Satan’s Rock

Part Twelve

Warm Summer Lightning

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

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

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

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

He withdrew hastily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he react to that?”

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

“Ask more questions….”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well now young Peter!”

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

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

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

“Friend, eh?  Don’t see no friend.”

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

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

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

“Hello Toby.”   She said.

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

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

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

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

“And Alice?”

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

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

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

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

 “Caribbean?”  Peter suggested helpfully.

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

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

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

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

“Wake up, Mel!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Felix Mittermeier on Pixabay

Old Cottage: Werner Weisser, Pixabay.

The Insect

The Insect

Sometimes the span of a lifetime is needed to make an assessment of people.

Provincial – that defined Tark’s self-image in the early nineteen-sixties.  An insurance clerk with artistic pretensions and a deeply dissatisfied perspective upon his small-town existence, he had convinced himself of one thing; his destiny was to devote his life to art, however confused he was about the direction his artistry should take.   A short-lived stint as a junior reporter on a short-lived local newspaper had punctured his faith in his ability as a writer.  His capacity for clearing a room when he sang, coupled with absolute incomprehension of the finger-skills needed to master an instrument seemed to eliminate a future in music.   Those inclined to criticize were apt to say he lacked even a hint of talent.  In his own mind he was a genius waiting to flower – at something.

Blagging being as prevalent in the nineteen-sixties as it is today, if Tark’s parcel of ineptitudes had been wrapped in a more presentable package with a greater sense of style he might yet have passed as ‘gifted’, but Tark’s assets were buried deep, tilthed over by a six-feet-one stick insect’s  body and supported on legs so bony even drainpipe jeans struggled for grip.   His feet, sized fourteen and shaped like spades, were equally ill-equipped for a generation which saw toes as an obscenity and punished them by thrusting them into ‘winklepicker’ shoes.  Tark persevered with a cheap black pair which reshaped with time into something resembling a pair of rearward-facing armadillos, complete with tails.

 His appearance was of an under-confident, slightly spotty example of ‘modern youth’.  If he was ready to flower he showed very little sign of doing so.  The only buds he exhibited were red and topped with white blisters.

Given such ammunition, Tark’s low self-esteem manifested itself in aggressive responses to any number of situations; repressed silence at parties, inarticulate rudeness when confronted and on his rare voyages into the everyday a slouching gait along the pavements of the town, studying his  reflection in each shop window as he passed.

Which was how he bumped into Natalie.  He wasn’t looking where he was going, nor was she; maybe they were sharing the same shop window, she from one direction, he from the other.  Their heads met with a noise befitting a cricket analogy; leather on willow.

“Ouch!”  Natalie explored her forehead with tentative fingers.  “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”

Terrified she would bleed, Tark launched into a profuse apology which reached crescendo with an offer of coffee, an obvious solution as the next window belonged to a coffee bar.

Natalie conceded.  “I was going in there anyway.  You’re buying.”

Those two words (‘you’re buying’) Tark subsequently discovered, were intrinsic to Natalie’s survival as a student.  It was a habit she never broke.

From such unpromising beginnings, great things are often born.  They introduced themselves; he discovered she liked Danish pastries.  She was studying Fine Art at the local art college, finishing her course after her parents had moved away, so she was living in digs.  Her evenings were in need of filling and she had thought of Amdram – did he know anybody?  It so happened he did.

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, that meeting was the point at which Tark’s world began to expand.  There were few immediate signs; this slightly ungainly girl, not classically good-looking, but with an engagingly expressive face and serious eyes, seemed interested in him at a point when he believed he was the least interesting person on Earth.  While they were visiting the coffee bar, she also appeared to be interested in a wild-looking and very hairy student who sat at another table.  As she left the coffee bar she crossed to the wild-looking student’s table where money was covertly exchanged for a small packet.

That was one thing Tark wasn’t buying.

Within a week the lump on Natalie’s forehead had subsided, Tark had joined a drama club, spent an evening watching Jacques Tati movies and learned there were things in the world to smoke other than tobacco.  Within a month their friendship had become very close – that was Tark’s impression, anyway.  One evening he asked her if she would like him to pose as her life model.  

She looked at him oddly.   “I mostly do landscapes…but if you want?”

Winter came, the Amdram turned into a production, prompting an odd flatterer or two to suggest Tark should go to drama school, but he was vaguely uncomfortable with the authenticity of the praise.  Nevertheless he sought some artistic outlet and his typing was still abominable, so he stretched a few muscles and read a bit of Stanislavski.  Natalie continued to paint.  His uncertainty was not a failing she shared.

For all the increasing security and depth of their friendship, Natalie drew one very firm line:  sex was out.   Nudity fazed her not one jot, she liked shedding the restriction of clothing and was happy for Tark to do the same as long as he would not  interpret that small permissiveness as anything more.  Her career, she would insist, was everything.  She could not risk the accident of pregnancy, so, although those around them might make assumptions, and though they often spent days and nights together, they maintained an awkward celibacy:  awkward, at least, from Tark’s point of view:  it fed into his bubbling cauldron of anger.

One spring evening they were sitting in the garden of Tark’s family home; Natalie had her sketch pad with her, doing quick studies of whatever took her eye at the time, while Tark tried to describe his only encounter with a ruby-tailed wasp.  He must have failed dismally in the attempt because she suddenly pushed her pad onto his knee.

“Draw it.”

Was that a moment of revelation?   Did the magic memory of his meeting with that unusual creature transfer itself to paper?  When he had finished he stared at his effort and his effort stared back.  All his miserable, self-deprecating hostility glared from the fudged lines.  At first he tried to hide his abysmal effort, but Natalie was not to be so deceived.   She snatched the pad from his hand.

“It speaks to me,”  she said.

“It was only an insect,”  He replied humbly.  

“Oh, it’s much more than that.”

The insect, of course, was Tark; how he saw himself – how he was, very possibly.  If Natalie saw that too, she was far too polite to say so.

So, no revelation, then; yet a crumb to tempt him to see through the superficial self-image he had built for himself to something far more genuine.  Natalie forced that to happen, not by encouragement, just by her example.  Matters had moved forward; if he wanted to be around her he had to conform; he had to contribute.  To be with her was to see the world as an artist would see it – as she saw it.  He had to add something interesting of his own to earn her approval.

Tark found focus.  Every waking moment when he wasn’t engaged in clerkery was filled with things to sketch, different media to try, exploration of methods, foraging for board, or scavenging for paints.  Now that he and Natalie shared a new affinity, techniques fascinated him.  Although he felt hopelessly dwarfed by her talent, he had found somebody at whose feet he was willing to study.  For the first time in his life he had some sense of direction.

They began working together, painting scenery for the Amdram group’s next production.  He began to develop a plan for much more, telling himself they might have a life together, sharing a workshop, a studio, perhaps a partnership.   In retrospect he might have been better advised to share his vision with Natalie, but he didn’t.  Not then.

The aspect of his new companion’s personality that he never fully understood or equalled was the depth of her unswervable determination.  She fed it into her work, so every stroke of her brush was a conversation with the medium, and little of her dialogue with Tarq on those occasions had any significance at all.   From the most basic exchanges:

Tarq:   “Shall I get lunch?

Natalie:  “Wonderful.”

Tarq:    “What would you like?”

Natalie:   “You choose…”

To the more serious issues:

Tarq:   “We could set up a studio together!”

Natalie: “ That sounds like an idea.”

Tarq:     “I’ll look into it, then.”

Natalie:  “Why don’t you?”

He would get food in and she would ignore it. He was too broke to pursue the idea of a studio, which was fortunate, because she never mentioned it again.

That same vagueness pervaded everything in Natalie’s life other than the journey of paint from brush to canvas, so Tark should not have been surprised when, at the conclusion of her college course she announced that she intended to stay on for another year.

“I’m not ready for London yet.  I’ve more to learn.”

What could he deduce from this; should he be encouraged?  Natalie was always reticent, never gave reasons willingly, but he believed, poor mortal, that she was staying for him.

Come their second summer, Tarq had convinced himself enough of their relationship to take some first tentative steps towards a life with Natalie.   After all, had it not endured for almost two years?  They worked together whenever possible and he began evening classes at her college, through which he discovered a penchant for pottery.  With determination unusual for him, he persuaded his parents to part with money for a wheel and a small kiln.   Given the opportunity he would have discovered the many shortcomings of being wedded to clay – even his own mother kept her distance – but by good fortune or bad the issues of grey sludge spread no further than his room, because a week later Natalie had an announcement to make.

“I’m going to France.”

Tark’s first response was gaping disbelief, “What?”

“Jenna, Toms and Becs are putting a trip together.  Toms has a studio down there, near Cavalaire-sur-Mer, I think he said.  Oh, and Tazza’s coming – probably.”

Tark’s second response was;  “When?”

“Monday, if we can get a ferry.”

“For how long?”

“The summer.  We might stay on.  I don’t know.”  Natalie added, lamely, “Come, if you like?”

A year since, such a move would have been beyond Tark’s comprehension, but his love for this strange, enigmatic girl had altered him enough to reply hesitantly:  “Okay.”

“Alright, then, I suppose.  We’re all putting in.”

Didn’t it, you might ask, occur to Tark to question Natalie’s willingness to leave him behind?   How did he channel the anger he felt?   Secretly, in his clay-spattered room; and being insufficiently skilled to express himself by throwing a pot, he banged a board onto his easel and threw paint at that instead, expelling whole tubes of colour, splashing at it with slip clay for good measure.   Then he took another board and did the same, and another until he had no more paint, and no more board, and no more desire ever – ever- to become an artist.

Yet he still went to France.

He was broke: paints were expensive, brushes too.  So he sold his potter’s wheel and his kiln to pay his passage.   He endured an uncomfortable van journey in ever-increasing heat with a bunch of art students he barely knew, because although he could forgo the art, he could not be separated from the artist.  His feelings had rooted themselves too deeply.

Natalie took to the South of France with alacrity, Tark stuck to her like a second skin, at first.   There were necessary changes.   Toms owned their apartment, so rent was not a consideration.  Food though, and materials; they had to be paid for.  Toms mysteriously popped up with both from time to time, though not reliably: the company had to earn money, if only to eat.    Becs spoke French fluently, and with the tourist season in full swing, quickly found work.  Toms found evening jobs for himself and Tark at a local supermarche.   Natalie painted obsessively, Tazza sat in a corner and played guitar.   Jenna?  Well, Jenna found hotel work, but Jenna was ‘with’ Toms.   

With the resilience of the young, the group adapted to their new situation, which on the surface seemed idyllic.   Toms was one of the Art College tutors and Jenna was a student, so the others were there to lend some propriety to a very inappropriate relationship.   Becs, a darkly introspective girl with pretensions as a portrait painter, spent most of her days sketching any tourist with a wallet, Tazza, who declared himself a musician, did no work at all, predating on whoever had food available, while Jenna played with a canvas she had insisted on bring with her in the van.  Everyone shared freely in her work and no-one understood it.

Of the group, only Tark and Natalie painted assiduously, whenever they could.  Tark’s work reflected the outlier he felt himself to be, apologetic, almost desperate.  The heat disagreed with him, almost everything that could bite bit him: he had never travelled abroad before, only possessing a passport by chance because his parents had once considered going on holiday to Madeira.  Those around him were all friends; they had a level of communication he did not share.

He worried Tazza.   “Tark, mate, you should get out more!  Get down on the beach a bit, yeah?  Get some sun, man!”

Their apartment had a terrace, so Tark wondered at Tazza’s logic and anyway sun was the last thing he wanted.   His paintings, half-completed dashes of sorrow, the work of a day, sometimes less, piled up.   Although he shared a room with Natalie, he scrupulously observed her celibacy  rules, and they hardly spoke.

Then one day, about four weeks after their arrival, Natalie said:   “I’m pregnant.”

Tark knew he could not be the father, of course.  At last he found a voice for that well of anger that he kept so repressed.   “Who is it?  And do you want to tell me when?  I mean, before you dragged me down here, obviously.”

“I didn’t drag you anywhere.  Tazza’s the father. If you must know.  We were doing it at my pad.  You kept leaving me to go to night classes.  So don’t try to put the blame on me. ”

“They’ve been seeing each other for months,”  Becs said at breakfast,  “That’s why she didn’t go to London.  We thought you knew.”

Tark had one more exchange with Natalie before he left, when, with a commendable absence of bitterness, he wondered why she had felt so free to put her career at risk with Tazza, rather than himself.

“I like him.  I needed you, for the support, that was all.  Somebody there, you know?  We could never have stayed together, though.  You’re not a real creative, Tark.  You must see that.”

That might have been the last Tarq heard of Natalie.  He returned home, found a new job because work was plentiful in those days, and he almost, but not quite, resumed his self-conscious, self-isolating life – with just this difference: in his chosen solitude, in the peace of his room and for reasons entirely different to before, he continued to paint.

A year would have to pass before the doorbell announced a visit from Margo, the lady who ran the Amdram club.

“Can you paint the sets for our next show?  The chap we used last year tries, but he can’t really do what you do.”

“Natalie isn’t with me, now.”

“So I was told.  I never really liked her contribution, anyway, to be frank; too fussy.  I’d prefer if you did it on your own.”

This surprised Tarq, but he agreed.  He painted the sets.  By a stroke of fortune that wasn’t really a stroke of fortune because Margo set it up, someone from the regional opera company came to see his work and asked him to do their sets, too.  Soon, a wider audience began to express interest in his paintings.

And there, I suppose, the story rests.  You will probably have guessed by now that ‘Tarq’ is a pseudonym, not our hero’s real name.  Even in this day and age, few painters gain notability and wealth in their lifetime, but ‘Tarq’ has certainly achieved this.  Nowadays his signature on a painting is worth millions.  To this day he remains an artist of note, although his genius has never exceeded that of the group known as the ‘Avant Cavalaire-sur Mer’ triptych, with their unique blending of paint and clay.

The last time I saw him, I asked if he ever got in touch with Natalie again. I knew that she had never reached Art College in London as she planned, electing instead to follow a rock band on a tour or two.   Tarq knew where she was, he said, because she had written to him asking if he would like to paint with her again.   He told me he refused her request.

He remains a very private, and to strangers, a very lonely figure.  His face is not well known, but should you be in Sacramento, in the area, say, of the K Street Mall, and should you notice a gaunt, septuagenarian beanpole of a figure who lopes rather than strides, with his eyes fixed on his own reflection in the windows of the stores, it is likely to be him.  Lately, I am told, he is seen sometimes in the company of a woman who has the hands of an artist.  They walk together but they never talk.

I like to think that she is Natalie.

© 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: 5598 375 from Pixabay

Artist with Easel: Bridgesward from Pixabay

Cavalaire-sur-Mer: RD LH from Pixabay

A Measure of Living

It’s 6:00 am on a February morning.  The air is chill as I slip out from beneath warm blankets.  Ice has formed inside the window pane of my bedroom and I scrape it away to peer into the darkness at the frosted world beyond.  It is 1960.  I am fourteen years old.  

Outside our front door lies a bundle of newspapers, dropped by the newsagent’s van.   I will take them in, sort them on the kitchen table into an order to fit into my canvas bag, then I will take the bicycle from the back shed and set off on my ‘round’ of the country lanes that I cover every morning.

I don’t remember how many customers I had.  They were farmers for the most part, and villagers whose working hub was the nearby town.  Few travelled far, in those days.  As a rule they were tolerant, kind people who suffered their news in wet and dilapidated condition on rainy days with little complaint.  The canvas bag did its best, but it rarely succeeded in keeping the Daily Mails and The Times, the Mirrors or the Manchester Guardians completely dry.   I hated wet Sundays.  Sunday ‘papers were so heavy with supplements and extras I sometimes had to make two runs to spread the weight.

Dogs persist in my memories of those days – more, perhaps, than people.  Ralph was a Border Collie who helped drive his master’s cow herd to milking about the time I came past.  His method for asserting his authority was to leap up and swing on the tail of the rearmost cow.  Heavy with milk, the matron would half-heartedly flail a backward foot, but she never really seemed to mind.   When he wasn’t working he sat on the wall next to the road.  Ralph expected to be petted.

The architect at the end of the road owned a Great Dane:  the dog knew I regarded him with sufficient terror (he stood nearly as tall as I) to employ avoidance tactics whenever possible –  there was a long path to negotiate before his owner’s letter-box, and he looked forward to my daily visits with enthusiasm.  I was his favourite game.  Picture my young self, if you will, anxiously peering over the front gate to make sure the coast, as it were, was clear.  Picture the Great Dane hiding behind a rose bush of generous dimensions, watching as I stole stealthily up the path, slipped his master’s newspaper through the letterbox, and turned to beat my fast retreat, at which point he would stroll almost casually out onto the path, cutting off my route to safety.  Our eyes would meet.  I swear by the curl of his lip he was laughing. That dog had the deepest, most spine-chilling bark I have heard before or since.  I called him Baskerville; I don’t recall his real name.

Puttie was a Highland Terrier, a ‘Westie’.  Puttie’s owner, a nice comfortable lady, taught him to come to the front gate and collect his mistress’s ‘paper.  She accompanied him the first time to reassure me that Puttie knew what to do and it was all right to lean over and give him the rolled-up ‘paper.

“Are you sure?”  I asked her.

“Yes, certain, dear.  He’s very clever, you know.”

So I did.  I leaned over and delivered the newspaper into his jaws.  Puttie received it with enthusiasm, thereafter proving he was also very fast on his feet.   Seconds later, after he had disappeared behind the house, there came the first sounds of shredding.

“I expect he’s just taken it inside,” his owner explained, although she didn’t sound convinced.

That was an exercise never to be repeated.  I was told subsequently by nice lady’s son that Puttie not only took the newspaper indoors, but scattered bits of it around every room in the house.  He also defended it with vigour, while it still had entity, resisting any attempt to take it from him.

My ‘paper round paid me, as I recall, fourteen shillings a week.  It filled the two hours before our school bus came to take us over the hills to the local seat of learning.  It kept my own personal wolf from the door in the winter months, became a chore in summer when there was farm work to be done – potato raising, fruit picking, harvesting, in the evenings.  By and large they were good days, when a ‘child’ of twelve, thirteen or fourteen could ride the hay wain home, pitch straw with forks or (my favourite) ride the sled behind the bailer.  Farmers were mean paymasters, but we learned to work for our living.  We were respectful, a little fearful, and we were strong.

Then, in Britain, some might say the downward spiral began.  One day in a town called Minehead a beat bobby sought to discipline a miscreant teen by giving him a clip behind the ear.  In those days that kind of correction was common enough, I had been on the receiving end of a stout policeman’s severity once or twice myself.   It was simple, it was effective, and nobody died.  It nipped a thousand potential lives of crime in the bud.  The parents of that boy sued the police and won.  The beat bobby was a beat bobby no more, the constabulary paid up, thereby setting a precedent from which have sprung countless opportunist law suits, ranks of ambulance-chasing lawyers and a Health and Safety culture with which every former bastion of authority must ingratiate itself for fear of damage claims and destroyed careers.  

No more the hay wain rides, the thrusting of bales from the sled.  Even paper rounds are suspect now, and besides, those who might have earned from them are too busy throwing bricks at policemen, intimidating their teachers, or roving the streets in gangs.    You might disagree with me, in fact I’m pretty sure most of my fellow bloggers will, when I suggest that whenever we try to subvert the natural order of things by law we make them worse.   In the cocoon of my modern life I do occasionally reflect in this fashion.  Today I decided to share.

Featured Image by Sergey Mikeev from Unsplash

Image of Great Dane by Keenan Barber from Unsplash

West Highland Terrier by Sharon Tay from Unsplash