The Skinny and the Mule

Pietro Valdez was having a bad morning.   Bad mornings usually found him leaning against Enzo’s doorpost, beneath the shade of his friend’s straw roof, and this morning was no exception.  Here he could rest, draw on a self-rolled cigarette, and contemplate the injustices that existed in the world.  Inevitably, he would reach the same conclusion as always; that every one of those injustices was stacked against him.

So, maybe he had been a little late setting his nets in the river that morning – just a little, tiny bit late.  What did it matter?  Pietro had a problem.  His whole village had a problem.  No matter how early he, or anyone else who fished the river should rise from their beds, Rodrigo – Bang-Sticks Rodrigo – would take all the best fish!  Pietro stared along the river bank towards Rodrigo’s moored boat with half-lowered eyes, his head full of vengeance. Of course, Rodrigo’s little dock was busy; Luca, Bang-Sticks’ son and his friend Raul were boxing Rodrigo’s catch, loading it into a dilapidated but durable truck that would take it to market.  In the warehouse behind the dock Luiza and Yasmin, Marco’s two girls, would be preparing more fish for drying.

Feeling a pat on his shoulder, Pietro turned to discover Enzo, his friend, had sidled out of his hut to lean against the other door post.  Pietro passed his cigarette to Enzo.

“Business is good.”  Enzo commented, sharing Pietro’s thoughts.

“Good!”  Pietro spat his ire into the dust.  “Good!  That bastardo was at the eddy pool this morning, blowing up half the fish in the river.  What is left?”     Pietro’s nets had come in empty, again.  So!  There was no money, there was no food.  Luana, his wife, could hurt him when she got this mad.  Again!  She had thrown a pot at him and today – he rubbed his shoulder ruefully – she had not missed.

“Matters,” He muttered; “Cannot rest.”

Enzo grunted.   “I do not see what you can do.  Rodrigo has a deal with Carlos Eduardo, Carlos Eduardo gets him his sticks of dynamite in return for thirty percent of the catch.  It is business.  Don’t say you wouldn’t have done the same deal if you’d thought of it first.”

Pietro shook his head.   “He dynamites the fish!   Soon there will be no fish at all in the river, then what does the village do?   What does Thales do?  What does Marco do?”

“Marco goes to work for Carlos Eduardo.  Already he is thinking about it.  I talked with him yesterday.”  Enzo answered.  “I am thinking of it myself.  Maybe you should.”

“I, Pietro Valdez, work for a gangster who grows fields of Marijuana?   What does that make me?”

“Rich?  It is very good Marijuana.”

“Or dead.  Carlos Eduardo is a very nasty man.  His henchmen are very fond of guns.”  Pietro muttered.  “No, I am a fisherman, not a grower of drugs.  I want to feed people, not send them crazy.”

Thoroughly subdued, Pietro fell silent, and together the two men shared their one cigarette, brushing flies away from their faces as they contemplated the vast waters of the river in the morning heat.   In such mood an hour might easily pass without either moving or speaking a word, but today Pietro’s attention was drawn to a small commotion behind Bang-Sticks dock, where Rodrigo’s son Luca was preparing for his trip to the market in Almeres, fifty kilometres away.

“What is that?”

“That?”   Enzo replied.  “That is trouble, my friend.”

A girl dressed minimally in shorts and a t-shirt was attempting to talk to Luca, with limited  success.  She might have been, as Pietro judged, no older than twenty-four or twenty-five years, and clearly her attempts at flirtation were falling on stony ground.  Luca was wiser than his years, and in Pietro’s closely guarded opinion, more interested in Raul than in female company.  This was an insult he was saving for that special argument with ‘Bang-Sticks’, when the opportunity eventually arrived.

“She is pretty girl.”  Pietro observed.

“She is a ‘Skinny Girl’.  Keep away!”  Enzo warned.

“That may be difficult.  She is coming towards us.”

The girl had abandoned her charm offensive on Luca, and was striding along the riverbank in their direction.  Pietro was familiar with the ‘Skinny Girl’ appellation, of course:  everyone knew it.   A very astute group of young women had banded together in the last three seasons with the sole purpose of taking over the drugs trade on the river.  Using their natural abilities to charm they were picking off owners of small to middle-sized fazendas one by one, trusting in the farmers’ deference towards women.  Once they found a way into that plain farmer’s bed, though, the women showed no such compunction, and shot them dead at the first opportunity.   So far, they had made no attempt to unseat any of the larger drug barons, bigger players unlikely to fall for their fatal game.  Knowing their depth, and in regions where police presence was rare, they were thriving happily on the proceeds of farms like the one owned by Carlos Eduardo.   Lecherous to a fault, Carlos Eduardo, Pietro thought as he watched the approaching girl’s fluid, hip-swinging gait, would be easy meat.  Nevertheless…

“You have a boat!”  Her voice was sweet, almost a song, and her teeth were many and incredibly white.  She flashed her dark, Hispanic eyes at Pietro.  “A boat with a big, big motor.   That man Luca says”…  She stopped directly in front of Pietro, so close he felt the warm whisper of her breath.  “You have a big, big motor, yes?”

Pietro was wrong-footed by the girl’s proximity.     “I suppose so.”  He muttered.  No matter that Enzo growled a warning, his friend was already in the web.  “You want my boat?”

“I need your boat, Pietro, you will help me, I know!   You are Pietro, yes?  You are a generous man, everybody knows Pietro.”

“You asked Luca.  What’s wrong with Luca’s boat?”

“Luca?  He has such small motor.”  The girl shook her head sadly, holding up a thumb and forefinger to reinforce her point.  “Once in a month only, down the river to Minacura!  That’s two days each way.  Just you and me,  two days on the river one way, two days back.  You and me, alone, eh, Pietro?”   Her voice lowered suggestively.  “Ah, but can I trust you?  I hope I can trust you!”

Enzo snorted.  Pietro was experiencing sensations incompatible with the early hour and his abiding sense of grievance.  Reason had to prevail.  “What’s in it for me?”  He demanded.

“What is in it?  What is in it??”  The girl’s eyes glittered.  “You want money too?”

“I have expenses.”

“It is alright, I tease you!  Of course there is money.  I have done a deal with Carlos Eduardo.  It is a very good deal.  He is very generous man.  Your boat, it will be loaded with the very best merchandise!  Each run, 150 Real!  Think what you can do with 150 Real!”

“Two hundred.”  Pietro wondered what this girl had done for Carlos Eduardo that could have aroused his generosity.  “I want two hundred.”

“Oh, Pietro; so greedy!  One-Seventy-five!”

“You buy the fuel.”

“Agreed!”  The girl reached up and stroked Pietro’s cheek with long, elegant fingers.  “There are police on the river so we travel by night.  We will be such good companions!  Tonight, eight o’clock, okay?”

“Tonight?”

“Of course!  Why not?”

Pietro was thinking of Luana and the necessity for explanations which accounted for a number of reasons why not.  But money was money, and a cash argument would weigh heavily with his wife, as long as he kept her away from his travelling companion.

Eight o’clock that evening found Pietro and his boat moored up on a stretch of river tributary that adjoined Carlos Eduardo’s ranch.   The girl, whose name had proved to be Adriana, materialised rapidly from the darkness where forest bordered the water, followed by Paolo, Carlos Eduardo’s ostler.   Both were laden with heavy bales wrapped in waterproof plastic, which they dumped unceremoniously into the boat.   Pietro could see that Paolo was ill at ease.  He kept looking up and down the river, and seemed anxious not to make a noise.  No sooner had the first lot of bales been loaded than the pair vanished again, leaving Pietro to distribute his unexpectedly heavy cargo as evenly as he might.  Satisfied, he rolled a cigarette, drawing contented smoke as he wondered how easily Carlos Eduardo had fallen for Adriana’s  ploys.  Eventually, he supposed, the whole village must learn to fear Adriana and her ‘Skinny Girls’ as much as they had feared Carlos Eduardo. If so, at least one advantage was his: he had a ‘big motor’.   

Had he noticed the raised voices in the distance?   What was the clamour about?

Paolo came bursting out of the trees, loaded with yet more bales.  Adriana, similarly burdened, was close behind him.

“Come!  We load this.”

The shouting was not so distant any more.  The voices were angry.

“All this?”  Pietro protested.  “It is too much!  We won’t get all this through the gorge!”  But the bales were already stacked, on top of those he had already distributed.  Adriana was specific.  “We leave now!   Don’t start the motor!”

Pietro recognised the ingredients of a disaster immediately, but his sense of self-preservation persuaded him this was the wrong place to ask questions, so he did as he was told.  He cast off his dangerously unstable boat swiftly, as Adriana slipped into the prow, and Paolo melted back into the trees.  As he turned into the current he could hear the crashing of angry feet in the undergrowth.  It occurred to him that maybe Carlos Eduardo was not so gullible, after all.

In the darkness Adriana’s ashen face was almost luminous.  “What do we do?”  She cried, clearly no longer in command.  “Tell me, what do we do?”

A gun discharged in a burst of venom from somewhere close by.  Bullets snicked off the water.  

“We start the motor!”   Pietro replied quietly.   “Stay down, and do not say my name!”

                                                                  #

“We have lost them, yes?”  Adriana hissed.

An hour had elapsed, in which time neither the owner of the boat nor his young companion had spoken.   Upon reaching the point where their tributary joined the main river, Pietro had turned upstream.  After a half kilometre battling the current he had tied off his boat at a place where the trees overhung the water, concealing them from view.

“Yes, for now.  We are fortunate they had no boats moored nearby.  They will be hunting for us downstream, thinking we are making for Minacura.”

Adriana sniffed.  “This is no use.  If we go to Minacura, we will be following them.  Sooner or later we must meet.”

“This boat wouldn’t make Minacura anyway, with so heavy a cargo;”   Pietro told her.  “Our best bet is to meet up with your gang somewhere further upstream.  Maybe you should ‘phone them now?”  His comment met with silence.  “That’s a good idea, yes?”

Adriana said:  “What ‘gang’?”

“Why, the ‘Skinny Girls’.  The Skinny Girls gang.”

“I am not skinny girl!  I have nice figure, don’t you think?”

A cold hand grasped Pietro’s heart.  “Wait a minute!  You are not a ‘Skinny Girl’?”

“No.  I am a student.”  Adriana answered proudly.  “I am at university in Brazilia – third year.”

“Then this was – what?   You were trying to steal from Carlos Eduardo on your own?  No gang to help you?”

“Paolo, he helped me.”  Adriana grinned.  “He was very helpful!   And when we get these bales to Minacura and we sell them I shall be very rich and I shall be able to pay for my last year’s tuition.  You help me, Pietro.  Then you can be rich, too!” Pietro put his head in his hands.  “You.  Brave man with big motor – what is wrong with you?”

“Wait a minute!  You made your deal with Paolo?  You said your deal was with Carlos Eduardo, Adriana!”

“So?  I tried, but Eduardo, he is fat man, and he is very drunk.  So Paolo, he does dealing for me.  I am very nice to Paolo, and he does me good deal.   What is wrong?”

“Just this.   My boat is filled with Eduardo’s property, not Paolo’s.  Paolo has no property.  My boat is overloaded, it will not pass the fast water in the gorge on the way to Minacura.  All right, maybe we throw some Marijuana in the river, then we have a chance; but drunk or sober Carlos Eduardo is no fool.  Right now he is on his cell phone to his buyer in Minacura to tell him what has happened.  He is on his cell phone to police in Minacura (who he pays) to tell them what has happened.  Adriana, you cannot just sell marijuana on this river, you need connections.  You need to make deals, you need time to build up trust!   Right now, we show ourselves even five kilometres down river with this stuff and we are dead.”

Adriana fell quiet for a moment before she said unsteadily.  “I have done things for this a respectable girl should not do.  I cannot fail – I cannot have done what I have done for nothing, for no reason.  We can do it.  We will do it.”

“No, Adriana.  You can’t, and we won’t.”

 “Then what can we do?”

                                                                  #

“Why are you out so early?”  Enzo was surprised to discover Pietro busy with his nets.  “Can’t you sleep, my friend?”

Pietro smirked.   “Some nights I feel I have not been to bed.”

Enzo glanced cunningly at him. “Ah, the girl.  But you did not make the trip with her, no?”

“Wiser counsels prevailed, Enzo.”   The fisherman’s eyes were fixed upon Rodrigo’s dock, further up the river bank.  “I am a married man.”

“But still…”  Enzo followed Pietro’s gaze.  “Bang-Sticks is not out yet.  If you hurry…”

“Exactly.”  Both men were now watching as Rodrigo, appearing by his behaviour to be unusually agitated, shouted and gesticulated at a defensive-looking Luca.  They were too far away to hear what was said, but far enough to see two jeeps approaching Rodrigo’s warehouse from the landward side.  Carlos Eduardo was being driven in one, in the other were two extremely large bodyguards, both armed with semi-automatic rifles.

Pietro had known they would come, and in his view the timing could not have been better.  A stranger girl could not be seen talking to anyone in a village as small as his without arousing suspicion, especially if that girl intended to steal part of the local drugs baron’s harvest.   Adriana had been talking to Luca just yesterday, so it was obvious where Carlos Eduardo would look. 

Naturally,  since Adriana had been seen with Pietro too, he had no doubt Carlos Eduardo would want to follow that up – he was not worried.  He had nothing to hide, as long as no-one saw the two bullet holes in his boat.  As for Adriana, she was well on her way back to her university by now, chastened by her experience and no richer than before, but unhurt.  And she was getting a good start on Carlos which would get better, the longer he was detained by the discovery of his marijuana, stashed as they had left it last night, in Rodrigo’s warehouse.   

Rodrigo?   Well, those bales of drugs were still intact, so he would count himself lucky if he survived with only a little roughing up, but Pietro was sure he would get no more dynamite. 

© 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.

Satan’s Rock

Part 23

A Silent Wisdom

Vincent Harper was standing behind a table laden with food and the paraphernalia of cooking.   He  seemed smaller than Peter remembered him, in fact shorter than himself: and his lined face in a caught-in-the-act smile of welcome added to this impression, as did the quantity of flour and grease adorning his apron, grey shirt, forearms, and face.  The wild guitar player in an apron: it was difficult to assimilate.   Peter tried not to betray his amusement, but of course Vincent noticed.

“Been doin’ some baking, Pete.   You eaten, man?”

Peter had not, at least since his burger that lunchtime.  It was now evening.  The kitchen, a warm, enchanted place laden with shining copper, wrapped itself around him as he accepted offers of bread just baked and cakes so fresh they crumbled to the touch with large brown earthenware mugs of tea to wash them down.    Ignoring the pain of his bruised hands Peter set about the feast while Vincent, saying or doing little except to offer more when he felt it needed, or to cut another slice, or pass a different pot of jam, was content to watch.

“Good stuff, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Peter answered truthfully.  It was so easy to dispense with formalities and slip into familiarity with this man, in spite of the difference in their ages. “What are you doing here, Vince?   Why didn’t you say it was you in your email?”

“Staying out of sight, mate.”  Vincent began clearing plates.  “After our little session back-along, you and I, it wasn’t safe for me to stay on the Rock.  Too many inquisitive people who know what I’m all about will be looking for me.  Can’t even trust email, not with these guys.  They are seriously heavy:  seriously.”

“What are you – and what exactly is this all about?”

Vince would have answered, had not a door in the opposite wall of the kitchen burst open, admitting a woman in a green bathrobe and slippers that should have been fluffy, had they not suffered visible food damage.

“He wants fish, now!   Have we got any bloody fish?”  She stopped short as she saw Peter.   “Oh hi!   Oh, wow, Vincent, is this him?”

“Peter, this is my lady, yeah?  Her name’s Estelle.  Estelle, meet Peter.”

“Hello Peter.”

Estelle was not at first encounter elegant or possessed of Alice’s frail beauty, although with acquaintance her inner grace would find the light.  There were ways about a movement of her hands, or a quickness of her look, which in time could draw the attention of a stranger and make them a fast friend.  The same could be said of her voice, which, with her Mid-Atlantic accent to enrich it, was deep, almost boyish.   In her welcoming smile there was the self-consciousness of the surgically enhanced; leading a critical eye to that strategic placement of her dark hair which covered sins of age not quite effortlessly enough to convince.  To Peter, whether she was thirty-five or fifty-five mattered little, for her greeting was warm and genuine, and her inner softness beckoned:  he instantly liked Estelle.

Vincent asked:  “Is he ready to receive visitors?”

“Not yet.”   Estelle said.   “He’s still eating.  I have to clean him up first.”     She took Vincent’s arm, and, with an apologetic look at Peter, led him out of the room, part-closing the door behind them.   Beyond it, Peter overheard her saying, sotto-voce, “Vince, is this quite all right, huh?  I mean, the old creep tried to grope me just now!  He’s got fingers everywhere- he makes me crawl!”           

“Sorry, sweetheart.  He’s hard to take, I know.  He won’t stay here after tonight, yeah?”

“OK.  I’ll just mop him over a bit.  You find him some goddamn fish for his supper.  If he’d only just stop eating!”

Vincent grinned around the door, then re-joined Peter.   “Someone you should meet.” He explained, as Estelle departed, presumably to renew her confrontation with the ‘old creep’,  “But not for a bit.  Come on through to the front room, Peter mate.  I owe you a few answers.”

Departure from the kitchen and all its temptations was a wrench, but Peter took it well.   Estelle, in the haste of her leaving had left her door ajar, so as he passed he was able to hear raised voices from what he took to be a basement.  The words exchanged were undistinguishable if their sentiment was not:  one of the voices belonged to Estelle, the other, a tenor with an hysterical edge, struck a chord in Peter’s memory.  He could not recall where, but he was certain he had heard that voice before.

Beyond the kitchen a narrow, timber-clad corridor led to a parlour as Dickensian and out of character with the Vincent Peter knew as it was possible to be.  Soft upholstered wing chairs in old brocade, drawn up each side of a luxuriously deep Chinese rug, stood like sentries before a large fire-blacked grate where a crackling wood fire burned cheerfully.  Its flickering glow threw into sharp relief a dark wooden sideboard loaded with Spode and Meissen that leant against a further wall.  Windows of warped and shrunken joints moaned softly in the September wind, their prospect of valley and open moor framed by heavy curtains of dusky red velvet.   A cat had curled itself contentedly on the soft pile of the rug.  

After ensuring Peter was ensconced in one of the chairs, Vincent perched on the sill of the window and began to talk in a voice so mellifluous and comforting that Peter might have been lulled into sleep, were this not an explanation of so much that he did not understand.  He hung, riveted, upon every word.

“I’m not all I seem, Pete.  There’s stories about me livin’ in houses in LA and havin’ a yacht down Barbados way.  Not true.  Oh, yeah, I’ve got the place at St. Benedict’s:  that’s where I play at bein’ twenty-one again and do me music.  And I put it about that I’ve got all these other places.  But it isn’t me; not any more.   I lived all that once, but now I’m getting older I find meself spending more and more time here.   It’s my hideout, yeah?   Oh, and me and Estelle, we’re together, you know?  Have been for ten years now.  She’s a great girl, see?”

“Toby told me you were single.   Didn’t have any regular companions, he said.  I thought you were with Alice.”

“Nah.  Alice?  Just a mate, Pete, like you.  Again…”  Vince spread his hands:  “not something I talk about.  Doesn’t fit the image, yeah?  The rocker thing.

“Sometimes;” He went on, “I like to sit here and watch the dale through this window.   In the spring the curlews come, in autumn the geese pass by.   And for all the years that I’m here, they come and go just the same. To all of us living things, man, bird or beast, the land don’t seem to change.  That stream, curlin’ along the valley bottom there, it’s been there longer than any man can remember, and it’s always looked just the same as it does now.”   He smiled reflectively, leaning forward to catch Peter’s attention. “But through thousands of years that stream cut this valley.   It made the slope where this house stands!   It worked and worked, for time beyond memory, to carve the groove it needed to get it to the sea.  Think of that, Pete!  Think of the time that took!

“Looking out there, mate, I‘m so amazed how little, we know. Us, Homo-whose-‘is-face; everyone assumes that we sort of spewed out of some genetic witches’ cauldron somewhere and started world domination.  Adam and Eve, y’know: all that? We view other species we share the planet with  along the barrel of a gun, most often, or fattenin’ up prettily in a field, just for the privilege of being eaten by us.”

He turned from the window, suddenly fierce.   “It wasn’t always like that.   It wasn’t never meant to be that way at all!”

“Life started in the sea,” Peter said cautiously, trying to dispel some of Vincent’s surprising anger; “Single-cell creatures, then fish; amphibians, eventually.  I know the dinosaurs developed from the first amphibians, the birds evolved from them, the smaller ones, that is:  Mammals came along and the larger reptiles perished because of climate change, or maybe….no-one knows, really.”

“Or maybe because they over-stretched their food sources, got too bloody big and so over-populated they couldn’t survive?  Anything sound familiar, so far?”

Peter nodded.  “It’s one explanation, I guess, but there are others – volcanic activity polluting the atmosphere, a meteor strike?”

“Could be, mate,”   Vincent agreed.  “Could be.  Thing is, the thing to remember, they were a dominant species long before we came along, a dynasty of creatures which were powerful and clever enough to rule their world.”

“They died out, though.”

“After a hundred million years during which their world changed mightily, for a lot of which they must have been walking a tightrope between their numbers and their resources?  Millions of years of learning, of gathering wisdom?  Perhaps they did die out, but now, Pete;” The guitarist leaned forward to emphasise his words,  “Perhaps their intelligence didn’t.”

Peter didn’t take the bait at first.  He sipped from the mug of tea he had brought with him from the kitchen, contemplating a response.  At last he said, slowly, “So if Archaeopteryx was, as I’ve read it, a dinosaur that evolved into a bird, he’s flying around now with an IQ of umpteen-hundred-and-ninety-nine.  Why wasn’t he the dominant species instead of us?  What about crocodilia, aren’t they a hundred and twenty million years old, or something?  They could have literally had us for breakfast if they’d wanted, couldn’t they?  They’ll have missed a chance there.”

Vincent laughed, “No, it wasn’t quite like that.  For a start, there’s a little matter of equipment, yeah?  Like the old opposable thumbs thing?  The birds aren’t fluttering about with huge brains – for a start they wouldn’t be able to fly.   Put it this way, Pete: You’re learning for your Degree, how do you remember everything?  How are you going to pass on the things you’ve learned?”

“It’s all on my laptop, I suppose.  Disks, flash drives, things like that.”

“Exactly!  You’ve got something not permanent, but more durable than you or I.  Now the big lizards didn’t have laptops. For a long time we had no idea what they did have, but now, just maybe, we’re getting close to an answer.  That’s real exciting, yeah?”

The guitar-player waved at the atmosphere with a manic finger, and sounding for a moment not unlike Toby:  “We’ved always known the kind of wisdom that’s gathered in a hundred million years doesn’t die.   It’s there, somewhere, and god knows we need its guidance, because we’re feckin’ up, man.  How long has Homo-what’s-his-face been around?  Not even one million years, and we’re already well on the way to extinction.  Too many of us, too much plundering and too little planning!”  

The cat, at this precise juncture, elected to forgo its warm nest by the fire and slink gracefully over his  hands to sit upon the window sill.   From there it climbed the scaffold of Vincent’s arms with its front legs and began elegantly grooming his stubble with its rough tongue.  Vince and Peter both collapsed, for a moment, into laughter.

“Oh, bleedin’ ‘ell!”  Vince cried, his sides aching.  “Animals, yeah?”

He raised the cat up in his hands, cradled it and began chucking its chin.  “See, this stupid creature, he’s got more stuff locked inside his head than you’d ever credit.   He knows when a car’s coming at least half a mile before it arrives – and if Estelle’s in the car he’ll be ready for her in the kitchen twenty minutes before she pulls in.  He can sense a storm; he can tell if you’re ill.  How does he do all that – and much more besides?  We put it all down to ‘instinct’ because we don’t have ‘instinct’ anymore and we don’t understand it.”

Peter’s quizzical look betrayed his thinking.  “Anymore?  Meaning we had it once and we lost it?”

“Yes, Pete!  Precisely, mate!  Not very strongly, maybe, but we did have it, before we got too civilised, too wrapped up in our fully-lined and comfortable world.  Like those dinosaurs, we’ve lost touch.”

“So you’re saying the thing we call ’instinct’ is knowledge left for us by reptiles?”  Peter’s furrowed brow betrayed the seeds of a headache. “That’s kind of hard to believe, Vince!”

“It is, isn’t it?  And it isn’t quite like that, to be fair, because we’ve just picked on one previously dominant set of species whereas that knowledge is the sum of everything that’s gone before.  Think of it a source of wisdom without being too specific as to its origins, and you’re there.”

 Vince’s narrative was easy to understand, simplistic even, but he could not see where it was going to lead:  clever extinct dinosaurs, pollution and all the warning signs of impending disaster; what did they have to do with his being brought here?  “I’m sorry, I…”

“I know,”  Vincent nodded;  “I found it hard enough to take in, at first.  But this is all about you, and that girl of yours.”

“She is not ‘mine’.  Anyway, me?  What have I got that has any bearing on species extinction?”

“You rediscovered instinct.  You had a moment, only a moment, but you tapped into that knowledge,  A couple of moments, actually –Toby told me about the cave.”

“No!  I just had a sort of dream!”  Peter’s denial was vehement.  “ I wouldn’t have understood it, even, if Mel hadn’t helped.”

Vincent chuckled and shook his head.  “You can’t run from it.  Let’s start from somewhere else, just for a minute, Pete.  Do you understand Time?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Ah, but do you?  If I said to you, time is the process of aging, would you accept that?  You should live, God willing, for your three score years and ten, and that’s a good long life, to you.  But a fruit fly lives no more than a day or so, and that’s a good long life to a fruit fly.

An elephant’s life is more like ours in terms of years, but this puddy-tat, he’ll be lucky if he gets fifteen years.  That’s what time is – a perception; the way we see things through aging.”

“I gues so, but…”

“So what’s a good long life to a rock?”

“But rock’s aren’t living organisms, so they don’t count.”

“Pete, we wouldn’t know if they were living organisms, because with a life-span of billions of years, their metabolism would be undetectable to us.  Nevertheless, mate, they do age.  They erode, too, just like us.  Think about it!”  Vincent urged. 

Peter, with the warm room and the dimming of the light closing around him, felt his eyelids getting heavy,  He wasn’t sure if he could believe what Vincent was saying, and he couldn’t, after the rigours of the day, absorb anything more.   Vincent, watching him, saw the advancing clouds of sleep and grinned.  “Sorry old lad, a bit much, ain’t it?   Bed for you, I reckon,  Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to him downstairs.”

#

A mile after luncheon at The Royal Oak Inn at Mountchester, Arthur Herritt’s landeau took his guests, Francine Delisle and her son Sauel on the turnpike, which followed the course of the River Leven for some miles.   This was a scenically gratifying journey, the road being forced by the Chewlett Hills to run close by the waterside, drawing young Samuel’s fascinated gaze with uninterrupted views of the navigable river, in width by now almost a full estuary.   Question followed question:

“Uncle Arthur…”  (Arthur had acquired the honorary rank of ‘Uncle’)  “Why are no boats going to Mountchester?  They all seem to be headed for the sea.” 

It was true; whether sailing ships, or barges, or mere dredgers, all traffic was headed west.

“The river is tidal here, Samuel, and the tide is ebbing.  They are using it to draw them towards the sea.”

 “What if one should want to go the other way?” Samuel objected.

Arthur smiled, “Why then it would endeavour to sail, given a fair wind, or wait for the tide to turn.  The  Master would put into Levenport harbour and pray for a good westerly to blow him home in the morning.”

“What if it couln’t?”  The boy was rapt, his chin resting upon his hands on the lowered covers of the carriage.

“Samuel!”  His mother rebuked him sharply.

“No, Mama, I mean if its cargo was needed urgently?  Or the ship required repair?”

“Then the Master might resort to  kedging,” Arthur explained.  “An anchor boat must row ahead of the ship, and drop its anchor so the crew might wind it in on the capstan. A second anchor is then transported forward after the manner of the first, and the action repeated all the way up river. That’s very hard work.   As of custom, the larger ships dock in Levenport anyway, and off-load their cargoes onto barges.  Only the smaller ones make sail all the way up to Mountchester.”

“It must be dreadful slow.”  The boy said.

“It is, Samuel.  We hope that Mr  Telford might one day install a tidal lock for us, although I fear it will be a long time hence.”

Samuel sighed weightily.  “You are right, Mama.  I no longer wish to become a sailor.”

It was late afternoon when their Landeau rolled onto Levenport’s esplenade.

“I have taken the liberty of reserving rooms for us at Roper’s Hotel here,”  Arthur informed his guests.  “It is a respectable establishment, indeed I believe Lord Crowley himself stayed here.  In the morning I intend an expedition to the island, I would be honoured if you would join me?”

Later that evening, Samuel accompanied his mother and his adopted ‘uncle’ for a leisurely walk on the waterfront in the gloomy shade of St. Benedict’s rock.    It was a pensive, abnormally quiet affair, during which the boy could not help but sense his mother’s odd distraction, which he attributed to the large and largely ruined house across the Bay.   It was hard to ignore it, for the legacy of the Christmas storm had left a large part of its structure in disarray, and the wreckage of part of it lay in a tangled heap at the foot of the rock which had once supported it.  Yet it seemed to Samuel there were other reasons for his mother’s peculiarly restrained excitement, and being worldly for his age, he wondered if she could be quite trusted to behave acceptably in the night ahead.

  © 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:

Header Image: Julian Hochge Sang-huepD on Unsplash
Cat: uros-miloradovic on unsplash
Sailing Ship: Enzol from Pixabay

Abel

Finally, the gaudily-clothed party of holiday makers had audibly subsided to a conspiratorial murmur.   Their car stood deserted in the boatyard car park having disgorged its umpteenth suitcase, their enthusiastic spaniel dog had signed its name to almost everything that could offer an intriguing scent, and now they huddled beside the mooring in two groups, expectant, irresolute.   

Canal boat rental ‘Daisy May’ of the long gleaming red cabin waited, Perkins diesel puttering idly.  

Abel, who never hurried, saw that they were settled and wandered across to them. Under the spaniel’s contemplative eye a family of ducks swam around the stern of the boat; mother brown and glistening, chicks yellow going on brown and cheeping. At Abel’s approach but on no specific invitation, the more mature vacationers began to venture onto the deck. Their kids were already on board, climbing over the narrow boat’s cabin roof – four of them in all, the youngest maybe five or six.  Anxious maternal eyes watched as an attentive elder shepherded them to safety.  

“Toby, don’t touch now.”

“Michelle, keep hold of Petey, there’s a darling.”

 Two families, as Abel judged, and ready occupants for every one of Daisy May’s twelve berths.  They had driven up from somewhere in the South.

“Are you ready to go, then?”  His lazy, familiar drawl seemed to ripen with the season, Ariel thought..    

Ariel watched from her steamer chair on the front trestle of the boathouse, saw Abel draw admiring stares from a pair of teenage girls in the party.  He was a big man, broad and muscular, his body honed by a lifetime on the canals.   

The teenage girls dissolved into shy giggles. 

“The cabins are so small!”  One of the older women complained.

“Can’t be no wider, you wouldn’t get through the locks,” Abel told her. “She’s seventy feet stem to stern. She’s got everything you need. Just accept it all happens in a space eight feet wide.   Now;” He addressed the older man.  “Remember what I showed you?   Up is forwards, down is back.  It’s a tiller, so push left if you want to go right, right to go left, Okay?  Oh, and you steer from the back, so you need to push off from the mooring, or come off stern first.  I’ll leave you to it.  Enjoy yourselves and take it slow!”

His litany completed, Ariel drank in Abel’s measured, capable steps as he returned to her.  She greeted him with her twisted half-smile, patting the seat beside her own in invitation.  “The last one.  You’ve had a busy morning!”

“Busiest day of the year!”  He lowered himself into the chair, extracting a squeak of mild protest from its seasoned wood.  Ariel wondered, not for the first time, if all that muscle was sculptured from marble.  “I’ve got everything hired out until Sunday, now.”

“And no boat hauled up.” Ariel glanced towards the empty slipway that skirted the boathouse.  “What are you going to do all week?”   

“Problem, I know.  I was going to fix the seals on ‘Gracie’s’ pump out valve, but we were short by a couple of boats and it was nothing serious, so I had to put her back in the water.  More than that,” he nodded towards the newly-tenanted narrow boat now struggling at its moorings, “We called in this ‘un from Dad’s yard.   Moira overbooked us again.”

“I thought I didn’t recognise her.”  Trying to disguise her amusement, Ariel watched as ‘Daisy May’s’ novice crew tried to leave the mooring forwards, frantically thrusting their fending poles at the bank.  “She looks a nice boat.  When did you bring her up?”  Abel’s father ran a twin boatyard some thirty miles south on the Grand Union Canal.

“Dad brought her on Wednesday.  I still had to fit her out with some stuff, though.  She’s brand new.   We only bought her this Spring.”

Down on the canal, the elderly man at ‘Daisy May’s’ tiller was becoming increasingly agitated.

“I’ll just be a minute.”  Abel apologised.

Offering Ariel another prospect of his departing figure the young boatyard owner strode (at the closest he ever came to a rush, she thought) back towards the mooring, calling out to the novice helmsman.  “Mr. Yardley, sir, put her in reverse!  Down!   Down for reverse!  See, it’s pulling water over the rudder, so now put your tiller hard left.   Nope, left – that’s it.   Now you’ve got her!   Straighten nice and easy, see  – there you go!”

Several tons of steel narrow boat backed out into the placid water of the canal, its elderly navigator grinning at his success like a Cheshire cat as children cheered and a manic spaniel raced back and forth along the cabin roof.

“I thought you took them up to Handyard’s Lock first, to show them the basic stuff.”  Ariel said as Abel returned.

“I do.  Some take longer to accept it than others.  They all think it’s easy, I can do this, so they don’t listen.  It is easy, but they don’t listen.  He’ll be all right now.”

“You’ll have to buy a couple more boats.”  

“Well, the business is there, certainly.  But we already have fourteen in the water, and they’re getting more expensive every year.”  Abel shrugged.  “I don’t know; maybe. I sort of like life as it is.”

Sighing, Ariel turned her face to the sun, closing her eyes.  “You have it all here, don’t you?  The canal, your boats, a quiet country lane miles away from the traffic, generations away from the world.  I envy you, sometimes.”

Abel chuckled. “Envy me?  Well, I don’t think I ever saw myself as that lucky.  Maybe I am.”

“Absolutely you are!  I look at you, always contented, not a shred of ambition anywhere in your body?  Every time I see you it’s the same.  You’re just happy, aren’t you?”

“And you’re not?”

Ariel sat up in her chair, suddenly decisive.  “I could use another beer.  Do you have anything for lunch in there?  A sandwich or something?”

“There’s bread, and beer in the fridge.  Help yourself.”

But she had already left him, nimbly skipping through the clutter of tools and stores to the back of the boathouse where, behind a row of foggy and randomly cracked windows, Abel lived.

His was a ramshackle existence, unchanged for as long as Ariel had known the boatman.  He had grown up here, helping Mark, his father, with never much use for school or learning, although he had learned his craft well enough; and when Mark bought the site down south, Abel simply took over.  There lingered a friendly odor of generations (who knew how many?) behind those smutty window panes that was familiar to her, a kind of mustiness that felt comfortable.   A living area, chairs, a sofa scattered with magazines and tour brochures, a worn Persian carpet, today littered with the detritus of ready-meal life, that might just as easily play host to a misbehaving outboard motor, or a bilge pump.  Adjoining this, a kitchen – small but clean, with a bread bin, fridge full of beer, some ham…

It was hot.  Midday sun beat down on the boathouse roof, the butter was melting as she applied it to the bread.  Two bottles of Coors were coldly welcome in her hands.

“Thought you’d like another beer.”  She said, rejoining him.  “When are you going to build yourself a proper house?”

“I wonder how many times you’re going to ask me that?  I wonder how many times I’ve given you the same answer.  I like being right here, by this old canal. I’m happy as I am.”

Ariel didn’t respond for a minute.   She sucked her beer, listening to the waterside birds as they cheeped and clucked their way through a day’s commerce, trading beauty for bread with the steady trickle of tourist boats passing by.

“The canal’s changing, though.” She said at last, and Abel didn’t have to answer, because the peace was disturbed by a heavier diesel chug which, growing in volume, finally resolved itself into a sleek white river cruiser.   “Isn’t that ‘Moonlight’?” She asked.

Abel nodded.  “It was.  Old Tarbut got too decrepit to use her – got himself a heart attack winding her through Skinsford Lock, so he sold her on to Armand Brothers.  Now she’s ‘Number Three Four Seven.’   Where’s the romance, huh?”

“Tarbut? He was nearly blind last time I met him.”  Ariel chuckled.  “I hope they cleared the cabin of all those spiders.”

“I’m sure.”   Abel waved to the couple who stood arm-in-arm at the boat’s smart little wooden wheel, and they waved back.  “Pair of townies like them, They’d be running round the deck screaming otherwise.  You’re right, though.  Things are changing.  Maybe twice as many holiday makers these days.  It isn’t a bad thing, I don’t suppose.  Good for business.”

“I remember a day like this, not too many summers ago, you and I went skinny-dipping down there.  We couldn’t do that now.   We’d be caught.”

Abel allowed himself a twitch of a smile.  “We were bloody nearly caught then, as I recall.  We were eleven years old.  The rules were different.”

“My dad wouldn’t have thought so.” Ariel sighed.  “Twenty-two years!”  She sat up, suddenly.  “There!  Did you see it?  Kingfisher!  Just a blue flash, but I know I saw!”

“Oh, him!  He’s been around a while, now.  Don’t know why – they prefer the rivers, mostly.  I expect he’ll move on soon.  Twenty-one.”

“Twenty-one ?”

“Twenty-one years.  That was the year of our eleven plus.  I failed.”

“And I went on to Partondon Grammar, for all the good it did me.”   She closed her eyes, lost in a golden haze of reminiscence.  “But still, it was a beautiful summer.”

Neither spoke then, reclined side by side, at one with their thoughts.  Oftentimes they might doze for a while here, with the water for company; until waking, she might turn to see his sleeping face and smile, as a lover might, at his innocence.  They were companions, friends, confidantes; and whether in the cold rains of winter or the summer heat this boatyard had been almost as much a part of Ariel’s life as Abel’s.  Here she had learned watercraft, taught herself how to paint the glossy barge art that adorned the holiday narrow boats just as gaily as the barges of old. If her love of art had been born here, so too in turns she had been baptised in tar, in antifouling, engine oil or grease; been exhausted, elated, proud and angry, but most of all she had felt the love that this place wrapped around her.  For as many hours of the week as were spared to her, she would come here, and always she would feel welcomed.

“Ah, here we go.”  Abel said.

A big river cruiser had burbled quietly up to the mooring, the sound of its engine lost in the silence of their thoughts.  A spare-looking man was already ashore, while a woman in a green blouse held a line from the stern, ready to tie off.

The man looked up as Abel approached him.   “How much for the mooring?”   He demanded crisply.  “We’re staying overnight.”

“Not here, this is a private mooring.  There’s a public staithe at the Stag and Hound by Handyard Lock.”

The man flushed immediately, primed for argument. He was short in stature and aggressive by instinct.  A terrier, Ariel thought; and he’s not enjoying his holiday. “What am I supposed to do, then?  I’m not going to moor outside a pub!”

“This boat’s from Robertson’s, isn’t it?  You could wind by the lock and take her back there.  It’s no more than five miles.  It’ll be quieter around their yard.”

Ariel allowed herself to chuckle openly, watching the man’s peacock strut as he vented his frustration.  Abel was unmoved and unmoving.  The man waved his wallet, Abel shook his head, and the scene played itself out, the one spoiling for altercation, the other patient, but obdurate, until there were no lines left in their script.  At last the visitor climbed back on his boat and, with a well-chosen selection of over-the-shoulder invective, sailed on.

“You could have let him!”  She rebuked, as Abel returned.

“Right!   They’d be queuing up by tonight.  I must have six signs saying this is a private staithe, They get worse.  What if one of my own boats comes in – a repair or something?”

The friends sat side by side, sucking their beers and watching a steady flow of tour boats pass by.

“What are you going to do, Abe?”  Ariel asked.

“Do?  Me?   Tidy up the boathouse this week, I reckon.  And I’ve got yards of paperwork to catch up on.”

“No, not this week.  I mean, with the rest of your life.   You can’t live at the back of a shed forever.”

“Why not?”

“You’re worth so much more, I suppose.”  Ariel said.

He took her hand gently and held it, and if her fingers trembled at his touch, he did not seem to notice.  “You know, I’ve often wondered about this ‘worth’ thing.  About chasing ‘success’, whatever that means – about always wanting a little bit more.  The way I look at it, I have what I want – all I’m really entitled to want – this is my little place in the grand scheme of things.  If I tried to change more than I needed to change, I’d only end up making myself unhappy. Other people, too.”  Abel added.  “Of course, it’s different for you.”

“How?  How is it different?”

“You like it – the pressure, the rushing about.  You enjoy the challenge, I expect.  That isn’t for me.”

“Really? Yes, I suppose I must.”   Ariel said.  “Don’t you ever want – anything – to alter, to improve?  I mean, you must sometimes ask yourself whether there could be another way?”

“Nope!”  Abel grinned.  “Everything seems to me to be just as it should be.”

He pushed himself out of his chair and walked down to the mooring to tidy a line his last customers had left beside the water.   “They’ll be missing this!” He called over his shoulder.  Ariel did not answer.  When he turned around he saw she had gone.   Such arbitrary departures were lately a peculiarity of Ariel’s visits, so he assumed she had needed to go back to her work.  As he returned to the boathouse he pictured his friend there as he always saw her.  Trim and pretty still, with her hair about her face in the breeze and that fond, slightly cynical smile, and he thought how nice a picture that was, and how peaceful her nearness made him feel.  He almost laughed aloud, as he often did when he daydreamed of Ariel, at the sheer joy she brought him.   Tomorrow she would be back, just as usual.

Ariel set her little car popping around the twists and turns of the boatyard’s narrow lane, heading  towards a village and a main road, which, in turn, would lead towards a town.  As she drove she wiped tears from her face, trying to ignore  the thump of her suitcase as it slid from side to side across the back seat.   When she reached town she would join a motorway to a city and an airport where the man she had agreed to marry would be waiting.  It was the third time she had made this appointment, and he had proved his love for her by his infinite patience when she had failed him twice.   That she could not return his devotion made her sad, and leaving the only man she could ever love cut a wound in her heart, but it was time for one promise, at last, to be kept.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content