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Continuum – Episode Thirteen: Suspended in Time

The Story so far:

Alanee persuades Sala to take her outside the City, where they discuss Sala’s past, and Alanee remarks upon the absence of the City’s children.  The pair’s relationship deepens and there are moments when it might become more, but Alanee is unable to return Sala’s feelings. 

Ellar finds Cassix the Seer in the watchtower as he studies portents in the sky. She comments upon Hasuga’s interest in Alanee, the screens he has in his room that are dedicated to observing her.  Cassix reassures her:  whatever is in Hasuga’s head is part of the greater plan.

“What is this place?”  Ripero must shout to be heard.

Dag replies honestly:  “I don’t know.”

“You’re an aerotran pilot!  You must have seen everything , been everywhere!”

“I still don’t know.”  Dag admits.  “Although I’ve crossed these hills a lot of times everything looks so different from the ground; I don’t recall this at all.”

They stand upon a ridge overlooking the steep sides of a tree-clad valley.  To the north of them, no more than a quarter-of-a-mile away, the ground rises by a sheer granite face to a plateau, beyond which, in blue distance, the horizon is crenelated by a battlement of mountains.  From the edge of the plateau a mighty waterfall spouts, forcing out from the rock in one foaming leap to a small lake at its foot, filling their ears with its constant fury.  Four or five hundred yards south the lake narrows to a river, and the river winds in white water over rapids until it disappears into mist, for the valley runs southward as far as their eyes can see.

This place is the more remarkable because in their last three days the pair have walked through featureless hills riven of life, a moonscape of charred rock and grey ash.  It has been in so many ways an epic journey, with only Dag’s survival rations to keep them alive. 

Since the massacre on the plain they have seen no more aerotrans, but Dag’s injuries have constantly slowed them down.  The damage to his back has healed – the damage inside has not.  Sharp agonies assail him now, forcing him to stop for long periods with his whole body clenched against the pain.  Privately he knows he must find medical help quickly, or succumb.  Now comes water: now comes hope.

It is a physical change: a matter of a step; one pace from wasteland to grassland.   The contour that follows the summit of the ridge might be a pencilled line in the drawing of a child, one side coloured grey, the other green.  By commiting themselves to scramble down the sharp, grass-clad gradient Ripero and Dag cross this margin, and leave the desolation of Dometia behind them.

“This river;”  Ripero shouts over his shoulder;  for Dag’s progress is slow and he is already well ahead.  “It must be the Fass, yes?”

Dag has paused to gain breath.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe?  How ‘maybe’?  We have been crossing the Fassland Range, have we not?  We were bound to come to the river.  Yes, this is the Fass.”  Ripero affirms for his own benefit.  “So all we have to do is follow it south and we come to Ax-Pallen!  Civilisation!”

“Maybe.”  Dag repeats, half to himself.  The Fass, if he recalls correctly, is followed along the length of its course by a road – where is the road?  Nether has he any memory of the Fass falling from a high plateau in so dramatic a fashion, but then so many of his memories are confused now; like the size and scale of the area known as the Fassland Hills; which are far smaller in his recollection than the journey they have made would suggest.

“Have you thought what we will do if we manage to reach civilisation?”  He calls out.  “Whoever controls those aerotrans will have patrols there too.”

Ripero does not reply.  Perhaps he would rather not: or perhaps he is just too far ahead to hear.  Wearily, Dag hoists himself to his feet and follows.  It will be an hour before he reaches the river.

#

For a second time Alanee stands in the elevator to the palace’s nursery apartments.  She is alone.

At sunrise the bell of her summoner had dragged her from a sleep .

“Come and see me.”  The voice was instantly recognisable – after the terrors of the dungeon ‘game’ she could never forget it; “Come soon.”

She had bathed, put on the robe ‘Mother’ had provided for her, slid that annoying gold identity bracelet over her wrist and, rather nervously because she was unused to moving in the palace without escort, crossed the frosty courtyard to the Great Hall.  No-one had accosted her.  The elevator stood open, waiting.  As she stepped inside its doors closed behind her.

She remembers everything she saw of the nightmare child’s apartment.  This is as well, for if she expects to be greeted by Mother at the elevator entrance she will be disappointed.  When the elevator door opens there is no-one to welcome her; the foyer is deserted, s Alanee makes her own way to the bedroom where she last saw Hasuga.  The door of that room is open.  Hasuga is there, sitting upon his bed, dressed in a suit of green and gold.

“Come in, Lady Alanee, you are welcome.  What do you think of my room?”

“Bizarre!” is Alanee’s instinctive response.  The room is sparely lit, what illumination there is entering through a window behind the bed in the form of a weak sunrise diffused by cloud.  Two chairs, the only straightforward furnishings the room has to offer, face the bed, while the walls and the ceiling are lined with large screens playing silent abstract colour patterns like seascapes, but yet seeming to impart no light to the room.  The floor has the appearance of raw steel:  Alanee cannot understand how her feet sink into it as though it were deep floor-foam.  Lemon bedclothing is strewn across the bed, which is a simple futon supported by a pedestal leg – a table swings across Hasuga’s knees from the wall behind it on what should be a reticulating arm if it did not look so much like a live snake, its head flattened and broadened into a surface upon which a small glass of liquid rests.  Beginning by the bed, a serpentine structure of bewildering complexity, in places more than a three feet high, runs by creeps and leaps across at least one-third of the floor.  Alanee has to step around it to reach either of the chairs.  Within its honeycomb frame are incorporated motors, micro-circuits, wheels, box sections and orbs whose function she cannot attempt to explain, any more than she can explain the little tableaux that appear magically within it; hologram figures of people, or models of tiny buildings. When she concentrates upon any one of these scenes, it grows in size, becomes animated:  two traders arguing in a market-place, a lonely ploughman with his horse striving against a hill, three elderly women singing a queer, tuneless song.  It is beyond explanation.

 Hasuga  waves to a chair:  “Please be comfortable Lady Alanee.”  His back is to the window so she can barely see his face.

“No games?”

He does not answer.  Her eyes are drawn back to the traders, now on the verge of blows.

“This,”  she says, indicating the honeycomb structure; “What is it?”

“It is whatever I want it to be.”

“I would guess you have a gift for stopping conversations.”  Alanee says.

He laughs – a kind of high-pitched crackling sound.

“Why am I here?”  She asks.  “Where – why – who?  There are too many questions.  I’d like some answers.”

“Life is composed of questions. Yesterday I was a child, now I am not.  That is a question.”

Alanee shakes her head impatiently.  “All right then, Sire Hasuga.  You are a mystery to me; to most, it seems.  I’m not allowed to speak of you, no-one is.  If those I have met here are aware of you, they are sworn to secrecy, but I don’t think they are aware of you.  I’m not even sure you exist for them.  If you’re some massive secret or something,I want to know why!  And I want to know what you intend doing with me?”

“Then I shall try to answer.”  Hasuga pushes his snakes-head table aside and slips forward to the edge of his bed, leaning elbows on knees as he looks at the floor, exposing the width and depth of his great head.  “This – this is what I am.  This has grown for over two thousand years, because that is my age.”  Alanee does not hide her incredulity.  “Yes, it is true. Not such a child now, am I?  Though that’s what I was, a child suspended in time, until I became so ill I had to change.

“I have lived here, eaten, slept, played games for two thousand years.  I do not know why.  Those who look after me are kind and loving, and I understand the concept of love, but can you imagine what my life is like?  I am never permitted to go outside, further than my private garden and you are right; other than the High Council, my courtier friends of the Inner Palace, the drabs who help me construct my games and now you, no-one is allowed near me.  I ask, often, believe me.  We are both prisoners, Lady Alanee.

“They brought you to me.  They bring you and as to why I am no wiser than you at first; but yesterday I began to see.  The treatment they used upon me to induce my next stage of growing is working great tricks within this (Hasuga taps his head with a long finger) and there is a lot that is new.  You are new – very new.”

Alanee is puzzled.  Can he really have no idea why she has been brought into his life – and if he doesn’t, who does?  “Who pulls the strings?”  Did she mean to say the words aloud?

“Oh, the High Council.  I’m sure of that.” Hasuga looks up, eyes sparkling.  “I’m glad they brought you.  I’m bored with questions now.  Can we play a game?”

“Game?”

“I wouldn’t hurt you again.  I wouldn’t!”

“Alright then, in a minute.”  Alanee finds herself talking to him as she would a child.  She cannot help herself.  It has a surprising effect upon Hasuga, who draws back, looking quite alarmed.  “Before we do, one more question.  How am I ‘different’?”

“I cannot answer that now.  I can’t rationalize it, even to myself.  When I find out I will help all I can, I promise.  Now, would you like to be my Mummy?”

This sets Alanee’s mind into a complete panic.  As she stumbles to find an answer, Hasuga adds:  “It’s just a game, of course!”

“Where is your mother?”

“I don’t know – she went away this morning, or last night, or something.  She hasn’t come back.  Anyway, she isn’t really my mother; I have had countless ‘mothers’.  I’m bored with her.  I think you are going to be my next one.  I think – I don’t know – that’s the plan.  Would you love me?”

“Until you get bored with me?”  Alanee mutters acidly.  Is that really the plan?

“I don’t think I’d get bored with you very soon.  You are….”

“I know,  I’m different.”

“I was going to say you are very nice to look at.  I thought about you all last night.”

And I thought about you, Alanee responds, but not aloud.  She would keep that information to herself.  Had she any idea of the significance of the screen above Hasuga’s habbarn she might have said more.  “Let’s just play your game, and get it over with.  Now, if I am to be your Mummy, what would I do?”

“Yes!  Yes!   You are my lovely Mummy!”  The room is lighter now.  Alanee sees the artful look on Hasuga’s face.  “You could take me into the garden!  We could play soldiers in the garden!”

Alanee regards the frosty air beyond the window dubiously:  “I’m not sure that would be a good idea.  It looks a lot too cold for little boys.”  Repulsive as she finds Hasuga, she does not relish explaining to the High Council how their two thousand year old museum exhibit froze his toes off in the snow.

Hasuga’s voice undergoes instant change.  “I want to go into the garden.  I am not a little boy!”

“If it were summer that would be different.”

“Come to the window.”

Stubborn as she feels, Alanee sees no reason not to comply.  She joins Hasuga at the window.  What she sees takes her breath completely away.

Hasuga says, in that innocent child voice again:  “Do you like my garden?”

They are at the top of the palace, this Alanee knows:  yet Hasuga’s garden, and its size must exceed an acre, is almost level with his window.  It must be possible to step straight outside.  A wall surrounds it, this space, with views beyond to the Pearl Mountains and Kess-Ta-Fe, the great needle’s summit wreathed in mist.  That should be problematic enough, for by the rules Alanee knows such a big area at this height on the palace’s structure would involve massive engineering, but she scarcely dwells upon that aspect at all.  No, it is the nature of the garden which confounds her.  It is the way the weak sunlight of early spring is suddenly the glare and intensity of high summer, the way all trace of snow is gone, and in its place are fountains, grasses, jasmine, hollyhock, rose and camelia; all the flowers of all the seasons in ebullient display.  There is no roof she can see, no protection from the elements, yet she is looking upon a summer garden, and her head cannot believe what her eyes are witnessing.

“How do you do that?”  She finds her voice.

“It is part of our game.  Can we play now?”

#

Should we be wondering where High Councillor Portis can be found, on this extraordinary morning?  Should his malign presence, deep in the bowels of the Consensual City, be of concern to us? A shift is on duty here, in a large manufacturing suite that is known to only a very few – the members of the High Council, Lady Ellar, and the operatives who work and live here.

 A shift is always on duty, for the work is endless:  tired eyes straining over desks, tired fingers probing the tiny receptors they assemble, the receivers that turn Hasuga’s will into a collective will, and which whisper in the night from every pillow to every ear throughout the world.

Portis, in the company of the department’s director, is examining one such receptor.  It lies before them, dismantled, on the director’s desk.

“There can be no electronic fault?”  Portis asks again, though he knows the answer.

“None.”  The director shakes his head.  “It is perfect.  Not only is it functioning as it should, but it is the most powerful model we have the capability to make.  Respectfully, High Councillor, if you tried it for more than a couple of nights it would send you mad.  This is a long road, you see, with this woman:  ever since she was a child:  five inspections, five replacements, each a little more powerful than its predecessor, the results always negative.  She is genuinely impervious to mind control.”

“And this was the one you took from her house at the end of last cycle?”

“When the house was demolished, yes.  We suspected a materials failure – heat is always an issue you see, with so much power – but no: it was working perfectly well when we took it out – as you see it now.”

“There is no alternative explanation?”

“None, Sire Portis.”

The High Councillor says nothing, though he has words enough to say.  For he knows there may yet be one explanation, if he can countenance it.  Safe in his apartment he might voice it, over and over to himself, just as he will admit, in his own confidence, to the rising disquiet he feels.  His City, the whole of his finely balanced world is at stake and this woman is suddenly at the hub of power, in the presence of a pubescent Hasuga; partnered by Hasuga – in league with Hasuga?  Although Cassix may have performed the service, by whose will other than Hasuga’s can she be here; and now she is, is there no button he or anyone can press that will constrain her?  The rebellious youth and the experienced, manipulative woman; together, what might they not do to the world?  He makes a private resolve, a very personal one, concerning this.  He will not, must not let it happen!  His limiter screams at him, but he cannot turn off that thought.  It will be with him until he can depose the woman, and he may not have too long to devise the means.

#

Still as stone, the hind watches.  For half of an hour now the curious animal with two legs has lain inert, its hooves – or are they paws? – motionless, its strange salty odour strong on the wind.  Her inquisitiveness has brought her ever closer, stepping down through the trees towards the river that is, after all, her regular drinking place.  As always on this journey she is poised for flight, for there are enemies in these forests that would kill her if they could.  This animal, though, does not number among those she recognises as predators and it seems that it is injured – she senses pain.  Perhaps, after all, it cannot move?

Dag sees the deer’s decision, each faltering step towards the water.  Just two paces more and it will be within range of his weapon – another five for a certain shot.  It is a pitiful little thing, this pistol from his emergency kit with just energy enough for one shot, but he hopes it will be enough.  He aims with exaggerated care, tilting the small stub-barrel in its resting place upon his forearm, waiting.  The deer moves soundlessly, descending towards him without so much as the disturbance of a twig.

Soon, very soon.

The click of the safety is unavoidable – so quiet it is veiled entirely by the merest rustle of branches in a waft of breeze – or so Dag thinks.  Yet the deer hears it.  Spring and run – hiss and crack: Dag looses off a desperate shot, but the wild thing has gone, its dappled hide vanishing into the sun-splashed undergrowth.  Despairing, the aerotran pilot sees his last hope of sustenance go with it.  For the first time in his struggle for survival, he is moved to tears.

A day has elapsed since he and Ripero discovered the river basin.  In that time they have travelled perhaps a dozen miles, following the torrent downstream as it winds between slopes of deep forest.   Progress has been slow, not just because of Dag’s injuries, but because there are no tracks – no evidence that human beings have ever reached this place.  This morning, after a night of troubled sleep, Dag has woken to reality.  The agony in his stomach and side is such that he cannot rise to his feet.  His best effort is to roll sideways enough so he can urinate, and this produces almost pure blood.

It is clear Dag can go no further, so the survivors’ best hope is for Ripero to go on alone, to bring help as soon as he finds it.  An hour after sunrise Dag watched the tall figure of the young man who once rescued him receding along the river’s edge until he disappeared from view.  He knows he will never see Ripero again.

© 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.

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Thirteen. Radley Court

The Day Room in Caleybridge Hospital was a twilight affair of clinical leather and faded colours, which Karen, still shaken after her most recent encounter with the malevolent dark man, would scarcely notice.  She had allowed herself to be driven here by Paul Wheeler, whose girlfriend Gabrielle, Patrick’s sister, had explained the events of the morning.  Now, when the ward door opened and Patrick entered the room she had to restrain an urge to rush into his arms and beg forgiveness for all her negative thoughts.  He limped towards her gamely, the very image of walking wounded; his head bandaged and his left cheek yellowed by a developing bruise.

“Why the limp.  Have they amputated?”  She asked him kindly, feeling so glad to see him she wanted to laugh her delight.

“Oh, twisted it slightly, apparently.  It’s nothing – not important.  I’m sorry I couldn’t make our lunch date – they wouldn’t let me out, and the ‘phones in here are hopeless.  Do you hate me?”

“Only a little.  I thought you’d ditched me. Gabby told me someone else was hurt; is she…”

“Jacqui; she’s a colleague.  It’s quite serious, I’m afraid.  Fractured skull – they had to operate straight away to relieve pressure on her brain.  I’ve just been up to try to see her, but she hasn’t regained consciousness yet.  Whoever they were, they were aiming for me, not her.  I’m the one who normally enters the Conference Room first.”

“I’m so sorry!”

“Why?  It isn’t your fault.  Paul and Gabby came in to see me – nearest relatives, and stuff – so I asked them to tell you what happened.   And now you’ve come, so that’s one better!”

“They brought me – actually, they rescued me.  They’re waiting downstairs in the lobby.  Gabby seems to think we need a conference:  are you up to it?”

“Up to it?  Foolish woman, of course I’m up to it.  What do you mean, ‘rescued you’?”

As they walked – in Patrick’s case quite gingerly – to join Gabby and Paul, Karen related her adventure of the previous hour.  Patrick was grave.  “You were lucky, the way things turned out.  If those two had been ten minutes later…”

“I would have had to deal with him myself!”  Karen told him brightly.  “He’s only a sad old perv, you know!”

“Yeah,”  Patrick acknowledged.  “I’ve met him, remember?  Old pervs seem to be quite large and lively these days. Paul and I were talking about things this afternoon.  You have to think of something to discuss in visiting hours, or the silence can become deafening.”

They had negotiated an elevator and reached the end of a corridor which opened out into the hospital lobby where, true to their word, Paul and Gabrielle were waiting.

“Talking about what, Pat?”  Karen asked.  “Explain?”

“You haven’t told her yet!”  Gabrielle accused.

“I was about to.  Karen, it’s time you met our parents.  We want you to come and stay with us for a few days.”

Even the thought filled Karen with alarm.  “No, Pat!  Your parents don’t know me!  I’ve got nothing..”

Pat grinned.  “Nothing to wear?  Yes, Karen, you’re coming.   Gabby’s already cleared it with the olds and they agree.  Come as you are.  You look a damned sight better than I do at the moment, anyway.”

“That isn’t the point!  Don’t I have a say in this?  What if I choose not to turn my back on my entire case load…”

“Look, love, whoever’s after you, they mean business.  It’s dangerous for you here!  You must see that – especially after today’s attacks.”

“Attacks?  Are you connecting my stalker with what happened to you?  Why?”

“He won’t tell you,” Paul cut in,  “But you need to know.  He was warned to stay away from you.”

“Thanks a bunch, Paul!” Patrick said heavily.  “I wasn’t going to tell her that.” He explained to Karen,  “Someone left a note on my car the night you dropped me off at the office car park?”

“The night of the storm – the night Mr. Nasty attacked me.  You think the note was his?”

Patrick grinned, a lopsided grin that refused to spread to his bruised cheek.  “Is that what we’re calling him now?  He was around, I suppose,”  He glanced significantly at Paul.  “But we think there’s more than one person involved in this.”

Karen was distraught:  “Oh, Pat, if I accept your invitation he – or they – might come after me. I can’t put your family in danger!”

Patrick shook his head.  “You’ll be out of town and there’s no reason anyone should find out where you’ve gone.  You’ll have us around you, and we’ll have space to get this sorted out.  I mentioned Mum was a solicitor, didn’t I?  Well, she wants to get her teeth into this, and she’s longing to meet you. Accept it, love, it’s a fait accompli, really it is.  We leave here, we get my car, we drive.”

To say Karen harbored doubts would be complete understatement.  Apart from her natural tendency to rebel when anybody tried to organize her life, she was genuinely more afraid, at that point, of encountering Pat’s mother and father than of anything the sinister leather-clad man might do to her.  Now, though, she had Pat’s safety to consider as well as her own. It would be nice, at least, to find a place where she could sleep peacefully, and Pat was clearly disinclined to accept no for an answer. “Are you supposed to drive, after what you’ve been through?”  She asked, lamely.  “No concussion, no after-effects?”

“I’m fine.”

“They wanted him to stay in overnight,” Gabrielle confided.  “He’s colossally stubborn.”

“I’m fine!  This place is full of mods and rockers – seems like it was a fine weekend for a punch-up in Harterport. ”

“I’ll have to go back to the apartment, get a few things.”

“I don’t believe that would be wise.”

“Seriously?  Pat…”

“Karen, I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.  We should get you out of town, and it needs to be now.  Gabby’ll stump up with anything you lack.  Her resources are endless.”

“Absolutely!”  Gabrielle agreed.  “Bulgy wardrobes-full of stuff!”

 

#

The right turn from the Halminster Road led into a lane lined by tall trees; parkland beeches, oak and plane interspersed with the occasional heraldic spear of larch, all garbed in their bright, optimistic green of burgeoning summer and stirred regally by a light westerly breeze.  There was still a month before maturity would add the first blues to the palette; a month more of darker glory before September winds breathed among those aldermanic boughs, inducing them to creak in conversation among themselves, hold a council and decide upon the onset of winter.

For now, though, the evening sun was warm and the air in Karen’s face was a blessing.  Patrick’s hand, playing dangerously with her leg, kept her from too obvious a display of nerves if only because he needed constant reminders to pay attention to his driving.  Without these distractions she would have resembled a jelly, for this was the encounter she dreaded:  she was visiting the Hallcrofts at home.

The Hallcroft-Smythes.  She couldn’t erase the hyphen from her mind.  Or the ‘y’.

Each time she glanced across at Patrick her head filled afresh with those nagging doubts: somehow he had slipped into her not-so-well-ordered life with quiet ease; and comfortable as she might allow herself to be, dreaming along in such style, she had to prove to herself that she could face Pat’s perceived danger alone, that for all there was something very  compelling in the way he was taking charge of her, she could not become his cipher.  Whatever the risk, she must be ready to face it, and if necessary, face it alone.

“I’m stronger than I look, Pat.”  She shouted above the wind.

“Yes, Karen, you are.  What brought that on?”

“I need to prove it, I think.  How’s that head?”

“Still attached.  Am I going to pass out while I’m driving, do you mean?  No.  Do you want to drive?”

“Drive your pride and joy – your other woman?  Heavens no!  I do kind of like you in a bandage.  You look very buccaneering.”

“I lack both eye-patch and parrot, I’m afraid.”

And then she saw it: Radley Court.  Only a glimpse at first, of grey-green stone among trees: “Oh, Patrick.  That isn’t it!  Please tell me that isn’t it?”

The Daimler’s nose swung between banks of flossy rhododendron bushes and through a pair of high wrought iron gates.  Acres of manicured lawn spread itself before her; amid which sprawled a two-storey Georgian pile, its high windows frowning down upon her beneath their pediments as if intrusion from riff-raff such as herself was unforgiveable.  Wheels crunched on pea beach gravel luxurious as a carpet; a carpet for cars, she thought, beginning to wish she had worn jewellery.  The engine echoed back to her from those walls, the porticoed entrance doors loomed like some dark temptation of the Bunyan mind.

“I can’t go in there!”

“Why not?”

“I’m in jeans!  I should have worn something more suitable.  What on earth are they going to think of me?”

“’They’ will think you look perfect in jeans!”  Patrick squeezed her hand.  “Come on, darling, Mum and Dad aren’t that terrifying, honestly!”

As if something within the soul of the old house had heard Karen’s cries, the sombre mood was shattered by a fusillade of excited yelping.  A large Golden Labrador dog came bursting from the front doors like a badly-aimed torpedo and flew across the driveway towards them.

“Oh hell!”  Patrick exclaimed.  “I hope you like dogs!”

She just had time to say “You know I do” before this dog launched herself at the car and, in a feat she had clearly practiced often, landed with fuss and noise upon the tonneau cover.  Thereafter speech was almost impossible, because a very long tongue was enthusiastically washing Karen’s face.

“She answers to Petra – sometimes.”  Patrick said, by way of introduction.

Scarcely had Patrick driven the car into a parking position before Paul and Gabrielle, in Paul’s car, crunched onto the forecourt behind them.   A tall, greying man in a frayed maroon pullover and ancient cord trousers appeared atop the flight of steps that led up to those grand front doors, his face broken by a broad smile.

“That’s Dad.  He’s been gardening.”

Karen cast an eye over the wide expanse of manicured lawn, the elegantly planted flowerbeds.  “He’s been busy.”

“Oh, we have gardeners.  Dad just likes to mess around.”

Karen suppressed  another inner groan.  She was beginning to feel quite light-headed.

Petra had changed allegiances with a single bound and now sat at Gabrielle’s side as if she had always been there.  “Karen, darling!  You look awfully pale.  Are you ailing, or has Patrick’s driving finally cracked your nerve?”

The tall man descended the steps in slow, steady strides.  “Hello.  You must be Karen.  I’ve heard a lot about you, lately, young lady.”

“Dad, Karen.  Karen, my Dad.”  Patrick said over his shoulder as he ferreted for his briefcase in the back of his car.  “It’s alright, Karen, you can ignore him if you like.”

Mild blue lagoons of eyes met Karen’s embarrassed look and drew her deep.  Perhaps her impression of this man, drawn so far from Patrick’s affectionately disparaging description, had led her to expect a super-salesman;  a smooth talker who had risen in his chosen industry by his gift of the gab – a success pedlar; a showman.  The real Jackson Hallcroft was as far from that.  Behind the hypnosis of those eyes was several fathoms of intellect, a warm sea of wisdom that flowed gently to its shore – never intrusive, never loud, yet utterly absorbing.  She saw in the father all she adored in the son, and her legs went from under her.  She fumbled.  “Hello Mr. Hallcroft;” She blurted hopelessly; “I hope you  don’t mind my staying here..I mean, because Patrick’s very special to me, and I…that is, thank you for taking me in.”

What made her say that?  All too aware of Gabrielle’s stifled giggle, she rushed to cover herself:  “Patrick didn’t tell me you were American.”

Patrick was behind  her.  “He isn’t.  He’s Canadian.  Didn’t I say?  I should have.”

But Jackson Hallcroft merely smiled:  “You’re welcome, Karen.  I sincerely hope you’re going to take this young man off our hands.  I was beginning to despair.”

“We all were!”  Gabrielle chipped in.  “Come on inside, you two.  Paul wants to challenge Patsy on the Scalextric.”

Your mother’s anchored to a queen’s pudding in the kitchen.”  Jackson said informatively.  “Gabby, maybe you and Karen here might attempt a rescue?”

“Oh super, yes!”  Gabrielle took her cue, “ You simply must be introduced, sweetie.”  She squeezed Karen’s arm and added, in a much lower voice:  “And you can tell me about your wedding plans.”

Mortified, Karen shielded a scarlet blush behind her hands.  “Whatever have I said? ”

“Nothing!  You’ve been through a lot, you’re exhausted.  The rest is something Daddy does, darling.  It’s a gift – he does it to everyone, so don’t worry!  Anyway,” Gabby grinned; “it was rather sweet!  I should warn you, though; I think Patsy heard.”

Within the double main doors,  Radley Court’s baronial hall asserted its cool authority, a long central chamber richly carpeted in green which ran from the front to the rear of the house.  Oak panelled walls lined either side, drawing Karen’s eyes to a wide staircase which dominated the further end.  Lit by tall stained glass windows, this ascended to a mezzanine at first floor level.  Above, if she could crane her neck so far without falling over, a severe, ornately plastered ceiling presided.

For all its initial impression of austerity and patronage – so oppressive it brought a whimper to Karen’s throat – Radley Court had a character which made it very much a home.  Petra’s toys:  a rubber ring, a squiggly thing of interlaced rubber, a bright yellow plastic bone and other miscellaneous pieces of flotsam were scattered about an expensive green carpet, which also hosted a black loop of Scalextric track at which Paul already knelt in an attitude of prayer.

He waved informally.  “Excuse my rudeness, I was just getting the hang of this thing before Patsy got himself bludgeoned!  No!  No, Petra!”

Anxious to join in, Petra had neatly plucked Paul’s slot car from a speedy corner and brought it helpfully, tail wagging, to Karen.  Paul grinned apologetically.  “Come on, Pat, I’ll take advantage of your condition and thrash you this time.  Sorry Karen – going to borrow him for a minute.  Oh, and please Miss, can I have my car back?”

In the brief time Karen knew him, she would learn to like Paul Wheeler immensely.  He was perhaps a year or so older than Gabrielle and taller too with a head that seemed so large and heavy it gave him a stoop.  When he was seated he would often support that head, as though his neck was not up to the task unaided.  She would remember the firm clasp of his handshake, the earnest intensity in those searching grey eyes and the curious femininity of his long, curled eyelashes.  He spoke with a regional drawl that lilted pleasingly.  It was easy to see how Gabrielle might love him, and it was very evident that she did.

“This is going to end in tears.”  Gabrielle commented, as Pat grabbed a hand control and stiffly joined Paul in sitting on the floor.  “Come and meet Mum.”

At the right-hand corner of the hall, shaded by the stairs, was an imposing oak door.  “Kitchen.”  Gabrielle said informatively, grabbing the brass handle and swinging the door back.

The room thus revealed was, of course, roughly the size of Karen’s entire apartment.  She had expected no less.  Neither was she surprised by the large centre table, the long reaches of beech worktop or the imposing Aga range in a cavernous fireplace at the further end.  She was confronted by walls painted raging red, and mildly taken aback at the chaos: scattered plates, scattered food, spilt flour, errant pools of liquid, a faint but unmistakable burnt smell, the hapless waving of an open Aga door.  The one absent ingredient was Gabrielle’s mother, who, in Karen’s opinion, had justifiably abandoned ship.  Not so.

“Oh f***!  Bloody f***ing f*** and bugger!  Gabs, is that you?”  The voice, in a falsetto of panic, came from behind the table.

“Yes, Mumsy.”

“Thank christ!  Come and help me, would you?”  The figure of a woman, disarranged in every way, rose into view.  Wild-eyes took in Karen, and said profoundly:  “Oh, bollocks.  Is this…?”

“Mother dear, this is Karen.”  Gabrielle gave Karen’s arm a quick squeeze, then rushed to her mother’s aid.  “Oh, Mumsy, I told you not to attempt it!”

In a moment of some poignancy, mother and daughter stood side by side, staring down.  Mother smiled bravely.  “I could slide something underneath, don’t you think?”

She came to greet Karen, wiping hands rich in ingredients.  “Hello, Karen.  How nice to meet you!  You must forgive my language, but as you see, I’m cooking.”

Gwendoline Hallcroft, Karen would quickly learn, was the sort of woman who threw herself body and soul into every undertaking.   Brown hair, just on the edge of auburn, flecked with flour and possibly several specks of egg yolk, fell in disorder to her shoulders.  Framing a facethat was probably beautiful, with awestruck eyes set beneath thin, arching eyebrows so fine they seemed almost white.  A refined nose twitched with her smile; the big, all-consuming smile of a mouth that was wide and sensual.  Her pinafore, which in better days had advertised Paignton Zoo, disguised a combination of green sweater and jeans.  She was large, inelegant in stature, a big boned woman; but she exuded honesty and Karen took to her at once.

“Christ, what must you think of me?  I cuss like a bloody sailor, I’m afraid.  Do make yourself at home, Karen dear, while I prepare dinner.  Gabs, take Karen to see the horses.”

“Well, there.  You’ve experienced all of us now, Karen.”  Gabrielle said as she led the way out of the back door of the kitchen on their way to the stables.  “Except Sprog, of course.”

“Sprog?”

“Yes.  Didn’t Patsy tell you?  Sprog – our little sister Amanda – is pajama-partying with a school friend.”  Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in mock distaste.  “She won’t be missed.”

“Shouldn’t I help out in the kitchen?  Your mum seemed a little…”

Gabrielle laughed.  “Overwhelmed?  Yes, she is, totally.  It’s alright, though.  Mrs. Beatty will be in soon.”

“Mrs. Beatty?”

“Of course.  You didn’t think we looked after this ghastly heap all by ourselves, did you?  We have the two ‘B’s.  Mrs. Beatty and Mrs. Buxham keep us in order – and sane.  Mrs. Beatty does the cooking.  She’ll clear all that up and have a meal ready within the hour.  Marvellous woman – I don’t know how she does it!  Oh lord, do you realise I only met you three hours ago?  I feel as though I’ve known you all my life!  I do hope we’ll be friends, Karen, I really do!”

 

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

 

 

Crooked Meg

Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall.  Jacintha’s covered it with gentle fingers.   “It feels so special, here.”  She said, her voice subdued almost to a whisper.  “I just know we could be so happy, darling.  This has to be our house!”

Beside them an Agents’ ‘For Sale’ board rattled.   “The view is to die for.”  Martin admitted.  “You can see miles from those French doors in the kitchen, absolutely miles!”

Martin would never confess that, even with the aid of thick spectacles he always wore these days, horizons could be no more than a haze.  He could see the house, though.  Yes, he could see that.

It was a truly tempting piece of architecture:  five bedrooms, palatial bathrooms, open-plan kitchen and diner, living room, study, and so on.  A double garage with a loft above it, a half-acre of wild, heather-strewn land.   Yet it was the last house on High Croft, a development of eight newly built houses, the other seven of which had been bought long ago.   Why had no-one wanted it – or was it merely a matter of a price he already considered cheap?  Could he make a cheeky offer?

“Alright, dear.  If you like it, it’s ours.  I’ll call the Agents.”

Jacintha smiled her satisfaction, suppressing a little whoop of joy within.  It would never do, in her relationship with Martin, to express emotion more honestly.   Martin must be expected to conform to certain conditions, as must she.  He was, after all, somewhat short of her image of the perfect man, but she took pride in his apparently limitless wealth, and his predilection for spending it on her.  He was also good company; even mildly amusing, at times.

Martin found his mobile ‘phone in his breast pocket.  The ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in noisy reminder.

“It’s a little windy here.”   He said.  “There was a pub just down the hill:  I can make the call indoors.   Last one there buys the first round!”

Seeing her husband running like the cumbersome fool he was, Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered man in a waxed jacket who witnessed this humiliation from across the road.  She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reduced them to an elegant walk.  Ahead of her, Martin’s outburst of fun was already over.  He was looking back for her with an embarrassed smile.

The pub was unpretentious, but comfortable.   Jacintha picked a settle with a table by the window while Martin bought drinks.

“You looking to buy that house up top of the hill?”  The Landlord responded, wrestling with the new experience of preparing a Harvey Wallbanger.  “It does get cold in the winter, mind.   You can get snowed in for a month sometimes, easy.  There was a time no-one’d think of building anything up there, not even a cow shed.  It’s three hundred feet above the treeline, isn’t it?”

Martin joined Jacintha on the settle by the window.   “The landlord thinks we’re mad.”

“Perhaps we are, a bit.”   Jacintha murmured.  “I love the open moors, darling.  The air is so fresh up here!”

“And there’s so much of it!”  Martin agreed.  “I’ll get the deal sewn up.”  He delved for the Property Agent’s specification sheet, lining up a telephone number to tap out on his mobile.

“The wind up there, it blows forever.”

The voice caught Jacintha and Martin by surprise.   Their eyes rested upon the figure who had watched their feeble attempt at a race not long since, and who stood over them, perhaps intent upon Jacintha, now.  This was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills, Martin considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features.   Jacintha, finding she was breathing too fast, collected herself hurriedly.  “Does it?”  She responded lamely.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  It’s wonderful.  I love to feel the wind on my face, it’s so…so inspiring!”

“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?”  The man said flintily, and his jaw hardly moved when he talked and his lips were thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth.

“I think so.”   Martin was aware the proprieties had not been observed, and more aware than Jacintha, perhaps, of how pink she had become.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…”

“Abr’ham.  That’s my name.  You can call me Abe.”  The man waved an airy hand towards the other occupants of the pub.  “Most everybody does.

“That used to be Meg’s place, there.  You wouldn’t think it, would ‘ee?   Oh, not the ‘ouse, o’ course.  Stone, ‘er place were, with flags for a roof and a door o’ planks she borrowed off the loose boxes from the Squire’s stables.  They’d make Meg laugh in that squeaky voice ‘o ‘ers, all them modern things we takes for granted now.”

“Really, Abe?.”  Martin accorded the newcomer one of his mildest smiles;   “She sounds like a real character.  Did you know her well?”

“Know ‘er?  Why bless you, yes.  Ever’body lives up ‘ere knows Meg.”

There was an uneasy pause.  Martin decided to break it.  “I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Martin; this is Jacintha, my wife.  I would guess you know a few things concerning the house?”  He did not wish to seem inhospitable.  This man gave the impression of living locally; a villager, maybe.  “If we tempted you with a drink, perhaps you could fill us in?”

“Well, I thank you kindly.  Yes, I could use a pint of draught.”

“I’ll get us all another round.”  Martin said.

No sooner had Martin departed for the bar, than Abe had taken his place on the settle next to Jacintha.  “I adore the house!”  She self-consciously smoothed her skirt over her thighs.

“You’ll be ‘appy there.”  Abe said.  “You’m a strong woman, I can see that.”  Martin brought the drinks.  “You’re def’nitely going to put in an offer, then?”

Martin set the glasses on the table.  Realising his seat had been taken, he pulled up a chair.  “I think so.  We are, aren’t we, Darling?”

“Oh, yes!”  Jacintha breathed.  “Wild, open moorland like that, full of myths and legends – I couldn’t ask for more!”

“My wife is an artist,” Martin explained, failing, as he always did, to keep all trace of irony from his voice.  “She writes.  And paints.”  He added as an afterthought.  “Do tell us about this Meg?”

Abe sipped from his pint of draught.   “Ah!  Crooked Meg, she’m better known as…”

“Oh, why?”  Jacintha cried.  “What did she do wrong?”

“Meg?  Meg done lots that was wrong, but it aren’t the reason for her name.  No, Meg was a goatherd.   She was a goatherd because that’s what her father did until the day he died, and there was a herd of goats to feed, so Meg just took them over.  Ever’one has to make a living, and that was Meg’s.”

“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”

“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here.   They smelled unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too partic’lar how they fed their beasts.  Very few of ‘em had land of their own; theirs was a poor living and they couldn’t afford it, so they just drove their herds about the lanes, letting ‘em graze off the verges, or, if no-one were watchin’, off a legit’mate farmer’s crop, which, o’ course, being goats, they stripped to the soil – left nothing!”

“Gosh!”  Jacintha was enraptured.  “That must have made the landowners awfully cross, mustn’t it?”

“That it did, Missus.”  Beneath the table, Jacintha felt Abe’s hand grip her knee.  “It did madden old Jacob Morrow, when he found ‘er in his cornfield, that’s for sure!”

“I imagine so.”  Martin’s face wore a perplexed look.  “I imagine ‘old Jacob Morrow’ would have taken measures to stop her?”

“Measures?  Oh, ‘er took measures alright.  Jacob were a poor tenant farmer see?  He couldn’t afford to lose all that corn she were takin’.   No-one blamed him.  Not at all.”

“Blamed him?  Oh my gosh!  Blamed him for what?”  Jacintha’s hand was engaged in a covert tussle with Abe’s hand which, having found its way to her leg, seemed reluctant to leave.

“He took after ‘er, see?   An’ she ran, ‘cause he weren’t a good tempered man, and he’d have beat her senseless.   Well, she don’t have time to open the five-bar gate, do she, so she clambers over.  Done it many times afore, no problem for Meg, not that.  If’n this time ‘er hadn’t caught ‘er foot in the third bar, and fell back-over!   You might say it saved ‘er, in a way, ‘cause with ‘er screaming  Jacob got frightened and lef’ ‘er alone.”

“God, that’s horrible!”  Jacintha whispered.

“Horrible, aye.  Some say ‘er back were broke, some say her hips.  Still she dragged hersel’ two mile to get home, ‘cause they made ‘em tough, back then, and there weren’t no doctorin’ if you was poor.   She healed bad, though.  Ever after that she were bent over back’ards like a billhook, she were.  That’s why she’m called Crooked Meg.”

“Poor woman!”

Abe nodded into his beer.  “Poor woman, ah!”

“Yes, it is an engaging tale.”  Martin, who was not oblivious to the wandering progress of Abe’s hand, was sceptical.  “One thing puzzles me, er…Abe.”

“Ask away.”  Abe said.

“At the beginning of your story you spoke about this woman as though you knew her personally.     You said she had a squeaky laugh, if I remember.  Yet a tragedy like hers couldn’t happen today, could it?  This took place – what – a hundred years ago?”

“More like two…”

“So how….?”

“Oh, Meg’s still around.”

“Sorry?”  Jacintha, alarmed, froze in her struggle against Abe’s advances.  Suddenly lacking the rustle and scuffle this had caused, the silence was palpable.  Abe’s hand took instant territorial advantage.

“I said Meg’s still around, Missus.  Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time.  Where you’m going to be livin’, you’ll come across ‘er a lot.”

Martin frowned:  “So this is a ghost story?”

“Well, some might call it that, but only from a distance, if you see what I mean?  See, this isn’t the end o’ the tale.   Affer her accident. Meg couldn’t herd her goats no more, ‘cause she were crippled, so she took after gettin’ ‘erself a husban’.”

“Not easy, I imagine.”  Jacintha muttered, renewing her resistance with increased fervour.

“No, she weren’t exactly a pretty dish.  But those were desp’rate times and they had desp’rate people in ‘em.  She married Ben Stokesley, she was the only one who would.  They was a foul family, them Stokesleys, and no sane woman would have had ‘em.  Some say Meg weren’t sane, though, even then.”

“After all she’d been through….”

“Exac’ly.  He were a drinker, were Ben, like all his kin.  Most the time he were too drunk to stand, and when he could stand he beat Meg until she bled, poor woman.  He didn’t hardly never work, an’ she couldn’t, so they never had nothing.  They was so poor they did eat grass from the hill from time to time, until one day Ben went out and sold Meg’s house from under her.  It were hers and her father before ‘er.  Meg couldn’t stand no more.

When she found out, crippled as she was, demented as she was, poor screaming soul, she tore that house apart, stone by stone, timber by timber; and when Ben come’d home, roaring drunk having poured the money he’d got for the ‘ouse down he’s throat, she picked up the heaviest stone and she crushed he’s skull.   That’s where they found ‘er next morning, still sitting on Ben’s body and shouting out like the spirits of the moor were a-hunting in her head.”

“Dear Lord!  Whatever happened to her?”

“Some said she was took to sessions and hanged, some that she were put in an asylum, because her madness wouldn’t ever free her.  That weren’t truth of it….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”

Jacintha was ashen.  “No, please, you must.  Go on.”

“Well, local folks knows.  The Stokesley family came after ‘er. They did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch.  I reckon she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn.  Ask anyone here – they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year us ‘ave heard her screams jus’ at sunrise, just afore the day comes.  Her house was razed to the ground, you see, nothin’ left.  But it was her home, and she don’t take kindly to anyone else living there, even with their fancy porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Now I don’t want you to worry none, now.”

“Not worry!”

“Well, you don’t ‘ave to believe all you hear – mind, didn’t you wonder how ‘twas such a grand ‘ouse stands empty?  For more ‘n two hundred years no-one dared build on that land for fear of Meg.  But there ‘tis.”   Abe sighed.  “There ‘tis.”

“Oh, Darling, this is awful!”  Jacintha exclaimed.

“Yes, well.  Yes.”  Martin decided.  “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!”

His wife attempted to rise from the table without more intimate contact with Abe.  In this she failed.   Her face was inches from his flint-sharp features as he murmured.   “Pity!   Still, we being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?”  He turned to Martin, whose neck was becoming dangerously red.  “You’ll be quick to put that offer in, now, will ‘ee?”

Martin stumbled. “Yes.  Well, no.  Perhaps not yet.   We may take a little longer to consider it.”

“We do have one or two other properties to look at.”  Jacintha explained hastily.

Abe watched as his two drinking companions scuttled from the dark mood of the public bar into bright forenoon sunshine.  The Landlord called over:   “They was in a bit of a hurry, weren’t they, Mr. Abrahams?”

“Yes George.  Yes, they were.”   Abe sighed, then ferreted for his mobile ‘phone.  Holding it beneath the light from the pub window, he tapped out a number.  “Marcus!”  He hailed, in a voice that had lost all of its rustic burr:  “It’s Jocelyn, dear boy; Jocelyn Abrahams.  Marcus;  that house on the High Croft estate – ‘Woodlands’, I think you’ve called it?   It’s been empty for a year now; I told you at the time no-one would pay two hundred and fifty thou for it.   A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I?  Anyway, have you thought any more about my offer?  One-seven-five, yes.   Oh, you’ve got a view, have you?  Well, if they don’t bite, you just call me and I’ll be in your office in the morning.  Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better.   Yes.  I’ll look forward to it.”

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  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