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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

Satan’s Rock

Part Twelve

Warm Summer Lightning

In the heat of  afternoon, thunder threatened.  Beyond  Francine’s opened windows, the world hung, muted by  expectation.  No birds sang.  She lay upon the bed Arthur’s household had prepared for her, listening to the mutter and cursing of the elements, suffering the clinging heat which, though she wore the briefest of shifts from her limited wardrobe, brought a bloom of perspiration to her cheeks.   Earlier, a doctor summoned from the nearby village of Thorpe Harkness, had declared her injured arm sprained but unbroken, bandaged it and prescribed bed rest.   It was too hot!  Although she lay on top of the covers their fabric clung to her, defying any attempt at sleep.  So when someone’s knuckles rapped  upon her door she was wide awake.

“Come in!”  Expecting her maid, the invitation was issued without thought.  Too late she discovered her visitor was Arthur.  He stood framed by the doorway, hesitant, and unable, for an instant, to avert his eyes from the vision before him.

“Arthur!”  It was a small cry, embarrassed as it was confused, “I thought…I mean, I rang for Peggy…”  With her good hand, Francine probed for a sheet that might restore her modesty only to find she was lying on top of all the bedclothes,   The hand flapped helplessly.  Her face reddened in a furious blush.  “Forgive me!”

“No, no, no!”  Retreating, Arthur struggled to articulate; “The fault is all mine.   I will call upon you later, when you’re…”

He withdrew hastily.

She called after him.  “Please stay!”  She had’nt rung for her maid.  Why had she said it?  What possible excuse could she have for saying it?

Why did he turn?  What possible defence could he offer for this behaviour?  “If you…I mean, do you not..?”  Alone with a lady of respectable reputation, in her bedroom, and she in a state of such undress?

She read his thoughts, laughed at herself.  She laughed aloud, then rebuked herself immediately for laughing so loudly.  “There is such heat in this room,” She said; “Will you stay and sit with me for a while?”

Advancing as  a man guilty of outraging common decency at every step, Arthur drew up a chair beside Francine, whose eyes sparkled with delight, reminding him how bewitching she really was.   “Why do I feel I remember you?”  He asked. “When I am certain we have not met before this year?”

She raised her injured arm slightly, gesturing towards the ewer on her nightstand.  “I feel ridiculous!  One petty injury so disadvantages me I cannot reach a cloth to bathe my face, Arthur.  Could you…?”

“Of course.”  He stood once more, his back turned to her as he drenched a flannel in cool water from the jug.  The thought of his muscled thighs, clothed though they were to respectability by his breeches, so awakened her that she almost lost herself when he turned to her once more.  Then cold water dripped upon her arms and breasts and she giggled girlishly.

“You saved my life, sir, today.”  She murmured through the cloth, as using her good hand she bathed her face luxuriantly; “And now it feels as though you have saved it again!  Ah, this revives my spirits so wonderfully!”

“It was your son who saved you, ma’am,” Arthur returned, “Young Samuel discovered you were not abed, then led us to your aid.  He is a fine fellow.”

“Then I have another debt of gratitude,” She declared.  “Is my little frog quite well?/”

“Exuberantly so, ma’am.  He has made a confidante of your maid.  Peggy and he conspire together in the servants’ hall.”

“And I am forever in your debt.  Ah, me!  So many obligations!”   Francine drew the wetted cloth from her face, slipping it over her chin and throat to her shoulders, gently stroking her pale skin with its moist relief.  A tiny trickle found its way beneath the hem of her shift before vanishing into the cleft between her breasts,  Arthur was captivated,   “You watch me closely, sir,”  she chided him kindly,  and it was his turn to blush.

With no further comment she reclined for a while, the exposed part of her bosom draped by cold cloth.   When its pleasing effect had dissipated, she asked, in altered tones and with candour, “Why are you so disturbed by the thought that we might have previously been acquainted?  What do you think it is that exists between us?”

He pondered that question deeply:   “I feel – no, I am sure – we have met before.   On each occasion when we speak of this I grow more certain, yet I cannot explain it.  I can tell you the story of my life in some detail and find nowhere that you might fit within it; nevertheless…”  He spread his hands.

Once again the searching intensity of Francine’s stare sought his eyes, and were they the window to his soul she would surely have opened it.  “Is it not as if there were a locked room somewhere that we shared?”  Her long fingers absently guided the cloth to the limits of her neckline and began to seek beneath her shift as if they mimicked the action of his hands, for she desired his touch quite shamelessly.

Then the moment was passed, and he had seen and felt the same temptation.  Arthur rose to his feet. 

“I must go!”  He exclaimed, afraid of himself.   He took her hand in both of his.  “Francine, whatever this is, the answer must be found, and I am certain it hides within your vanished history.  You may be sure we shall uncover the truth.”

Don’t! Stay!  Her inner voice wanted him to remain, but he retreated purposefully and her door closed briskly behind him.  She knew as well as him the constricts of reputation which had demanded that he leave, yet her heart and her body saw no reason to resist their mutual passion, and if his hands and his morals had strayed, she would have made no complaint.  Was she so permissive, so morally dissolute?    Of one thing she felt certain:  this Arthur was the man whom she and Maud Reybath, her ‘sister’ from Bleanstead so urgently sought.  Although its mechanism was beyond her understanding, Francine knew a gate was rapidly closing, a gate only Maud could help her to find.  A message must be sent to Bleanstead somehow, confidentially and without delay…

The room, far darker now, flared with sudden lightning.  Thunder cracked in a fusillade of fury.  The storm had begun.

#

Peter and Melanie made pilgrimages to The Devil’s Rock together a few times after Peter’s first visit to St. Benedict’s House.   For his part, maybe, Peter wanted to justify the description he had given Melanie of the Great House, to introduce her to Vincent and Alice.   It was important Melanie should be with him if he were ever able to visit there again.  From those late March days to this, though, the house had been locked and silent, its gatehouse closed.

 The seagull, the bird with the diamond mark on its neck, never reappeared.

Melanie came with him for reasons of her own.   She had fallen in love with the place.  The rock, with its dark and light sides like the two hemispheres of the moon, its rugged wildness and big, wide open skies was reflective of her mood right now.  She needed the sunshine of the seaward slopes, warmed to the cosy little homes, full of summer visitors, which nestled there.   And sometimes she needed the damp twilight world of the landward ruins as much.   The old rock was a mystical playground, somewhere to release the child which was still so vital a part of her.  Here she felt welcomed, and at home.

Then there was a deeper, more brooding affinity.   Why, when she so hated thunderstorms, for instance, did she always feel drawn to this place when the weather was at its height?   Why did she so want to stand on the roof of that Great House and actually feel the lightning playing around her?   Frightened for herself, she would make a shuddering withdrawal from these thoughts, but they always came back when the next storm brewed.  Her mother’s bedroom window directly faced the rock across the bay:  she would stand sometimes for an hour there, gazing through driving rain at its craggy outline, her head filled with wild dreams.

Last, though by no means least, there was Peter.   One reason why the rock always seemed so special was Peter: being with him on this island just fitted somehow, as though the last piece of a jigsaw were slotted into place.  In the deepening of their friendship Melanie was finding a meaning – something she  was happy to accept and let grow.   For the moment, let it suffice that there was nowhere she would rather be than here, sunbathing on the grassy slope of the south side, lying beside Peter.   Let the grass be a little wet: the sun had been scarce for a while; it did not matter.   Time would cease to have meaning.

“What things did he ask about me, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was close:  she felt his breath on her cheek.

“Hmmm?”   Melanie opened one eye.   “Are you asleep, Mel?  Well no, not now, Babes.”

His eyes were a bright, disquieting blue.  ‘I wish he would kiss me.’   Her thoughts said.    She raised herself on her elbows quickly:    “Who – what are you talking about?”

“Howard.   You said he was asking about me.  What did he ask?”

Howard’s first question had been ‘Is Peter your boyfriend?’ and very quickly without thinking she had said ‘yes’ but she would not tell Peter that.

“He asked what we liked to do together; what you were like, where you lived….usual stuff.”

“You didn’t tell him anything about …..”

“This place?   Your little nightmare?   No, of course not.”   Melanie giggled.   “I did say you were a bit strange sometimes.”

“Did he react to that?”

“How do you mean, ‘react’?  Did his tummy start to wobble sinisterly, did ectoplasm flow from every orifice – what?”

“Ask more questions….”

“He was, well, a little probing.   But I didn’t give anything away.   Why are you so concerned?”

Peter shook his head.  “I don’t like him.  I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a feeling: don’t tell him about the dream, Mel?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”    Mel started to get to her feet. “And speaking of feelings, its time we moved on, I’m afraid.”

“Do we have to?  It’s really peaceful here.”

“Yes, we do.”  Mel insisted.   She was afraid of herself:  afraid if she stayed in this desultory conversation, dreaming and talking and talking and dreaming, she would allow unsaid words to be said, let secrets out.

“Why?”

“I want to see if the House is still locked up.  If this Vincent of yours isn’t here today, he should be.   No-one should miss a day like this.”   It was an excuse, but it was one she knew would work.  Peter was as anxious as she to find Vincent at home.

“Okay!”   In a sudden burst of energy Peter leapt to his feet:   “First one to the top!”

“Oh, no – not a race!  You are so juvenile sometimes!”   But she watched his retreating back and the strength of his legs as they thrust against the sharp incline, and a little groan escaped her lips.   She followed with a resigned heart.

The pair had long since discovered a path which, although steep, wound its way directly up the southern aspect of the rock.   Leaving the holiday cottages below, this path led through a minor forest of rhododendrons.  The only habitation in sight, occasionally through gaps in the undergrowth above them, was Toby’s cottage.

Peter clambered up the rocky track, oblivious to Melanie’s wanton stare.   Soon he was struggling through the bushes and she was out of sight.   In the midst of the rhododendron maze, suddenly, there was a sense of loneliness:  a harmonizing with the isolation of the island.   He heard, in the hovering air, the sounds of violence and betrayal from its past.  How many lives had perished on these slopes?   How many dreams and aspirations had been broken here?   Village fishermen drowning in shattered boats pulverised against the rocks below: the abbot watching as his monastery was torn stone from stone; Crowley’s ashen visage at a window of the House, knowing (Peter was sure he knew) how his wife’s lover planned and schemed at his coming end.  And more, and more stories, more and more unsettled accounts.   He heard them, these tormented souls, muttering in the rush of breeze among the grasses, lurking in the trees below.   An eruption waiting to happen: a vendetta against this terrible place, ready to be repaid.

“Well now young Peter!”

The voice was right behind him and so surprised Peter that he only just suppressed a yelp of alarm.

“What be you doin’ ‘ere maister?  The house bain’t open today, you know.”

“Toby.”  Peter breathed:  “We…..er….my friend and I, we’re just visiting the island.”

“Friend, eh?  Don’t see no friend.”

“No…she’s…she’ll be along in a minute.”   Peter tried to regain some self-possession:  “How are you, Toby?”

Toby did not, in fact, look very well.   His always puffy, debauched face was an unnatural pink, and his eyes had a furtive look.  He had improved significantly in one regard, however, for which Peter was grateful.  Seeing Melanie labouring up the path behind Toby he was very glad the cottager was fully clothed.

Melanie found herself being introduced to a grubby, rather bulky man in a check shirt and the nearest thing to moleskin trousers she had ever seen outside a costume museum.  She considered that if the wind were to blow in another direction she would be able to smell him.  The prospect was not pleasant.

“Hello Toby.”   She said.

Toby reached forward to grasp her shoulders with his big, spade hands.  Melanie saw how this movement induced another, a quite convulsive dip of his head and neck.   She felt a pain in him – not acute, not suddenly onset, but suppressed; a lifetime-old ache of deformity.   She sensed it, and Toby’s eyes met her’s in a moment of communion.

“Well now, everybody knows my name!”  Toby grinned, displaying a broken picket fence of grey teeth:  “You’m welcome, missy.  We don’t get too many volupshous young ladies up ‘ere.”   The compliment slithered like an eel from a jar.  Melanie felt her skin creep. She took an involuntary step backward.

“Isn’t Vincent here?”   Peter stepped in hurriedly.

“Bless you no. Not been here these two months gone.  Left the day after you was last here, young Peter.”

“And Alice?”

Toby looked puzzled.  “Alice?   Don’t know no Alice.”

“But she was here when I was here.  Volupshous young lady – very tall with black hair.”

“Oh, ‘Er!   Now I know ‘oo you’m meanin’.   But bless you she don’t live ‘ere.   Never saw ‘er before that day you came.   Never seen ‘er since.”

As this conversation proceeded, Peter learned more about Vincent.  The guitarist and songwriter was too wealthy, in Toby’s opinion.  One house was enough for any man, especially one like St. Benedict’s, but Vincent had three.  In the winter he was to be found in Monaco, and sometimes, when business called, in Los Angeles.  In Toby’s opinion after all that a yacht was a terrible extravagance, but Vincent had one of those, too.  Anchored in the – well, Toby had difficulty with the name of the sea, but it had all them islands in it.

 “Caribbean?”  Peter suggested helpfully.

 “Ah, yes. That ‘un.”   Toby nodded sagely, lapsing into a sort of rumbling, guttural sound which sounded much like an elephant’s stomach. Then he added:   “Nothin’ that man ‘asn’t seen, mind.  Nothin!”

Toby seated himself awkwardly on the grass, clearly ready for a leisurely conversation.  He went on at length, then, about the rock star – his ‘rowdy bliddy instrument’ and the shenanigans that went on within the closed gates of the Great House.  Toby’s head was bowed (Melanie had already defined the area of his disability to the vertebrae of his neck, and kept getting sharp reminders of the hurt it caused him) so he had to engage their attention by looking from the top of his eyes, an unintentionally reproachful look, like a mild accusation.   Melanie and Peter sat opposite him, listening dutifully.

As she listened, Melanie began to find a musicality in Toby’s voice which lulled her, so that she forgave him those first leering introductions and began to see him as a part of this island, at one with the birds and the wind-song of the afternoon.   There was a song to the whole place.   Somewhere in her inner ear she could hear it, feel it, wanting to come through.  And although it told of a thousand sorrows it was not an unhappy song, but one of hope.  Try though she might, Melanie could find no malice in St. Benedict’s Rock.   The song was enchanting, maybe bewitching, to her.  It drew her towards it with the gentleness of approaching sleep….

“Old Ben be talkin’ to you, eh, missy?”   Toby’s words floated towards her on a raft of cloud.  They were for her, pertinent to her alone, entering her mind with acuity so precise she thought Peter might not even hear them.  She felt a jabbing pain in her right arm.  Peter was nudging her.

“Wake up, Mel!”

Mel shook herself out of her reverie. ‘Old Ben be talkin’ to you….’   Had she dreamt the words?   Was the rock talking to her?

“Toby, when Peter came here, you said he was ‘expected’ didn’t you?”  She found herself asking.

Toby’s face creased in a frown.  “Aye.  Expected he was, yes.”

“By whom, Toby?   Was it Vincent who invited him?”

“Mr. Vincent, he knew young Peter was coming, yes.”

“But he didn’t invite him.   It wasn’t Vincentwho sent the bird.”  Even as she said it Mel realised how ridiculous the whole premise was.   A globe-trotting millionaire with a trained seagull?

Toby looked at her, then at Peter.   “Well, of course not.  Mr. Vincent was part of it.  ‘E knew as how it was happ’nin’, that’s all.  ‘Aven’t you worked it out yet, then, you young ‘uns?”

“Worked out what?”    Peter felt that he was being incredibly dense.

“Well, Mr. Vincent ain’t ‘ere today, is ‘e?  But you be. You’m expected.”

“But….hang on a minute…”  Peter reasoned.  “You were surprised to see me, weren’t you?   You asked me what I was doing here.”

“True.”  Toby pursed his lips.   “But I didn’t say ‘twas you as was expected now, did I?”

Slowly but surely the truth dawned.  Melanie felt emptied.   “Me?”  She asked:  “I’m expected?”

Toby grinned a set of intermittent teeth again.  “See?  Now you’ve got it!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Felix Mittermeier on Pixabay

Old Cottage: Werner Weisser, Pixabay.