The Rose

It is one of those hot summer days Daniel will dream about when autumn comes.  Daniel is ensconced in his favourite garden recliner beside his little table:  beer, book and biscuits; all, he tells himself, he needs from life.   Beside him, the gnarled bush rose his wife so loves and tends that it never seems to ail or fail is a mass of flowers, drawing its audience of apis mellifera with the accomplished confidence of a garden celebrity.  Beyond his outstretched feet and across a flagstone path a cotoneaster is enjoying attention from a much larger crowd of smaller but more dextrous bee creatures.  The cotoneaster is another ancient hero.  When the plant was young Daniel set a trellis for it to climb.  He has kept it trimmed to shape through the years so the trellis host, rotting now, is kept erect by its mature guest. Timber entwined with timber, each supporting the other, neither able to fall.  Daniel feels comfortable here, in this place, attuned to the humming of bees and the dappled shade of the sycamore tree that watches over him, protection against the day’s naked heat.

This garden unites them, Daniel and Rachel, man and wife.  Among flower beds by the patio Rachel is tending her hostas, plucking snails from their leaves after morning rain.  Sipping his beer Daniel watches his wife’s wiry, dedicated figure as she works, and he laments, quite idly, the cruelty of their years.  If only Ella could be here to share it with them…

He bears these wistful moments with greater equanimity now.  They no longer hurt him as once they did.  But sometimes, now and then, when his mind is free of more urgent thoughts, his memory will pluck a picture of an excited little girl in her white dress, laughing as she runs to him, warm and vibrant in his arms.  And he will weep – yes, there are still tears – to think of her, before he can shut her from his mind.

“It was a long time ago.”

He must have closed his eyes, for Rachel is standing, looking down upon him with the critical coldness of a stranger, her bucket of unhomed snails clutched in her hand.  It is an expression he recognises.

“I still hope, you know.”  He tells her, and his eyes say ‘I’m not heartless.  I remember’.

Rachel frowns.  They have not spoken of Ella for a while.  “You shouldn’t;” she says brusquely.  “Not now.  Not after all this time.”

“She was my little girl.”  He says.  “I miss her too.”

“There’s no sense in thinking about it.”

“She could be out there, somewhere.  She could be married, or something. We don’t know!”  He insists.

“I think we do.  Drink your beer before something dies in it.”  Rachel snaps.  “Stop resurrecting the past.”  She turns away.  “I have to lose these damned snails.”  And she walks briskly down the path, heading for the garden gate.  

Daniel watches her, awake now.  His mind is bursting with the accusation ‘you shouldn’t have left her’, yet he bites upon the words.  It is a poniard too often thrown, one which has found voice frequently in the past – in the twenty-four lonely years.   His little girl.  His little Ella.  She was left to play by herself in the front garden, his little girl.  Rachel was in the house, doing…what, he doesn’t remember: it doesn’t matter, now.  She was not there, and he was not there, and Ella was gone.   

The effort of suppression is too much.  The bubble of his anger finds a way to rise: He calls after his wife’s retreating form: “Why did you leave her on her own?” and he sees her freeze in mid-stride, which pleases him in some perverse way.  She has to grieve as he grieves.  She has to be suffering, too.

“How many times?”  She rounds upon him, clipping her words icily.  “How many times have we gone through this?  Whenever you get one of these moods…”

Daniel’s resentment is darkening now.  “I couldn’t be there.  I was away, working.  I wasn’t there.”

“You weren’t there.  Twenty four years ago, you weren’t there, and I was…”

“And you left her alone.”  He feels the tears well up inside him.  “My little girl!”

Our little girl.”  Rachel reminds him, expressionless.  She is returning to him, to his bloated form slumped in that disgusting chair, wondering with every step by what device she has ever loved him.  “Our little girl, Daniel.”  Wondering how they are still together, still man and wife; as if the ugly, knotted rope of their guilt, far from releasing them, binds them to each other in this garden.

She stands above him, glaring down. “The gate was shut.  She couldn’t get out of the garden.  It wasn’t the first time she had been allowed to play out there.  I was no more than a few steps away, in the kitchen…”

“You left her alone!”

“Yes, I know.  And she was ‘your little girl’; I know that.  You never cease to remind me.  But I also know ‘your little girl’ was autistic, and much as I loved her there were occasions when I had to get away, even if it was only for a few precious minutes.  You know that too, don’t you, Daniel?”  Her clenched fist bangs down upon Daniel’s little table.  His beer glass hops and girates dangerously on the wooden surface.  

He cringes as though the assault is personal.  “She could be difficult.”

“Difficult?  Difficult!  You were always away.  You never saw how she was with me – what she did to me, nearly all the time.”

Rachel spins on her heel, stalking angrily away towards the gate, swinging the bucket so hard its unwilling passengers rattle within it.  Daniel, daunted by her sudden temper, watches her go.  She is right, of course, he reflects.  It is a scenario they have replayed so often down the years.  The gate he made for their front fence, how he set the latch high so Ella could not reach it: the quietness of their road, the attentiveness of Mrs. Partigan, their neighbour, who missed nothing that passed her window.  Yet she had seen nothing that day; had been ill, she said, so she hadn’t even noticed Ella playing in the garden, although she thought she recalled the child’s voice, raised as it so often was.  Otherwise a peaceful day, like so many peaceful days when he was far from home, a peaceful day when Ella was taken away from them forever.

And Rachel never wept!  Even when the police said they had no clue, and warned them to prepare for the worst, she remained dry of tears.  Instead, she closed down – drew the shutters over her emotions and entombed her soul.  He saw it happen, watched helpless as grief took out her heart and put it somewhere far beyond his or anyone’s reach, so only ice remained.  Oh, yes, he remembers!

Another confrontation, another failure to pierce that armour, yet still he will seek a way to hurt her.   Her retreating back infuriates; he wants to stab at it, prise open those doors always barred against him.  He has never found the weapon, but he does not cease to try.  His eyes cast about him, seeking ammunition, something new and untested.  His anger settles upon the rose.

“I’m sorry.”  He calls after her with affability that does not disguise the cunning in his voice.  “To change the subject, then.  I think it’s time to replace our elderly friend, don’t you?  I’ll dig it out this afternoon.”

This time Rachel’s progress is not halted, but there is hesitation in her step.  “What ‘elderly friend?”  She asks drily.

“Oh, the rose.”    The rose – her rose.  The rose she planted as remembrance, she said, in the weeks that followed Ella’s departure.   Crooked and deformed as his marriage, he is suddenly offended by it and would remove it from his sight, but most of all he would destroy it because it would hurt Rachel.   The voluptuous blossoms are vulgar and blousy, the rattle of bees is loud and disturbing; but more than that, Rachel loves it.

“Not the rose!” 

Is it the guttural change in her voice that alarms Daniel?  She has stopped, turned to face him once again.   This time the bucket slips from her hand, scattering its cargo on the path as she staggers beneath the weight of his threat.   Her pallor is the colour of calico, her hands shake.   “Do not ever touch the rose.”

“It’s coming up!”  He says.  “I’m going to dig it up this afternoon!”

“Why?  It’s flowered better than ever this year.  Don’t, Daniel.”

He taunts her.  “I’m tired of it.  It’s time to move on.  It reminds us every time we look at it – it’s like a tombstone…”

And he knows.  

Rachel does not have to stagger towards him, her breathing short, her limbs barely carrying her.  She does not have to grab his shoulders, almost falling onto him, implore him in frothing gasps.  “We agreed! It’s her memorial. You mustn’t!   You mustn’t!”   The tiny seed of suspicion that has lain dormant in the tilth of his memories is stirring.  First shoots of an awful truth are germinating in his mind.

Like a tombstone.

Daniel should be consumed by fury, yet somehow he cannot feel anger, only pain.  He rises, ready to catch Rachel as she collapses, and guides her into his chair.  For once in twenty-five years he sees tears coursing down her face, and for the first time in all of their years together he sees her helpless, unable to cope.  He hugs her close to him, saying, perhaps without thought:  “Never mind, dear.   Never mind.”

“I couldn’t tell you…”

“No.”

“I didn’t mean…it was no more than a push…she fell.  It was the table, Daniel.  She hit her head on the kitchen table…You wouldn’t have believed me.  No-one would have believed me.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”  Daniel says.  “I won’t disturb her.”

“She’s so peaceful, Daniel.”

“I know.  I feel that.  I know.”

They both fall silent.  He draws up another chair, and they sit together long into the evening, bound to one another by their garden and embraced by the outstretched branches of the rose.

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

Picture Credit: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Pathology

Another from the vaults! A story written some years ago, revamped for this blog, and all the better for having lost a little weight. I hope you enjoy it!

Hugo Albricht paused over his work for a moment, arching then straightening his back; so forcing the young man who had been standing close behind him to step backwards quickly, to avoid a collision of heads.

“You realize you are breathing on my neck?”  Hugo tried to sound as mild and agreeable as he could.   “Do I take it you are interested in pathology, Detective …er..?”

“Sergeant, Doctor.   Detective Sergeant Sims.”  The young policeman wanted to apologize for inconveniencing the pathologist.  “Sorry.”  He said, lamely. 

“Ah, so young to be a Detective Sergeant.  You must be very diligent, I think, to volunteer for this task so late in the day. Most of your colleagues would have chosen to leave by this time.”   He pointed to space at the other side of the table.  “You can watch from there, you know.  Your view will be much better.  ”

“Thank you.  Yes, I’m interested, Doc.”   Paul Sims moved around the table, brushing against the bare white feet of the corpse, and positioned himself opposite Albricht.  “Poor old bugger.  He hasn’t an ounce of flesh on him, has he?”

“Age is very cruel, young man.   Yet it comes to us all.  How was he found, this poor old – bugger – as you call him?  Do you have a proper name for him?”

“Not yet.  He was in bed, or on it.  A small bedsit up the road in Bayswater, but there was no information about him there, no letters, no plastic, not even an oyster card.  No relatives as far as we can find out, no-one else in the block knows him.  He could have laid there for months, had that young woman not made the discovery.  She was doing a pamphlet round and she said she just felt something was wrong.  Women, eh?”

“A very clever woman.  Very intuitive.”  

“Yes.  Unusual name, too.  Eladora – suppose it’s Mexican, or something.”  Sims did not mention how the black hair and emerald eyes of Eladora had intoxicated him, or how flirtatious she seemed, once the shock of discovering the old man’s body had passed. 

“The door was open – on the latch.  I just pushed, and there he was.”

 Sims had given Eladora his phone number.  He was certain they would be arranging a date before the week was out.  

“You’ve opened the chest, Doctor.  I thought this one was routine?”

Hugo smiled indulgently.  “In pathology we avoid terms like ‘routine’, Detective Sergeant.  We leave such words to middle-ranking policemen with a high case-load.  This is an autopsy, certain rules must be observed.  However, everything here would indicate natural causes.  

Paul Sims sighed:  “Just that old age thing, then.  How old must he be?  Ninety?”

“Ah, who can say?”   Hugo surveyed the parchment-thin, wrinkled flesh of the specimen lying before him.  “I believe more.  Yes, I believe a little more than ninety.

“Well, you may be the night-owl if you wish, but I have to leave this for tonight.”  The Pathologist said.  “Let me see, what is it you need to know – is it a suspicious death?  I will run further tests, of course, but in my preliminary opinion what we see here is just the work age or dementia, sometimes does.  Starvation killed this man.  With no-one to look after him, he did not eat.  See?  See how the stomach is shrunken, the heart muscle so weak and thin?  His body has been eating itself because he has taken no nutrition in weeks, even months maybe.  But this is still a natural process, so heart failure is my most likely conclusion.  We shall put our mystery friend back into his new one-bed apartment and I’ll finish off in the morning.  The report will come through the usual channels, yes?  It is not urgent, I take it?”

“Fine Doc.  No rush.”

“By the way, young man:  not ‘Doc’.  I am a consultant pathologist, not a Doctor.  I do not mind the error, but there are those who might.”  Albricht smiled.  “And may I say well done, Detective Sergeant Sims.  You remained resolute when many an intern would have been flat on the floor by now.  It was a privilege to meet you!”

The consultant pathologist shepherded Sims to the door and watched the young policeman’s retreating form as it departed along the corridor outside, smiling to himself as he thought of the enthusiasm of youth.  Then he returned to his office to remove his scrubs and prepare for the evening.  His phone was waiting on his desk, vibrating in spasmodic fury.

 “Yes, dear?”

As his wife vented her impatience over a dispassionate ether, Albricht waited stoically.  “Yes, my dear.  I worked late, you see?  No, no.  Just an everyday thing, but tomorrow I would like to be free in time for the conference, so…

“Yes I am finished now.”  

“The Ferguson’s, eight-thirty, yes, I remember”

“Just a minute, my dear, there’s a knocking on my door.  I’ll call you back.   No, no, I will.  I promise.  I must deal with this now.   I’ll come straight home.”

The young man who stood in the mortuary doorway was tall with regular features and of Mediterranean extraction, as Albricht guessed. “Mr Albricht?”   His voice had a soft, melodious lilt.  “I’m so glad I caught you!”

Albricht frowned.  “Yes, you caught me, indeed.  I was just leaving, in fact.  How can I help you?”  Hugo Albricht felt he should know the face in front of him, yet he could not quite recall..”.  

“I wouldn’t trouble you, but I’m on something of an urgent errand:  I’m from the Coroner’s office – in Helmesford?  I have some ID.”

The man held his green Identification card up for Hugo to inspect.

“Mr Pulman.  You’ll forgive me, Mr Pulman.  My errand is also somewhat urgent.  Could this not wait until morning?”

“I would rather get it over with, if you don’t mind.  A simple matter of identification.  An elderly male brought here this afternoon?  We believe the man in question is the subject of one of our open files.”

“You want to see the body?  I was just working on it, this last half-hour.  It isn’t really prepared for an identification…”

“That’s all right, Mr Albricht.  I’m used to this sort of thing.  As long as the face…”

“Yes.  Yes,, of course.   The face.  Come, I’ll show you the gentleman.”  Albricht led the way back into the mortuary.  “A quite straightforward case.  Natural causes is my preliminary finding.”

Pulman nodded.  His eyes were keen and bright with knowledge, a quality that aroused Albricht’s admiration.  This was a very clever man, he decided.  “This death may not be as straightforward as it appeared to you, Mr. Albricht.”  Pulman said.

“Well, well.  We gave him this room for the night, at least.”  Albricht opened the cabinet door he had closed for the night, not twenty minutes earlier, and rolled out the shrouded form of his mystery cadaver.   “You are sure you are ready for this?”

“Yes, Mr. Albricht.”

“He is very old of course.”

“Yes.  About two thousand years.”

Albricht thought; ‘this is the second man to stand too close and breathe on my neck tonight.  Why?’  He pulled back the shroud.  There was nothing beneath.  Although the shape of the cadaver was faithfully traced by the shroud, the space that should have been occupied by the body was empty.

“Two thousand years?”  He said, slowly, as his understanding grew.  “I have heard of you people, but never believed.  Why here?”

“A game we play from time to time, my familiar and I.  Once every century or so I have to rejuvenate, and I need younger blood.  A mortuary – where is better?  And when we have feasted on the dead, there is always one in attendance who is not dead – something warm to round off the evening.”

#

They sat side by side on a bench in the park, Harald Sims and Eladora, and anyone could tell by the way they gazed into each others’ eyes they had found love.  Around them, the town descended into night and amidst this green interruption to its star-spangled life they spoke of the feelings in their hearts.

“A policeman.”  Eladora sighed.  “Who’d have thought?”

“You don’t mind?”  He asked earnestly, squeezing her hand.

“Of course not!”  Eladora’s  emerald eyes flashed adoringly.  “I feel so – protected!”

They laughed together at this.  “I know it’s right, the two of us!  I just know it!”  He insisted.  “The moment I saw you!”

“And so strange we should meet where we did!”

“A chance in a million, my darling.”   Harald enthused.  “A spark of attraction fanned to flame in a seedy flat in Bayswater – such good fortune!  And in circumstances, I would normally consider sad…”

“That poor old man!”  

“Ah yes,  that poor old man.”   

A sombre moment, perhaps, yet Eladora could not help the smile that came to her lips – those full, tempting lips.  “Speaking of flame….”  She left her sentence unfinished:  “Do I have to say it?”

“No, no.  I will.   Your place or mine?”

“Yours.”  She said.  “That’s my choice.  I want to see yours.”  Her hand passed gently across his shoulders and slipped beneath the open neck of his shirt, stroking his shoulder, feeling the warmth of his neck.  “Perfect!”  She said.

He was about to rise.  “What a strange thing to say!  How is my neck perfect?”

“Such vibrant arteries.”

It had been an evening beyond any possible dream of success.  Dinner at the finest restaurant Harald could afford was after sunset, in deference to Eladora’s habit: “I’m a night person.   You wouldn’t see the best of me in daylight…”

The cuisine was unparalleled.  

“You don’t eat very much.”  He accused her kindly.

“I have a spider’s appetite.”  She wrapped her smile around him; “But I enjoy my wine.  Besides, you have hardly touched your food either.”

“It’s you.  I’m so besotted with you I can’t seem to eat.”

“Well, there you are then…”

The way was open for a sharing of fantasies.  Each confessed to having thought about, brooded over, dreamt of the other in the impatient days between this and their first meeting, against the grim backcloth of that Bayswater flat.

“I couldn’t wait to be with you again.  Really, I don’t know how I kept from going insane.  Is it wicked to talk like this?”

Eladora smiled, and said ‘no’.  She was equally distracted, it seemed.

So, at the dreamlike conclusion of a very special evening the pair rose from their trysting place in the park and strolled, arm in arm, along the pathway that led to Harald Sims’ Spartan little home, and it may be that they shared a kiss now and then and some murmured if meaningless conversation.  He made her laugh childishly.  She enticed him, teased him, caressed his neck.  

At the gates to his home, though, she froze, profoundly shocked.  “No!  But I live here, too!”

“Really?  Which one?”

“The third on the right!”

“And I’m in the one with the marble frontage, over there!”  He said.  “I’m trying to get that angel statue moved.”

“So the policeman thing is just the day job.” She shuddered.  “I hate marble, don’t you?  Granite is so much warmer.”  Then, slowly:  “We have more in common than I thought.   Of course, you must be of the European family.”

“And you are from South America. I wonder how we have been such close neighbours and never met.  Very strange.”

“Well…”  Eladora murmured philosophically;  “Now we know we really are together for eternity, I can confide in you, my dearest.  I am very hungry.”  She nodded towards a young couple who were walking towards them along the path where the park bordered the city cemetery.  “Would you care for supper?”

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

Nostalgic? No!…I used to be…

The De La Warr Pavilion

All nations have them: a location in their climatology where the air is at its balmiest, the sunshine hours at their longest, The winter is forbidden ‘til December and exits March the second on the dot.  By order, summer lingers through September…

No, not Camelot – or anything like the magical castle of Arthurian legend, the suggested sites for which, in England, have been banished to some very uncongenial spots, where the rain never stops falling before sundown and by eight, the morning fog has just set in.
The places whereof I speak owe nothing to the land of T.H. White’s fantasy, although to their residents they are, without doubt, intended for happily-ever-aftering.  As the seaside towns of Florida are known as ‘the Sunshine Coast’  to Americans, so the English Channel coast towns of West and East Sussex are known to the British by less flattering names, the pick of which run along the lines of ‘Costa Geriatrica’, ‘The Elephants’ Graveyard’ (thank you, Rudyard) or ‘God’s Waiting Room’.

Although largely undeserved, it is easy to see why these towns attract such disrespectful collective   titles.  As the spots furthest south that may be reached without a passport, they soak up the sun-seekers of an elder generation like sponges.  And once absorbed, the great majority only leave there in a box. 

I was a working partner running a restaurant in one of these towns, Bexhill on Sea, for some years.  My youngest son was born there.  My customer base for most of the year had an average age of seventy-six, which encouraged little in the way of long-term promotion because they were constantly ‘moving on’.  There were some precious friends and regulars with whom relationships were all too brief, and usually curtailed by a visit from a son or daughter with the news that they would no longer be able to dine with us.

There were good times, too.  The De Le Warr Pavilion was nearby, so if a show drew a crowd we always benefited with filled tables and visits from the ‘stars’.  Jon Pertwee (of Dr. Who fame) was a favorite example. After his stand-up gig at the theatre he performed another, completely spontaneously, for our customers.  An immensely funny and very generous man, he too, sadly, has ‘moved on’.

We always staffed up for these occasions, with good reason:  a well-known orchestra played an annual concert at the De La Warr.  They would eat with us after the performance, and invariably the process would cost us a number of our staff who quite rightly saw an invitation to a late date with a musician more tempting than washing crockery into the early hours!

Bexhill had its share of ‘characters’: the old lady who solved her crowd problems by stalking down the center of a busy pavement sweeping her walking stick before her like a mine detector, or the elderly matron whose garage we rented and who occupied two apartments in the most expensive block on the seafront.  One for herself and the paintings of her famous son, and another, specially air-conditioned, for her harp (my short story, ‘The Harp’, owes much of its substance to her).

There were nights, though: long, cold, hard nights when gales blew in from The Channel so fiercely they forced the restaurant doors open and sent our elderly clients scurrying for their lairs.  And truthfully those clients were themselves a minority, for there were many hundreds, or thousands more who never emerged from those faceless apartment blocks, but kept huddled in their self-imposed isolation behind their windows staring blankly at a view of the sea, waiting for visitors who never came:  for children who were too busy, or lived in countries far away.

I once nursed a pint or two with one I counted as a friend, who was very wise, as together we discussed the meaning of wealth.  Eddie, who was a soldier of fortune and had seen a lot more of the world than I, had a view of financial probity which has, with the years, become very much my own – a philosophy which says there is a finite amount of benefit to be gained from money in the world, and every little that is gained, is at the expense of someone else.  Eddie viewed those apartment blocks as prisons, called their tenants unkindly ‘the meaningless rich’.   When I took him to task on that, he replied thus:

“After your first seventy years, money has no meaning.  You work all your life scrounging and scraping to achieve wealth; worry, connive, scheme, and for what?  To sit on your own behind one of those windows watching as it ebbs away.”