Satan’s Rock

Part Eighteen

From Dust

An echo created by the splitting impact of wood on stone dwindled to silence in the gloom.

Lesley remained frozen with her arms akimbo, just as they were when the casket fell from them, saying nothing, just staring at the shattered wreckage on the floor.  She was visibly distressed.

“Les?”  Peter coaxed her her. “It’s was just an empty box, yeah?  Those stones were in there to make it seem like it was full.” 

She shook her head vehemently.  “It wasn’t.  Someone – he was resting there!  Where is he, Peter?  Who took him?  Where’s he gone?”

At first Peter thought Lesley must have spotted a plate like those screwed to the other coffins, identifying their occupants; but though he scanned, using the light from his ‘phone, he could see nothing.  “He?   How are you so sure it was a ‘he’?”    This prescience in  Lesley was new to him, so he could not be blamed for being surprised as she came to herself, rounding upon him almost angrily;  “No!  No, I can’t be sure!  How would I know that?”

For now the answers could wait.   “We’re both getting spooked.  Let’s get out of here.”  He decided.

As he closed the grille, Peter wondered whose hand had rifled the padlock – were there others as interested in the Crowley story as he?   Lesley’s conviction that the little box had once contained a male child, though free of any proof, was so strong it could not be ignored – but then someone, for whatever reason, placed stones inside to make up weight, presumably so that a burial would look convincing.  Or maybe not – maybe whosoever rifled the lock had entered here to take the little body from its rest. Why?   What had he, Peter, missed?  He replaced the padlock, trying in his turn to make it look as if it had not been opened. 

Lesley remained subdued for some while.   She pretended interest in other features of  the garden, but Peter could sense her preoccupation.  At last, in the midst of a paved circle  less overgrown than most she stopped before the remnants of a sundial, placing her hands upon it for support.  Then she simply squatted on her heels, dropped her head so her cascading hair would hide her face, and wept.

Peter withdrew; she did need him to comfort her.   Disconsolate as he might feel, he had to allow his friend space for a private sorrow he could not explain, but knew to be real.   Lesley had found something in that cold place which had meaning for her, something which had brought a necessity to grieve, so he settled down at the edge of the paving to wait, slotting this new piece of the Crowley family’s chequered past into his mind.   Whose was the child for whom such desecration was necessary?  He had to assume it to be Lady Elizabeth’s, and a son, if Lesley was right.  Had Ballentine been the father? 

“Are you going to sit there all day?”   Lesley’s toe nudged him.  He looked up at her red eyes and she smiled apologetically.  “Sorry Petey.   I’m a sentimental bitch sometimes, honestly, you wouldn’t believe.  Come on, we were looking for a way into the house, weren’t we?”

It took them a while.  Finally, at the rear of the old mansion they came upon a wide, cobblestoned yard fringed on one side by the house itself, on two others by buildings which had once been stables.  Corroded tethering-rings lined the walls, while the middle of the yard was dominated by a long stone trough, part-filled with stagnant water and the haunt of a million flies.  Close by, Peter spotted a loose shutter on one of the house’s smaller windows.   Crowley’s defences were breached.

The rotted shutter lifted away without effort, dropping with a clatter onto the cobbles.   Behind it, the structure of its window had been smashed aside so a substantial body could pass through.

“We’re not the first!”  Lesley hissed.

“Squatters!   What if they’re still inside?”   Peter suggested in his creepiest whisper, pleased to see Lesley’s shoulders tighten in alarm.

“You go first then.”   She whispered back.

Some clambering later, they stood blinking in the dim light of a small ante-room.   The walls, their green paint peeling, were hung with impressive growths of mould.

“Try not to touch the paint.”  Peter advised:   “I think that green used to have arsenic in it.”

From the room they discovered  a passage leading into the belly of the house.  Deprived of light, oppressed by the reek of damp and aided only by illumination from their ‘phones, they had to grope their way.    “Oh piggit!”  Lesley swore as she tripped over some rubble.   “Peter, this is seriously scary!”

“There’s a door here.”   The door fell with a crash.

Lesley yelped:  “Don’t DO that! “

They stepped over the old hardwood door into a large hallway, which, had the main entrance not been boarded up, should have afforded them access to the house.   This cavernous space reached two storeys high.  Windows from the first and second floors, unboarded, lit up a long, curved staircase fringed by moss-damp panelled walls.     Beneath their feet, a black granite floor which must once have shone with polish, above their heads a roof-level dome of broken stained glass panels, now a nesting-place for birds.  Panicking wing-sounds were all that broke the silence. 

“Wow!”   Lesley shivered at her own echo.   “Castle Dracula!”

They wandered out into the centre of the dusty floor, gazing around at a room which had no furnishing, no covering, not even a shredded drape to soften its air of ruin and decay.   Lesley felt she wanted to throw open doors, beat out the boards from the windows, let in the sun.   Peter saw at last how, aside from all the external paraphernalia of Turkish domes and Moorish towers, Horace Crowley had wanted to reproduce his home when he drew up his first madcap plan for St. Benedict’s.   This was how the Great Hall would have looked when the place was completed, centuries ago; the one a pattern for the other.   It must have been an influence strong enough to have affected even Matthew Ballentine, who had paid homage to this part of the old man’s dream in his finished house.

These recollections apart, he did not see a ghostly Crowley stalking the hall, or get any sense of the past he knew the house to have.  He felt nothing to connect him to the place.

“Last one to the top!”  Lesley yelled, racing off up the stairs.

“No!”  Peter came to himself with a jolt.  “Don’t, Lesley!   The stairs won’t…”

A threatening creak confirmed that the stairs wouldn’t.   Lesley, feeling them lurch, stopped dead.  “Oh!   Oh, shit!”   With a hideous splitting sound the whole bottom section of the staircase tipped to one side.   “It’s bloody Titanic all over again…Peter?   PETER!”

Peter was beneath the place where she clung to the stair rail, some twelve feet above his head.   “Over the rail!” He yelled:  “Jump, Les!”

“Oh no!”   Lesley groaned, as the stairs lurched again.

“Come ON!  It’s easy.   I’ll catch you!”

If there hadn’t been a second splitting sound Lesley might have delayed longer, but this final warning was enough.   With a squeal of fear she clambered over the crumbling banister and launched out into space.   Peter had only a split second to align himself with her ‘phone light’s flicker and to perfectly time her fall, rolling backwards as he caught her against his chest.   The lower stairway crashed to earth beside them, powdering to a billowing, choking dust cloud that enveloped them both.    It took a long, long time to clear.  When she could at last start to make out some detail, Lesley found herself lying on the floor beside Peter.   Gingerly, she tested her legs and arms to see if they still worked.   Between wheezing breaths, she managed to gasp out:  “Is there anything in this place that doesn’t fall down when you touch it?”  Then, seeing Peter in improving light, she bubbled into a half-choked effort at laughter.   “Am I the same colour as you?”

Peter coughed,  “Yep.”

Lesley coughed back, “Did I damage you?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, Jesus, let’s get out of here.” 

Eyes caked and hawking inhaled dust, they picked themselves up, discovering bruises with every move.  Once erect, they leant against each other in mutual support before, bearings regained, they were ready to limp painfully back through the darkened passage.  Blinking through streaming tears, like two weary pilgrims they staggered towards the light.

“Do you think anyone heard the noise?”   Lesley said.  “That was one serious crash!”

“Dunno.  Soon find out!”

Restored eventually to the sunlight of the stable yard, they sat on the edge of the horse-trough and Lesley, quivering with delayed shock, buried her face in her hands.   Peter stretched out an arm and she responded instantly, draping herself against him as if his strength alone could quell the thought of dying, crushed among the timbers of that forgotten place.    “Oh, Peter, I’m being a bit of girl, aren’t I?”

“You’ve been badly frightened…”

“I’m not really like this!  I’m not!”

“It’s a reaction and it’s natural, love.  You don’t have to prove anything to me.”

“My hero!    You did a sort of Superman thing.  You saved me, didn’t you?”  Lesley brushed back dust-clogged hair so she could look up at him with eyes that shone through the tears,  He knew then that she had not missed his use of that old four-letter word but he was not about to take it back, so he licked a patch of her forehead clean and kissed it.

“Personally, I’m very glad you are a girl.  It makes you lighter to catch.  Somehow, though, we’ve got to get cleaned up, or they’ll never let us back on the train.”

They were masked in dust.  Lesley beamed white teeth.  “I don’t think we passed a laundrette.  We need water.”  She wrinkled her nose up at the horse trough; “No, not that!” The flies buzzed appreciatively, “Come on, let’s explore.”  

Arm-in-arm the pair limped in the direction of the only land they had not investigated thus far, that of the great park beyond the stables.  This offered them instant reward with the pleasantly tranquil prospect of a lake complete with reeds and waterfowl, presided over in gallant dereliction by a row of stone statues.  A bank of wild flowers and herbs led down to the water’s edge, basking in the hot sun.

They turned to face one another.  Lesley, who seemed to have shed her unselfconscious manners for the afternoon, shuffled awkwardly, “Well?”   She murmured.

“Well,”   Peter felt equally awkward.  “You first?”

“Not likely!”

“Together then.”

“Yeah…together.”

“’Course, we don’t have to, like, take off everything, do we?”  Peter said.  “We can keep the small stuff on.”

“Yes, of course!  Keep the smalls! No worse than the beach, yeah?”   Lesley agreed, trying to remind herself what ‘smalls’ she had put on that morning, and adding under her breath, “Mine are full of grit, or something.”

“Right then!”   Peter hooked his thumbs under the hem of his t-shirt and slipped it over his head, then Lesley did the same with her camisole top and it took him longer to recover.

She was already unhooking her jeans when she caught his stare;   “What?   It’s a bra, innit?   Are you seriously repressed?”  Peter was speechless, unable to avert his eyes from diaphanous fragments of cloth that revealed far more than they concealed.   Suddenly, the after-shock of her fall came back to Lesley:  suddenly she was shy, shaking and unsure, and she drew her arms across her chest:  “What’s the matter – haven’t you ever seen…?”

“Not yours.  Not you.”    He was in the presence of beauty that was new to him.  She overwhelmed his senses so, that seeing her quaking and apart from him, he could not do other than reach out; for hands, for arms, for shoulders, taking her to himself.  She did not resist.  For a long while, neither spoke – a while in which her shivering found calm in the warmth of his body; and for a long while neither moved, other than to comfort and caress.

At last, when he dared trust himself to speak, Peter murmured in her ear, “Should we…?”

And she kissed his neck before she answered, very simply; “If you want.”

He had never wanted anything more in his life.

Later, much later, when early evening was taking the last heat from the sun, Peter woke from a sleep of peace.    He looked across to his left and there Lesley lay naked beside him, still sleeping.  Amazed, he studied the perfect face of innocence, unlined by guilt or sorrow or time, which nestled in that white-straw nest of hair, and he made a promise to himself that he would never betray that beauty.  With a frond of thyme, he gently traced the arc of her forehead, followed the profile of her nose, brushed across her lips.

Lesley twitched and opened an eye.   “Hiya!  She whispered:  “Who are you?”

“I was about to ask the same.  I just thought you might know the time, ‘cause my ‘phone’s dead.   I think it’s wet.”

She snorted:  “Really?   You’re surprised?”  She hoisted herself onto her elbows. Before rolling across his chest to rummage in the grass for her ‘phone:   “Oh, Peter?  What time’s the train back?”

“Six-fifteen, I think.”

“Do you know what the time is now?”

Hastily they collected the clothes that they had somehow found space from each other to wash in the lake, then spread upon those warm stone statues to dry.   They forced themselves, laughing, into their still damp jeans.   Peter, the quicker to dress, sat pruriently watching Lesley smooth unwilling denim over her long legs, listening as she lamented her wild hair. 

One older than he might have remarked how his eyes, his ears, his thoughts were all consumed by her: how he hardly spared a parting thought for the estate he had envisaged so often, and come so far to see.   In exchange he had a new far greater discovery than those old stones could ever yield, so he would not care. Yet somehow he had expected something of Crowley House that was missing, although he could not be certain what it was.  Perhaps Lesley had discovered it in his stead; in a tomb she had found by who knew what guidance, and in a mysterious box with a new tale to tell.  If he had not shared her emotive connection to that cold place, he had seen how profoundly it affected her.

   No ghosts lingered.    The house was just a ruin, tottering on the verge of demolition.  The grounds were ill-drained, weed-strewn and forgotten.   Only the trees retained any secrets:   he tore his eyes from his prettily disarranged companion to look across at the tall sentinel elms that hid this park from the civilised world, as if  they might just have something to say:  but they remained silent.   Not even a newly-risen breeze could ruffle them.

A flash of reflected sunlight from deep within those trees caught his eye.  He looked again and – yes – there it was; a momentary flicker, now gone.

“Come on, Les, let’s go.”   He felt uneasy:  “We’ll miss that train.”

They inspected each other for any mud that had escaped the washing process.

“Look at us!”  Lesley said brightly:  “Two scarecrows!  Will they let us on, do you think?”

The statues, which in their role as clothes-horses had suffered a final ignominy, watched them leave.

On the journey home Peter and Lesley sat together, her head against his shoulder, half-sleeping as the miles rushed past.   And Peter asked again, because hecould see Lesley had recovered from her experience in the vault, how she could be so certain the broken casket had contained a little boy, and she answered, from the edge of sleep:  “Because I held him in my arms.  Just for a second I held him, Peter.  One day I’ll find him again.  I will!”

© 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.

Cherie

“Are you not going to talk to me, then?” 

“Yeah, of course – if you want, like.”  Martin knew he was blushing.   The girl with the long sun-kissed legs confronted him as he stepped out of the elevator cage.  Jack, his mate, followed him, making a sound of appreciation in his ear which, had he been a horned toad and not a bricklayer, might have sounded like a mating call.  

“’Cos you wolf-whistled me yesterday, didn’t you?”

“Did Ah?”  That was different.   Yesterday Martin was two storeys up, looking down from the scaffolding.  This was face to face.   A paragon of all that was beautiful, standing a couple of feet away.

“So I thought you fancied me.  Was I wrong?”

Her eyes were a dark challenging blue, lips full and wide.  Her hair was black, her teeth even and very, very white.  She was wearing the same red top as yesterday.  The same blue denim shorts.

“No.”  He muttered.  “No, you’re – you’re not wrong.”  He had only dared to whistle because Jack had done it first.

“Well, what we going to do about it then?  It’s all right, you can talk to me you know.  I won’t break.”

#

“So what ‘appened?”  Jack had returned with their fish and chip lunch.  “Hey, I bet you embarrassed yerself, you!”

“No – no I didn’t!”  Martin defended.  “Of course I didn’t!”

“Spent five minutes thinkin’ o’ dead cats, then!   She were tasty, her.”

“Aye.”   His mate was right about the cats.  “She’s real nice, like.  We’re goin’ out Thursday.”

“Yer lucky bustard!    Why Thursday?”

“As good a day as any, i’n’t it?”

“What’s her name?”

Martin thought for a moment.  “Don’t know.  Never as’t her.”

#

Her name was Cherie.  Introductions had to wait until Thursday, because Cherie did not appear again on the town square below the building site in the following few days, though Martin hoped for a sight of her.  By the morning of the appointed day he was already wondering if he had done the right thing.  Martin was always uneasy in the presence of eligible girls – their disguised interest, the giggling, the sotto voce comments whenever he was near, made him nervous and on edge.   Jack, who couldn’t understand his reticence, teased him.

“I don’t know what yer’ve got, lad, but I wish I had it.  Yer’d not catch me blushin’ and hidin’ in corners, I can tell thee.”

#

Martin wore the shirt his favourite on-line store said would look good on him, the three-quarter trousers that they said would match the shirt.  He drenched himself in the men’s cologne someone gave him for Christmas two years before; and in all fairness he felt quite self-confident when he hit the street.  As he approached the meeting place he had agreed with Cherie, however, his eyes settled upon her shortest dress of darkest red, and that confidence began to evaporate.

For her part, Cherie had to weigh her recollection of the half-naked, dusty male god from the scaffolding against the shop window figure who wafted to greet her on Mathesons’ corner.   As he approached, her practised smile twitched a little and almost faded – her full red lips closed over those white, white teeth.   But still, she persuaded herself, at least he had made an effort; and really, once she had changed sides to stay up wind, he was quite a creditable companion on the street.  Eyes were drawn.  She liked that.  She hugged his arm.

“Go clubbin’ yeah?”

Martin’s confidence graph took a further plunge.  “Ah’m not mooch of a dancer, like!”

“Why man, you’d be fine.”  Cherie produced a small polythene bag from her purse.  “You tried some of these?”

Martin eyed the little white pills within the bag with suspicion.  “What are they, like?”

“They make you dance!”

And dance Martin did;  wildly.  And if a few toes got trodden and if a face or two got elbowed no-one seemed disposed to make a point of it.  And Cherie?  She was delighted.

It was half-past-two before the pair left the Hot Licks Club.  Martin had somehow endured seven hours of closeness to Cherie’s graceful, swaying body without doing anything that would make his mate Jack ashamed of him.   Around the back door behind the dustbins, his supply of dead cats ran out.

#

“Chuffin’ ‘ell!   Yer look like the eight-forty-nine from Newcastle ran over yer!”   Jack commented the next morning.  “Good night, was it?”

“It were all right, like.”  Martin blinked at his watch.   “Eight-forty-nine’s not due yet, like.”

“I know, lad.  I know.”  Jack soothed.  “It’s joost an expression, see?”

“Ah.”

“Well, gan on then, what were she like?”

“She were all right, like.”  Martin wasn’t at all sure he remembered what Cherie was actually like.  He had a vision in his head of an undulating goddess, but it was fogged.  Those little white pills were responsible.  He had never taken anything of their like before, so he had never been ‘up’.  And never having been ‘up’, he was unprepared for coming ‘down’ – which he was heavily in the process of experiencing.   That morning, after he nearly fell from the scaffolding twice, his foreman put him in charge of stores.

Jack caught up with him at the rear of the site at lunchtime.   “I’m off to get t’ fish and chips, yer havin’ the usual?”

“Ah.  Awreet.”  Martin assented unenthusiastically.

“That right you got another date with yon Cherie lass?”

“Aye.  Ah think so.”  This was another of the things he was unable to recall clearly.  “Saturday, I think, like.”

“Well, there’s someone out the front to see yer.”  Jack told him.  “Have fun, lad!”

#

Cherie stood waiting by a forklift with the sun behind her so Martin could not immediately read her expression, though he might have been disappointed by the modesty of her floral summer dress.

“Ah.”  Martin said.

“Hello Martin.”  She said.  She sounded upset.

A tall figure hidden from sight behind the machine stepped into view.  “This is your Martin?”  His accent was thick and heavy with Eastern European inflections.  “You are lucky boy, Martin.  Yes?”

“Ah.”  Martin said.  “Who’re you, like?”

#

Jack and Martin sat eating their fish and chips together.

Jack was chuckling unsympathetically. “Yer’ve put yer foot in it this time!”

“Ah didn’t know she were only sixteen!”  Martin moaned.  “She never said, like, did she?”

“Oh aye!  Like she would!   And he was her brother, this big bloke?”

“Ah.  One of eight.  Eight brothers!”

“Chuffin’ ell!  What sort of people have that many kids?”

“Ah’m aboot to find out.  Her muvver and favver want to see me tonight!  About my ‘plans’.”

“Plans?  Chuffin’ell.  Yer nivver planned owt in yer life, lad!”

“Anyway, this brother of ‘ers, this Dimitri, he says it’s alright for ‘er to see me, like, because sixteen’s quite old to still be single, where they cooms from.   I think they want me to marry ‘er, like!”

Jack’s hell chuffed once more.   “It’s ridiculous, that.  I mean, yer didn’t do nothin’ to her, did yer?  I mean, first date and all?”

Martin probed the fog mournfully.  “Ah don’t rightly remember.  Ah think ah might ha’ done.”

#

Over the weeks that followed Jack’s lunches became solitary affairs.   Cherie brought sandwiches and other more exotic treats to sit with Martin in the park while she regaled him with details of the wedding dress she wanted, the celebrations that people of her country enjoyed on such occasions, and his duties as a bridegroom.  Cherie’s brothers acted as chaperones:  their small, packed household reverberated to the beat of raucous folk music,  while he sat in silence for hours.  His hosts prattled happily in their own language.  Only Cherie  spoke to him in English. 

#

“Where is she now?”  Jack asked.  It was the first time he and Martin had shared their lunch in quite a while.

“She’s off gettin’ fitted for the dress.”  Martin explained.  “It’s not that I don’t like, ‘er, like…it i’n’t her so much – it’s her fam’ly.  Wor can’t get away from ‘em, like!”

And Jack said:  “Still, lad, it’ll be awreet once tha’s married, won’t it?”

“Ah, well that’s the thing.    ‘Er favver wants us to work for ‘im.  Ah’m fam’ly now, ‘e says.  Ah says, ah’m norra plumber.  ‘E says, that’s awreet, ‘e’ll teach us, like.  Boot ah don’t want to be be a bluddy plumber, do ah?   Ah’m ‘appy wi’ the bricks, like!”

“Well, tell ‘im that.”

“Oh ah, you try!  An’ Cherie’s brothers, see?  They works for ‘im awready, an’ he don’t pay them ‘ardly nowt.  Ah’m spendin’ more time wi’ them than ah am wi’ Cherie.   It’s all the heavy hand on the shoulder an’ ‘you be a good lad an’ do what Papa wants’.   And ah’m buyin’ all the drinks, like!”

“Let me think.”  Said Jack.

#

Jack, at forty-one, could have looked upon his young friend’s plight from a mature perspective and concluded that Martin’s fears would resolve themselves, given a little time.  But he was concerned.  Martin’s brow was furrowed, his complexion pale.  He seemed to be sagging beneath the burden, not of his relationship with a pretty girl who, despite her tender years, Jack rather liked, but the grasping aspirations of her father and her brothers.

The girl’s horizons could not extend beyond her family.  It was a powerful influence, and Martin needed some inspiration to introduce a little slack to those natural ties.   The trouble was, good and honest as his young friend was, Martin had never suffered the pangs of inspiration.   Ideas were not his strongest suit.  A vissicitude of fortune needed to step in.

Which was why, on one warm weekday evening, Jack was to be found stuffed into his best suit, standing outside a church hall beside a board that announced a meeting of the ‘Jesuit Society’.

“Hello, love!  Are you a newbie?”   She was smartly dressed in blue, with her hair coiffed neatly beneath a dark navy hat.  “I’m Ethel.  Come on in and let me introduce you.”

In the ensuing two hours Jack experienced more religion than had passed his way in a lifetime of resolute agnosticism.  It was, he justified to himself, suffered in a good cause, especially as it offered every opportunity to socialise with Ethel, who was a member of a mysterious ‘Committee’, and a perfect receptor for his plan.  Oh yes, Jack had a plan.

“That’s why I’m ‘ere!”  Jack proclaimed.   “I think it’s terrible, the way these bloody fanatics is pollutin’ our religion (pardon my language, Ethel).   They’re weedlin’ their way in, makin’ all these heretical changes!  They’re ruinin’ our Church!”

“Oh, I agree!”  Ethel said.  “Er…who, exactly, love?”

“Them Scientologists!”

“Oh aye, them.”  Ethel nodded.

“Aye, and I’ll do better than ‘who’; They’re everywhere!  I’ll give thee an example!  Right in this diocese, like, there’s someone actually pretendin’ to take instructions in the faith who’ll be getting’ married at the Sacred Heart in six weeks.  He’s a known Scientologist, is ‘im, but he’s marryin’ there before the altar, bold as yer please;  and into a good Catholic family, an’ all!”

“Oh, my good Lord!”  Ethel said.

“Yes!   An’ once the canker starts, mind, in a good God-fearing fam’ly like that, it spreads.  Blasphemy, that’s what it is.   Blasphemy!”

Ethel laid a reassuring hand on Jack’s arm.  “I so agree!”

#

“Ah don’t understand it!”  Martin exclaimed, as he buttered his thirtieth frog of the morning.   “One minute ‘er fam’ly’s all over me, like; next minute they won’t speak to me!  T’wedding’s off!  Father sommat-or-other from the church comes ter see Cherie’s Da’ and tells ‘im ‘e won’t marry us, an’ him and ‘er brothers are at me fer bein’ a Judas, like!  What have ah done?”

Jack grinned.  “Seems like tha’s got theself a bit o’ space, lad.  Tha’s what tha wanted, weren’t it?”   It was time to ignite the spark of inspiration.  What does Cherie think about it?”

“She says I should ha’ told ‘er I was a Scy-tologist or sommat, an’ I says I weren’t.  Ah’m Church of England, man!”

“Strange ‘ow things works out.”   Jack nodded, sagely.  He knew that however robustly his friend defended himself there was no possibility Father Kelly would change his mind and consent to conduct the marriage.  Once the Jesuit Society had their teeth in the hem of his cassock it was more than his life was worth.   “Does she still want to marry yer, lad?”

“Oh ah.   She’s dead unhappy.”  Martin flushed and muttered into his chest:   “She says she loves me, like.”

“Yer can still get married then, can’t yer?”

“Ah don’t see how.  ‘Er parents won’t consent no more an’ she’s under age.  Us’d have to wait two year, an’ ‘er brothers are talkin’ about  ‘er gannin’ back to ‘er home country.  They.ve got some mate of ‘er favver’s as they wants her to hook up ter.  Nah, it’s all off, far as ah can see.”

#

“Gretna Green?”   Cherie’s face lit up.  “We can really get married there?”

“Ah.”  Martin nodded.  “Or anywhere in Scotland, Jack says.  Sixteen’s old enough up there, see?  We can nip off on the quiet, soon as y’like.  Ah can get the train tickets fer tomorrow morning…”

“Oh, Martin, that’s brilliant!”

“We’ll have to be careful, mind.”   Martin looked deeply into his girlfriend’s shining eyes and through them saw, for a moment, another kind of reflection – that of a doorway hanging open – a path to freedom, and though he was unsure he wanted it, a way of escape.

“Of course, if you didn’t want to do it…”   She was giving up her family, her brothers, her home.  She only had to show doubt, and he would sympathise:  he would understand.  After all…

Cherie stopped his train of thought in its tracks.  “Not want to?  Don’t be daft, Martin man, of course I want to!”

“Anyway;”   She patted her stomach.  “There is another little problem.”

© 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: Scaffolding, Hebi B, from Pixabay

Dancing Girl, Graphic-Mama team on Instagram

Audience/Club, Pexels, from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Sixteen 

Pieces of Silver

Jeremy Piggott felt the sneeze approach as certainly as he had felt the cold itself coming:  an onrushing tide of mucus that was irresistible, although he tried his best to suppress it.  He patted desperately at pockets, knowing the wet mess of his handkerchief would not be there.  He had discarded it in disgust on his way here; thrown it into a bin on the street. 

Foolishly. 

Oh god, what could he DO?  

As the last and biggest wave broke, frantic inspiration betook him to snatch his hat down over his face, just in time to control the explosion.   Reprieved, he mopped the copious residue with the hat before hesitantly replacing it on his head.   His vision cleared.   The young woman across the table from him, with an expression on her face which was difficult to read, was proffering a paper serviette.

“Oh t’anks.   B’oody code.”   Jeremy said.   He took the serviette and blew his nose noisily.  The café was crowded – people noticed.    “Right!  Bus’ness.”

Producing a large envelope from his briefcase, Piggott passed it to the woman, who opened it carefully, avoiding wet fingerprints.

“Dis is who you’re involved wib.   His nabe is Mahennis Bourta, and he’s Moroccan.  Nice, middle incomb flabbily, father wab a chemist: they moobed to Lyon when he wab very young, so there’s little to fide in the Borth Abrican connection.  Seebs to have been recruited at udiversity, trained in Afghanistab.”

Alice Burbridge, for it was she, studied the photograph with her dark, searching eyes.   “Bourta’s his real name: no aliases?”

Piggott nodded.   “He seebs to be a facilitator, a’d maybe a bit of a policeban.  He does what he says he’s doi’g at the moment:  helpi’g to discober what was on dat piece of paper.”

“He can’t get to the photograph?”

Piggott shook his head, reaching for another serviette which an understanding waitress had thoughtfully placed in a glass in the centre of the table.  “Nobe.”   He blew his nose with great thoroughness.   “Bud he may be able to tap into the chain furber down.  We hab the boy under surveillance. Maybe, just maybe, he can find a way in.  Whad’s he said to you?”

“He says he can.”  Alice pursed her lips.  “These people are serious professionals.  If he says he can I’m inclined to believe him.   I’m worried for the boy.”

“The girl too.  There are two ob them now.”   Jeremy caught Alice’s surprised look.  “Oh, nothi’g to worry about – well, nothi’g new.   She’d the one who compode the picture, we believe.   Our operative’s got her covered too.   Thi’g is, we aren’t sure if the Amadhi are aware of her:  obviously we’d rarber dey weren’t.”

“So far as I know they have no idea as to the identity of the boy, and no-one has mentioned a girl.”   Alice frowned.  “If you don’t mind, Jerry, I will worry, just a bit.  I know what they do to girls when they have no other use for them.”

“Which is why you should be watching your own back, Alice,  But carry on doi’g what you’re doi’g for the mobent.  We don’t want to hab to pull you out, yet.   Just try to gib dem as little as possible.  Now, take a look at the seco’d photograph.”

Alice started then quickly recovered herself as she turned over the sheets, revealing a photograph of a man entering a restaurant.   Though taken from some distance away, the likeness was undoubtedly that of Yahedi:  “He was at the meeting.”

Jeremy availed himself of another serviette.   “He’b dangerous.  Watch out for hib.   De point ibs, Alice, we know he’b in town.   We strongly suspec’ he’s the trigger man.   If he and Bourta get together – they’re old associates – if you even see them together you’re to bail out, do you understa’d?  Don’t hang around, get yourself to a safe house and call the boys in.   We’ll take it from there.”

“Fine.”   Alice nodded:  “Is there anything else you particularly want from this Bourta guy?”

Jeremy was thoughtful.  “I dink I want to know the sabe things they do.   I want to know how the b’oody hell this boy and his girlfr’e’d managed to bugger up a professional assassinatiob wib a sheet of A4 and a bird.   I want to know who else is involved, apart from your rocker person, and what they’re after.   So if the Prince and his Amadhi know more than I do about that, I’d like to be up to speed.”

Jeremy sat back and sipped his coffee as Alice read through the notes he had given her concerning first Bourta, then Yahedi.   She memorised the important parts carefully, page by page.   Of Bourta:  “Oh goodness!  He’s into that, is he?”

Jeremy nodded seriously:  “Not all fun and frolics, is he?    The only time anyone got close to making a case stick on him was after he butchered a prostitute in Italy.  He managed to wriggle out ob it with a stro’g alibi, but we know he did it, id’s sort ob a signature ob his.   He can’t hab sex without it – and I saw photographs ob the girl afterwards: it was grim viewing, I can tell you.”

Did you get anything on the Arab?”

“The one at the meeti’g?”    Jeremy pulled another envelope out of his pocket, extracted a photograph.  “Is this him?  Dis is frob  a separate file we hab on the Prince.”

Alice looked at the photo and nodded:   “Think so.  It’s not very clear.”

“No.   He keeps in the background a lot.  He’b one of the Prince’s personal frie’ds, quite wealthy.  Mohammed Al Fait; better known as Marak.  English education.   Got his money as a mercenary soldier, back in the African wars, and was possibly in Bosnia too.  He’s a strange one.”

“Strange?”

“Deep into mysticism, heads up a little spiritualist sect of his own – The Portal, I think it’s called – meets each month in Cairo.  An unusual combidation, dat – Arab mercenary and spiritualist.”

The meeting over, Alice Burbridge returned Jeremy’s envelope to him and rose from her chair.   Her brief handshake would have seemed to anyone who chanced to see it the natural conclusion to a business meeting, perhaps a deal.   She would leave first, Jeremy watching her tall figure as it melted through the crowded bar.  Then he would call for the check.  Through the window beside their table he saw her make the street, huddling her coat around her against the onset of April rain.   Instinctively   he scanned road and pavement to see if anybody else was watching her departure, but there was no sign she had been followed.  He suppressed a small shudder; a premonition maybe?  It was a sensation he had felt before and did not like it: yet there was nothing he could do to help or protect this woman – she had made the choice to live with danger – thrived, excelled within it.  If she had run one risk too many, if she had said one wrong word or stepped, however unknowingly, out of line, she knew what the price would be. 

Jeremy Piggott sighed a fatalistic sigh, because that was the nature of the game they both played.  As he prepared himself for the seasonal gale that was blowing outside he realised his hat had stuck itself fast to his head.

At around the time of Alice’s meeting with Piggott, Peter and Lesley were lounging in the college library with browsers at full stretch. Peter had European History galloping around in his head; Lesley was unashamedly checking out the Dolce and Gabbana homepage.   An item in the Microsoft news section drew Peter’s attention.

“Wow! See this?  Adrian Hettman’s dead.”

 “So?”   Lesley did her best to sound bored. “Like, who was Adrian Hettman?”

“He was big cheese at Hettman-Patton: American tech giant – into the hardware for integrated defence systems.  Building a factory near Bristol next year.  There’ll be some cool jobs!”

“Riveted is what I am.   And Adrian Hettman is the cheese thingy of Hettman-Thingy, right?”

“Was.”

“You know, I get to learn a little more with you every day?  How snuffed he?”

“You’re just dying to know, aren’t you?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Heart attack.    Found dead in his hotel room in New York.     He was sort of a hero for me when I was into tech stuff.   I had his picture on my wall. Jeez Les, he was fifty-four! He seriously didn’t look it.”

“Surgically enhanced:  they’re all at it.  I’m depressed now.  Do you think I’d look good in these?”

A few days after this Peter dropped by the church of St. David’s, hoping to catch his father ‘at the office’. His actual motive was an attack of financial embarrassment not unrelated to the higher costs exacted by Lesley’s companionship, but between college pressures and work he realised he hadn’t actually talked to Bob Cartwright in the best part of a week, despite sharing the same roof.    In childhood Peter had often helped his father, performing some of the menial duties necessary to his Living.  He had grown into St. David’s through Sunday School, learning the craft, as it were, at the pulpit.  Now he rarely took any interest in religious affairs:  almost never came to the Church, or plied the streets with the Parish magazine.

“Dad, the ‘Big Issue’s’ got better street cred.”

‘St. David’s’ was an unimposing structure, wedged between commercial buildings like a bride at a football match.  A couple of sad saintly statues gazed down from alcoves, a meek spire poked apologetically from the roof.  Nevertheless its brick blandness attracted a loyal band of worshippers, more, maybe, to hear Bob Cartwright’s inflammatory sermons with their appalling jokes than out of a duty to God.

Entering the main door Peter nearly collided with a woman and her child.

This was unremarkable in itself (a steady trickle of visitors might pass this way on a Wednesday afternoon, Bob’s day for a ‘surgery’ ) had there not been something about this couple which stuck in Peter’s mind.  The woman, though she was middle-aged and malnourished, her features underscored by the heavy lines of experience, had an aura of energy about her, deep sadness, febrile hope:  the child following in her wake,although he was very, very young, reached for Peter’s hand and grasped it, fleetingly, as he passed by.   When they had gone, Peter stood in the aisle for several minutes, overwhelmed by the emotions emanating from those two people.

He discovered his father in the sacristy.

“Who were they – the pair who just left?”

Bob looked puzzled.  “Pair?   No ‘pairs’ been in for more than an hour, old lad.

Just Marilyn Glossop.”

“Wasn’t she the car accident woman?”

“That’s her.  Lost her husband and two children.   Tragic lady.”

“And she still has faith.”

  “Brilliant, isn’t it?”  Peter’s father smiled, sadly.  “Or it would be.  But I think maybe faith, for Marilyn, is just the bit of flotsam she clings to.  Like her new partner – they cling to it together as they cling….look, son, I shouldn’t discuss my parishioners’ personal lives with anyone, not even you.   What do we want then – a few pieces of silver?”

“Notes will do, Dad.  Just notes.”  Peter did not know quite from where his words sprang – even what compelled him to say them.  “If you have her ‘phone number, Dad, you should call her.   Tell her before – I don’t know – before she does something.   Tell her she has the child she needs – it’s a boy, and it’s in her now.   Tell her that.”

Once the words were out he recoiled, anticipating his father’s reaction – annoyance, amusement, sarcasm?  No, none of these.

“Now there’s an odd thing.   I was worried, too.   Something about the things she said…..”  Bob came to himself.   “So, it’s fortune-telling now, is it?  Or gynaecology?”

Peter shifted uncomfortably.  “You don’t seem too amazed.”

Bob smiled gently: “Well, it’s a bit of a surprise.  Sometimes, I’ve found, faith manifests itself in odd ways.   But it is faith, nonetheless.  And I will ‘phone her, son, just as soon as you’ve bled me dry for another week.”

In the process of delving into his wallet, his father raised the matter of a new Bishop appointed to the Diocese.

“Ronald Harkness.   He’s going to drop in tomorrow:  address the foot-soldiers, pep-talk, and all that.  He wants to meet you.”

Me?  Why would a Bish want to meet me?”

“Haven’t the faintest.   It’s most peculiar.  He was quite insistent: something about engaging with the family as well as the churchman; didn’t seem to be worried that Lena is away, though.   Perhaps he’s measuring you up for a collar.  Ten-thirty.  Can you make it?”

“S’pose.”

#

Some cruel twist of malevolent fortune directed Melanie’s feet to the Esplanade that morning.   Of late she had taken to avoiding the wild days when she and Peter had once loved to walk to college this way together, with salt spray in the air and the gale whipping  waves to flagellating fury against the sea wall.  

So why today?

So why today, when Peter was there, facing the storm, and Lesley was with him, rapt in him, staring out to the Rock as she had once done, lost in the moment – lost in each other?

She had never seen Lesley looking as disordered as this, with her naturally silky hair frizzed around her face, careless of clothes rumpled about her; or Peter looking so tall, so broad of shoulder, so happy.   There was no mistaking the change, no mistaking the fondness in Lesley’s eyes as she turned his face to hers, or the lingering sensuality of her kiss.  

Her original destination forgotten, Melanie spun on her heel to walk, to half-run away from the thing she had dreaded seeing, and could stand to look upon no more.  As she staggered through her crumbling world, as she blindly went from street to street she fought back unreasonable tears – why was she so angry?  Why should she want to cry?   Was it not inevitable this would happen?  To know Lesley was to love her, and now Peter clearly – oh, that look in his eyes! – loved her.   Yes, loved her: and that was that.   They were bloody made for each other, weren’t they? 

Later, much later, she returned to the  Esplanade.  Sitting beneath the burden of her guilt in the shelter where she and Peter had rested together so many times, Melanie gave way to all of her jealousy, all of her pain, and broke her young heart.

© 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.