A Meeting in the Park – A Short Story Revival

Another example of anecdotal sludge snatched from the jaws of File Shredder in the nick of time.  I always liked this one:

“I think you’re very beautiful.”  Martin said.

Alana felt the hot scarlet of a blush as it crept up her graceful neck, the way it always did whenever she was surprised by a compliment, no matter how clumsily it was delivered or by whom.   “Thank you.  I wish I deserved that.”  She said with a shy smile.

“I saw you and I thought…” Martin hesitated, gathering his strength; “I thought I must speak.  I simply had to speak.  I often walk Rufus in this park, but I don’t remember seeing you here before.”

“No.  I don’t suppose you do.  I’m new here, you see.  We just moved in to the new apartments over there.  Your dog is very clever.”

“Yes.  You can pet him if you like.  He’s extremely gentle.”  

Alana crouched in front of the fair-haired Labrador, offering her delicate long fingers for Rufus to get her scent before she gently scratched his ear.  “You’re a clever boy!”  She praised him.  “Without you I would have lost my diary.  Thank you.”  And Rufus pressed his head against her hand, wagging his tail furiously.  She looked up at the young man.  “I wish I had a treat for him.”

“Oh please don’t worry.  He’s a natural retriever, you see.  It isn’t a trick to Rufus; he just can’t help himself.  He saw you’d left your book on the bench when you walked away and he went straight to it.  It’s what he does.”

“Well, I’m very grateful.”

“I wonder…” the young man was tongue-tied again.  “I wonder if someone as lovely as you would ever consider going out to dinner with someone like me?”

Alana smiled her demurest smile.   He was very uncertain of himself, this young man, and some might have thought him a little creepy, but she recognized the loneliness in him and understood.  He was good-looking, if you took away those heavy-rimmed glasses, made him trim those lank strands of black hair.  “I would love to.”  She said. 

They met at Sardi’s on the Quayside, where they feasted on lobster that had been landed that morning and drank white wine from Bourgogne.  He learned that Alana had an elder brother and they had arrived in town only a week ago.  She learned what she had first suspected:  that Martin lived alone in a small bedsit overlooking the park.  He was lonely, she decided. 

“You don’t have any relatives?”

“Not here.  They live up-country.”

“You don’t get to see them very often?”

“Scarcely at all.  My father and I, we argue every time we meet.”

“So when did you last see him?”

“Oh – years.”

Martin was a software engineer.  “I’m sort of freelance.  I don’t get much work these days…”

“I bet you’re very good…”

“Things move so fast – I don’t keep up so well.”

Alana smiled consolingly, placing her hand on his.  “Martin, I can help you.”

Martin walked her home, and by the time they reached her door he was clinging to her hand as though his life depended upon it.  He looked up to her windows to see there was a light shining there.  “Your mum and your brother – I expect they’re home.”  He said wistfully.

“I think they are.”  She said.

“Will I see you again?”

“What about tomorrow evening, when you’re walking Rufus in the park?  I’d love to join you then.”

He smiled, comforted by the knowledge she had not been bored by him, that his conversations surrounding the swift evolution of software had somehow entertained her.

As if she were reading his mind, she said:  “Thank you for a lovely dinner and your company Martin.  It’s been fun.”

He waited, expecting her to turn, disappear through the door.  She waited, filling his eyes with hers.   Impulsive?  No, he was never that. So she leaned towards him, and kissed him, almost chastely: almost, but not quite.  He walked away before he had to admit he was crying.  

The hours to the following evening passed very slowly for Martin.  They were punctuated by impossible hopes and dreams which floated around the ethereal image of Alana.  Alana in the blue dress she had worn last night, Alana in white wedding weeds, Alana in – he could only dare himself to peep – nothing at all.  Guilt consumed him, anxiety possessed him, and fear (that she would not keep their assignation in the park) almost drove him to distraction.

He reached his habitual walk early, with Rufus in enthusiastic tow, but lingered.  He positioned himself upon a bench with a view of the park gates while Rufus fidgeted at his feet, eager to be walked.  From where he sat he could see Alana approach, watching her even, faun-like stride through the railings.  The evening was warm enough for the short green skirt she wore and the street quiet enough for the click of her heels to be audible.

Martin spotted the man in the red bomber jacket almost before Alana did. The man was young, well built with a strong face and a bold, confident stride – everything Martin was not.   He was walking towards Alana, he knew her.  A thousand tiny needles of apprehension pricked at the back of Martin’s eyes as he watched them meet, as they performed a ritual of hand gestures in pursuit of their hum of conversation.  HE was someone she would want to be with; the kind of man a girl like that deserved.   HE would have a decent income, a regular job, property, a fast car…

Alana saw Martin as soon as she turned away from the man.  She gave a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the man was watching before she waved cheerfully.   “You’re early!”   She said as she hurried towards him.  “Come on, Martin, let’s walk!”

He gave her one of his bleakest, most defeated smiles.  But he did not ask her about the man.  He dared not.  Alana did not volunteer any information; instead she snuggled cozily into his side, her arm through his as though they were already lovers, while Rufus trotted faithfully behind.  For what seemed an hour neither would break the silence, each just happy to bathe in the other’s company as a red sun set slowly over the distant hill.  At last, resting on the memorial benches by the lake, Martin summoned up all his courage.  With shaking fingers he took her chin as gently as he could and turned her to him.  Then, trying not to breathe, he kissed Alana on the lips.

She sighed, saying softly:  “Not bad.  Now let’s try that again.”  And she returned his kiss.  And she taught him how mouths could explore, and hands excite.

After a while, when his first lessons had been learned, Martin’s disbelief would no longer let him remain silent.  He asked:  “What is it?”

Alana rested her head upon his shoulder contentedly:  “What is what?”

He hesitated because he knew it was a question he should not ask:  “You know what I see in you.  What is it – what can you possibly – see in me?

She turned her head to his, so close he could feel the warm waft of her breath on his cheek, hear the tremulous edge in her voice.  “Perhaps I see much more than you do.  There’s something about you – and Rufus.  Don’t forget Rufus.  Perhaps vulnerability turns me on.”  She squeezed his hand.  “Come on, my little man, I want to take you home.”

So they walked again, retracing the steps that had directed them to their tryst, consumed with laughter and promise.   At the park gates, Martin found himself pausing to look up at Alana’s apartment windows.   “They’re not in tonight.”  She whispered.   “It’s just you and me, Martin.   Come on, let’s hurry!”

Rufus caught his human companions’ mood and pulled them heartily on his leash across the road and along the pavement on the further side,  To his own amazement, Martin was no longer afraid of himself.  He matched Alana’s pace as they hurried to her door, and almost skipped beside her on the wide stone stairs.  Inside the lobby of her apartment he took her in his arms and made her laugh at his ineptitude as he rained kisses on her cheeks, her neck, her arms…  Rufus snuffled, Rufus whimpered, Rufus growled.

The room was dark inside – dark and warm.  A faint, sweet scent filled the air.

“Don’t.”  She whispered, very close.  “Don’t turn on the lights.”

It was Alana who shook now, whose hands were quaking in the grip of her desire, the certain knowledge of his need. 

“You can touch me, Martin.  Touch me darling – I won’t break.  Come on now, don’t wait….don’t, don’t wait.”

It was surprising, in no subtle way, the lance of warmth that pierced his heart.  It found its path with so little pain, so little resistance he scarcely knew it had happened.  Alana was trembling in his arms and crying out her ecstasy.  He was shaking in hers; but it was not joy that made him so.   Making his final, desperate clutch at life his eyes took in the room, now lit; the table he was being thrust back upon, the long, thin knife in Alana’s hand.  And he clattered down beside the saw, and died.

#

“Hi!”  Alana said, pleased despite herself.  “Isn’t it a little early to come calling?”

“You settling in OK?”  Asked the young man in the red bomber jacket.  “I’m kind of interested, being your upstairs neighbor and all.”

“Yes.”  Alana leant against her doorpost.  “I’m fine.”

“Got yourself a dog.”  Rufus, a little scared of the young man, was hiding behind Alana’s legs.  She felt, rather than saw or heard, his presence.

“Yes, got him yesterday.  Nice dog.   Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

“I’m from Glasgow.”  Said the young man.  “You can probably tell from my accent.  Forgive me stopping you in the street like last night, but I couldn’t help thinking I knew you from somewhere.  Then I remembered:  you used to have red hair, right?”

“No, I think you have me mixed up with….”

“No, I don’t.  I worked in Glasgow CID, you see, before I transferred down here, and we had a lot of photographs of you.   Never did find your mother or your brother, never could hang anything on you.  Always squeaky clean, always tidy.  There was a lot of washing and tidying going on down here last night, wasn’t there?”

Alana was becoming annoyed:  “Look, I don’t know who you have got me mixed up with, but you’re wrong.  Now will you go away – please?”

“Fine dog, isn’t he?  Good retriever.”

“They always are, this breed.”  Rufus had come to sit at her heel.  She reached down to pet his shoulder.  “So what?”

“So he’s brought you a shoe.”

“Oh Rufus!”  Alana scolded.  “Whatever am I going to do with you?”  She looked down.   And she added in quite a different voice:  “Put it back, Rufus.”

But Rufus trusted the young man and he wanted to give him the shoe as a gift.  First, though, he had to adjust his grip, so he put the shoe down and, to achieve better balance, he picked it up again, holding it by the leg that was still wearing it…

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  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.

Continuum Episode 8 – Celeris

The story so far:

Wth a clear notion she must escape the Consensual City, Alanee sets out into its nightlife, determined to find the aerotrans port and Dag, her friendly pilot.  She is unaware she is being watched, or of the plotting that surrounds her.In the throng on the avenues, Alanee finds her concentration ebbing.  A gift of music from a goblin creature elates her, then leaves her irresolute and alone.  A bystander, sensitive to her distress, asks if he can help her…

“Thank you.”  Alanee finds words “Could you tell me where I can find the aerotran port, please?”

The man who has introduced himself as Celeris does not hesitate.  “I can do better.  It would be an honor to guide you, Lady.”

What is it about him that disturbs her?  “You’re very kind, but I don’t want to break up your discussion.”

Celeris looks puzzled for a moment.  “No, no.”  He casts a glance over his shoulder at the assembly he has left:  “They won’t even realize I have gone, I promise you.  Come, please!”

The hand he offers seems so finely-boned and fragile Alanee is afraid to grasp it lest it crumble, but his grip is firm and surprisingly confident.  “I shall look after you.”

He leads her by avenues and gardens, away from the nightlife of the City.  He leads with a purpose, but Alanee notices that no-one greets him as he passes, or acknowledges her.  She feels almost as though she is elsewhere, afloat on a different plane.

 “And you are Lady…?”

“I’m not sure you should call me ‘Lady’.  My name is Alanee.”

Celeris stops instantly, “You are undoubtedly a lady.”  He declares.  “I am privileged to know you, Lady Alanee!”

They continue walking. “You are not from around here, are you?”

“Are you?”  She returns.

“I?   Very much so, yes – all  my life!”

“Why does no-one know you?  At least, they don’t greet you, do they?”

His eyes engage with hers, though he does not stop walking.  “I’ve noticed that, too.”  His smile is impish.  “What brings you to the City?  You are far too beautiful for this ravening horde – they can hardly be restraining themselves.”

“I was brought, but no-one will tell me why,”  Alanee replies.   They arrive at the platform of a large door-less elevator which, its sign declares, is ‘descending’, threading their way into some free space between a small huddle of passengers who mostly wear flyers’ uniforms, similar to that sported by Dag when Alanee met him last.  There are one or two gold helmets among the crowd too, but although Alanee scans their faces, she cannot see her erstwhile pilot amongst this group.

“They’re being mysterious about it, are they?”  Celeris nods.  “The High Council are like that.  They relish a drama, a bit of mystery.  Don’t stand for it, Lady Alanee: demand to know your fate!”

“How do you know the High Council have anything to do with it?  I didn’t say that, did I?”

“Why no, you didn’t have to!  It is only by the invitation of the High Council that anyone may enter the Consensual City.  Such invitations are rare, so you must be someone quite important, I think; don’t you?”

This is not the first such challenge to leave Alanee floundering.  She does not reply.

At a warning chime the elevator slips downwards; an angled descent of about thirty degrees, through levels of various decoration and population.

At the fifth such level the aerotran deck declares itself.  Five large High Council aerotrans pose in orderly file while drabs fuss around them – one is clearly ready to leave, forcing Alanee to suppress an insane urge to run in case this should be Dag’s aerotran – in case she should miss the dark pilot whose face remains so fresh in her thoughts.

Celeris shows Alanee that she need only follow the general throng, for almost all the passengers on the elevator have disembarked here, and there is a general migration towards a suite to the right of the deck.  Once inside this unimposing area, however, most disperse:  speaking quietly among themselves they take stairs to upper levels, or filter through doors, leaving Celeris and Alanee alone in a dingy foyer with rushes for a floor and lackluster paint on its green walls.  As bland as the décor, a clerk at a scuffed wooden desk barely acknowledges their approach.

“I want to talk to an aerotran pilot!”  Alanee breaks the silence boldly.  “His name is Dag.  Could you tell him Alanee would like to see him?”

The clerk is writing something.  “Dag?  What makes you think he works here?”

“He’s an aerotran pilot!  Isn’t this where aerotran pilots work?”

The clerk gives her a sour look.  “Don’t be funny!  There are cargo pilots, and there are official pilots – oh, yeah, and there are taxi pilots.  They don’t all work from here.”

“Let us assume this one does?”  Celeris, until now content to be in the background, advances, speaking in clipped tones.  “Lady Alanee would like to speak with him.  Now.”

It is as if somewhere within dark halls of the clerk’s mental anatomy a light has been switched on.  His tone lifts a half-octave.  “He may be in.  I’ll just check for you, Lady Alanee.”

A screen on the shielded side of the desk flickers into life.  The clerk scrolls with his left hand, tracking the lines of script as they pass with his right forefinger.

“Yes.  Yes, you must mean Master Pilot Dag Swenner.  I’m afraid Master Pilot Swenner is on outward flight at the moment, Lady.  He isn’t due back until the day after tomorrow.  Would you like to send him a message?”

No, Alanee sighs, no message.  A forlorn hope, anyway, she convinces herself:  why should a man who did no more than ferry her once be the salvation she seeks?  But still, she would have liked to see him, and the thought of him out there alone makes her sad.

“I’m sorry your friend is away.”  Celeris says as they take the ascending elevator.  “A master pilot, too.  You have excellent taste in friends.”

“Well, not my friend, really.”  Alanee admits; “Just someone to talk to.”

Celeris moves so he stands directly facing her, letting her have the full force of his incisive stare.  “Talk to me.”

She demurs, “Oh, you don’t…”

“But I do!  Lady Alanee, I want to know everything about you.  Come now, indulge me!”

And so Alanee does.  Shyly at first, she tells him of her home in Balkinvel, and the warm Hakaani plains that roll like an ocean swell in the morning mist, recalling the afternoon when she was lifted from everything she loved and knew to be brought to this strange place.  At the use of the word ‘strange’ Celeris laughs (a soft sympathetic laugh) and nods approvingly.

“Strange indeed!”

“Very.  I bought this dress.  It took every credit I had.  I thought it looked good but now I’m wearing it I don’t know.  Everyone stares at me.  It’s OK, apparently, if some revolting little monstrosity publicly tries to stick his hand on my breast, yet if I show any leg I’m a harlot or something….”

“Stop, stop!”  Her companion raises his hands defensively:  “You mustn’t heed the ways of the city, Lady!  Your dress perfectly frames your beauty:  it is that they stare upon.  They are filled with regret because after seeing you they will have to go back to their wives!”

He speaks over the throng (they have returned to the humdrum of the avenue where they met) “Lady Alanee, would you do me the honor of dining with me?  There is a diner near here where the food is superb, and I would really enjoy sharing it with you.”

Alanee would politely decline, but she is quite hungry; and this oddly child-like man makes a charming companion:  so she says:  “Why thank you, Sire Celeris!  The honor would definitely be mine!”   

So, behind another green door, in another honeycomb of warm, confidential spaces and comfortable upholstery she comes to be pouring out the rest of her story.  She tells it all, or nearly all, from her interview with Cassix and Remis at the Terminal through to the moment Celeris, appeared to her out of the crowd.  She withholds only two things, the details of her interview with the High Councillors (Sala has warned her not to discuss such matters) and the reason for her quarrel with Sala.

Food has been placed before them; a sort of spicy fish steak in a sauce so intensely flavored it takes Alanee’s breath away.  As they eat Celeris listens, nodding once in a while.  When she lapses at last into silence, her story done, he asks:  “And what do you think of our city?  Apart from ‘strange’, I mean?”

“I think it is a very grand city.  If I were a city girl, I would love it.”

“But…?”

“But I’m not.”

“So this Dag, he is your means of escape?  You hope he will take you back to your home?”

Alaneee bites her lip.  Should she confess?  He seems so kind, but what if this Celeris is some high official, who will turn her in?  “No!  No, Celeris, I see that I must stay here.  Perhaps when I understand what is being asked of me, things will feel better.  For now, I just need a friend.”

Celeris reaches across the table and rests his hand on hers.  Though his touch is cool the vibrancy of his whole being pulses within it.  “Would you consider me a friend?”

Alanee thinks of the one she had hoped to reach tonight.  She cannot help comparing Dag with this enigmatic creature.  Yet he is listening well, he understands.  Sometimes it is only necessary to be there.  “You’re very sweet.  I think you’re already my friend.”

Celeris radiates delight.  The squeeze of his hand is like a static shock that sends arrows of warmth through Alanee’s whole body.  “Thank you!  I know we shall be great, great friends!”

They eat and talk, talk and eat:  and the hours pass, and evening becomes night, and in no time at all it seems that midnight is upon them.  Celeris takes Alanee’s hand to walk her home.

“How will I find you again?”  She asks, adding hurriedly:  “If you want me to find you?”

“I will show you how this is done.  Have you your summoner?”

Alanee has long forgotten the miscellany within her clutch-bag.  She rummages.

“This?”

“Yes.  It’s your link to all who know you within the city.  If I press my finger upon this pad – so – I join that happy society.  There, see?  My name upon your screen.”

“I live here.”  Outside her door, Alanee does not want the talking to end, does not want to be alone.  Were she bolder she would invite Celeris in, just so they could talk some more; just so she is not alone…

“I’d better get to bed.  I’m sure they’ll want me early in the morning.”

“Of course.”  Celeris bows ceremoniously.  “Good night, Lady Alanee.  I have so enjoyed this evening.  I hope we will meet again very soon.”

He has taken her hand, brushed it lightly to his lips.  Alanee watches him go, striding along the avenue with a purpose that belies his stature.  Later, when she lingers at the door of sleep, trying once more to center her mind on the prospect of escape, she will realize that all the talking through the hours has been about her.  She knows nothing about Celeris at all.

#

Of the gathered High Council, only Trebec notices Portis as he enters the Council Chamber.  The florid man’s face is etched with care.

“Are we all present?”  Portis asks.

“We await Sire Calvin, I think…no!  Here he is…”  Trebec’s voice is strained.

“You know more than I, clearly – what’s amiss?”

“You will learn.”

The Council is called to order by the Domo.  Slowly, for these are men and women of advanced years, chairs around a vast polished mahogany table are occupied.  “Sire Cassix.  I believe you requested this summons?”

Cassix rises to his feet.  The Seer is not among Portis’s closer acquaintances:  to Cassix’s mind Portis always looks hungry, as though he is anticipating his next meal but knows he will have to negotiate to get it.  This evening he looks especially starved.

“I bring grave news.  Sire Carriso, I know this should have reached you first, as Councillor for Dometia, but such is the urgency I thought it best to deliver this report to the whole Council.  Please forgive me.”

Cassix draws breath, drawing his shoulders back, aware that all eyes are upon him.  “This afternoon a little after 4.00 pm I sensed a disturbance of immense size from the direction of the Kaal valley in central Dometia.   It was of such proportions I could not clearly define it at first, but upon checking, I discovered that the foundry at Takken ceased production at that time.  Shortly after, a distress call from Kaalvenbal, the principal town of the region, spoke of the River Kaal as ‘boiling’.  Subsequently, a high static electrical charge in the air began to burn the citizens of that town. Our last report, an hour ago, spoke of ‘buildings alight, people suffocating’.  Thereafter all communication ceased.  I have received no news from Kaalvenbal since then.”

A rising murmur of consternation threatens to drown Cassix’s voice.  He pauses to allow the substance of his report to sink in.

“How?”  Carriso asks, distressed:  “How has this happened?”

Cassix shakes his head.  “I cannot say.”

“You are the Seer.  If you can’t…”

Cassix’s heart goes out to the young Councillor.  “I know how you love your people, Carriso.  If I could comprehend this myself I would tell you more.  It’s completely outside my experience.”

Portis swallows hard:  “Do you have any ideas, then; any theories, Cassix?”

“Not as such.  You will recall I made reports last year regarding a disturbance in the eastern sky I have referred to as the Continuum.  There may be a connection.”

A suppressed ‘harrumph’ comes from Councillor Selech’s end of the table.  Selech heads a group Cassix calls the ‘Continuum Skeptics’.

Cassix continues; “Three days ago I became aware of a significant increase in the size and activity of the Continuum.  I mentioned this at our last gathering.  I have been diverted since then so I have not had an opportunity to check it again.”

This suggestion instigates a clamor of dissent.  The Domo raises his hand.  “Sires, let us have quiet.  Cassix, how large an area is affected by this event?”

“The only evidence so far is anecdotal:  an aerotran pilot delivering plasma supplies to Kaalvenbal called in:  he spoke emotionally of a ‘cylinder of fire without heat’ rising several thousand meters into the air.  He seemed to think its girth was at least forty miles, but…”

“But what?”

“He was overwrought, disoriented.  We lost contact with him afterward, and his aerotran does not respond to our sensors.”

“He’s dead, in other words,”  Trebec mutters.

The Domo’s fat fingers drum upon the table’s polished wood.  “Speculation avails us nothing.  We will send a second aerotran to survey the extent of this enormity.  Carriso, you must organize medical facilities; we will send the supplies and specialists the Dometians need.

“Trebec, make Braillec your base to prepare a surface expedition to the scene.”

Sire Calvin, most ancient of the Councillors, intervenes in his high, piping voice:  “Sire Domo: all this electrical activity….is it possible that for a while these citizens might be deprived of The Word?”

The Domo nods, casting a worried glance in Carisso’s direction.  The Dometian’s skin is drained of all pallor.  “Sire Trebec, maybe you should despatch a Legion from Braillec to escort your expedition, just in case?”

“NO! No, Sire!”  Carriso finds his feet, impassioned.  “You think I don’t see what you intend?”

Calvin tries to placate him:  “They are our people too, Carriso.”

For a moment no-one speaks.  Carriso, watched with pity and concern by every member of  High Council, stands motionless, then, with a sound akin to a sob, the Dometian Councillor rushes from the room.

The Domo sighs heavily:  “Gentlemen, that will be all for tonight.  We await more detail.”

Slowly, and by diminishing pools of earnest conversation, the High Council disperses.  In an antechamber, Calvin takes Cassix to one side.  He speaks quietly.

“Cassix, is it possible your thoughts add up to more than your lips divulge?”

The Seer nods.  “I am already considered eccentric by two-thirds of the Council, downright dangerous by the rest.  That does make restraint the wiser course.”

“Well, I consider you neither, so I am to be discounted.  Speak, man?”

“Very well.”

From across the room, Councillor Portis watches as Cassix and Calvin converse in low, confidential tones.  As words float between them, he sees the ancient Councillor’s parchment skin pale more than his years dictate.  When they part, he thinks he detects tears on the old man’s cheeks.

#

Nearly two thousand miles to the south and east of the Consensual City a malefic red orb of a sun is rising, glowering down upon the blackened valley of the River Kaal.  Its early glare flows across naked rock like fresh blood – the dark, arterial blood of departing life. 

No more the village, Kaal-Takken is nothing but charcoal twigs ready to topple in the first breeze:  no more the people, for they are gone – just gone.  And no more the river where the sweet Saleen swam in gentler light.  The river is dry.

#

By the habbarn where the child slumbers his Mother watches.  She gazes fondly upon his sleeping face, recalling happy hours of love and games so innocent they brought her own childhood again into her life.  And she grieves for those times, knowing they have passed.

The child is a man now, or soon to be.  His games have changed, their naive simplicity become more sinister, their nature destructive, their consequences far-reaching. 

Oh, she has missed none of the physical changes; longer face, broadening shoulders, bold, self-confident stance.  Although she may not undress him now, she is too close to him not to notice his obvious manhood, which frequently embarrasses him because he does not understand.  She would explain to him, he needs to know, yet this defensive wall growing between them somehow prevents her.

He called her ‘Mother’ tonight, not ‘Mummy’.  It was the first time.  And he would not permit her to tuck him up, or kiss his forehead as she always did.  This, she knows, is natural change:  the end of one thing, the beginning of another, but she hates it!  And when she looks into their future – her future, Hasuga’s future – she sees only fear.

Tonight the fear shall not be hers alone.  It will waft like a contagion through the splendid avenues, the trysting alleys, the tall trees and waters of the park.  Its insidiousness will seep into the greatest minds of the City, and the least suspecting; for all will succumb to that first shred of doubt.  Something a thousand miles away has served them notice, and it must not be ignored.

© 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-Two A Letter

The story so far: 

In Abbot’s Friscombe, the nearby home village of the Smith family, Jennifer Althorpe, a journalist for a major national newspaper devoted to sabotaging Joe’s brother Ian Palliser’s political career is at work, trying to stir up a scandal story by rekindling anger over Joe’s reputed involvement in Rodney Smith’s fatal motoring accident, some years before.

Meanwhile, unaware the net is closing, Joe accepts Sophie’s invitation to go horse riding together – a lyrical day out culminating in an act of love which Joe unwittingly destroys by blurting out the name of Marian, his deceased lover.

For the whole of that night Joe lay uneasily in his bed, applying the salves of drink and deductive reasoning to his wounded conscience.  But the more he explored his thoughts and feelings, the more he had to accept there was no logic to be found.  Sophie was as perfect a companion, perhaps even a partner, as he could ever wish for; he was attracted to her and yet he had used her.  Brilliantly though Sophie’s star shone, at one spontaneous, disastrous moment it was Marian who had filled his heart.  Just as once, in another unforgettable instant, Emma Blanchland had worn Sarah Halsey’s mask; Emma Blanchland who was now Emma Peterkin and lost to him forever.  Why?  What part of him insisted he should not move on, but always cling to the impossible, to the memory, to the romantic dream?  He was fairly certain he could fall in love with Sophie – if it were not too late.

In the afternoon when Joe returned Julia had a letter for him from Carnaby, his solicitor, suggesting they appoint to meet, so he had telephoned:  the old man seemed to think there was a matter of some importance to resolve, and Joe had promised to visit him at eleven the next morning.  Before he left for the town, he called Sophie, counting himself fortunate that it was the daughter, not her mother, who picked up the ‘phone.

“Mr. Palliser; how considerate of you to call.”  If words were knives their cut could have been no deeper.

“Please, Sophie, don’t be angry with me!”

“No?  You have other expectations?”

“I know I messed up, and right now it must seem unforgiveable, but Sophie…”

Seem unforgivable?”

“Alright; alright.  Completely unforgiveable.  And I wish I could explain it, I really do.  You can’t imagine how wretched I feel!”

“Oh, I believe I can!  About as wretched as you made me feel, and a little worse, I hope!”  Sophie sighed, letting her anger dissipate, then said, in a more subdued tone:  “It was a mistake, Joe – an awful misjudgement.”

“Something terrible possessed me.  I can’t explain how, but there’s so much that’s  good between us, so much that feels right, and I… ”

Sophie cut in:  “You might as well know, I’m driving up to London with Daddy this evening. He thinks it’s time I made use of my Two-One in Art History, as do I.  He knows the owner of a gallery who will offer me some work.”

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t believe I will.  The Bayswater flat is big enough for us both and I shall live there.  Daddy will continue to come back at weekends, of course, but I rather think I will stay in town, at least for a while.  It’s time I built an existence of my own.”

“So that’s it?   One stupid mention of a name, and it’s all over?”

“I think it’s for the best.  On a personal note, Joe, there are things you need to sort out.  When you’ve found that brother of yours, see if you can find yourself.”  Her voice was chill.  “Until you have, I believe I should keep well clear; for my own sake, do you see?”

Before he could make any riposte, the line went dead.

Had he means to see, to hear, Sophie after she replaced her receiver, Joe might have bitten back the helpless frustration he felt.  For the Sophie that her mother saw, across the hallway of their home was pale, with eyes dark-shaded where she had not slept.

“He matters, doesn’t he, darling?” Emily Forbes-Pattinson said.

Sophie nodded in silent reply.  “Do you know the one thing he didn’t say, Mummy?  Not once.  He didn’t say he was sorry.”

 

Joseph set off for his meeting with Carnaby in Braunston with Sophie’s words still churning in his thoughts, and only the urgent compulsion to find Michael driving him on.  He could harbour no illusions – his solicitor’s urgency must mean the result of Marian’s autopsy had arrived, and he was giving way to some form of panic, beginning to feel the need to put physical distance between this place, these emotions, and himself.  Perhaps Emma’s advice and Ian’s offer would not have been such bad choices after all.  With this conclusion refusing to take a sensible form he parked up outside Carnaby and Pollack.  Carnaby was in reception when he arrived and greeted him cordially.

“Joe, Joe!  Come in; do.  Take a seat.”  Carnaby waved a bunch of papers in one hand as he sat behind his desk, stirring up a small flurry of dust from the tooled leather.  “Here!”  He said triumphantly, as though he had just discovered the papers:  “These!  Are you sitting comfortably, my dear boy?”  Joe nodded, waiting.  A pause, then, with sudden gravity:  “Are you ready for a shock?”

Joe did not answer – could not.

Shock!  Marian, dead in his arms, filled with the drugs he had bought her – the moments of that night he could not remember, no matter how hard he tried.   Second autopsy, police investigation:  oh, god, what had he done?  A surge of sheer fright rose in his chest:  he could hear his genie’s insane laughter, see the mist rising.

“Dear chap!  You look quite ill!”  Carnaby pressed his intercom, summoning aid.  Struggling to breathe, Joseph recovered sufficient consciousness to discover he was accepting a glass of water from an attentive secretary.  The elderly solicitor was bending over him, his face a mirror of concern.  Joe drank deeply.

“I really did not mean to alarm you, dear chap; I am so, so sorry!”  Carnaby fussed.  “Do you feel better now?”

The secretary was called Naomi and she was, Joe thought, quite pretty.  Her large dark eyes were anxious. “Should I call the doctor, do you suppose?”  She asked.

Joe raised a hand.  “No, it’s all right.  I get this sometimes, I’m not ill.  Did I pass out?”

“Very nearly, I think.”  Carnaby told him.  “Have you had this looked into, Joseph?”

Joe said that he had, that the doctors had told him it was all to do with stress.

“Well, I have good news then.”

Joe was incredulous, and must have looked it.  “Good news?”

The solicitor nodded to Naomi, who retreated, closing the door behind her.  “Yesterday I received these…”  He waved the papers again.  “The full copy of Marian Brubaeker’s Last Will and Testament.  The terms of the will make it clear you are Mrs Brubaeker’s principle beneficiary.  There are some details to be worked out, of course, but you may rest assured.  You are heir to virtually her entire fortune.”

Joe was still trying to clear the buzzing in his head.  He blinked at Carnaby:  “But I thought her husband…”

“No longer.  Mr Brubaeker won’t contest it.  That’s final.”

“Weren’t the police involved?”  The journalist – Lynd – had he been lying?

Carnaby shook his head.  “Brubaeker was asking for a second autopsy at one stage, but of course with the information now at our disposal, he won’t want to proceed.  No point, dear boy, is there?”

“Information?”  Joe repeated stupidly.

“There!  You see?   You haven’t had the letter!  Third party in this matter is so inefficient!  I’ve never dealt with such a slipshod firm! (Carnaby’s opinion of a no doubt beleaguered Mr Gooch had obviously altered in the course of their dealings – such reversals in Alistair Carnaby’s estimation were not uncommon)  You should have been told, Joe, because you obviously didn’t know.  Marian Brubaeker had congenital heart disease – she would have been aware of it, especially because, it seems, in her case corrective surgery didn’t work.  I obtained a full diagnosis from the record of her medical history, which, if anyone else had bothered to examine it in detail, would have saved us all a lot of trouble.  My take on this is that Mr Brubaeker was well aware of his wife’s condition, but completely unaware of you until her will was read to him.  The second autopsy threat was nothing more than that – a threat.  He hoped to see you scurry away at the proposition of a police investigation.  Bless her, she could have popped off at any moment.”

“So she died of a heart attack?”

“Heart failure,” Carnaby nodded.  “Hastened possibly because she was in the habit of taking stimulants, but there was no doubt as to the cause of death.  The day before she died she had seen her consultant:  he foresaw an event and tried to persuade her to stay in hospital, but she wanted to die in her own home.  So that was that – dreadful affair, absolutely tragic.  Poor woman!

“But if I may be so indelicate this makes you a rich man, Joseph.  Because Mrs Brubaeker had been examined by a highly qualified consultant close to her time of death we have the best possible testimony that she was of sound mind, therefore her husband – they were virtually estranged, by the way, did you know that? – has no grounds to contest the will!”  He slapped the papers down on his desk then performed a small act of contrition, tidying the sheets into a neat stack.   “I will proceed with the details at this end, if in the meantime you seek some advice as to the disposition of funds.  I can help you with that, too, if you so wish.  Take time to consider, Joseph; that’s my recommendation.  Oh, and one more thing…”  Carnaby pulled a sealed envelope from his desk drawer:  “Amongst Mrs Brubaeker’s effects we found this – it’s addressed to you.

“Of course, the assurance of this money will grease the axles of your house purchase considerably, unless your plans will now change?  I imagine you could afford something rather larger.  I’ll send you the paperwork.  Now, do you want me to order a car for you?  I don’t believe you should drive yourself, at least not for a while.”

Around the corner of the street there was a café Joe had used occasionally in the days when he was Carnaby’s clerk.  Still somewhat disorientated, he sat heavily at a table, ordering coffee and sandwiches from a fragile-looking waitress.   Then, with some apprehension, he opened the envelope Marian had addressed with the simple word ‘Joseph’, and unfolded the letter it contained.

“My dearest, dearest Joe,

Oh, how should I begin this letter?  The very fact that you are reading it means that now you know a truth I could never bring myself to tell you.  You see, I have the mark of The Reaper upon me as surely as you have the mark of Cain upon you.  We both know our destinies, don’t we?

I told you once, Joe, that although you have many gifts, earning your own living does not feature among them.  So I have made certain you will never have to, my dear.  I don’t expect you to run my businesses if you don’t want to, in fact I wonder really if you should. Janessa Marchant, whom you know, would make a very able Managing Director if you wish them to continue.  I took the small liberty of offering her an interim contract until you decide what to do.   My solicitors are arranging valuations, so you will be able to sell them for quite a handsome sum if you elect to do so.

  Darling boy, you have given me a life; something no amount of money can ever repay.  Our years together have been such a wonder to me, more precious than words can express.  Thank you for each minute of each hour of each day we spent together, for your patience with my silly tantrums, your understanding of my moods and needs.

Don’t mourn me, please.  Don’t feel grateful: the gratitude is all mine.  If you keep the Alsace house, as I hope you will, when you visit there in one of those glorious summers spare a moment to remember me?  I cannot imagine anyone else but you inside those walls, my darling.  We were so happy there, weren’t we?

Take very special care of yourself.  Live, love someone who understands you, be happy, my sweet Joe.

In my last sleep, with my last breath, I will think of you.

My deepest love,

Your Marian.”

“You alright, mister?”  The waitress asked him.

 

There was nothing that Joe could do with the rest of that day, or most of the day that followed.  So profoundly affected was he that thoughts of Sophie, or Michael, or the Parkin murder and everything that arose from that were pushed to the back of his mind for a while.   Instead, he was filled with the recollection of his last night with Marian;  with his new understanding of her behaviour in those few final hours, which shamed him now because of the tawdry manner in which he had attempted to cover up his involvement in her death.  Although he could only consign that dreadful morning to the past, he resolved to accord her memory the respect he denied to her body in death.  He would walk with her forever in his thoughts.  Without regret or apology, Marian would always have a place in his heart.

On the evening following his appointment with Carnaby, Joseph told his aunt and uncle of his inheritance.  How should he not, when its consequences would affect all their lives so profoundly?  To his surprise, Owen’s was the gentler, intuitive reaction:  “I suspected there was something more to tell, Joseph.  You know old chap, for such a secretive person you’re deplorably bad at keeping secrets.”

Julia was infuriated.  “How dare you not tell us, Joe?  How could you keep something like that from us?  That poor woman!”

But it was a tempest that soon blew itself out.  They were happy for him because they shared Marian’s assessment of Joe’s character, and they could be content now, knowing that at least he would be comfortably off.

Although Marian had forbade him to mourn, Joe grieved for her in ways he could not share with his aunt and uncle, for Marian was no more than a name to them.  Instead, he ‘phoned someone who had known her well.  “Is that Janessa?  I thought it only fair you should hear this from me.  I’d like you to stay on as Managing Director, if you would.  Yes, I will be keeping the companies on, but I’ll be only distantly involved.  Marian had great faith in you.”

“I’m so glad,”  Janessa rejoined;  “I’ll get on with the Winter collection.  It’s good that something she achieved will survive in her memory.  We all loved her, you know.”

“As did I,”  Joe said.

For an hour, or very nearly, he and Janessa shared words that expressed their remembrance of Marian, opening gates that perhaps had been closed to them both.  And if it is not remembered who wept and who did not, at least this mutual expression of grief was a way for them both to rise above depths of woe; which in Joe’s case allowed him to begin thinking rationally again – thinking, that is, of Michael.

 

“Ah, I was expecting you.”  It was something less than a welcome.  Margaret Farrier surveyed Joseph from the shelter of her doorway.  “You’d better come in, I suppose.”

Hatton House was a smart, double fronted stone building towards the west end of Cross Street, the road which ran from Church Lane by St. Andrew’s Church to Feather Lane at the corner where stood the now-closed King’s Head pub.  Margaret’s Georgian front windows overlooked most of Hallbury to the Common beyond; then beyond again to the grey backcloth of the Calbeck Hills.

Margaret Farrier was something of an enigma as far as the village was concerned; very tall, almost six feet in height, with a pride of bearing which spoke of a distinguished family whose history in the Parish traced back a number of generations, Her appearance was that of a woman twelve years younger than her true age; her skin still moist and youthful, her eyes lively, her mouth firm.  The hair on her head was almost jet black, tied back so it shone.  She was in all ways an impressive lady, with an indomitable disposition.

Her associations also served to impress.   The meadow across the street from her house was Farrier’s Meadow, named after her great grandfather:  a roadside bench on Church Hill bore the family name; a steep rise behind the house was Farrier Hill.  Even the old wrecked thresher that lay crumbling in Flodder Field was known as the Farrier machine.  Then there was a scholarship to the local High School, a prize for the Shire’s most promising artist.  Yet distinguished as she was Margaret was in her forties now and unmarried.  Her only close relationship, as far as was known, was with her brother.  Patrick did not live in the same house (he rented a room with the Pardin’s on Feather Lane) but would, for example, always accompany her to church, or take her to Braunston, if she had need.  General opinion agreed that neither of them would ever marry, and it was almost certain that with their departure, the Farrier family line would die, too.

Margaret led Joe briskly to her drawing room, motioning to a chair.

“I’m not to your liking.”  Joe said, as he sat down.

She stared.  “What makes you say that?”

“I make ripples?”

“You are given to cause disruption, yes, that is true.  However, that is not always such a bad thing, young man.  You should be careful with your relationships, perhaps.  You have the village fairly buzzing with rumours.”  She sat opposite him, folding her knee-length skirt carefully across her legs.  “Now, what do you want of me?”

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

 

© 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.

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