Continuum Episode 8 – Celeris

The story so far:

Wth a clear notion she must escape the Consensual City, Alanee sets out into its nightlife, determined to find the aerotrans port and Dag, her friendly pilot.  She is unaware she is being watched, or of the plotting that surrounds her.In the throng on the avenues, Alanee finds her concentration ebbing.  A gift of music from a goblin creature elates her, then leaves her irresolute and alone.  A bystander, sensitive to her distress, asks if he can help her…

“Thank you.”  Alanee finds words “Could you tell me where I can find the aerotran port, please?”

The man who has introduced himself as Celeris does not hesitate.  “I can do better.  It would be an honor to guide you, Lady.”

What is it about him that disturbs her?  “You’re very kind, but I don’t want to break up your discussion.”

Celeris looks puzzled for a moment.  “No, no.”  He casts a glance over his shoulder at the assembly he has left:  “They won’t even realize I have gone, I promise you.  Come, please!”

The hand he offers seems so finely-boned and fragile Alanee is afraid to grasp it lest it crumble, but his grip is firm and surprisingly confident.  “I shall look after you.”

He leads her by avenues and gardens, away from the nightlife of the City.  He leads with a purpose, but Alanee notices that no-one greets him as he passes, or acknowledges her.  She feels almost as though she is elsewhere, afloat on a different plane.

 “And you are Lady…?”

“I’m not sure you should call me ‘Lady’.  My name is Alanee.”

Celeris stops instantly, “You are undoubtedly a lady.”  He declares.  “I am privileged to know you, Lady Alanee!”

They continue walking. “You are not from around here, are you?”

“Are you?”  She returns.

“I?   Very much so, yes – all  my life!”

“Why does no-one know you?  At least, they don’t greet you, do they?”

His eyes engage with hers, though he does not stop walking.  “I’ve noticed that, too.”  His smile is impish.  “What brings you to the City?  You are far too beautiful for this ravening horde – they can hardly be restraining themselves.”

“I was brought, but no-one will tell me why,”  Alanee replies.   They arrive at the platform of a large door-less elevator which, its sign declares, is ‘descending’, threading their way into some free space between a small huddle of passengers who mostly wear flyers’ uniforms, similar to that sported by Dag when Alanee met him last.  There are one or two gold helmets among the crowd too, but although Alanee scans their faces, she cannot see her erstwhile pilot amongst this group.

“They’re being mysterious about it, are they?”  Celeris nods.  “The High Council are like that.  They relish a drama, a bit of mystery.  Don’t stand for it, Lady Alanee: demand to know your fate!”

“How do you know the High Council have anything to do with it?  I didn’t say that, did I?”

“Why no, you didn’t have to!  It is only by the invitation of the High Council that anyone may enter the Consensual City.  Such invitations are rare, so you must be someone quite important, I think; don’t you?”

This is not the first such challenge to leave Alanee floundering.  She does not reply.

At a warning chime the elevator slips downwards; an angled descent of about thirty degrees, through levels of various decoration and population.

At the fifth such level the aerotran deck declares itself.  Five large High Council aerotrans pose in orderly file while drabs fuss around them – one is clearly ready to leave, forcing Alanee to suppress an insane urge to run in case this should be Dag’s aerotran – in case she should miss the dark pilot whose face remains so fresh in her thoughts.

Celeris shows Alanee that she need only follow the general throng, for almost all the passengers on the elevator have disembarked here, and there is a general migration towards a suite to the right of the deck.  Once inside this unimposing area, however, most disperse:  speaking quietly among themselves they take stairs to upper levels, or filter through doors, leaving Celeris and Alanee alone in a dingy foyer with rushes for a floor and lackluster paint on its green walls.  As bland as the décor, a clerk at a scuffed wooden desk barely acknowledges their approach.

“I want to talk to an aerotran pilot!”  Alanee breaks the silence boldly.  “His name is Dag.  Could you tell him Alanee would like to see him?”

The clerk is writing something.  “Dag?  What makes you think he works here?”

“He’s an aerotran pilot!  Isn’t this where aerotran pilots work?”

The clerk gives her a sour look.  “Don’t be funny!  There are cargo pilots, and there are official pilots – oh, yeah, and there are taxi pilots.  They don’t all work from here.”

“Let us assume this one does?”  Celeris, until now content to be in the background, advances, speaking in clipped tones.  “Lady Alanee would like to speak with him.  Now.”

It is as if somewhere within dark halls of the clerk’s mental anatomy a light has been switched on.  His tone lifts a half-octave.  “He may be in.  I’ll just check for you, Lady Alanee.”

A screen on the shielded side of the desk flickers into life.  The clerk scrolls with his left hand, tracking the lines of script as they pass with his right forefinger.

“Yes.  Yes, you must mean Master Pilot Dag Swenner.  I’m afraid Master Pilot Swenner is on outward flight at the moment, Lady.  He isn’t due back until the day after tomorrow.  Would you like to send him a message?”

No, Alanee sighs, no message.  A forlorn hope, anyway, she convinces herself:  why should a man who did no more than ferry her once be the salvation she seeks?  But still, she would have liked to see him, and the thought of him out there alone makes her sad.

“I’m sorry your friend is away.”  Celeris says as they take the ascending elevator.  “A master pilot, too.  You have excellent taste in friends.”

“Well, not my friend, really.”  Alanee admits; “Just someone to talk to.”

Celeris moves so he stands directly facing her, letting her have the full force of his incisive stare.  “Talk to me.”

She demurs, “Oh, you don’t…”

“But I do!  Lady Alanee, I want to know everything about you.  Come now, indulge me!”

And so Alanee does.  Shyly at first, she tells him of her home in Balkinvel, and the warm Hakaani plains that roll like an ocean swell in the morning mist, recalling the afternoon when she was lifted from everything she loved and knew to be brought to this strange place.  At the use of the word ‘strange’ Celeris laughs (a soft sympathetic laugh) and nods approvingly.

“Strange indeed!”

“Very.  I bought this dress.  It took every credit I had.  I thought it looked good but now I’m wearing it I don’t know.  Everyone stares at me.  It’s OK, apparently, if some revolting little monstrosity publicly tries to stick his hand on my breast, yet if I show any leg I’m a harlot or something….”

“Stop, stop!”  Her companion raises his hands defensively:  “You mustn’t heed the ways of the city, Lady!  Your dress perfectly frames your beauty:  it is that they stare upon.  They are filled with regret because after seeing you they will have to go back to their wives!”

He speaks over the throng (they have returned to the humdrum of the avenue where they met) “Lady Alanee, would you do me the honor of dining with me?  There is a diner near here where the food is superb, and I would really enjoy sharing it with you.”

Alanee would politely decline, but she is quite hungry; and this oddly child-like man makes a charming companion:  so she says:  “Why thank you, Sire Celeris!  The honor would definitely be mine!”   

So, behind another green door, in another honeycomb of warm, confidential spaces and comfortable upholstery she comes to be pouring out the rest of her story.  She tells it all, or nearly all, from her interview with Cassix and Remis at the Terminal through to the moment Celeris, appeared to her out of the crowd.  She withholds only two things, the details of her interview with the High Councillors (Sala has warned her not to discuss such matters) and the reason for her quarrel with Sala.

Food has been placed before them; a sort of spicy fish steak in a sauce so intensely flavored it takes Alanee’s breath away.  As they eat Celeris listens, nodding once in a while.  When she lapses at last into silence, her story done, he asks:  “And what do you think of our city?  Apart from ‘strange’, I mean?”

“I think it is a very grand city.  If I were a city girl, I would love it.”

“But…?”

“But I’m not.”

“So this Dag, he is your means of escape?  You hope he will take you back to your home?”

Alaneee bites her lip.  Should she confess?  He seems so kind, but what if this Celeris is some high official, who will turn her in?  “No!  No, Celeris, I see that I must stay here.  Perhaps when I understand what is being asked of me, things will feel better.  For now, I just need a friend.”

Celeris reaches across the table and rests his hand on hers.  Though his touch is cool the vibrancy of his whole being pulses within it.  “Would you consider me a friend?”

Alanee thinks of the one she had hoped to reach tonight.  She cannot help comparing Dag with this enigmatic creature.  Yet he is listening well, he understands.  Sometimes it is only necessary to be there.  “You’re very sweet.  I think you’re already my friend.”

Celeris radiates delight.  The squeeze of his hand is like a static shock that sends arrows of warmth through Alanee’s whole body.  “Thank you!  I know we shall be great, great friends!”

They eat and talk, talk and eat:  and the hours pass, and evening becomes night, and in no time at all it seems that midnight is upon them.  Celeris takes Alanee’s hand to walk her home.

“How will I find you again?”  She asks, adding hurriedly:  “If you want me to find you?”

“I will show you how this is done.  Have you your summoner?”

Alanee has long forgotten the miscellany within her clutch-bag.  She rummages.

“This?”

“Yes.  It’s your link to all who know you within the city.  If I press my finger upon this pad – so – I join that happy society.  There, see?  My name upon your screen.”

“I live here.”  Outside her door, Alanee does not want the talking to end, does not want to be alone.  Were she bolder she would invite Celeris in, just so they could talk some more; just so she is not alone…

“I’d better get to bed.  I’m sure they’ll want me early in the morning.”

“Of course.”  Celeris bows ceremoniously.  “Good night, Lady Alanee.  I have so enjoyed this evening.  I hope we will meet again very soon.”

He has taken her hand, brushed it lightly to his lips.  Alanee watches him go, striding along the avenue with a purpose that belies his stature.  Later, when she lingers at the door of sleep, trying once more to center her mind on the prospect of escape, she will realize that all the talking through the hours has been about her.  She knows nothing about Celeris at all.

#

Of the gathered High Council, only Trebec notices Portis as he enters the Council Chamber.  The florid man’s face is etched with care.

“Are we all present?”  Portis asks.

“We await Sire Calvin, I think…no!  Here he is…”  Trebec’s voice is strained.

“You know more than I, clearly – what’s amiss?”

“You will learn.”

The Council is called to order by the Domo.  Slowly, for these are men and women of advanced years, chairs around a vast polished mahogany table are occupied.  “Sire Cassix.  I believe you requested this summons?”

Cassix rises to his feet.  The Seer is not among Portis’s closer acquaintances:  to Cassix’s mind Portis always looks hungry, as though he is anticipating his next meal but knows he will have to negotiate to get it.  This evening he looks especially starved.

“I bring grave news.  Sire Carriso, I know this should have reached you first, as Councillor for Dometia, but such is the urgency I thought it best to deliver this report to the whole Council.  Please forgive me.”

Cassix draws breath, drawing his shoulders back, aware that all eyes are upon him.  “This afternoon a little after 4.00 pm I sensed a disturbance of immense size from the direction of the Kaal valley in central Dometia.   It was of such proportions I could not clearly define it at first, but upon checking, I discovered that the foundry at Takken ceased production at that time.  Shortly after, a distress call from Kaalvenbal, the principal town of the region, spoke of the River Kaal as ‘boiling’.  Subsequently, a high static electrical charge in the air began to burn the citizens of that town. Our last report, an hour ago, spoke of ‘buildings alight, people suffocating’.  Thereafter all communication ceased.  I have received no news from Kaalvenbal since then.”

A rising murmur of consternation threatens to drown Cassix’s voice.  He pauses to allow the substance of his report to sink in.

“How?”  Carriso asks, distressed:  “How has this happened?”

Cassix shakes his head.  “I cannot say.”

“You are the Seer.  If you can’t…”

Cassix’s heart goes out to the young Councillor.  “I know how you love your people, Carriso.  If I could comprehend this myself I would tell you more.  It’s completely outside my experience.”

Portis swallows hard:  “Do you have any ideas, then; any theories, Cassix?”

“Not as such.  You will recall I made reports last year regarding a disturbance in the eastern sky I have referred to as the Continuum.  There may be a connection.”

A suppressed ‘harrumph’ comes from Councillor Selech’s end of the table.  Selech heads a group Cassix calls the ‘Continuum Skeptics’.

Cassix continues; “Three days ago I became aware of a significant increase in the size and activity of the Continuum.  I mentioned this at our last gathering.  I have been diverted since then so I have not had an opportunity to check it again.”

This suggestion instigates a clamor of dissent.  The Domo raises his hand.  “Sires, let us have quiet.  Cassix, how large an area is affected by this event?”

“The only evidence so far is anecdotal:  an aerotran pilot delivering plasma supplies to Kaalvenbal called in:  he spoke emotionally of a ‘cylinder of fire without heat’ rising several thousand meters into the air.  He seemed to think its girth was at least forty miles, but…”

“But what?”

“He was overwrought, disoriented.  We lost contact with him afterward, and his aerotran does not respond to our sensors.”

“He’s dead, in other words,”  Trebec mutters.

The Domo’s fat fingers drum upon the table’s polished wood.  “Speculation avails us nothing.  We will send a second aerotran to survey the extent of this enormity.  Carriso, you must organize medical facilities; we will send the supplies and specialists the Dometians need.

“Trebec, make Braillec your base to prepare a surface expedition to the scene.”

Sire Calvin, most ancient of the Councillors, intervenes in his high, piping voice:  “Sire Domo: all this electrical activity….is it possible that for a while these citizens might be deprived of The Word?”

The Domo nods, casting a worried glance in Carisso’s direction.  The Dometian’s skin is drained of all pallor.  “Sire Trebec, maybe you should despatch a Legion from Braillec to escort your expedition, just in case?”

“NO! No, Sire!”  Carriso finds his feet, impassioned.  “You think I don’t see what you intend?”

Calvin tries to placate him:  “They are our people too, Carriso.”

For a moment no-one speaks.  Carriso, watched with pity and concern by every member of  High Council, stands motionless, then, with a sound akin to a sob, the Dometian Councillor rushes from the room.

The Domo sighs heavily:  “Gentlemen, that will be all for tonight.  We await more detail.”

Slowly, and by diminishing pools of earnest conversation, the High Council disperses.  In an antechamber, Calvin takes Cassix to one side.  He speaks quietly.

“Cassix, is it possible your thoughts add up to more than your lips divulge?”

The Seer nods.  “I am already considered eccentric by two-thirds of the Council, downright dangerous by the rest.  That does make restraint the wiser course.”

“Well, I consider you neither, so I am to be discounted.  Speak, man?”

“Very well.”

From across the room, Councillor Portis watches as Cassix and Calvin converse in low, confidential tones.  As words float between them, he sees the ancient Councillor’s parchment skin pale more than his years dictate.  When they part, he thinks he detects tears on the old man’s cheeks.

#

Nearly two thousand miles to the south and east of the Consensual City a malefic red orb of a sun is rising, glowering down upon the blackened valley of the River Kaal.  Its early glare flows across naked rock like fresh blood – the dark, arterial blood of departing life. 

No more the village, Kaal-Takken is nothing but charcoal twigs ready to topple in the first breeze:  no more the people, for they are gone – just gone.  And no more the river where the sweet Saleen swam in gentler light.  The river is dry.

#

By the habbarn where the child slumbers his Mother watches.  She gazes fondly upon his sleeping face, recalling happy hours of love and games so innocent they brought her own childhood again into her life.  And she grieves for those times, knowing they have passed.

The child is a man now, or soon to be.  His games have changed, their naive simplicity become more sinister, their nature destructive, their consequences far-reaching. 

Oh, she has missed none of the physical changes; longer face, broadening shoulders, bold, self-confident stance.  Although she may not undress him now, she is too close to him not to notice his obvious manhood, which frequently embarrasses him because he does not understand.  She would explain to him, he needs to know, yet this defensive wall growing between them somehow prevents her.

He called her ‘Mother’ tonight, not ‘Mummy’.  It was the first time.  And he would not permit her to tuck him up, or kiss his forehead as she always did.  This, she knows, is natural change:  the end of one thing, the beginning of another, but she hates it!  And when she looks into their future – her future, Hasuga’s future – she sees only fear.

Tonight the fear shall not be hers alone.  It will waft like a contagion through the splendid avenues, the trysting alleys, the tall trees and waters of the park.  Its insidiousness will seep into the greatest minds of the City, and the least suspecting; for all will succumb to that first shred of doubt.  Something a thousand miles away has served them notice, and it must not be ignored.

© 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.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Ten Interrupted Steps

 

The story so far:

 On the morning after encountering the deceased Rodney Smith’s vengeful brother, Joe Palliser receives a mysterious letter.  A mission for his aunt gives him cause to explore more deeply into his memories of the village, and while preoccupied with this he renews his acquaintance with mother and daughter of the wealthy Forbes-Pattinson family.

Tom Peterkin, best friend of his young years invites him out for an evening, during which he learns that the murdered Violet Parkin was daughter to Ben Wortsall, locally reputed to be a witch.  Returning that evening, Tom’s parks his car on Wednesday Common, where Joe at last admits to his friend that Marian, the woman he had claimed to be his wife, is dead. 

A last rattle of breeze through the bracken fluttered and died, and as it seemed to Joe the tiny creatures and floating things caught in the headlights’ beam were synthesizing to some unwritten music; the flotsam of life joined in solemn, courtly dance – a pavane for Marian.

“You better tell me the rest, boy,” Tom said quietly.

So Joseph did.

“Sometimes we went on sales trips together, but mostly Marian worked from her London office through the week, and stayed in our flat in Earls Court.  On weekends, she went home to Sussex.  Before we met, she used to take the Friday night train; but as we got to know each other better she stayed over on the Friday more often than not, and went home on the Saturday morning instead.

“Friday became her night to unwind.  We’d have a few drinks, I’d get in some stuff and we’d try a bit of this; bit of that.  It started with the odd pill, you know, to get things more lively?  Then there was coke, and maybe acid, but never too much – never too heavy.

“Six weeks is it now?  Friday.  It seems like yesterday, Tom, believe me.  I got some gear from a guy I used on Fulham Market. Marian liked sex.  I think we were good together.  She was…well, she was inventive, she liked to play, and the night started out that way; but then she went wild, absolutely wild – fierce, almost savage.   I can’t explain – I’d never known her like that – no boundaries, no taboos; nothing barred.   She was so controlled, you see, normally; but not that night.  She was really angry, shouting at me, coming at me with her fists.  It was like she was desperate, forcing me to give her what she needed and doing everything she could to make it hurt.  All she wanted was to give me pain.  If I tried to get away; just go to bed and shut the door on her she wouldn’t let me go.  I couldn’t even turn my back without her clawing me, hitting at me…”

Joe drew breath; needing the break.  The microbial dance lit by the headlights had ceased, its participants hanging suspended as if the orchestra had finished playing.  The song was over.  Beside him, Tom offered nothing:  no encouragement, no support.  At length, Joe continued.

“Well, sometime it must have stopped.  I can’t remember, you see?  The first thing I know it’s morning; I’m in bed and it’s late:  the clock says eleven-thirty.  Marian should have caught the nine o’clock train; but there she is, still lying beside me.

“I was that stupid I just thought she was tired, she’d slept in – not surprising, after all that happened the night before.  I brought coffee back to bed, then I tried to wake her.  She wouldn’t wake up!  I tried and tried, Tom!”

Joe and his genie were face to face now, with the black tidal wave of its power straining against the glass of its bottle, ready to burst forth and drown him with merciful insensibility.  But the glass remained intact.  He was unsteady, he was dizzy, but he did not blank.

“I knew it really.  I knew she’d gone.  There was some of the stuff beside her on the pillow, like she’d tried to score again, or something.  I don’t know, because I can’t remember what happened.  I can’t remember anything except how scared I was.  I have no recollection of going to bed, I don’t remember her joining me.”

After a long pause, Tom asked: “You think you killed her?  Is that what you’re saying?”

“No.”  Joe’s tongue wrapped itself around that negative.  He dredged deep.  “Yes?  I have no bloody idea!  What made her behave like that – bad gear?  I took it too.  She was – there was some bruising on her body.  I can’t explain that, either.  Did I do it?  Did she?”

“So you could have killed her.”

“I panicked, Tom.  I told you she had a separate flat upstairs.  She only slept there if her husband was visiting.  I carried her up.  No-one saw, no-one heard me, but oh-my-god it was a struggle, she was so cold and stiff…I laid her in her bed like she’d simply gone to sleep, cleared up all the gear and dumped it in the food waste bin at the back of a restaurant we used to go to on Coulter Street.

“I wiped or washed anything in our flat that might connect to me, put all the bed-linen in a bag and took it to the Laundromat – left it there in one of the machines.  I just went.  It was Saturday evening by then and other than personal clothing there wasn’t much to carry really.  Everything in our lives was hers.”

It was a long time before Tom said anything.  “The filth, what about they?  Did they find yer?”

“Not so far.  I went to my brother’s place and just laid low, waiting to be found, basically.  I wasn’t.” Joe recollected the Detective Sergeant’s visit and his dark looks; “At least, I don’t think so. I heard nothing more, until yesterday.  Yesterday I got a letter from Marian’s solicitors asking me to contact them.  ”

“You’d be easy enough to trace, I’d ha’ thought.  Her people at work, they knew about you:  you weren’t invisible.  No, I’d say if the cops haven’t caught up with you by now they aren’t looking.  They probably think you left afore she died, or sommat.”  Tom shook his head gravely:  “So that’s why yer not yerself, ah?”  he mused.  “Think I understand, boy.  But I don’t see you got anything to worry about.  You did pretty well, ‘sfar as I can see.”

He cranked his car into life, backing out onto the road.  It seemed Joe had done pretty well.  He had opened up to Tom and his mind had stayed with him.  As his friend dropped him off he cautioned:  “Tom, this mustn’t go further than us, yeah?”

Tom reassured him; of course it would not.  “’Tis sommat to think on, though, ah? There was I thinkin’ you was quiet for quite a diff’rent reason tonight, Joe.  See ‘ow wrong I can be?”

From the look in his eyes, from the timbre of that rich shire voice, Joe saw that Tom had connected some of the dots – he knew.

“You’ll do the right thing, boy.  I’m certain o’ tha’.”   And he drove away.

In his sleep that night, Joe hung suspended somewhere between dream and memory, and it was no longer Sarah’s face that watched him in the darkness, but that of his best friend’s wife.

#

“Fancy your chances, do you?”  She arched an eyebrow, bringing his confidence instantly to its knees.  Green eyes – she had almost iridescent green eyes.

“Some.”  He stumbled:  “Maybe.”

“Alright.  I’ll dance with you.”

It was a local hall, a local band.  They jived awkwardly, because he was far too nervous to lead.

She wore a cream blouse, a flared skirt which whirled about her as she spun.  She moved with natural grace, as though she were born to dance.

They shouted to each other above the music.  “What are you doing out without your mate?  Everybody thinks you and Tom Peterkin are queer for each other!”

“We’re not! (He was so sensitive to those little jibes, back then!)  Dunno what he’s doing tonight.”

When the music finished; “Buy me a drink, then?”

Emma Blanchland was no stranger.  Even though they had gone to different schools, they had met from time to time; shy smiles, muttered ‘hello’s’.  She had just been one of the local girls until that night.

Why had he decided to go to the dance in Fettsham on his own?  Maybe because a member of the band was Ian’s friend; maybe just because he was tired of being alone, wanting to torture himself with more rejection.  He didn’t know.  But Emma was there, and the girl was no longer simply someone walking by – she was a young, vibrant woman with an expressive face, a slim waist and long legs which revealed a tempting glimpse of stocking-top when she danced.

He bought her drinks; they learned to laugh with each other.  After the ordeal of meeting, the evening passed pleasantly to a point where even Joe’s dancing improved.  They smooched through the final number.  In the car park he copied a smart-Alec remark of Tom’s, glancing meaningfully down at her skirt.  “What colour are they, then?”

“Cheeky sod!  They’re red.  And if you think I’m going to prove it for you, you’ve got another think coming!”

“Some other time, then?”

She glared.  “I should change the subject, if I were you.  Now, are you going to take me home?”

He drove her in the Pilot.  He did not drive fast.  At her door, they kissed – just a quick peck, just once.

Three days later Joe was walking on a shopping street in Braunston when he met Emma almost head-on.  At first, he was unsure if the girl in a dark brown coat walking arm-in-arm with a broad-shouldered young man actually was Emma; but as they drew closer there was no mistaking those green eyes.  They met his, and she curled inside at the sadness she saw.

That evening Joseph sat in his room packing another set of wasted fantasies into the bulging closet of his self-esteem.  Love, he had decided, was an illusion, something he always aspired to but was destined never to reach. There was something in his psyche that was tuned to disappointment, something unlovable about him that had consigned him to a life of loneliness.

These and other such maudlin thoughts were rudely interrupted by his Uncle Owen, who bellowed up the stairs:

“Joseph!  There’s someone at the door for you!”

He stumbled downstairs and there she was, jeans and a white sweater, a little half-smile that opened a minuscule window to the woman inside:  Emma, who blurted:  “Look, before you say anything, I don’t usually do this kind of stuff, right?  I don’t, Joe.”

He replied with a crestfallen shrug – a gesture which had become so much his.  “You’re with someone else – it’s alright.  It’s allowed.  I’ve no right to you, I don’t…I don’t have any claim on you.”

Emma shifted from one foot to the other, looking about her with an air of desperation. “Come with me!  Come on!”  She reached out, grabbed his hand, dragged him from doorway to lane, marched ahead of him, ignoring his protests – which, to do him justice, were neither persistent nor loud.

At the bend by the poplars she turned onto Wednesday Common and there, in the secret shadow of a beech hedge she took both his hands, so she could look into his eyes.

“He….see, Joey, he is my boyfriend, yeah?  But…Okay, you talk about ‘owning’.  He doesn’t ‘own’ me.  I enjoyed the other night, with you.  I really did, and I’d like us – if you want – to go on seeing each other, yeah?  I’d like that, very much – if you want?”

And Joe smiled so broadly he almost cried because, yes, he did want.  And she was leaning back against the hedge and looking up into his grey eyes with that incredible green of her own and she was waiting:

“Emma, can I kiss you?”

“If you don’t I’ll break your bloody neck!”

That was their first real kiss.  But it was something much, much more.

There comes an interlude in the stressful process of growing that some will call a rite of passage,  when the child learns that balance of nature which must exist between male and female, the initiatives each has to take, those areas of self each must surrender.  Their kiss engendered the ‘spark’ – that unreasoned and unreasonable connection between boy and girl; the outrageous influence of fate upon choice, the indefinable glue that is ‘attraction’.

Hitherto, love for Joseph had meant worship:  but whereas Sarah was a goddess on a pedestal, an alabaster idol demanding adoration, Emma was real; she was a laughing, entrancing equal who could turn him this way and that, should she want.  Yet she would tread softly with such adolescent devices because in Joe she saw a lifetime ahead:  the children she wanted to be hers, a home like her parents’ home, the sleepy contentment of age.  In Joe she saw the boy who would become the man who would become the partner.  She saw a pattern for her life.

They became not lovers at first – they became friends: fast friends, bonded so closely both thought the ties might never break, no matter how far they were to be apart.

They did not hurry into love.  For if Emma was so certain of her feelings, Joseph was less easily convinced of his.  Emma knew about Sarah of course; she had met her with Joe several times when they were together, and she was quick to realise that her new friend still measured her against his former love.  Emma was patient, happy to be a kissing friend while their affinity to one another grew.  She was content to be real while Sarah was a dream, but she would not commit entirely to Joe until she saw, not the reflection of Sarah in his eyes, but her own.

Then, one rainy morning in Spring, everything changed.  Both were working in Braunston in those days, he for Mr Carnaby, the solicitor; she for a department store on Bridge Street. To cheat the rain Joseph decided he would take his car to work, so, thinking that Emma might go with him, he called at her door.  There was no answer.  Rollo, the family dog, a large, clumsy Alsatian, was silent.  Emma’s father was away so Joe knew her mother, who also worked, would normally have woken her daughter before she left.  He banged the door more loudly, then, when there was still no response, he tried the latch.  It opened.  Reasoning that further clamour might draw the attention of the whole village, he thought it sensible to go inside.

He called up the stairs:  “Emma?”

“Joe?  Oh, Joe, is that you?”   The faint reply, not from above stairs but from beyond the house, led him out by the kitchen door into Rob Blanchland’s small, tidy garden.  There he found Emma in her nightdress crouched on her heels, her dressing gown thrown over her shoulders, staring at a space between geometrically precise rows of cabbages and beans.

“Oh, Joe.  I’m glad you’ve come.  I didn’t know what to do.”  Her voice trembled with emotion.  “I loved him so!”

Joe drew closer.  The space in the vegetation resolved itself into the inert form of Rollo, who lay with his teeth bared and open eyes, lifeless on the wet soil.  The dog’s back was arched as though frozen in mid-stride, mud plastered on his brown fur.  Joe reached down to touch his cheek:  it was already cold.

“He’s gone, Emm.”

Emma nodded.  “I let him out just as usual.  You know what he’s like, flyin’ out the door like a big soppy grey-hound?  He’s half-way down the garden, and he just leapt in the air, and …..”  Her face creased.  “He’s too heavy for me, and I can’t just leave him there.  Joe, can you…?

He went to her, took her by the shoulders to raise her up.  “It was probably a heart attack or a stroke: I shouldn’t think he felt anything. Come inside, you’ll freeze out here.”

Emma submitted mutely, shaking with the chill as she allowed Joe to pull her dressing gown around her and cradle her back to the warmth of the kitchen.  He put a kettle on the range, then taking the old dog’s favourite blanket from his basket he returned to the garden, where he wrapped it around Rollo and carried him to the tool-shed, leaving him to lie in state on the dry wooden floor.  Rollo was an amiable companion.  He would be missed.

By the time Joe returned, Emma seemed to have recovered somewhat, though her shoulders still shook.  Joe kissed her forehead, then instructed her firmly to take a hot bath and dress in some dry clothes.  With a rueful smile, she directed his eyes to her feet. reminding him she had been barefoot in the garden – her feet, like her hands, with which she had tried to stir Rollo into life, were covered in grey mud.  So Joe carried her upstairs,  and stood her in the bath while he washed her feet, inducing some reluctant laughter because she was ticklish between her toes.   Running fresh water so she might bathe, he left her then.

“I’ll make some tea.  Come down when you’re ready.”

Minutes passed:  five – ten……

Emma called out:  “Joe!”.

Joseph rushed to reply, afraid lest…lest what?  “Yes, what is it Emm?”

“Can you bring me my tea?”

So he did.

Hours later, warm and dry in her bed, Emma opened sleepy eyes to smile at the face on the pillow beside her.

“Let’s start this day again;” She said. “Good day to you, Joe.”

And those words, in a way, were spoken with sadness.  But there, in the first blush of Rollo’s tragic morning, came affirmation – something profound was begun.

Photo Credit:  Matthew Miles on Unsplash

© 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.

 

 

Charlie Gard

The BBC’s morning programme used two inappropriate words in its report of the Charlie Gard tragedy this morning – they spoke of the baby’s parent’s ‘dilemma’ and of doctors’ ‘advice’.

The Great Ormond Street cabal did not ‘advise’ they dictated.   There was no ‘dilemma’ – the parents were painted into a corner from which they could not escape by a legal machine which, whatever its protestations, is more interested in the money than the welfare of the child.

There was a time when doctors advised – no more.

There was a time when legal redress was the right of every citizen; a time now gone.   The withdrawal of most aspects of the Legal Aid structure, inadequate though it always was, has made access to justice beyond the reach of people in the street.

Is it not strange that the medical profession believes it morally defensible to disregard the rights of parents and patients along the well-trodden (and expensive) road to court?  Does no-one find it odd that a vocation so dedicated to the preservation of life should be so steadfastly intent on ending it in some cases, preserving it in others, and always, it seems, militating against the will of the most interested parties?

I am not suggesting the National Health Service should have been prevailed upon to sustain life in Charlie Gard indefinitely.   I am stating that he should have been released into alternative care as soon as they admitted to being unable to help him and as soon as his parents asked for this to be done.  Instead they held onto the poor child as if he were in some way their property until no alternatives remained, and weighed the validity of their own prognosis above everyone else’s.

Is this the health service any of us want?