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

Dancing Girl, Graphic-Mama team on Instagram

Audience/Club, Pexels, from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Sixteen 

Pieces of Silver

Jeremy Piggott felt the sneeze approach as certainly as he had felt the cold itself coming:  an onrushing tide of mucus that was irresistible, although he tried his best to suppress it.  He patted desperately at pockets, knowing the wet mess of his handkerchief would not be there.  He had discarded it in disgust on his way here; thrown it into a bin on the street. 

Foolishly. 

Oh god, what could he DO?  

As the last and biggest wave broke, frantic inspiration betook him to snatch his hat down over his face, just in time to control the explosion.   Reprieved, he mopped the copious residue with the hat before hesitantly replacing it on his head.   His vision cleared.   The young woman across the table from him, with an expression on her face which was difficult to read, was proffering a paper serviette.

“Oh t’anks.   B’oody code.”   Jeremy said.   He took the serviette and blew his nose noisily.  The café was crowded – people noticed.    “Right!  Bus’ness.”

Producing a large envelope from his briefcase, Piggott passed it to the woman, who opened it carefully, avoiding wet fingerprints.

“Dis is who you’re involved wib.   His nabe is Mahennis Bourta, and he’s Moroccan.  Nice, middle incomb flabbily, father wab a chemist: they moobed to Lyon when he wab very young, so there’s little to fide in the Borth Abrican connection.  Seebs to have been recruited at udiversity, trained in Afghanistab.”

Alice Burbridge, for it was she, studied the photograph with her dark, searching eyes.   “Bourta’s his real name: no aliases?”

Piggott nodded.   “He seebs to be a facilitator, a’d maybe a bit of a policeban.  He does what he says he’s doi’g at the moment:  helpi’g to discober what was on dat piece of paper.”

“He can’t get to the photograph?”

Piggott shook his head, reaching for another serviette which an understanding waitress had thoughtfully placed in a glass in the centre of the table.  “Nobe.”   He blew his nose with great thoroughness.   “Bud he may be able to tap into the chain furber down.  We hab the boy under surveillance. Maybe, just maybe, he can find a way in.  Whad’s he said to you?”

“He says he can.”  Alice pursed her lips.  “These people are serious professionals.  If he says he can I’m inclined to believe him.   I’m worried for the boy.”

“The girl too.  There are two ob them now.”   Jeremy caught Alice’s surprised look.  “Oh, nothi’g to worry about – well, nothi’g new.   She’d the one who compode the picture, we believe.   Our operative’s got her covered too.   Thi’g is, we aren’t sure if the Amadhi are aware of her:  obviously we’d rarber dey weren’t.”

“So far as I know they have no idea as to the identity of the boy, and no-one has mentioned a girl.”   Alice frowned.  “If you don’t mind, Jerry, I will worry, just a bit.  I know what they do to girls when they have no other use for them.”

“Which is why you should be watching your own back, Alice,  But carry on doi’g what you’re doi’g for the mobent.  We don’t want to hab to pull you out, yet.   Just try to gib dem as little as possible.  Now, take a look at the seco’d photograph.”

Alice started then quickly recovered herself as she turned over the sheets, revealing a photograph of a man entering a restaurant.   Though taken from some distance away, the likeness was undoubtedly that of Yahedi:  “He was at the meeting.”

Jeremy availed himself of another serviette.   “He’b dangerous.  Watch out for hib.   De point ibs, Alice, we know he’b in town.   We strongly suspec’ he’s the trigger man.   If he and Bourta get together – they’re old associates – if you even see them together you’re to bail out, do you understa’d?  Don’t hang around, get yourself to a safe house and call the boys in.   We’ll take it from there.”

“Fine.”   Alice nodded:  “Is there anything else you particularly want from this Bourta guy?”

Jeremy was thoughtful.  “I dink I want to know the sabe things they do.   I want to know how the b’oody hell this boy and his girlfr’e’d managed to bugger up a professional assassinatiob wib a sheet of A4 and a bird.   I want to know who else is involved, apart from your rocker person, and what they’re after.   So if the Prince and his Amadhi know more than I do about that, I’d like to be up to speed.”

Jeremy sat back and sipped his coffee as Alice read through the notes he had given her concerning first Bourta, then Yahedi.   She memorised the important parts carefully, page by page.   Of Bourta:  “Oh goodness!  He’s into that, is he?”

Jeremy nodded seriously:  “Not all fun and frolics, is he?    The only time anyone got close to making a case stick on him was after he butchered a prostitute in Italy.  He managed to wriggle out ob it with a stro’g alibi, but we know he did it, id’s sort ob a signature ob his.   He can’t hab sex without it – and I saw photographs ob the girl afterwards: it was grim viewing, I can tell you.”

Did you get anything on the Arab?”

“The one at the meeti’g?”    Jeremy pulled another envelope out of his pocket, extracted a photograph.  “Is this him?  Dis is frob  a separate file we hab on the Prince.”

Alice looked at the photo and nodded:   “Think so.  It’s not very clear.”

“No.   He keeps in the background a lot.  He’b one of the Prince’s personal frie’ds, quite wealthy.  Mohammed Al Fait; better known as Marak.  English education.   Got his money as a mercenary soldier, back in the African wars, and was possibly in Bosnia too.  He’s a strange one.”

“Strange?”

“Deep into mysticism, heads up a little spiritualist sect of his own – The Portal, I think it’s called – meets each month in Cairo.  An unusual combidation, dat – Arab mercenary and spiritualist.”

The meeting over, Alice Burbridge returned Jeremy’s envelope to him and rose from her chair.   Her brief handshake would have seemed to anyone who chanced to see it the natural conclusion to a business meeting, perhaps a deal.   She would leave first, Jeremy watching her tall figure as it melted through the crowded bar.  Then he would call for the check.  Through the window beside their table he saw her make the street, huddling her coat around her against the onset of April rain.   Instinctively   he scanned road and pavement to see if anybody else was watching her departure, but there was no sign she had been followed.  He suppressed a small shudder; a premonition maybe?  It was a sensation he had felt before and did not like it: yet there was nothing he could do to help or protect this woman – she had made the choice to live with danger – thrived, excelled within it.  If she had run one risk too many, if she had said one wrong word or stepped, however unknowingly, out of line, she knew what the price would be. 

Jeremy Piggott sighed a fatalistic sigh, because that was the nature of the game they both played.  As he prepared himself for the seasonal gale that was blowing outside he realised his hat had stuck itself fast to his head.

At around the time of Alice’s meeting with Piggott, Peter and Lesley were lounging in the college library with browsers at full stretch. Peter had European History galloping around in his head; Lesley was unashamedly checking out the Dolce and Gabbana homepage.   An item in the Microsoft news section drew Peter’s attention.

“Wow! See this?  Adrian Hettman’s dead.”

 “So?”   Lesley did her best to sound bored. “Like, who was Adrian Hettman?”

“He was big cheese at Hettman-Patton: American tech giant – into the hardware for integrated defence systems.  Building a factory near Bristol next year.  There’ll be some cool jobs!”

“Riveted is what I am.   And Adrian Hettman is the cheese thingy of Hettman-Thingy, right?”

“Was.”

“You know, I get to learn a little more with you every day?  How snuffed he?”

“You’re just dying to know, aren’t you?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Heart attack.    Found dead in his hotel room in New York.     He was sort of a hero for me when I was into tech stuff.   I had his picture on my wall. Jeez Les, he was fifty-four! He seriously didn’t look it.”

“Surgically enhanced:  they’re all at it.  I’m depressed now.  Do you think I’d look good in these?”

A few days after this Peter dropped by the church of St. David’s, hoping to catch his father ‘at the office’. His actual motive was an attack of financial embarrassment not unrelated to the higher costs exacted by Lesley’s companionship, but between college pressures and work he realised he hadn’t actually talked to Bob Cartwright in the best part of a week, despite sharing the same roof.    In childhood Peter had often helped his father, performing some of the menial duties necessary to his Living.  He had grown into St. David’s through Sunday School, learning the craft, as it were, at the pulpit.  Now he rarely took any interest in religious affairs:  almost never came to the Church, or plied the streets with the Parish magazine.

“Dad, the ‘Big Issue’s’ got better street cred.”

‘St. David’s’ was an unimposing structure, wedged between commercial buildings like a bride at a football match.  A couple of sad saintly statues gazed down from alcoves, a meek spire poked apologetically from the roof.  Nevertheless its brick blandness attracted a loyal band of worshippers, more, maybe, to hear Bob Cartwright’s inflammatory sermons with their appalling jokes than out of a duty to God.

Entering the main door Peter nearly collided with a woman and her child.

This was unremarkable in itself (a steady trickle of visitors might pass this way on a Wednesday afternoon, Bob’s day for a ‘surgery’ ) had there not been something about this couple which stuck in Peter’s mind.  The woman, though she was middle-aged and malnourished, her features underscored by the heavy lines of experience, had an aura of energy about her, deep sadness, febrile hope:  the child following in her wake,although he was very, very young, reached for Peter’s hand and grasped it, fleetingly, as he passed by.   When they had gone, Peter stood in the aisle for several minutes, overwhelmed by the emotions emanating from those two people.

He discovered his father in the sacristy.

“Who were they – the pair who just left?”

Bob looked puzzled.  “Pair?   No ‘pairs’ been in for more than an hour, old lad.

Just Marilyn Glossop.”

“Wasn’t she the car accident woman?”

“That’s her.  Lost her husband and two children.   Tragic lady.”

“And she still has faith.”

  “Brilliant, isn’t it?”  Peter’s father smiled, sadly.  “Or it would be.  But I think maybe faith, for Marilyn, is just the bit of flotsam she clings to.  Like her new partner – they cling to it together as they cling….look, son, I shouldn’t discuss my parishioners’ personal lives with anyone, not even you.   What do we want then – a few pieces of silver?”

“Notes will do, Dad.  Just notes.”  Peter did not know quite from where his words sprang – even what compelled him to say them.  “If you have her ‘phone number, Dad, you should call her.   Tell her before – I don’t know – before she does something.   Tell her she has the child she needs – it’s a boy, and it’s in her now.   Tell her that.”

Once the words were out he recoiled, anticipating his father’s reaction – annoyance, amusement, sarcasm?  No, none of these.

“Now there’s an odd thing.   I was worried, too.   Something about the things she said…..”  Bob came to himself.   “So, it’s fortune-telling now, is it?  Or gynaecology?”

Peter shifted uncomfortably.  “You don’t seem too amazed.”

Bob smiled gently: “Well, it’s a bit of a surprise.  Sometimes, I’ve found, faith manifests itself in odd ways.   But it is faith, nonetheless.  And I will ‘phone her, son, just as soon as you’ve bled me dry for another week.”

In the process of delving into his wallet, his father raised the matter of a new Bishop appointed to the Diocese.

“Ronald Harkness.   He’s going to drop in tomorrow:  address the foot-soldiers, pep-talk, and all that.  He wants to meet you.”

Me?  Why would a Bish want to meet me?”

“Haven’t the faintest.   It’s most peculiar.  He was quite insistent: something about engaging with the family as well as the churchman; didn’t seem to be worried that Lena is away, though.   Perhaps he’s measuring you up for a collar.  Ten-thirty.  Can you make it?”

“S’pose.”

#

Some cruel twist of malevolent fortune directed Melanie’s feet to the Esplanade that morning.   Of late she had taken to avoiding the wild days when she and Peter had once loved to walk to college this way together, with salt spray in the air and the gale whipping  waves to flagellating fury against the sea wall.  

So why today?

So why today, when Peter was there, facing the storm, and Lesley was with him, rapt in him, staring out to the Rock as she had once done, lost in the moment – lost in each other?

She had never seen Lesley looking as disordered as this, with her naturally silky hair frizzed around her face, careless of clothes rumpled about her; or Peter looking so tall, so broad of shoulder, so happy.   There was no mistaking the change, no mistaking the fondness in Lesley’s eyes as she turned his face to hers, or the lingering sensuality of her kiss.  

Her original destination forgotten, Melanie spun on her heel to walk, to half-run away from the thing she had dreaded seeing, and could stand to look upon no more.  As she staggered through her crumbling world, as she blindly went from street to street she fought back unreasonable tears – why was she so angry?  Why should she want to cry?   Was it not inevitable this would happen?  To know Lesley was to love her, and now Peter clearly – oh, that look in his eyes! – loved her.   Yes, loved her: and that was that.   They were bloody made for each other, weren’t they? 

Later, much later, she returned to the  Esplanade.  Sitting beneath the burden of her guilt in the shelter where she and Peter had rested together so many times, Melanie gave way to all of her jealousy, all of her pain, and broke her young heart.

© 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 Fourteen

A Beaten Heart, Part Two

Melanie entranced, no longer confined by the cave but lost within the scene playing out before her, could neither snatch her hand away from the black rock, nor cry out in protest.

Three figures there were, gathered in that sumptuously furnished bedroom as it was buffeted by the storm. An enfeebled Lord Crowley, Toqus, his African manservant, and coldly watching as the old Lord descended into death, Matthew Ballentine, whose noble countenance belied his black heart.

“You are a monster, sir!”  Crowley’ wavering voice was barely audible.  His blue lips writhed.

Toqus said, slowly:  “I will not let my master die.”

Toqus’s and Ballentine’s eyes met.   The younger man’s shrug belied the sibilance of tension that stretched between them .   “You would save him?  I know you have done so, once; but ask yourself, how else can this evening end?”    He drew a pistol from beneath his coat.   “Let your master’s life slip away, kindly, or receive this ball yourself.”   He levelled the pistol at Toqus’s head.   “Consider –  your loyalties, are they changed? “

Crowley shook his head.  “No!   No, Toqui, he would not!  The shot would be heard, he would be undone!”

“Who will hear a shot, above this wind?  Who knows that I am here this night?” Ballentine sneered;  “ No, the faithful servant it must be who found his master dead and took his own life in his grief.   It would be his hand upon this side-arm when he was found, not mine.   I am passing Christmas at Crowley – with your wife, my Lord.   Oh, she will swear it, never fear!”     Ballentine chuckled, cocking the pistol, “Be done with it, man!” He motioned to Toqus.   Moaning, the servant bent over his master, so that Horace Crowley might see the sorrow in his eyes.  The look was of one who strayed for just a little, never knowing it should come to this.  ‘When I first took money from this man,’ the look said, ‘it seemed to be for the good.  We are both betrayed.’   The noble Lord expostulated, feebly; a whimpering sound lost upon the wind.   Shaking, he reached for his servant’s neck (to, what, restrain, embrace, who can know?), and gripped the gold chain suspended there.

“Forgive me.”  Toqus said.   He placed a huge hand on the old general’s chest; and in one second, with just the pressure of his palm, stilled Crowley’s failing heart for ever. A last breath rattled in Horace Crowley’s throat as he slumped back upon the bed, fingers still locked around the chain. It snapped, its broken links tinkling musically to the floor.

As Melanie watched,  Ballentine move methodically about the room, re-ordering the furniture, collecting papers from the table.  There was a shouted exchange with Toqus:  yes, Toqus would be careful to clear up any dossiers, or letters; no, he would not leave with Ballentine by his secret route; rather, he would stay to mourn his master.    So Ballentine slid aside a panel in the oak wall behind the old Lord’s bed and stepped through into the black cavity beyond.   As soon as he had gone, Toqus closed the panel behind him.  

For a long time Toqus sat beside Crowley’s death bed, rocking  himself back and forth, head buried in his hands.   Finally he got to his feet, lifting Crowley’s inert form in his arms to carry it towards the door.   There he hesitated, unsure; should he call for help, announce the death?  Did he fear the consequences? Undecided, he laid his master down upon the floor.   The vision faded.

“Did you see it?   Did you see that too?”  Melanie choked:  “Peter?   Is that what your dream was like?”

It was Toby who answered:  “Give ‘un a minute, Missy.  He needs to come out of it, see?”

Peter’s face had the tint of old vellum. Although his eyesight was impaired by the departing mist of the dream, his mind was not: connections were being made.

“I’ve seen Toqus, now,” He said at last.  “The big dark man in my first dream, the figure of Death, that was Toqus!”

“Ah now!”   Said Toby brightly.  “You’m back!   Come on now, folks, I think it’s time we was out of ‘ere!”

Peter found the return journey less fearsome:  in some small way he had acclimatised to the terrifying traverse which defended the cave from curious eyes.    He could picture the monks, bare-legged and sandaled, as they stepped nimbly and often across that space, and if they could do it…He willingly took the lead, and although his legs were quaking he found his footings easily.   Melanie dallied, taking time for a final look around the cave before following; which was how she spotted the talisman.

In a corner by the cave entrance lay a small black cylinder of wood, the entire eight-inch length of which had been carved with immaculately detailed shapes depicting snakes and winged beasts.  It felt light and tactile, and it seemed to fit comfortably in her hand, bringing a burst of music into her head.   Her smile did not escape Toby’s notice.

“You keep that, Missy.   ‘Twill be a memory o’ this place.   ‘Er wants to belong to ‘ee that does.”

Melanie understood completely.   Before she clambered back across the slope she hid the talisman beneath her blouse.  That evening she would place it in the top drawer of her dressing table where it would lie forgotten for a while.

Later, returned to solid ground, Melanie reminded Toby of her question.   “You never did tell us who expected me today.  Was it you, Toby?”

“Bless you no, Missy.   I were told.”

“When?”  Peter asked.

“Why, ‘tis difficult to say.  ‘Bout a week ago, I ‘spect.”

A week ago?”   Melanie was astounded.   “Before we knew ourselves?”

“Ah, but they know, Missy.  They know.”

“All right!”   Peter ran in front of Toby, turned to stop him in his tracks.  “Time to ‘fess up, Toby.  Who are ‘They’?”

The cottager sighed.  “Aye, it’s time , I s’pose.  Come up home and we’ll ‘ave a nice cup o’ tea or summat.  Us’ll talk then.”

The invitation was one Melanie and Peter had both been dreading.   Toby’s tumbledown cottage with its torn and faded gingham curtains, promised only filth, darkness and damp.  Given all that had passed that afternoon, however, there was no excuse they could make.   Evening on St. Benedict’s Rock, when the fresh breeze came in from the sea, was usually cold.

In the event, Toby’s kitchen proved surprisingly warm and clean, if a little sparsely furnished.    If the curtains were old and none too fresh, the windows they covered were at least fairly transparent.  The pinewood table, pitted by generations of use, had been scrubbed.

“I knowed you was comin’;” Toby reminded them, noticing Melanie’s relief.

They sat around the table clutching big, warm mugs of strong tea.   Beyond the kitchen window a pink sky glowed with impending sunset. The homely, subdued light of the room wrapped itself around them.

Peter sat beside Melanie, their thighs touching, just accidentally, absently; sending a warmth through them both.  Without really knowing they had done so, they clasped hands beneath the table.  Melanie allowed herself to wish that they were alone together.

 “Now, you wants to know who called you here, young Missy,”  Toby said  “ An’ there’s a lot I needs to tell you, but you got to unnerstand there’s a lot I don’t know, see?  Some ways you already knows more ‘un me; that’s a solemn fact….”  His voice had an easy drone which might almost have lulled Melanie into sleep.  She let her head rest on Peter’s shoulder as he spoke of how he had always lived here, on this island, in this house, and how he had learned to accept his part in the island’s story.

“See, I can’t never leave ‘ere.   If I does, I won’t have nothin’!   I be a servant to the old rock, that’s what I be.  An’ bein’ like this….”   He gestured to his neck as though to remind himself of that disability Melanie had sensed when they first met:  “World won’t ‘ccept me no-how.   See?”

“Would you want to live anywhere else?”  Peter asked.

Toby shook his head.  “Nope.  Not for ever-one to know, but this place’s sommat special, young Peter.  Sommat very special indeed.”

He spoke of younger days, when he first realised he was ‘different’ and how one day he had gone to the cliff-top half-determined to finish it all.   It was then he discovered the cave.

“’Course, I’d always knowed about the path.  When you’m a young ‘un you finds these things, don’t you?  But that slope, I never tried to climb over there.  This day I jus’ didn’t care, see?  I thought as ‘ow if I went over, I went over.  Didn’t matter, see?”

Toby slurped at his tea.  Melanie saw that he did not drink easily, because from certain positions he was unable to tip his head back.

“I reckon I was the first ‘un in that there cave for best part two ‘undred year!  Didn’t look nothing like as good as now.   I cleaned ‘un up, see? This cave, it gets to be a sort of favourite place o’ mine, don’t it?  Once I almos’ lived in ut!”

The young Toby had often spent hours alone there, looking out over the sea or staring at the drawings which embellished the cave’s walls.  Later, when his father died and his mother seemed to want no-one near her, he had taken to sleeping there.

“Me and my dad, we did lots of things together.   But ‘er, she never got used to me bein’ like I am.  No, she never got used to that.   An’ what with my old dad passin’ on, she didn’t want me.”

Peter shuddered, trying to picture a young Toby, stretching out to sleep in the cold of that rocky nook with only a dead body for company.   Toby told of the first time he touched the rock behind the altar.

“Kids will touch things, won’t they?  Nothin’ ‘appened at first.  There was no vishuns, or nothing like what you ‘ad.   But after I done it a few times, this music started comin’ into me ‘ead.”

“The song of The Rock”   Melanie said.

“Aye, Missy – jus’ like you’m ‘earin’ now.  Took some time afore it got to be more than that, though.”

“More?”  Peter asked.  “Do you have the dreams, too?”

“Not like your’n, no.  I starts hearin’ voices, on’y in the cave at first.  Now, I hears ‘em anywhere on the island – an’ then one day this fella comes to see me.”

“What ‘fella’?”   Peter sensed the awkwardness in Toby’s voice.

“He were a diddy-squat man, comes knockin’ on the door ‘ere one day….”   Toby described a dapper little man in an office suit and yellow waistcoat which stretched over his corpulence like a net over a football.   “’Calm as you please, ‘e tells me ‘ow ‘e knows all about me, an’ I got a gift that only he and a few other people knows about.  An’ it comes out that this gift is all to do with this ‘ere rock.”

The little man had told Toby the secret story of the island; of how it drew a small, exclusive brethren of monks to begin a monastery here,.   He confirmed what Toby already knew:  that a seam of very special stone ran through the island’s heart.   It surfaced in only a few places:  one at the summit, where Peter had experienced his first vision, another within the cave.   There was supposed to be a third (apparently there had to be three) although Toby had not found it yet.  Many might touch this stone and feel nothing, but those with Toby’s ‘gift’ who touched it were given an understanding of the magic of the place.

“He tells me I be the guardian of this stone.   I has to live ‘ere to watch over ‘un; an’ I says I doesn’t see ‘ow I could.  I’m in trouble, like, keepin’  up the ‘ouse now father’s died.   But he says someone’s comin’ to ‘elp with that an’ I’d be looked after.”

Peter nodded,  “And you were.”

“Aye.  That’s when Mr. Vincent comes to live in the big House.   He sees I don’t go short.   He’s even made an allowance for me if sommat should ‘appen to ‘im.”

“Then Vincent is one of them, these few special people.”

“I don’ know that.  Some’ow I don’think no-one’s told ‘im about the stone.  An’ I’m not to tell nobody, see?”  Toby leaned forward across the table.  “This diddy-squat chap, he says I’m to wait, ‘cause ever’ so offen, like once in a cent’ry or sommat, someone comes along who can get much more from the stone than us folks.   And that once in a very long time, mebbees never yet, two people comes together!   An’ that’s when sommat important is goin’ to take place as hist’ry won’t forget.  I’m to wait for they, an’ when they comes I’ll know them.   Well, looks like you’m ‘ere, don’t it?”

In the silence, Peter fancied he might hear even the smallest sound.  A tap dripping somewhere, a soft breath of wind on the casement, the flap of a bird’s wing outside the glass.   At length it was Melanie who spoke.  “You still haven’t explained how…”

“’Ow I knowed you was comin’ today?”  Toby interrupted, his face creased in a smile that was, for him, close to angelic;  “Why, The Rock tells me, Missy – Old Ben!  ‘Er’s been getting excited ‘bout it for a week gone!”

“Oh, Peter,”  Melanie sighed,   “Does this mean we’re going to be famous?”

Within that room, none of them knew what it meant.  Toby, who understood the island well, lacked the insight to read the deeper messages within Peter’s visions.  Peter, who thought the stone probably imbued him with a gift of foresight, nothing more.  And Melanie, who struggled, as yet, to find any meaning:  it was there, she knew, but out of reach.

By the time Peter and Melanie left the cottage, a red haze of cloud disguised the discreet departure of the evening sun.   Walking together down the old road they passed the summer let cottages, where the little girl played and sang in her back yard.  She smiled at them with a sweet, slightly empty smile, but she did not stop playing.

Melanie asked,  “Peter, do you want this?”

They had entered the tunnel and Peter was probing its roof and walls for  crystalline signs of stone.   “See…”  He gestured as they emerged onto the north side of the island.   “If Toqus’s cave is just around there…”

“I asked you a question.”   Melanie said.

“I don’t know what you mean, ‘do I want this’.”  He met Melanie’s eyes and saw that they were red.   “What, Mel?   It’s a lot to take in, that’s all.”

She paused by the roadside, trying to frame her thoughts:  “You – me.  We’re friends, aren’t we?   We…we’ve known each other a long time, Babes.”

“Okay, so?”

“Well, I thought: I mean, I sort of hoped…..Oh god!”   The tears came.   Peter watched them happen, not understanding, half-frightened by them.   One day in a shelter on the Esplanade not so long ago, he had decided he hated it when Melanie cried.   He offered a faltering arm but she threw him off.   “Don’t!”

He stepped back.   “Mel, what’s wrong?”

“I just assumed someday we would be, like, boy and girlfriend, you know?  You – me?  I thought we might be together, stay together, do all the normal things you do when you’re, well, more than just friends.  That’s what I thought.   Until today – until this.”

“Okay.”  Peter replied cautiously:  “So, what’s changed?”

“What’s changed?  What’s changed?   We’re not normal.  That’s what’s changed.   We’re some sort of monstrous double act – ‘special people’ with a peculiar talent for seeing things which aren’t there and doing things normal people don’t do!  Peter, I don’t want to be a freak!   I don’t want to be ‘special’ and spend my days in a cold cave with a withered old corpse for company.  I don’t want to see anything like the things I saw this afternoon ever, ever again.  It was just – so horrible, so evil.”

“It wasn’t nice,”  Peter agreed.   “But you have.  What do you suggest we do?”

“We exercise our freedom of choice.  We turn our backs on this bloody rock and we never come back here, ever again.   If we dream about it, we turn over and sleep on the other side.  If a seagull pesters you, throw pebbles at it until it goes away.”    Melanie caught the guarded look in Peter’s eye.   “But you don’t want to do that, do you?”

“No.  Well yes, too, in a way.”  Peter sighed.   “I don’t think I we’re going to be allowed freedom of choice.  Now these ‘They’ people have seen what we can do, they’re going to want me – us – to do it again; so I don’t think things can ever be normal from now on.”

Across the bay, Levenport glistened with summer lights – the twinkling stars  of hotel windows, the bright neon colours of the arcades.  Leaning on the railing together with the sea washing the cliff below, they shared a moment of unspoken truth.  Although neither moved, the distance between them grew.

At last, Melanie said: “Sorry Babes, I choose normal.”

© 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: Artem Kovalev from Unsplash

Cave Mouth: Bruno Van der Kraan from Unsplash