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.
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.
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.
Featured Photo Athanasios Papazacharlas on Unsplash
Lightning David Moum on Unsplash
Seascape Annie Spratt on Unsplash