Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Two.

Prince Fuisal was something of a disappointment to Rowena:  she had anticipated a thobe of flowing white, a ghutra and a beard.  Instead she got a rather affable young man in a business suit, with very little hair at all.  Nevertheless, she caught herself curtseying as he greeted her.

“Your Highness!”

“Ah yes.  This is – what is the expression – ‘the little woman’.  Is that correct, Mr. Parfitt?”

Needless to say, Rowena did not immediately take to the young Prince; not that it mattered, since from that point onwards he scarcely acknowledged her existence.

When Julian had finished choking, he invited his guest to the house for tea.

The Prince was unenthusiastic.  “Tea.  Yes, of course. Tea.  Lead the way, Parfitt!”

As soon as tea was served (by Rowena, naturally) the Prince seemed eager to get down to business.

“Tell me your proposition, Parfitt.”

“Well,”  Said Julian;  “What I suggest is this….”

The Prince’s hand restrained him.  With a regal nod, he indicated Rowena.  “You wish to discuss business in front of your woman?  How quaint.”

“Oh, no, don’t embarrass yourself!”  Said Rowena:  “I’ll be in the scullery scrubbing the floor if you want me, husband.”  And she left, closing the door with a violence that set the remains of her dinner service wobbling perilously on the dresser.

Rowena did not meet the Prince again.  She heard his laughter as Julian unfolded his plans, then the front door closing as he departed.  Within an hour of its arrival, Prince Fuisal’s launch was bearing him back out into the bay.  That evening the ‘Xanadu’  gracefully and silently slipped its moorings.  By the morning of the following day, it was as if the third in line to the throne of Al Flaberri had never visited.

For another week Julian’s island basked peacefully in pale Scottish sunshine.  Rowena so loved this place with its moody climate and magnificent scenery that she soon forgot her ill humour, even to the point of forgiving Julian.  She preferred not to know what his discussions with the Prince had entailed, and certainly Julian was not eager to tell her, so she began to revive her daily routine and pursue her own interests.  She fed the hens, milked the cow and the goat Julian had insisted they buy (though neither of them had any background in animal husbandry) and worked at the well-nigh impervious garden.  The wind riffled through her hair, her skin bronzed in the subtle sun, she breathed the richly oxygenated air and felt glad to be alive.  For a while she almost made herself believe that the natural gas resources had sealed themselves up and the whole thing was forgotten; but of course it wasn’t.  On the seventh day, insidious hell oozed in from the ocean.

Boats chugged quietly into the bay late on Saturday night: by morning they were gone.  Along the shore a camouflage net covered the equipment they had left behind, and the accommodation for the workers who came with it.

These were riggers, whose intrusion was neither subtle nor brief.  They were possibly most remarkable for their ability to turn a simple portacabin upon the jetty into a thriving public house, which sprang into life at seven p.m. (just after the heavy machinery which littered the island had shut down) and did not acquiesce until well into the following morning.  During the day they worked under cover, with the extensive use of camouflage netting and disguised vehicle movements; a mystery to Rowena, one which Julian seemed reluctant to explain.  They came, they gave their hosts six weeks of unremitting torment, and they left.  Peace descended once more, but it was a gurgling, vibrant peace.  It was the peace of pipes laid and lying idle, of machines which did not turn, of vehicles which squatted covertly in hollows and caves.  It was a peace waiting to be breached.

Rowena slipped meekly out from beneath the ice-pack she had adopted as a permanent night-time companion.  Frequently of late she had found it necessary to remind herself of the day of the week; even, in stormy interludes, whether it was day or night.  This morning, she was certain, was a Wednesday.  She would remember, later, that it was a Wednesday.  Sun-glow bathed the little bedroom where she often slept alone now.  She dressed quickly, for the advancing year brought a fresh, invigorating bite to the breeze.

It was Rowena’s habit, in the early day, to don her biggest sweater and stomp the upward mile to the summit of Ben Adderhochie, from whence it was possible to see the mainland afar off in one direction, and to imagine the Americas, half a world away, in the other.  This sense of space and freedom excited her so much that she would make a little dance for herself at times, and, miles from sight of any other human, cavort around the top of the Ben like Julie Andrews on speed.  The breeze was exceptionally fresh that morning – that Wednesday.  Rowena had already become familiar with the long jetty Julian’s riggers had built, probing out from the north shore for nearly half a mile – but this Wednesday…..

Julian was already up and making coffee when Rowena, white-faced, threw the door open.

“Steady, old girl!  You’ll have the hinges off!”  He said.

“Have you – do you know what’s out there?”  Rowena stammered.

“Er – no, dear?”  Julian played along.

“A tanker.  A big, gigantic, huge, no – not just huge – massive tanker!”

“The Al-Rasheed, I believe she’s called – this one.”

“THIS ONE!  How many are there??”

“Well, we’re scheduled to accept six.  Although, if the weather breaks, of course….”  Julian waved his hand vaguely.  “Coffee, dear?”

“Yes please, one sugar.”  Rowena slumped into a chair at the big breakfast table.  “I suppose it’s a silly question, but what exactly is a super-tanker doing anchored so close to our island?”

“Oh, loading with gas.”  Julian replied mildly.  “They – we – have equipment to condense it: that way we can send it anywhere in the world.”

“We?”

“The Shahiree-Parfitt Corporation:  Prince Fuisal owns the Shahiree half, of course, but he can’t admit to that, being royal – wouldn’t be ethical.”

For some while now, Rowena had been sensing a growing weight upon her shoulders.

“Julian; are you quite mad?  Have you any idea what is going to happen when the mainland finds out about this?”

“Oh, they already have.  I told them yesterday.  They were asking about the jetty.”

“My god!  We’ll have the police, customs, the bloody British Army here.  Julian,” Rowena took a decision;  “I’m leaving you.”

“Are you dear?”  Julian responded mildly:  “You’ll need a passport.”

“A passport?  A boat to the mainland, that’s all I need, Julian.”

“No dear.  Sorry, but they won’t let you in.  You see, as of yesterday, you became a citizen of the Republic of Aga.  We’ve got our own flag, and everything.”

“You’re insane.  They’ll murder us!”

“No.”  Said Julian.  “No. they won’t.  The Republic of Aga has declared itself to be under the protection of the Kingdom of Al Flaberri.  Now the King of Al Flaberri (Fuisal’s dad) is a great mate of our Royals, and his country is strategically important to Britain in the Middle East.  He buys lots of planes, and things.  This is his son’s pet project at the moment.  If the British try to interfere, Flaberri will order them out of their naval base in the Gulf.  Very knotty problem, that, for the British.  Oh, and by the way, we also declared an alliance with Iran.”

Rowena burst into tears and ran from the room.  Ten minutes later, she returned.

“It won’t work.”  She said.

“Yes, it will.  Not for very long, but for long enough.  After the initial enquiry, the diplomatic counterpoint, a court case, an appeal, then another to the European Court (we’ve applied for membership of the Community) and the final settlement – I’d say a year, at least.  That’s a minimum of twelve tankers, even given the worst weather.  After expenses that will yield about a hundred and sixty million.”

“You said ‘settlement’”

“I did.  The ultimate answer will, of course, be for the British to buy the island.  With mineral rights, I’d say another two hundred and fifty million or so?  With a bit of skilled negotiating, we should be able to retain royalties.  We need a good estate agent.”

Throughout this explanation Rowena’s mouth had been dropping slowly open.  Her knees felt quite unsteady.  “Then what happens to us?  Poor old Aga’s going to be not much more than a slag heap.”

“I’m negotiating for a different Island; somewhere warmer.  The South Pacific, actually.  I think you’ll like it.”

“Come to bed!”  Said Rowena.

“Oh, one thing I did forget to mention.  It may be necessary to convert to Islam.”

“Come to bed, husband!”

At this point the relationship between Julian and Rowena might have turned something of a corner:  there is no more effective bandage for a wounded marriage than a seven-figure bank statement, especially if the draft constitution of your newly-adopted nation makes no provision for divorce.  Besides, as First Lady of the Republic of Aga, Rowena had duties to perform and an image to live up to.  The reason their relationship did not, in fact, improve, we shall now relate.

The fledgling republic got off to a nervous start. Constant over-flying by Royal Air Force jet fighters was nothing more than they, as residents on a Scottish island, had come to expect.  However, now the gloves were metaphorically back on the hat-stand these aircraft flew lower and with considerably more menace.  Helicopters kept appearing over Ben Adderhochie, a reconnaissance plane droned constantly in the background.  When, the next morning, a Royal Navy destroyer anchored off the bay, Rowena suggested that maybe Julian’s fabulous plan was not working.

“It’s OK,”  Julian said.  “I sent a warning against trespassing in Republic of Aga airspace.  They’ll desist very soon.”

And they did.

Anthony James Poulson was staring contemplatively at his bag of golf clubs one Friday morning when his senior, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, stuck his head around the door.

“A word, AJ?”

“Certainly!”  said Poulson affably.  “Albatross.  Will that do?”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Not at all – that’s a very nice word:  better than eagle, for example, or birdie?”

“I’m being serious, old man.”  The under-secretary drew up one of A.J’s rather comfy leather chairs.  “It concerns this chap Parfitt.”

“Oh god, no.  What’s he done now?”  Poulson’s tantalising vision of the fifteenth at sunset began to fade.

“Well, it isn’t so much what he’s done, as what we haven’t – if you’ll forgive the grammar.  It’s been a month now, during which time he’s managed to turn around six tankers-full of high grade natural gas, and we don’t seem to be doing anything.”

AJ spread his hands.  “What can we do?  It’s a complete stand-off, as far as I can see.  Faisal’s slaughtering birds on some very choice grouse moor with our beloved Prince even as we speak.”

“There must be something.  Where is he selling all this gas?”

An awkward silence ensued.  A.J. Poulson seemed to have something in his eye.  “Well, to us, actually.”

“I must have misheard you,” the under-secretary said slowly:  “For a moment I thought you said ‘to us’.

A.J. coughed.  “Auchterwootie Refinery is just eighty miles south of Aga.  He gets an excellent price, and the trip for the tankers is so short they can run a shuttle service.  It works very well.”

The under-secretary looked as though he was about to explode.

“Well, it’s not our refinery;”  A.J. defended.  “It belongs to Swell PB.  We can’t stop them.”

There was a considerable interval while the under-secretary recovered from this piece of information.  At last he said:  “Do you have any idea – any idea – how ridiculous this makes us look?”

“Absolutely, under-secretary.  The King of Flaberri is having a bit of joke, I think, at our expense.  Whenever I put in a call to suggest a solution I get the distinct impression he’s laughing at me.  Usually he limits himself to one-sentence answers, and the sentence almost always includes the words ‘British Aerospace’.”

“You know the PM’s all for taking the gloves off and sending in a couple of battalions?  This Parfitt fellow wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on, now would he?”

“Well….”

“Oh, come on!”

“Parfitt claims he has documentary evidence that Aga was not included in the Act of Union.  He says the last people to take up residence there were the Danes, in about 740 AD.  The island’s not part of any of the recognised groups, it’s never been named anywhere; and, at thirty miles, it’s outside British territorial waters.”

“That would stand up?  I mean, legally?”

“Parfitt is ready to test it in the courts.  The problem is, there’s just an outside chance that the European Court might uphold it.  Then we really would be in the soup.  Parfitt did come up with one solution.”

“Which is?”

“A pipeline.  It would get us over the natural gas issue.  The trouble there being, Parfitt wants a lot of dosh for it, and he has no intention of relinquishing his sovereignty claim.  He’s a curious chap,” A.J. mused; “He has friends in The City who are doing very well out of this, but I would like to know what he’s after.  I don’t think it’s just the money.”

“And a pipeline’s the best we can offer?  The PM is absolutely hopping about this, A.J., and your entire department is bankrupt of ideas?”

Poulson thought for a moment, acutely aware that his apparent lack of a solution was endangering his booking for the first tee at 3pm.  “Well, maybe there is a sort of a possibility:  it depends rather on just how underhanded you’re prepared to be.”

“Underhanded?  Dear boy, this is the Home Office – since when were we anything else?”

“Well then,”  A.J. picked up the telephone;  “Let’s see what we can do.”

Some days elapsed before this interview at the Home Office could bear fruit.  The fruit concerned, in the person of one Willoughby Lightfoot, had required transport from inaccessible foreign parts where he was found deep in some allegedly impenetrable jungle, half-way across an uncrossable swamp.  Willoughby was not too upset by the call to his mobile phone – after all, the crocodile he was wrestling at the time was, as crocodiles go, too small for his purposes.

In London, Lightfoot needed a day or two – to be briefed by A.J; to restore his hair, which was long and flaxen, and to manicure his nails.  A further twenty-four hours later he reached Scotland, where he made a few enquiries, looked up a few contacts.  Now he stood on the foredeck of a local trawler, looking across the one remaining mile of choppy sea which separated him from the Republic of Aga.

“Is he expecting you – the Parfitt man?”  a deckhand asked.

“He’s expecting someone.”  Willoughby shouted back against the wind.  “He’s not expecting me.”

Willoughby Lightfoot entered Aga’s small harbour poised atop the trawler’s bow like a figurehead, his hair flying about his face, his startlingly blue eyes focussed upon the little welcoming committee gathered on the quay.  A long leather coat streamed behind him in the evening breeze.

His reception, six strong, fell way below his own exacting standards.  In declaring Aga a Republic, Julian had needed security guards for just such purposes as these, recruited from those places on the mainland with the highest unemployment.  Even unemployed men with any self-worth had proved hard to procure – the working conditions were less than desirable, the pay wasn’t desirable at all.  Finally, Julian had approached a hostel for the homeless in Glasgow, discovering those who would consider anything if it included a roof to sleep under, regular meals and an unlimited source of booze.

Amongst such as these, Willoughby was Gulliver before the Lilliputians.

“Right, chappies – which way to the boss?”  He enquired, assuming Julian would not be one of the ravaged creatures who accosted him.

“I need ye’re paasspoort!”  said a slightly bent man with a hawk nose and a drip.

“Fine.”  Willoughby produced it from his shoulder bag.  “Now,” he said, watching the document disappear into the folds of the bent man’s uniform; “which way?”

“No’ so fast.”  A stout Glaswegian with an astonishing lack of neck chided him.  “There’s procedures.”

“Right-ho.  Proceed away!  What shall we do next?”

“The strip search.”  

If, at this point, Willoughby began to regret that he had made this appointment with Parfitt as a diplomat from the Home Office, he did not show it.  Instead, he regarded the little group of security guards with a look of amusement.

“Oh, you silly boys!”  He chided them gently.  “Why didn’t you just ask?  Now – who wants to be first?”

© 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.

Blackpool Rock

This is another short story from my archives, one I particularly like because although the story is not my own, it contains one or two personal references, an indulgence I rarely claim. I hope you will like it (or possibly remember it)!

Had he expected it?  The open fields poppy-red where he had played, half a century ago, unchanged?  The lake in the disused quarry, the village hall at Benton crossroads, with flagstone roof and walls of Victorian brick, still standing?   Looking rejuvenated, if anything, in the bright afternoon sun.

He drew up beside the wooden notice board nailed to its double doors, grey-pasted with faded parish notices, and still hanging at that slightly misjudged angle, almost exactly as he remembered it the summer before university.  He let his mind take him back, through those peeling doors that were just as he had thrust them open one Tuesday night, so many years before, and he remembered his dread as he sidled into the old brick building, oozing the furtive reluctance of youth, feeling the embarrassment of his tight, badly-cut jeans.  Village hall melees were not for him, not then.  Saturday night dancing was for him; local tribute Eddy Cochran (Ronnie Blass, baker’s assistant) tying himself in agonized knots on a creaking wooden stage.  Three-four time – not always on time, but loud.  Primal and wild.

Not the Women’s Institute.

They were all so old.  Portly ladies in portly clothes; teacups and nudges, secret buzz.  Contralto bees.

“What d’you want, love?”   Annie Riley, her enormousness bulged beneath rose-print on white.  “Did your mum send you?”

“Leaflets.”   He had muttered unintelligibly.

“You what, dear?”  Sherry Harbottle, as thin as Annie was fat.  Shrunk shank beneath a black frock that hung about her like a shroud.  “Oh, bless him!  He’s shy!”

Beetroot soldiers shinning up  their siege ladders.  He could not stop them.

“Oh, he’s blushing now!  Bless him!”  

“I want the leaflets.”  He said, oozing defiance.  “My ma says I’m to deliver them tonight.”

“Oh, them!”  Annie was already turning away.  “I left ’em in the kitchen.  Out there.”   She waved at the door of a tiny room from which trays of tea were known, periodically, to erupt. 

His path to the kitchen was long and circuitous because, like Kipling’s dormouse, he followed the wall, afraid to step into the middle of the room.  He plunged through its closed door like a mariner abandoning a stricken submarine.   Eyes glued to the floor, he took a moment to realise he was not alone.

“Oh goodness!   Excuse me!”  The owner of an exposed thigh hurriedly brushed her dress down to cover a refastened suspender.  A young woman; a plain blue dress.  She glared at him.  “Couldn’t you knock, or something?”

“Sorry!  Sorry!”  He spluttered, vermillion rising.  “I didn’t know… I got to take the leaflets, see?”

Severe eyes pinned him for long enough to be satisfied of his mortification.  “That’s them.”  She nodded towards a neat pile on a shelf.

“Thanks.”  He made to take possession of the leaflets.  

“I was making the tea.”  She gestured towards a huffing industrial-sized urn.  “Don’t drink it, whatever you do.”

“No, I won’t.  I can smell it.”  He glanced at her face, his skin alive with embarrassment.  He looked long enough to see a strong jaw, a wide, rather thin mouth, and pale cheeks.  Horn-rimmed spectacles disguised frank but nervous eyes.

“I got to deliver them, see?”

“What, the teas?”  Her voice was edgy, quite deep.

“No, them.”  He waved the leaflets.  Then, in a moment of bravery:  “What’s your name then?”

“Me?”   She seemed genuinely unsure if there was someone else in the room;  “I’m Mary.   I make the tea.”

“Yeah?  Hello Mary!”  He felt suddenly confident.  “Are you one of them, then?”  He nodded at the door.

“Yes, I joined.  The Women’s Institute’s a good way to get to know people.”  She recited.

“I’m Malcolm.”  He introduced himself.  “I don’t remember seeing you around the village.”

“I don’t get out, much.”  How old was she?  She might be twenty-five or six; but she had the naiveté of a seventeen year old, and she was painfully shy.  Two little pink blots had appeared on her cheeks.  But then she had cause, he supposed.  He had seen more of her underwear than was polite.

“You’re staring!”  She accused.

“Sorry, Mary.  So, how are you getting on with the old….with the ladies of the WI?”

“They asked me to make the tea. This is my third meeting and I’ve made the tea each time. That’s all they seem to want me to do.   I think you’re leaning against the biscuits.”

“Oh sorry!”  He said again, blenching at his oft-repeated apology.  “Custard creams, eh?”

“They’re allowed one each.”

“Would you come out with me Thursday?”

She was waiting outside the little whitewashed cottage when he had called for her, blinking through those thick glasses, mousey brown hair drawn back in a modest bun, champagne-coloured frock and little brown handbag clasped before her.   He spent the last of his weekly pay on a movie.  Afterwards, as they walked back the mile from the late night bus, he had ventured to put an arm around her shoulder. She neither resisted nor broke her stride.   At her door their eyes shared a silent moment.

“Well, thank you very much.”  She said. 

“Can I see you again?”

She seemed a little astonished.  “If you like.”

Mary almost ran, slipping indoors by the doorjamb as if she was frightened to fully open it.  The lock clicked behind her.

And this was the place.  That was the door.  As he had driven from the village hall another four hundred yards to her home the sky clouded over and rain began quietly.  Wind-blown, it flecked the windscreen like tiny splinters.   Malcolm tapped the wiper switch impatiently, as though to lose sight of those white cottage walls with their solemn brown front door even for a second would be too important.   In his head he recounted each detail as if he defied it to be altered.  It was not.

Sighing, he repeated a question he had asked himself so often down the years: why had he  persisted in his pursuit of Mary, that summer when he was seventeen?   And why had he never forgotten her?  Was it the sight of a graceful leg that began an obsession in him?  No, despite the gaucheness of his tender years, that was not the image of her that dominated his mind.  It was the memory of a day, and a look.

They dated sporadically at first.  His friends teased him.

“Did I see you out with your mum again last night, Malc?  I can let you have a paper bag if you want one.”

At each meeting he learned a little more about her.  She lived with her father, she spoke of her home life often.  She told him about her cat, of the flowers she loved to grow.   Were it not for the wooden set of her expression and a hint of cynicism in her voice he might have thought her happy in her world, but something nagging at his brain had persuaded him otherwise.

One hot sunny afternoon as they sat on a grass bank above the lake he turned his head to kiss her.  She did not resist, nor did she respond.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I wanted to.   I still want to.”

Mary stared at her knees.  “How old are you?”

“I’m – nineteen.  How old are you?”

“You shouldn’t ask a lady her age.”

Thereafter a kiss became part of their ritual which they observed, routinely, whenever there was a private moment.  As summer passed Malcolm became bolder until once, on the evening bus, he ventured to put his hand on that familiar leg.  She seemed unmoved by his gentle grip, yet she allowed it.  They walked the final mile to her home.

“My Dad’s going away on Wednesday.”  She said suddenly.  “Do you want to come round?”

By the Wednesday afternoon his hand was shaking so much he could hardly press her doorbell.  She answered in her dressing gown, taking his hand to draw him into the subdued light of a living room heavily decorated in green patterned wallpaper and bluntly furnished.  A fat, comatose cat stretched out on the windowsill, head against the nets.

“I don’t really know much about this.”  She confessed, as if she was addressing a task – a challenge she had set herself.

In her tiny upstairs room with afternoon sun beating on the coverlet he taught her the little he knew.   They were students in a shared experience, inexpert and mercifully brief; yet afterwards she clung to him as if he were life itself.

The rain on the car roof became a rhythm, a cascade of memories in heavy drops splashing, a milky mist rising from the warm road.  Malcolm’s car’s wipers swept the windscreen in regular gestures.   That had been the first time.  Up there.  The casement window above the brown front door.  After so long, could those curtains really be the same?

When, as now, his imagination took him back to that summer he remembered it as a time of joyful nakedness and entanglement, of thirst and gratification.  Only in times of sadness could he regret how few were those bejewelled afternoons when Mary’s father, a man he never got to meet, was away.   And when their physical union happened it was frequently awkward, mannerly and restrained, but reflection had persuaded himself otherwise.  He had always been ruled by passion, so the lie was important to him.

“Why do you like me so much?”  Mary asked him once, on one of those glittering days.

“Because – because you’re beautiful.” He let his eyes feast on the slenderness lying beside him, because it was a question he had to answer in himself.  “You’re just – beautiful.”

She reached for her spectacles from the bedside table, so she could see him better. She would squint without them.  “I’m not beautiful.  I’m plain.  I’m ugly.”

The self-loathing behind the words shocked him.  “No!  No you’re not!  Not to me.”  He tried to kiss her, and she turned away.

“You’re seeing someone who isn’t there.”  She told him. 

“She’s there.”  He insisted.  “She’s buried deep, where maybe not everyone can see her.  But I can; and when she’s happy and she lets it show – then her eyes shine like raindrops in the sun, and all the beauty spills out.  Some people paint beauty on themselves each morning, but they’re really twisted and hideous underneath.  Not you.  You have loveliness written right through you.”

“Like a stick of Blackpool rock!”  She laughed a rare laugh, then kissed him with rare spontaneity.  “Remember you said that.  Even if you didn’t really mean it, don’t ever forget it, alright?”

Had he really meant it?  After summer was over and he had gone to his further education he frequently accused himself of using her, of blinding himself to truths she accepted only too easily.  At university he found love that gave itself more freely, that possessed greater beauty, yet was never so profound.  As other memories were made and afterwards faded, hers was constant.  And with the years, yes, even through the married years, it survived.

So here he was, forty-two years later, parked on the road opposite her door.  There, just there by the hollyhocks, they had said their goodbyes.   There, on that precise spot, his heart had filled with sorrow at their parting and he had said the three words.  One of a very few times in his life he had said them.

Mary had stared into his eyes with an earnest darkness that made his heart stop.   “We’ll love a memory then.  Keep it precious for us, yes?”

“I’ll write to you.”

“No, you won’t.”  She would have turned away without so much as a farewell kiss had he not insisted.  And he saw her reasons, saw the bitterness, the self-disgust – saw tears behind those heavy lenses.    He felt the sob in her throat.

Malcom eased himself to a more comfortable position in his car seat.  Rain thrashed the roof now.  Accusation.  A flagellation; a penance.  She was right, of course.  He never wrote to her, even when the nights were their longest and his loneliness at its most intense.  Oh, how fresh were the images in his mind – of that look, of those tears!  In all the time he had known her, she had been unable to give herself entirely to him.   Only when it was too late had those magic words breached  her defences enough to show how she had hoped, and striven, perhaps, to return his love. 

He had no family now; here, or anywhere close.  He thought of his wife, and the sad, lonely stone that was her final home.  He thought of his children in their nests at the far corners of the big world, and then he thought of Mary, and how much of life he had missed.  With a great sense of destiny, he opened his car door.

“Who the hell are you?”   The man on the threshold stared at Malcolm as if he somehow recognised that face, but with the darkness and the rain he could not place a memory.  “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“I wondered if Mary Marshalsea still lived here?”  Malcolm said.

“Mary?”  The man pushed anxious fingers through a thinning head of hair.  “You…you’re looking for Mary?”  His eyes met Malcolm’s.  How old would he be – about forty, or forty-two, maybe?  “Yes, she still lives here.  She’s not home, though, I’m afraid. I’m Mr Marshalsea – can I help?”

A silence dropped like a curtain between the two men.  Facing each other, each confused, surprised, a little frightened, each at the dawn of a truth in the raining night.   Malcolm picked his words carefully.  “You’re Mary’s husband?”

The man bridled. “Look, chap, I don’t know where you got your information.  I’m her son. There’s no other Mister Marshalsea, unless you’re referring to my grandfather.  He died about twenty year ago.” Indignant, he dredged up a few ingots of aggression.  “See here, I ain’t going to stand in my door no longer.  If you want my mother you’ll find her at the village hall.  She goes up there early on Tuesday evenings.   It’s Women’s Institute tonight, see?  She makes the tea.”

His heart beating a little faster, his mind crowded with possibilities, Malcolm turned his car and retraced the road to Benton crossroads.   Outside the village hall he drew to a halt.  In his mind he saw her, as she had been in that distant time, busying herself among the cups and the custard creams.  He saw the heavily rimmed spectacles, those earnest eyebrows, that firm, slightly too prominent jaw.  And he remembered.

“We’ll love a memory then.  Keep it precious for us, yes?”

He saw the peeling paint on the closed doors, the old notice board with its bleached messages.  He might have heard or imagined the faint clink and rattle of crockery from within. 

He slipped his car back into gear, and drove on.

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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: Philip Miles, from PIxabay

Another Story from the Archives:

I wrote this originally in 2012.  It’s is a long one, so I hope you will enjoy it.

NB.    This story was not included in my volume of short stories, ‘Black Crow Speaks’, the icon for which is showing on the right-hand side of this page.  Why not click through to Kindle to see the contents list and the full array of those that were?

The Harp

Delphinia Morgan-Jett was mildly vexed, which would explain her tone as she reached the top of a call centre staircase of numbers and a real voice enquired thinly:

“Can I help you?”

“He is there again.”

A pause at the end of the line:  “I’m sorry.  Who, exactly?”

Mrs Morgan-Jett tutted dangerously.  Acquaintances feared that ‘tut’ as a postman might fear a Dobermann’s snarl.  “Young man; it is not my habit to repeat myself.  I have telephoned concerning this vagrant at least a dozen times.  Kindly deal with it.”

“Ah.”  The thin voice took on a deeper timbre of understanding.  “You’re Mrs…” – a further pause – “Morgan, that right?”

“Morgan -Jett.”

“Yeah, whatever.  And this is about the bloke on the corner of Christminster Avenue – him with the brolly?  So he’s there again, then?”

“Was that not the substance of my initial remark?”

“Right.  Look, Mrs Morgan, is he is actually committing any offence?  I mean, is he doing anyone any harm?”

“He is loitering; he is a vagrant.  He is unpleasant and he is causing an obstruction!”  Delphinia Morgan-Jett was as close to seething as she could ever become.  “See to it that he is removed immediately!”

Sighing, the thin voice capitulated.  “We’ll get someone sent round.” 

Delphinia’s “Please do.” fell on the deaf ears of disconnection.   She carefully wiped her finger-marks from the white plastic of her ‘phone, then, morning sherry clipped between index and thumb, crossed to her ‘bureau’ window; one of two deep casements that overlooked Christminster Avenue.

This view, unchanging with the years, so appealed to Mrs Morgan-Jett’s sense of order and place that she often spent her morning seated here before her desk.  The building facing her on the other side of Christminster Avenue was identical in almost every respect to hers: a uniformity applied to a whole succession of avenues; rows of residential buildings, their stone five-step approaches leading up to polished wooden doors, their dignified porches spoiled only by security buzzers stacked on discreet panels behind an outer arch.  There were few such concessions to modernity – a deli in the basement of number fifty-two that struggled for survival, and the intervention of parking meters which, of course, brought the curse of the motor car – impatient growls and grunts, the bawling of ill-disciplined children desperate for all the things children were always desperate for:  toys, sweets, ice-cream, toilets, the sea.

In rare moments of tolerance, Delphinia might be forced to admit she found music in those discordant street noises.  Sometimes in early morning as she surveyed the deserted road from her high place she looked forward to the business of the day to come, because, for all its cacophony of sound it made a pleasing counterpoint to the draughtsman-like severity of those Georgian architectural lines.

Delphinia’s building,  number three on the east side of the avenue, placed her close enough to the seaward end to permit a corner of aquatic blue in her otherwise urban prospect while sparing her the vulgarity of the Esplanade and the full effect of the elements when winter came.  The sea started where the Esplanade stopped.   At high tide on occasional nightmare days angry waves broke right across the Esplanade, even reaching as far as the traffic lights at the end of Christminster Avenue, where the two roads met.    Those traffic lights, now busy with morning traffic, were the focus of Delphinia’s annoyance.

He was there again.

Tall and hunched beneath a voluminous beige mackintosh reaching nearly to his ankles, with a deerstalker jammed firmly over his long grey locks, thick horn-rimmed spectacles and a smothering brown scarf, this pedestrian was glaringly noticeable.   If anything could add to his ostentatious oddness, it was supplied by the picnic basket which he set carefully down at the corner of the street, and the large, folded, red and yellow golf umbrella he carried in his hand.   Ignoring the attention of bemused passers-by, he opened the basket to extract a thermos flask from which he poured himself a generous measure of tea.  Then he sat down atop his basket to drink. 

Delphinia watched this performance with distaste.   She had been compelled to follow the creature’s routine step by practised step, many times.  First, he finished his tea, then packed away his thermos and its cup.  Next he raised himself to his full height, drew his shabby coat about him, and stepped to the kerb at the very corner of the road.

What ensued was, depending upon perspective, either balletically comical or profoundly irritating.  Delphinia’s vagrant raised a commanding hand to the car nearest to him and stood in front of it.  Oblivious to a squeal of brakes, he turned his back upon its aghast driver to strut to the centre of the road junction where, with sweeping gestures from his furled brolly, he made it clear to the traffic on the Esplanade that he wished it to proceed.   He stood making these arms-length gyrations for some time – long enough to attract a rising chorus of horn-blasting protestation from a growing queue on Christminster Avenue – before motioning the Esplanade traffic to stop, and beckoning to those waiting in Christminster Avenue.

No matter his actions were reminiscent of a graceful dance:  or the order he imposed had a logic of its own, for his directions bore no relation at all to the sequence of the traffic lights.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this reservation, given that when the lights favoured a certain stream of traffic he would almost always be in its way, and that after a while certain of the motorists under his influence started to obey him rather than the legal control.   The overall outcome was chaos.

This Delphinia witnessed with her accustomed fascination.   She quite forgot her intention to time the arrival of the authorities, waiting as she was for a grinding of metal and stream of obscenities which she was sure must come, but which somehow never did.  Those whose view was closer to events seemed to regard the man with humour and even booed when a harassed-looking policeman in a van turned up.

Normally at this stage of events the man would succumb to a few words of wisdom from a representative of the law and allow himself to be led away: normally, but not today.  He snarled his dissent; he wrapped his arms around the pillar of the traffic lights on Delphinia’s corner, and – she must have imagined it – he looked directly up at her; looked her straight in the eyes!

Delphinia took an instinctive backward step.  Those eyes had found her so quickly they must have known she was watching!   Her curiosity sharpened by unwonted guilt, she moved into view once more.  A policewoman had arrived to lend extra weight to the constabulary argument, a substantial presence in every way, but the umbrella man’s gaze was unswerving.  He stared fixedly at Delphinia’s window with an expression that left no room for misunderstanding: he was seeking her help!

Delphinia made a decision – one which she would be unable to explain to anyone sensibly, and certainly not one she would have confessed to her cocktail evening friends.  Snatching her coat from its stand in the hallway she hastened to the lift, and, finding it elsewhere, descended the stairs.  Spry enough for one of her years, she had no problem reaching the street just at the point when the vagrant was being bundled unceremoniously into the policeman’s van.

“Just one minute!  Officer, wait if you will, please?”

It was not a request.  The policeman, whose day was already becoming something of a trial, glared towards the source of this imperious voice, his right hand still securely clamped to the umbrella man’s collar.  He met the crystal stare of a woman accustomed to being obeyed.

“I shall take responsibility for this gentleman,”  Delphinia clipped her consonants precisely.  “You may deliver him into my care.”

“I’m delivering him to a nice comfy room in our detention suite.”  The policeman responded, although not too brusquely.  Delphinia’s upright bearing, immaculate coiffure and expensive burgundy suit flashed warnings he should not dismiss.  Such attire was consistent with that of a councillor’s wife, or maybe a member of the Watch Committee.

The woman constable was more sympathetic:  “Are you acquainted with this person, madam?”

“We received a complaint.”  The policeman said.  “We’ve had a number of complaints.”

“Yes, I know.  I am the complainant.”  Delphinia brushed this argument aside.  “And now I’m telling you I will be responsible for this – this person.  He will not repeat the offence.”  She fixed the person with her coldest, most incisive stare.  “You won’t, will you?”

The vagrant grinned three teeth from his top jaw, two from his lower jaw.  “No!  No offencing!  No!”

The woman constable seemed puzzled.  “You realise what you’re saying?”

“Of course I do.  I’m not senile.  You can release him into my charge!”

The two representatives of the law exchanged glances, and within their silent communication were all sorts of unsaid discussions about avoidance of paperwork and use of police time.  “Well, chummy;” said the policeman.  “It looks as if you’ve found yourself a friend.”

Delphinia waited patiently through a number of formalities.   When they were concluded, and the police presence was receding in a fog of exhaust, she said:   “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

The vagrant grinned those teeth again.  “Yes;” He said in a surprisingly cultured voice.  “Yes please!”

Throughout this process Delphinia Morgan-Jett had suppressed a desire to censure herself.  Why, in heavens’ name, was she doing this?  What was it about this eccentric man’s demeanour which drew her to him?  Pillar of the community though she was, such acts of charity were completely foreign to her.  As she guided the umbrella man to her front door, accompanied by muted applause from a small crowd, she wondered what insanities would visit her next?

“I am Delphinia. What is your name?”

“Tom.  I’m Tom.”

In her hallway she persuaded Tom out of his deerstalker and coat, revealing an Arran sweater from better years and grey trousers that were possibly even older.  Delphinia consigned the umbrella and box to a corner.  “You were looking at me as though you recognise me – do you?”

“No.  No, I don’t.”  Tom said abruptly; then, in gentler tone:  “These are nice.”

They were in the corridor which formed the spine of Delphinia’s apartment.  Its walls were lined with oil paintings, detailed landscapes and character studies lyrical in colour and brilliantly executed.  Their creator had a fine hand.  

“Do you like them?  My son was an artist.  This apartment was his studio.   He exhibited at the Royal Academy.”

“Studio?”

“Yes.  He adored the light; the reflections from the sea intensify it:  it inspired him.”

They had reached the kitchen and Delphinia was filling a kettle.   “He moved?”  Tom asked.  “Where’s he now?”

She did not answer at once.  She busied herself preparing a teapot, arranging two bone china cups and saucers on a silver tray.  “One’s children should survive one; that is what I do not understand.  Life is as it is, I suppose.”

“He died?”

“An accident – a complete accident.  In Rumania, of all places.  It is a lot of years ago now.”

“You’ve got his paintings.  You can remember him by them.”

Delphinia smiled sadly.  “Yes, I have his paintings.  Some of them, at least.   Shall we take tea in the drawing room?”

Tom smiled sympathetically in return.  “That would be nice.”  He said.

They sat upon brocade upholstered chairs watching the sun’s patterned progress across the floor; and they sipped at tea from those fine china cups, regarding each other in comfortable silence.  Tom, despite his somewhat unusual appearance, seemed to fit into Delphinia’s elegant backcloth in a way she would be at a loss to describe, but it was true she found solace in his presence. 

“It’s a nice apartment,”  He said.  “You must have a lot of money.”

Delphinia gave a ghost of a smile:  she never spoke of money.  “I have enough.” 

“That piano.  That’s a nice piano.”

“It is a Beckstein.  I believe Menhuin may have owned it once.”

“You play?”

“I do, but not habitually.  My favoured instrument is the harp.”

“Harp, ah.”  Tom nodded sagely.  “Where’s the harp?” 

“It’s downstairs – in another apartment.”

“Ah.  You’ve lent it to somebody?”

“Goodness no!  I would never dream…”  Delphinia bit back on her words.  She was going to castigate Tom for daring to imagine that an instrument so temperamental and so precious could ever be loaned to anyone!  Tom, of course, could not be expected to know such things.  “Harps are so sensitive to alterations in temperature or humidity, you see:  they do not live fulfilling lives with people.    I keep it in a separate apartment at exactly the atmosphere it requires for perfect tone.”

“So you’ve another apartment – like this – just for your harp?”

“Rather smaller actually.  But yes.”

“I think you must be very rich,”  Tom said.  Then:  “I’d like to see it.”

Delphinia responded with another of her faintly patronising smiles.  “Perhaps another time?” She said.

“I’d better be going.”  Tom suggested.

“Yes, of course.  Shall I arrange for a taxi?  Where do you live?”

Tom demurred.  “I Don’t get on with taxis.”

So, by fits and starts, began the most unlikely of friendships, a connection the existence of which neither party would accept, yet existed nonetheless.  Now, whenever Tom appeared with his traffic director’s accoutrement at the corner of Christminster Street Delphinia would hasten downstairs to ply him with tea, and Tom would accept, staying long into the morning in that warm, comfortable drawing room.  As time passed he pursued his role as traffic controller less and less:  instead, he would often arrive at her door, standing upon the threshold, his liberally greased hair plastered to his head with mathematical precision.  One  morning Delphinia showed Tom a very special room, behind a door at the end of her apartment.

“This is something of a shrine,” She said.   “It’s rather dusty, I’m afraid.”

It was a large, well-illuminated space, and around walls which had once been cream in colour were stacked canvases – hundreds of them.  Artwork was visible on some, not on others:  completed pictures against primed but naked canvasses, sketches against half-finished works.  Tom stood amazed, his eyes drinking in the profusion of colour and form.

“His studio.”  He breathed.

“His studio, yes.”  Delphinia did not mention that the contents of that room alone included thirty completed canvases, or that her son’s work, if an example ever reached the market, could command sums in excess of two hundred thousand pounds.  She lacked that much trust in Tom, at least for now.

Tom said the right thing.  “You must be very proud of him.”  He said.

Delphinia beamed.  “Yes, Tom.  I believe I am.”

The summer passed.  Tom came for tea once, twice, three times a week; and during those visits little was said, but much implied.    Upon one occasion Delphinia played a Chopin prelude on the Beckstein and Tom sat in a reverie so deep he seemed to be almost sleeping.

Then came a day in autumn when Delphinia, having passed a morning shopping, took her usual taxi home from the town centre.   She had taken advantage of the best of the day, for the last hour of fading daylight, which had been warning of things to come, was fulfilling its promise.  Rain hammered upon the taxi roof, bounced from the pavements.  Caught on the street, soaked pedestrians dashed or cringed beneath umbrellas, frozen moments of their discomfort brought into transplendent relief by sheets of lightning.   There was a queue of traffic building at the corner of Praed Street.   Delphinia’s driver muttered something.

“I beg your pardon?”  She enquired.

“I said, oh no not him again.”  The taxi driver repeated, “He needs sorting out, this one.”

Suspicion darker than raincloud filled Delphinia’s mind.  She strained her eyes against the gloom.   The arc of colour described by a golfing umbrella was unmistakeable.  “Tom!”  She sighed.   “Is he often here?”

“Know him, do you?  Lately, yes missus.  He used to be down your way, didn’t he – Christminster Street?  He’ll get himself arrested again, for sure.  A copper mate of mine reckons if they catch him again they’re going to get him sectioned:  you know, put away?  ‘Bout time, too.”

“Pick me up again at the lights, if I don’t come back to you.”  Delphinia instructed.  Once again in Tom’s case, she would act without thought for the consequences.  Fortunately she had the foresight to pack a brolly in her bag that morning, so she would avoid the full punishment of the elements, but the angry tea-tray shatter of thunder was warning enough as she hastened down the pavement to where Tom’s elegant ballet played to an unappreciative audience.

“Tom!  Come out of the road at once!”

Either ignored or unheard, she watched anxiously as Tom guided an ensnared car deeper into his trap.   Sirens whined in the distance.  The sound galvanised Delphinia into action and a determined Delphinia was not to be ignored, certainly not to be disobeyed.  She snatched Tom’s arm in a commanding grip, plucking him from the traffic and virtually frog-marching him, together with his picnic basket, back to her taxi.   The driver looked doubtful.

“He’s a tramp!  I don’t want him in my cab.”

Delphinia was in no mood to be diplomatic.  “He’s my guest, and I insist upon it.  Who should I report you to?”

Mouthing darkly, the cabby conceded.  “Keep him quiet.  I don’t want no trouble with the law.”

Outside, sirens were evolving into blue flashing lights.  A quick-thinking Delphinia thrust Tom’s signature brolly out of sight on the cab floor.  “Now remove that ridiculous hat!  It’s soaked anyway.”

To clear the pandemonium Tom had created took a little while, during which he twice tried to exit the cab and offer his assistance, each time to be restrained by Delphinia’s surprising strength.  Eventually the threat of police detention was behind them and the taxi got under way.

“Where do you live?”  Delphinia had never asked Tom this question before.

“Oh, not near here.”  Tom replied.

“He don’t live nowhere.”  The taxi driver had overheard.  “He gets into hostels from time to time, but mostly he sleeps rough down by the stock sheds, don’t you, mate?”

Tom said nothing.  Delphinia scowled.  “Is this true?”  Tom said nothing.  “Very well.  Take us to Christminster Avenue, driver.”

For once, Delphinia was disposed to tip heavily.  As he unloaded her bags, the cabby warned:  “Don’t you let him take advantage of you, lady.  Be careful, alright?”

It was well-meant, but ill-received.  “My good man;” Delphinia snapped back; “do I look as if I am to be taken advantage of?”

By the time Tom had helped her to and from the lift with her bags, and she had helped him out of his dripping mackintosh, Delphinia had come to a decision. 

“I have ample room.  You must stay here, with me.”

Thus her relationship with Tom entered a new phase.   She never once questioned the motives which led her to buy him clothes, cook meals for him, or use all her powers of persuasion when he seemed disposed to return to his former traffic-organising life.  Although with time he became a trifle more erudite, they conversed very little.   It was as if she had found a role she was always meant to play; and whether memories of her deceased son had a part, or if she was motivated simply by loneliness, was a matter for others to question, not her.

Others did, of course.  Her friends were slow to accept the apparently retarded man with his unruly appearance.  Many stayed away, a few became true confidantes:  interested in Tom, concerned about his life, concerned, too, for Delphinia.

Tom kept pace with change without effort or eloquence.   He seemed to move easily whichever way the wind blew and always ended up ahead of events; untouched by them and splendidly untouchable.  The taxi-driver’s warning had been needless:  although he accepted kindness when it was offered, Tom never sought favours or money.  For large measures of his time he sought nothing at all:  he could be happy for hours just sitting on the edge of his bed staring at the wall, or in Delphinia’s drawing room gazing out upon the Avenue and its peepshow of the sea.   There was only one request he had to make, one which took a month of agonising to put into words.

 “The harp.  I want to hear you play.”

Delphinia looked into the eyes of her sanguine companion, who even in the most expensive clothes managed to look ill-arranged and dishevelled, and sighed.    “Very well.”  She agreed.  “This afternoon.”

 Several locks defended Apartment 3A, each of which Delphinia opened, using keys from two separate rings.   She led Tom inside:  “I had this temperature and humidity control system fitted,”  She explained, indicating a control panel in the lobby.  “Come through.”

A plain panelled door opened upon a light and airy room.  Thin hessian matted the floor, mint-coloured walls were hung with further examples of her deceased son’s exemplary art.  An intricate plaster frieze ran around the room at cornice height:   a crystal glass chandelier hung from a rose of immaculate design in a white plaster ceiling.

“My builder – Mr. Baxter – worked wonders: he disguised the soundproofing so effectively one would hardly believe it was there.  The acoustics leave a little to be desired, I’m afraid, but still…   Won’t you sit down?”

An accommodating blue sofa beneath a shaded window suggested itself, but Tom had missed Delphinia’s invitation, for his eyes were devouring the room’s centrepiece – a harp, tall and serene.

Delphinia saw the enthusiasm in Tom’s gaze.  “American, a Lyon and Healy.”  She took his arm gently.  “Sit down, won’t you?  I will play for you.”

Only when she sat, drawing the knee of her instrument to her shoulder did the import of this moment dawn upon Delphinia.   For so many years she had played her music alone here, in this soundproofed, closeted space.  No-one had heard, no-one had seen until now, and all at once an auditorium of years ago yawned dark and deep before her, the sounds of settling people, the suppressed coughs, the murmured words that always followed that first, polite applause, returned to her.  She played.  She played as she always did, her head lost inside the song, her eyes closed to all but the fleeting touch of the strings.

And Tom?  He listened in his own private rapture, solemn and deep, letting the sweet, quiet insinuation of harp music envelop him like a warm blanket.  Kessner, Parry and Pachelbel flowed over him as gently as sleep.  He did not know for how long she played, or the titles to all of the pieces he heard, although he knew many.  He only knew he was in the presence of hands of faultless eloquence.  He did not want it to end.

“Yes, I was a soloist, many years ago.”  Delphinia admitted as they ascended the stairs.  “When my husband was alive we travelled frequently, so it was not possible to pursue a career.  I was forced to give up eventually.”

“But you kept your harp.”

“Yes, I kept my harp.”

“You should go back to it again.  You play very well.”

Delphinia laughed a little musical laugh she had been cultivating of late.  “Oh, Tom, one can’t simply ‘go back’.  Anyway my dear, I’m too old.  I like to practice, though.  I enjoy the discipline.”

True friends who remained in Delphinia’s circle noticed a new intimacy in her manner, a softening of the autocratic glare.  She seemed well, she seemed happier.  This was attributed to Tom’s influence and by some to a very much closer relationship than was the case.  If Delphinia got to hear of this version she did not show it or resent it; and Tom?  Resentment was not part of Tom’s makeup.

Over years fast friendships must inevitably spawn a form of love.  More unlikely companions would be hard to find, yet Delphinia opened her life to this rumpled man, and he responded with unique sensitivity.  The balance between them was perfect; so much so that those around them quickly forgot Tom’s dubious past.  Delphinia quietly sequestered his golf umbrella and his picnic basket, hiding them from view.  When he discovered their absence, Tom paced the corridor mouthing his distress for a while, but he did not otherwise complain.

On a morning just before Christmas of their first year together,  Delphinia’s brother and his family appeared bearing gifts.  Geraint Morgan eyed Tom up and down.

“Who is he?”  He demanded.  “What’s he doing here?”

Delphinia’s response was icily controlled.  “Tom is my friend.  He is here by my invitation.”

Tom ambled forward with his best attempt at a smile much improved by Delphinia’s insistence that he visit a dentist, offering his hand.   Morgan deliberately ignored it.   “It’s strange time of day for him to be visiting, isn’t it?” He said.

“Tom isn’t visiting.  He is my companion.  He lives here.”

Rachel Morgan made her first contribution to the conversation, in the form of a derisive snort.

“Well!”  Said Geraint:  “Whatever would Robertson think of this?”

Delphinia pursed her lips:  “It has been many years now, Geraint.   If he was here, though, I believe he would thoroughly approve.”   The reference to Robertson Jett, her deceased husband, made her bridle.  “My decisions and actions are scarcely your affair, now are they?”

“We want to see you kept safe;” Rachel chipped in.  “We don’t want you taken advantage of by some dirty old man.”

“Tom is neither dirty nor particularly old!”  Delphinia snapped back.  “And I insist you stop referring to him as if he was not in the room!”

The visit was as brief as it was acrimonious.  Tom retired discreetly, only re-emerging after they had left.

“Don’t concern yourself, Tom.”  Delphinia soothed him. “My brother’s family always rather lacked the social graces.  They come once a year; I never hear from them otherwise.” She unwrapped the present Rachel had thrust into her hand and stared at it disparagingly.  It was a book.  “I find this woman such an uninspiring author.  Do consign it to the kitchen waste, there’s a dear, will you?”

The following morning Delphinia found a policewoman standing at her door.  Geraint Morgan had voiced his suspicion that ‘a helpless old lady was being victimised by a confidence trickster’, and although she was quickly able to allay those fears she took heed of the warning Geraint’s behaviour implied.  She went to see her solicitor.

For five years Tom and Delphinia pursued an idyllic existence, he a devoted audience for her playing whether upon the piano or the harp, she often bemused, sometimes amused, but always stimulated by his stilted conversation, his unpredictable ‘ways’.  Theirs was a very private life, one in which they rarely ventured out beyond the usual demands of shopping or a limited social round, though exceptionally in their second summer they spent a month in France, renting a small house Delphinia had visited in her younger days.  But she fretted when she was deprived of her instruments and Tom understood this better than any.

To all things must be an end, and the end came to Delphinia one spring morning.  Sitting opposite Tom at the breakfast table with a soft sun shining in at the window she suddenly leaned towards him:

“Dearest Tom…”  She began, trying to utter a sentence she would never complete.

A stroke.  That was the doctor’s verdict, when Tom found the presence of mind to call him.   Mercifully quick, was his medical opinion – she would have known very little about it.  Tom, he had his own opinion, and he grieved for Delphinia in his own, very silent way.  Then he went and recovered his box and his brolly (he had always known where Delphinia had hidden them) and he made for the door.

Cynthia Braithwaite met him on the stair.  Cynthia was Delphinia’s most intimate acquaintance outside her companionship with Tom, and she had readily agreed to take care of him if anything happened to her.  Tom was not to become homeless; he was to continue to live as the new tenant in Delphinia’s apartment, on condition he looked after her harp.  In the events that followed, Cynthia honoured her promise.

At the funeral (he was the only one of the solemn gathering to be kept dry by a brightly coloured umbrella) Tom wept; and at the reading of the will he showed very little emotion when he learned he was Delphinia’s principal beneficiary.  An annual income in trust and tenure of the apartment for life, with an additional allowance for the harp.  Cynthia was bequeathed twenty thousand pounds as a remembrance of her friendship and ‘patience with a cranky old woman’.  The Morgans were left three paintings of her son’s collection; they were to be allowed to choose which three.

The Morgans were outraged, of course, because they had seen the entire inheritance as rightfully theirs, and Tom had, in their view, stolen it from under their noses.  Without Cynthia’s Rottweiler-like tenacity Tom might still have been legally bullied out of his entitlement, but with her help he stood firm and survived the legal challenges which followed.

Finally, there came a day when Geraint and Rachel Morgan arrived at the apartment to select their choice of canvases.  Cynthia met them at the door and Tom was nowhere to be seen, but as they examined the pictures on the passage wall the gentle strains of the Leibestraum wafted out to them from the drawing room.  So well-known a piece might have passed them by, yet it had a divinity even they could not ignore.

“That’s a fine recording.”  Geraint commented.  “Wonderful tonal quality.  Who is the artist, do you know?”

Cynthia was standing at the end of the corridor, next to the kitchen door.  “Yes, I do.  This…” she waved towards a substantial canvas hung to take full advantage of the light; “…is his portrait.  I think it’s a true Jett masterpiece.  It captures a virtuoso at the height of his powers, don’t you agree?”

Geraint Morgan stared at the picture.  Cynthia went on:  “He would have been performing the Brandenburg at the Albert Hall that September:  the end of a triumphant world tour.  Then one day he just stood up and walked out of rehearsals.  He was never seen again – a nervous breakdown, maybe?  No-one knew.  Delphinia was the only one who did, and she found out just a few weeks ago, going through the paintings in Clarence’s old studio.  I’m sure she had a premonition.”

Rachel Morgan had joined her husband.  She read the appellation at the foot of the work aloud:  “Thomas Brabham DeVere, pianist.  Oh my god!  Isn’t that…?”

Geraint nodded.  Wordlessly he walked back to the drawing room door and opened it.  Tom looked up from the Beckstein, but he did not stop playing.

© Frederick Anderson 2014.  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: Mabel Amber from Pixabay