Siobhan

A short story that got lost somewhere…

Ade’s walk was furtive, feet scratching at the pavement, eyes downcast.  Sometimes when he walked this pavement he would direct his gaze to shop windows, watching himself go by – but not today.  Sometimes people stared at him, their faces masked in suspicion at the Asian youth with his imperfect skin and his hangdog stride.  Was he rabid?  Whatever he had, could it spread to them?

No!  No man, not that.  You don’t catch my disease:  what ails is inside me, internalized; and I have no doubt who gave this thing to me – it was you.  All of you!

You made her hate me!  You made her turn me down!   You did it by hammering her with that connection – bad; Asian.  Asian, bad.

I saw the look he gave me, man!  Her father, yeah?  What am I doing soiling the air next to his daughter?  What right have I, like, to walk beside her, or dream of loving her, yeah?   I’m just a guy, you know?  A guy in the wrong skin.

Since that first sweet exchange of smiles a year ago Siobhan’s remembered image was never far from Ade’s mind.  He had printed her name on his heart.  Each morning he wakened to the memory of her pale skin, the almond of her eyes, her feline grace, her gentle voice.  The way her cheeks flushed when he told her how he felt, the little shake of her head when she laughed.  Siobhan, always there.  

He increased his pace, skulking  through the gauntlet of High Street commerce, glaring.  Its garish displays glared back, windows drooling with blatant western fat.  The dresses that were made by people, his people, working in conditions unfit for dogs and wages that barely kept them alive: the mannequin waiting to be dressed. 

 Just left like that – disgusting, man!  

Western wealth, everywhere, oozing down the greasy streets, exuding from the fat pores of the godless whiteys who rushed by him in their pursuit of more – money, more gratification, more, more, more.

Her father had ended it.  Ade, trying to do the honest thing, the honourable thing:  “Sir, I love your daughter.  I love Siobhan.”  

He had seen the man’s face close up as he said it, knew it was over, even then.  Siobhan had cried when he tried to look at her, shook her head, hopelessly.  That was a week ago.  He had seen her since, accidentally, on the street, like their first meeting.  Just once.  No smile then.  Not even a glance.  She had passed him by as if he did not exist.  Her old man had been getting at her.  He’d turned her against any thought of loving an Asian.

So that was why – why he was here.  And it wasn’t just about her father, about Siobhan.  It was about all the years of being different because his speech and his color made him so.  It was about a kind of hatred that was soul-deep, a burning need to right something that was horrible and wrong.  

His footsteps had led him from the High Street to the park, through its grand, pretentious gates into the green solace beyond.  A favourite place this, balm for his troubled soul, somewhere he could rest on a favourite seat, watching the foraging of the city birds and playing his music.  

He was tired now.  He had worked late into the night, preparing everything, making absolutely sure he had done it right.   And now he had five minutes to himself, when he could relax on the wooden bench he always used, and breathe the air he so needed.  He checked his smartphone.   Exactly five minutes.  

One for the brothers, man.  For the ones who died for the fight.  

“Ade?”

A voice that brought all the sweetness of white magic to his ear: Siobhan’s voice.  He was dreaming again.  “Siobhan?”

“Yes.  How are you, Ade?  I’ve been thinking so much about you.”

He was dreaming, wasn’t he?  But no, she was real.  Siobhan, leaning on bare forearms over the back of his seat with her cheek so close he could catch the scent and the sound of her breath.    

“I been okay, yeah?” He stammered.  She brought the wanting back; yet for a minute he could not believe it – believe her.   “What, you talking to me now?  You’re dad won’t like it, will he?”

“Look, Ade, I’m so, so sorry.  My dad, he’s a prejudiced old man, and he just doesn’t understand, you know?”

“Yeah well, he got my number, didn’t he?  He got you so you don’t speak, Siobhan.  You walk right by me, girl.”

“I know, I know.  I had to do some hard thinking.  But I couldn’t imagine, like, seeing you every day,  after he hurt you so bad.  And this morning I made up my mind, because I miss you so, and I just want to be with you, Ade.  With you.”

“But he’s your dad, isn’t he?  He rules.  I got no chance, Siobhan—no chance!”

“What, I should, like, spend the rest of my life with my dad?  I told him this morning:  if he doesn’t accept you he can go boil himself, right?  Hey, you crying, or something?”

“It’s because, yeah?  Like this is so… ”

Siobhan pressed her finger to his lips to quieten him.  “It’s alright, Ade; it’s all right.  I was going to come and see you tonight, but then I saw you in the Mall sitting by that planter thing and it was like:  shall I – shan’t I?  And I followed you here.  I couldn’t wait to be with you again, Ade.  I love you so much!”

One minute.  It had all gone so wrong, Ade thought.   But he was happy beyond measure because Siobhan was with him, and he loved her at least as much in return. As for the rest…

She asked: “Anyway, Ade, what were you doing in the Mall?  You don’t usually go there in the mornings.”

And he said lamely:  “Oh, nothing.  Just hanging.”

“Shall we walk to college together?”  Siobhan squeezed his arm, easing him gently to his feet.  “I tell you, you’re lucky I’m here to look after you, Ade, you’re that absent-minded sometimes.  Guess what I’ve got here?  I picked up your bag, mate.   You left it behind under the planter – in the Mall.”

© 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:

Featured Image by Free-fotos from Pixabay

Mannequins by s. Herman and P. Richter from Pixabay

Sebastian

Dim, reflected street lighting found its way into the alley, glimpsing features from the shadows:  a large half-opened refuse bin, stacked pallets by a steel-clad door, timber leaning on a wire frame.

The boy looked back.  Sebastian looked back.  “My front yard!  Urban Gothic is so alluring, don’t you think?”  

“No, I don’t.”   Nell had been watching Sebastian’s long torso swing easily with the rhythm of his stride; wide shoulders, slender waist.  “But I’m not a postcode snob,”  she said.

He stopped,  turning suddenly to meet her eyes, making the blood rush in her cheeks.  She knew, as did he, why she was here.  “It would be nice just to have a postcode!”  He waved to the high wall on her left:  “almost there!”

‘There’ was a doorway, steel-lined like a scattering of others punched into the sheer brick cliff-face of this minor chasm in the City’s heart.   Sebastian’s long fingers played over the numbers on the lock.  Strange, she thought, the determinants of attraction.  Even in the unlikely setting of the discotheque, her eyes had been drawn – she had been drawn – to those fingers.  A pianist herself, she knew there had to be a piano somewhere in this frail boy’s life.  But here?

A switch flooded a staircase with warm light.   “Only thirty-three,” he encouraged her;  “I count them every time I go up.  Helps fill in the time.”

“You’re lucky.  Not everyone can live over a concert hall.”

He tilted his head, bird-like – another mannerism she found irresistible.  “Over a garage, actually.  It wakes me every morning at half-eight, when they turn the compressors on.  Better than any alarm clock.  Otherwise I hear surprisingly little from it.”

On the stairs he didn’t race ahead as some men might, but matched her pace so she, following, could drink in the grace and sinew of him as he climbed.  Fitted shirt, tight flares, every ripple.  Cream walls, brass rail, bare concrete treads.  Thirty-three.  Footsteps echoing; thirty-one, thirty-two…

“Here we are.”

So this was it, the theatre of her deflowering.  Her birthday gift to herself.  She had planned no less, coolly setting out, short, short dress and chilly in the early evening air, to lose the virginity that had begun to weigh like a yoke.  Her twentieth birthday, still carrying the reluctant secret of her virtue on her shoulders.  Was she nervous?  Yes.  She was doing something she could never have contemplated before: a first time, a first date; a pick-up, frankly, her friend Rosanna would call it that.  But then, caution had only served to preserve the unwanted, and Rosanna was still at the discotheque, unlikely to be going home alone.

It was the scent that assailed her senses before all else, a subtle nuance to conjuring pictures of green fields and purple, heather-covered hills.   As Sebastian opened the door; as Sebastian switched on the light it was almost physical…

“Oh, my goodness!”

…yet the  hallway was small, a colourless vestibule only, and a metal spiral stair  Stairs that once again led upwards.

“A bit more climbing.”  He said.

Sebastian slipped his hand into hers.  She was being coaxed, gently.

There was no door atop these stairs.  There was an emerge – a rise from beneath through a floor reinforced thickly with steel beams into another world – from star-trap to stage – 

“Nell?”  He prompted her.  He was expecting a response.  Nell had been stunned into silence.

She found her tongue.  “I suppose it’s good to have a hobby.”  She said.

Foetid sweetness hung on air so thick it was hard to breathe at first, and humidity permeated her short, short dress so utterly its thin fabric clung to her skin.  All about her, above her, even around her feet, as Sebastian led her up the last few treads of the stairway, was growing and green; relentlessly green.  Sphagnum moss formed a carpet, softly yielding beneath her feet, weeping cherry made curtains they must brush aside to imbibe the heady glory of this place.  An umbrella pine shaded them like a hood, a wisteria clambered and tangled its way randomly about trellis-lined walls.  Planters, pots and containers were everywhere, large and small, brightly coloured or plain; each one abrim with leaf and growth, flower and life.  A decadently large butterfly settled on Nell’s wrist.

“Do you like her?  If you do she’ll be yours for a while.  They know if they are loved.”

“What kind is she?”

Sebastian shrugged;  “A white swallowtail, or something, I don’t know.  She’s beautiful, though, isn’t she?  How do you like my gaffe?”

“It’s amazing!  Are you actually living here?”

“Of course – where else?”

Nell cast about her, seeking the accoutrements of accomodation.  Certainly there were elements: withdrawing room furniture – a salon chair or two, a touch of Victoriana nestling between festoons of vine, a few small tables fashioned from stumps of hardwood, bookshelves extending high into the glazed roof, access to whose treasures could only be gained by a precarious set of library steps.  But a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom? And where was the piano?

Embarrassed by the way her short, short dress was misbehaving in the humidity, she asked: “Is there somewhere I can…”  and let the sentence rest.

“Freshen up?  I mean, not that you don’t look…”  His confidence also seemed to be ebbing a little.  He recovered himself,  “Through there.  The date palm and turn left.  I’ll fix us a drink – what would you like?”

“Oh, anything!   This lovely thing – is she coming with me?”  

“She’ll fly off.  Give her a bit of a nudge if you want.”  She did.  Nell’s graceful passenger winged away to find companionship with three or four of her kind that were performing a complex ballet around a pendulous cluster of mauve flowers.

“Sehra Bhale – it’s Indian”  Sebastian explained, noticing her rapturous expression,  “They love the flowers.  For the nectar, I guess.”

Only by traversing the floor did Nell get an idea of the true scale of this place. A full twenty yards away a date palm occupied a huge wooden barrel.  The tree was all but fully grown so its crown reached high into the roof.  From the same barrel sprang a screen of dense foliage, behind which she discovered the door to the bathroom and although she half expected the extraordinary here there was little more than a passing resemblance to a potting shed and aside from the presence of a stalwart iron garden tap, the necessary porcelain was white-ly normal.  If a certain amount of loam had left a tidemark in the hand-basin it seemed no more than she should have anticipated.  There was even a mirror…

“I fixed us these,”  Sebastian said when she returned to him;  “I hope you’ll like it.”

He cradled a stoneware chalice in each hand, one of which he offered to her.  She glanced at the contents suspiciously.  They were green.

“Swop you!”  She said, trying to keep her tone as light as possible.  Had it occurred to her he might lace her drink?  She wanted to remain in command of her situation.  

He just grinned.  “Of course.  They’re the same.  I wasn’t going to – you know – try anything.”

She hoped she was arching an eyebrow,  “I’m sure there are some things we could try.”  Flirting, she decided, was the only way to cover her nerves.  Her knees were about to give her away by shaking.  “This place is stellar!  Did you do all this yourself?  You must be very strong! I mean, do you have a gardener or something?”   As a line of conversation it was excruciatingly lame, but such was the gulf in her understanding she felt she must say something.  The room was unquestionably affecting her.  A first tentative sip at that green drink would deepen the affinity.

“On my gosh!  Whatever is this?”  Drinks can impress in many ways; by their alcoholic heat, a peppery sting on the tongue, or an intensity of flavor that can sometimes vanquish the most insensitive of palates.  Sebastian’s cocktail ( she would be obliged to call it that) performed each of those tricks at once, and left a trace of warmth behind for good measure.  

“Do you like it?”  He was smiling more broadly now.  “I make these myself, you know?  This is one of my favourites,”

“It’s a bit heady,”   was Nell’s verdict,  “Some serious alcohol.”

“Really not.  Only the natural sugars from the fruit I grow in here. Some more?”

Nell stared into her cup in disbelief.  How had she finished the drink so quickly?  Never mind; she enjoyed its taste.  “Yes, please.”

“Let’s sit down,”  Sebastian gestured towards a pair of salon chairs,  “Are you hungry?  Would you like something to eat?”

“No,”  She answered quickly; too quickly, perhaps, but all there seemed to be on offer was fruit.  The chair was a little too upright, a little too hard, for her mood.  She needed to relax.  “Them – the palm and that – there are real trees in here, yeah?  What made you do all this?”

“My jungle, you mean?”  He nodded,  “Fair question.  I like plants and stuff – will that do?”

Nell frowned.  Somehow, she had necked her second drink.  It was only moments since he had poured it, but after all, if it wasn’t alcoholic…  “Maybe just one more,”  she said, uninvited.

He poured.  There was a bottle.  It was half-empty.  “I wanted a garden,”  he told her,  “This place didn’t have one, but it was cheap and there was acres of space, so…”

“So this.  Okay.  Some of these guys, Sebastian, they’re seriously mature, aren’t they?  They couldn’t have been like that when they came through the door.  I mean, how many years…damn it, how old are you?”

He smiled angelically: a perfectly youthful, innocent smile.  “Does that matter?”

“To me?  I mean, no, I guess not.”   Nell blushed, as enthused now by his beauty as she had been when he first asked her to dance with him in that disco; so long ago she felt almost in danger of forgetting it – of forgetting what had drawn her here.  Her hand had reached for the bottle, she was topping up her drink without his assistance and he was smiling, and watching…

“You like me, don’t you?”  He wasn’t seeking reassurance, simply stating a fact.  “You want us to boogie, don’t you?”  Blatant, but another fact, the articulation of which should have made her feel acutely uncomfortable but didn’t, not at all, because it was true, and yes, that was why she had selected him – why she had accepted his invitation.  

“Can I call you Seb?”

“I’d like that.”

If a little courage had been missing, the mysterious green, rich drink emboldened her.  Rising from her chair, she crossed to his and, demurely at first, perched herself on his knee.

“That’s nicer, isn’t it? I enjoy being close, Seb.”

His answering smile feigned innocence:  “And I really feel close to you,”  he murmured, as if he was half afraid to speak.  “Are we -what do you call it – making out?”

She giggled,  “Maybe not yet.”  Stroking his arm, “Is there somewhere we can…”

“I don’t understand.”  He clearly looked as though he didn’t.

“Somewhere we could be more cosy?”

The intimacy, how did it happen?  When did they move from the chair and how were they suddenly entwined on a bed of soft, dry moss, and breathing together, almost as one?  How had she learned the words she was whispering – how could the caress of his fingers be so impossibly soft as to chase away any last clouds of maidenly guilt, or resistance?  Did ‘how’ matter?   In a necessary pause she glanced at her cup which was, once again, stubbornly empty.  She lamented it and he had the bottle ready in his hand. 

Which was when he did this curious thing.

Nell extended her arm, offering the chalice to be refilled, but Sebastian did not comply.  Instead, he tipped the bottle so all that remained within it cascaded over her.  Green verdance filled her eyes, her nose, her mouth, poured down her neck, between her breasts.  Diligently, remorselessly, the liquid probed and sought out each secret part of her, and it was clever, this balm.  It was intelligent.  It had no interest but in her flesh; it left the short, short dress unsullied in its quest yet it discovered all, absolutely all, that lay beneath.

She panicked at first.  She would.  She was outraged; though only for a second – as long as it took to feel the warm enclosure of her whole self, the gentle insidience of something that was rendering her limbs helpless to resist, her senses too benumbed to protest.   

Fiery heat rushed and retreated in waves through her veins, leaving tiny rivulets behind at every pass.   The blood in her body was changing, its flow was no longer the same.  Sebastian was there and Sebastian was watching, but how close he was, or how far away, whether or not she could touch him, did not seem to matter.  If her sight was fading, if everything was green, that was sufficient.  That was enough.  And in the end, the silence, too, would be enough.

In her altered state Nell could not see – would never ‘see’ again, but she could ‘feel’: her whole essence was of feeling, defined by twisting and climbing, but only Sebastian knew how that urge was driven by anger and aggression, for she could not talk, or shout out; so she had no way to express her pain.

#

Jarvis  Bowbeaker prided himself in being incapable of surprise.  After twenty-two years of steady progress in the plain-clothes division of his local police force he was fairly certain he had seen everything.  So when he ducked beneath the ‘Scene of Crime’ tape and passed through the steel-clad door in the dank old alley, when he climbed the spiral stair to that room he was immured from its severest effects by experience.  He merely dismissed the chaos into which he emerged as ‘disturbing’.

“You weren’t kiddin’ son, was yer?”  He nodded to the young DC who stood with an older, slightly too well-oiled man on a patch of floor that had been cleared.  It’s a feckin’ jungle!  Are those butterflies or bats?”

“They’re butterflies, Inspector.”  The oily man offered the explanation.  “Tropical varieties.  And the stench is down to a combination of ridiculously high humidity and rot.  I’m grateful to you for requesting my opinion – I would hate to have missed this one!”

Bowbeaker cocked an eyebrow at the young Detective Constable.  “Wilkinson, isn’t it? “What’s in it for us, son?  Suspicious death?”

“Hard to say, sir.  We’ll be waiting for SOCO’s report on that, I reckon.  Been dead for a lot of years, Sir.” 

“And you’re Professor Lombard, yes?  Our biologist?   What’s gone on ‘ere, then?”  Bowbeaker encompassed the tangled overgrowth expansively;  “All this?”

“Nothing.  Well, nothing in the way of husbandry, anyway.  This was tended and well ordered once, but not in the last forty or so years.  Whoever started it was quite a horticulturalist, managing to mix species from a number of different climatic zones and combine them so they effectively formed their own micro-climate. But it seems they abandoned it.”

“Did a runner, most likely,”  the DC opined;  “On account of the death, Sir.”

Bowbeaker sighed,  “Alright, son, lead the old horse to water.  Where’s the deceased?”

“Well, that’s it, you see…”  D.C. Wilkinson guided his superior and the Professor along a cleared path across the floor of the room.  “Watch where you tread, Sir.  This place is due for demolition.  It was the demolition lads who found it.  They  had to hack through here…”

“No snakes, are there?”  Bowbeaker thought he’d mention it.  After all, the place was in most other respects a jungle, its floor a mass of tangled roots, their way veiled by liana and festoons of creepers  of every kind.  Why wouldn’t there be snakes?   “Is that rain?”

“There’s hardly any roof.  It was a glass skylight at some time or other, before these larger trees pushed through.  Fortunately, you said, Professor, didn’t you?”

“Indeed!”  Professor Lombard acknowledged;  “Growth like this absorbs a lot of moisture.  Drought would certainly have inhibited it.”

“And here she is.”  The DC waved a hand aloft.

They had reached the far wall of the space, although that was hard to identify, clad as thoroughly as it was in greenery that clambered and tangled.  Swiping aside a suspicious-looking insect Bowbeaker followed his young assistant’s upward gesture.  Hanging almost directly above him and leaning forward as if ready to descend like an avenging angel, was a form that was unmistakably that of a corpse – or the remains of one.   

“‘She’?”  Bowbeaker questioned.  “How d’yer know our Doe’s a Jane, Constable?”

By way of reply, Wilkinson pointed downward at the wreckage of a series of tubs, one-time planters in a line along the wall.  The roots of their hungry tenants had long ago breached them and stretched out to claim their share of the mossy floor, but into each tub had been inserted a label, and on each label, faded but still distinguishable, was written a species name;  T/spermum Jasmine ‘Rebecca’, Bomarea Tropaeolum ‘Holly’, Ixora coccinea ‘Anna Lis’, ‘Rosa Macha ‘Joanne’, Lonicera ‘Angelina’, and finally, directly beneath the corpse, Epipremnum Devil’s Ivy  ‘Nell’.”

“Names for the species grown from each tub, Inspector,”  Lombard contributed.  “You’ll probably recognise most of them.  The Christian names underneath have nothing to do with a variety, and so we thought…”

Bowbeaker drew a breath, which he held for a very long time.

“I reckon that must be Nell, Sir.”  The DC said.  “Weird, Innit?  Sort of a marker for her, don’t you think?  Do those other names mean anything?”

Bowbeaker nodded, because they did.   “Rebecca Shelley, yes, I remember that one, and Angelina Scarcci.   Nell Wrekins, too.  All a bit before my time.  Girls in their twenties who were listed as missing.  I think the others will ring a few bells too, back at the office.”  He stared into the canopy of forestation above each planter, half-hoping to see more evidence that these poor tragedies had ended here.

“Take samples for analysis and ask the lads to get her down.  That’s hardly a dignified way to spend eternity.  Who owns this place, do we know?”

“Trying to trace that now, Sir.  It was a Council repossession  A garage business traded downstairs; it closed thirty years ago.  The owner died last March.  All dead ends, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

“Dead ends;  yes.”  Bowbeaker could not tear his eyes away from those human remains.  “Constable, get a step ladder in ‘ere, will yer?  I want to take a closer look at our Miss Nell.”

But he already knew, didn’t he?  No more than a skeleton after forty years, and only intact because the ivy that held it in its clutches would let nothing escape, nevertheless there were certain details his experienced eye could not miss; like the sized 12 shoe that hung upon one large foot, and the shirt that was not a blouse, because enough threads remained to see it plainly buttoned from the right.  Above (or beneath) all, the narrower pelvic bones that could belong only to a man.   He could not be certain, but if his memory served, young Nell Wrekin was the last of those disappearances, all those years ago.  Without knowing how, or why, he was quite sure she had something to do with whatever had happened here.

Bowbeaker silently watched as the body was freed at last from the grip of the vine, and it did not escape his notice the difficulty the SOCO’s people had in cutting away the stalwart wood that enclosed its throat.    He stayed a long time with the scene, so it was only after everyone had moved to leave that he crossed to the ivy’s woody trunk, placing a hand on the bark.

“Nell Wrekins, is it?”  He said, quietly, so none of the departing company should hear;  “Ye’re Devil’s Ivy, right enough.  Privately, I think yer did pretty well, back then, Miss Wrekin.  And even though it’s technically a crime, I can’t imagine how I’d go about charging a pretty plant like you with murder, can you?”

Feeling the touch, which was soft and insistent, he looked down to see that a root had wrapped itself around his foot.  He extricated himself gently.  “Don’t worry love, I’ll ‘ave a word with the Professor.  He’ll see ye’re taken care of.”

© 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 Credits:

Header image by Ambitious Creative from Unsplash;

Girl with butterflies by Victor Mendoza from Unsplash

Galleons and Gold

                                     

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

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

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

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

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

His ears were closed, too, to kitchen drama:

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

“He says he wants it.”

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

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

“That I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The waitress indicated a table opposite Samuel’s. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, madam?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another cup, sir?”

“No thank you.  No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, her!  No, she isn’t here.”

“I thought you asked me for help?”

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

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

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

“Ancestors?”  Samuel asked.

The girl repeated her smile:  “Just paintings.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll think badly of me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“A thousand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She doesn’t have it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I – I don’t know if I should…”

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

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

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

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

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

 “One thing…”  Samuel said.

“Yes?”

“Your name?”

“Miranda.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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