Petergunn2: Hi Mel!
Melatrix: Hi Babes – feeling better?
Petergunn2: Yeah – sorreeee.
Melatrix: Cool! Favour 4 me? JJJ?
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?”
© 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.
Image Credits: Header picture by Mohb Zuber Seifi from Pixabay
Guitarist by Clk-Free Vector Imaging from Pixabay