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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

Horlicks

I honestly can’t remember if I’ve posted this one before, so – because I rather like it – I’ll take the chance! Here’s hoping…

Let me tell you about Horlicks.

It all begins with a knock on my door early Saturday morning.  I’m in the middle of breakfast.  Ali, my landlord, is standing on the doormat; apology written all over his face.

“Sorry to disturb you, Ben.”

“It’s alright.”  Me, dressing gown, wiping Rice Krispies off my face.  Him, lounge suit, buttonhole – has he just got married?  I like Ali – he’s one of the new-style landlords – fresh faced, optimistic – went into property when the City went pear-shaped.

“You know about poor old Mr. Pennell?”  Ali uses his sensitive voice.  I do, of course.

“Yeah, Mrs. Jacob told me.  She found him, apparently.”  Abe Pennell, Flat Five.  If he caught you in the hallway you’d end up talking for hours, because once he started he’d never stop.  A lonely old man, I always supposed, and now he’d slipped away; in the night, alone.  It was sad.

“Well, I’ve cleared most of his stuff;” Ali says; “Except this.”

I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it: on the floor beside him, this massive cage thing –inside, with a quizzical look on its face, the most beautiful blue Macaw I’ve ever seen.

“He loved this bird and I just don’t have the heart to sell it.   I remember you asking about pets.”

A pet, yes: I’d been thinking of a cat, maybe, or a small pooch without any pretensions, not a parrot.  Yet somehow (I admit I’ve no idea how Ali persuades me) I end up with a cage in my hands.

“His name is Horlicks, Ben.”

Then Ali’s thanked me and gone, and the cage is standing on the table, and I’m looking at Horlicks and Horlicks is looking at me.  With great delicacy, Horlicks opens the cage and steps out onto the table.  With rather less delicacy, he plumps a grey foot on the edge of my breakfast bowl, sending Krispies and milk all over the cloth.  One by one he begins to eat the Krispies.  I suppress my annoyance  (how can you have a go at a bereaved bird?).  He seems quite passive as I coax him, nudge him, persuade him back inside his home, shut his door and secure it.  He opens it again and comes back out.

A cursory examination reveals that the latch is very loose.  I have some wire in the kitchen.  I put him back inside, wire up the door.  He seems to want to help me, poking at my fingers with his beak as I work, stepping back on his perch as if in admiration at the finished job.  Satisfied, I leave him while I go to the kitchen to make coffee.  The kettle has just boiled.  I am pouring water into my mug.  There is a flapping of wings and Horlicks joins me on the worktop.  He has a length of wire in his beak.

So we reach a tacit understanding:  Horlicks is not a caged bird.  From now on I will put the cage in a corner and leave the door open for him to return there whenever he wishes (he almost never does) while he has free run of my meticulously tidy flat.  I’m like that, you see?  I live alone, everything in order, everything in its place.  Lump sugar not loose, tablecloth on the table, covers on the chairs and wipe-your-feet-please-thank-you – get the picture?  Now I’ve heard that parrots are really messy, and that worries me, but there’s such a thing as duty of care, and I take that seriously too, so I have to trust Horlicks’ good manners and go out.

Fortunately this is a Saturday, because there is food to get – what do parrots eat, anyway?  The local pet shop will help.

Mrs. Hall at ‘Fluffy’s’ is effusively helpful:  “Parrots are extremely fussy, Mr. Cecil.”

She advises me no end, managing in the process to provide me with three books on care of Parrots and Parakeets, about half a hundredweight of balanced diet food for Horlicks, an extremely pretty perch, and a three-figure bill.  I make a note to get a larger car.

No-one could describe my feelings as I turn the handle on my front door.  All the way home I ‘m having cold sweats, picturing my flat as a battleground, seeing images of Horlicks amid shredded tablecoths, piles of stuffing ripped from chairs – what sort of things do parrots do when they get bored, anyway?  All my files opened and torn apart, broken china….

None of it!  I swing the door wide (but not too wide – I have another vision which involves Horlicks flapping past me to freedom) and there it is; my well-ordered flat:  still well ordered.  My new pet appears not to have moved, surveying me sagely from the top of my bookcase as I struggle to assemble the accoutrements of his new life.

“How old are you, Horlicks?”  I ask him conversationally as I carefully select a site for his brand new perch.  He tips his head to one side and rattles his tongue in a sort of keening sound.  “Do you like this, then?”

Now I am proud of that perch.  It is on a stand with a nice wide base where you can lay sand for collection of – well, need I be specific?  A hoop of little bells form an arch over the top.  There’s a food dish attached, too, which I fill with the newly-acquired goodies supplied by Mrs. Hall.

“You hungry, Horlicks?  You a hungry Horlicks?”  Oh-oh!  I’m starting to talk like my old ma did with her cats.  Here, tiddy-widdy!  Did he want his din-dins then?

Horlicks seems to understand.  He flutters down from the bookcase, settles on the perch, then after turning his head several ways, begins to poke at the food.  Satisfied, I go into the kitchen to make my lunch.  My coffee mug is on the worktop where I left it earlier, the sugar-bowl still beside it.  The sugar bowl is empty.  The coffee mug is full of sugar lumps.

Of course, it is my fault:  normally I would not think of leaving the half-full mug of unfinished coffee there, any more than I would forget to put the Rice Krispies packet back in the cupboard, but Horlicks’ arrival distracted me.  And the Rice Krispies packet is empty, too…..

When I return to my living room, Horlicks is back on top of the bookcase.  The food in his food bowl is untouched.  I calculate he has probably eaten enough unsuitable food to kill him.  Did I read somewhere birds can’t burp?

Over the next few days we learn to live with one another, Horlicks and I.  I learn, for example, that he has no appreciation of expensive special food:  I learn that he likes my food, mostly before I get the opportunity to eat it.  I learn that slices of Pizza, pieces of bread, biscuits, all manner of cooking ingredients will mysteriously disappear the moment I turn my back:  that only hot food – kebabs with hot sauce, chilli, etc., are left untouched.  Whether Horlicks learns anything new at all is open to doubt.  There is little question as to who is educating who in our new partnership.

I begin to eat a lot more curry than is good for me.

At first I think Horlicks must be dangerously constipated, because the sand beneath his perch and in his cage stays spotlessly clean.  This in itself is no surprise, since he rarely touches either of them, but I worry.  Then I discover the top of the kitchen cupboard (by accident – I open it and a piece of stale pizza falls on my head).  There are more things up there, Horatio, than are dreamed of…..

Lindsay comes round this evening.  Lindsay and I, we’re sort of an item, if you know what I mean?  She says we are, anyway.

She calls me first: “Shall I bring a Chinese?”

“Better make it a Biryani.”

She sees Horlicks, screams and steps back five paces.  Horlicks cringes on top of the bookcase, head lowered, wings hunched.

“Oh, you’ve got a parrot!”

I’m thinking ‘What a pity Peter Scott couldn’t have seen this’.

“Oh, isn’t it just excellent?”

Horlicks perks up.  Obviously, this parrot is prone to flattery.  I go to the kitchen to dish out the food, and when I come back, there’s Lindsay sitting on my settee, and there’s Horlicks on her lap, on his back with his eyes shut, having his tummy tickled.

For the rest of the evening I am playing gooseberry while Horlicks courts Lindsay with the professionalism of a gigolo.  He sits beside her as she eats, snuggles up to her whenever her attention might stray in my direction, brings her little gifts, like sugar lumps, the odd grape or two from the fruit bowl, or a Rice Krispie.  When we finally get to say goodnight he perches on her shoulder and would have stayed there had we not insisted.  He parts with Lindsay reluctantly, touching her cheek with that great grey beak in what looks suspiciously like a kiss.

Horlicks loves the bathroom.  When I shower in the morning he is entranced.  He sits on the shower rail with that lopsided look of his and watches me with an attention that borders on the perverted.  I come to the conclusion that all the steam is like the jungle to him, and it makes him feel at home.

“I wonder if you remember where you came from, Horlicks?”  I ask him, towelling off; and he adopts a questioning stare.  But he never answers, not once.

“Macaws aren’t good talkers, dear.”  Mrs. Hall tells me.  “It’s the greys that are the real conversationalists.”  I think this is on my third visit to ‘Fluffy’s’ – I don’t remember for certain.

“How can I control him?  He won’t stay in his cage and I daren’t open the windows.”

“Ah now!  Let me show you this ingenious little harness….”

Horlicks looks quite proud of his smart new waistcoat, and he doesn’t seem to mind as I hitch the leash to his perch.  He even consents to sit there while I fix it.  Then he flies off and settles on the floor at the limit of the tether.  Never mind, at least now I can let in some air.  I open the casement window and Horlicks watches me, very carefully.

So it’s Monday, and I have to go to work.  I am (had you not guessed?) a working man; I have a parrot to support.  Imagine the doubt, the fear:  do I leave him tethered?  Of course not.  I make sure he has plenty of food and water, then we have a little talk.  (I’m starting to do a lot of that)  It’s a lecture about respect for property and it isn’t the first time Horlicks has heard it, but he listens attentively nonetheless with that sideways look he gives whenever he’s concentrating…..

All day I worry!  I make mistakes, can’t think straight because of the nightmares that are going on in my head.  I finally get away at six and drive home so fast it’s a wonder I don’t get nicked.

My shaking fingers turn the key.  My sweaty palm grips the handle.  My shoulder tentatively pushes around the jamb….Horlicks screeches.

That’s a sound he hasn’t made before, but maybe he feels he has to break the tension.  Anyway, there he is on top of the bookcase, and a brief look around my room assures me that all is well with my world.  You see? (I tell myself) Horlicks is really not a bad bird.

Now, normally I would be off down the pub of a Monday – it’s quiet, and I get a game of darts with Tull, my old mate from the army.  Tull and I, we go back a long way, so far that I’m sure we must have had discussions about parrots.  Tull being Tull, he would have lots of advice.  Tull would have owned a parrot at some time or another, a parrot just like Horlicks, only better.  So I don’t go.  Horlicks and me, we have a night in with a lamb dansak.

There’s not much on TV, just some local news item about a poor old confused fella who was out shopping with his wife and just drove off and left her for some reason.  They found him parked on a pedestrian crossing in the High Street.  He said God told him to stop there.

I decide its time Horlicks learned to talk.  What’s the use of a parrot if it can’t keep up a conversation?  So we sit down together at the table and we run through a few simple phrases

“Who’s a pretty boy then?”   Who did think that one up?

“Who’s that?”  I rap my knuckles on the table for that one; like a door-knock, you know?

“What’s the time?”  I show Horlicks my watch – a mistake, because from then on he is obsessed with removing it.

“Greedy Horlicks!”  Prompted by a beak in my lamb dansak.

We persevere for more than an hour.  Well, I persevere.  Horlicks watches.  He says nothing.

In the end I accept defeat.  I have a silent parrot.  Later Lindsay comes round and endorses this.  “Macaws are not good talkers.”

Then she spots the harness.

“Oh, you’ve got a lead!   Let’s take him for a walk; come on!”

Lindsay, NO!  The consumption of my household provisions I can take, the intrusion on my very private world I accept, even the worry and the financing of Mrs. Hall’s early retirement are things I will put myself through, but walking down the street with a parrot on a lead?  That is one straw more than this camel can handle.

“You’re a bit of a stuffy old grampus, aren’t you?”  Lindsay accuses, and settles on the sofa to watch TV.  Of course Horlicks immediately joins her.  The two of them spend the rest of the evening canoodling.  Game, set and match.

Through the week, things begin to settle into a routine.  Nobody could call it normal, this new life I’ve got, but we get used to each other, the bird and I.  Lindsay comes by nearly every night: not to see me so much as to get touched up by Horlicks, who seems to have this Harpo Marx quality.  Lindsay speaks, he mimes.  True, his mimes are rather limited, but they seem to work.

An item on the news about an escaped parrot:  there’s a picture of it stuck up a tree.  “Oh look Horly, there’s a parrot just like you!”  And Horlicks does this sort of curtsey thing on her shoulder, then nibbles her ear.

Daytimes I’m at work, naturally.  In the evenings I play the spare part.  Friday I come home looking forward to the weekend and find Lindsay waiting on my doormat with a pizza for the bird!  This, I tell her, is going too far!

We have a bit of a row.  It runs along the lines of   ‘you’re not seriously jealous of a parrot?’ and it would have played itself out but for one little thing:  a little thing Lindsay finds on the kitchen table.

“What’s this?”  She demands, walking up to me with ‘it’ between her thumb and forefinger.

‘It’ is what I will describe as a ‘feminine product’ – all nice and clean and new, I hasten to add – not previously owned, if you see what I mean.  For once, I don’t know what to say.

“Yours?”  I mutter, lamely.  Wrong answer!

“I don’t use this brand, and if I did, I wouldn’t leave one on your kitchen table!  Are you seeing someone else?”

“Do me a favour!  I’ve been at work all day!  Anyway, how could I be seeing anyone else?  You’re always here!”

“Well, I’m sure I don’t need to be!”

“Suit yourself!  No…”  Lindsay’s about to storm out.  Now I don’t know why, but I sort of don’t want that.  So I stop her.  “Look, you stay here, I’ll go out.  I don’t know how it got there, but I have my suspicions.”

Lindsay cottons on (forgive pun):  “You mean…?”  I nod.  “But how?”

“Dunno.  See if you can find out.  Cross-examine him.”  Then my parting shot:  “That bird’s got to go!”

I go to the pub.

“What have you been up to?”  Tull asks.  “Thought we’d lost you.  Darts?”

Around about half past eight he drops it into the small talk, between throws.

“You’ll never believe what happened to Charlie Garrett – y’know, old gaffer with the limp; sits in the corner there Mondays?”

And then he tells me.  Tull tells me.

“Charlie takes his wife shopping.  Because of his gammy leg they do the usual thing: Charlie parks outside the supermarket while his wife goes around with the trolley.  When she’s done she opens up the back and puts the bags inside, then goes off to return the trolley.

“There’s a shuffling from the back seat, then this voice, which Charlie swears is his wife’s, tells him to drive on.  So he does.  Now he’s a bit deaf and a bit vague is Charlie, so it doesn’t occur to him that the draught he feels is coming from the tailgate, which is still up, and he’s used to being hooted at, so he doesn’t pay any attention as other drivers try to tell him.  Half way across town, (by now all his shopping’s dropped out the back);  this same voice says “Stop!” It’s really loud and panicky, like something’s seriously wrong.  Charlie stops.  He realises he’s in the middle of a crossing, so he decides to drive on.  “Stop!”  the voice says again.

“What’s the matter?”  Says Charlie, who can’t turn around easily and he’s never heard of mirrors.

“Just stop!”  Says the voice.

“Well now he does turn around, though it takes him a bit of time.  Guess what – there’s no-one there!  Now he’s in shock, because he thinks his wife fell out of the back, which is why when the copper comes over to see what’s going on Charlie says he thinks God was telling him to stop!”

Why do I have a funny idea I know what’s coming next?

“Right.  Now Charlie has one hell of a time trying to convince the coppers he isn’t a loony tune.  He does, though, and yesterday morning, him and his wife, they go out shopping again.   They’ve got to – Charlie lost all the last lot!

Here’s the best bit: it only happens again, doesn’t it?  There’s Charlie sitting in the car, his wife gives him a bit of a tongue-lashing about waiting for her this time, and there’s this same voice!  “Drive on!”  It says, bold as you like.

Well, Charlie’s not that much of a fool.  He turns around, and there on the back of the seat is that parrot – you know, the one that escaped?  It was on the news?

“Drive on!”  Says the parrot again.

“Not likely!”  Says Charlie, and he takes a swipe at it with his stick.

“Bleedin’ Moses!”  says the parrot; and it flies off.”

“This Parrot..”  I choose my words.  “Have they caught it yet?”

“Nah.  Owner hasn’t come forward neither.  Apparently it’s been hanging around that supermarket for days, nicking things out of bags and trolleys.  Charlie’s wife has got a theory though.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah.  Old chap she used to go and visit sometimes died recently.  He had a parrot.  She reckons maybe they turned it loose.”

Lindsay’s waiting for me when I get back to the flat.  Horlicks is not in evidence.

She shows me the latch on the casement window with the beak-marks on it.  “I checked around to see if he could get out.  He could.”

I find him cowering behind the kitchen waste.  I’m not proud of myself, shouting at a bird:  it isn’t one of my finer moments.  But you must understand, he knows he’s done wrong:  not only that, he’s been deceitful.

“You can talk, can’t you?  You can imitate people!  Worse yet, you steal tampons!”

It’s all of two hours before I forgive him, and I only do it then because for most of those two hours Lindsay’s been forgiving me; and it’s late at night, and after all, he has sort of brought us closer together:  tonight, you see, for the first time, Lindsay won’t be going home.

“He’s so cute!”  Lindsay enthuses, as we snuggle on the sofa together, watching him in his new position, relegated to the fireside rug.

“He’s a complete hooligan!”  I tell her, though my words are directed mostly at him.

He rolls over, lifting one claw nearly to his beak.

“I’m a proper Horlicks!”  He says.  “Bleedin’ Moses!”

© 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

The Kingfisher

The white house on the corner had been the village inn, as Ariel remembered it.  Now it was someone’s home. There were flowers on the forecourt where benches and tables once stood – that same someone had built a low wall around the flowers and lavished it with white render, butter-thick.  The old inn sign with its painting of a barge was gone; its bracket, carelessly daubed with splashes of white paint still clung to the front of the house, naked and neglected.  Reluctantly, as it seemed, the new owners had permitted one sign to remain, hanging from their pristine gable end. ‘The Marina’ it said, and waved a wind-stirred finger into Basin Lane.  Ariel followed it, her hand sweeping lazily over the steering wheel, for she knew this turning well.

 Leaving the village street behind, she felt herself plunging, almost tumbling, back into her past.  In this hired car she was driving along a country lane she had walked very many times; amid choirs of humming bees, hedges rich with white flumes of cow parsley, garlands of campion and wild rose.  A short mile with sun on her face, or sun in her heart?

A bow-wave of memories washed before her, threatening tears as hired metal savaged the overgrowth, wheels bucked over wrinkled tarmac, around narrow bend after narrow bend.  

And one final bend.

 As the curve unwound high hedges like drapes were suddenly swept apart to reveal the old weathered gate, as always, hanging open; inviting access to that rough dolomite rectangle Abel could never be persuaded to finally lay to concrete.    There was no sign:  the visitor might as well turn here – Basin Lane led nowhere beyond this.  Customers’ cars strewn, rather than parked, in woeful disorder: fewer than she remembered.  And the path which was the final part of her journey, carving a way down through tangles of columbine and nettle to the boatyard and the canal.

Ariel parked up alongside a gaunt blue Range Rover of uncertain years. She drew a deep breath, seeking inside herself for the same vitality that once had filled her lungs on her every visit here without need for invitation.  The intoxication was not as it had been.  She felt its loss acutely – what had happened here?  Not the neglect; the charisma of Abel’s touch had never reached as far from the water as this, but the sadness!  There was no other word to describe it, she thought.  What once had seemed carefree was now heavy with care – the wild hedge and sedge that once danced and rustled in a mischievous breeze now huddled for shelter from raking gusts of air that were hostile and chill.  The day was warm enough, so why did Ariel shudder before that wind; was there something deeper in her soul than mere apprehension at seeing him again?  Was the wrong she had done to him here, hanging on the air of this place like a pall – hanging over her head like a judgement?  ‘Abel, I’m sorry, I should have stayed with you.’  She rehearsed the speech in her head, the words she would never really say.  She finished aloud:

 “I should never have left.” 

Standing to stretch cramped muscles, she glimpsed the high roof of the boat house peeping above a weed forest.  Its presence reassured her, gave her courage, even eagerness, to descend the path.  

Twenty yards, no more; careful to avoid wasps milling around a discarded carton oozing something red and sweet, wondering with every step what changes, if any, she would find and hoping her foreboding was wrong and there would be none; the grey concrete with the wooden boat house that stood in defiance of change at its head, the veranda with its ancient steamer chair that had been her source of comfort on many a hot summer noon, the little row of jetties with maybe a narrow boat or two tethered between, the reflective calm of the old canal sleeping darkly beyond?   So short was the path she could not be kept waiting long.  In a few tentative paces that familiar vista was spread before her and yes, all that was old seemed substantially the same, if a little more weed-bestrewn and somewhat smaller than matched her recollection.  But it did not stand alone.

So he had built it at last!  Her heart rejoiced!

The house was new – single-storey, low and sleek.  Sliding windows open to their vista of the canal, newly painted frames and doors glistened faultlessly in the glare of sun.   It was not large, as houses go:  its green tiled roof, its modest glazing, even the rise of three steps which aligned it with the boathouse, spoke of modest practicality that was so unmistakably Abel.

And here too, when at last she could tear her eyes away from this most surprising of additions to the boatyard and cast about her, was Abel!  She started; unprepared, though heaven knew she should have been, to see him straightaway.  She had envisaged seeking him out, entering the cool dark of the boathouse, or checking the cabin of a solitary narrow boat tethered to one of the jetties.  But no, he was here, in open view.

Clad in once-white overalls he was painting antifouling onto a hauled-up river cruiser of a kind she knew he hated and she had no doubt it was he, though his back was turned, by the square set of his shoulders, by the firm plant of his feet upon the ground.  Why had she travelled so far, not really believing she might find him so easily, or find him at all?  

Approaching him, taking these last few steps, might be the most difficult of her life.   He straightened as she drew near, sensing her presence, but he did not turn around.

“It took you long enough.”   Abel said.  Those softly-spoken vowels, that imperturbable drawl.

She could not imagine he would recognise her step after so long, so had he mistaken her for someone else?  “I know.”  Ariel dug deeply to discover her voice.   “I had…things to do.”

She moved to stand beside him – to his left, as she always had, which suddenly seemed so natural to her, as if in a few steps she could make the years vanish, slip back into the envelope of her past.  “You built the house,”  She said.

“Ten years.”  He replied, inducing a flutter in her heart.  Without so much as a glance, head  known it was she?  The years, the months, the days: had he been counting them too? 

“Is it that?”  She struggled again to find words.  “Yes, I suppose it is.”  She said.

“I thought you were coming back after lunch.”

Ariel smiled a smile that expressed the breeze of contentment she felt; and she turned tear-filled eyes to feast upon Abel’s remembered face, praying she would see her happiness reflected there.  What had she hoped; that he would be exactly as she remembered – that same humour, that same tacit, complacent grin?  Her imagination danced!  He had missed her when she did not return, missed her so badly that he had taken time to consider those things which, whilst once they drew her to him, had finally sent her away.   And he had built the house!  In her heart she wished, she hoped, she prayed.  Had he built it for her, prepared with that eternal patience of his to wait forever if necessary, in case she returned to him?

Then she looked deeper and saw there was more than hope in his face – there was pain..  She saw the change in him.

He was older, of course; his wind-harrowed skin etched and stretched by winters of frost and summer heat, but it was no fierce attack upon his featuress, this weathering, for compared to some the canals were a gentle mistress.   No, it was not a history of seasons that she could trace in his lean features.  It was a ghost.   He read her concern.   “Lot of things different.”  He said.

The relaxed, easy drawl of his younger voice was the same, but there was a tension, even a bitterness behind those eyes.  She bit a lip that threatened to quiver.  “What happened, Abel?”  She nodded to the glass fibre boat he was working on.  “What are you doing with this?  You used to despise these things.”

“Steel boats are expensive now, and there’s some can’t afford the tariff.”   Abel slapped a brushful of paint at the exposed hull.  “It wasn’t a good investment, believe me.  The bloody thing cracks like an egg if it gets in a collision.  I’m forever repairing it.”

“You haven’t answered me.  What happened?”

He made no immediate reply but continued with his painting, as if he were searching for an answer that would satisfy, and yet keep his private truth concealed.   At last he said:   “Dad died, seven years ago.  I had to close his yard, it was too expensive and there was no way I could keep two running.  He had debts, you see.  We sold two of the boats to shoulder that, and then a couple of winters ago we got more rain than Noah could have coped with.   The river burst its banks up at Chalferton and overflowed into the canal system.   It did a lot of damage.  The navigation’s still closed up at Handyard’s Lock, so we’re just on a branch, for a while.” He smiled, but only with his lips.  “A few misfortunes, really.”

She said gently:  “It’s good to see you, Abe.”

“And you.”  He nodded tersely.  “You married, I heard it said.  To a rich American, was the word about.  What brings you back here?”

“Yes, I was married, for a while.”  Ever since her flight had left New York she had wondered how she would answer just this question.  She could claim she needed to visit her parents, anxious for her father in his advancing years – or maybe she needed to put distance between her and the man she was leaving.  There was some truth in that. New York had crowded her, the rush and hustle of city streets made her frightened and the pace of each day tore her inner peace – that precious peace she knew with Abel – into shreds.  Could she tell him the truth she had denied to herself; that her journey was really to find him: how much she had missed him, thought of him, worried for him every day for ten years?  And now she was standing at his side, how could she tell him all she wanted was to fall into his arms? 

“I’m not married now.” Ariel murmured, half to herself.  “Or I won’t be, in another three weeks.”   She forced herself to meet Abel’s eyes.  “We both have sad stories, don’t we?”

“Looks like it.”  He matched her stare.  “It didn’t work out, then?”

“It isn’t his fault.  His work takes him away for weeks at a time.  But me and the big city?  I’ve been on my own a lot, these last ten years.”

He grunted. “Seems like you should have stayed, then maybe things would have turned out better.”  

“You never asked me to.  That was all you had to do – ask.  I would have stayed.”  It was all she could manage to keep the tremor from her voice.  Why hadn’t he asked?  For all the years they had spent together they had been fast friends, and he must have known how much she loved him, yet he had never given her cause to hope he cared for her in return.  She drew a breath, saying;  “I’m sorry about your Dad.  I always liked him.”

“Yes, he was a miserable old bugger, but he had his ways.  It’s a pity one of them wasn’t writing cheques.”  Abel frowned, avoiding her gaze.  “It really is good to see you.”  He repeated, as if he was striving for sincerity.  He had thought her his friend, believed they would always have that closeness, and he wanted so badly to say how he had missed her, and tell her of the betrayal he felt when she left without warning, left when he needed her most.  All these things he might say, but could never say, now or then.  “Are you staying in the village?”

“No.  Mum and Dad moved to Frebsham five years back; but then you’ll know about that.”

“I did hear.   Forty miles.  That’s a long way.”

Like another universe to you’, Ariel thought.  “I’ll maybe stay in town for a couple of days.”  She said; and then, when he made no reply, but was still, and remote, lost inside himself:  “Look, you’re busy…”

“What will you do now – stay in England?   I mean, if you’re divorced…”

She smiled faintly.  “Not quite.  Not yet.  I’ll have to fly back, to finalise things, you know?  I’ll maybe look for a job up Frebsham way;  I don’t know.”

“Well, while you’re here you must stay for lunch.  I’ll get cleaned up…”

“No!”  She said it too quickly, bit back on the word.  “I mean, no, thank you.  I ought to get back to town, get booked in somewhere.  It’s the high season…”

“We were friends!”  He blurted out.   “We were friends most of our lives, you and I!”

“Yes, I know; and we’re strangers now.  My fault – all my fault.   I should have been there when you needed… I just wanted something – I don’t know; something more, I suppose.”

How had she believed a reunion could succeed where the past had failed?  Yet she was sure that love was there, and still she hoped – hoped to hear the staccato fracture of ice; to have him reach for her, take her in his arms and make the world come right!  For all her pride, she could not conceal the plea in her eyes, or dare to speak, lest her voice should give her away.  

“Lunch in twenty minutes!”  It was a call from the boathouse.  “Abey you demon, you’ve got company!   Why didn’t you say?  Shall I lay for three?”

A figure stood, fresh-faced and smiling, in the door of the boathouse, with one hand against the jamb.

“No, she isn’t staying!”  Abel called back.   And to her:   “It’s a pity, though.  Peter’s a lovely chap.  We’ve been together three years now.  I’m sure you’d like him.”

At that instant, Ariel’s eyes were drawn towards the cool waters of the canal.  For a second, no more, sunlight flickered on the blue iridescent flight of a kingfisher.

© 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