Satan’s Rock

Part 32

Did I make us Fly?

Beset by an array of emotions between hope and despair, Howard, Karen and Lesley  departed the  Cartwright home to disperse into the night, with so much to distract them they scarcely heeded the gathering tumult above their heads.  Seabirds, a hundred, maybe more, swirling and eddying on cardboard cut-out wings around the chimney pots, quarrelling in their language of cackle and keen.  Their talk was of conspiracy and plot.   There was an excitement filling the air, a rushing, a fervour.

The Rock’s western cliff stood gaunt in the last blush of sunset against the shadows of advancing night, a sky fading from vermillion through darkest purple into black.   Thunder growled, a distant mutter lingering to rattle in brassy pinball echoes among the headland crags.   As its echoes died, nothing.

 Silence. 

Even the gulls seemed to pause. 

Then, a first fusillade of raindrops battered the pavements.   Lightning came like the tearing of glass, a brittle scar of brilliance searing heaven and turning night into blue-white day.  

Lesley walked past the silent van that crouched before Peter’s house not thinking, perhaps not caring she might be accosted or attacked.  She was aware of neither thunderclap nor lightning, undaunted by the deluge that soaked her thin clothes.  For the space of two streets, her heart clamped by a second bitter parting with Peter, she was conscious of nothing but loss.  She only barely acknowledged the unlikely vehicle which had stopped just a few metres in front of her; although when its occupant emerged she was compelled to pay attention. 

“Last chance?”   The driver planted his feet so he was directly in her path.  

“How did you know I was here?”   She demanded dully.    The figure’s pinched shoulders and pigeon feet were familiar even in darkness.

“Oh come on!  You can’t shout so loud and not be heard!”

She stood like a child, scuffing and kicking the pavement with expressive feet as the storm poured over her.  This for guilt, this for angst:  this for a promise not kept.    “I can’t.  I won’t.  I didn’t expect this.”

“What else did you expect?  A cosy little provincial eccentricity?  Nights by the fire with beneficial herbs and readings from Dante?  You were told how it would be.”

“Maybe.  Yeah, maybe.  Not – not this!  It’s, like, too intense, you know?”

“You speak as though you had freedom to choose.  Do you?”

Lesley fought back the threat of tears:  “I don’t want to.  I’m in lo…  I like him a lot, alright?  That wasn’t meant to happen was it?”

“But it did.  It would be a sad world indeed if there were not space in it for ‘liking a lot’.”   The man’s words were kind:  “You always liked him, right from the first.  You can’t deny your feelings, Lesley.”

“I might have to, mightn’t I?   I mean, I’ve got a life, yeah? It’s not all ‘Whither thou goest I will go’ and stuff.  I just want to think!”

The strange vehicle’s driver put his hands on Lesley’s shoulders.  He was shorter than she.  “Reason doesn’t always have to win, Lesley.”  He smiled into her eyes.  “You know where you want to be and it might seem mad to you right now, but it’s all about acceptance, isn’t it?”

Lesley shook her head,  “I dunno,”  she replied sadly.  “I just don’t know.”

After Karen and Howard left, the Cartwrights joined Peter in their drawing room.   Peter had never felt less empowered.   Tom and Lena were no longer acting as a father and mother should act:   they prowled about him like bobcats around a porcupine.   Tom, shifting from foot to foot as he sought an apt phrase when even the best of his sermon words proved elusive was reduced to sporadic humming, punctuated by half-formed hand gestures and whistling through his teeth.   Lena stalked hither and yon, drying her sweating hands compulsively on the wool of her skirt, peeping from the window, listening at the glass.

“Well?”   She demanded shrilly:  “Are we going to just wait until they come in here and get you?”

“It’s all in hand, Mum.”   Peter reassured her.   His mind was much more upon Lesley than his possible abduction by Howard’s ‘people’.   Frankly, he did not much care if they did ‘come and get’ him.   Lesley had gone and nothing mattered.   He knew this time there was no reparation he could make that would induce her to return.

“I don’t believe this.  I don’t believe any of this.”  Lena muttered. “This is some juvenile prank.   God!  My God Peter, how did you get yourself involved in – in this?”

Tom seeing his wife in danger of becoming hysterical, moved to comfort her.   “It’ll be alright, dear.  He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

Tom was correct.   When a motor droned in the back lane Peter was expecting it.

“You’ll be glad to be rid of me,” He said:  “I mayn’t be able to get in touch for a while, but you mustn’t worry, Mum.   I’m going to be well taken care of.”

An estate car waited with its tailgate open.   As Peter slid inside, hands reached over the back seat to cover him with a large blanket.   Then the tailgate closed and his transport bumped out of the back lane into the road, gaining speed with a surge of power surprising in so nondescript a vehicle.   

A hundred yards further down the road in the van Charlie  had posted Klas to watch the back of the Cartwright residence, so she tracked both Howard’s departure with Karen and Lesley’s solitary walk.   She conferred with Piggott on an open line.

“The girl’s out of there, so is Sullivan.   We don’t get too many chances like this, Ger…”

“So Howard’s gone with the woman?”  Piggott said.   “Wonders never cease!”

“Ger, are we doing this?”  Charlie urged, impatiently.  “Do we lift him, or what?”

“Yes, if – and only if – he comes out.   Don’t go in after him, for fuck’s sake!   Not tonight.”

Klas’s radio voice was harsh.  “BMW Estate, heading east.  He is in the back!”

“They’ve got him.”  Charlie snapped.  “I’ll pick you up from the end of the alley.  We have a go!”

Charlie picked out the red dots of the estate car’s rear lights as soon as it emerged from the alley.   She   fired the  van’s engine into life and raced to pick up Klas, who dived into the passenger seat beside her.

“He must be going it alone.”   Klas said breathlessly, as Charlie slid into the passenger seat beside him.

“Foolish child.”  Charlie murmured.  “Let’s see if we can catch him before he gets to the main street.  How many in there?”

“Two, I think.”

“You only think?”   The departing rear lights of the BMW were still in view as she gunned the van up through the gears.  It was a narrow road, and Charlie not the most careful of drivers.  Gears screamed, door mirrors flew.   Her blood was up.  “There it is!  We have him!.”   

Then:  “Oh!  What the f..….?”

Rain swept down the road in a dense curtain into which the van, already moving fast, must plunge.   Concealed behind the rain, suspended in the thundery air, a spiralling white mob of seabirds waited.   As soon as the vehicle was immersed in the cloudburst they attacked.  They slammed into the van’s windscreen with their powerful beaks and thrashing wings.  Their screeches and cries blotted out all other sound, their claws brought ordure, discarded food, waste paper, polythene bags, plastic trays snatched from tourist-frequented streets to plaster over the glass.     Blinded, Charlie threw the wiper switch.   

“Can’t see!”   She shouted above the din.  

She could only hit the brakes, but in a narrow road lined with parked traffic it was already too late.  The van demolished a lovingly-tended hatchback with a single, glancing blow.  Charlie fought frantically with the wheel – to no avail:  striking through a garden wall with crunching impact, the van climbed a toppled ramp of bricks before rolling gently onto its side.    Less gently, Charlie, who had scant respect for seatbelts, catapaulted into Klas’s lap.

Their part in the mission achieved, the seagull mob wheeled away en masse, quitting the heavy tattoo of rain in favour of their foraging in the bay.   They were gone as swiftly and as purposefully as they had arrived.   One gull alone remained.   Throughout this attack it had watched from its advantage on the Cartwright chimney as a general might watch a battle.   Now it took off, lazily accepting the rain’s bruising punishment as it swooped over the stricken van, briefly hovering  as if to satisfy itself no-one was badly harmed, before it, too, went in search of jetsam the trawlers had left behind.   Even generals have to eat.

For the second time in the space of a day Peter found himself back on the road to Old Ben.  This was no surprise:  he had known as soon as he was shut into the car that at least one of its other occupants was Toby.   The cottager who cared for Vincent’s estate on The Rock had a signature aroma which was unmistakeable in a confined space:  not an objectionable odour, but a very characteristic and individual one.  Toby’s were the hands which had quickly mantled him with a blanket as they drove away:  the voice which cheerily gave the all clear from his driver’s seat was equally easy to identify – the gatekeeper who had announced him upon his visit to the Great House was, it seemed, also in on their plot.

“There’s no-one following us, lad!   Pop over and have a seat if you like?”

“Ah!”  Toby said.   “You come and sit aside me, young Peter.   I’m not as you might say a good traveller, see?”

Rain hammered, lightning flickered, thunder boomed, once, close by, a huge boulder-on-the-roof bang.   The causeway barriers, normally dropped whenever high tides or weather threatened, were mysteriously raised for their passing.

“Tricky tonight, Tobias my son!”   The gatekeeper yelled above the din. “Where’d this seaway come from?  It was as calm as a mill pond half-an-hour ago.”   Headlight beams, neutralised by spray and rain, struggled to pick out a safe path: in Peter’s eyes, seeing how the storm surge had raised the sea-level to the same height as the road, it appeared they were driving deliberately straight into the waters of the bay.  He flinched instinctively, holding his breath for total immersion: none came.

“It’s in here somewhere!”  The gatekeeper shouted, referring to the road,  “What do we aim for, Toby?  The third lamppost on the left?”

“And straight on ‘til morning.”  Peter found himself saying.

“What?”

Although a valiant row of enfeebled streetlamps showed the line, the causeway itself was completely obscured by waves, themselves scarcely visible in the blackness.  Every now and then, a lightning lantern-slide revealed a snapshot of wet concrete.   Somehow, their car remained central to it, skimming like a pebble:  lifting, skidding, sliding, but still safe.   And the great slab of The Rock, the starry lights of the village road, grew ever closer. 

Suddenly wary, the gatekeeper slowed right down.    He was still revving the engine hard, fighting to keep water out of the exhaust.   “Last bit’s the worst.”  He said quietly, all humour drained from his voice.   “Don’t like the look of this, Toby old mate.”

In the topography of the bay, the water deepened as it reached away from Levenport beach towards Old Ben.   Here, just before the road turned upwards onto the man-made shelf where Crowley had once intended to build his railway station, it described a horseshoe bend some hundred metres in length, into which the sea was piling, breaker after breaker, crashing over the causeway in titanic shows of force.   If only one of them should catch the car the most glancing of blows, it would be thrown into the sea beyond like a discarded toy.

“’Tis too deep. Reckon as we needs you, young Peter,”   Toby said.  “Affer all, us can’t go back, can us?”

Peter understood.   He leant forward to study, as best he could, the movement of the sea. The road was already below sea level and the breakers were truly massive.  There would be no second chance, no room for error.   Nor was there the luxury of delay:  the car must keep going in this deepening water, or its engine would die.

“Us’d feel better if ‘ee stopped shakin’, lad,”  Toby advised him seriously,

Peter nodded.   He watched the swelling sea intently:  the highest, shortest wave would come, then a space.   The undertow would clear the causeway completely, but only for a moment before the next onslaught buried it.   Like a machine, it had a pulse, a rhythm, a beat.   He fed himself into it and he learned its meaning.

He said quietly: “Now.”

There was a wall of water across the causeway when he said it, but the gatekeeper stepped on the pedal without question and ploughed straight in.    The foaming sea drew back before them like a chemise of white silk.   Through a mist of spray the road glistened naked in their headlights – a flash of lightning turned it momentarily to silver.   But the same lightning showed a new, advancing roller, huge and threatening at their side.   The gatekeeper slammed through the gears; the car flew for shelter and The Rock.   The road was rising, rising fast,  but the breaker pursuing them was faster.   It reached them just as they leapt over the hump between causeway and island, catching the tail of the car to thrust it sideways and hoping, maybe, if it had sense and feelings this storm, to clutch it in its fist.  A second too late, it succeeded only in tipping them forward, helping them the last dozen yards of their way.   Moments later they were safely clear of the sea and through the barrier at the island end of the causeway.

“Bloody hell!”   The gatekeeper breathed.

Now  they sped along Crowley’s narrow road towards the summit of Old Ben, Peter awed by the ferocity of the seaway gathering momentum below them.

“Never knowed it come up so sudden.”  Toby sounded bemused.   “There’ll be no-one troublin’ us from the land tonight, I’d reckon.”

Peter remained silent.  Some of him, some part of him, was no longer bound by flesh:  it was out there, at one with wind and rain, learning.  He was a gull, frolicking in the mad roller-coaster ride of the gale; finding how little he needed to incline his head to turn in those wild extremes, how the smallest twitch of his body could send him diving, whirling, climbing.   He could see the whole bay, the town, his house: police clustered around an upturned van.   He could see the van’s occupants, hear them if he wished, as they engaged the officers in earnest conversation.  

“Were we really flying, Simon?’  his mind asked.  “Did I make us fly?”

‘Simeon, dear boy!  Allow me the distinction of the ‘e’.    As to your question, I don’t know’ the seagull replied.  ‘In my experience when your path is clear, many means of travel it are open to you.’       

 “Dunno.”  This was Toby’s voice.   “Us got over the Causeway an’ then ‘e sort of passes out.  He jus’ sort of drifted off.”

“Don’t worry, me old son. He’ll be all right.”  Peter opened his eyes to see Vincent’s concerned face looking down on him.   “Hey, Pete!  You OK, man?”

Gentle hands were helping him from the car.  The car door was slamming, hitting his back.

“Ow, shit!  I felt that!”   Vincent sympathised.  “For Christ’s sake, loves, get him inside before we kill him!  Bloody weather!”

Floodlights held back the darkness.   The whole of the west-facing front of the Great House was bathed in light, as it could never have been in Lord Crowley’s time.   This, Peter thought, was the lynch-pin of civilisation; a light-bulb.   The dark ages only truly ended when Edison threw the switch.

He was indoors.  He was standing unsteadily, as caring hands supporting his arms.   Vincent, his rock guitar hero, was mopping rain from his face.

“I thought you had to keep away from here,”  Peter said weakly.  “Something about staying out of sight?”

Vincent laughed:  “Yeah, so did I.  But what can you do?  When we realised what was breakin’ down here we had to come.  ‘Struth, Pete, we get around, don’t we mate?   Better get him a bit of a drink, love.  Looks like he needs it.”

“Hi Peter.”  Estelle’s voice chimed from somewhere beside him.  “Come with me, hon.   We’ll sort out a bath for you and something to change into. I’ve put you in the South wing.   Hope you’ll like it.  We better feed you, too, hadn’t we?”

  After his last visit, Peter had no expectation of returning to any of Vincent Harper’s luxurious ‘Guest Bedrooms’ in St. Benedict’s House.  Then, he had grown tired of their repetitive opulence.  Now he had time to enjoy the luxury of bathing in a bath comfortably large enough for two people his size, toes caressing idly around a gold faucet, and fatigued by his day he was glad of the softness of warm towels and the yielding luxury of a bed every bit as accommodating as the bath.  Only the mirror troubled him, for Lesley’s was the reflection he imagined there, not his own: now and then, entirely without his permission, his face would crease as he fought back tears.   It was not over.   If there was ever any love in the world…but each time he pictured her, she wore the same look of farewell.

          For the sake of his sanity, he made a deliberate effort to close his mind to the looking-glass and the pictures it showed him.  The moment he did so, a most peculiar thing happened.

First it was a touch, a gentle, feminine touch upon his arm, just above his wrist.  Then he heard the words,  in tones instilled with longing:

“Arthur my dear?   Arthur?”

When Peter looked again at the mirror, he saw he was not alone.

© 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.

Photo Credits:

Featured Photo Athanasios Papazacharlas on Unsplash

Lightning David Moum on Unsplash

Seascape Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Satan’s Rock

Part Twenty-five

Among Stones

Morning had advanced some few hours: the sky, which promised much at first light, now contained a threat of dreadfulness to come.   Melanie, who had worn no coat when she set out to explore the seafront at Seaborough the previous morning, struggled with oilskins twice her size as the plucky little trawler thrashed into a mounting sea.   Despite the restrictions of those clumsy garments it was good to be topsides now, safety line clipped to the rail, spray misting and spattering her face:  nobody seemed concerned that she should stay there, braced against the starboard thwart, as long as her companion stood with her.   This the boy seemed happy to do, as if she were in his personal charge.

“Would you call this a storm?”  She asked, lifting her voice above the wind.

“Nah, noothin’ this.   Not yet.   Be fierce later, though, I reckon.  The’s looky we’s pottin’ the’ ashore, lass.”

A headland loomed large, a backcloth of gaunt cliffs almost black against the chopping grey water.   They seemed to be heading into a small bay or river- mouth, Melanie could not tell which.  “What’s your name?”   She asked the boy, aware their time together was almost over: she would miss his reassurance.

“Daniel.  I’m Dan’l.”   The boy shouted back.

“Pleased to meet you, Daniel!”  And she was.  There was no anger, no resentment in her heart for being stripped of her possessions and plucked from the quayside at Seaborough:  it was almost as though she had expected, even hoped it would happen.   Wherever this was, this tiny cove, her music was telling her she was meant to be here.

Both watched in silence as the cliff-face became closer, ever higher.   Gradually the fervour of the open sea subsided, until their vessel chugged against no more than a light swell, its engine echoing against the bare stone.   Rounding an outcrop, the inlet became a tiny harbour, part natural, part man-made, hewn from the rocks.   The faceless figure in the wheelhouse reversed the little boat’s propeller to deaden all speed before a burst of throttle pivoted it almost ninety degrees into its narrow mouth.   Daniel leapt from stern to shore, then shore to prow and back again, tying off lines to rusted iron rings set in the wall.  He grinned down at Melanie, proffering a hand to help her from the boat.

“The’ll be glad o’ this, I reckon!”

After such time on a pitching deck, Melanie nearly fell over as her feet refused to accept the unmoving concrete jetty.  Daniel held her arm while she found her balance.

“Foony feelin’ tha, the foorst time.  Soon passes.”

She had never seen a harbour this small.   They had come ashore in a refuge sandwiched between dark and oppressive cliffs so restrictive there could be room to berth no more than three small boats. Grey was the colour of everything, fading to black in those large expanses of cliff-face where no light penetrated or would ever penetrate.  Crumbling paths and crazed concrete in the wall seemed to suggest that the harbour had been unused for many years.  No other boats were moored here, the only evidence of previous occupation being a stack or two of rotted lobster before a rough stone cottage built against the cliff, beside which a rotten row-boat, its name still readable as Daisy-May, languished.  The hovel, the harbour, the whole place reeked of abandonment and decay.

“Oh, my god!”  Melanie groaned.

It began to rain.

“’Tis a special place, this.”  Daniel said quietly:  “There’s not many as cooms here, now.”

Stamping against the cold, Melanie searched about her for a reason why she should be one of the few who did. “So what do we do now?”

“The’ll be met.  Oop there.”  The boy waved towards a set of stone steps that had been carved into the cliff face. Below them the boat’s engine revved impatiently. “Sorry lass, but us’ll need the’ skins: us can’t afford te lose ‘em, like?”

“You’re just going to leave me here?” She protested.

“You’ll be met.”   Daniel repeated. “This ‘ere’s a tidal harbour, see?  An’ we’re right close to the end o‘t tide?   Now lass….”

Meekly, she complied, dragging the stiff, oilskin cape over her head.   It had not been a warm garment, but she felt its absence instantly and keenly.   Left with just a thin sweater which fell fashionably short of her jeans, the chill on her bare midriff was like an electric shock.  

Daniel grinned apologetically: “Good luck, eh?”

He loosed the lines from their rusty hold, tossing them onto the trawler’s already cluttered deck.    Then he moved from shore to ship as the trawler instantly backed out of harbour.   Minutes and a final wave later it was gone, passing from sight beyond the outcrop,.   leaving Melanie to face a loneliness so frigid and profound it settled upon her like an icy cloak.

Heavy with ice, raindrops spattered onto the stone jetty where they refused to melt, but lay in a carpet of half-hail ready to hurl her from her feet.   These same raindrops ignored the thin cloth of her sweater and bombarded mercilessly straight through to her skin.   A swirling gale was driving, moaning among the rocks like a banshee chorus.

Quitting the harbour wall was not a difficult decision:  sandwiched between those frowning cliffs, moving as briskly as she dared in  inappropriate shoes she made, slipping and gripping, for the comparative shelter of the cliff.   If shelter was what she craved, the cottage seemed a logical choice.   She headed there first, but there was, she quickly realised, no ‘welcome’ mat.   The window-glass, though intact, was crusted with age-old grime and the plank door weathered clean of paint.   A red-rusted padlock held it shut.   Peering inside yielded only bleary darkness.   Nothing human lived in there, though she feared other things might.

A voice.  She was sure she heard a voice, mournfully intoned in the gale.   There was an incentive, if no other existed!  Weather or no weather, she had to find a way out of this place.

A narrow track followed the foot of the cliff toward the stairway Daniel had indicated.   Obviously the fisherman or men who had used this refuge must have had access to the outside world:  this track was apparently  their only means of escape and now hers, therefore she should follow it to its conclusion; but the closer to it she became the more it convinced her it was a stairway to certain death.   Melanie who we have already seen was an adept and relatively fearless climber knew her limitations, and this was far beyond acceptable risk.  Some steps had completely crumbled away, others were worn steeper by the boots of generations, all were coated with hailstones willingly coagulating into sheet ice.  No handrail existed, or ever had, and no grips or stages in the sheer cliff wall offered to steady her slight frame against the ravages of that gusting wind.

So intense was the storm’s bombardment she might have missed it.   The path did not end at these steps:  a narrow ledge, battered by the sea, passed them by.  It might lead nowhere, it was perilously thin yet almost welcoming as an alternative so she accepted it gladly. 

Fifty or so metres from the harbour, this track turned a corner to the left, disappearing into a natural fissure in the cliff.   With high grey walls to each side this seemed as though it must be its finality.   She prepared herself to accept failure, but the track did not end there.   It became a tunnel, short and unlined, which plunged straight through the cliff into daylight at its further end: and standing at the further end was a tall, broad figure.  

 “Now here you are!”   The figure cried in a hearty, indisputably feminine voice.  “And I was thinking you might have missed the tide!”

 “You can call me Agnes.”   Said Agnes, striding forward through the tunnel to identify herself.   “Save us, child, you’re soaked through!   Did they not give you a coat, at least?”

“I’m glad to meet you,” Melanie returned the introduction politely, “I’m Melanie Fenton.”

“Yes, my dear.  I already know that.  Why, you’re shaking!  You must be frozen!”

“I thought I was going to have to climb those steps.”

Agnes to boomed with laughter, a loud,  pleasant, unthreatening sound.  “Save us, Melanie, I’m really glad you didn’t.  I’ve never had the courage to go up or down those.  They would kill me, I should think!”

There was little to see of Agnes, Rain-washed spectacles protruded from a bundle of protective scarf topped by a sou’wester hat.   A massive waxed coat, layered over who could tell how many sundry jackets and cardigans cocooned the remainder of her, with only Wellington boots showing beneath its dripping hem.

“Come along, dear.  We have to get you inside.”  She encompassed Melanie’s shoulder with a huge gloved hand, ushering her roughly into the hole through the rock.   But the gesture was not violent or ill-meaning:  there was a kindness about the muffled Agnes, Melanie thought.  Anyway, she had no alternatives in mind – once again, that inexplicable sense of mission prevented her from offering resistance to whatever befell her; this seemed to be the way fate intended.

Elsewhere…

The cathedral cloister was a cool and quiet place to walk, or to contemplate, on a hot September afternoon.   Other than an occasional marauding crow, the bird sound from the green was of blackbirds, of finches and sparrows.   Water poured in plainsong over a central fountain.  An odd tourist or two, meandering between photographs, struggled by on a guidebook and a prayer.   A well-furbished middle-aged woman rubbed at an interesting brass.

Two men of God strolled here, although only one, a Bishop, wore The Cloth.   Ronald Harkness was he.  The spry tee-shirt and jeans guy on his left, although appearances would have deceived, was a Franciscan monk.  Neither, in appearance, represented the most acceptable face of their shared faith.  They looked like a pair of bedraggled crows.

“If your information is accurate,” The monk was saying; “We must move quickly.”

They came to a place where a wooden bench faced the quadrangle.  “I do not think we should act in haste:” Bishop Harkness said, seating himself.  “Essentially, we have matters under control.”

A chaffinch which had been feasting a few meters away upon some seed scattered by a tourist, edged carefully back for a venturesome peck or two, one wary eye on the newcomers. 

“My Lord Bishop, never was there a time when it was more vital that we act, and act with speed.”   The monk perched beside Harkness, on the edge of the wood:  “This boy is a wild card.  If he is what our people say he is, who can imagine what his capabilities are!”

“No.”  Harkness shook his head.  “I am not inclined to think he will interfere with our plans. I do believe to restrain him now will stir up too much unwanted silt.   Too many others are interested in him and he is young, untried in his arts – if art he has.”

“You seem doubtful about the boy.   I am not sure I share your doubt.”

“I met him.  He seems very ordinary to me – and very young.”

“He found the vault at Crowley.”

The Bishop shrugged.  “There was nothing to find, surely – we sanitized that site two years ago, didn’t we?”

“We are in no way certain,” The monk replied:  “Yet if they are what we believe they just might be, this young couple, how can we be complacent?”

Frowning, the Bishop flicked with his foot, putting the chaffinch to flight.  “If, and it is a very big ‘if’, they get together.   Even then, I wonder whether these old legends have any credibility in a modern world…”

“We have old legends of our own.”  The monk reminded.  “Some of those are true, are they not?  You are watching the boy?”

Harkness nodded.  “We are.   The girl has dropped from sight, but I have no doubt she will turn up again.   However, without each other they are nothing more than the nuisance we have had to endure for years.  Divide and subdue?”

“But the boy has dropped from sight, too, has he not?”  The monk asked.

The Bishop registered mild surprise.  “Now, how did you know that?”

“We have our sources.”

“Ah, your ‘sources’.  So I have to terminate the employment of another perfectly good secretary.  Very well, yes, you are right, he has gone off the radar for a day or so; but we shall get him back.   Our girl picked up with him in Manchester, but then he performed some sort of Houdini trick.  My guess is they have him and he is being briefed.   We couldn’t stop that if we tried.”

The monk raised an eyebrow:  “And by ‘they’ you mean….so you do think he is Toa?”

“I did not say so.  They may think he is, and I intend to find out.  The Toa are interested in him, which is all I know.”    Harkness shrugged.

The monk spread his hands.  “You see?  My Lord Bishop, we cannot know.  We tacitly acknowledge that there are rats in our basement which need extermination, but we also favour improvements to our hygiene that are taken delicately and at our own pace.”   His voice dropped, his intensity increased.  “If these people are given rein that could be out of our hands; things are moving towards a crisis.   In my view we have to take positive action.   We have to stop the boy, and to stop him now.”

“I cannot agree.  Just suppose what you say was true:  we have always been able to talk to the Toa.  We have always negotiated.  If we declare war, as you suggest, we only exacerbate the problem.  Leave us to handle the boy, and to find his girl-friend.   This is our mission, after all?”

The monk considered this.   “You might negotiate with them in their weakness, certainly.  But if they find their strength?”

“I do not see it as a problem – you do.  We must agree to differ.”

Conversation lapsed, as conversation will on such sunny days, into silence.  At length the men went their separate ways; Bishop returning to his See, the monk to his monastic duties.  But the subject would not end there.   Later that day, the monk made some calls.  A meeting was arranged.

#

Fortified with hot coffee and some of Estelle’s special pancakes (“We have to fill you up, you need your strength”) Peter stood on Vincent’s pea-beach drive, waiting for the car which would transport him back to Manchester.   His hosts waited with him, huddled in coats against a fresh morning breeze.

Since parting with the one he knew as Simeon, he had struggled in his private thoughts.   Supposing, he reasoned with himself, all the conversation, the manipulation and hallucination of the last twelve hours were true?   Suppose he and Melanie really were all that stood between the world and a fatal error – what  –  a nuclear war, famine, some kind of plague?  The permutations were endless.

He knew with certainty now that, however much he might wish it, there was no turning back.  Promises that he would be able to live comfortably in the care of Simeon’s cult while he shared with Melanie the care of the ultimate computer hung around his head like the corpses in a game-keeper’s parlour: so much less desirable than the things he must leave behind.  This so-called ‘gift’ was always going to take more from him than it gave – Melanie’s friendship, already gone;  Lesley’s love, Lesley’s gentleness, Lesley’s sweet voice, her bright, clowning smile – they would be next.   He was marked and almost certainly his fate was decided not just for now but for all his years.

Peter’s miasma was dispelled by a crunch of tyres on gravel and the toot of an impatient horn.    Parting with Vincent contained an implicit promise: that their next meeting was not far away.

“We’re close, Pete, man, OK?  If we’re needed, we’ll be there.   Watch your mail now, and try to be comfortable with yourself.   We’ll see you soon.”

Stepping into the car, Peter looked up to see a seagull perched upon the ridge tiles of Vincent’s house roof.   Even at that distance, he was able to pick out the yellow diamond mark on its neck.

He spoke inside his head, knowing his words would find their target.  ‘If I can get the Truth Stone to reply to me,’  he asked,  “How do I perform the reset?”

‘I was hoping you would work that out, Petie-Pooh,’ the seagull replied.  ‘Personally, I don’t have a clue.’       For a split instant, the gull became Simeon again; then it reformed into a gull and flew away.

© 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: Freefoto from Pixabay
Trawler: Andre Costargent from Pixabay
Cloister: Peter H. from Pixabay

.          

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eighteen. Rhinemaiden

The story so far:

Joe Palliser, though torn between his moral responsibility to his friend Tom and his feelings for Emma, Tom’s wife, is nonetheless drawn towards buying a house in Hallbury. Meanwhile, he approaches a journalist from his local newspaper to learn more about the disappearance of Christian Matheson, a child abducted in Hallbury many years  before.  The fear is growing that his younger brother, Michael, may be implicated in Violet Parkin’s murder and even in the disappearance of the child.

Alone with his thoughts, he is asked for assistance by Jennifer, an attractive motorist apparently in distress.  He takes her to her hotel in his car and is briefly compromised by her advances, which he manages to resist.  However, the encounter has been observed, and photographed.  Jennifer is considerably more than she seems…

Wednesday dawned in shades of grey and in a while that grey became rain, and the rain became a sustained downpour.  Joseph drove into Braunston where, after no small amount of deliberation, he lodged an offer of three thousand nine hundred pounds with the agent handling the Lamb house.  There was no denying the conflict churning in his head:  Emma’s presence alone should have been enough to turn him away, to leave Tom, his friend, in married contentment.  Janice Regan’s vituperation was a voice not just her own, but of others who would count themselves the elders of the village.  Charker Smith, that excellently honed tool of destruction, waited only to get drunk enough before he came to avenge his brother; and when he came….Oh, Joseph!

So why was he not more afraid?

Well, a part of him certainly was – a part of him was terrified, but that part of his mind also saw the Lamb property as an excellent opportunity and of course, should he elect not to stay in Hallbury he could always find a tenant.  But there was another part that seemed to almost defy explanation, something more powerful, something real:  Hallbury was his home.  And that filled him with a courage and resolve that was extraordinary.  He could ride out as many troubles as there were in his desire to stay there, because there, the place – not a house, or a woman, or the sweet breath of country air – was where he belonged.   He had run from it once, when he had lacked experience in life to understand the importance of belonging:  he would not make that mistake again.

The morning was far from over when Joe entered the gravel drive of Maddockgate Manor.  Mrs Forster, the matron, admitted him when he pressed the visitors’ bell.

“Mr Palliser, isn’t it?  Didn’t we explain that Michael has been moved?”

Yes, Joseph acknowledged; but perhaps Mrs Forster didn’t know that Michael had absconded.  His family were naturally very anxious about him – did she have any idea if he had friends who would take him in?   No, Mrs Forster said after consideration, she didn’t.

“He used to visit a supervised house in Marsden, didn’t he?”  Joe suggested:  “Could he have gone there?”

“I shouldn’t have thought so. It would be like turning himself in, so to speak.  The owner is a qualified psychiatric nurse, who I’m sure would call us if Michael appeared without an escort.  He would call us, very probably.”

Joseph repeated Michael’s assertion that he was allowed from time to time to go out on his own.  This drew a surprised look from Mrs Forster, for whom even the thought of such liberty was clearly shocking.  Michael was delusional, she responded – he might have been convinced in his own mind that he enjoyed such privileges, but that did not necessarily make them real.  Nevertheless Joe had inadvertently struck a nerve.  He pressed home his advantage.  Suppose, for whatever reason, they were real?  Suppose Michael had been trusted, say, to run short errands on his own, suppose he had been able to sneak away?

He needed to talk to the nurse in charge in Marsden: see if there are connections the family knew nothing about.

The matron considered this.  “Would you wait here for a moment?”

She kept Joe waiting, in fact, for about ten minutes, while she disappeared into her office.  At length she returned.  Unsmiling, she placed a piece of paper in Joe’s hand.

“Mr Winter, the charge nurse, is in until about two o’clock.  I called him to say you were on your way:  I didn’t explain why.”

Joe embarked upon the road to Marsden-on-Sea, pondering the matron’s exact meaning.  Why had she elected not to tell this person the reason for his visit?  In spite of her defence of the nurse, did she suspect that Mr Winter’s care was not all it might be?

A buffeting onshore wind wrenched irritably at the Wolsey and hurled spray at it as he drove along Marsden’s courageous little esplanade.  Flashing neon bravely proclaimed ‘Non-Stop Bingo’, ‘Live Arcade’, ‘Fish and Chip Heaven’ to a scattering of the foolhardy and the half-drowned who ran from one venue to another, plastic macs gathered transparently against the elements.  A motley line of desperate Edwardian hotels displayed signs offering ‘Special Bank Holiday Rates’ – timely warning of the forthcoming holiday weekend.

But it was the sea, the battle-front between land and water, that drew Joseph here.  It was many years since he had seen the Channel in full spate, and there was a perverse veneration owed to power such as this.  White caps charging forth upon  the shore, chasing along quoins, leaping the sea wall.  Winging gulls, masters of their element, riding the storm like ethereal surfers:  these were things he loved.  Joe had been to Marsden many times and often on days like these, once with Emma, happy to walk beside him by the shore, the gale screaming through her bright hair, laughing at the whip of salt rain on her face – kisses on cold, wet lips, arms warm with love.

How could he ever have forgotten her?  How could he have put her, all this, aside so easily?  However could he turn away again?  As he drew up to the neatly-written address which lay on the passenger seat at his side it was not the surf still stinging in his eyes, but mourning for opportunities missed, for lost love.

Rosebank Crescent was ‘on the hill’; one of many streets lined by similar detached villas, all of which were in a state best described as ‘mature’. Number seventeen’s red roof-tiles were greyed by lichen, its rendered walls a spider-web of cracks.  There was putty missing from the window frames, and paint missing where putty was not.

Joe wielded a big brass knocker which projected from the front door like a grotesque nose.  The letter box drew up a flappy lip:

“Who’s that?”  A voice empty of any form of artifice.

“I’m Joe Palliser.”

“Hello Joe!”  The wind thrashed, the rain lashed.  The door remained closed.

“Can I come in?”

After an interval:  “Who is it?”

“I’m Joe.”

Suddenly the door was flung open to reveal a very tall, very wide young man whose ample features creased into a beatific smile:  “Hello Joe.  It’s windy!”

“Yes.”  Joe agreed.

“Shut that bloody door!”  Snarled a voice from the rear of the house.

“Come on.”  Said the large young man.  He ambled backwards into an entrance hall.  “I’m Terry.”  He held out a big hand which Joe shook warmly.  “How do you do, Joe?”

“How do you do, Terry?”

As if ignited by a fuse, Terry turned and walked rapidly away towards a door at the rear of the hall, his denims taut around stubby legs, faded carpet slippers shuffling on the parquet.  “I’ll get him.”  He said over his shoulder.

The hallway of the house was furnished unpretentiously, a barometer on the wall, a small hall table, a couple of upright chairs.  Its walls were papered with woodchip and painted in mint green, a pendant light hung from a textured ceiling.  The wind’s surreptitious intrusion rattled its doors.  It was a house, but it was not a home.

Terry had been gone no more than ninety seconds when a much sparer specimen of masculinity, clad in a thin black polo-neck sweater and checked flares appeared.

“Can I help you?”  his voice was a high tenor.  “I’m Morris Winter.”

Joe saw why Mrs Forster had registered some disquiet at his suggestion that he might visit here:  the professional title of ‘charge nurse’ did not hang easily upon Mr Winter, whose careless appearance, flabby, unshaven face and defensive look spoke of one expecting arrest rather than an expert carer.  Winter ran his fingers through fair, greasy locks which fell nearly to his shoulders.

“Joseph Palliser.  I believe Mrs Forster told you I was coming?”

“Yeah, she did.”  Winter frowned suspiciously; “You from the gov’ment?”

“No,  I’m Michael Palliser’s brother?  You remember Michael?  He comes to stay here from time to time.”

Winter’s expression brightened.  “Mikey!  Ah yes, Mikey!  Of course! Look, you better come in; have a cup of tea.  Terry – make this nice man some tea.”  He grinned a gappy grin:  “He’s a good kid, Terry.  He likes to make tea.”

Terry had reappeared and stood in the doorway behind Winter.  He nodded happily.  “Good tea!”

“No thank you Mr Winter, I’m not staying.”  Joe said hurriedly.  “I just wanted to ask a couple of quick questions, that’s all.”

“Well, fire away, then.  Yes, fire away!  Sure you won’t have some tea?”

“No, no thanks. I’m trying to trace anyone who knows Michael.  He’s allowed out, isn’t he – do you know if he sees any friends in the town?”

Winter’s brow furrowed but he made no attempt at denial.  “He always has money of his own, has Mikey – not like some of them.  I tell him; if you get thirsty or hungry, there’s cafes who’ll welcome us.  We know which ones, see?  And he treats us sometimes, don’t he, Terry?”

Terry nodded a happy affirmative.  “Mikey’s rich.”

“So he does go out – for how long, an hour, a day?  Does he ever stay out overnight?”

“Oh no, no more than a few hours!”  Winter shook his head.  “I tell him: ‘we got to be back by eight o’clock, Mikey’.  He always is.  I wouldn’t let him stay out overnight.”

“Did he go out the Friday before last?”

“Last time he was down here?  Might of, yes, I think he did.”

“And came back at about eight?”

“Yeah.”  Winter reflected.  “Got himself in a bit of a state, he did.  Does that from time to time, Mikey.  Had to give him a pill, that night.”

“Was he out longer that day – was he ever unsupervised?”

A flicker of concern crossed Winter’s face.  “No.  Did I say that?  No.”

“Who was with him, Mr Winter?”

“Well – I was, wasn’t I?”

At this, Terry’s moon-faced smile suddenly changed.  He raised an anxious finger, as if he had something to say if he were given permission.  Joseph picked up on the gesture:  “Can you help, Terry?”

Terry said to Mr Winter:  “You were with me.”

Winter glanced over his shoulder, saying quite sharply:  “No, you didn’t come with us, Terry – not that time.  It wasn’t your week.”

“You and me played draughts.”  Terry reminded him.

“No, you got it muddled up, Terry,”  Winter corrected.  “This was last week.  You weren’t down here last week.”

Terry’s brow creased in concern.  “Can’t play draughts when Mikey’s here.  He calls it ‘devil game’ and he hits the board.  We only play when…”

“Terry!”  Winter’s voice took on a dangerous edge:  “You weren’t here, mate.”

Terry was not to be repressed:  “Mikey went out so we played draughts.”

Winter smiled, a thin, unconvincing smile:  “He gets confused.”  He said.

Terry’s face displayed anything but confusion.  Joe, worried that Terry might be at risk if he persisted, took up the thread hurriedly:  “Supposing Michael should get out – slip away – on his own, is there anyone in the town or nearby he might confide in, or who he might call a friend – apart from here?”

“No, not that I can think.  Not that it could happen.”  Mr Winter’s rictus smile was becoming irritating.  “I’m sorry I can’t help you clear up your little mystery, whatever it is.”

In the background, Terry had begun to rock on the balls of his feet.  This display of agitation, though silent, was not lost on Winter:  Joe could see his eyes shifting, his jaw starting to work:  “If there’s nothing else?”

“Thank you for your help.”  Said Joe, turning to leave.  “If you think of anything…”

“I’ll tell the proper people, yes.”

Suddenly Terry’s voice rang out:  “Mikey went out.  Him, he was worried, ‘cause Mikey didn’t come back, not ‘til very late!  Very, very late!  We played….”

Winter’s voice sliced through the outburst as finely as a razor:“Terry!  No cake!”

Whatever the threat could mean, it silenced Terry.  His face fell, his body collapsed as though he had been punctured.  The prolonged “Ooooh” he uttered had an undertone of fear.

Winter’s visage was contorted by desperation:  “See here, Mr Palliser:  outsiders, they don’t know what its like, this job.  It don’t pay well, there’s never a moment when you can…alright, maybe Mikey does get out from time to time.  He’s usually OK, yeah?  He’s fine.  Just goes out in the town, has a little walk along the front, drops into a café or two.  He never does no harm to anyone, never gets in anyone’s way; only the other week – I don’t know – something must have gone wrong:  somebody had a go at him, or something.  See?”

Joe found himself nodding, almost sympathising with this tired and probably inadequate man who was expressing sentiments he had experienced himself so many times.

“Don’t worry;” he heard himself saying; “I’ve no reason to persecute you. I needed to know, that’s all.”

At the door, Winter took him by the arm.  “You won’t say nothing?”  Joe shook his head.

“The Shilling Café,”  Winter said.  “On Duke Street, just off the Esplanade.  He goes there.”

Outside on the street, the wind had increased in fury.  A tidal surge was carrying full waves over the seawall, thrusting angrily into ornamental garden plots, thrashing across the esplanade, deserted now, the whole seafront empty except for a few brave walkers who tempted and teased at nature, staring her in her raging eye as she lunged for them with boiling cascades.

The Shilling Café proclaimed its raison d’etre on a hand-written sheet of paper taped to its window:  ‘Meal for a Shilling!’   The facia celebrated its cheapness:  within, two naked strip lights threw a soulless glow over cream walls, bentwood chairs and bare tables; nearly all of which were empty.  Behind the counter amid an array of stainless steel and china, a small woman in a floral apron welcomed Joseph expansively.

“Well now!  Here’s someone with a taste for adventure! I was just thinking about closing, dear.  But seeing as its you…”

Joe ordered a cup of tea and a ham roll and while he waited for them to appear, he asked questions;  “Do you know someone called Michael, or Mikey, who comes in here?”

“Oh, Mikey!  He’s one of Morris Winter’s guests.  Yes, I know him, don’t I?”

“Has he been in here recently?”

“Mikey?  Why he’s in and out all the time, dear – whenever he’s down here.  He’s a bit mad, mind. He calls me his Flossy Hilda – told me once I reminded him of a Rhinemaiden – I ask you!”

“Really?”  Joe felt he ought to keep the conversation to essentials – who knew where Mikey’s mind might have taken him next?  “Was he in here on his own, the Friday before last?”

“I can tell you he wasn’t,” said the woman, “’cause it was his week and I laid in a lasagne for him specially.  He likes lasagne.”  She shook her head.  “Then he didn’t come.  Set your clock by him, normally.”

“I don’t suppose he’s been in since?  In the last couple of days, for instance?”

“Well no.  But he wouldn’t be, dear.  It’s not his week.  Are you looking for him then?”

“I’m his brother.  We seem to have lost touch, that’s all.”  Joe explained.  “Did he ever have company?”

“His Brother?  Well, I’ll never be!  Mind, I can see the likeness there.  Morry Winter must have brought him in the first time, ages back, but no-one since.  Oh, wait, now, there was that well-dressed fella – a couple of times, him.  Not long ago, either.”

“Can you describe him?”  Joe asked.

“Well-dressed, dear, like I said.  A nice suit:  not John Colliers, if you see what I mean?  Sort of thirties, medium height – dark hair, I think.  Proper nice looking wasn’t he?”

“What sort of nice looking?”  Joe persisted:  “What colour eyes – large nose, small nose?”

“Well, sort of average, I think.  Here’s your roll, dear.”

Try as he would, Joe could not elicit further detail concerning this mystery man, so he quaffed his tea and an amply buttered ham roll with a taste memory that would stay with him for the rest of the afternoon.  As he left, the little woman in the apron asked: “You’ll know, won’cha?  These Rhinemaidens – what do they do, exactly?”

Fleeing the gale, Joe hunched into his collar, making for the sanctuary of his car so quickly he failed to notice an Austin Princess that was parked across the street.  He knew for certain now – Michael had been away from his carers and alone on the day Violet Parkin died.  Hallbury was not so far away – had he also been there?  Had he, with the extraordinary strength of madness, wielded the pitchfork that had dispatched the old lady so cruelly?  How else could he know the precise manner of her death? As Joe made his way back to Hallbury, counting off the miles, his mind was intrigued by a new mystery:who was the man in the suit; the good looking man who was so completely unmemorable?  Whoever he was, Michael had clearly known him, and their meetings, or at least one of them, would have had to be by arrangement; unless, of course, this man was following Michael…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.

Photo Credit:  Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash