Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-Four

Of fish and Fishing

Peter’s slumber, in a welcoming little bedroom at the north corner of Vincent Harper’s cottage, was deep, and awash with dreaming. Yet, as with all such nights, the only dream he would carry into memory would be the last; his dream before waking. 

He stood beneath a burning sun upon a hill.  Around him and stretching to infinity were grasslands uninterrupted by hedges, or roads, or any natural feature save an occasional clump of scrubby and rather apologetic trees.  Groups of animals grazed, moving lazily, their tails flicking at a drifting mist of flies. 

One of the herds passed close enough so he could see they were not unlike Wildebeest though smaller, and hear as they spoke among themselves in tones curiously evocative of weeping.

As he looked on, a commotion in the grass behind the creatures exploded and a huge cat with gaping jaws and grotesque tusks for teeth sprang from cover.  Its intended victim had no time to turn or run before raking claws and those great teeth put it to death.    Legs crumpling beneath it, with its last breath the poor creature emitted a long, sobbing cry.   The herd scattered. and Peter woke up.

Slowly, as sleep receded, he became aware of breathing.  He was not alone.  His first disorientated thought was that he was back in Levenport, that he and Lesley had taken some time from study and they had fallen asleep together.   He probed softly, half-expecting to be rewarded with the thrill of her warm flesh.   Instead he found a coarse, tight pelt of fur.  It took only a second to realise that this was not human skin, that the owner was much, much larger than Lesley.   He opened his eyes to come face to face with the big cat of the plains, its fantastic fangs still scarlet with blood, eyes angry and lips drawn back in a long, slow feline snarl. Its eyes were craven and yellow, its big paws tensed to strike.  It disappeared.  Daylight peeked through the curtain, and the smell of frying food wafted through the gaps in the planked door.  Just to be sure, Peter pinched himself/

Estelle greeted him in the kitchen.

“Hi.  I was going to give you a shout, but blubber-ball downstairs said you’d be awake.  Are you OK?   You look like you saw a ghost.”

Thirty minutes later, with a calming plate of bacon and eggs inside him, Peter was ready for Vincent when he emerged from that mysterious door.  “Come on, Pete.  This is what you  came for.”

Peter follow Vincent down the flight of stone steps the door concealed.  Halfway down Vincent paused;

“One thing, man; be prepared – a bit of a shock, this.”

Another door: to a basement room, obviously; and their footsteps must have been heard because that oddly familiar voice bellowed from within:  “Not you, Vincent, I need the woman to attend to me.  I demand it!”

  “She’s washing another bale of your clothes, you old f****r!”  Vincent responded unceremoniously.  “We need a bleedin’ laundry!   Keeping you clean’s an industrial enterprise!”   Over his shoulder, in a more modulated voice, he said,  “Come in Pete.  If he throws something at you, throw it back!”.

“Blame me!  My dear, it’s so convenient!  Blame me!”    The voice was suddenly petulant, a soft received English accent with a peculiar dryness, almost a rasp.  Now Peter was sure of its owner, though he hadn’t expected to find him here.

“Right!  Sure, I will!   All I ask, Simeon, is you keep your shirt clean for just, like, an hour or something, huh, baby?   Maybe if you don’t eat for an hour, try that?”

“Not eat?  For a whole hour?”  Expostulated the voice,  “I need food, my dear!  Need it!   You know I need it!   Get me fish.”

“Later.”

“Not later, NOW!”

Peter managed to pass through the door without molestation, into a well-lit space which had all the appearance, although windowless, of a normal sitting room.  A pendant light in the centre of its ceiling provided the illumination; walls were painted a predictable magnolia; wooden features in a contrast tan.  A darker tan carpet fitted the entire floor.   A television of mammoth proportions graced one wall, an over-stuffed chair, a low settee and a smaller upright chair ranged around a large glass occasional table central to the room.

Peter’s attention instantly focused on the occupant of the room – a most unusual-looking human who Vincent introduced:

“Peter, this is Simeon.”

Simeon was seated in a low armchair.   The floor around him was covered by a pair of protective sheets in the form of plastic shower curtains, one bearing a penguin motif, the other a single full-length graphic of a nude female.  

 Simeon’s person could best be described as a vast jelloid balloon topped by a completely hairless head.   Into this, like craters of the moon, were sunk two large, saucer eyes, pinhole nostrils, and a mouth uncluttered by more than the necessary minimum of teeth.  

The lower layers of the apparition were clad in a voluminous pair of blue trousers, partially zipped to respectability:  the upper ones a clean white cotton shirt with cruelly tortured buttons and short sleeves.  The trousers were, like everything else in the immediate vicinity, decorated with splurges of food.   The shirt was not, as yet, though its fate was clear.

A breakfast plate rested neatly upon the shelf of Simeon’s torso.  Peter guessed at Eggs Benedict which Simeon steadily transported to his mouth with both his hands.  Mastication was a very open affair.  Sauce dripped and spattered.   The clean shirt became unclean extremely quickly, especially when speech took place.

“Is this the boy?”  Simeon assessed Peter with a disbelieving stare.   “Bigger than I remember – much bigger.”   He extended a podgy hand, inviting a handshake.   Peter flinched away.

“Sorry!”  Simeon apologised.  “Bit messy, it’s true.  I have difficulty eating this trash, you see.  Bloody stupid idea, leaving sauce all over the place.”

Estelle had followed Vince and Peter into  the room.  “He has difficulty eating anything politely.”  She commented.  “He’s a PIG!”

“Of course he has difficulty;” said Peter a little sententiously, because he was certain now his first encounter with Simeon’s voice had been on Levenport seafront.  “He’s more used to having  a beak.  He’s really a gull.”

Simeon exploded into laughter, a voluble bellow which scattered hollandaise sauce like napalm.   “A GULL!  Of course I am.  You see, my pretty little waitress, how you wrong me?   Dear boy, how well we shall get on!   Simeon Ward-Settering, MSc, BSc, MA, BA, DD, MD, CD, VD, OD, Eton and Balliol here.  How do you do?”

Simeon resumed his gorging:  massaging the remaining contents of the plate into a wad, he stuffed this into his mouth, to be swallowed by a single gulp.

“There. I am replete!   Vincent, you sweet soul, bring me those towels, will you?”

There were towels in a pile by the door.   Four or five were needed, before Simeon looked anything like clean, another two to mop detritus from the table and floor.   To withdraw the shower curtains, Vincent had to prompt Simeon to raise himself, which he did with some difficulty.    Peter noticed that movement induced a ripple effect across the uneven contours of his body, and a made a sloshing sound.

“Not my dear little Popsy!”   Simeon affected grief as the nude woman curtain was taken.  “Do bring her back soon, won’t you?   I shall miss her frightfully!”

“You’re a dirty old bastard.”  Estelle told him, as she gathered up the soiled towels.   There was some humour in the statement, but not too much.

“I know; my failing.  Sit down – Peter, isn’t it?  Vincent, you have told our friend here what this is about?  Broken the ice, as ‘twere?”

“Yeah.”

Peter gingerly lowered himself into a chair which looked relatively free of food.

“I’ll leave you boys to it,” Estelle said with meaning.  “I have to do laundry.”

“Fish!”   Simeon shouted at her retreating back.

 “Vincent and I, we go back a long way.”  Simeon cocked an eye at Vince, “He didn’t tell you that, did he?”

Vincent shook his head.  “I left it to you, mate.”

“I first appeared to Vincent after a concert in California.  My path was smoothed by several mind-altering drugs…”

“What a gig that was!”  Vincent laughed,  “He tied me up, literally!  I thought I was having a bad trip.”

“I did a thing with a python materialisation – a favourite of mine at the time.  In retrospect a bit cruel, I suppose.”

“I was that spaced out I thought he was God!”  Vincent exclaimed,  “As you can see, he wasn’t”

 “Now, let us be serious,” Simeon exclaimed.  “We met before – you’ve worked that out, you clever thing – so it is time for you to know who I really am.”

“You were that gull on the rail at Levenport,”  Peter said,  “That’s how I first saw you.  You spoke to me, but inside my head, not with a voice like now.  .  You  invited me to meet Vince, didn’t you?”

Simeon spread lily-pad hands:  “I confess it all, guv’nor.  Guilty as charged.   I suspected you shared our receptiveness, but I had to find out. ”

Vincent grimaced,  “Quite useful timing, in the event.”

“My dream?”  Peter muttered, “That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?  How many times do I have to keep saying this?  It was just a dream!”

Simeon affected a sigh of patience:  “Dear child, remember what happened.   You touched the Truth Stone, and it flooded your head with pictures.  You passed out, but you weren’t asleep.  Then you found another part of the Stone in the Toa shrine, and you repeated the exercise there.  Denial of this is pointless!  Accept your gift!”

“Truth Stone?  Toa shrine?  You mean that cave, the one with Toqus’s body in it.  Who are the Toa?  Come to think of it, you haven’t told me yet what you are.”

“The Toa are a religious sect that existed secretly within the Catholic Church until the Middle Ages, and probably in other multitheistic religions long before that;”  Simeon answered.   “Unheard of for four hundred years, they are active again because they know, as do we, that the stones are awake.  As to who I, and possibly you, are?  I don’t precisely know.  We call ourselves Ethereals, but that is only a name. 

“The species that thrived on this planet for a hundred million years, and those who went before them, ‘documented’ their knowledge and their law by some means in stone.  I and some of my predecessors are possibly older, even, than they.   I believe we were once the readers of those records.   If you think of stone as the ‘hard drive’ on which their lore was stored, then we were the lasers that read, and possibly also wrote, that information.”

Peter was struggling:  “That’s pretty radical.  So you must be really old.  I mean, if you were reading their stuff. I mean, seriously?”

“I have to accept I may be very, very old.  Having no physical body apart from those forms I assume for convenience from time to time so people, humans, can better understand me.  I could be as old as the stone itself.   Time relies on substance, and as far as I know I,  and the few brethren who have shared this state with me, have no physical form at all.”

“Supposing I believed all this?  Like I’m sitting in a room with a ghost who looks like the Michelin Man on acid, and he isn’t really there.  He’s what…invisible?  Where do I fit in with that?”

“We can no longer read from the stones.  More importantly, dear boy, we can no longer write into them.  We can’t ‘programme’.  That means destiny is set upon a path we can’t control, and something desperate must inevitably happen.  We had to find someone from your generation with the power to interact with that resource…”

“And you’re it, Pete.”  Vincent cut in.   “Because we’ve seen that you can interact with the Truth Stone.  You’re lovely girlfriend, too, if we can find her, but we think maybe one of the others has got her.”

“Melanie’s not my girlfriend,” Peter reminded them. “Others?  What ‘others’?”?”

 “Others who want to use the stone ‘drive’ for their own ends,” Simeon replied.  “The Toa, some other religious groups and extremists who think they can earn from the power it could give them.”

“Alright,”  Peter said, “What do you want to use it for?  How do I know you’re not another bunch of mad scientists, or whatever?”

  Vincent took the question.  “I suppose you don’t.  You would have to judge us by what we ask you to do, if you can do it.”

“Which is?”  

“Perform a reset, if you like.  Wipe the catastrophic event which has caused the error and if possible extract the information we need to get ourselves back on track.”  Simeon tried to look persuasive – an expression that didn’t sit easily on his moon of a face.  “Not much of an ask, Petie Pooh, is it?”

Vincent cut in with a grimace:  “It’s urgent, Pete. We have to get you back to the Rock and get this sorted like yesterday, man, and I don’t know if I can help you.  It would have been better if we hadn’t had to drag you up here to tell you all this, but I daren’t go near the place at the moment.  I don’t think they know about you, but they know me, and I’m a prime target.”

“Why should they – whoever – target you?”

“For the same reason I sought out Vincent at that California concert,” Simeon answered more soberly; “His is the House on St. Benedict’s Rock.  The place where you touched that black stone – the Truth Stone – is your best hope of accessing the information we need and re-establishing control – as Ethereals must have done, I am sure, for millions of years.  It’s the only place, as far as we know, where the Truth Stone is exposed.”

“What’s to stop ‘them’, whoever they are, from simply moving in and taking over?  If all they need is this Truth Stone?”

“It isn’t all they need.  They need you, Pete.  You or your friend, ideally both.  Together you’re the lynchpins.  You’re the readers.”   

#

Melanie had never slept on a small boat before.   The coastal trawler, a sturdy craft built for the short, choppy waves of inshore waters, made few concessions to the inexperienced: and Melanie was scarcely a sailor.   After struggling for a couple of queasy hours against forces dedicated to tipping her from the hard wooden shelf of her bunk, trying to blot out the bang of waves against a hull only inches from her right ear, she surrendered.   Midnight found her on the foredeck, staring emptily towards lights on a distant shoreline.

“Thinkin’ o’ swimming for it?”   The deck-hand, for that was what Melanie assumed he must be, was a spindly youth in a shabby navy sweater.   “’Tis further ‘an it looks.”

“Where are we, exactly?”   She asked.

“See those lights there?   Those’d be Peterhead.   Us’ll be losin’t coastline in a while:  crossin’t mouth of Mor’y Firth.    Could get rough.   Lucky to ‘ave it this calm, time o’ year.”

“How much further are you taking me?”

“Not far enough, nice lass like the’.   Us’ll be dropping the’ off tomorra morning.”

“Where?”

The boy shook his head:   “can’t tell the’ that.”

So it was to be somewhere in Scotland: the north, too.  What; an island somewhere?

Melanie recalled her first conversation with the boy.   She had not intended, when she left Bianca’s nice seaside semi-detached that morning, to wander as far as the fish-dock: she still wondered why she had.   But, having done so, and having leaned over the rail to watch the vessels departing on the tide, it was natural to someone of her enquiring mind to ask questions of this frail-looking youth, who was stacking white plastic trays on the deck of a neat and sweetly-painted green boat.

“Coom aboard if the’ likes.”

She did like.   It never occurred to her there might be -; what – danger – adventure?

“Tha’d not like it, where us has te’ live when wor ut sea, mind.   Coom on, Ah’ll show the’.”

It never crossed her mind.

She marvelled at the little galley:  the smallness, the compactness of it all.   And the forward cabin: two bunks, a locker, no room for more.

            A quite different figure was from nowhere, all at once standing behind her, removing any thought of retreat; a tall man dressed un-nautically, blunt though not unkind of speech.

“We’ll want your possessions:  purse, mobile.  PDA if you have it.   Now, please.”

A man brooking no dissent: impatient of delay.

“Now, please!”

He blocked the door: or was it a hatch, now she was on a boat?

“Gaffer!”  The boy whispered.   “The’ better do it like.  Do like ‘e says, lass.”

How had it happened?   What had brought her here?   The pulse of the diesel was noisy, the throb of its dissent endemic to the steel of the hull.  Unaccountably, though, she was hearing music.  Oh, not a radio, or anything: no, this was inside her head:  like the music of the rock.

© 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:

Feature Image Dinosaurs Darius Sankowski on Pixabay

Fish: Gregory Moses on Unsplash

Trawler: Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash

Cherie

“Are you not going to talk to me, then?” 

“Yeah, of course – if you want, like.”  Martin knew he was blushing.   The girl with the long sun-kissed legs confronted him as he stepped out of the elevator cage.  Jack, his mate, followed him, making a sound of appreciation in his ear which, had he been a horned toad and not a bricklayer, might have sounded like a mating call.  

“’Cos you wolf-whistled me yesterday, didn’t you?”

“Did Ah?”  That was different.   Yesterday Martin was two storeys up, looking down from the scaffolding.  This was face to face.   A paragon of all that was beautiful, standing a couple of feet away.

“So I thought you fancied me.  Was I wrong?”

Her eyes were a dark challenging blue, lips full and wide.  Her hair was black, her teeth even and very, very white.  She was wearing the same red top as yesterday.  The same blue denim shorts.

“No.”  He muttered.  “No, you’re – you’re not wrong.”  He had only dared to whistle because Jack had done it first.

“Well, what we going to do about it then?  It’s all right, you can talk to me you know.  I won’t break.”

#

“So what ‘appened?”  Jack had returned with their fish and chip lunch.  “Hey, I bet you embarrassed yerself, you!”

“No – no I didn’t!”  Martin defended.  “Of course I didn’t!”

“Spent five minutes thinkin’ o’ dead cats, then!   She were tasty, her.”

“Aye.”   His mate was right about the cats.  “She’s real nice, like.  We’re goin’ out Thursday.”

“Yer lucky bustard!    Why Thursday?”

“As good a day as any, i’n’t it?”

“What’s her name?”

Martin thought for a moment.  “Don’t know.  Never as’t her.”

#

Her name was Cherie.  Introductions had to wait until Thursday, because Cherie did not appear again on the town square below the building site in the following few days, though Martin hoped for a sight of her.  By the morning of the appointed day he was already wondering if he had done the right thing.  Martin was always uneasy in the presence of eligible girls – their disguised interest, the giggling, the sotto voce comments whenever he was near, made him nervous and on edge.   Jack, who couldn’t understand his reticence, teased him.

“I don’t know what yer’ve got, lad, but I wish I had it.  Yer’d not catch me blushin’ and hidin’ in corners, I can tell thee.”

#

Martin wore the shirt his favourite on-line store said would look good on him, the three-quarter trousers that they said would match the shirt.  He drenched himself in the men’s cologne someone gave him for Christmas two years before; and in all fairness he felt quite self-confident when he hit the street.  As he approached the meeting place he had agreed with Cherie, however, his eyes settled upon her shortest dress of darkest red, and that confidence began to evaporate.

For her part, Cherie had to weigh her recollection of the half-naked, dusty male god from the scaffolding against the shop window figure who wafted to greet her on Mathesons’ corner.   As he approached, her practised smile twitched a little and almost faded – her full red lips closed over those white, white teeth.   But still, she persuaded herself, at least he had made an effort; and really, once she had changed sides to stay up wind, he was quite a creditable companion on the street.  Eyes were drawn.  She liked that.  She hugged his arm.

“Go clubbin’ yeah?”

Martin’s confidence graph took a further plunge.  “Ah’m not mooch of a dancer, like!”

“Why man, you’d be fine.”  Cherie produced a small polythene bag from her purse.  “You tried some of these?”

Martin eyed the little white pills within the bag with suspicion.  “What are they, like?”

“They make you dance!”

And dance Martin did;  wildly.  And if a few toes got trodden and if a face or two got elbowed no-one seemed disposed to make a point of it.  And Cherie?  She was delighted.

It was half-past-two before the pair left the Hot Licks Club.  Martin had somehow endured seven hours of closeness to Cherie’s graceful, swaying body without doing anything that would make his mate Jack ashamed of him.   Around the back door behind the dustbins, his supply of dead cats ran out.

#

“Chuffin’ ‘ell!   Yer look like the eight-forty-nine from Newcastle ran over yer!”   Jack commented the next morning.  “Good night, was it?”

“It were all right, like.”  Martin blinked at his watch.   “Eight-forty-nine’s not due yet, like.”

“I know, lad.  I know.”  Jack soothed.  “It’s joost an expression, see?”

“Ah.”

“Well, gan on then, what were she like?”

“She were all right, like.”  Martin wasn’t at all sure he remembered what Cherie was actually like.  He had a vision in his head of an undulating goddess, but it was fogged.  Those little white pills were responsible.  He had never taken anything of their like before, so he had never been ‘up’.  And never having been ‘up’, he was unprepared for coming ‘down’ – which he was heavily in the process of experiencing.   That morning, after he nearly fell from the scaffolding twice, his foreman put him in charge of stores.

Jack caught up with him at the rear of the site at lunchtime.   “I’m off to get t’ fish and chips, yer havin’ the usual?”

“Ah.  Awreet.”  Martin assented unenthusiastically.

“That right you got another date with yon Cherie lass?”

“Aye.  Ah think so.”  This was another of the things he was unable to recall clearly.  “Saturday, I think, like.”

“Well, there’s someone out the front to see yer.”  Jack told him.  “Have fun, lad!”

#

Cherie stood waiting by a forklift with the sun behind her so Martin could not immediately read her expression, though he might have been disappointed by the modesty of her floral summer dress.

“Ah.”  Martin said.

“Hello Martin.”  She said.  She sounded upset.

A tall figure hidden from sight behind the machine stepped into view.  “This is your Martin?”  His accent was thick and heavy with Eastern European inflections.  “You are lucky boy, Martin.  Yes?”

“Ah.”  Martin said.  “Who’re you, like?”

#

Jack and Martin sat eating their fish and chips together.

Jack was chuckling unsympathetically. “Yer’ve put yer foot in it this time!”

“Ah didn’t know she were only sixteen!”  Martin moaned.  “She never said, like, did she?”

“Oh aye!  Like she would!   And he was her brother, this big bloke?”

“Ah.  One of eight.  Eight brothers!”

“Chuffin’ ell!  What sort of people have that many kids?”

“Ah’m aboot to find out.  Her muvver and favver want to see me tonight!  About my ‘plans’.”

“Plans?  Chuffin’ell.  Yer nivver planned owt in yer life, lad!”

“Anyway, this brother of ‘ers, this Dimitri, he says it’s alright for ‘er to see me, like, because sixteen’s quite old to still be single, where they cooms from.   I think they want me to marry ‘er, like!”

Jack’s hell chuffed once more.   “It’s ridiculous, that.  I mean, yer didn’t do nothin’ to her, did yer?  I mean, first date and all?”

Martin probed the fog mournfully.  “Ah don’t rightly remember.  Ah think ah might ha’ done.”

#

Over the weeks that followed Jack’s lunches became solitary affairs.   Cherie brought sandwiches and other more exotic treats to sit with Martin in the park while she regaled him with details of the wedding dress she wanted, the celebrations that people of her country enjoyed on such occasions, and his duties as a bridegroom.  Cherie’s brothers acted as chaperones:  their small, packed household reverberated to the beat of raucous folk music,  while he sat in silence for hours.  His hosts prattled happily in their own language.  Only Cherie  spoke to him in English. 

#

“Where is she now?”  Jack asked.  It was the first time he and Martin had shared their lunch in quite a while.

“She’s off gettin’ fitted for the dress.”  Martin explained.  “It’s not that I don’t like, ‘er, like…it i’n’t her so much – it’s her fam’ly.  Wor can’t get away from ‘em, like!”

And Jack said:  “Still, lad, it’ll be awreet once tha’s married, won’t it?”

“Ah, well that’s the thing.    ‘Er favver wants us to work for ‘im.  Ah’m fam’ly now, ‘e says.  Ah says, ah’m norra plumber.  ‘E says, that’s awreet, ‘e’ll teach us, like.  Boot ah don’t want to be be a bluddy plumber, do ah?   Ah’m ‘appy wi’ the bricks, like!”

“Well, tell ‘im that.”

“Oh ah, you try!  An’ Cherie’s brothers, see?  They works for ‘im awready, an’ he don’t pay them ‘ardly nowt.  Ah’m spendin’ more time wi’ them than ah am wi’ Cherie.   It’s all the heavy hand on the shoulder an’ ‘you be a good lad an’ do what Papa wants’.   And ah’m buyin’ all the drinks, like!”

“Let me think.”  Said Jack.

#

Jack, at forty-one, could have looked upon his young friend’s plight from a mature perspective and concluded that Martin’s fears would resolve themselves, given a little time.  But he was concerned.  Martin’s brow was furrowed, his complexion pale.  He seemed to be sagging beneath the burden, not of his relationship with a pretty girl who, despite her tender years, Jack rather liked, but the grasping aspirations of her father and her brothers.

The girl’s horizons could not extend beyond her family.  It was a powerful influence, and Martin needed some inspiration to introduce a little slack to those natural ties.   The trouble was, good and honest as his young friend was, Martin had never suffered the pangs of inspiration.   Ideas were not his strongest suit.  A vissicitude of fortune needed to step in.

Which was why, on one warm weekday evening, Jack was to be found stuffed into his best suit, standing outside a church hall beside a board that announced a meeting of the ‘Jesuit Society’.

“Hello, love!  Are you a newbie?”   She was smartly dressed in blue, with her hair coiffed neatly beneath a dark navy hat.  “I’m Ethel.  Come on in and let me introduce you.”

In the ensuing two hours Jack experienced more religion than had passed his way in a lifetime of resolute agnosticism.  It was, he justified to himself, suffered in a good cause, especially as it offered every opportunity to socialise with Ethel, who was a member of a mysterious ‘Committee’, and a perfect receptor for his plan.  Oh yes, Jack had a plan.

“That’s why I’m ‘ere!”  Jack proclaimed.   “I think it’s terrible, the way these bloody fanatics is pollutin’ our religion (pardon my language, Ethel).   They’re weedlin’ their way in, makin’ all these heretical changes!  They’re ruinin’ our Church!”

“Oh, I agree!”  Ethel said.  “Er…who, exactly, love?”

“Them Scientologists!”

“Oh aye, them.”  Ethel nodded.

“Aye, and I’ll do better than ‘who’; They’re everywhere!  I’ll give thee an example!  Right in this diocese, like, there’s someone actually pretendin’ to take instructions in the faith who’ll be getting’ married at the Sacred Heart in six weeks.  He’s a known Scientologist, is ‘im, but he’s marryin’ there before the altar, bold as yer please;  and into a good Catholic family, an’ all!”

“Oh, my good Lord!”  Ethel said.

“Yes!   An’ once the canker starts, mind, in a good God-fearing fam’ly like that, it spreads.  Blasphemy, that’s what it is.   Blasphemy!”

Ethel laid a reassuring hand on Jack’s arm.  “I so agree!”

#

“Ah don’t understand it!”  Martin exclaimed, as he buttered his thirtieth frog of the morning.   “One minute ‘er fam’ly’s all over me, like; next minute they won’t speak to me!  T’wedding’s off!  Father sommat-or-other from the church comes ter see Cherie’s Da’ and tells ‘im ‘e won’t marry us, an’ him and ‘er brothers are at me fer bein’ a Judas, like!  What have ah done?”

Jack grinned.  “Seems like tha’s got theself a bit o’ space, lad.  Tha’s what tha wanted, weren’t it?”   It was time to ignite the spark of inspiration.  What does Cherie think about it?”

“She says I should ha’ told ‘er I was a Scy-tologist or sommat, an’ I says I weren’t.  Ah’m Church of England, man!”

“Strange ‘ow things works out.”   Jack nodded, sagely.  He knew that however robustly his friend defended himself there was no possibility Father Kelly would change his mind and consent to conduct the marriage.  Once the Jesuit Society had their teeth in the hem of his cassock it was more than his life was worth.   “Does she still want to marry yer, lad?”

“Oh ah.   She’s dead unhappy.”  Martin flushed and muttered into his chest:   “She says she loves me, like.”

“Yer can still get married then, can’t yer?”

“Ah don’t see how.  ‘Er parents won’t consent no more an’ she’s under age.  Us’d have to wait two year, an’ ‘er brothers are talkin’ about  ‘er gannin’ back to ‘er home country.  They.ve got some mate of ‘er favver’s as they wants her to hook up ter.  Nah, it’s all off, far as ah can see.”

#

“Gretna Green?”   Cherie’s face lit up.  “We can really get married there?”

“Ah.”  Martin nodded.  “Or anywhere in Scotland, Jack says.  Sixteen’s old enough up there, see?  We can nip off on the quiet, soon as y’like.  Ah can get the train tickets fer tomorrow morning…”

“Oh, Martin, that’s brilliant!”

“We’ll have to be careful, mind.”   Martin looked deeply into his girlfriend’s shining eyes and through them saw, for a moment, another kind of reflection – that of a doorway hanging open – a path to freedom, and though he was unsure he wanted it, a way of escape.

“Of course, if you didn’t want to do it…”   She was giving up her family, her brothers, her home.  She only had to show doubt, and he would sympathise:  he would understand.  After all…

Cherie stopped his train of thought in its tracks.  “Not want to?  Don’t be daft, Martin man, of course I want to!”

“Anyway;”   She patted her stomach.  “There is another little problem.”

© 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: Scaffolding, Hebi B, from Pixabay

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Satan’s Rock

Part Seventeen

A Country House

Peter had only met Ronald Harkness’s predecessor once, and that was purely by accident.   He had come to his Dad’s church on an errand and Bishop Penrose was there,.  Penrose was a  polished and shiny golden delicious of a man whose inner sweetness oozed from him: one of those for whom there was no possible career or destination other than faith.   Peter had liked Bishop Penrose.

There was little that was fragrant or remotely fructose in Bishop Harkness.   The churchman who greeted Peter’s gaze as he answered his father’s call to their front room next morning was a spare, crow-like figure.  His long head, with black, sparse hair clinging untidily to its summit, tapered like a rugby ball at chin and cranium,.  His large eyes flickered eagerly from blackened sockets.   A prominent nose hooked over the upper lip of a mouth which might have been gouged out of his skin, so narrow and level a slit did it present.  He was dressed in an attempt at informality; Arran sweater, beige sports slacks, brogues, but there was nothing informal about his presence.  If Penrose was apple, Harkness was medlar; if he were a man of the cloth it was sackcloth – if he were a man of God, Peter instantly decided, his was a most unusual god.

Harkness greeted him in a voice which came from a long way behind his teeth.   “You must be Peter.  How pleasant to meet you.”

From the moment he entered the room, Peter noticed, those eyes never left him.  Although he continued for some time in conversation with his father, Harkness looked only at the son.  After a few minutes, the new Bishop slapped his hands on his knees and stood up.

“Now, Bob.   I should like to have a few words with your fine young man, here.  I suppose we might take a turn in the garden, hmmm?   Would you accompany me, Peter?”

It was a strange request, but then the whole interview had a somewhat bizarre tenor.

“Is that all right with you, Peter?”  Bob Cartwright asked faintly, and Peter shrugged, and said that it was.

There was very little garden.   Harkness placed himself in the centre of what there was of it, with his arms folded, as he looked the pastor’s son up and down.

“So you’re Peter.”

“So you’re the new Bishop.”   Peter sat on the edge of a part-demolished wall, one of his father’s early attempts at a cold frame.

“Do you believe in God?”   Harkness’s words stabbed through the air metallically.   “No, I thought not.  I suppose if I asked you your religion you would say something like Buddhist, or ‘Jedi’ maybe; or something else.  It is awkward isn’t it, being a Pastor’s son, nowadays?”

The man’s attitude was nuanced towards hostile:  Peter prickled inside, but could do nothing to rebut it.  Harkness was his father’s superior, in a sense, and he would not have harmed his father’s interests for the world. He thought carefully before replying.

“Dad’s very good; he manages it for both of us.”

Harkness fixed him with a bird-like stare, turning his head to one side as a blackbird will when it hears a worm moving in the soil. There was no mistaking the inquisitorial intensity of that look, or the weight of unsaid words that were repressed behind it.

“You are still very young.”  The churchman suddenly commented.  “That surprises me.”

“What does?”  Peter could make no sense of this.  “I go to university this year.”

Harkness glanced at him sharply, as though he thought the answer facetious.  But seeing nothing other than innocence in Peter’s expression, a look of doubt, almost of incredulity, spread itself across his face.

“Never mind.”  He said at last, slowly, as if laying something to rest in his mind.  “These are momentous times, you see.   I have to be sure.  I wanted to ask you, Peter.   I wanted to urge you.  Stay upon the chosen path, God’s path.  At your age the choices may seem tempting, but there can be only one right choice.  D’you see?”

“S’pose.”  Such Jesuitical fervour was difficult to confront.  Peter found himself unaccountably fascinated by his own feet.

“Your father needs your support, lad.   These are troubled times, you know?”

“I wouldn’t let Dad down.”

Harkness stepped closer: too close; an invasion of space, an assertion of power.  The Bishop was staring right into his soul, striving to see beneath the innocence.  “Really?   Really, Peter?   I wonder, you see.  I do.”

After this interview was concluded and the usual pleasantries had been observed, Bishop Harkness took his leave.   Father and son saw him from their door, and as he retreated, Harkness cast a warning look of some severity towards Peter. He called back over his shoulder: “Remember my words, young man!”   Bob Cartwright heard this, and was perplexed.

“You know, old son, I could swear he actually came to see you, rather than me.  What do you make of that, eh?”

“I think he’s a sleaze.”

“Certainly he might take some getting used to.”  Bob raised a smile.  “Some of our distinguished brethren are like that.   We’ll rub along, I guess – at a distance.”

At that point the subject closed, and was not raised again.   But Bishop Harkness had left Peter with a feeling of violation that would take a long time to forget.

#

Lesley was in the middle of  a mathematics dilemma  when her ‘phone whirred:

 “Hi Pete.”

“Hi Les,   Missingg me?”

“Didn’t I just walk home with you?      Wasn’t that, like, an hour ago?”

“Two hours, ten minutes and forty seconds.  Admit it, your eveing’s empty without me.” 

“I’m sorta busy.  Okay, be useful.  What’s a perfect number?”

“Six.”

“Oh, very good…” 

“Or twenty-eight, or…I’ve forgotten.  Les, it’s my birthday tomorrow.    Weather forecast’s fine.   Fancy a day in the country?”

“Say the word.  I love country and stuff.   Six?”

“There’s a place I always wanted to see – called Crowley House.  Thought I’d go.  Lay some old ghosts.  Are you up for it?”

“You know me, Pete.  Always.   Six?”

“A perfect number.  Always the sum of its factors.  Six equals one plus two plus three?”

“Oh, yeah – why didn’t I see that?”

“Fabjous.  See you at the railway station, Nine o’clock!”

“Nine o’clock!   What am I – an owl?” 

 They met at the station.  Lesley, in spite of early morning blues, felt lightness in her step whenever she spent time with Peter.   She had always known that something extra went on beneath the shy, arch look of those deep eyes.  But somehow, in the last year or so, the intensity of his nature had become passion.  Physically too, he was higher and wider, more confident in his voice and his walk.   Lesley, who had always sworn not to become involved with Melanie’s first love, found herself drawn so strongly!   Peter was not a ‘trophy’, or simply the right one to be seen with.  She wanted, and she hoped.  She needed him. 

As for Peter?  Well, he did not question his feelings for Lesley.  Even before the sweetness of their first kiss she seemed to have slipped seamlessly into his life; arm into arm, hand into glove.   It was if she had always been there.  

Strangely, the only time he thought about her looks or her figure were those first moments of meeting; as now when she padded softly in her trainers across the ticket hall to greet him, cream camisole top just short enough to expose a margin of stomach that was firm and flat, jeans so well fitted they might be made for her alone.  These were things Peter saw in Lesley from a distance, that power to turn heads, even in a musty railway station at nine o’clock in the morning.

“You look nice!”   He would say, with honesty, and she would blush briefly, because when he said it to her it meant something more than just a compliment.

“Always.”   A twitch of a smile, a quick peck of lips;  “I didn’t do a card.  Happy Birthday!”

“What’s in the bag?”

“I brought drinks.  It’s going to be hot.”

Then the first greeting was over, and immediately he was with her all that was forgotten:  she was just Lesley.   Lesley, whose pale hair flew about her like a wraith when she ran, who could burst into laughter, suddenly, for no real reason except an insight into the joke of life.   Lesley was – well, fun;   just fun.

Peter learned something though, on the train.   Lesley did not talk much in the mornings.   After half an hour spent sitting across the table from her and feeling the welter of her stare, the rhythm of the rails began to get to him.  His eyelids felt heavy and he began to doze.   A violent kick on his ankle brought him back to wakefulness.

“Don’t you go to sleep on me!”

“Sorry!”   Peter rubbed his ankle.

Lesley glowered at him.   “You don’t get me out of bed at this heathen hour then go back to sleep yourself, Peter!  Nobody drops off on me!”

Peter sighed.  “I was just getting bored:  this is the most conversation I’ve had out of you in hours.   You’re just sitting over there sticking pins in my fith-fath.”

“I’m not!  Really!   I’m just not a before-noon type of person.   Mornings are for cockerels and stuff.”

“You get up on college days.”

“Have to, don’t I?  Anyway, lectures are interesting, not dreary and dull like you.”

“Oh thanks!”  Peter considered for a moment.  “All right,” He said:  “Something interesting, yeah?”

He had never told Lesley about his fascination with St. Benedict’s Rock and its colourful past.  Perhaps he had been frightened to appear in too studious a light; for Lesley, although a brilliant student, never betrayed an interest in such things.   Now he decided to take the chance, to explain his reason for their journey.  He related as much of the Crowley history as he knew, whilst leaving out any reference to visions or instances of foresight, and omitting the story of the cave.   Lesley listened intently, as she always did, or at least appeared to do, until he had finished.

“That’s it?”  She asked.

“That’s it.  I want to see the house where those characters lived.  I want to imagine them at home, receiving visitors in the drawing room by the fire, or riding around their estates in the afternoon.”

“Wicked!   ‘Long as we don’t actually meet them: like, their ghosts or anything?”

“All that.   It wasn’t too boring?”

“Stultifying!”   Lesley grinned.   “I stayed awake, didn’t I?”

Peter did not know what he expected to see, or feel, the first time he saw Crowley.   Whether the tall iron gates of his imaginary picture were really there, or if the circular drive led around an island of rhododendrons as it did in his dreams.   When, in his sleep, he had visited this troubled house it was always a warm, beautiful day in late spring, with sunlight bathing a red sandstone mansion.   The grass and leaves were always verdant green, the paths lit with flowers.  Somehow, no matter how rank the corruption which seeped from within, Crowley House evinced a message of hope, a triumph over penury and despair.   This was how he imagined it would be.

“Oh-My-God!”    Lesley breathed.

Two miles from their railway stop and a mile, by Peter’s calculation, from the nearest habitation, they came upon it around a bend in a narrow country lane.   There were gates, indeed, and they were high.   They were also closed, their open ironwork permitting a view of a circular drive which once might have harboured rhododendrons, but now surrounded only rough turf.  The approach was lined, six on each side, by crumbling statues in the classic mode, cracked and blackened from generations of neglect.   Beyond these, to west and east were gardens which, though they must have been the envy of all who strolled in them a century ago, were nothing now but a mass of tangled growth.   Bramble had skeined itself about decaying ornamental furniture, the trunks of parkland trees, banks where battalions of flowers once laid siege to ponds and fountains, arbours and colonnades: all gone now.

Beyond this battlefield, at least two hundred metres from the gate, the façade of Crowley House looked as if it would rather not receive visitors.   A tall, Jacobean edifice four storeys high, with severe windows, the slab front of the house had very few features other than its glass, much of which was broken on the upper floors, and all of which was boarded up at ground level.  If in some long-gone time Crowley House had intimidated its poor artisan creditors, now it seemed itself to be rather frightened and mistreated.  Window frames, doors, railings slotted into walls of soft sandstone, were etched by erosion.   A roof missing as many tiles as the roof of Crowley must have admitted most of the weather: the sandstone chimneys rising from it, whittled to spindles by the winds of time, could have emitted little smoke.   Only the warmth of the sun saved it, casting a glow over the pitted stonework, in which slight, delicate touch of light there was a glow of remembrance.   This was a house with a past.

The gates were padlocked and chained.   Upon them, as old as their last coat of paint, a faded notice declared the house:

‘Open to the public

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,

May to October.

Admission £1.00.

No dogs allowed.’

Above this, and somewhat newer, a board which said:

For Sale.   Country Estate with sixty acres of pasture.

Nifton, Soper and Jakes, Land Agents’.

The front doors were planked over.   The place was deserted.

Peter felt overwhelmed by great sadness.   “I’m sorry, Les:   I expected better than this.”

“What?  Don’t be a dope.   This is just – so – cool!   I love it!  Come on!”  Lesley set off up the road, following the boundary:  “There has to be a way in.  Look, through here!”

In fact there were several ways in; places where the ill-maintained wall which once surrounded the whole estate had given itself up to nature.   Although the owners or their agents had attempted to fill these spaces with barbed wire, they posed no deterrent to a determined teenager.

“Careful!  This might be scratchy!”

   Lesley quickly threaded her way through, Peter, more reluctantly, tagging behind.

“Aren’t we trespassing?  What if someone sees us?” 

“Oh, yeah!  Like who?  Who would care?”  Lesley swore at a retributive bramble, kicking it into submission.   “We came all this way – go back without seeing the place?  Like, I don’t think so!”

They surfaced from a tangle of undergrowth to find themselves in the gardens at the side of the house.

“Oh!  Look at this!  Come on, Petey, be a brave boy!”

Feeling slightly miffed by his new appellation, Peter allowed himself to be led as an enchanted Lesley discovered Crowley for herself.   She ran from him to hide behind the walls of the old vegetable gardens, laughing so much in the ensuing fun-fight that she fell into a rotted cucumber frame and had to be helped, squealing, from the midst of an advancing army of bugs.   At last she made for the house, gazing up in awe at its lofty walls, kicking at the weed clawing at its footings.   “Let’s go inside.”  She said, as if they had only to open the front doors.

Nailed composite boards proved more substantial opposition than the boundary wall.   Window after shuttered window had to be rejected as they walked the entire length of the frontage and found no means of getting through: nor was there any sign of weakness on the south side of the house.  Here trees and undergrowth encroached upon the pathway, so much so that they had to detour a little into the woodland to find a way around.   Again it was Lesley who led, kicking at the cloying net of ground ivy as she brushed past low branches, pushed aside festoons of natural curtain.   At one such moment, her keen eye picked out, in the trees to their right, a small, unnatural-looking mound.

“Hey, check this out!”

 The outline of a stone arch was half-buried by long grasses woven into bramble, which defended and disguised it as though they wanted it to be forgotten. 

“What do’y’ think, Petey?  Like an ice house, or something?”

Flailing away with the stoutest sticks they could find, the pair thrashed a path to the squat, stone building.  A low doorway, defended by a padlocked iron grille, barred their path.  Peter shook at the rusted bars.

“Probably.  Yeah, an ice house or something.”

“It had outer doors, wooden ones.”    Lesley had found the unhinged remains of planks in the undergrowth.   “Why were these taken off?”

His suspicions aroused,  Peter fingered the rusted padlock, testing it for strength.   It opened instantly.   The lock had been forced, a clean, quite recent scrape in its mantle of rust showing where a crowbar had been inserted.   Breathing quickly, they  heaved the grille aside on creaking hinges.

“Yay!”  Lesley exclaimed.

There were steps beyond the grille, leading down into darkness.   Suppressing a shudder at the onset of cold and damp, Peter led the way, guided by a metal rail let into the stone wall.  Lesley kept close behind him, her hand gripping fiercely at his shoulder as she tried to stop her knees from shaking.

“Secret passage?”   She whispered.

“No.   No, this is all there is.    I know where we are now.  This is the family vault.”

They alighted from steps into a gloomy chamber, barely illuminated by tiny leaded windows set into the stone of the upper walls.   Lesley lit up her ‘phone.”.

“Wow!”   she exclaimed  reverently:  “Dead people.”  Then; “Not much marble, or nothing.  Almost like they didn’t want anyone to know they were here.”

The sides of the chamber were lined with openings, each intended to admit a full-sized coffin, but of these there were only three that, once the dust was brushed aside, declared themselves by silver plaques to be the last resting-places of Lord Horace Crowley, Lady Elisabeth Crowley, and Matthew Ballentine.

“Only one generation,”  Peter whispered, half to himself; “No ancestors here?”

“Almost like this was their secret,” Lesley agreed, relishing the conspiracy; “Their hiding place, in death.  Oh Peter, this one was just a child!”   She lit up a shelf at the far end of the chamber supporting a casket no more than a metre in length.   There was no silver plaque upon this lid, no name.  A child, then, certainly, but whose?   In his studies of this ill-fated family, Peter had uncovered no mention of an heir.   Lady Crowley had been childless, as far as he knew.   And the chamber revealed another small inconsistency.   The bodies of the Crowleys were laid side-by-side; that of Matthew Ballentine separated from them on the opposite wall.  Had Elizabeth, finally regretting her betrayal, expressed a wish to lie with her husband?

The little child-casket aroused Lesley’s curiosity.   She probed the tiny coffin with affectionate fingers.   It was as if some distant memory bound her to this sad remnant of a short life.  Her questing arms seemed to need to embrace it, to take it to her.   Carefully, almost tenderly, she reached into the aperture wherein it was laid, gripped the box.   Then she drew it out.

Hearing the scraping sound, Peter suddenly realised what was happening.

“Les!   What are you doing?”

Lesley did not answer.  She had pulled the coffin almost clear of its resting place, supported longitudinally in her arms.   Small as it was, it was too heavy for her strength.   Foreseeing doom, Peter made to help her, diving to grab the further end of the box as it cleared the edge of the stone.   He was too far away and he was too late.

For an eternal moment the casket hung in Lesley’s failing grasp:  then it fell.

The wooden box had languished  in the damp and the dark for nearly two hundred years, as had the flagstones upon which it fell; but the flagstones had survived the centuries free of decay:  the box had not.   With a splintering crash it deconstructed upon the stone.   In horrified silence Peter and Lesley stared down at the wreckage.  

“Well now!”   Exclaimed Peter.

The coffin contained no evidence of a body, no matter how small.

“Why would they bury two rocks?”

© 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: Patty Jansen, from Pixabay