It is three o’clock in the morning. I sit at my desk, the white screen of my monitor glaring at me defiantly, lost in the silence.
There are so few moments like these, when the world around me is sleeping and I am not; when the eastern horizon is still black and the landborne stars of streetlights are my only witnesses. At such times I am free – truly free – without the need of speech, without the relentless city burr, without the determination of the media to fill every pocket of the universe with lighted sound. My mind can do the travelling, and it does.
Tonight, long after a septuagenarian such as I should be tucked up in bed with a memory of Horlicks, I can take flight. A single thought occurs, maybe inspires? It is this:
Somewhere at this precise moment, at this very second, a new life is coming into the world, taking a first breath. At this same moment another is leaving,taking their last. Somewhere in an impact far beyond my fluffy hearing an injury is changing a life irreparably, while in some other place someone who was told they would never walk again is taking a first step.
Out there is a young man nervous for his future, feeling the gentle touch of a hand on his which says he need not be afraid; while out there, too, a solitary tear is falling from the cheek of one who sees their life’s love broken. A million games of win and lose are being played, a billion dice cast at this very second. Now. Again now. And now.
To someone whose eyes behold the rope, the chair; who sought to drink into numbness the pain beyond forgetting, or to those on that lonely walk home from rejection, those smarting from their first rebuff, or out on the streets gripping the knife of revenge, I can say nothing. I cannot ever know if you changed your mind. I can neither comfort nor discourage you.
But you exist for me. I have imagined you, or somehow reached out for you, in this moment; and that is the miracle of life we all should cherish. This huge complexity of chance, and consequence, disaster and triumph, that in some sense we all may touch. Now. Again now; and now, until the end of time.
Breakfast was a substantial meal in the Cartwright household, for which Peter was grateful in spite of himself: the after-effects of his doped lunch at St. Benedict’s House and his turbulent visions had ruined his appetite for a while, but abstinence was not natural to him. The smell of sausage, bacon and eggs that greeted him on the stair wafted strongly as he opened the kitchen door, so he was surprised to see his mother and father sitting at a bare table. His father looked up with what was meant to pass as a woeful expression while his mother tried not to appear too bored.
“Sorry, old chap, but there isn’t any breakfast this morning,.” said his father, with a peculiar snort.
“Oh, Dad, you’re going to tell me the pig got better,” Peter said.
“Yes! Yes!” His father collapsed into giggling laughter; “How did you know?”
“You told me the same joke last week; twice, and once the week before and several more times since Christmas. I think you got it from a Christmas Cracker.”
Mrs. Cartwright set three plates of food on the table. “Your father likes it,” she explained. “He doesn’t know many jokes.”
“Dad,” Peter asked, as his father underwent a sniggering and very moist recovery, “do you remember when we did a family trip to London?”
Bob Cartwright mopped his face with a tea towel. “Yes. Yes I do. Dinosaurs!”
Peter raised an enquiring eyebrow. “We went to the Natural History Museum,” his mother reminded him, “Have you forgotten? I suppose you have; you were only five, after all. There was an exhibition of actual sized dinosaur automata. You thought they were real and you were absolutely obsessed, not frightened at all. It took us ages to tear you away.”
Yes, Peter remembered. He often, still, made drawings to recapture those images. “Where else did we go?”
“Oh, everywhere! We went to the tower of London, saw the Palace…” Lena recollected. “What makes you suddenly ask about London now, I wonder? It must be at least ten years ago.”
“Almost exactly,” Bob Cartwright chipped in, “It would have been April 25th. That’s the date today, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” Peter was noncommittal, “It’s just curiosity. I seem to recall enjoying it, that’s all.”
“You did, darling. Well, apart from one bit.”
His mother’s remark seemed to resonate with something Peter could not quite find in his own memory. “How do you mean, mum?”
“Bless you, you don’t remember The Tube, do you? Well, maybe that’s a mercy,”
“No,” Peter prompted her: “Tell me? Was there a problem?”
“Somewhat, Pete,” his father reflected. “It wasn’t very pleasant, that’s all. It was my fault, too; all my fault, really.”
His mother gave one of those gentle smiles she so carefully stage-managed and saved for ‘deep family moments’. “Your father worried we wouldn’t get back to Waterloo in time for the train, you know? So we took The Tube – The Underground.” She went on: “Everything went swimmingly until we got to the top of the escalator (it was one of the deeper stations) and then, well…..”
“All hell broke loose.” His father cut in. “You screamed, you fought, you scratched. You were terrified of the thing for some reason.”
“I carried you.” Lena went on. “You were so frightened I thought you were having some sort of fit. You kept shouting about falling, and towards the bottom you were struggling to breathe. It was just a panic attack, I think; though I was really, really worried for a while!”
“You soon got over it once we were down, though.” Bob said. “You liked the tube train.”
“Where was this, mum? What’s the Tube Station called?”
“Hyde Park Corner, darling.” Peter’s mother regarded him with concern. “We had spent some of the afternoon in Hyde Park, you see, because the memorial is close by – for the Australian Forces.”
“That was the reason for the trip,” his father explained. “Paying respects, you know? I had an Australian college friend whose father died in the war. I don’t know if they still hold a ceremony every April 25th, but I recall the date well – Anzac Day.”
As he readied himself for college, Peter’s mind was racing. Falling – drowning – things which seemed to fit the feeling in his dream. Hyde Park Corner was not a street, though. It was a junction of several streets.
He explained this to Mel as they walked together, but she seemed to have tired of the subject. “That’s a fa-a-a-bulous pic you sent me. It’s so absolutely you!” She enthused.
Peter frowned. “It isn’t that special. Have you been photo-shopping me again?”
“Might have been – a little,” Mel smirked. “Did you ever consider what life might be like…”
“Oh, what? What did you do to me this time?”
“As a female?” She laughed out loud at the ill-timed swipe of a school bag which missed her by a foot. “Pathetic!”
“You’re bringing it to college, aren’t you? Making me a laughing-stock all over again?”
“No, I wouldn’t do that. All right, I did – once. I was stupid and I’m sorry.”
“So where is it?”
“It’s at home, somewhere. I did a print-out and I was going to show it to you, but I couldn’t find it this morning. The window was open so maybe the draught blew it under the bed, or something. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
“You leave it at home, I’ll feel safer.”
Mel asked, after a pause: “all those soldiers you saw marching – were they in modern uniform?”
“Describe it to me.”
Peter dredged in his memory for the marching figures in his vision, their empty faces grey, staring ahead. His head filled with their despair, their hopelessness, their pain. “Hats, trench coats, boots. You know.”
“Hats, not helmets; like bush hats?”
Peter nodded as the lightbulb, always glimmering, flared brightly. “Anzacs! They were Australian soldiers, yeah? And the big man, the dark man, he could be, like, Death, or something!”
“Right!” Melanie crowed. “Whatever’s on Vincent’s mind has to do with that memorial, my little possum! Quick! Find your ‘phone!”
By the time Vincent managed to contact Alice the morning had advanced another hour.
“How are you, sweetness?”
“Look, Vince, I’m busy. I don’t have time for social calls.” The day had not improved since some idiotic man had interrupted her morning jog. “Have you got anything else for me?”
“I have. It’s about the Aussie War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. Oh, an’ he thinks there’s a lot of deadness involved.”
“The kid gave you this?” Vincent’s words put Alice’s mind in turmoil: “How the hell could he know?”
“It is on the itinerary, then, is it?”
“I…no point in pretending…yes, it is. Anzac Day. Expressing solidarity with the Australians – honouring their part in the conflict, and all that. Our boy’s laying a wreath there this morning.” She checked her watch. “Christ, he’s leaving the American Embassy in five minutes, and it’s only a couple of blocks! Vince, you’d better be right!”
Alice had to consider carefully what she should do. An anonymous tip-off on her personal ‘phone had begun all this. Something distinctive in the caller’s voice had convinced her of its authenticity, and it was this disquiet she had shared with Vincent. Then Vincent had validated it a little further by producing the boy, and inducing the boy’s disturbing response. But he was still just some unknown youth in a distant seaside town, who should not have even known the Very Important Person was in the country! Did she believe him?
With the motorcade already on its way it seemed pointless to try to stop it. She could already hear their derision when she told them a student psychic had predicted an assassination attempt. Eventually, she would have to explain the inexplicable to someone, but right now… She tapped out numbers on her ‘phone.
“U.S. Embassy, please.”
Hal Bronski was already in the car when an operative from within the bowels of Grosvenor Square called:
“Are you serious?”
“Sir, she recommends you abort.”
“Son, we only abort for earthquakes and tidal waves. This is British Security again isn’t it?”
“Yes sir. I had no choice but tell you. She insisted I log the call.”
“Well, son, you tell those loons that we don’t listen to crank calls. If we did, we’d never go any damn place. Oh, and son?”
“Be sure to log the call.”
From the foremost limousine in the small motorcade that swung out into Park Lane, Hal linked to the Very Important Person’s car. His man should always be told of any irregularity, and Hal never failed in his duty.
“Sir, we have been advised of a possible situation. We’ll be going to code amber.”
“Is it serious, Hal?”
“Sir, it’s amber. We take everything seriously. But this is filtered through British Security, so I wouldn’t worry. We’ll just close the cordon a little, that’s all.”
“’O.K. Hal, you know best.”
From his vantage point overlooking the large, tree-fringed island in traffic that encircled the memorial to Australian forces dead, Salaiman Yahedi watched as the Very Important Person’s police escort scythed through London traffic, clearing a path into the heart of the island. There, beside an arched monument to the Duke of Wellington the limousines rested, and Yahedi knew at once that someone had warned of a threat for, instead of alighting as he normally would, the Very Important Person remained in his car until a human shield formed; then, when he emerged to greet the Australian Ambassador, they stayed much closer than was usual. Yahedi was unconcerned. Had he not been at a window with such an advantage of height he might have been worried; but at all times, even now, he had a chance of a clear head shot, and the range, though not inconsiderable, was nothing to a shooter of his ability. Not yet, though,: not yet. Yahedi waited patiently, watching the Very Important Person make his way through a small band of dignitaries, staying back from the window to avoid the sharp eyes of the security cordon, and those of the rather more untidy bunch of British agents.
The ceremony was brief. Someone presented the Very Important Person with a wreath and he stepped forward, away from his security yoke, to lay it at a strategic point before the long wall of tablets which formed the memorial. Then, with heads bowed, the Very Important Person and the Ambassador stood side-by-side, remembering the sacrifice of those whose names adorned the wall. Yahedi still waited, his target hidden for this minute of silence by the security cordon. There would be a moment, a time when the party retreated from the wall, turned in that half-military fashion politicians always try to adopt, to walk back to their cars. He gave the mechanism of his rifle a final check before slipping its muzzle through the hole he had made in the window. Carefully, methodically, he took aim.
The Very Important Person stepped back from the memorial, turning on his heel.
As he did so, a sheet of paper floated right past his nose. He dodged it instinctively.
Thwack! A single bullet snicked off the pavement, cracked against the concrete barriers, and whined away into the trees.
Even as the spent bullet ricocheted, Hal was running, wrapping his Very Important Person in a chest high-high hug to cover him with his own body. In a few seconds his team had gathered in a protective shield as Hal rushed him back to his car.
“Stay down sir. Are you hit?”
“No, I don’t think so, Hal, I think I’m all right. By the way, I never got to ask you….?”
But the conversation, if there had ever been one, was over. Doors slammed. The motorcade, with its Very Important Person safe inside, left at speed.
Mayhem followed, as police bristling with firearms moved in to cut off traffic on the adjoining streets. Amongst the howling sirens, the rushing to and fro of those who had come too late, and the frenetic departure of those who had stayed too long, the only static figure was that of a stubby and slightly sweating Jeremy Piggott, British Security, who could be seen examining a piece of paper which had somehow saved the Very Important Person’s life. It was a sheet of A4 Copy printed with a curious picture of a boy’s head, superimposed upon the body of a woman wearing a skimpy evening dress. He looked at it cryptically for a while, then at the sky whence it had apparently come.
“Do you believe in divine providence, Jeremy old son?” He asked himself: “No, you do not.”
He flagged down a passing member of his team. “I want to know who this is, and I want to know soon.” He said, passing on the sheet of A4; adding: “The top bit, of course, not the body.”
Across the road in that third-floor room Salaiman Yahedi patiently and carefully cleaned the gun and window glass before he returned to his own suite on the first floor. The gun was left behind on the third-floor, in the room which bore ample evidence of occupancy, by someone with a false name and passport who booked it the previous week.
Yahedi knew the bullet had missed; was upset, of course, that so carefully constructed and expensive a plan had failed; but he knew also that there would be another time, and another plan. Now, though, he was booked into this hotel for a further two days. Yahedi liked London, and enjoyed the company of the woman his employer had sent to act as his wife during his stay. He resolved to spend those few days learning more about both.
Petergunn2: Ask and it shall b given – if it doesn’t cost me.
Melatrix: Remember that photo I took of u? On the prom last Easter? Can u mail it me? I have some ideas.
Petergunn2: WHAT ideas?
Melatrix: OK, don’t worry then. Like I care?
Petergunn: Yeah, right. Look in your inbox. And Mel? Don’t give me lizard feet this time!
Melatrix: Ta babes.
In the privacy of her room Melanie could, and sometimes did, cry hopelessly in those weeks and months when she knew her mum and dad were preparing to part. Peter helped her. He had a way of making the day easier to face. When her father finally left and she missed him and the things she had share only with him, she told Peter those things, and Peter found the words to comfort her. Tonight, as she played idly with the picture of her friend, morphing his image this way and that, she was reaching a time in her life when she was beginning to wonder just how important he was to her.
Peter had no idea what thoughts drew him across the causeway towards the rock on the morning following his exams. A prospect of two free periods at class would not be justification enough, nor would the wafted guitar music announcing that Vincent, the Rock’s incumbent mansion owner was at home, have sufficed. Faint strains from a succession of old songs, they were, middle-of-the-road stuff from the sixties and seventies: “Brown Sugar”, “Maggie May”, “Aquarius”: they had a magical quality, so that when the final notes died away there was a feeling of loss, but they would still have failed to turn his feet in their direction. He had heard them too often.
If he tried to form a picture in his head of the ageing rock star who played them, perched up there on the ramparts of Crowley’s fantasy castle, the images were faded and confused. They lacked the clarity of his younger years when Vincent had first come to Levenport. Then he had lain in bed at night for wakeful hours, just imagining. This morning his academic prospects, the pictures of his future, concerned him more. Yet here he was. Why?
It had seemed no time at all before he came upon that seagull. It had perched, motionless, with one wing partly extended, on a piece of driftwood sticking out of the sand, apparently sunning itself. The diamond-mark was clearly visible on its neck, the same hard eye watching him as he wandered toward it.
“You liked the music?” Asked the seagull.
“You’re not real.” Peter accused him.
“I said, darling chap,” The gull repeated slowly; “Did you like his music?”
The words are forming inside my head, Peter thought. Is this how schizophrenia starts?
“It’s all right, dear, you don’t have to speak if you don’t want to;” the seagull said testily. “He wants to meet you. Come on!”
And with a few lazy wing-beats it was sky-borne, arrowing through wheeling flocks of its brethren towards the rock. There were a hundred gulls over the bay that morning yet the bird’s identity was never in doubt, for while the others dived, turned, soared upon the breeze, the diamond gull’s direction never varied. When it perched, a tiny white fleck, atop one of those ludicrous Bavarian towers, Peter saw it clearly, even fancied it may be beckoning to him: the words “Come – now!” rattled in his head with jangling insistence.
“Alright – I’m coming! Shut up!” He reprimanded the bird, forming the words in his mind.
“Oh! Hissy-fits now! So sorry!”
So without real justification other than an imagined conversation with a seabird he found himself wandering through a hamlet of fishermen’s cottages that adorned the man-made platform at the foot of St Benedict’s Rock. The builders of The House had created this platform to assist their labours: the cottages had sprouted like fungi from it after the carpenters, the masons and the forgemasters left. Once, the fisher people had populated its quay with boats. Just two remained, scarcely seaworthy fishing smacks, their rotting hulls slapping and gurgling in the oily water.
Throughout all of his sixteen years Peter had come to the island maybe five times. The aggressive wildlife which inhabited the place was kept in check by Levenport’s council; its lurid history of warriors and monks with pagan rites was largely forgotten. There were holiday lets on the rock, although, perhaps because it was so far removed from the hub of the town, tenancies were rare. Certainly a necrotic air hung about the tiny houses with their peeling paint, clustered mushroom-like around echoing back-lanes. The rock frowned darkly overhead, depriving them of sun. Lichens dripped in the cold dampness. An unkempt dog snuffled by.
Peter, (already doubting the moment of unhinged reason that had brought him here), strode quickly through the little street, anxious to be free of its chill. But if he had hoped for better from the road which ascended the rock itself he was to be disappointed; for although the narrow path that had long ago led teetering Benedictines to their lofty cells had been widened, burrowing in places into, and in one case through, the sheer basalt, the ocean breeze howled icily of ghosts of the past, dredging up shuddering memories of misery and murder from resources within Peter’s mind. Around each new bend shades of marauding Vikings lurked: cold monks drifted by, their empty faces set in grim smiles: Quimple the mad architect’s flailing body plummeted past on its fatal fall.
Three small dwellings clung to the landward side of the rock, optimistic summer rents – no-one would winter here. The first, a fresh-painted Hobbit House, leaned precariously from amid a tangle of greenery, bushes planted in imported earth which made some attempt to soften the stark angles of the stone. Above it, on the opposite side of the road, two further hovels had fared less well. Wedged against the rock itself, they awaited final destruction with roofs agape and walls crazed by ominous cracks. Black windows, their glass long gone, stared sightlessly towards the shore. It was many summers since anyone had sacrificed their vacation to these.
After climbing westward for almost a half-mile Crowley’s road cut through the rock in a tunnel sufficiently high for a coach and horses, with coachmen aloft in the prevailing fashion, to pass. Dim electricity lit this burrow from algae-green lantern glass recessed in the walls. Peter hurried through, fearful of the shadows it contained and a little revolted by the very specific graffiti daubed over its sides.
Emerging from the tunnel he might have thought of himself as entering a different dimension. The island’s south side was brighter, sunnier. Here the road turned first south, then east, rising upon a gentler slope through wild meadow with trees below him to his right, among which were several compact cottages, all well cared-for and one or two obviously occupied. As he walked by the front yard of one of these a little girl was engrossed in a kind of skipping game: she grinned at him as he passed – a pretty, vacant grin that somehow spoke of more than greeting. He scuffed his shoes, a self-conscious “hello” playing around in his throat. A little way behind the houses, screened from the road by trees, the land fell away in great cliffs to the sea. Above the road on the left clumps of wild rhododendron obscured Peter’s view of the summit and the house which topped it. Further up, at the road’s final turn, a solitary white-washed cottage was the only sign of habitation. It was a really small house, maybe one room upstairs and one down, with a lean-to shed on the back. Gingham curtains in the windows spoke of bygones, their torn dirtiness told of neglect. A tin bath, an axe, several garden tools hung along the lean-to wall in an orderly rank, though, and the large garden running downhill from the rear was well cared for.
“Now what be you doing ‘ere?” The voice was amiable and slow, but it alarmed Peter enough to stop him in his tracks.
“I’m going to The House.” He turned to address a full-figured man standing at the cottage door, regarding him with a bland expression. He noticed with passing interest that the man had no trousers on.
“Are you now!” This wasn’t a question. The man hoisted at sagging, stripey underpants. “What makes you think you can go there?”
Peter thought quickly. “I’m invited;” he said – which was true in part, at least.
“Are you now!” The man repeated. “Who do you be, then? You got an ‘ppointment?”
“I was asked to come this morning,” He refrained from admitting his invitation had been issued by a seagull. “I’m Peter Cartwright.”
The man was silent for a moment, while he appeared to chew upon something: ‘Maybe I disturbed his lunch’, Peter thought.
“Are you now! Peter Cartwright, eh?” Peter got ready to run.
“Well, you carry on now, young Peter, you’m expected, you are. Tell them at the gate they’re to let you past. Tell ‘em Toby said so.” The man turned to re-enter his cottage, adding for information: “I’m Toby.”
Toby closed the cottage door behind him, leaving Peter rather wishing he had not seen the back of those underpants.
Expected? How could he be ‘expected’ when really a spur-of-a-moment decision was all that had brought him here? Did that remarkable bird talk in the heads of other people too? Peter considered himself a logical sort of person, not given to impulses, and this was just so, so impulsive of him! Perhaps if he turned back, now…
But he had come so far; and if he did turn back, well, then he would forgo the very slender chance, if he somehow was invited, to meet the wild guitarist whose sounds filled him with so many special feelings,and to get to see the inside of The Great House, the Crowley House, a place he had ached to explore ever since he was a small child. Hidden still from his sight, he nonetheless knew that the gatehouse was just around the next bend. So, gathering his courage, and with the feeling that his whole life was approaching an irrevocable moment of change, he walked on.
The gatehouse had lost its three Imperial Russian domes the night old Crowley died: one completely removed by the storm, the others unsafe and demolished shortly afterward. They had never been replaced, so what now stood before Peter, whilst imposing enough, was a gatehouse of relatively modest and sober proportions, where a moderately modest and sober gatekeeper waited for him behind a pair of modern wrought-iron gates. This smiling, fully-trousered figure greeted Peter with a friendly: “Hello old boy, what brings you to us?” He sounded like he had been an officer in the army, but his hair would have better befitted a roadie. “Can I announce you?”
“Hello, I’m Peter.” Said Peter, feeling somewhat reassured: “Toby says you’re to let me through.”
“Righto!” The gatekeeper picked up a telephone from a box on the wall, waiting for a second or two before the line opened at the other end, then saying: “Vincent, someone quite youthful called Peter is here…” He glanced in Peter’s direction, whispering: “Peter who?”
“Peter Cartwright. Are you expecting him?”
The voice from the other end was an explosion of sound, which the gatekeeper, with a chuckle, played six inches from his ear.
“You can go on up;” he told Peter, “I think he’s going to like you.”
Beyond the gate, a driveway led through a walled garden with perfectly trimmed lawns to the house itself, a brick-built curved regency façade of three storeys with rows of high windows to welcome the sun. Its walls were crenulated at roof level, as if to repel some enemy or another, while at each end the slim rocket-tubes of Bavarian towers sprouted like forced asparagus. Splurged exuberantly into the centre of the facing wall were the great black timber doors of the house, twelve feet in height; these in turn dwarfed by a huge arch, inset with carving and glass of every imaginable colour. Peter had never seen this view of St. Benedict’s House, which his father dismissed as a ‘half-arsed mosque’, and had to search for his own description of its outlandish marriage of styles. ‘Disney plays Royal Crescent’ was all he could come up with.
He had almost reached the doors at the centre of the Arabian Arch when, with a clank of metal which made him jump and a somewhat musical grinding noise which made him cringe, they swung open.
Before him a vaulted hallway of palatial proportions rose to the building’s full height, culminating in a vast dome of glass. To right and left the sides of this space were formed by the galleried ends of each floor of the house, linked at their further extremity to a perfectly oval glass stairway, railed with chrome, which ascended to each landing in turn. Central to the back wall, behind the stairs, a huge portrait of a rock star playing on a darkened stage exuded Vincent Harper’s presence: and in the centre of the pink marble floor of the hall stood the man himself.
“Peter! Mate! Are we glad to see you! I was beginning to think you wasn’t coming, you know?”