Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty Seven

The Inquisitors

Beyond Hemlington, Peter’s train was much emptier than before.   Walking back through the aisles toward his own carriage, Peter’s eyes met those of Howard.  There was no mistaking the surprise on the big man’s face, however quickly he attempted to disguise it.   Both knew, in that moment of encounter, the gloves were off.

“Well done!”    Howard murmured.

Peter may have smiled.

#

” So does my mother know?”  Melanie asked.

“Karen?   Bless her, not yet.    Not at this moment.  And she will be afraid, I do not doubt.”

“But Bianca?”

“Bianca.   Ah yes.   She knows.  My dear, she has always known.”

“Always?”

“Since you were very young.”   Agnes replied.  The rain still beat upon the window.   The bay, furious now with the intrusion of the North Sea  gale, was a race of white horses, galloping to shore.   “She recognised the signs in you – told us of them many years ago, my dear.   You were marked with your gift, even then.   When we heard you were going to leave Levenport, we almost jumped at the chance, you might say.  We had to persuade your aunt, rather, I’m afraid. She didn’t want to be placed in the invidious position of telling her sister you were missing – as doubtless she will have done by now.   We couldn’t divulge where we were taking you, you see.  She had to feign ignorance and contact the police to protect her own position.”

This was evening.   Agnes had returned in the Land Rover, after a protracted absence, amidst a flurry of protest and coughing and smoky blueness.  The day was far gone, but there was still no sign of the weather abating.   They sat facing one another amid the clutter of Agnes’ life, each vaguely discernable to the other in gathering twilight.

“I wish I had recognised the signs, whatever they were.”  Melanie mused.    “It might have changed some things.”

“The knowledge would have been of little use to you.  Without the innocent years we are incomplete:  you deserved to grow up somewhat before you took this burden upon yourself.”

“But I don’t want this – what:  burden – gift – whatever it is?  I’m not taking it upon myself at all.  I’m not accepting it.”

“The choice isn’t yours.   You have it inside you.  The decision, if there ever was one, is made.”

Melanie sighed resignedly.  “Okay, then.   How long am I to stay here?   Since my life is pre-ordained and you seem to have my schedule, you must know that.”

“Until tomorrow.”   Agnes said.  “And no, I don’t know what is to become of you, my dear.    I would that I did.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Someone is coming to see you; someone very important.  They will have a much better idea of your future than I.   My part in this is very small, believe me.  I have a secluded lifestyle, that is the sum of my worth.  I offer a safe resting place.  You will have few enough of those, I think.”

“Is that who you went into town to meet?   Is this ‘someone’ here already?”

“No, he comes from far away.”   Getting to her feet, Agnes moved towards the kitchen.   “It’s time for you to sleep.   I would guess you got very little rest last night, hmm?”

At this the spell, the mist of perfect tranquillity in which their conversation wafted around them, was lost.   Melanie felt that all peace, all contentment, all of her childhood, was taken away in that moment.   The storm in the bay was finding a silent, stealthy way in, through the fastened windows, under and over and around the battened doors.   It gathered in rage behind her as she went up the stairs.  White horses in a demonic race, a hunt to the death.   And she, Melanie the gifted, was their helpless, hopeless prey.

There were nine text messages on Peter’s phone.   They were all from Lesley.   The last one said simply: “Y won’t U answer Yr feckg fone?”

When he called her number she didn’t answer.  He knew she was there, holding the little red and green mobile in her hand, looking at his name on the display.   Lesley went nowhere without her ‘phone.

It was a difficult afternoon.   Peter’s parents were hanging close, taxing him with questions:  what was his friend’s house like, who else was at the party, had Manchester changed much?  He excused the absence of his bag and jacket by saying he had absent-mindedly left then unattended at the railway station in Manchester.  Otherwise, he answered all of their questions  as truthfully as he could, describing Vincent’s cottage in a way which made it sound like a house in the city suburbs, adding Simeon himself to the picture using Vince’s modified version of his name (Simon) as a ‘really nice guy from somewhere out on the moors’ with whom he had met and formed a friendship at ‘the party’.   Somehow, though, he knew he was not believed.    In fact, his father’s disbelief tingled in his spine like a pincushion full of needles: as soon as he could, he escaped through the kitchen door and headed for the seafront.

The incident at Framlington had gone unmentioned.   When Peter’s train pulled into the station at Levenport Howard Sullivan failed to emerge, and Peter liked to imagine him cowering down in his seat until he had gone, before sneaking from the station by some devious route.  There seemed no good reason for panicking his parents with tales of attempted abduction, yet there were many pressing reasons for doubting his safety.  Whoever it was, if they wanted him badly enough it could only be a matter of time before they got him.   On the seafront, at least, it was open enough to see them coming.

Lesley was still refusing to reply to his calls.   He sent a text.    “Pleze Lesley. Hennik’s.   Now.”

It was twenty minutes before she appeared, running across the street to the coffee shop, a magazine shielding her head from the rain.  She sat down opposite him, fixing him with an angry look.

“I don’t know why I came here.”  She said.

“I forgot to take my ‘phone:  left it behind.”

“Oh, right!   And you couldn’t be arsed to use a landline – just call me?”

“I’ve only been away two days!”   Peter sipped miserably at his coffee.  “I just – didn’t – that’s all.  I wanted to.  I missed you.”

“Yeah?   Well, shall I tell you the crack from round here those two days?   Melanie Fenton’s gone missing.   She left her aunt’s on Friday morning and hasn’t been seen since.”

“What?”  Peter was genuinely shocked.

 “And shall I tell you what else?  When Peter Cartwright went missing on Saturday morning too, word got out that he was with Melanie Fenton:  that you two buggered off together!    Even Mel’s mum thinks that’s what happened.”

Peter was trying to absorb the news that Melanie had disappeared.

“I thought you’d dumped me, you bastard.  I thought you’d gone.  I warned you, didn’t I?   Don’t dump me.”  Lesley felt all the insecurities of the last few days welling up in her eyes.  “Oh shit!”

Groping through the confusion in his head, Peter tried to find words of consolation, but nothing came.   “I’m not with Melanie.  I’m here.”   Was all he could come up with.

“Yeah?   And for how long?”

“What do you mean?”   Lesley who, behind her spectacular appearance was always uncertain of herself, had a penchant for self-destruction.  Peter was seeing this process eating at her now, and he wanted so badly to put it right, but its logic defeated him.  Why should she be so furious with him, when all he had done was drop out of sight for a day or so?

“Peter, you never forget your phone.  You’re so bloody methodical you never forget anything!   You just didn’t take it with you, wherever you went.   And you didn’t call me to tell me where you were, or what you were doing, because you didn’t want to.  You didn’t bloody want to!”

Lesley got up and stormed out, back into the evening rain.   Peter hurrying to pay for his coffee, followed.   She ran as though she did not want to be caught.   He was breathless when he finally drew up with her.

“Les, don’t do this, please?”

She stopped.   He said:   “I’m sorry – really sorry.  Don’t break us up over this?”

Her eyes still brimmed with anger, but her voice had calmed.   “Peter, I can’t handle it.  I really can’t.”

“Handle what?  I don’t understand.”

“Handle you!.   There’s something about you, something secret inside I can’t get to, and its just doing my head in, like, totally.   You’ve a whole part of your life I have nothing to do with, something you won’t, or can’t share.  Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure Melanie has something to do with it.”    He started to protest but she held her fingers up to his lips.   “No, mate- don’t say anything.  I know it’s true.  I know whatever it is kept you from calling me these last two days:  I know that I can’t fight it.  I love you, Peter.   I – love – you; understand?   I mean, really.   But I’d rather back off now, you see?   It hurts too much, otherwise.   I deserve all of you, Petey.  I can’t have that, so I’m gone.  Leave me alone now, yeah?  Let me get my life back.”   Lesley turned and walked away.   As she rounded a corner of the street that led up into the town she called over her shoulder:   “Hey, maybe I should move to fecking Seaborough!”

Peter did not go home.   Instead, uncaring that he should be pounced upon by the menthol-breath man or any of his associates, he did something in the best tradition of all the great romantic novels:  he went for a long walk in the rain.   As he kicked at the reflections of streetlights on the pavement he tried to weigh Vincent’s email with its dire warnings about secrecy against his sense of love and honour towards Lesley, and, of course, Lesley came out on top.   Lesley, he knew, was more important to him, more immediate than any of the surreal events of the last few days.  Despair in her eyes had told him what he must do.    If he did it, he might not have to lose her.  Yet was it fair to embroil her in his haphazard fortunes?   Would she, like Melanie, choose to walk away?   Melanie was missing, though, and he felt certain that it had something to do with her connection with the stones.  She would never really be able to deny the thing she was.  Had the people who shepherded him to Simeon taken her, or was she in the hands of someone else?

Finally, there was Karen, Melanie’s mother.   What would Howard Sullivan do?   There were too many questions, too many people whose lives were turning, unstoppably, around them.   Desperate for some answers Peter returned to his favourite haunt on the Esplanade.

The short summer season was dying, so there were few tourists:  those there were ran with clacking heels between the pinball stations of pub and club, amusement hall and hotel lobby, their voices raised in lyrical protest at the rain.   It was a hard rain, driving in off a distant tide, battering his face with all of Lesley’s scorn and fury.   He paused to lean against the railings for a while, oblivious to his saturated clothes, staring across at the black mass of St. Benedict’s Rock as if to do so might apprise him of its ancient secrets:  but nothing came.  Although gulls wheeled silently as ghosts in and out of the lamplight above him, none perched or seemed inclined to talk in any language but their own quarrelsome tongue.   Their intermittent cries were just seagull insults, nothing more.

The brisk sound of approaching male footsteps drew Peter’s attention.  Two men, heavily-built and obviously not made for speed, had appeared on the Esplanade to his right, coming towards him more quickly than was comfortable for them.   Were they simply holiday-makers eager to get out of the weather?  Peter felt instantly wary.   All at once the wide, featureless expanse of the seafront seemed to harbour a thousand concealing opportunities for those who pursued him to lie in wait.   What was he doing here?   Was he mad?   Only ten hours earlier he had come within an inch of being kidnapped!    He took off, squelching wetly back across the road towards the East Mount and home.  Once among the early evening revellers on the hill, he broke into a run.

The evening meal was an interrogative affair.   His mother:   “Peter, if you’ve heard anything about Melanie, you really should tell us.  Poor Karen is beside herself with worry.”

“Why should I know anything?  Mel hasn’t called me for weeks.”   Then, mischievously,  “Why doesn’t she ask Howard?”

His father, suddenly attentive:    “Howard?  You mean Mr. Sullivan?    What makes you think he would know?”

Peter shrugged.   “He just seems like the kind of blokey who would, that’s all.   I mean, he’s like some heavy Secret Service agent or something, isn’t he?”

Lena Cartwright snorted.   “Just a big soft armchair, darling, that’s what he is.   But he did go straight up to Seaborough to try and do something, I’ll admit.   Poor Karen, she hasn’t heard anything from him all day, either.”  She stood, stretching to reach Peter’s plate.

Peter said with deliberation:   “Why, hasn’t he gone home yet?”

His mother’s face was a foot or so from his own:   “What do you mean, Peter?”

“Well, he was on my train today.  So he’s definitely come back.”

Lena said:  “I spoke to Karen just an hour ago.”

 “I wonder how he got on my train,”  Peter mused;  “I mean, if he was coming back from Seaborough, I should have thought he would have gone through London, wouldn’t he?”

“I think you must have been mistaken.”   His father said, slowly.

Peter waited, allowing his parents time to exchange worried looks.  Should he be doing this?   “No. It was definitely him.  We talked for a minute.  Funny, though.  He didn’t say anything about Mel disappearing.  He told me he went north for a job interview.”   He shrugged, adding brightly:  “D’you suppose he got it?”

There was a pregnant pause.   Bob Cartwright murmured:  “Maybe.   Peter, old chap, where were you this weekend?”

“I told you, Dad.   Went to a party.   Good party, too!  Lots of eats!”

“Then tell me why we, who have known you these many years, don’t believe you?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you believe me?”

“Because you’re a bad liar, darling.”  His mother said flatly.   “Where were you tonight?”

“I said where I was.   I went to meet Lesley!  What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?”   There was nothing Spanish about the process or religious either, come to that:  it was just the first protest that came into Peter’s head and he was no longer being careful about what he said.   “After I left her, I went for a walk, okay?  Dad, is that okay?”

“Now don’t get angry, dear.”

“You don’t believe me!  You don’t believe anything I say, so what’s the point of asking me questions?    I told you I went to a party; you don’t believe me.   If I tell you I went for a walk because Lesley and I broke up tonight, you won’t believe that, either!   I went for a walk, mum, all right?  A bloody walk!”

“Peter!”    His father’s voice menaced; but Peter met Bob Cartwright’s warning stare with a stare of his own.   Their relationship had passed beyond the point when the father could discipline the child.   The son stood taller and probably stronger now than the self-effacing cleric who had never, in all of his erratic ministry, been a man of authority, within his family or without.  His father’s look emitted worry rather than anger, anyway; it spoke of a man struggling to understand, trying vainly to re-enter the mysterious world of youth from a place too far off.

“I’m sorry you have had a tiff with Lesley;” Bob said gently;   “She’s a sweet girl and you go well together.   Peter, when you’re ready – or when you’re able, I’m not sure which it is, please share the burden you are carrying?   We only want to help?”

Peter sighed.   After all, they had a right to know.   The pursuit would not end and sooner rather than later it would reach their door – a door he knew could not be his for much longer, though he tried to deny the thought.   Not tonight, though.  He couldn’t tell them tonight, and if he did they would not believe him.   His father, a man of God?

“I will, dad.   I promise.”

As he walked out of the room, he heard his mother say: “So there is something!”

Later, in his room, Peter sent an email to Lesley. ‘Dearest Les, I need you too much.  I’ll tell you everything tomorrow.   Please meet me at the Causeway Café?  I’ll be there at 10.’  Then he sent a longer email to Vincent, relating the events of the day, and his fears for Melanie.

 Neither replied.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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.

Image Credits:

Featured image: Molly Rosalee from Pixabay

Street at Night: Jack Finnegan from Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part twenty-Six

Hostages

Fate?   If asked, it is doubtful Melanie could have explained the motives which were guiding her – why it was, for instance, she had wandered down to Seaborough’s fish quay the previous morning, rather than just taking a shorter stroll on the beach: or why she had boarded the trawler so willingly, or why, be he ever so scary, she had not been perturbed by having her personal goods confiscated by the smartly-dressed man.

Was she aware that, to the rest of the world, she had been abducted?    Almost certainly.   Did she care that Karen and Bianca would be distraught?   Of course – although youth never truly appreciates the anxieties of the old:  in her present frame of mind there were higher priorities than appeasing her own mother’s lack of confidence in her.   Bianca was of less concern.   In the moil of feelings surrounding her break-up with Peter, Bianca had not been the life-line she at first promised to be.  Seaborough was not the haven it had appeared.   Melanie had disliked it almost on sight: and the condescension her aunt had shown her, the reluctance of welcome, did nothing to affirm its virtues or relieve her torment.

The nature of the ache inside her was something she did not understand.  Although she and Peter had been great friends for longer than she could remember they were both too young to have been lovers, in the semse she assumed the word to imply.   She had never been close to Peter in any other sense than companionship, never held him to her, or kissed him, although she had wanted to.   So she had expected sadness at their parting, perhaps, a gap in her life that would prove hard to fill; but not a yawning pit of black misery, a sense of total loss:  and no, not the ravening, all-consuming jealousy she harboured for Lesley.   Lesley who had been her friend, Lesley who had betrayed her!    Either she had repressed a deep and obsessive longing for Peter, a hunger which now broke out in her heart, malign and growing like a cancer, or there was something else; something other.   Perhaps, just perhaps, Peter had been right:  perhaps she could never turn her back on her unwanted ‘gift’ and it was driving her helplessly along.   Perhaps it was pushing her forward even now.

Right now she was cold, so cold!   And missing her mobile ‘phone, with which, forgoing all pride, she would have called Peter just for the warm comfort of hearing his voice.   The wind was gathering force, playing through the stone orifice of the tunnel as if it were a reed, with a whistling insistence that it might turn her to stone, too, if it wished.   Agnes’ hastening arm dripped as it steered her towards daylight beyond.    What would she find there – a path to take her away from the sea, she hoped, with maybe some form of transport waiting at its end – certainly not the prospect that did await her.   What she saw drew a shivering gasp of surprise.

The tunnel emerged from the cliff onto a flat, wide shelf, already slick with rain.   Melanie assumed that its margins dropped straight to the sea, for she could hear a swell breaking against it, just below her sight.   But it was the further prospect which took her aback: for she stood at the margin of a small bay; no more than a quarter of a mile across and perfectly semi-circular, its periphery traced by a narrow crescent of sand.  This little beach, complete with short jetty and bobbing row-boat, formed the seaward end of a densely-wooded chine, nestling among the first trees of which was a villa,  a timber-clad house painted green with a wide roof and colonial-style veranda facing the sea.   This in itself seemed remarkable, like a scene drawn from another, much warmer, place: maybe even another time.   Yet more impressive was the contrast which one short bore-hole through a cliff had affected:  a transition from wildness to calm, from malevolence to beauty.   Melanie felt moved enough to cry.

Agnes, clumping wetly, herded her quaking charge down a narrow track of clay fringed with wild Campion to saturate her denim-clad legs even more, if that were possible.   Upon closer examination the house was a structure much larger than it had at first appeared.   As their path followed the curve of the bay, it brought into view a driveway and a parked Land Rover, looking as depressed and soggy as Melanie.   Now that solace seemed so near she shivered even more and the tears rolled from her, as she realised how much she needed warmth,  dry clothes, and food.  But what reason had she to believe this awaited her – this, or imprisonment in some cold dark room?

A simple wooden door at the rear of the house opened into a small lobby, the walls of which were lined with all manner of ephemera, from a cane fishing rod to a rather apologetic-looking lawn mower.    Here Agnes revealed herself, peeling off first the Sou’wester, then multiple layers of coats and woollies.   What remained was a woman dressed in twin-set and plaid skirt, whose scant grey hair straggled down the cheeks of an oval, middle-aged face.   Her glasses had steamed up and she removed these to expose keen, quick eyes, with which she surveyed the dripping Melanie sympathetically.

“Now, dear, it’s a hot bath for you, I think.  Come along indoors.”

‘Indoors’ was a kitchen, if the elderly gas stove at the far end was to be believed. It stood forlornly next to a large boiler on one side and a stack of lobster pots on the other, beyond a table stacked with papers of all descriptions:  catalogues, junk mail, magazines and bills.   The wooden chairs around the table were arranged as though their occupants had been warned of an earthquake.   A dusty welsh dresser, similarly overwhelmed with paperwork, and a fridge nestled uneasily together on the inside wall: a long window, its sill gathering dust and yet more papers, looked out at the Land Rover.   In all, Melanie thought, this was the sort of place her mother would have had nightmares about:  but it was warm and intimate, in a curious way, and for that she was grateful.

Agnes led her briskly on to a large hallway, then up sparsely-carpeted stairs.

“This will be your room.  There’s a bathrobe in the cupboard.   Get yourself out of those clothes while I run you a bath.”

The room, more functional than palatial, sported a comfortable-looking bed, a small plywood wardrobe and dressing table of pine.  It shared the same unpretentiously homely feeling of the kitchen:  the radiator was piping hot, so she felt no reluctance as she shed her sodden clothes beside it.   Standing before the window, cocooned into a luxuriously thick towelling robe, she could look across the little bay to open sea, now white-capped and growing a little angry, and still feel the peace of this quiet place.   It did not matter that the rain tattooed the slates above her, or battered at the window glass.  When she was shown the bathroom she knew what kind of plumbing she would find, and none of that mattered, either:  this was a place of beauty and magic, and it felt right that she was here.

Much later, after Melanie had bathed and Agnes had sated her with hot soup and sandwiches filled with something stramge but undeniably nice, they sat together in the “living room” on a faded suite amongst yet more piles of papers and books, as Agnes explained about the chilly little harbour.

“It’s an unpleasant place.

“A hundred or so years ago it was a working harbour: there’s a small fishing village at the top of the cliff.    There are many such villages up and down these coasts, where fisher people eked out their living from the sea; communities of maybe no more than a dozen families, each with a small boat of some description.”

“I suppose they couldn’t compete as fishing methods changed?”

“No, of course not: and the times have changed too.  You won’t find many of your generation wanting to live in that way.”

Melanie thought of the boy on the trawler.  How different his life must be, compared to her own.   Perhaps that was his attraction? 

 “It must have been a hard life.”

“Certainly it was.   In 1906 a storm drowned every male family member of the village – eighteen men and boys.   So the community died with them.  No-one lives there now, nor have they done for more than a century.   A place of ghosts.”

 “Why have I been brought here?”  Melanie asked.

“’Brought’ here?”    Agnes raised a quizzical eyebrow.   “Is that what really happened, dear?”

 “I was kidnapped, wasn’t I?”  Melanie’s protested. 

Her host ‘tutted’ disgustedly.   “Now is that what they did?   For shame.   You came with me willingly enough, though?”

“I was cold and wet.  I wanted to get out of the rain.”

“Ah.”  Agnes appeared to contemplate this.  “And do you want to leave, now that you are drier?”

Thinking that her answer should be truthful, Melanie said:  “No, I like it here.   But my mum will be worried, and they took my phone.   Maybe if I could just use yours?” 

Her host shook her head.  “There’s no telephone, I’m afraid.   Now, I think you have spent enough time lounging around in that bathrobe, my dear.   I’ve laid some fresh clothing out on your bed.   You go along and change, now.   I have a few errands to run.”

Climbing the stairway to her room, Melanie heard the Land Rover splutter into life in the driveway outside.   Agnes evidently felt confident to leave her alone in her house, and she had to wonder at this, if she truly was a prisoner.   But what happened next changed all of her thinking in an instant.   For she found, neatly laid out on her bed, a set of warm clothing which was entirely suitable to the climate of her current circumstances, yet at the same time exactly in tune with her fashion taste and a perfect fit – as they should have been; because they were the very clothes she had packed in expectation of cold weather when she left home in Levenport, clothes which yesterday morning had been hanging in her closet in Bianca’s house.

#

.           The last thing Howard had expected (though, if he’d thought about it the possibility must have occurred to him) was to come face to face with Peter Cartwright on the train.  Yet as he opened the door between carriages there he sat, not two metres away.  Their eyes met.   It would have been difficult to judge who jumped the highest.

“Good lord!  Peter!”    He contemplated walking on by, concluding the episode with a casual:  “Fancy meeting you here!   Have a nice trip, old son!” but decided against this.   What came out was even lamer.   “Small world, isn’t it?”

“Hello Howard.”   Of all the people Peter would have wished to meet, Karen’s large, over-effusive boyfriend was the least welcome.  What the hell was he doing here?  An enquiry would mean a conversation, a rigour endured too often where Howard was concerned.

“Job interview!”  Howard drew the excuse from thin air.  “Just testing the waters, mind; no intention of moving at the moment.”

“No.  I suppose not.”   Peter tried to sound interested.

“You?”   Howard coaxed.

“Oh!   Party!   A friend invited me to Manchester for the weekend.”

“Ah.”   The train was full, affording Howard no opportunity to sit for a lengthier encounter.  “Well, pleasant journey, then.  See you back in Levenport, yes?”

Moving awkwardly along the central aisle, he suppressed a desire to break into a run,  something difficult to achieve on a fast-moving passenger service.   Safe in his seat, he spoke quietly and urgently to his mobile.   “He’s here!   On the train!”

“A little late, now, mate.”  Piggott’s reply was harsh. “But at least he’s found.  Now all we have to do is lift him.”

Howard was astounded.  Now?  Here?  Gathering himself, he said:  “O.K.  Do you want me to do it?”

“No!  No way!  I want you back in Levenport, acting the frantic step-parent.   Our line is elopement with the Fenton girl; but that means he mustn’t reach home, so I’m going to have to organise something quick.   What’s your last station before Levenport, do you know?

“Hemlington, I think.”

“We’ll pick him up there.   I’ll need to know which carriage he’s in – but Howard?”

“Yes, Jerry?”

“You stay out of it, right?  We must keep your cover intact.  If the boy realises whose side you’re on, we’ve lost a valuable lever.  Stay out of the way.”

An hour later, four minutes from Hemlington, Howard told his seated neighbour that he felt travel sick, requesting he sit by the train window for a while.  Fortunately for him the woman concerned willingly agreed.   He settled into the corner of the seat, covered his face with a newspaper, and pretended to try to sleep.  In the next carriage, Peter watched through his window, casually interested, as the train slowed gently.  It had been a troubled hour.

Enduring his hard seat alongside a woman who seemed to need far more than hers, Peter had felt himself slipping into depression.  The dread image of his future returned, bringing a sensation of impending doom and he drifted briefly into a light, dreamless sleep until the prospect of a stop roused him; travellers weaving their way past his seat, hold-alls and carrying cases probing before them or trundling obediently behind.   Doors opening and closing, the static crackle of announcements; voices, too, from the platform outside:  sounds of greeting, howls of childish distress.

“Hello Peter.”   A voice soft in his ear, thick menthol on its breath – a male voice:  “You’re getting off here, son.   No fuss, alright?”

Peter started up, tried to dodge away, but a heavy hand gripped his shoulder, lifting him from his seat.   “Just nice and slowly, lad.   And look friendly, like we’re your long-lost uncles, or something, right?”

A second man, exaggeratedly casual in posture and dress, stood beside him in the aisle. Peter found himself between them, the man with the breath leading and the other following, being escorted from the train. A concerned-looking woman blocked their path for a moment:  the man with the breath flashed an ID card at her.  “Escapee.   Absconded from Juvenile offenders at Martonbyers yesterday….I know!   They look so innocent, don’t they, these lads?  Robbery with violence.  You wouldn’t think it, would you?”

  “My bag!”  Peter protested, still under the hypnosis of surprise, already alighting from the carriage into the cold air.

“Gottit.”   The casual man assured him.

Peter’s thoughts were in turmoil.   He was being hustled so quickly along the platform by these two heavily-built figures, he hadn’t time to think clearly:  yet he knew he must think clearly.   He must gain some space.

“Where’s your ticket?”  Asked the menthol-breath man.  He wore a Ferrari red rally jacket: it had a slight tear at the shoulder where the sleeve began.

This was Peter’s opportunity.   He fumbled through his pockets, pretending to search.

“Why do you want it?  Why did you make me get off here?”

“Nothing to worry about son.”  The casual man lounged above him, leaning (casually) against a pillar of the station canopy.  “Someone wants to talk to you, that’s all.   Won’t take long.”

“But my parents are meeting me off the train.”   Peter lied.  “Who wants to talk to me?  Who?”

“You’ll find that out soon, if you ever get hold of your ticket.  Here, let me look.”

The casual man dragged Peter’s hands out of his pockets, thrusting his own big hands in their place. Finding nothing, he commenced to frisk the rest of Peter’s clothing expertly, until his fingers encountered the thin contours of what felt like the missing ticket in a patch pocket at the back of his jeans.   “OK son, take it out.”

A northbound train had just come in, its passengers adding to the throng passing through the station foyer.  The morning trains were busy:  students returning to the university, punters for Hemlington’s popular Sunday race meeting.   A group of female students had gathered before the barriers, assembling luggage, chattering happily as the body of the queue edged by them.  Peter was thinking fast.  His captors had no tickets, did not seem to be concerned about them.  So they were some sort of officials:  the pass that the menthol man had shown to the woman on the train was in his hand again, ready for inspection.   Peter reasoned they must have met the train here, at this station.  They had anticipated his coming.   Howard!  Who else but Howard!  Casually-dressed man, holding his jacket firmly at the back, propelled him forward.    Here, in the funnel of travellers at the station entrance, was his chance.   Just a few dangerous seconds as he surreptitiously unzipped his jacket. The line of travellers compacted into a coascervation of humanity as it forced its way, grumbling, past the girl students and their growing pile of baggage.

Once again Peter drew on that perfect timing when the entire world apart from him seemed to move at quarter speed.   His arms slipped easily from the jacket, his shoulder dropped beneath the casual man’s frantic lunge.  In the moment of this escape he also knew, instinctively, which way to go and what to do.  He was at ground level, diving on all-fours into the midst of the students, slithering through a forest of elegant legs which scattered in alarm before him.  Their reaction turned the limited space of the station entrance into complete squealing pandemonium amidst which it would have been easy to escape in any direction; but Peter’s unerring sense led him back onto the platform, where, at that precise second, his train was ready to leave.   His body propelled itself through the closing doors, the safety locks clicked home.   Through the window, Peter came face to face with the menthol-breath man, but now there was glass between them and as the train began to move, the face worked in helpless anger until it could keep pace with him no more.   Hemlington slipped back into history: he was free.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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.

Meeting on the Motorway

He was driving home, not for the first but the third time this week, and he was tired.

Paul’s weariness  was an insidious thing, .  It had begun not weeks but months since, an insistent fatigue beyond sleep’s cure with roots that grew a little deeper each day, spread a little wider each week; so now it invaded his very bones.  He felt older, much older than his forty-two years.  Today he had worked late and far from home, swaddling that tiredness in a further layer of exhaustion. 

Almost as indistinct, the traffic of the motorway processed about him in sound and rhythm, fast and vast, marauding or crawling, assertive or furtive.  A tune – a slow ballad – a lullaby to woo him into sleep.   His eyelids were heavy, his reason was blurring.

The mile-post for a service area found him just in time:  even then he almost missed it, sinking eyelids hiding the warnings, an articulated trailer unit veiling the essential final sign until he was forced into an ugly lane-change.  The car park beckoned him and he fell into it, slumping back in his seat.  With the tensions of the road dispersed nothing could arrest the orderly march of slumber. Recognising the futility of defence, he surrendered unconditionally.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look absolutely wrecked.”

At some point he must have wakened then taken a decision  to leave his cocoon in search of food.  His steps must have led him to this café, his payment app to the stack of meat, cheese and mayo which leered back at him from this plate. 

“You aren’t actually going to eat that, are you?”

He couldn’t remember ordering the food, although it seemed sustaining enough to answer a need.  Clearly, he had slept for some hours, a simple truth his digestive tract insisted he acknowledge.

“I rather think I might,” he said, and “Who are you?”

He must have dozed again, that was the explanation.  While he was in a torpid state this young woman must have slipped into the seat across from his, but why?  The café was less than crowded.  There were whole tables to spare.

“Hi,” She said brightly, “I’m Seph.  Nice to meet you!”  She removed the heavy-looking spectacles through which she had been conducting her examination of his choice of comestible and extended a hand so absolutely inviting that, caught unawares, he almost kissed it.  Convention stepped into the line of fire just in time with an admonishing finger.  He shook the hand.  “Paul,”  he said.  “I’m sorry, how did …?”

“You needed me.”

The forthrightness of the statement alerted prickling, suspicious hairs on the back of Paul’s neck.

 Awake now and thinking, it didn’t take much working out, really, did it?  Easy to watch for such travellers as he:  Mercedes in the car park, expensive business suit, new, high-end ‘phone…  She was certainly convincing, he told himself, allowing his eyes free rein; a ‘class act’, her hair darkly frizzed to emphasize the portrait of a perfectly-featured face, the widest of soft mouths, the bluest of blue eyes.  A pale blue cloud-blue shift dress draped over shoulders otherwise bare, free of straps and encumbrances.  But still…

“I needed you.  Really.”  He placed some cynicism behind the words.

“Yes,”  She said.  And when she said it, when her eyes insisted his should meet with them, he felt himself melting.  “You’re not happy, are you?”

Now what on earth would make her say that?  “I’m on my way home,” he replied defensively.  “When I get home, I’ll be happy enough.”

It was a lie.  He dreaded going home.  “You’re very direct,”  he accused her.

Home?   A very expensive roof protecting a string of complex and irresolvable debts; remortgaged many times in the cause of his his business activities.  The domain of Adrienne, his wife; very much her domain, her furniture, her colours, her choices – bought without sanction because he was never there, always working.

“Is it my home?”  did he say that aloud?  Seph’s smile of understanding seemed to suggest she had heard everything, even the thoughts he was sure he had not spoken aloud.

“There’s someone waiting for you there?”  She coaxed, settling her hand on the table so her fingers played gently with the tips of his own.

“My wife.  Are you conducting some kind of confessional?”

“Do you love her, your wife?” 

He wanted to frown, to show he was affronted, but somehow he was drawn into an answer:  “This is getting a little too personal, isn’t it? What was your name?  Seph?   I mean, considering we’ve never met before, Seph.”

Seph leaned her elbows on the table, letting her chin rest prettily upon her interlocked fingers,  “I’m genuinely afraid for you, Paul.   It’s three o’clock in the morning, it’s a summer dawn; if love and happiness are waiting at the end of your journey, what are you doing here?”

“I had to pull over to rest.”  Just by reminding himself, he stirred a cloying mist of sleep.  Why was he so, so tired?  Adrienne slipped back into his thoughts, bringing contemplation and silence…

  Oh, there was a presumption of love.  There was a history, a time when there had been something between them they could excuse as love, when Paul was the beautiful young man and Adrienne his feminine equal, courted by an eager succession of suitors.  Perhaps Paul was the man Adrienne had been looking for, then.  Perhaps his relentless energy, his quiet, distant manner satisfied her, for she was never a passionate woman and she had few sexual needs.  Salivating young grads with nervous, uncertain eyes who danced on her strings amused her, but never tempted.  Paul saw her as she was, focussed; and she was drawn to his perspicacity.

That was then, and maybe it was a flawed foundation for a marriage, a mutual admiration rather than a friendship, a partnership rather than a passion: now it was a floor show, played out on their public stage.  In private, it was ice.

 “That will be cold,”  Seph interrupted his thoughts, rescuing him from despondency.  She directed his leaden eyes to the plated enormity stacked before him.  “If there’s anything worse than grease, it’s cold grease.”

Paul had to agree.   He was hungry.   But the challenge which confronted him was, in construction, a burger, and he hesitated to engage in the two-handed assault that threatened to release missiles of gherkin and cascades of mayonnaise while under the scrutiny of this attractive companion.  He was drawn to her, wasn’t he?  He was intrigued.

“Knife,”  She said, producing one from somewhere and sliding it across the table.

Paul accepted it.  “Do you work here or something?”

“No.  You hate her, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,”  his mouth was half-full.  “Hate who?”

“Adrienne.”

Paul stopped chewing, staring into Seph’s eyes as he sought some answer to a question so obvious he almost baulked at asking it;  “How do you know my wife’s name?  Do I talk in my sleep, or something?  Have we met before?”

“Have we met before?   Let me see…”  Seph’s hands slipped below the table and came up with a small notebook.  With her spectacles replaced halfway down her nose she flipped pages.   “Well, no.  No, we haven’t actually met.   Do you think I look too stern in these?  He says they make me look stuffy.  What do you think?”

Had Paul been in a mood for honesty, he would have replied that in his opinion she looked beautiful, but he saw a small advantage.  It seemed unlikely someone so lovely, and so overtly happy, would not be in a relationship.   “’He’?   Is ‘he’ your boyfriend?”

She pouted, an admission perhaps that she had been caught out?  But then there was a trace of a smirk,  “I wouldn’t call him that, exactly.  Anyway, we were talking about you.  I know all about you, Paul; you and Adrienne.  I’ve been studying you both for a few months now.”  She slid the spectacles right down to the end of her nose, treating him to a penetrating look over the top of them.  “Stern, yes?”

Genuinely, Paul was beginning to feel a little out of his depth.  Although this woman’s research begged explanation, he still favoured his initial theory.  This was a pick-up; a very professional one, but nonetheless…“Is this a regular haunt of yours?” He asked brutally;  “Cruising the motorway stops for tired professionals with fat wallets?”

“I see, sir,”   Seph took off her glasses;  “So I assume this is a practice of yours, trawling for chicks at night in tawdry dens of lust like Knutsford Services?  Fat professionals with tired wallets?”  But her eyes were liquid.  She looked solemn and genuinely sad.   “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I’m not for sale.   Not even for rent.”

“Then what are you, what is it that you do?  Where DO you work?”

“Wherever I am needed.  At the moment, that’s here.”

“I don’t need you,” he tried to say it kindly.  “Look, Seph, I’ve no idea where you’re coming from, so let’s agree to a moment of honesty, shall we?  You seem, for reasons only you can explain, to be interested in the state of my marriage.   Well, if I admit it isn’t the best marriage in the world, and from your perspective it must seem pretty depressing, can we close the subject and get down to whatever this conversation is really about?  Can we dispense with the subtleties?”

“No!”  Seph gripped his hand fiercely, then released it as quickly and sat back in her chair,  “This is a one-time offer, Paul.   One stop only, no repeats.  Do you know what I see?  Someone who’s ruled by life, Paul.  A caged soul.   It isn’t your fault, perhaps; you have the fast car but someone else is driving.  Nor is the fault Adrienne’s, because a woman like her was raised with expectations and her choices have failed her.   But you are not free and I must free you, yes?   That’s why I sat down at this table.  That’s why you have to take my hand, now, and let me guide you.  Please?”

Paul felt he had to shake his head because the sleep was coming in storm clouds.  Suddenly, it seemed imperative to think clearly, but clarity wouldn’t come.  He strove for an answer.  “See, Seph, that’s just how it is.  It’s the life I’ve got.    There are moments in it you could call happy.  If I’m prepared to settle for that version, and I am, although you are the most wonderful-looking reminder of the youth I once had, you must accept I don’t want rescuing – even by you.” 

“So,” Seph sighed,.  “You don’t need my help, then.  You’re going home and you’re ‘happy’, Paul.”  She shrugged.  “An opportunity missed.  I’m very glad for you.”

“Thank you for the thought,” he replied generously, “It was nice to meet you, Seph.”

A slow smile of kindness, tinged with regret, played across her face.  She rose gracefully from her seat, turning to follow the aisle to the doors, her blue dress floating about her – reeds in a stream, the rush of breeze in the willow.  He watched her go.

“Seph?”  

What made him do it?   Adrienne made him do it, the future in that hard voice, those acerbic jibes, waiting at the end of his road.  The darkness made him do it.

Then out of the darkness came Seph, taking his hands, drawing him to her.  “I was rather hoping you were going my way,”  she said sweetly.  “This is the very best thing!  Thank you, Paul!”

“My car’s in the car park,”  he said.

“We don’t need a car,” Seph replied.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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.