Continuum – Episode Nine. Journeying

The story so far:

Following her rift with Sala, Alanee tries to conquer her loneliness in the big City and focus upon thoughts of escape, but focussing is hard.  She is offered help by a mysterious bystander called Celeris, and having been unable to contact Dag, her trans pilot friend, spends her evening in his company.

Meanwhile, Cassix the Seer has broken news of a devastating event in Dometia province to the Council,and the fear of what it may mean hangs over all in the City.

Alanee has not slept well.  Despite her experiences of the evening, she went reluctantly to bed and lay awake well into the early hours, her mind a turmoil of emotions and memories.  She is beginning to learn more about the Consensual City, and in doing so something more about herself.

Within her home village of Balkinvel there were, for all the mysteries and trappings of government rule, no doors closed to her.  The village Domo’s home would always welcome her, and Paaitas himself was approachable, if a little confused sometimes.  She would have free run of the Terminal, there were no hidden rooms, no cloistered apartments or glittering palaces there; whereas here the City’s boundaries are so many, the nobles impossibly aloof, their  rules stringent and mysterious.  But here, threaded through the gilded tapestry of lore and establishment there are strands which, in her country home, would set rumours screaming; make disgrace certain.  She remembers Shellan, her neighbour and her friend.  She remembers how they would laugh together, find jokes from their world that no-one else could see.  How, often, they might share a thought or a smile so intimately, or hug away tears, but never did that woman she had known since she was a little girl seek her lips with Sala’s passion; never would the Makar’s licentious hand, old devil that he was, have touched her as the Music Man did!

In that tragic summer when Alanee-meh her husband died; after some frantic solitary moments of grief she would prefer to forget, Alanee consigned her sexuality to unending sleep.  She locked it in a cupboard, put it from her never to be let out.  Balkinvel was a small community and a single woman of child-bearing age a threat, so she could not allow desire, could not dwell in male company.  Her friends were women, their husbands were out of bounds.

Is it this place that arouses her?  Is it Dag’s empathy, or Sala’s invitation, or the enigma of Celeris that stirs these things from their slumber?  Or was it the hand of the music man?  Last night when Celeris left her, she watched his parting with regret.  She tells herself her feelings were just those of one who needed companionship, that she liked talking to Celeris, that she would have talked on into morning.  But is this honest?  In the lonely dark she goes again and again to that locked cupboard knowing that she holds the key, and frightened of the self she might find inside.

Her summoner is insistent – a plangent tune.  When did she fall asleep?  She does not remember.  The hour on the summoner’s little window speaks of morning.  ‘Lady Ellar’ flickers in time with the rhythm of its music.

“Lady?”  Her voice is thick with sleep.  She does not know Ellar well at all.  They have met just once, in the company of the High Council.

“Alanee-mer, may I call upon you – say at ten-thirty?”

By the appointed hour Alanee has bathed and dressed in the robe Sala gave her.  To her surprise, Lady Ellar does not simply enter her apartment as Sala has done, but waits to be admitted.  This unexpected courtesy hints at the many contradictions in the Mediant:  that all the power she exerts she will not use, even when, sometimes,  necessity points the way.  But she is tall, and Alanee believes her future is clasped in the palm of her hand.  These things alone are enough to make Alanee afraid of her.

Alanee offers drinks, they are accepted.  They sit opposite one another upon the soft couches that furnish the apartment.  Is Alanee well?  Are her arrangements as she would wish?  Is she learning about the City?  Alanee replies politely and honestly, still unaware that these questions are no more than formalities, that every move she has made since she arrived here has been meticulously watched.

“Now my dear, it is time to begin unfolding the mystery.  You are about to set out upon a journey…”

Still misted with sleep, lulled by the gentle persuasion of her drink, Alanee struggles to understand: mystery?  Journey?

Ellar sees Alanee’s confusion and smiles.  “Your task , no, even that is a bad description, the life we have planned for you is not a job, in the accepted sense.  So there is no description, neither is there a schedule of work you must follow.  Instead, you will be guided through it stage by stage, experience by experience carefully and thoroughly.  You will not lack guidance.  It is…a journey; neither more nor less.”

This does nothing to improve Alanee’s understanding.  She says so.

“That will come.  This is the start point – here, this morning.  From this moment on you will be known as the Lady Alanee.  You have the status, to begin, of courtier, though for now you will live here, rather than within the Palace.  There are good reasons for that, which we need not go into now.  You will have an allowance of two thousand credits a day…”

At this Alanee is wide awake.  She sits bolt upright.  “Two thousand a day?”  In her work as assistant manager at the Balkinvel Terminus she was paid ninety credits a cycle!

“Two thousand a day, that’s right.  Now, I know you are short of money, so I made certain your first payment was lodged this morning at credmarket opening.  In addition you will enjoy clothing expenses commensurate with your position and certain special allowances.  There are details of these in your personal file.”  Ellar still wears that benevolent smile.  “I understand this is outside your experience, Lady Alanee.  You probably feel as if you have been given free run of the cherry orchard.  But please be clear on this:  in the society you will keep certain standards of etiquette and dress are mandatory.  If you are to succeed on your journey you must know them and follow them utterly.  You cannot do this alone; you will need a guide.”

“She’s told you!”

“Sala has mentioned something, yes.  We really thought you would become firm friends, you see, and Sala’s knowledge of courtly manners is second to none.”

“As upon the subject of underwear.”  Says Alanee drily.

Ellar looks mystified, or pretends to.  “I am sorry you quarrelled.  We shall have to find you someone better suited to your tastes.”  The Mediant leans forward as though she would grasp Alanee’s knee, but holds short; her hand reaching, not touching.  “There are many aspects of life here that are strange to you, Lady Alanee.  Many, I’m sure, will seem difficult or even offensive at first.  I hope as you learn you will not judge us too harshly.”

Alanee sees she is being chided.  She bridles instantly:  “I am mistaken, then?  I never considered morality a matter for judgement.”

Instead of responding immediately, Ellar lets the retort drop into a meaningful, silent eddy.   She studies Alanee with the intensity she might devote to a zoological specimen.  Then her face breaks into another smile, this time a smile of indulgence.  “Yes, possibly you are.  After all, different societies have different moralities, do they not?  Interesting, though, how passionately you feel these things.  Village life, I suppose – so straightforward, so…so…”

“Provincial?”

“Puritanical was the word I had in mind.  This is neither here nor there, I will find you someone you like better as your guide.  Now, Lady Alanee, begins the first step of your journey.  This afternoon an encounter has been arranged, in which you must take part.  You will be called for at three.”  Ellar rises to her feet.  “Thank you for the drink.”

“Wait!”  Alanee is shocked at her own boldness.  “Encounter – encounter with what?”

“Rather with whom, Lady Alanee.”

“Well whom, then?  I mean, what am I supposed to achieve in this encounter? What is supposed to happen?”

“That, my dear, we none of us know, nor is it for us to say.  That is what I meant when I described your task here as a journey.  It’s a journey for us all.”  Lady Ellar turns towards the door.  “Now I really must go.”   At the threshold she turns, as if struck by an afterthought:  “Oh, and by the bye; I believe last night you were enquiring after the pilot who brought you here, one by the name of Swenner?  I have some sorry news I’m afraid.  Master Pilot Swenner is missing, believed dead.  His aerotran crashed over the wild regions of Dometia yesterday afternoon.  The desk should have been informed.”

Ellar would not admit to the slight satisfaction she feels as she sees Alanee’s face crumple at her news.  Walking away, back into the world she knows, she has the faint sensation that she is leaving quite another world, one that Alanee has created within that apartment:  not with any accoutrement other than those that have been bestowed upon her and not with the assistance of anyone, but just by the force of her own personality, by the Habbach-forsaken freshness of that Hakaani air.  The smell of wheat-chaff is almost palpable!  She sees now what so attracts Sala to this girl:  she could be tantalised herself, if the girl was not so opinionated, even dissident, did Cassix not perceive that?  She begins to understand the Domo’s reservations; the nightmare scenario as it may be played out.  And once it begins, who may stop it?

Not you, Lady Ellar, Mediant, not you!

#

Heaven and earth are one, partnered, dancing with each other in flickering light.  Wind comes in rushes that blast anything still standing; scouring to the very bone.  It should be day.

The pod of the aerotran remains intact: that, Dag is sure, is all that saved him.  Yet the pain at the base of his spine assures him he did not escape entirely and he may not move without experiencing massive static shocks.  The carcass of his shattered vehicle moans in the excesses of the gale, crackles at every gust.  It was this tangible electric web that he could not fly through, which brought him tumbling helpless to the earth, and now it would drown him, blocking out his communicator, robbing him of instruments to such degree he does not even know which way he faces.  Slowly it will usurp his mind.  He cannot focus, cannot conjure the most basic thought.  He should escape, not sleep – yet all he wants to do is sleep.  He should try to keep breathing, but all he wishes is not to breathe……

A tree has transformed into a maniacal tumbling thing, torn from its roots, flayed into a skeleton of twigs and all but its trunk reduced to the thickness of wire.  Bowling before the storm Dag sees it coming, cannot do anything to avoid it.  The blow as it strikes the aerotran’s Pod throws him sideways, erupts his back in an agonising spasm, wakes him and at once extinguishes what light he has.  Sleep, if sleep it is, comes quickly and with mercy.

#

“Oh, sweet Lady!”  Taccata’s face positively radiates joy:  “How utterly delightful to see you again!”

Alanee accepts the kiss on her hand.  “Is she here?”

“But of course!  It is her hour…..”

“And alone?”

Taccata gives that slight assent of the head which is his manner:  “She is, my dear.  Come, now, we know our way, don’t we?”

Nevertheless he leads Alanee through the jungle of drapes and hangings, through to the place where the whole valley of the Balna forms one of the walls, to Sala languid among the cushions.  Sala who looks up to welcome her coming with solemn eyes…..

After Ellar left her Alanee retreated to her bedroom, throwing herself upon her bed.  She grieved for Dag in noisy tears which were as much for herself as they were for the man she had never really known.  She beat upon the pillows with anguished fists, she swore to the unhearing heavens; she wailed her fate to the echoing walls.  Thus for an hour, or maybe less.  Then, wearied by these exertions, she slept.  But not for long.

She awoke with a decision.  She reached for her Summoner and touched Sala’s call-button.

“Can we talk?”

The message which came back was short.  She could almost hear Sala’s clipped tones: “See you at Tocatta’s.”

And here she is.  And she has no idea what to say.

“Sit by me, Lady Alanee?”  Sala’s eyes are reproachful.  “Try this beverage, I believe you might like it.”

“Sala…”  Alanee starts to speak, then seizes up.

“I know.”  Sala’s tone consoles her.  “I know.”

“I was…you took me by surprise.  I wasn’t expecting…..”

“And I was impatient; desperate even.  Oh, I was so clumsy, Alanee-ba.  The fault is all mine!”

Alanee has come prepared to remain aloof, to keep a distance between herself and this beautiful woman:  now she is here, though, now she sees how small Sala looks, how she quivers with repressed emotion, almost at the edge of tears  – she throws her arms impulsively around her friend and hugs her.

“I’m sorry I hurt you, Sala-ba.  I’m so sorry!”  And now they are close, a breath apart.  This time it is Sala who seems uncertain, caught between desire and fear; her distress is in every fibre of the body Alanee presses to her breast.  It takes little courage, so great a step, little or none at all.  It is natural to kiss those wanting lips, to touch with tenderness; even to experience a wanting of her own.  It is a kiss brimming with awakenings.  It lingers.

Alanee whispers:  “I am so glad we are friends again:  so glad!”

They are forehead to forehead for a while, consumed with each other until the ridiculousness of the position reduces them both to laughter.  Then Sala returns the kiss, a second brief taste.

“Enough!  Now I must restrain myself!  Tell me, ba, when is this great occasion to take place?”

“You know of it?  Can you tell me what it’s about?”

“Whoa, whoa!  I know something of it.  But I cannot tell you more than you already know.  When does it happen?”

“In…..”  Alanee fumbles for her summoner:  “In….Oh Habbach!   In an hour!”

“Then we must shop!”

At the door of Alanee’s apartment stands Seil.   Seil is a large-boned woman of uncertain age who is clearly not given to patience.  By the time Sala and Alanee return she has been waiting for half an hour, and she is vexed.

“Lady Alanee this is impossible!  You have twenty minutes!  We need to prepare you!  Did not Lady Ellar acquaint you with the importance of this meeting?”

“Oh, it’s a ‘meeting’ now, is it?”  Alanee is in no mood to be outfaced; “It was an ‘encounter’, now it’s been elevated to the status of ‘meeting’.  Very well, twenty minutes.  I need ten.”  She spots the tiny package Seil holds in her left hand.  “And I’m not going to wear that.”

Seil protests, but not too insistently.  Ellar has warned her of Alanee’s aversion to the limiter.  Yet she is unprepared for Alanee herself.  Growing in confidence, the Hakaani girl feels equal to anything the City can throw at her now.  She is beginning to understand the politics of power, something Celeris has already given to her.  She knows she holds that power over Sala.  Sala wants to be her lover; and at that moment when Seil allows her to walk away without the limiter, she recognises she has status of another sort, too.

In her bedroom, alone, she prepares herself in her own way.  She has innate knowledge of her natural assets, her smooth skin, the way her bones subtly enhance the bloom of her cheeks.  The downy wildness of her hair, insubstantial as mist; her inviting body over which the thinner and much more richly gilded robe Sala has just persuaded her to buy falls in an essay of temptation.  No make-up, no enhancements.  She wears the simple sandals of her homeland on her feet, ruffles her explosion of hair, turns once before the mirror.

Radiant, Alanee frames herself in her bedroom doorway.  “Ready!”  She says brightly.  She feels herself capable of anything.

It is a mood that will not survive this journey.  The elevator she enters with Seil and Sala is small, a dark chamber with no seating, no cheerful colour or feature to augment its walls.  It goes down and down, descending through level after level – and though she misses the look of fleeting concern on Sala’s face Alanee’s heart descends with it.  When at last it stops, a cold draught seeps through its opening doors, and the grey stone-walled chamber beyond does nothing to lift her spirits.

It is into the dungeons of the Palace they go:  through labyrinthine passages, narrow defiles, dark alleys of stone.  Though Alanee tries to remember, their path quickly confuses her.  She glances towards Sala, but her friend appears to be as mystified as she.  Seil clearly has instructions that have been imparted to no-one else.

The dim light casts their fleeting shadows on walls of stone, old, old stone worn by the passing of countless shadows.  No floor-foam here, but flags that echo to their tread.  Little heating either:  Alanee’s arms are raised with goose-bumps.  Though she calculates she must be beneath the palace at least by now there are no voices, no sounds at all inside her head.  Perhaps the cold has seeped in there, too. The further they walk, the more her skin is crawling with fear rather than cold as she begins to wonder:  Are her original convictions to be confirmed and do these people indeed intend to put her in a prison?  A thought given weight by the heavy timber doors they pass, each one the bearer of a grim, rusty lock.

“Where are we going?”  She enquires, in a hushed tone.  “I should have worn a fur.”

“No further, Lady!”  Seil’s voice is strident.

They have turned a corner in a stone corridor.  Before them is a short flight of steps, at the head of which a black, forbidding door stands ajar.

Sala protests:  “No!”  She tries to intervene for Seil is suddenly behind Alanee, heavy hands on her shoulders, thrusting her forward.  But the element of surprise is too great, and Sala is no match for her stalwart colleague.  As she stumbles against the steps the door swings wide, and Alanee smells as much as sees the grim form of a huge man in leather clothes standing there.  His great hand reaches down, taking her robe by the shoulder to hoist her bodily through – she hears the rich fabric tear as its securing clasp rips through it and she cannot suppress the scream of horror that escapes her lips.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Four                        Thunderhead  

The story so far:

‘Wiccan Priestess’ Margaret Farrier tells Joe his brother Michael was rejected by the Hallbury witches, who Margaret insists are harmless herbalists.  She denies knowledge of recent desecration in the village.   He shows her the package from Violet’s home which she identifies as a love charm. Ned Barker, deceased landlord of ‘The King’s Head’, is its subject.

Joe finally finds his brother Michael in the grip of a psychotic episode.  He placates him, and his elder brother arranges to have him taken into care.   Regardless of the hour, a traumatised Joe seeks support from Tom Peterkin, his best friend.  He knocks at his friend’s door, and it opens…

 

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

This was not expected!  Joe tried to form words, “Emma, is Tom….?”

“Oh Joe!”  She took his arms, drew him inside; “Are you hurt?  What have you done?”

In the light of her living room, bleary eyes wide with astonishment Emma took in his dishevelled state.  “Damn it Joe….”  She guided him to an armchair.

“Is Tom awake?”  Joe repeated without thinking, because he was incapable of rational thought, right then.  Why had he not expected Emma to greet him at the door?

“I’ll get you something to drink.”  From the bar Tom had made for a corner of the room, Emma half-filled a whisky glass and brought it to Joe, shuffling in pale green slippers, her dressing gown tied carelessly about her, dropping to her knees to look at him more closely.  “This is blood!  You’m been in the wars properly, haven’t you?”

In the wars?  For hours that seemed like forever his head had been filled with Sophie’s rejection, the shock of his inheritance, Michael’s expressionless face, his emptiness, his despair.  And here was Emma, with her emerald eyes which, full of sleep though they were, could still hold him in thrall, her hair in a tangles, and the smokiness of night in her voice filling him with a warmth of reminiscence for long-ago mornings. To go back there – yes, those were his first rational thoughts for a while…

“Tom?”  He struggled to complete his mantra.  Only a summons to Tom would make this early morning intrusion excusable:  Tom’s presence would quell the surges of emotion which were bursting in his chest, make everything respectable – everything right.

“He’m not here, Joe.  I’m sorry.”

“Not here?”  He repeated her words, mechanically.  At this time of night?  “I must see him, Emm.  Where is he?”

“Tom’s gone, Joe.  He don’t live here no more.  Let’s not talk about it now, hmm? Seems like you’m got bigger things on your mind, boy.”

But no, this was exactly what he wanted to talk about.  “Gone?  Why, what’s happened, Emm?”  For all the scheming of his subconscious mind, that demonic genie that dogged every virtuous decision he attempted to make, it had never occurred to him that his return to Emma’s life might lead to a separation from Tom – or so he would exculpate himself.  But his genie would secretly smile.

She shook her head, seeking strength.  Her features puckered for a second as though she was about to cry.  “I was stupid.  I did something stupid.  Not that it mattered.  The village does the damage anyway, once the talking starts.  Don’t matter what you try and do – how hard you try.  I hurt him, Joe…I hurt him real bad…..”

Emma got to her feet quickly, turning so he should not see the chance escape of a tear.  “You stay comfor’ble there.  I’ll heat some water for ‘e so’s you can get a bath – some of Tom’s clothes…”  She hurried away, through the door into her kitchen.  He forced himself to his feet, following her in the grip of something too strong to be refused, finding her standing in the centre of the flagstone floor with her back to him.  Her shoulders were shaking.

“Emma, I’m so sorry!”

“Sorry?  Why?  Is it your fault?  I’m long past blaming you, Joe – for comin’ back, whatever.  It’s me!  It’s all me!”

His hand reached out.  She brushed it aside.  “Don’t!”

He reached out again.

“Stop!”  Emma told him.  “You don’t know what you’re doing.  You’re tired, you’re upset…”

His fingers touched her wet cheek, all of him shaking at the sense and feel of her.  “I should never have left you.”  He said.

“Joe, we’m married to other people – both of us.”  She turned, looked up into his face no longer careful of her tears.  “Think o’ the things we’d destroy.  Think o’ your poor wife, Joe.  I don’t know her, but….”

He pressed his finger to her lips.  “Come back and sit down.”  He said.

“But the water’s hot, look.  You needs to rest, whatever it is can save until tomorrow…”

He was insistent, guiding Emma to her living room couch where he sat down beside her, took her trembling hands and told her everything.  The words he used, though garbled by fatigue and tainted by the thunderhead of regret above his head, came from deep within him – some not his own, because in his confession it was many times easier to use the criticisms and descriptions of others; of Marian, of Ian, of those acquaintances who had passed by and paused for a while on the winding London road.  It was Marian, after all, who had told him he was weak, Ian who had described him as a leech, Owen who gave him the title of Gigolo.  Joe wanted Emma to see him in the light he turned upon himself.

“I know what I am.  I know who you let into your house tonight.”

When he came to speak of Marian’s death, however, he had no other words than those his own heart could speak.  He described her fondly, honoured her memory.

At the news Joe was not married, Emma caught her breath, raised tired eyes to the ceiling.  When he had finished, she withdrew her hands from his, so that for a moment he thought he had lost her, that she would turn away now she knew the truth. She got to her feet, looked down on him, then tenderly cradled his face in her hands.

“Not married then?”  She said.

“No.”

“Joe, Joe!  All they other things – I’ve known them since we met.  God knows you’m not perfect, and maybe some’d find you weak, or selfish?  But back in them days…”  She paused, reflecting; “Well, there was a seed I saw growing and p’haps you didn’t see it, or if you did you turned your back.  Together we were strong, Joe.  We would have been so strong!”

Here he would have spoken, but she stilled him.  “No, let me say what must be said.  I knew you didn’t really love me.  I would have settled for that.”  Again he made to protest, again she held him in check.  “No, you didn’t.  You didn’t then and you probably don’t now:  but I can see something tonight I didn’t see back then:  I can see why.  You don’t know how to love, Joey.  Maybe because you lost your mum and dad so young, lost your home and everything – maybe because of your upbringing with those two bloody awful brothers of yourn, or because of what happened to Rod Smith, I can’t tell.  But this is what’s left.  You can’t trust – not nobody. You can’t give yourself.  It isn’t in you.”

Joe wanted to dissemble, although in his heart he knew that everything Emma said to him was true.  So when she tugged his hand to make him stand up he meekly obeyed.  “Come on.  Whatever happened tonight, you’m exhausted, boy.  Get yourself a bath while I makes up the bed in the spare room.  When you’ve slept us’ll talk some more, if you want.”

And so it was.  He drew himself a bath among the dangling tights and bath-oil forests that were part of Emma’s separate life, and took on one of Tom’s old coats while she did her best with his mangled clothing.  Then he fed himself between sheets of cool linen and fell into a sleep deeper and more dreamless than he had known in years.  No condition, then, to hear the bedroom door quietly open, or the muted pad of Emma’s feet.

She stood for a long time, irresolute, torn between need and pride, content, as she believed, to watch the slumbering figure in the bed.   But the early hours of morning were cold, and there was a heat within her that would brook no denial at the last.  All the years of fruitless waiting seemed to point towards this moment, on this one night, and if there was a goddess of the Earth she stood commanded now.  So it was that like an act of worship to the first light of dawn Emma slipped the nightdress from her body and slid soundlessly into bed, draping herself behind Joe’s unwary form; making a promise to herself she knew she would not keep; that she would leave again before he woke.

Joseph’s eyes opened to daylight.  He could not tell whether or not the day was far advanced or how long he had slept,  Beyond the opened window no sound, other than the melodies of the birds.  Within, and close to him, the regular rhythm of Emma’s breathing, as fragrant and as gentle as the touch of a breeze; around him, the arms he had lived without for many, many years.

Hours had passed.  They had made love, conspired together with words that were for them alone, and drifted back into sleep.  Now, as Joseph woke it was to the touch of lips upon his cheek.    Smiling serenely Emma slipped a lazy arm across his shoulders

“Oh my lord!”  she murmured, “I’m in such trouble with you!”

“You are.”  He grinned, indicating the open window.  “You’re reputation’s gone, for sure.”

She was rueful.  “I was noisy, wasn’t I?”

“You were a bit.  I think the whole neighbourhood heard us.  In fact, I think I detected a round of applause.”

She slid a leg over the side of the bed.  “You can be sure they was listenin’ in.  Not that it matters.  They’d have guessed anyway, what with the car parked outside all night.  They curtains‘ll have been twitchin’ long afore now.”

“When you said – what you said last night; about my not loving you?”  Joe clutched her arm, seeking to detain her, “Maybe that was true, in a way.  Maybe you’re right, I can’t really love anyone.  But I want to be with you more than any of the things I am supposed to want from life – when you walk away from me it’s as though a part of me leaves with you; if there’s a way for me to love, that’s it.  I love you, Emm.”

Even while he was speaking, her bright green eyes were filled once more with tears.  She stretched out her fingers to stroke his cheek.

“There’s a pretty speech.”  She said.  “Thank you, Joe darling.  Dress now, and I’ll get us something to drink, yeah?”

He did not want the dismissal in her voice.  He did not want to leave her.

“No.”  Emma said more firmly.  “Go on now Joey.  It’s for the best.”

Joe nodded mutely, acceptance.  A moment that was past, a threshold he should never have crossed.  Outside; the seedling corn, clover, cornflower and meadowsweet, children to the burgeoning sun – inside, Emma with the Earth Mother’s blessing within her, primal and so, so powerful; To turn away was hard.

“It’s peaceful, isn’t it?”  Said Emma’s voice beside him.  “You belong here, Joe; you – not your brothers, just you.  You always did.”

They had dressed.  He, standing by the window again, looking out on the sun-drenched fields and the rain-clouds gathering over the hill; she, stripping the bed of its tell-tale linen, in practical mode.  His thoughts were whirling, confused – why had he believed, somewhere in his shrivelled and damaged soul that they could do what they had done and walk away?  It was, after all, so easy when he had done exactly that before.  Not this time.  He had cuckolded a friend, taken the thing that friend held most dear; coveted Emma, slept with her in his house. What was he?  What kind of amoral monster could do such a thing?

Emma came to him.

“Don’t ‘ee punish yourself Joe dear.” She told him gently, as though she could read his thoughts,:  “We’m both weak, selfish creatures.  You at least held back until I told you Tom had left.  I came to you, remember?  I’ve no excuses at all, except one.  I could have no more resisted the nearness of you last night than I could live without water. You’m my fate, Joe – you always were.”  She lapsed into silence, gazing out with him into the bright yellow of the corn, the indigo threat of the coming storms.

As they ate breakfast that was nearly lunch together, Emma expressed the opinion Tom might return to collect some of his possessions that evening, after he had finished his work.  Thus the full story of Tom’s separation from her was revealed.  She told Joe why she had been unable to remove her coat the last time they met, during her visit to the Masefield house, and how Tom had discovered her lying in that state of undress when she returned home afterwards.

“He knew, you see – where I’d been?  He knew as soon as you comed back, Joe.  I couldn’t hide it from him; he was too clever – he understands me too well.”

That evening they had rowed.  Tom had snatched a few belongings and left.  He was staying with a friend in Braunston, this much she knew.  Other than one telephone call, though, Emma had not heard from him since.  It was in that call, after Tom had stated his wish that they should separate, that he had suggested this night as an opportunity for their final meeting.

“I still loves him, Joe.  There’ll always be a space in my heart for Tom.”

Joe wanted to stay, to help her face it out with her husband; Emma wouldn’t hear of it.  “No, my love, this is my fight.  I’ll deal with it my way.”

He nodded his understanding.  “He was my friend too, but alright, if that’s what you want.  Now what about us, Emma?”

Emma pressed her finger to his lips.  “Don’t think about that – no plans, no promises Joe.”

At the door, as they paused to let a pair of village feet click past outside, she whispered:  “Besides, I’m a scarlet woman now, aren’t I?  Who else could I turn to?”

She kissed him goodbye with fervent passion, knowing this was the last time she would kiss him that way, hustled him gently onto the street, then watched his retreating back as he returned to the waiting Wolsey.   And in the sure and certain knowledge that most, if not all of her wishes had been achieved on this night of nights, she tried to imagine the little shoulders that would grow to be so broad, the tiny eager lips that would hunger for her breast, and the end to all the yearning years.

Feeling explicably guilty, Joe did not return to the Masefield house, for he could not face his elderly relations with a sober countenance and deny the electric change that had just taken place in his life.  Instead, as the first distant sounds of thunder muttered their warning, he drove himself by an old road that wound and climbed into the Maddock Hills until it emerged from between high hedges onto a bare hilltop, elevated sufficiently to overlook the coming storm.  Here, he allowed the sheer celebration in his heart to join with the theatre of the elements.  It would not be moved aside by thoughts of propriety; so when he tried to turn his brain to the Parkin murders, or to Michael’s distress, even Marian’s sweetly melancholy letter, it merely threw up another image of Emma, and his body would fill with the same heat, the same need.  Wondering about her, fearing for her lest Tom should fly into a rage, or she should give way to despair, or change her mind, or…. All the while the lightning ripped, the thunder volleyed, the rain fell with the intensity of a glass curtain, sweeping across the valley in fold upon fold.

Hours later, on his way back to the village, Joe called Ian from the telephone box on ‘The Point’.

“Michael’s fine.  He needed a little sedative, and a lot of rest, but he’s safe now.”

“That blood, Ian…he was covered in it!”

“I know.”  Ian said.  “Look, Joe, there’s no proof.  If we were wrong and he hadn’t done anybody any harm, think what we would be putting him through!”

“Is he speaking now?  Has anyone asked him where he’s been?  Ian, if he’s done something to somebody, then he’s dangerous.  There are people who need to know.”

“Do you think I don’t understand that?  No, he hasn’t said anything.  The doctors think he may be some time regaining his speech – a psychotic episode, is how they describe it. Samples of the blood’ll be sent away and tested.  We’ll know ourselves for sure in a couple of weeks.”

“And meanwhile there’s an election?”

Ian sighed.  “All right, yes:  there’s an election.  I’ve worked all my life for this, Joe.  Is it so wrong to want to keep the waters calm for a few days?  Give me a chance to succeed?”

“I will.  I’m sure the answer to all this is in that house – why would he come back here if it weren’t for that?”

“Which house?”

“The Parkin house.  I need to get in there, get some time to look around properly.”

“Joe!  Joe, let it lie, please.  Just let go for once, will you?”

#

Joseph discovered his Aunt Julia in her kitchen, mop in hand.  One glance told him that now was not a good time for glad tidings.

“That infernal storm.  The rain found its way into the scullery.  Everything’s ruined!”

“Where’s Owen?”

“He’s on the roof, trying to fix it.  Help him dear, will you?  I worry about him up there – it’s almost dark!”

“No need!”  Owen’s muffled voice consoled her from the heavens:  “I’ve done it, I think!  I’m coming down!”

Leaning through the scullery door, Joe could see the devastation that torrents of rain could wreak upon packets of flour, boxes of sugar, salt, soap powder, and other household commodities – his aunt and uncle’s supplies for a week, mostly reduced to salvage.

The ceiling had caved in, plaster littered the shelves.

And revelation was a slap in the face, a thousand curtains opening, a fanfare in trumpets of gold.

Of course! 

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.