The Coming of Howard
Morning was slow to discover Francine’s recumbent form, the sunlight needing to creep over the bole of the uprooted tree before it could find its way into the pit that forest giant had created; lighting first upon her back, then, when it had enough warmth to offer, bringing a gentle glow to her cheek which caused her to stir. Had she slept? Had she fallen?
The blessing of the sun was welcome, for the rock beneath her, so possessive of her whole being the night gone, was warm no longer. It was merely stone now, and whatever mystic properties it might have harboured to entice her had fled, leaving her with a sense of loss so intense it brought her near to tears. There would be precious little time to grieve, however, because she was not alone. Footsteps were shuffling behind her, and the sound that roused her to complete wakefulness that of heavy breathing, loud enough to all but eclipse the gentle rustling of the wind.
“Here!” A man’s voice thick with accent, a foreign burr, although of what origin she could not tell, “It is her! It is the woman!”
Another voice answered. Someone not yet sharing his companion’s position in the pit yet, possibly not even in view. “You’re certain?”
“Yes, certain! Yes! Come, help me – we must get her out of here!”
The other voice’s owner, making complicit sounds, was drawing nearer. Hands that were not gentle closed about her shoulder. “You, woman! You must come with us! Get up!”
Francine tried to shake herself free. The rough hand grabbed her wounded arm from under her and she screamed at the pain. “Sir! I beg you…” She twisted her head angrily, to find herself looking into eyes so cold they conveyed the utter futility of begging. He was as bronzed, this man, as he was lean – as he was strong, but there was no mercy in him; no kindness. He began dragging her, half-carrying her because her feet would not, to the side of the pit where his companion stood watching dispassionately.
“Help me here!” Francine’s captor snarled. “Take her arms!”
But now there were – were there not – other voices. English voices raised in a hue and cry. Desperate to resist this man, Francine wrenched herself away, shouting, “help me! A rescue!” As loudly as she could.
With muted expletives the bronzed man caught her again by that painful arm, clamping a hand across her mouth and she bit down upon a finger, or maybe two, as hard as she could.
“This way!” A voice she knew; “See him? Take him down! Shoot, man!”
In immediate answer the lusty thunderclap of a fowling piece echoed in the cold air and the man who had been reaching down to hoist her from the pit rocked backwards with an agonized yell. New voices were all about Francine now, gaining substance in the shapes of men – two at least of whom had guns.
With their appearance her captor became the captured; the pit a bear trap in which he was the wild creature, snarling his fury. He clutched Francine to his chest, shielding himself as he backed towards a trodden ramp of mud that seemed his easiest ascent.
“You, fellow! Give yourself up!” Arthur! Arthur was there, standing at the lip of the depression with a duelling pistol. “You have no means of escape, sir! Release the lady now, do you understand?”
It occurred to Francine at that precise moment that her captor was unarmed. Had he been in possession of even a knife this was the moment he might be most expected to have it in his hand. It occurred to her also, as it probably already had to those assembled, that without help from the top of the slope this creature would be hard put to keep her between him and Arthur’s party when he attempted to climb from the pit. His companion was no longer in evidence – she judged that he had either fallen or fled. Francine was not a great burden but she could be an awkward one, and if she were a dead weight…
Francine fainted – or at least, she appeared to do so.
She heard the shot, felt the arms that clawed at her jerk as she fell, and the body that she was pinned against become as limp as she. Then there were other arms, many arms to raise her up, cradle her and carry her. And the only arms she wanted to carry her were there, and they were Arthur’s.
It was a parched springtime, that year. Day followed day, week followed week with little rain. Late April was hot: lengthening days, longer and longer hours of sun. In early May the first storms began.
Peter, who loved fierce weather, walked Levenport Esplanade en route to his lectures many times with thick mists of cloud overlaying the town and rain lashing the pavements in untamed percussion. On such days The Devil’s Rock was a grey shadow, Saint Benedict’s House a shrouded Valhalla barely visible at its peak. When lightning flickered behind them rock and house were silhouetted like some great behemoth from the mythology of the sea: if the lightning struck, as it sometimes did, a white trace joined house to sky for a telling moment, a brief pathway between earth and heaven. Then the thunder banged so loudly it seemed the basalt itself would split, and dry echoes crackled around Levenport’s sheltering cliffs. At times like these Peter could easily imagine he was listening to a conversation of the gods.
Melanie rarely joined Peter on such tempestuous journeys, she being deterred by such practical difficulties as hair, wet clothes, and a nervousness of thunderstorms. On finer days, though, she often met him on the Esplanade, and as the summer became ever wetter and less welcoming, spent more and more of her evenings wandering the Arcades with Peter, or ‘hanging’ with him in his room. The reasons for the growing closeness of their companionship were defined one evening at the beginning of May. Their conversation was drawing to a close upon a reflective note.
Melanie asked, “Did you ever hear from Vincent again?”
Peter shook his head, “No, not after that phone call. It’s really strange, thinking back to all that. I suppose everything was OK, though. I mean, that guy didn’t get shot, did he?”
When the attempt on Senator Goodridge’s life was broadcast on the television news its effect on the pair was sensational: yet neither Melanie nor Peter knew how Goodridge’s life was saved because the details were never announced. Peter had managed to persuade Melanie that his piece of clairvoyance was a one-off: some kind of anomaly or trick which they should keep as a confidence between themselves. He had his own reasons for this as we shall relate, but it was true that he had not been contacted by anyone, and assumed that the mysterious purpose of his visit to St. Benedict’s House had been met.
Melanie did not disguise her jealousy. “Shame. You get to go to all the interesting places. I should like to see that house, and your tablet of stone. I wonder what would happen if I touched it?”
“Probably nothing.” Peter shrugged, “I think the things I saw had more to do with those iffy cakes of Alice’s than any stone.”
(But this was a lie. He still dreamed those images, and one of them in particular haunted him. He feared, really feared, that in some way and for some reason Melanie might one day get to touch the rock, to see the things he had seen)
“Alright,” Melanie said, “play it down if you want to. Me, I think you’re a great seer – which, incidentally, makes you just a little bit creepy….”
“You speak truth. As for creepy, I do occasionally get an urge to read the thoughts of your innermost mind. Isn’t that normal?”
“Normal? Lol. Speaking of creepy (which you are) do you know my beloved mother has gone out tonight? I am alone in that big dark house? Don’t wait up for me, that’s what she said!”
Peter smirked, “Do you want me to come over and look after you?”
“What,expose myself alone to the tender care of a letch like you? Er….no!”
“Letch, now! Better dust off the garlic then.”
“Yeah, cheers. Night babes!”
The next morning was a wind-blown and rainy one. The more surprising for Peter, then, that he found Melanie waiting for him, sitting huddled in one of the shelters on the Esplanade. Her face was traced from recent tears.
“Hey, “He greeted her, “Whassup Mel?” Peter could not remember seeing Melanie cry.
“I had to get out of the house.” She said miserably.
“This morning I came downstairs and there was a man I’ve never seen before in the kitchen. He was just, like, wearing underpants or something. It was horrible!”
“Ah!” Said Peter.
“Alright, go on; tell me it had to happen. I know – I knew it. Mum’s a good looking woman, entitled to a life and all that….stuff. It still doesn’t help when it does happen. She’s my bloody mother!”
“It may not have happened;” Peter suggested gently: “I mean, he may just have slept on the couch, or something?”
“Oh, it did! You should have seen her when she came down. She was drooling all over him…it was just sick!” Melanie wiped her hands across her face. “Oh! Oh, and his name’s Howard, she insisted on telling me! Howard! As if I wanted to know his bloody name!”
“You’re upset.” Peter sympathised, putting his arm around Melanie’s shoulders. Truthfully, he had known that Karen, Melanie’s mother, would find a new companion. His mother, Karen’s friend, who was expert in divining the nature of people, had told him so. “She’s not a woman who likes being single” she had warned. “Melanie is going to have to come to terms with that.” Well, the prophesy had proved to be right – rather sooner than anyone (except maybe Karen) would have wished.
Even so it was difficult to accept, not just for Melanie, but for Peter too. His own family lived in an oasis of calm amid troubled seas; for whatever you could imagine Bob and Lena to be, they were metaphorically joined at the hip. You could not imagine them as separate from each other. Once, in the days when he first knew her, Karen had appeared to Peter to have something of this same unity with her first husband, Marco, because children of the age he was then do not enquire into the stability of relationships, and his friendship with Mel had not deepened enough for her to trust him with tales of late night arguments, long absences, icy silences. But whatever Karen was as a person then, she was very different now.
“Maybe he’s not….well, you know, permanent?” Peter suggested lamely, aware even as he said it that his thoughts had led him in the wrong direction.
“Oh! So my mother sleeps around now, does she!” Melanie grinned at him weakly. “Peter, will you come home with me tonight? I mean, I don’t want him to be there again and me to be on my own, yeah?”
Peter hugged her shoulder: “Sure Mel, ‘course I will.”
And, after college that evening, Peter did as he promised.
Thus began a routine which developed: before long Peter was walking Melanie home on a regular basis, and soon he was staying for half an hour, or an hour, in which the pair might go through their college work together or play video games.
Peter became an accepted visitor at Melanie’s house. Karen seemed to see the value of his companionship. She was not unaware of the tumult that a new man’s presence in her life would cause, or so determined as to ignore her daughter’s feelings; and if Peter, who was mature for his years, might buffer the effects of this collision she was thankful enough. After that first ill-judged night when she had let passion overcome discretion and then seen the gravity of her error in Melanie’s face, Karen kept her relationship with Howard at arms length for a while. But she knew where it was leading: and certainly Melanie would have to live with this. Then, on a more practical level, as Mel spent a greater and greater proportion of her life with Peter, visiting him in the evenings, spending time with him at weekends, she was able to devote more of her own time to Howard.
Nevertheless, Karen trod carefully. She made certain Howard was never there when Melanie returned from college, and she always told her daughter when he was to visit. If she planned time away, she took care to involve Melanie, no matter how grudging the response. With a delicate balancing act always in her mind, she juggled the lives of the people she loved (or was growing to love) in such fashion for a while: and, for a while, it seemed that things might be working out.
When the hot summer northerly is blowing, an aircraft landing at Al Khubar must approach from the sea, where the runway is built out upon a man-made peninsula into the Bay of Ulman, or as it was known in early pirating days, the Sea of Thieves.
On such a summer day an airliner, heading first out to sea, will drop steeply as a stairway from the clear, azure sky and, as it passes below two thousand feet, turn tightly eastward for its final approach. The cabin has been made quiet by the precipitous descent, until that banking turn. Then it is common for an almost unanimous gasp of admiration to be drawn from strangers’ lips, as they get their first view of the miracle that man has worked upon the shore of the bay. For the city of Al Khubar is such a testament to the capability of man to create beauty, that all those who have not seen it before, and many, too, who have, will be awestruck at the sight. The graceful arch of the Sharm-Ayah suspension bridge which spans the whole bay stands so high you feel the plane might easily fly beneath it: then beyond, in the marinas of the western shore, line upon line of the most elegant yachts that were ever built lie at anchor. But it is not these which draw the stranger’s eye; nor is it the smooth half-moon of verdant green grasses and trees which follows the shoreline so precisely from West to East. No, all this is lost; for beyond the bay, beyond the green park-land which consumes two and a half hundred thousand precious gallons of water a day; beyond even the eight-lane highway which skirts the Park’s northern rim, stands such a city as western eyes have never seen. Towers of tinted steel and white concrete rise in perfect symmetry. Where there is a sickle-shaped skyscraper rising a thousand feet to the east, another to the west must be just the same. Galleried glass tiers of shops and offices rise in steps, their profile clover-leafed into courtyards, storey upon storey. Each courtyard is a space with trees and grass to sit, or stroll, or meet with the trams which network the city at every level. The dome of the Great Mosque is the hub of lawns and hedged gardens which spread from it like a wheel, two great fountains behind it firing jets like crossed swords into the sky. In a land where water is wealth there are even canals here, bisecting the new city with Venetian roads. Amidst all of this the old town of Al Khubar sits, antiseptically white, within its defensive walls. And amidst the old town, its walls even higher, stands the mighty palace of His Majesty King Assan.
Salaiman Yahedi had seen this sight so often down the years, yet it surprised him each time with its capacity to rob the body of breath. As one who had long been stateless, Yahedi had no particular preference for any of the great cities of the world: each was an interlude, a brief stop-over, a job to be done. Yet, for all that, Al Khubar and its people drew him as certainly as any homecoming could. He always felt a tinge of regret that he could not rest longer here.
After the air-conditioned plane had delivered him through the air-conditioned gate to Arrivals, and he had collected his minimal suitcase, Salaiman scanned the busy air-conditioned terminal for faces that he knew. Mahennis Bourta stood out easily from the crowd. The big Moroccan was at least half-a-head taller than most: his face, a tight, muscular mask of sinew and flesh, was split by a horizontal gash of a smile.
“Yahedi my friend! Allah be praised! Why, you look so well!”
The wide, slashing grin vanished as the pair made their way through the throng. “I have a car for you. I am to take you to the Hyatt, where you are booked in under this name.” Bourta slipped a passport into Yahedi’s hand. “Sleep Salaiman. We are to meet tomorrow at the usual place.”
“Really, so soon? What is the mood, Bourta?”
“The mood, my friend, is that London did not go well. The mood is not good.”
“There were reasons – not of my doing. These things happen.”
“Ah!” Bourta said, expressionless. “There were bigger reasons, Yahedi, bigger than you know. Here is the car. We will talk in the morning, and |I urge you.” He rested his hand on the assassin’s arm, “To prepare yourself.”
© 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.
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