Continuum – Episode Twenty: A Garden Meeting

In the previous Episode:

While Alanee is making love to Celeris in his apartment she is hidden from Ellar the Mediant who, fearful what Alanee can do when she is not on her radar, sends Sala to search The City for her.  Sala discovers her friend in the Grand Park in an apparently drugged state and takes her to her home so she may rest.

In Braillec, Commander Zess, deeply  affected by the genocide of thousands of Dometians has abandoned his post, to seek expiation at the merciless hands of robbers on the highway, a fitting death sentence, as he feels, for his actions in the chain of his command.   The robbers will throw his body into the canyon below Wagoner’s Leap.

Meanwhile, the one escapee from Zess’s purge lies helpless and dying on a forested riverbank, watched by scavengers eager to devour him… 

Dag Swenner has lain motionless for many hours now, while the carrion creatures move ever closer.  That drip of water which found its way to his pale lips ceased long since:  the warmth from his body is all but gone.  Cold is a friend, for it admits the sleep of death with quiet dignity, and this is neither a quiet nor a dignified place to die.

The snapping and snarling amongst those closest to the feast, wild dog and serval, tree rats and hyenas, is unceasing.  The big cat is long dead, the man beside it defenceless: the bravest might rip an arm from him and be gone without fear, yet no creature will touch him.  They sneak and creep in the cover of the woods, afraid of something, some other presence lurking there, something unseen.  It is this way until morning comes, when first light dapples through the trees.

#

In Sala’s northern bed, Alanee stretches herself in sleep, dreaming of something – something she will not remember in the morning; of a forest, far away.  And in that forest the eyes of a dying man blink open.

Day is well advanced when she wakes.  A thought has entered her head that she would share, so she shakes Sala to consciousness.

“Celeris!”

Sala groans.  “Him again!”

“I can prove he exists.  Of course I can!  He left his number on my summoner the other day.”

She jumps from the bed and searches through her jumbled clothing, producing the instrument triumphantly.  “Here, see?  Stop looking!” She throws her robe about herself to avert Sala’s hungry stare.  Giggling, she stabs buttons.  The giggling stops.  “Only I can’t seem to find it?  Sala – what can have happened to it?  Could it be erased?  Who could have erased it?”

Sala shakes her head sadly.  “I’ll get us some breakfast.”  She slides from the bed and then the room, not troubling to put on a robe for herself.

“No.  I’m not hungry, really.  I must get back to my apartment.  There are some new clothes there I have to try on.”

Sala’s expression conveys her belief that this is the lamest excuse she has ever heard.  “In front of those cameras?”

“Maybe they’ve gone.  I told Lady Ellar I wanted them taken out. I have to think.  This afternoon perhaps we could look for a new place?”

Sala contacts Ellar as soon as Alanee has left, a loyalty she owes her patron.  But Ellar’s reply to her summoner – “Say nothing now.  We will meet in the gardens.”- is a surprise.

The gardens beyond the city walls greet her with the bright optimism of spring.  Ellar, formally attired in her court robe, waits where a bridge of weathered redwood crosses one of many brooks which feed the ornamental ponds as they descend, step by step, to the river. 

“You discovered her, Sala.”  Not a question:  just a statement of fact.  “Is she stable?”

This choice of adjective takes Sala aback.  “She seems well enough, Lady.  We stayed together in my apartment last night.  She left just before I called you.”

“Where was she?  How did she evade us?”

Again, that curious choice of phrase;  “Evade, Lady?”

“Come Sala!  You know very well how closely she must be watched.  Where was she?”

“She was with a man.  A man she claims she has been with before; at the spring celebration.”

“Who?  With whom?”

“A bit of a rogue by her account.  He upset her.”

“Who, girl?  Who?”  Ellar’s impatience is not typical of her.

“He called himself ‘Celeris’.  I checked.  No such person.  Whoever he is, he’s using a false name.  If we could catch him we could charge him with that offence at least, but in that perverse way of Alanee’s she seems inclined to defend him.  And she was vague about where he lives, or what he does in The City.  Very strange.”

 “Merely a liaison, then,” Ellar sounds relieved, “She is found.  That is good.  I will investigate this ‘Celeris’.”

Both stare down at the water.  “Sala, you hold a position of great trust.  Greater than you know.”

“Yes, Lady.”

“We meet here so we are not overheard; our words may never be repeated, you understand?”

“Yes.”

“In my work, child, I have to constantly reconstruct a bridge – just like this bridge – between two worlds; The City on one side, The Land on the other.  And whether I like it or not, Alanee has become the pier upon one side of the water: she holds the stability of the city in her thrall.  My difficulty, but at the same time my great relief, lies in her ignorance of her true position.  My fear is that she may, unwittingly, put all of us into danger.

“So, you are her friend:  are you her lover?  No, I thought not.  But you are her confidante.  Encourage this, Sala:  talk to her, elicit her thoughts, lend her your arm, your shoulder, whatever she may want from you.  And bring all you learn back to me, do you understand?  All.  It is vital, Sala.”

“No more than is my duty, Lady.  Of course I shall.”

Shocked by Ellar’s evaluation of Alanee, Sala’s thoughts fill with the memory of a figure.  He sits across a desk – a big, pedagogic desk of shiny red burr-cherry upon which he plays a little table game among his papers with sticks and a ball.  Professor Leitz, a small, rotund man with a short white beard and kind grey eyes has gone now, died some years ago, but his image and his words never leave her.  Today, as he sits behind that desk, his stubby fingers running thoughtfully through the white hairs at his neck, she is eighteen, ready to leave the Porstron for the greater world.

“Sala my dear you always had a penchant for the divisive, didn’t you?  Argue, argue, argue!  Passion, too, I shouldn’t wonder.  So why do you choose to train as a Mediator?  The challenge to your intellect, I suppose.  Well, you have that challenge:  you will be constantly forced to make the choice between loyalty and love when the two should be on the same side but aren’t:  you will sacrifice friends, colleagues, everything to the cause of expediency.  Is it for you, do you think?  Should you devote your life to betrayal, simply as an exercise?  Think profoundly, Sala.  Think long.”

Well, she did think long.  She accepted her challenge, and it has come to stab her through the heart time after time.  Now Alanee; so is she, should she be, intrigued by the importance Ellar places upon her friend – or is Alanee just another knife?  Whatever the truth, she sees her role has changed.  She must take care.

Ellar watches her turn back towards the City with a new weight upon those graceful shoulders, feeling reasonably content because she knows Sala is her best, the recommendation of Professor Leitz all those years ago, and because the girl’s inspired excellence was honed to perfection by her own hand.

Ellar could not define precisely when her feelings concerning Alanee began to change, only that they are very much changed.  Reports reach her hourly, tales of excitable activity from Hasuga:  wild thoughts so dominant and inviolate the customary filtration process of The City can no longer moderate them.  Alanee’s influence is surely responsible for most.  Out there (she looks towards the distant horizon of the mountains) the people are paying her price.  Whatever follows, Sala’s abilities will be put to the supreme test.

Alanee neither knows nor understands why she has to be alone that morning, only that it must be so.  The compulsion to take leave of her friend has its own momentum, as if she is driven by some force outside herself.  The clothes she collected from the dressmakers the day before have no bearing upon it:  they are just the excuse Sala supposed them to be, but something makes her run through the blocks of the city until she reaches her home avenue, and that same insistent impulse overcomes her revulsion at any thought of spying lenses.  Still she pauses within her street door, to read a terse note that is pinned above her mirror in the foyer.

‘All cameras removed.  By order of Lady Ellar, Mediant’.

The clothes are much as she left them, hanging on the wardrobe wall.  Someone has moved them, but they are all there.  Her bedclothes, her furnishings, though slightly altered in arrangement, are clean and tidy.  Although everything has been disturbed, nothing is missing, nothing is soiled; unless she considers the small pile of leaves lying upon her coverlet an exception – the same leaves she gathered at the riverside the day before!  The very same leaves she has dismissed as a dream, exactly as she dreamt them, still damp from the rain!

Not a dream, then, but how did they come to be there? 

They are real enough.  She picks up each of them delicately and in a sequence.  From where her guidance comes she has no notion; any more than she understands why she must press the foliage to her as she did at the river.  The urge is fierce, undeniable.  Immediately, a fire ignites inside her; a flame so intense she must respond by pressing the poultice to herself harder and yet harder, as if to extinguish it.  The heat expresses itself in dart-like needles, sparks that fly about her body, burning sharply, deeply.  Not today the gentle permeating warmth of the afternoon before – this is agonizing, searing, cauterizing:  though all the while, through each torso-wrenching lance there is an otherness, a separation.  That feeling alone keeps Alanee from screaming aloud, for although her flesh is tortured she is certain the damage is not hers, and somehow her strength will heal another’s wounds, though she does not know who, or where, that other may be.

For a writhing hour the pain consumes her.  Morning becomes afternoon before the effort of healing abates: until, in a bed soaked with her perspiration, she may sleep, exhausted, for much of the remaining day.  In this time Sala will call and receive no answer:  Lady Ellar will page her insistently; but Alanee will not stir.  Only when Valtor the Convenor’s insistent buzz wracks her inner ear will she wake, and only to Hasuga’s summons will she answer.

#

“Are you stronger now?”

Hasuga sits with his back to her in his bedroom, his misshapen silhouette distinct against the evening light from his window.  Around him, the machine has grown again and Alanee is more than a little nervous of it:  she has seen what Hasuga can make it do.

“Stronger?”  She no longer addresses him as ‘Sire’ for she does not respect him.  Ascending through the Palace to this place she has wondered how she will face him, after his cruelty.

  “The task you have performed requires strength and fortitude,”   He turns to her swiftly; “You will have been tired, weakened.” 

“Explain.”  She can outface him, she feels:  “What ‘task’, Hasuga?”

“Healing is a task.  To heal others you must first experience their pain, share their wound, take it upon yourself.  That weakens.  Now you must share the recuperation.”

“Truly?”  Alanee returns his scrutiny blankly, “So you think I was healing someone?   How would you know?  I told Ellar I wanted the cameras out – are you still spying on me?”

“I do not need cameras, although they are fascinating, I admit.  I do not like the ‘spying’ word.  I have to learn, Lady Alanee.”

 “About me?”  Alanee snaps bitterly, “You’ve stripped me bare.  I’ve no secrets.  No secrets and no dignity.”

Hasuga manages a wan smile, “The things I have to learn about you are things you do not know yourself.  Come.”  He reaches for her hand.  She snatches it away. “Let us walk outside.”

“If you command it I suppose I must,”   She will not disguise the loathing in her voice:  “Just don’t touch me!”

She follows Hasuga’s loping stride through the marble-pillared room with its colourfully decorated murals.  They still warm the chill heart of this immense space, though there are subtle strokes of an artist’s brush here and there, hints of incipient change.  The fantastic machines have grown in majesty, high of gantry and noble of spire.

Those animals so cosily humanised when last Alanee saw them are pure now, their anthropomorphic features over-painted with fleet, graceful features that depict their own natural beauty.  They run, rest, or feed on landscapes so brilliantly real she feels the breeze from distant tempura mountains upon her cheek, even thinks that once or twice those sleek antelope heads lift to watch her pass.

But it is within the body of the room that the greatest alterations have been wrought.  No more the dolls houses, models and toys of a few days since:  now the basic furniture plays host to a bizarre collection of ephemera more suited to Hasuga’s student phase.  There are several anatomical models, including a human skeleton which reclines upon the chaise longue with its metacarpals riveted convincingly about a wine-glass.  A flight simulator for an aerotran occupies one corner, exercise machines that would be the envy of any private gymnasium and a climbing frame scatter randomly about amid antique instruments, shards of broken pots, diagrams and print-outs of illimitable complexity.

The garden, by contrast, is no longer bathed in the summer heat of her last visit.  The plants have returned to their proper cycle, as yet only budding themselves for the coming summer, while the fountain plays into a chill spring sky where sunset is already fading.  Alanee cannot suppress a shiver.

“Must we be outside, it isn’t exactly warm, is it?”  She growls, “Or are you going to perform your summer garden trick?”

“No.  That would attract notice.  If we do not draw attention to ourselves we may speak more freely here.  But there is a warmer corner; we can talk there, if you wish.”

Beyond rows of immaculate borders where crocuses and sun-daisies are already shutting up shop for the night, and past newly-planted beds towards the lower end of the lawns, in a corner of the garden’s high wall, there is a summer house, a small, hexagonal wooden hut with lead glass windows and a pagoda roof.  Hasuga invites her to sit within it: its benches are hard, worn and devoid of paint, but its shelter, Alanee will admit, does offer warmth.

“We are unobserved in this place.”  He explains, and Alanee thinks she detects a leer in his voice.  “In the city everybody watches everybody.  Now you have insisted upon the removal of your cameras they must find another way to observe you:  they will do it.  In the meantime you – we – have some space.”

“Why do we want space?”  It is dark in the summer house; she can hear his breathing though she cannot clearly see him.  “Why don’t you want them to see us?”

“Because there are things – intimate things we must speak of together.”  His breath is strong and rapid.  He has moved closer in the darkness.

Where does it come from, this sudden feeling of threat?  And why does she feel powerless to resist it?  Is she so tired?  She should not have answered his summons, not tonight.  “You said you wanted to talk,”   she reminds him, coldly.  “I don’t want you close to me, Hasuga.  Do you understand?”

“Am I so repulsive in your eyes?  If I asked your forgiveness would you…”

She cuts him off.  “Cold or not, I think I would rather be outside!”  Her heart is pounding and her words come in a rush.  She is on her feet moving purposefully towards the door when his arm shoots out, detaining her.  “Let go of me, Hasuga!  What are you doing?”

His grip is invincible as steel and she is being drawn back into the gloom.  For the first time in his company she can feel the pulsing heat of his flesh pressed to hers, hear the feverish excitement in his sharp command.   “Sit down!   Now!”

#

Upon a wooded river bank far away a hyena has waited patiently for a day and a night.  It is characteristic of her breed, this persistence which has no quality of stillness and is by no means restful for the beast.  She has cubs to feed.  Pacing, whimpering, yapping, she has passed the hours in a torment of indecision:  should she attack or should she flee?  And now it seems both the sources of meat in front of her are lifeless and cold, why does she still hang back?  Why do the hairs on her brindled spine bristle with fear?  What is wrong?

The dogs, the wild cats, the rats – they all sensed it.  In the night they slunk away, seeking other game.  But that is not the hyena’s way.  Where there is meat….

The smallest creatures of the forest are aware of it too.  Although an unmoving demi-corpse, a massive hulk of protein lies across their path they have contented themselves with just the cougar’s carcass.  No leach has attached itself to pale human flesh, no worm or louse has found a path of entry:  the man-figure that lies so motionless beside the cat is somehow inviolate, in the protection of something unseen.

The hyena decides the time has come.  Hunger draws her forward, terror holds her back.  In distant cries of her cubs far away, the demon hunger wins the battle round by round, step by step.  Snarling, snapping yellow teeth inches now from Daag’s face, stale dog-breath hot on his cheek – ready for the bite, the ripping, tearing bite…..

Perhaps the hyena has not seen the corpse’s fingers move, or its hand close around the gun; or perhaps it moves as she moves, when she is already committed to the lunge.  She hears the explosion, though, feels the missile searing through her scrawny chest.  And before she expires she sees the food she should have spurned glare with flaming eyes down upon her, as Daag Swenner, reborn, rises from the floor of the forest.

© 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.

Photo Credit: Mana5280 on Unsplash

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Fourteen – A fractured Dream.

 

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On the street the temperature was dropping, and clouds from the east were threatening snow.  I hurried home, mindful of my mother’s words and the conversation that was beginning in my head.  Was she right?  Was it possible a girl with whom I once spent twenty minutes of inexpert passion on a river bank could still mean more to me than the one who loved me now and shared my bed?  Could I – would I – betray Angie so callously over nothing more than a fractured dream?

Indoors, I set up a fire and then began to cook, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I turned off the stove.  Five-thirty found me sitting in our bay window, watching a snowflake corps de ballet as it danced before the glass, and the steadier trickle of people coming home from their work.  My eyes picked out Angie as she appeared at the end of the road; head down against the wind, clicking along the wet and whitening pavement on busy feet. I responded to her jazz-hands wave as she ascended the steps to our door.

“Here’s a night!”  She stood in our little lobby, brushing snow from her coat.  “Feel them!”  She reached out for my hand, squeezing my fingers as she passed, heading towards the bathroom, and casually shedding clothes as she went.  Pipes juddered as the shower turned on.   I felt that completeness of Angie wrapping itself around me as it always did when we were together in the primacy of our private lives, and I was immediately rested and content.  No, I told myself, could be no-one else.

Back at the stove, I was throwing stir-fry stuff absently into a wok when she joined me, gently resting her hand on my wrist and sliding the pan aside.  She came close to invite a kiss, then draped herself against me, letting her towelling robe fall carelessly fell open.

“Are you hungry?”  Angie giggled deliciously.  “Why yes, I do believe you are…”

Later, as we sat before the fire, Angie asked:  “Did you see your Mam?”

“Aye.”  I relayed almost everything that had passed between my mother and me.  “She says she’s quite happy with the way things are, but I don’t entirely believe her.  She’s so edgy these days.  I was a bit worried about her.”

Angie nodded sagely.  “It’ll be the ‘H’, man.  It get’s t’you like that.”

I stared.   “’H’?”

“Oh, come on!  Ah thought you’d kna’ about that at least!  Smack; heroin, Chas!  She must ‘a been on it a year or two, I’d reckon.”

“No!  Oh, god, I didn’t know.  I mean, I didn’t see it.”

“Man!  Are you a divvy or what?  I saw it first time I met her!”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Would that ha’ been polite, like?  You’re too innocent for this world, you!  Mind, it were another little stone wor Terry managed to drop into the conversation the other night when he were tryin’ to run you down.  He reckons they’re all on it, up Bertie’s.  Brasso’ll be keepin’ ‘em hooked up, I ‘spect.”

“Brasso?”

“Brasso Moziadski.   Tall, thin bloke, sharp threads.  Looks like he’s a lawyer, or sommat, but ‘e’s not.  He’s the biggest dealer round here.  Drives a dark blue BMW?  You must ‘a seen ‘im!”

“Aye.”  I acknowledged.  “I might have.”

After administering a new shock, Angie fell silent for a while, just gazing into the fire.  My mind played around with this explanation for my mother’s behavior, which ascribed the tension that gripped every fibre of her being to a simple need for to score.  Meanwhile, Angie seemed to be steeling herself.  And, at last, she spoke.

“I been thinkin’ about it all afternoon: about us, y’kna?  Chas, be honest wi’ us now; do you seriously want me to come with you when you go to Carlton?”

“Yes.” My answer came without hesitation.  “I’ve never been more serious.”

“Only it’s a big thing for me.  I’ve lived here all my life, y’kna?  All my friends and my relations are here.  I’d be leavin’ them all behind, if I did – if I came with you.  Y’see?”

“I do see.”  I told her.  “Can I say something now?”

Her eyes were uncertain.  “I s’pose.  But Chas, I’ve worked all this out…”

“Angie, I love you.  I’m not going to let you down, am I?”

“Mebbees.  Or mebbees I’d be the one to let you down. Promises we make at nineteen aren’t meant to be kept, Chas.  They really aren’t.” She shook her head impatiently.  “I cry too easy around you, y’kna?”

“Am I going to be allowed to make a case, here, like?”  I protested, “Or are you going to walk out on me without eating that bloody stir-fry?”

“Is it still there?  I’d forgotten about that.”  She smiled through her tears.

“It’s a waste of good vegetables.” My pathetic attempt at humour was designed to cover an awkward truth – I was panicking, because a pit of absolute despair had suddenly opened up beneath me, and the reason for it seemed unaccountable unless this was love?  This – something – that was completely new to me?  Love, or need?  Had I grown to need Angie so much I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her?

”No.  No, let’s not do this now.”  I said.  “Wherever you go you’ll find friends, Ange.  I’ll be joining a proper club, you know, and the other guys will have wives and girlfriends, and besides, you’re just – just so – well, people just like you.  They’re drawn to you.  I was.”  I ended rather lamely.

“I suppose.”  Angie rested her head on my shoulder.  “Chas, I love you.  I wish…oh, you don’t know how I wish…”

“I don’t want us to part.”  I said, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.  “And we needn’t.  Let’s see how things turn out, Ange.  Give us that chance, will you?”  Angie was quietly tearful, my own heart was aching and there seemed no solution to our pain, no chance of escape.  The welcome warmth of the fire had become an oppressive heat, such that I was finding it difficult to breathe.  I had to escape.  “Sorry; I’m sorry, really – think about us a bit more, please, because I love you, Ange, and I can’t stand this.  I’m going out.”

The bubble of anger in my heart was not for Angie.  I tore myself away from her not because I felt she had betrayed me, but because I knew I had betrayed myself.   I slammed the door behind me not because I was turning my back on the home she had made, but because there was no home for me, anywhere.  My childhood, my whole miserable life had bred a fear of relationships in me and I knew it was a reserve that showed – that try as I might I could not give her the true and selfless devotion that would let her build her world in me, let her trust me.  She believed I would let her down, and perhaps she was right.

The snow fell fast enough to hide my tears, the cold air offered an alibi for my reddened face, my interrupted breath.  Nevertheless I avoided the town and its still-busy streets, choosing instead to take the alley which led from the far end of The Avenue past the blind ends of a trio of similar culs de sac and on in the direction of the park.  I walked briskly, ignoring the slips and slides of my inadequate shoes on the snow-slick pavement, kicking back at it with furious feet, slamming against walls and fences with aggrieved fists.  So preoccupied was I with my inner noise I was deaf to the lonely darkness and oblivious to the approach of running steps.

The first I felt was a sickening blow to my head, the first I saw was a galaxy of stars.

I was stretched out on the pavement.  A knee pinned my chest.  The thrust of a boot raked into my side with such murderous precision it may have made me scream.

“Too proud fer yer fans kidder, isn’ the’!  The great friggin footy star, yeah?”

Another voice.   “Friggin’ wanker!

Another:  “Mak’ ‘im nice an’ pretty fer ‘e’s girlfriend, like!  Frigging prick!”

The boots were heavy, the kicks vicious and well-aimed, but the surprise was over.  Kicking upward as hard as I could once, twice, three times I found the groin behind the knee, making its owner groan and shrink sufficiently to release me.   I rolled to my feet, counted three of them: balaclava’d heads snapping at me like dogs.

Remember the rules, the street fighting rules: which one looks like the leader?  Pick him out.  Don’t try and counter all three; go for him and him alone.  Don’t let up.  Never let up.

The one that was tallest, noisiest.  “Yer kna wha’ us ganna do ter the’, wanker?  Wor gan ter break yer legs, man!  Tha’s nivver gan ter play footy again, frigger!  Finished, man; finished!”

I sent him the best message of defiance I could muster.  I heard his nose crush.  Then I was straight after him, not letting him draw back, not giving him a second before I got in a perfect groin kick to bend him double.  But they were three, I was one.  Almost too late I saw the iron bar clenched in the smallest one’s hands, and though somehow I rode the first scything swing it scored across my calf, opening flesh.  Hands pinned me so thoroughly I knew I would not avoid the second.  They were intent upon crippling me, these darkly clad men.

“Stand still yer little frigger!  This is a message from one o’ yer fans, like!”

The bar was swinging, my eyes closed against the certainty of pain.  Heaven would have heard my involuntary shout – it was not heaven that answered.   There was a crack like an egg, but of bone.  The iron bar clattered to the ground, the bar wielder’s knees crumpled.  My hands were suddenly free to unleash a haymaker of a punch, the hardest I could muster into the ribs of the noisy one, while behind me my third assailant was being treated with savagery.  The grey shape that had materialized out of the snow had grounded him, subjecting him to a furious sequence of kicks.  Seeing I was out of danger, though, the shape desisted quickly, grabbing my arm.

“Come away, lad.  Ah think I might ‘a killed the stupid bugger!”

Even in my disoriented state (by this time I must have had several blows to my head) I could see the iron bar wielder was not in a good state.  Lying inert in the snow, a dark red halo was growing around his head.

“Police!  We should call the police.”  I managed to drool out.

“Frig it nah!  Ah’m gannin nowhere near the chatties, lad!  Coom on, run!”

I made no argument.  Run – or stagger – I did, supported by my savior’s arm as together we retraced my steps back to the apartment.  I wondered vaguely as we went why the grey shape had a voice I found familiar.

“Footsteps!”  I pointed behind us to our trail in the snow.

“Aye.  But this snow’s going to keep up all night.  Blowin’ a bit, too.  They’re coverin’ already.”

Angie emerged from the kitchen as we burst through the front door.  I could see from her expression I was not a pretty sight.   She moved instantly into caring mode.  “Come away, man, take off those clothes, I’ll get you some towels.  Who’s your friend, like?”

I think I already knew.  Watching as he unwrapped himself, taking his flat cap from his balding head and unwrapping the scarf from his face.  “Dad.”  I said.  “He’s my Da’.”

I was treated to the broad smile of a man at war with his teeth, and for once in my life I felt genuinely glad to see him.  “Recognized me, then. Hello, son.”

“Da’, this is Angie.”

“I kna’ lad,”  My father said,  “and a canny lass she is.  Make sure yer keep yer ‘ands on this one.”

“Pleased to meet you.”  By this time, Angie’s eyes had widened into saucers. “I thought…”

“I kna, Angie, pet, ah’m supposed to be the most absent of absent fathers.  But since ah’m ‘ere, ah’m wonderin’ if you’d mind washin’ this for us?”

From beneath his donkey jacket my father produced a brutish-looking adjustable spanner, its grips encrusted with blood.  Angie stared at it.  “Shouldn’t we get rid o’ that?”  I asked him.

“Nah, lad, no way!  That’s the only one big enough to fit wor bath taps at ‘ome.  It’ll clean up canny!”

Angie took the spanner between thumb and forefinger and nearly dropped it because it was heavier than she expected.  “Do you always carry a spanner when you go out?”

“Aye, lass.  Yer never kna’ when yer gan ter meet someone wi’ a loose bath tap.”

Angie nodded.  “Of course.”  She disappeared into the kitchen.

“I’m lucky you were passing by.”  I said, not really believing it.

“Luck had nowt tae do wi’ it.  Ah’ve been followin’ yer’ for days.  I were keepin’ an eye on they, too.  I kna’d they were workin’ ‘emselves up to have a go, like.  Ah’m stayin’ ower the Black Horse, where they drink, y’na?  The skinny one was lanterin’ about how you was too big fer yer boots an’ as how ‘e wanted ter fix yer, like?  But it were more than that.  They were plannin’ ter get yer anyways, Chas.  Ah follered them tonight ‘stead o’ you – for a change.  It were less damp.”

“It’s good for me that you did,” I said.  “But how did they know I’d be on the street?  I hadn’t planned to go out.”

“Ah don’t think they intended to get yer on the street, son.  Ah think they was comin’ ‘ere”

I had scarcely time to absorb that thought before Angie returned to bandage my leg, demanding we explain.  I described events leading up to my father’s appearance, omitting the reason he was able to intervene so quickly, and hoping she would not spot the fault in the logic.  “I could place one of the voices,” I told her, “It was that troll from Pellosi’s.  I thought he was just a bad accident, but looking back on it now I think he had meant to be there.”

“It’s likely.”  My father nodded.  “They was drinkin’ wi’ a friend o’ there’n, used ter be Town’s best player ‘til you showed ‘em as how it should be done.  Reckon it were him tryin’ to get ‘e’s own back tonight, like.  Guy Harrison – y’ kna’ ‘im?”

“Guy Harrison!  Way aye!  He’s still in the team.”  The more I thought about it, the less this information surprised me.  Guy had already tried to injure me once, in training at the beginning of the season.  Guy would not know of my intention to leave, and if I stayed the club wouldn’t renew his expensive contract; not just to be my understudy.

“We should tell the police,”  Angie said.

“Nah, no police.”  My father was emphatic.  “Me and the chatties round ‘ere, we go back a long way, Angie pet.”

“Don’t leave your bicycle around him.”  I advised Angie.  “He’s canny light-fingered, like.”

“Yeah?  He saved you, that makes him alright by me.  Anyways, I haven’t gorra bike.”

“What brings you back here, Da’?”  I asked.  “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again.”

This brought a sigh from my Da’, and I thought that I saw the effort go right through him, as though his rib cage was a rack of iron he had scarcely strength to lift.  “Ah’m not stayin’, son.  I’ve been hearin’ about yer and yer football an’ yer made me proud, y’kna?  I wanted ter see yer again, an’ tell yer, I suppose.  Then I got ‘ere an’ I’d not the courage to approach yer, like.  Not affer leavin’ yer the way I did.  An’ I’ll be awa’ again, now, likely.  I’ve a good woman waitin’ fer me, where ah’m from.  But I wanted ter warn yer, ‘cause I thought yer might be in trouble, an’ I were right.  Nor about tonight, mind, that were just Harrison, but there’s summat in the wind, ah can smell it.  Watch yerself with Mack Crabtree and Marty Berry, Chas; they’re bad people, y’kna?”

“I think I already know about Mack Crabtree,” I said,  “But Martin Berry?  He seems canny to me.”

“Aye, he’s friend enough to yer face, but keep facin’ ‘im, lad.  Don’t turn yer back, awright?”   He raised himself to his feet.  “Now I’ll be on ma way.  You’ll be awreet now, and I’ve some sleepin’ to do.”

“Stay!”  I said.  “We can make you comfortable here.  There’s so much to be said, Da’.”

“True, there is.  I’m not goin’ back fer a day or so yet, so if tha’ wants some catchin’ up, we’ll do it tomorra, because you’ll not be training wi’ that leg. But meantime this young lass doesn’t kna me, so she’ll not be com’fable wi’ me in ‘er home.  Besides,” My father nudged me knowingly;  “I’ve a feelin’ you’ve got some bridges to mend, son.”

Angie saw him to our door, helped him slip his jacket around his shoulders and watched his back as he hunched against the snow.  Then she turned to me with her face a picture of concern.  “Oh, Chas, man!  Whar’ ever am I going to do wi’ you?  I can’t even trust you to go for a walk on your own, can  I?”

“Then you’ll have to stay with me, won’t you?”  I told her brightly.  “I need looking after.”

It was no night for righteous sleep.  We lay awake together, Angie and I, listening for the wail of sirens, half-expecting a heavy knocking on the door that might announce the presence of my father’s dreaded ‘chatties’.  Neither happened.  Did I wonder if two of my earlier attackers might return?  Honestly no.  I felt that our deterrent effect upon them would be sufficient to keep them busy with the accident and emergency department of Bedeport District Hospital at least until morning, by which time I would have had a meaningful discussion with Guy Harrison.  At the stroke of eight I limped along to the Town ground with exactly such an encounter in mind and was gratified by his pale mask of surprise when he saw me come through the doorway of the home dressing room unassisted by wheels.

If you have never entered a room in which, until the moment you thrust wide the door, you have been the occupants’ sole topic of conversation: if you have never been the object of dislike, maybe even hatred, of each one of those occupants; if you have never experienced a silence in that room of such toxicity the very air seems to be reaching for your throat, then it will be difficult for me to describe it for you.  Suffice it that no-one wanted to see me walk through the door, or had believed that I could; and from that I deduced that the plot to injure me had been shared, in some form or another, with everyone there.  It was a palpable moment, if a brief one.

“Yer late for training!”  Pascoe snapped.

“Injury, Joe.”  I told him.  “Flesh wound, nothing much but I’d better keep off it for a day or so.  I’ll be sorted by Saturday.”

“Sit in, then.  We’re going over tactics for Abberton.”

And that was that; but from it I saw, with refulgent clarity, the true undercurrent of resentment I caused in the first team at Casterley Town. I had offered friendship, without ever, as I can remember, dealing underhandedly with or deliberately offending any member of it, yet they disliked me with an obdurate resolve I would never break. If ever I wanted ratification of my decision to leave, it was given to me then.

In the meantime, I needed to keep Angie from becoming entangled in this thicket of plotting and to avoid further violence.  Where originally I had intended to confront Harrison with a direct threat, now it was simpler to channel my message through Pascoe.  As the other players walked coldly past me from the dressing room, I grabbed his arm.

“Can you tell them not to worry, Joe?  Between you and me, I won’t be here next season.  It’s not official yet, mind.  Can you, sort of, pass it around?”

Pascoe glowered at me.  “Ah don’t care if yer friggin’ leave or not.”

That was a bluntness typical of the man.  I didn’t mind;  I knew the message would get through.

With my mission completed, I returned to the apartment.  Our telephone was ringing.

“Chas?  Hi!  It’s Dave Corker, County Record; I hear you’re up for transfer.  What can you tell me, mate?”

“Unfounded speculation,”  I said.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conception

There have to be times when the tyranny of the blank page gets to the best of us, and I’m certainly no exception.   There are occasions when I cannot think of words, let alone sentences, and the river simply stops flowing.  So I thought I’d explain what I do when that happens, and compare notes with you. 

First of all, if I have already been working on something, I stop.  There’s no point in pursuing it if the inspiration which drives it is dry.

Then I start with the blank page.

I think of a place I know.  A street, a park, a piece of pavement.  Then I change it a little.  Give it a different name.  Maybe it would look better with a church, there, a large limousine parked there, or a bus at a bus stop nearby.

Now I put feet on the street.  Whose?  Male, female, young, old?  Usually I tie these things to someone I know, too.  But then I alter her a little – make her more attractive, or less:  give her a mannerism that adds substance – why does her hand twitch that way?  Why does she seem distracted – even anxious?

And I walk with her.  Yes, I do.  I try to view her life from the inside – see what she sees, do what she would do.  Or he – it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter yet, but it’s beginning to.  It starts to matter a lot more as she passes the big limousine and its door swings open, or a man leaps from the bus and begins running towards her, shouting………and I have a story.

The point is, I don’t plan it.  I don’t plan anything, I’m afraid.  I honestly had no idea where this was going five minutes ago, and I have no idea what will occur in the next five.  Will it be a short story or a book?  It might even be an article about road safety!

So, to those who insist I should plan my writing, I am a nightmare.  If I know where my story is going I cease to be engaged, and I simply won’t write it.  It will join the realms of the unfinished that march in legions across my hard drive.

This works for me.  What about you?  How do you meet the tyranny of the empty page?