over her shoulder, as though she did not want him to hear.

“May I not, then?”

Her shrug was unconvincing.  “As you please.”

Where the avenue ended their road merged with a short, steep hill that led to the beach.  At the foot of the hill, no more than fifty yards away, stood the entrance to the pier, still alive, even in deepening winter, with the promise of light.  Stretching out like an accusing finger over the black water it dangled an invitation Davy was tempted to accept.   “Would you care for a walk on the pier?”

“It’s closed.  It’s winter, or haven’t you noticed?”

“Then why all the illumination?”

“I have no idea.  Maybe they just want to remind you there are some roads that have only one ending.”   

Rosalind’s stride was rapid.  Davy, struggling to keep up with her, had to remind himself of the distance, the mile that followed the margin of the sea – the black, black sea that slipped and muttered in the shadows, patiently waiting.  Around him, streetlights that had no street (for no vehicles might use this road), interminable rows of beach huts, the rise of cliff, and the glitter of hotels above it.   Distant streetwise youths boomed on accelerators, anxious sirens spoke of pursuit.  Above him the sky – the moonless sky.  

“At some point,”  She stopped so suddenly he almost fell into her.  Her tone was venomous. “You’re going to tell me our meeting like this was accidental.  You’re going to tell me you’d forgotten about Friday nights, aren’t you?”

Taken aback, Davy found himself leaning against the balustrade, and avoiding her challenge by staring out into the dark.  Far off, a navigation light blinked.  Further off, the beam of the lighthouse continued its unending swing.  “I’m not going to tell you that.”  He said.

“Then why, David? What are you doing here?  If you knew, or if you thought…”

“Maybe I didn’t think!”  He interrupted her.  “Maybe I had no idea what I was doing.   Maybe…”

“So you just roll up!  You just roll back the years as if nothing – nothing ever happened between you and this town; between…”

“Us?”

“Yes, us.”  Rosalind glared at him.  “My god, in the middle of a freezing night and leaning against that rail you still manage to look like a lounge lizard.  Didn’t I read somewhere about someone’s impending marriage?  Yours, if I’m not mistaken.  Why are you here?”

“Honestly?”  He said honestly.  “I don’t know.”

“Honestly!”  She said.  “Honesty to an actor is a word on a page.   I never did know when you were acting, or when you were serious.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know myself.”  He said humbly.  “Perils of the trade, I suppose.”  He asked suddenly:  “Are you with someone?”

Rosalind’s lips twisted into an edge of a smile.  “Am I in a relationship, do you mean?  No, I’m not.  Was our last thrash together the last time I went to bed with someone?  Again, no.  I’ve tried every conceivable way to forget that we ever happened, David.”

“Any success?”  She did not answer.  

Davy again turned his attention to the wavelets, tried to attune his thoughts to their gentle motion, but his heart was in turmoil.  “I had to see you.  Don’t force me to explain, I won’t have a reason.”

She sighed, relented because she could not sustain anger with Davy – never could.  She came to lean against the balustrade beside him.  “I’m cold.” She confessed.  Tentative, he reached his arm about her shoulders.  Instinctive, she leaned into him and her breath was close.  “We didn’t work together, Davy.  We were bad for each other.”

“Being bad once seemed so good, though.”

“Did it?”

He grasped her shoulders, anxious she should face him.  She did not resist.  With a gentle hand, he brushed her hair away from her forehead, and kissed her there, softly.  Her skin was cold to his lips.  “I’ve never forgotten.”  He said.

The tear she blinked away might have been induced by that sharp onshore breeze.  “Don’t.”  She told him, but her voice was irresolute and her lips were tilted towards his, offering.  He met them in a kiss flooded with memories, of times past, of happiness and wanting.  It was fulsome and sweet, it might have been deep.  But then he was clinging, suddenly desperate and she, alarmed, squirmed from his hold, thrusting him back.  “I said don’t.”

He turned away instantly, abashed.  “I’m sorry.  I have no right….”

“Who is she, David?  I mean, apart from the director’s daughter?   Who is she?  You’re engaged to her.  That’s what I heard.  And this is how I heard it!”  she snatched her mobile phone from her coat pocket, waving it in his face.  “On Facebook from bloody I-told-you-so Jennifer.  Very brief and concise, very, very sententious, and liberally illustrated with your publicity pics – you and whoever-she-is holding hands, you and whoever-she-is embracing…”

“Jennifer’s a bitch.”

Rosalind shook her head, sadly.  “No, Jennifer was right.  She warned me not to become involved.”

“But are you – involved?   I mean in any way…”

“Oh for Christ’s sake!  You know I am!  Isn’t that why you’re here?  Truthfully now, isn’t it?”

“Belinda.”  Davy told her.  “Her name is Belinda.”

“Belinda Halprin.  A great name, I suppose; with a daddy who can raise you up from that terrible little school and make you a leader of your profession.  The fulfilment of dreams!”  Rosalind took his hands in hers, closing around his long, delicate fingers.  “But oh, David, I know you so well!   You don’t love her, do you?  You didn’t think you needed to.  Seduction – such an easy thing for you.  You don’t have to try, hardly at all.”

“You’re wrong; you’re so wrong.”  In his passion his hand clenched with hers, emphasising each word.  “I wanted to go to Belinda, yet I had to – I had to – come to you.  I had to try and see you again.  I’ve never once stopped thinking about you, wondering how you were, if I should write to you or leave you alone.  Ros, darling, I don’t know what I can do.  I’m trapped.  I love her for everything I want to be, but I want you, because you are who I really am.”

“Well, that was easy.”  She said.

“How do you mean?”

“You love her, you want me.  No contest.  Love conquers all, darling, doesn’t it?  Forgive the cliché.”

Davy sighed.  “Honestly, I think it may be the other way around.”

“There’s that word again.”  Rosalind leant upon the rail at his side, sharing his view of the black horizon.  “Do you want me to be honest?  I have no script, you see – I’m not reading it from a page.  I love you, David.  I have never got over us.  I never will.   But until tonight that memory was a comfortable warm bed of embers;  and I can only forgive you for fanning it into flame once more because I see the little boy in you, and I think I can understand just how lost you are.  We could never be together, my love.   You may want your life back, but you’ve lost it irreparably, and I can’t help you.  It’s your problem – I hope you do love her, or if not, that you will learn to…”

“I could give it all up!”

“No, you couldn’t.  Or you shouldn’t; at least not for me.  It’s not my trap, David.”

She reached up, and her cool hand stroked his cheek.  “A pity.  A great, immense pity.  But I’m going to say goodbye now.   You walk that way, I’ll walk this.  And if you do ever return to my town, avoid Fridays, will you?”

He stayed for a while, watching the sea and the steady arc of the lighthouse beam.  When at last the sound of Rosalind’s heels had faded and the night was reduced to silence he turned towards the east once more, and as he retraced his steps he began to cry, freely.  With no-one to see him in the dark and tears streaming down his face he thought of her, and he wished for her, and he cried the more because he knew she was right.  Only as he neared the lights at the entrance to the pier did he attempt to wipe his face to respectability, regaining the confidence of stride his way of life had taught.

He arrived at the foot of that short rise that would lead him away from the seashore.  Here he stopped, as if transfixed; seeking to retrieve a terrible thought that had flashed through his mind then disappeared.  The hill to his left, the pier to his right.  A choice presented itself, one that was his alone to take.  A second decision.

With a deep intake of breath, Davy clambered over the barrier which guarded the way to the pier.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.