Strings

Melissa: This story stands on its own, but readers might be interested in my first encounter with Melissa, which can be found in story-form here,

Melissa arches her back, stretching bare flesh against the quilting of her lounger, the better to observe a frisbee player on the beach.   “He’s quite the Greek, isn’t he?”

I grin at her,  “Periclean?”

“A ‘First Athenian’?  More of an Achilles, wouldn’t you say?”   She lowers her Ray-Bans for a closer inspection, “Fine physical specimen, valiant in battle, but none too bright.”  Her eyes follow the arc of the beach toy as it flies to the waiting hands of Achilles’ almost equally statuesque companion, a curvaceous auburn-haired beauty in one of those white bikinis best described as’ just legal’ and held together by lots of string,  “Run him past me again?”

“Kapadopoulos, George.   Aged thirty-two, from Thessaloniki, where he’s the CEO for most of the hotels – the big ones, anyway.”

“Really?”  Melissa sounds approving,  “Wealthy family?”

“Nope!  Beach bum.  He married the money, five years ago.   His wife is heiress to the Playton Beach fortune, he runs the hospitality arm of her Companies.  Does it quite well, actually.  Turnover up twelve percent year on year.”

“Didn’t she choose well?”  Melissa says, watching the lithe redhead at unself-conscious play;  “Rare to discover such perfect judgement in one so young.”

“Oh, she’s not that young:  forty-fifth birthday next week.”

Melissa growls at me,  “That girl is not forty-five!”

“No, she isn’t.  But that girl is not George’s wife.”

“You see?”   Melissa purrs.  I am watching a moment of charming intimacy between the pair on the beach, as they laugh and they kiss, but I am more aware of Melissa’s beaming smile;  “You see, my darling, why I’m so fond of you?  You’ve been doing your homework again, haven’t you?  I uncover my Achilles, you discover his heel!”  She sits up,  “Shall I give it a dry run?”

I shrug noncommittally, or so I hope.   “No harm in it.”

If ever there is pleasure to be gained from watching another human being, it must surely be from watching Melissa.   Each step in the soft sand is carefully  placed as she walks to the seashore, hips swaying not too much, ash-blonde hair flicking like thistledown in the breeze.  I am spellbound, as I never fail to be; but my attention is as nothing compared to the organ-stop eyes of Achilles.

It will be a while before she returns, time in which I will half-sleep in the sun, and reminisce upon  the day when my good friend Jorges first introduced me to Melissa; days of cold, winter car shares, of lingering debt.  How far have I come?  How far have we come, for I owe all this to Melissa.  And where is Jorges now, I reflect?  When did we last meet? 

Shortly my Melissa will return – she will have swum, she will have responded, laughing, to a child who splashes her, or a young male who risks a pass and is instantly rebuffed.  Only when she feels she has played the tamed warmth of the waves to her full advantage will she leave the water, skipping up the white sand, to me.

She slips onto the lounger beside mine with something between a sigh and a breath, finding the straw in the Pina Colada I ordered for her.    “He was watching?”

“Of course!”  I reassure her.   “His eyes were rooted on you all the way down to the water, and all the way back.  He dropped the Frisbee three times. Now he’s looking at me.”

“Is he sizing you up?”  She stretches, letting those besotted Kapadopalous eyes feast upon every inch of leg before she crosses her right foot over her left knee, making a pretence of examining a toenail.   “Oh, sweetie, he doesn’t think you present much of a problem!”

“I wonder what Jorges is doing these days?”  (Sorry, my  love, but I am curious).

“Jorges?”  Melissa sounds surprised.  “Why do you ask about Jorges?”

“I haven’t seen him in years.  Technically he still manages you, doesn’t he?”

Melissa gives me a long look,  “He gets his ten percent, darling.  And you, my sweet, you ask for nothing!  Now; business!  Our Achilles – is he hooked?”

“I should say so,”  I tell her,  “The girlfriend’s looking worried.”

Melissa purses those delicious lips and considers this for a minute.  “Who’s the girlfriend?”

I sigh.  “Ah!  As there are ointments, so there are flies.  She is, apparently, Lavinia Defries, Larry Defries’s most adored.  She seems to have slipped the marital bridle for a day or two.”

Sighing, Melissa sucks her straw deeply,  “Indeed she has.  When we say ‘lots of money’, darling, what do we mean?”

“Awash with the stuff.  In Larry Defries’s case, about four hundred million.  At one point, he was reputed to be the richest man in Argentina.”

“Was?  What happened?”

“He moved to Italy.”

So Jorges, Jorges who has no input, Jorges-the-never-seen, gets ten percent!  I profit hugely from my  relationship with Melissa, yet I cannot help that quiet inner voice – where is my ten percent? 

Melissa is asking:  “What do you think, can you flush Lavvy out?  Look at all those strings you’d have to untie, not to mention the dozen or so others Larry’s lawyers will find for you?”

I would not refuse her:    “If you want me to, I’ll try.”

“I don’t.  It’s too late in the season for a full-scale operation, and she’s a little bit above even your vaunted league, my darling.  We’ve done well this summer.   It’s time to go home, I think.”

Yes, you’ve rumbled us – you’ve broken our cover, exposed our racket, whatever.  We perform a very valuable service for the private client.   In return for a generous fee we guarantee their wives, husbands or voters won’t learn about that night of stolen bliss, that extremely awkward business deal or the little undeclared interest which is at the foundation of every worthwhile government contract.   

‘B********l?

Alright, you can call it that, but we prefer to think of it as insurance, and the wealthy vacationers on these tropical beaches have yielded no less than fourteen very gratifying premiums this summer.  With my developing talent for research and Melissa’s unerring nose for those harbouring a personal skeleton in their closet we have been very successful, and between us become extremely rich ourselves.  But in turning down this fifteenth potential client Melissa is wise; she warns against dealings that involve the very high rollers.  Their teeth, she insists, are too sharp.

We will be leaving on the morrow, so for once we spurn the beach bar’s more extravagant temptations and head back to our hotel.  There we relax in the Ocean Lounge and watch the more determined sun-worshippers drifting in from the beach.  George and Lavinia are amongst this gaggle, but we have already excluded them from our portfolio.   They are not of interest.

At about eight, I decide to go to our room, shower the sand from between my toes, and pack ready for tomorrow’s flight.   Melissa, not disposed to move as yet, dismisses me with an airy wave:  “I’ll be up soon, darling.  It’s deliciously cool now; I might walk a little.”

The corridor to our suite is on the fifth floor.  I am strolling along it when a door to my right is opened and an elegant hand grips my wrist firmly enough to pull me inside.

“Hi!” says Lavinia, who is still wearing half her white bikini,  “I wonder if you can help me?  These strings are tied so darned tight I can’t undo them.”

This must be my night for meeting astoundingly beautiful women, because the next woman I meet, about two hours later, is astoundingly beautiful.  It is Melissa, but unlike the a.b.w of my previous encounter, she is fully clothed,

“Two hours, sweetie;”  She says, in a mildly censorious tone,  “That’s something of a record, even for you.  I take it you decided to override my decision?”

“Think of it as a little bit of private enterprise,”  I reply, emboldened by recent triumph;  “In lieu of my ten per cent.”  I produce the mini recorder from my shirt’s concealed inner pocket:  “I taped the complete transaction.”

Melissa cocks an eyebrow,  “How felicitous of you.  Who do you envisage benefiting from your discretion?”

“I thought the young lady herself:  save her the expense of a marital tiff?”

“An inspired choice, sweetie.” She turns away, so I assume the issue is closed.  She never sets any great store by my fealty to her, after all.  Business comes first.  “You’d better pack,”  She says.  “Be careful in the bathroom.”

I find this remark curious, although I do not question it then.  Five minutes later, when I do visit the bathroom, I discover the explanation for myself.  Stretched out lifeless on the floor with his neck twisted to an unnatural angle, George Kapadopoulos is not looking his best.

“My lord, Mel, what happened?   What’s he doing here?  I take it he’s dead – he certainly looks it.”

“Very dead, darling.  Such a silly boy; he tried to seduce me.  It was quite flattering and I was tempted, knowing you were humping Lavvy so inelegantly just up the corridor, but something had troubled me, and I did a little research:  your speciality, I know, but for once you missed something…”

I frown at her,  “Where are we going with this?  Melissa, we have a dead body in our bathroom!”

“We are going towards sweet little Lavinia, who I suspect has gone one better and filmed your entire ‘transaction’, because she, whose septuagenarian husband is divorcing her on the lea side of a prenup, needs money.  All that play on the beach this afternoon when we thought we were doing the assessing, our intendeds were watching us.  They have been for most of the season, apparently.  Lavinia was teaming up with Gorgeous George to offer us some ‘protection’.  Unless we pay her a certain amount which she doesn’t seem to have nominated yet, she and George will bust us on social media and back it up with a couple of criminal charges from the local fuzz, who are extremely amenable, I understand.  When George imparted their plans to me I was naturally upset.”

“So you killed him!”

“What else could I do?  Any other course of action would have resulted in considerable financial loss.”

“Well, if ever we were going to be busted, we’re busted now!   I mean, if we got lucky and managed to smuggle George out of our bathroom, what about Lavvy?  She’s very much alive and kicking, I can assure you of that, and she’s not going to be pleased!”

Melissa touches my arm, reminding me, if I needed to be reminded, of the peculiarly hypnotic effect she exerts upon me,  “It’s all being taken care of.”  She says reassuringly,  “But for both our sakes,  I think you should take your bags and check us out of this hotel now.  Do that for me, will you, sweetie?”

“What about you?   How will you manage?”

“Don’t worry, just go. I’m culpable here, darling, not you.  You needn’t be involved, as long as we keep our distance from each other for a while.   At the airport tomorrow, check in on your own.  We’ll travel separately.  Come to the Bayswater flat when you get to London.  That’ll be our rendezvous.”

Melissa is intent upon taking the blame, and who am I to argue?  In matters such as these (though none so grave before) she holds all the cards.  She is cool, level-headed and intuitively brilliant.  So leaving her, however reluctantly, I trot down to settle our account at the desk and declare our intention to check out.   And there, in the hotel foyer, like a beacon from the past, is Jorges!   I spot him as he is walking through the inner lobby towards the stairs.  I call out to him;  “Speak of the devil! Jorges!”    

My one-time car share turns to acknowledge me but doesn’t.  Instead, he silences me with a quick warning finger to his lips, then begins his ascent to the next floor.   I understand instantly.  This is a very serious matter.  Jorges is going to help Melissa to clear things up.  Jorges is earning his ten per cent!   

A lonely night spent at the airport, alternating between a bar and a hard plastic seat, allows me plenty of time for reflection.  I am grateful to Melissa for protecting me but the evening’s events do beg certain questions: did she call Jorges to help her dispose of the body or was Jorges already there?  George’s neck had been cleanly snapped and such things take great strength.  In her place, I could not have done it, whereas Jorges, who is heavily built, probably could.    Come to think of it, he had to have been nearby, obviously:  England is eight hours away.  Has he been lurking here all season; unseen but ready, should an emergency occur?  If so, what does that say about my role?

 I do not see Melissa again that night, nor is she at the airport when I check in.  The plane is crowded, making movement without drawing attention to myself quite difficult, nonetheless I check throughout the passenger accommodation at one time or another, exhaustively enough to be sure Melissa is not on board.  Now I am like an anxious swain, beside myself with worry and insecurity: has she taken a later flight, or run into trouble?  Have I left her to fate, failed her?  Has she, for that matter, left me?  Oh, why did I mention Jorges’ name, back there on the beach – and why, oh, why did I make that remark about ten percent?

So anxious do I feel for my dearest Melissa, having landed in London, that  I find it hard to maintain my composure through customs, and even harder as I take my turn for a taxi from the rank.  My decision to head straight for the Bayswater flat is a distinctly uncool one, but in my distraught state of mind it makes sense, to me, to await her return in the comfort of one of our private spaces.

I like our apartment in Bayswater, it is furnished in the style of Louis Quinze, with exquisite oriental hangings that testify to Melissa’s impeccable taste.  When I relax there I have to pinch myself to remember that the over-mortgaged house Melissa once helped me to burn down was worth less than the furnishings and textiles in its salon alone.

My taxi delivers me to the door.  My key card buzzes me through.  Our apartment is on the ground floor so it is only a short step across the hall.  I enter, hang my coat on the stand and walk the short passage which has bedrooms (four) on either side and the salon at the end.  I step into the salon…

At first I try to persuade myself I have fainted:  this is a dream – it must be a dream.   To discover that Melissa is here before me is surprising enough, but it is as nothing – nothing – to the sight of the companion who sits beside her, holding her hand!

George Kapadopoulos is holding her hand.

“You’re dead!”  I tell him, foolishly when I can find my voice.  He must already know.  He doesn’t look dead.  He does look very pale, and quite – well – friendly, I suppose.  His face is fixed in a smile of greeting.

Melissa positively beams.  “Darling, did you have a good flight?  You two haven’t been introduced yet, have you?   This is George.”

George rises, albeit slowly, to his feet.   His eyes are glassy, and he does not speak, but he does extend his hand.  I take it.  It is cold, very cold.

“You must forgive him,”  Melissa says;  “He hasn’t really recovered yet.  He’ll be right as rain in a day or two.”

“Hello George,”  my tongue is very definitely on autopilot,  “How’s your neck?”

George looks as if he might be about to fall down, so I step in to restore him to his seat.  The look I give Melissa as I do so can leave no room for doubt.   “Ask away, Sweetie,”  She says.

“Well, first of all, how did you get here before me, and a very close second, how come he isn’t as dead as he was the last time I saw him?  Oh, and a supplementary, what has Jorges got to do with it, and why isn’t he here now?”

She smiles benignly, instilling the seeds of renewed confidence in me.   George is still smiling, which disturbs me slightly:  is his head sitting a little crookedly?  “We’ll start with Jorges,”  Melissa says,  “Because that’s a simple answer.  I’ve got him safely pinned down in Hampstead.   He’s quite comfortable there.”  She takes a sip of the red wine she always has near her when we are in this apartment;  “Now I have to tell you a little story.  Get yourself a drinkie, darling you may need it.

“I am not as I appear.  Does that sound too dramatic?”

“A bit,” I concede, pouring a whisky.  “Explain?”

“I come from a very old family.”

“Ah!  I thought there was a little Slav in your blood. Those adorable gypsy eyes of yours – Esmeralda eyes.”

“Close,”  Melissa says.  “My family was not always appreciated as it should have been.  We were nobility; we were owed respect.   Instead, we were driven from our homeland, condemned to wander the world as exiles.  This makes us very cautious.”

I have stopped pouring.  Melissa has barely mentioned her family before, apart from once alluding to her mother “This family…”

 “Certain of our practices attracted criticism,” she allows herself a whimsical smile,  “And we were a touch on the primitive side at times, it’s true.  But we changed.  Yes, we changed.”

I am settling on a chaise, drink in hand and starting to think the unthinkable.  “What changed?”

“Certain appetites,”  She purses her lovely lips, “ that made us easy to trace, easy to hunt down.  It has been a tortuous road.  Even my Grandmother, the twelfth Countess, found sunlight quite injurious for a while.”

“And now?”  I say, heavily.

“Oh, she finds it easier to live below ground.  I am three hundred years younger than her and I don’t suffer from the sun at all; nor does Jorges.  Science is a wonderful thing.”

“Jorges is…?”

“Oh yes!  Really, darling, what did you think I meant when I said he gets ‘ten percent’?” And you see, we are all quite warm-blooded now.  It isn’t difficult to appear normal when you can manage to eat a little food now and then, or take a drink or two.”

I am trying to remember the last time I saw Melissa with food, “You’re still not completely…”

“Completely mortal?  Bless you no. Each of our clients this season was persuaded to donate – I still need my little ‘fix’ now and then.”  She pats George on the arm.  His head turns slowly in her direction;  “Jorges and I had quite a feast last night!”

“Yet you still beat me home?”

“Private transport, shall we call it?  Not used often, and not without risk;   The Marchioness was almost shot down once by a French hunter just outside Le Touquet, .but yesterday was an exception.     Now, about you…”

“What about me?   Did you take your percentage out of me?  I don’t remember any biting.”

“You always compliment me on the passionate depth of my kisses.  You even say they make your mouth sore, at times.  Either the tongue or the back of the upper lip is favoured.”

“I haven’t bled, Melissa!”

“We’re like mosquitos, sweetie.  We seal the wound.  Now, after your debacle with George and his pretty mistress, I’ve decided it’s time you went out on your own.”

The true horror of what is happening overcomes me.  “Stop!  Stop, please, my darling!  I made one mistake – just one!   Don’t push me away!  I love you!”

“Oh, now who’s being dramatic?  Love?  It’s hypnotic suggestion and it passes in no more than a day. But no, I’m not dispensing with you, because you’re very good.   On the contrary, the family is always growing, so we’re opening up the Heidelberg apartment for your use.  I have shared our blood with you for years now, and in the next few days you will discover how to extract your own ten percent.  You will enjoy it!” 

Melissa squeezes George’s hand,  “Meanwhile George, who  as we discovered yesterday is also very, very  good, is my new recruit.  He shall learn from me,  and you will teach a new companion your wizardry.   You must meet her.”

Melissa makes no move or any detectable kind of summons, yet there is a vibration, and I feel it, too.   In response to it the salon door opens, admitting a graceful figure in a dress of bridal white who crosses the floor and melts onto the chaise longue beside me.

“Hi again!”  Lavinia says softly:  “No strings this time, huh?”

© 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.

Picture Credit: Airport – Jeshoots.com

Header: QK from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Seventeen

A Country House

Peter had only met Ronald Harkness’s predecessor once, and that was purely by accident.   He had come to his Dad’s church on an errand and Bishop Penrose was there,.  Penrose was a  polished and shiny golden delicious of a man whose inner sweetness oozed from him: one of those for whom there was no possible career or destination other than faith.   Peter had liked Bishop Penrose.

There was little that was fragrant or remotely fructose in Bishop Harkness.   The churchman who greeted Peter’s gaze as he answered his father’s call to their front room next morning was a spare, crow-like figure.  His long head, with black, sparse hair clinging untidily to its summit, tapered like a rugby ball at chin and cranium,.  His large eyes flickered eagerly from blackened sockets.   A prominent nose hooked over the upper lip of a mouth which might have been gouged out of his skin, so narrow and level a slit did it present.  He was dressed in an attempt at informality; Arran sweater, beige sports slacks, brogues, but there was nothing informal about his presence.  If Penrose was apple, Harkness was medlar; if he were a man of the cloth it was sackcloth – if he were a man of God, Peter instantly decided, his was a most unusual god.

Harkness greeted him in a voice which came from a long way behind his teeth.   “You must be Peter.  How pleasant to meet you.”

From the moment he entered the room, Peter noticed, those eyes never left him.  Although he continued for some time in conversation with his father, Harkness looked only at the son.  After a few minutes, the new Bishop slapped his hands on his knees and stood up.

“Now, Bob.   I should like to have a few words with your fine young man, here.  I suppose we might take a turn in the garden, hmmm?   Would you accompany me, Peter?”

It was a strange request, but then the whole interview had a somewhat bizarre tenor.

“Is that all right with you, Peter?”  Bob Cartwright asked faintly, and Peter shrugged, and said that it was.

There was very little garden.   Harkness placed himself in the centre of what there was of it, with his arms folded, as he looked the pastor’s son up and down.

“So you’re Peter.”

“So you’re the new Bishop.”   Peter sat on the edge of a part-demolished wall, one of his father’s early attempts at a cold frame.

“Do you believe in God?”   Harkness’s words stabbed through the air metallically.   “No, I thought not.  I suppose if I asked you your religion you would say something like Buddhist, or ‘Jedi’ maybe; or something else.  It is awkward isn’t it, being a Pastor’s son, nowadays?”

The man’s attitude was nuanced towards hostile:  Peter prickled inside, but could do nothing to rebut it.  Harkness was his father’s superior, in a sense, and he would not have harmed his father’s interests for the world. He thought carefully before replying.

“Dad’s very good; he manages it for both of us.”

Harkness fixed him with a bird-like stare, turning his head to one side as a blackbird will when it hears a worm moving in the soil. There was no mistaking the inquisitorial intensity of that look, or the weight of unsaid words that were repressed behind it.

“You are still very young.”  The churchman suddenly commented.  “That surprises me.”

“What does?”  Peter could make no sense of this.  “I go to university this year.”

Harkness glanced at him sharply, as though he thought the answer facetious.  But seeing nothing other than innocence in Peter’s expression, a look of doubt, almost of incredulity, spread itself across his face.

“Never mind.”  He said at last, slowly, as if laying something to rest in his mind.  “These are momentous times, you see.   I have to be sure.  I wanted to ask you, Peter.   I wanted to urge you.  Stay upon the chosen path, God’s path.  At your age the choices may seem tempting, but there can be only one right choice.  D’you see?”

“S’pose.”  Such Jesuitical fervour was difficult to confront.  Peter found himself unaccountably fascinated by his own feet.

“Your father needs your support, lad.   These are troubled times, you know?”

“I wouldn’t let Dad down.”

Harkness stepped closer: too close; an invasion of space, an assertion of power.  The Bishop was staring right into his soul, striving to see beneath the innocence.  “Really?   Really, Peter?   I wonder, you see.  I do.”

After this interview was concluded and the usual pleasantries had been observed, Bishop Harkness took his leave.   Father and son saw him from their door, and as he retreated, Harkness cast a warning look of some severity towards Peter. He called back over his shoulder: “Remember my words, young man!”   Bob Cartwright heard this, and was perplexed.

“You know, old son, I could swear he actually came to see you, rather than me.  What do you make of that, eh?”

“I think he’s a sleaze.”

“Certainly he might take some getting used to.”  Bob raised a smile.  “Some of our distinguished brethren are like that.   We’ll rub along, I guess – at a distance.”

At that point the subject closed, and was not raised again.   But Bishop Harkness had left Peter with a feeling of violation that would take a long time to forget.

#

Lesley was in the middle of  a mathematics dilemma  when her ‘phone whirred:

 “Hi Pete.”

“Hi Les,   Missingg me?”

“Didn’t I just walk home with you?      Wasn’t that, like, an hour ago?”

“Two hours, ten minutes and forty seconds.  Admit it, your eveing’s empty without me.” 

“I’m sorta busy.  Okay, be useful.  What’s a perfect number?”

“Six.”

“Oh, very good…” 

“Or twenty-eight, or…I’ve forgotten.  Les, it’s my birthday tomorrow.    Weather forecast’s fine.   Fancy a day in the country?”

“Say the word.  I love country and stuff.   Six?”

“There’s a place I always wanted to see – called Crowley House.  Thought I’d go.  Lay some old ghosts.  Are you up for it?”

“You know me, Pete.  Always.   Six?”

“A perfect number.  Always the sum of its factors.  Six equals one plus two plus three?”

“Oh, yeah – why didn’t I see that?”

“Fabjous.  See you at the railway station, Nine o’clock!”

“Nine o’clock!   What am I – an owl?” 

 They met at the station.  Lesley, in spite of early morning blues, felt lightness in her step whenever she spent time with Peter.   She had always known that something extra went on beneath the shy, arch look of those deep eyes.  But somehow, in the last year or so, the intensity of his nature had become passion.  Physically too, he was higher and wider, more confident in his voice and his walk.   Lesley, who had always sworn not to become involved with Melanie’s first love, found herself drawn so strongly!   Peter was not a ‘trophy’, or simply the right one to be seen with.  She wanted, and she hoped.  She needed him. 

As for Peter?  Well, he did not question his feelings for Lesley.  Even before the sweetness of their first kiss she seemed to have slipped seamlessly into his life; arm into arm, hand into glove.   It was if she had always been there.  

Strangely, the only time he thought about her looks or her figure were those first moments of meeting; as now when she padded softly in her trainers across the ticket hall to greet him, cream camisole top just short enough to expose a margin of stomach that was firm and flat, jeans so well fitted they might be made for her alone.  These were things Peter saw in Lesley from a distance, that power to turn heads, even in a musty railway station at nine o’clock in the morning.

“You look nice!”   He would say, with honesty, and she would blush briefly, because when he said it to her it meant something more than just a compliment.

“Always.”   A twitch of a smile, a quick peck of lips;  “I didn’t do a card.  Happy Birthday!”

“What’s in the bag?”

“I brought drinks.  It’s going to be hot.”

Then the first greeting was over, and immediately he was with her all that was forgotten:  she was just Lesley.   Lesley, whose pale hair flew about her like a wraith when she ran, who could burst into laughter, suddenly, for no real reason except an insight into the joke of life.   Lesley was – well, fun;   just fun.

Peter learned something though, on the train.   Lesley did not talk much in the mornings.   After half an hour spent sitting across the table from her and feeling the welter of her stare, the rhythm of the rails began to get to him.  His eyelids felt heavy and he began to doze.   A violent kick on his ankle brought him back to wakefulness.

“Don’t you go to sleep on me!”

“Sorry!”   Peter rubbed his ankle.

Lesley glowered at him.   “You don’t get me out of bed at this heathen hour then go back to sleep yourself, Peter!  Nobody drops off on me!”

Peter sighed.  “I was just getting bored:  this is the most conversation I’ve had out of you in hours.   You’re just sitting over there sticking pins in my fith-fath.”

“I’m not!  Really!   I’m just not a before-noon type of person.   Mornings are for cockerels and stuff.”

“You get up on college days.”

“Have to, don’t I?  Anyway, lectures are interesting, not dreary and dull like you.”

“Oh thanks!”  Peter considered for a moment.  “All right,” He said:  “Something interesting, yeah?”

He had never told Lesley about his fascination with St. Benedict’s Rock and its colourful past.  Perhaps he had been frightened to appear in too studious a light; for Lesley, although a brilliant student, never betrayed an interest in such things.   Now he decided to take the chance, to explain his reason for their journey.  He related as much of the Crowley history as he knew, whilst leaving out any reference to visions or instances of foresight, and omitting the story of the cave.   Lesley listened intently, as she always did, or at least appeared to do, until he had finished.

“That’s it?”  She asked.

“That’s it.  I want to see the house where those characters lived.  I want to imagine them at home, receiving visitors in the drawing room by the fire, or riding around their estates in the afternoon.”

“Wicked!   ‘Long as we don’t actually meet them: like, their ghosts or anything?”

“All that.   It wasn’t too boring?”

“Stultifying!”   Lesley grinned.   “I stayed awake, didn’t I?”

Peter did not know what he expected to see, or feel, the first time he saw Crowley.   Whether the tall iron gates of his imaginary picture were really there, or if the circular drive led around an island of rhododendrons as it did in his dreams.   When, in his sleep, he had visited this troubled house it was always a warm, beautiful day in late spring, with sunlight bathing a red sandstone mansion.   The grass and leaves were always verdant green, the paths lit with flowers.  Somehow, no matter how rank the corruption which seeped from within, Crowley House evinced a message of hope, a triumph over penury and despair.   This was how he imagined it would be.

“Oh-My-God!”    Lesley breathed.

Two miles from their railway stop and a mile, by Peter’s calculation, from the nearest habitation, they came upon it around a bend in a narrow country lane.   There were gates, indeed, and they were high.   They were also closed, their open ironwork permitting a view of a circular drive which once might have harboured rhododendrons, but now surrounded only rough turf.  The approach was lined, six on each side, by crumbling statues in the classic mode, cracked and blackened from generations of neglect.   Beyond these, to west and east were gardens which, though they must have been the envy of all who strolled in them a century ago, were nothing now but a mass of tangled growth.   Bramble had skeined itself about decaying ornamental furniture, the trunks of parkland trees, banks where battalions of flowers once laid siege to ponds and fountains, arbours and colonnades: all gone now.

Beyond this battlefield, at least two hundred metres from the gate, the façade of Crowley House looked as if it would rather not receive visitors.   A tall, Jacobean edifice four storeys high, with severe windows, the slab front of the house had very few features other than its glass, much of which was broken on the upper floors, and all of which was boarded up at ground level.  If in some long-gone time Crowley House had intimidated its poor artisan creditors, now it seemed itself to be rather frightened and mistreated.  Window frames, doors, railings slotted into walls of soft sandstone, were etched by erosion.   A roof missing as many tiles as the roof of Crowley must have admitted most of the weather: the sandstone chimneys rising from it, whittled to spindles by the winds of time, could have emitted little smoke.   Only the warmth of the sun saved it, casting a glow over the pitted stonework, in which slight, delicate touch of light there was a glow of remembrance.   This was a house with a past.

The gates were padlocked and chained.   Upon them, as old as their last coat of paint, a faded notice declared the house:

‘Open to the public

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,

May to October.

Admission £1.00.

No dogs allowed.’

Above this, and somewhat newer, a board which said:

For Sale.   Country Estate with sixty acres of pasture.

Nifton, Soper and Jakes, Land Agents’.

The front doors were planked over.   The place was deserted.

Peter felt overwhelmed by great sadness.   “I’m sorry, Les:   I expected better than this.”

“What?  Don’t be a dope.   This is just – so – cool!   I love it!  Come on!”  Lesley set off up the road, following the boundary:  “There has to be a way in.  Look, through here!”

In fact there were several ways in; places where the ill-maintained wall which once surrounded the whole estate had given itself up to nature.   Although the owners or their agents had attempted to fill these spaces with barbed wire, they posed no deterrent to a determined teenager.

“Careful!  This might be scratchy!”

   Lesley quickly threaded her way through, Peter, more reluctantly, tagging behind.

“Aren’t we trespassing?  What if someone sees us?” 

“Oh, yeah!  Like who?  Who would care?”  Lesley swore at a retributive bramble, kicking it into submission.   “We came all this way – go back without seeing the place?  Like, I don’t think so!”

They surfaced from a tangle of undergrowth to find themselves in the gardens at the side of the house.

“Oh!  Look at this!  Come on, Petey, be a brave boy!”

Feeling slightly miffed by his new appellation, Peter allowed himself to be led as an enchanted Lesley discovered Crowley for herself.   She ran from him to hide behind the walls of the old vegetable gardens, laughing so much in the ensuing fun-fight that she fell into a rotted cucumber frame and had to be helped, squealing, from the midst of an advancing army of bugs.   At last she made for the house, gazing up in awe at its lofty walls, kicking at the weed clawing at its footings.   “Let’s go inside.”  She said, as if they had only to open the front doors.

Nailed composite boards proved more substantial opposition than the boundary wall.   Window after shuttered window had to be rejected as they walked the entire length of the frontage and found no means of getting through: nor was there any sign of weakness on the south side of the house.  Here trees and undergrowth encroached upon the pathway, so much so that they had to detour a little into the woodland to find a way around.   Again it was Lesley who led, kicking at the cloying net of ground ivy as she brushed past low branches, pushed aside festoons of natural curtain.   At one such moment, her keen eye picked out, in the trees to their right, a small, unnatural-looking mound.

“Hey, check this out!”

 The outline of a stone arch was half-buried by long grasses woven into bramble, which defended and disguised it as though they wanted it to be forgotten. 

“What do’y’ think, Petey?  Like an ice house, or something?”

Flailing away with the stoutest sticks they could find, the pair thrashed a path to the squat, stone building.  A low doorway, defended by a padlocked iron grille, barred their path.  Peter shook at the rusted bars.

“Probably.  Yeah, an ice house or something.”

“It had outer doors, wooden ones.”    Lesley had found the unhinged remains of planks in the undergrowth.   “Why were these taken off?”

His suspicions aroused,  Peter fingered the rusted padlock, testing it for strength.   It opened instantly.   The lock had been forced, a clean, quite recent scrape in its mantle of rust showing where a crowbar had been inserted.   Breathing quickly, they  heaved the grille aside on creaking hinges.

“Yay!”  Lesley exclaimed.

There were steps beyond the grille, leading down into darkness.   Suppressing a shudder at the onset of cold and damp, Peter led the way, guided by a metal rail let into the stone wall.  Lesley kept close behind him, her hand gripping fiercely at his shoulder as she tried to stop her knees from shaking.

“Secret passage?”   She whispered.

“No.   No, this is all there is.    I know where we are now.  This is the family vault.”

They alighted from steps into a gloomy chamber, barely illuminated by tiny leaded windows set into the stone of the upper walls.   Lesley lit up her ‘phone.”.

“Wow!”   she exclaimed  reverently:  “Dead people.”  Then; “Not much marble, or nothing.  Almost like they didn’t want anyone to know they were here.”

The sides of the chamber were lined with openings, each intended to admit a full-sized coffin, but of these there were only three that, once the dust was brushed aside, declared themselves by silver plaques to be the last resting-places of Lord Horace Crowley, Lady Elisabeth Crowley, and Matthew Ballentine.

“Only one generation,”  Peter whispered, half to himself; “No ancestors here?”

“Almost like this was their secret,” Lesley agreed, relishing the conspiracy; “Their hiding place, in death.  Oh Peter, this one was just a child!”   She lit up a shelf at the far end of the chamber supporting a casket no more than a metre in length.   There was no silver plaque upon this lid, no name.  A child, then, certainly, but whose?   In his studies of this ill-fated family, Peter had uncovered no mention of an heir.   Lady Crowley had been childless, as far as he knew.   And the chamber revealed another small inconsistency.   The bodies of the Crowleys were laid side-by-side; that of Matthew Ballentine separated from them on the opposite wall.  Had Elizabeth, finally regretting her betrayal, expressed a wish to lie with her husband?

The little child-casket aroused Lesley’s curiosity.   She probed the tiny coffin with affectionate fingers.   It was as if some distant memory bound her to this sad remnant of a short life.  Her questing arms seemed to need to embrace it, to take it to her.   Carefully, almost tenderly, she reached into the aperture wherein it was laid, gripped the box.   Then she drew it out.

Hearing the scraping sound, Peter suddenly realised what was happening.

“Les!   What are you doing?”

Lesley did not answer.  She had pulled the coffin almost clear of its resting place, supported longitudinally in her arms.   Small as it was, it was too heavy for her strength.   Foreseeing doom, Peter made to help her, diving to grab the further end of the box as it cleared the edge of the stone.   He was too far away and he was too late.

For an eternal moment the casket hung in Lesley’s failing grasp:  then it fell.

The wooden box had languished  in the damp and the dark for nearly two hundred years, as had the flagstones upon which it fell; but the flagstones had survived the centuries free of decay:  the box had not.   With a splintering crash it deconstructed upon the stone.   In horrified silence Peter and Lesley stared down at the wreckage.  

“Well now!”   Exclaimed Peter.

The coffin contained no evidence of a body, no matter how small.

“Why would they bury two rocks?”

© 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: Patty Jansen, from Pixabay

Home Life

It’s here again.   Morning darkness engaged in battle with a weakening sun and winning, little by little; the sycamore branch that scratches at my window in the gale, peevishly demanding the return of its clothes.  A dog with ears pinned back against the roar, a helpless waste bin, lid flapping in panic, bowling by.  I’ve missed it, the winter, but in ways somewhat different this year.  Why?  What has changed?

“Is she here?”   A querulous voice – somewhere above my head, in the general direction of the curtains.

I say:  “No.  She won’t be up for an hour yet.”

“Ah.”  My focus is drawn to a tiny leg emerging from amongst the drapes, and the rest of the spider follows, eye-stalks anxiously twitching hither and thither as if she mistrusts my reassurance.  All seems clear – as indeed it is – but she is wary, and pauses.  “You don’t know.  You don’t know what she can be like.”  

“My wife?  I thought I knew her pretty well.”   After all, it’s been much more than thirty years since we shared our first spider together.

“It was the vacuum, last week.   Nine of us, she took.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“She brings it out specially.  They’re still in the dust bag.  They don’t die, you know.  Go to the downstairs cupboard – you can hear them crying for help.  Cruel, that is.  Cruel.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll empty the bag later.  Anyway, you’re in the clear now.  Where are you going, exactly?”

“The skirting.  The one next to the kitchen.  Good house in there.  Warm.”   The spider suddenly makes a sprint down the curtain to the edge of my desk, stops.  “Still clear?”

“Yes.”

“Much obliged!”  She races across my desktop, disappearing over the end within a scarce breath, to reappear on the woollen carpeted floor.  “You haven’t seen my husband, have you?  I know I left him somewhere, but I can’t think…”

“Didn’t you have an argument?”

“Did we?”

“You see, I think you may have eaten him.”

“Eaten him?  Are you sure?  That was awfully careless of me.  You’ve still got the carpet.  Have you thought of replacing it, maybe with some wooden flooring, or something?  Wading through all this wool is just exhausting!”

“We like the carpet.”

“Well I don’t.  My feet get caught all the time.  Dreadful.”

“Why don’t you run round the skirting?”

She pauses, number two leg poised in a moment of indecision.  

“Good idea!”   Two rapid sprints ensue, the first across my cloying turf of carpet, the next along the skirting rim to a crack in the corner, a gap almost too small to imagine.  She is gone.

The silence that follows is not silent, but punctuated by the background buffeting of the wind; a rhythm of gusts like waves on a beach; four gentle, one fierce.  I settle back in my chair to contemplate my arachnid encounter, and the sea washes over me, nudging me gently up the beach into the warm sand of sleep.

“Did I hear a spider?”  A voice, dark, deep and rasping, jerks me awake.    A nervous glance around the room yields nothing.  “I said – look, it was a perfectly civil question, wannit- was that a spider?”

Why do I suddenly feel so defensive.  “Who wants to know?”

“Never mind who wants to know.  Answer the question.  Was that a…”

“Yes!”  I snap back at the voice.  “You want to eat her, don’t you?”

This provokes an evil chuckle.  “Not particular, really.  Not exactly haute cuisine, if you take my meaning.  A bit dry, usually.”

“Well, she’s gone now.  You’ve missed her.  Anyway, if you don’t want to eat her, what do you want with her?”

“Oh, I’ll eat her, all right.  I eat anything.”

“Okay.  If I see her again, I’ll be sure to warn ..tell her you were looking for her.  Who shall I say?”

“Tell her Benjamin.  Benjamin wanted to see her.”

From the first to the last of this conversation, Benjamin has been invisible, and though I scrutinize every inch of my room, he remains so.  Perhaps I hear, above the wind, the faintest scratching from somewhere far below.  Otherwise, nothing.  

Henceforth, sleep will evade me. Reluctantly I concede to wakefulness and set about the business of morning, so I rise from my chair, and remembering my obligation to the spider, negotiate landing and stairs to the narrow little cupboard where the vacuum cleaner is stored.  I pause, listening, by the opened cupboard door.  Why?  Do I really expect to hear those plaintive cries?  Is there some sound, however small, that makes me doubt my hearing or my mind?  Whatever my excuse, I elect to take the vacuum cleaner dust bag straight to an outdoor bin, so I extricate the machine from amidst a forest of brushes and mops.  It is a clamorous business and it causes offence.

Do you mind?”   The demand is high-pitched but strident. “I said, DO YOU MIND?”

Another disembodied voice, this time from the recesses at the back of the cupboard.  “What?”  I respond, irritably.  “What’s your problem?”  I blink owlishly into the darkness.   

“Problem?  Oh, problem!    No, no problem!  No problem I just got the kids down, and you come stamping in here throwing everything around.  As if I haven’t got enough to do, finding more paper, gathering flour from under that stupid bread-making thing of yours.  Why do you do that to wheat, anyway?  It tastes much better on the husk.”

“Wait a minute!  More paper?  Just what are you doing back there?  Who are you, anyway?”  (And why am I whispering?) 

The old carpet sweeper that stands at attention behind the gas meter quivers slightly as a minute creature appears from behind it; and having appeared, sits up on its hinder legs, whiskers a-quiver.

“Goodness, you know us, dear, don’t you?  Grandfather brought my mother and I to stay with you last November.  We always come here for our winter holidays.”

“You’re a blessed wood mouse!”

“There is no need to get personal!”

Oh, yes there is!  You’re here again!  It’s the same every autumn.  You spend summer in the dry stone wall at the bottom of the vegetable garden, don’t you?  I’ve seen you there.  Then as soon as the weather gets cold you come in the house, thousands of you!”

The wood mouse (for so she is) shifts herself uncomfortably.  “Not exactly thousands, dear.”

“Well, hundreds, then.”

“We are quite a large family, it’s true.”

“Yes, and a very intrusive one.  I don’t know how many of you died under the bathroom floor last Christmas, but the stench of rotting mouse stayed with us for months!”

“If you are referring to dear departed Uncle Vernon…”

“That’s the fella!”

“And poor, dear, Grandma Maisie…”

“Stank the place out!”

“That’s an unkind way to speak of the dead.  It’s quite upsetting!”  The woodmouse wiped her whiskers sorrowfully.  “Uncle Vernon, tragically he got himself stuck under one of your hot pipes.  It was awful!  Don’t think me ungrateful, because we so enjoy your gifts of pierced cheese, but pushing those big wooden sleds is so difficult; it got too close to your central heating armature?  Uncle couldn’t remove your gift from the spike, you see?  He was pinned there.”

I catch up.  “Pierced cheese?  On a spike?  I’m not feeding you, you disgusting little creature; I’m exterminating you – or trying to.  I wondered what happened to those traps!”

Sniffling, the wood mouse musters as much offended dignity as she can fit into her pin-points of eyes.  “Well, once more I must rebuke you.  Anyone would think we were house mice.   We are country creatures, with sensibilities, you know.  I won’t hold it against you, though, dear.  I am aware I am a guest here.”

So unexpectedly I almost jump out of my skin, Benjamin’s scraping tones grind out from the darkness.  “Traps, eh!  You’re a trapper!  You’re a trapper, mate.  Thanks for the warning, yeah?   Thanks for the warning.  Oh, and Mildred…”  He seems to be addressing the mouse…”I’ll be seeing you, sweetheart, won’t I?  Dunno why I bovver, you’re not worth two bites, are yer?”

“That’s Benjamin.” The mouse informs me, helpfully.  “Don’t take any notice of him, dear.  He soon goes away.”

“What is he?  Come to think of it, where is he?  I can never make out quite where he comes from.”

“Benjy?  He’s a rat.  He’s outside, by those dreadful plasticky waste containers?   That’s how Grandma Maisie became ill; she got her teeth gummed up trying to chew through one of them.”

“She should have stuck to acorns.”  I say unsympathetically. “Benjy doesn’t sound like he’s outside…”

My remark delights Mildred, who hops from foot to foot in passable imitation of a Cha-Cha-Cha.    “Yes, oh, yes!  He’s found a way of speaking through the drains, so it sounds as if he’s absolutely everywhere.  Simply terrif!    But don’t worry, dear, he can’t get in:  he’s too fat.  We come in through the kitchen airbrick, you see.  Benjy can’t squeeze through there.  So he has to talk to us from outside.  I think he must get terribly cold, sometimes.”

“He probably works out by chewing through our bin.”  I suggest sardonically.  “He’s quite scary, isn’t he?”

“Benjy?  He likes to show off his muscles a bit, but he’s an old softie.  His wife’s quite nice, actually.  I met her at a church social…”

Thoroughly bemused, I take the vacuum cleaner out into the light, and with a parting word or two after the fashion of ‘I must get on’ I close the cupboard door.  The dust bag’s contents, stirred and shaken by a mischievous gust of wind, I mostly empty into a waste bin in the yard, leaving me to wonder how the tiny migrants it contained will manage in their new lives, or if, now liberated, they will simply return to vex my wife a second time.   I watch anxiously for a quick shadow that might be Benjamin’s, but he doesn’t show himself.  Out of respect for Mildred’s unseen sleeping ‘kids’ I leave the cleaner out on the kitchen floor.  I rather hope my wife will return it to the cupboard later, on my behalf.

I need to return to my work.  I need to open drapes, raise blinds.  I need to let in the gathering day.  Instead, I stand for minutes of time, aimless; searching for something.  And though I do not rightly know what it is I seek, it nevertheless comes to me.   Miniscule movements, barely audible, high-pitched sounds, furtive scraping, gentle stirrings of the air.   All around me is life – in the reveal behind one of the kitchen worktops three silverfish are engaged in earnest conversation, below them in the damp invisible zones woodlice work, solemnly chomping at the detritus of our lives.

Across the floor a devil’s coach-horse scurries, tale half-raised and fearful of exposure, dashing for safety and the dark.  Against the window pane a small unglamorous fly is clawing pointlessly, weeping for its freedom.  Although the room is still, there is everything within it moving, a constant wheel of existence, a changing of generations, a cycle of light and darkness.

It is hard to leave, but leave it I must.  On the stair a portly black beetle struggles, pausing to salute me as I pass.  In my room I feel the carpet dragging at my feet, taking my thoughts back to my widowed spider, cosy in her skirting board home.  Soon a host of her children will tread the path their mother trod before them, and the wheel will have turned again.  I know I have a duty to lay the floor to boards, if only for their sake.

At last it has been revealed to me, the difference of the year – what is odd, what is changed.  I understand, at last, what I am.  I see my place in all the life around me, my function in this small universe and the sum of all my gifts.   Here I am no greater or higher than any of these little ones, but in fellowship with them.  They are my company on my journey into dust.   My last gift to them shall be – myself.

© 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.

Image Credits:

Featured Image: The Creative Exchange, from Unsplash
Spider: Robert Palog from Pixabay
Rat: Mustafa Shehedeh from Pixabay
Devils Coach-horse: Wikipedia