The Harp

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Another long one.  I don’t suppose a story of this length belongs on a blog, really, but scraping through my archives I found this piece of my past and thought I might air it again.  Please read only if you have the time…..

Delphinia Morgan-Jett was mildly vexed, which would explain her tone as she reached the foot of a call centre staircase of numbers and a real voice enquired thinly:

“Can I help you?”

“He is there again.”

A pause at the end of the line:  “I’m sorry.  Who, exactly?”

Mrs. Morgan-Jett tutted dangerously (acquaintances feared that ‘tut’ as a postman might fear a Doberman’s snarl).  “Young man; it is not my habit to repeat myself.  I have telephoned concerning this vagrant at least a dozen times.  Kindly deal with it.”

“Ah.”  The thin voice took on a deeper timbre of understanding.  “You’re Mrs…(a further pause) …Morgan, that right?”

“Morgan –Jett.”

“Yeah, whatever.  And this is about the bloke on the corner of Christminster Avenue – him with the brolly?  So he’s there again, then?”

“Was that not the substance of my initial remark?”

“Right.  Look, Mrs. Morgan, is he is actually committing any offence?  I mean, is he doing anyone any harm?”

“He is loitering; he is a vagrant.  He is unpleasant and he is causing an obstruction!”  Delphinia Morgan-Jett was as close to seething as she could ever become.   “See to it that he is removed immediately!”

The thin voice capitulated.  “We’ll get someone sent round.”

Delphinia carefully wiped her finger-marks from the white plastic of her ‘phone, then, morning sherry grasped between index and thumb, crossed to one of two deep casement windows that overlooked Christminster Avenue.

This view, unchanging with the years, so appealed to Mrs. Morgan-Jett’s sense of order and place that she often spent her morning seated here before her desk.  The buildings facing her on the other side of Christminster Avenue were identical in almost every respect to hers: rows of stone five-step approaches ascending to polished wooden doors, dignified porches spoiled only by security buzzers stacked discreetly behind an outer arch.  There was, of course, the curse of the motor car – impatient growls and grunts, the bawling of ill-disciplined children desperate for all the things children were always desperate for:  toys, sweets, ice-cream, toilets, the sea.

Yet in rare moments of tolerance Delphinia might be forced to admit she even found music in those discordant street noises.  Not this morning.

He was there again.

At the seaward end of the Avenue, at the traffic lights where it joined the vulgarity of the Esplanade, the man had placed a wickerwork picnic basket.  Hunched beneath a voluminous beige mackintosh reaching nearly to his ankles, with a deerstalker hat jammed firmly down over his long grey locks, thick horn-rimmed spectacles, a smothering brown scarf, and a large, folded, red and yellow golf umbrella in his hand, he opened the picnic basket to extract a thermos, with which he poured himself a generous measure of tea.  Then he sat down atop the basket to drink. Refreshed, and carefully ignoring the attention of bemused passers-by, he next raised himself to his full height, drew his shabby coat about him, and stepped to the kerb at the very corner of the road.

Delphinia’s vagrant raised a commanding hand to the car nearest to him, and stood in front of it.  Oblivious to a squeal of brakes, he turned his back upon its aghast driver to strut to the centre of the road junction where, with sweeping gestures from his folded brolly, he made it clear to the traffic on the Esplanade that he wished it to proceed.   He remained, making these arms-length gyrations, for some time – directing, or obstructing the traffic upon both roads for long enough to attract a rising chorus of horn-blasting protestation.

The gesticulations he made were reminiscent of a graceful dance:  the order he imposed had logic of its own, though his directions bore no relation at all to the sequence of the traffic lights, so when the lights favoured a certain stream of traffic he would almost always be in its way.  After a while, certain of the motorists under his influence started to obey him rather than the lights, others not.   The outcome was chaos.

Delphinia, who had watched this scene enacted many times, waited for the grinding of metal and stream of obscenities which she was sure must come, but which somehow never did.  Those whose view was closer to events seemed to regard the man with humour, and even booed when a harassed-looking policeman in a van arrived.

Normally at this stage of events the man would  succumb to a few words of wisdom and allow himself to be led away, but not today.  He snarled his dissent; he wrapped his arms around the pillar of the traffic lights on Delphinia’s corner, and – she must have imagined it – he looked directly up at her; looked her straight in the eyes!

No!   Delphinia took an instinctive backward step.  Those eyes had found her so quickly they must have known she was watching!   Her curiosity sharpened by unwonted guilt, she moved into view once more.  A policewoman had arrived to lend extra weight to the constabulary argument, a substantial presence in every way, but the umbrella man’s gaze was unswerving.  He stared fixedly at Delphinia’s window with an unmistakeable plea in his expression: he was seeking her help!

Delphinia found herself making a decision – one which she would have been unable to explain to anyone sensibly, and certainly not one she would have confessed to her cocktail evening friends.  Snatching her coat she hastened to the lift, and managed to reach the street just as the vagrant was being bundled unceremoniously into the policeman’s van.

“Just one minute!  Officer, wait if you will, please?”

It was not a request.  The policeman, whose day was already becoming something of a trial, glared towards the source of this imperious voice, his right hand still securely clamped to the umbrella man’s collar.  He met the crystal stare of a woman clearly used to obedience.

“I shall be glad to take responsibility for this gentleman.”  Delphinia clipped her consonants precisely.  “You may deliver him into my care.”

“I’m delivering him to a nice comfy room in our detention suite.”  The policeman responded, although not too brusquely.  Delphinia’s upright bearing, immaculate coiffure and expensive burgundy suit flashed warnings he should not dismiss.  Such attire was consistent with that of a councillor’s wife, or maybe a member of the Watch Committee.

The woman constable was more sympathetic:  “Are you acquainted with this person, madam?”

“We received a complaint.”  The policeman said.  “We’ve had a number of complaints.”

“Yes, yes I know.  I am the complainant.”  Delphinia brushed this argument aside.  “And now I’m telling you I will be responsible for this – this person.  I assure you he will not repeat the offence.”  She fixed the vagrant with her coldest, most incisive stare.  “You won’t, will you?”

The vagrant grinned three teeth from his top jaw, two from his lower jaw.  “No!  No offencing!  No!”

The woman constable seemed puzzled.  “Are you saying you know this person, Mrs…..?”

“Morgan-Jett.   Not exactly, no.”

“Then you realise what you’re saying?”

“Absolutely!”

The two representatives of the law exchanged glances, and within their silent communication were all sorts of unuttered discussions about avoidance of paperwork and use of police time.  “Well, chummy;” said the policeman.  “It looks as if you’ve found yourself a friend.”

Delphinia waited patiently through a number of formalities.   When they were concluded, and the police presence was receding in a fog of exhaust, she said:   “Would you care for a cup of lapsang souchong?”

The vagrant grinned those teeth again.  “Yes;” He said in a surprisingly cultured voice.  “I rather think I would!”

Throughout this process Delphinia Morgan-Jett had suppressed a desire to shout at herself.  Why, in heavens’ name, was she doing this?  What was it about this eccentric man that drew her to him?  Pillar of the community though she was, such acts of charity were completely foreign to her.  As she guided the umbrella man to her door, accompanied by muted applause from a small crowd, she wondered what insanities would visit her next?

“I am Delphinia. What is your name?”

“Tom.  I’m Tom.”

In her hallway she persuaded Tom out of his deerstalker and coat, revealing an Arran sweater from better years and grey trousers that were possibly even older.  Delphinia consigned the umbrella and basket to a corner.  “You were looking at me as though you seemed to recognise me – do you?”

“No.  No, I don’t.”  Tom said abruptly; then, in gentler tone:  “These are nice.”

The walls of a corridor which formed the spine of Delphinia’s apartment were lined with oil paintings, detailed landscapes and character studies lyrical in colour and brilliantly executed.  Their creator had a fine hand.

“Do you like them?  My son Clarence was the artist.  Once, this apartment was his studio.   He exhibited at the Royal Academy, you know.”

“Studio?”

“Yes.  He simply adored the light in this place; the reflections from the sea intensify it:  it inspired him.”

They had reached the kitchen.   “He moved?”  Tom asked.  “Where’s he now?”

Tom’s host did not answer at once.  She busied herself preparing tea, arranging two bone china cups and saucers on a silver tray.  “One’s children should survive one; that is what I do not understand.  Life is as it is, I suppose.”

“He died?”

“An accident; a complete accident – in Romania, of all places.  Some years ago now.”

“You’ve got his paintings.  You can remember him by them.”

Delphinia smiled sadly.  “Yes, I have his paintings.  Some of them at least.   Shall we take tea in the drawing room?”

“That would be nice.”  Tom said.

They sat upon brocaded chairs watching the sun’s patterned creep across the floor; and they sipped at lapsang souchong from those fine china cups, regarding each other in comfortable silence.  Tom, despite his somewhat unusual appearance, seemed to fit into Delphinia’s elegant backcloth in a way she would be at a loss to describe, but she found solace in his presence.  Perhaps she did not choose to analyse or describe it:  she was content to bask in the peculiar intensity of his light.

“It’s a nice apartment.”  He said at last.  “You must have a lot of money.”

Delphinia gave a ghost of a smile: she was unaccustomed to talking about money.  “I have enough.”  She said.

“That piano.  That’s a nice piano.”

“It is a Beckstein.  I believe Yehudi Menuhin may have owned it once.”

“You play?”

“I do, but not habitually.  My favoured instrument is the harp.”

“Harp, ah.”  Tom nodded sagely.  “Where’s the harp?”  He asked, after a pause.

“It’s downstairs – in another apartment.”

“Ah.  You’ve lent it to somebody?”

“Goodness no!  I would never dream…”  Delphinia bit back on her words.  She was going to rebuke Tom for daring to imagine that an instrument so temperamental and so precious could ever be loaned to anyone!  But Tom, of course, could not be expected to know such things.  “I keep it in a separate apartment.  Harps are sensitive to alterations in temperature or humidity, you see:  they do not live fulfilling lives with people.    By keeping it in a separate apartment I may maintain exactly the atmosphere it requires for perfect tone.”

“So you’ve another apartment – like this – for your harp?”

“Well, rather smaller actually.  But yes.”

Tom shook his head with profundity.  “I think you must be very rich.”  He said.  Then:  “I’d like to see it.”

Delphinia rewarded him with another of her faintly patronising smiles.  “Perhaps another time?” She said.

“I’d better be going.”  Tom suggested.

“Yes, of course.  Shall I arrange for a taxi?  Where do you live?”

Tom demurred.  “I Don’t get on with taxis.”

So, by fits and starts, began the most unlikely of friendships, a connection the existence of which neither party would accept, yet existed nonetheless.  At first, whenever Tom appeared with his traffic director’s accoutrement at the corner of Christminster Street Delphinia would hasten downstairs to ply him with tea, and Tom would accept, staying long into the morning in that warm, comfortable drawing room.  In time he pursued his role as traffic controller less and less:  instead, he would arrive at her door bereft of all but the clothes he stood up in, standing upon the threshold with his hair greased liberally and plastered to his head with mathematical precision.  On one such morning Delphinia gave him a tour of her apartment, in which she took care to include a very special room.

The door was at the end of the corridor.

“I keep this room as something of a shrine.”  Delphinia said.   “It’s rather dusty, I’m afraid.”

She opened the door, revealing a large, well-illuminated space.  There was no covering upon the floor and no decoration.  Around all of the walls were stacked canvases – hundreds of them.  Artwork was visible on some, not on others:  completed pictures leant against primed but naked canvasses, sketches against half-finished works.  Tom stood amazed, his eyes drinking in the profusion of colour.

“Clarence worked here.”  He breathed.

“He did, yes.”  Delphinia did not mention that the contents of that room included thirty completed canvases, or that her son’s work, if an example ever reached the market, could command sums in excess of two hundred thousand pounds.  She lacked that much trust in Tom, at least for now.

Tom said the right thing.  “You must be very proud of him.”  He said.

Delphinia almost beamed.  “Yes, Tom.  I believe I am.”

The summer passed.  Tom came for tea once, twice, three times a week; and during those visits little was said, much implied.    Upon one occasion Delphinia played a Chopin prelude on the Beckstein and Tom sat in a reverie so deep he seemed to be almost sleeping.

Then came a day in autumn when Delphinia, having passed a morning shopping, took her usual taxi home from the town centre.   She consoled herself with having taken advantage of the best of the day, for the last hour of fading daylight, which had been warning of things to come was now fulfilling its promise.  Rain hammered upon the taxi roof, bounced from the pavements.  Caught on the street, soaked pedestrians dashed or cringed beneath umbrellas, frozen moments of their discomfort brought into transplendent relief by sheets of lightning.   There was a queue of traffic building at the corner of Praed Street.   Delphinia’s driver muttered something.

“I beg your pardon?”  She enquired.

“I said, oh no not him again.”  The taxi driver repeated, omitting the profanity of the first utterance. “He needs sorting out, this one.”

Suspicion darker than raincloud filled Delphinia’s mind.  She strained her eyes against  the gloom.   The arc of colour described by a golfing umbrella was unmistakeable.  “Tom!”  She sighed.   “Is he often here?”

“Know him, do you?  Lately, yes missus.  He used to be down your way, didn’t he – Christminster Avenue?  He’ll get himself arrested again, for sure.  I was talking to Wayne, a copper mate of mine?  He reckons if they catch him again they’re going to get him sectioned:  you know, put away?  ‘Bout time, too.”

“Pick me up again at the lights, if I don’t come back to you.”  Delphinia instructed.  Once again in Tom’s case, it seemed as though she would act without thought for the consequences.  Fortunately she had the foresight to pack a brolly in her bag that morning, so she would avoid the full punishment of the elements, but the angry tea-tray shatter of thunder was warning enough as she hastened down the pavement to where Tom’s elegant ballet played to an unappreciative audience.

“Tom!  Come out of the road at once!”

Either ignored or unheard, she watched Tom wave insistently at the traffic jam, guiding one ensnared car deeper into his trap.   Sirens whined in the distance.  The sound galvanised Delphinia into action.  She stepped out into the road with urgency renewed.  A determined Delphinia was not to be ignored, certainly not to be disobeyed.  She snatched Tom’s arm in a commanding grip, virtually frog-marching him back to his basket, which waited dutifully beneath the traffic light.

“Pick that up, and hurry!”

Shouldering their way through crowds whose angry muttering rivalled the storm, and without once releasing his arm, Delphinia led Tom mutely back to her taxi.   The taxi driver looked doubtful.

“He’s a tramp!  I don’t want him in my cab.”

Delphinia was in no mood to be diplomatic.  “He’s my guest, and I insist upon it.  Who should I report you to?”

Mouthing darkly, the cabby conceded.  “But keep him quiet.  I don’t want no trouble with the law.”

Outside, sirens were evolving into blue flashing lights.  A quick-thinking Delphinia thrust Tom’s signature brolly out of sight on the cab floor.  “Now remove that ridiculous hat!  It’s soaked anyway.”

Clearing the pandemonium Tom had left behind him took a little while, during which Tom twice tried to exit the cab and offer his assistance, each time to be restrained by Delphinia’s surprising strength.  Eventually the threat of police detention was behind them and the taxi got under way.

“Where do you live?”  Delphinia asked.

“Him, he don’t live nowhere.”  The taxi driver had overheard.  “He gets into hostels from time to time, but mostly he sleeps rough down by the stock sheds, don’t you, mate?”

Delphinia gave Tom one of her most piercing looks.  “Is this true?”  She asked.  Tom said nothing.  “Very well.  Take us to Christminster Avenue, driver.”

For once, Delphinia was disposed to tip heavily.  As he unloaded her bags, the cabby warned:  “Don’t you let him take advantage of you, lady.  Be careful, alright?”

“My good man;” Delphinia snapped; “do I look as if I am to be taken advantage of?”

She had come to a decision.  When Tom had finally surrendered his wet clothes and was perched upon her settee looking ridiculous in one of her older, larger housecoats, she confronted him:

“I have ample room.  You must stay here, with me.”

Thus Delphinia’s relationship with Tom entered a new phase.   She never once questioned the motives which led her to buy him clothes, cook meals for him, or use all her powers of persuasion when he seemed disposed to return to his former traffic-organising life.  She asked few questions of him.  Although with time he became a trifle more erudite, they conversed very little.   It was as if she had found a role she was always meant to play; and if, somehow, memories of her departed son played a part, or if she was motivated simply by loneliness, that was a matter for others to question, not she.

Others did, of course.  Her friends – perhaps acquaintances would be a better term – were slow to accept the apparently retarded man with his unruly appearance.  Many stayed away, a few, for the first time in her life, possibly, became true confidants: interested in Tom, concerned about his life, concerned, for once, about Delphinia.

Tom, for his part, kept pace with change without effort or eloquence.   He seemed to move easily whichever way the wind blew and somehow always ended up ahead of events; untouched by them and splendidly untouchable.  The taxi-driver’s warning had been needless:  although he accepted kindness when it was offered, Tom never sought favours or money.  For large measures of his time he sought nothing at all:  he could be happy for hours just sitting upon the edge of his bed staring at the wall, or in Delphinia’s drawing room gazing out of the window at the Avenue and its glimpse of the sea beyond the Esplanade.   There was only one request he had to make, one which took considerable effort and a month of agonising to be put into words.

“The harp.  I want to hear you play.”

Delphinia looked across their luncheon table into the eyes of the sanguine figure who even in the most expensive clothes managed to look ill-arranged and dishevelled, and sighed.  She knew this moment would come, – had waited for it in an apprehensive, almost excited way.  “Very well.”  She agreed.  “Come this afternoon.”

Unlike Delphinia’s living apartment which occupied the whole of the second floor, the floor below was divided into two smaller apartments.  Several locks defended Number 3A, each of which Delphinia opened, using keys from two separate rings.   She led Tom inside:  “I have a complete temperature and humidity control system.”  She explained as she closed the door behind them, waving a dismissive hand at a control panel in the lobby.  “Come through.”

There, behind a plain panelled door in a light and airy room, its dark wood polished to a luxuriant depth of shine, its inlaid scrollwork picked out in white beech, Delphinia’s harp stood waiting.

“American, a Lyon and Healy harp.  Do you like it?”   She took Tom’s arm gently.  “Come now, sit down, won’t you?  I will play for you.”

Delphinia guided him to a green velvet upholstered salon chair at the window end of the room.  Only when Tom was seated, only when she sat before her instrument and met his expectant look, did the import of this moment dawn upon her.   For so many years she had played alone, in this soundproofed, closeted space.  No-one had heard, no-one had seen until now, and all at once an auditorium of years ago yawned dark and deep before her, the sounds of settling people, the suppressed coughs, the murmured words that always followed that first, polite applause, returned to her.  She drew the knee of her harp over her shoulder, rested the body there, and she played.  She played as she always did and yet with more, her head lost inside her music, her eyes closed to all but the fleeting touch of the strings.

And Tom?  He watched and listened in his own private rapture, utterly absorbed, letting the sweet, quiet insinuation of Delphinia’s music envelop him like a warm blanket.  Kessner’s Sonatina, Parry’s Sonata, Pachelbel’s Canon flowed over him as gently as sleep.  He did not know for how long she played, or the titles to all of the pieces he heard, although he knew many.  He only knew he was in the presence of hands whose eloquence was faultless.  He did not want it to end.

“Yes, I was a soloist many, many years ago.”  Delphinia admitted as they ascended the stairs.  “When my husband was alive we travelled frequently, and then Clarence came along so it was no longer possible to pursue a career.  I was forced to give up.”

“But you kept your harp.”

“Yes, I kept my harp.”

“You should go back to it again.  You play very well.”

Delphinia laughed a little musical laugh she had been cultivating of late.  “Oh, Tom, one can’t simply ‘go back’.  Anyway my dear, I’m too old.  I like to practice, though.  I enjoy the discipline.”

Those true friends who remained in Delphinia’s circle noticed a new intimacy in her manner, a softening of the autocratic glare, even an alteration in her speech, which now included familiar nouns with a freedom hitherto beyond her compass.   She seemed – well, she seemed happier.  This was quickly attributed to Tom’s influence and by some to a very much closer relationship than was the case.  If Delphinia got to hear of this version she did not show it or resent it; and Tom?  Resentment was not part of Tom’s makeup.

Over years fast friendships must inevitably spawn a form of love.  More unlikely companions would be hard to find:   Delphinia, essentially a very private person with high standards; Tom who could be described at best as eccentric.  Yet Delphinia opened her life to this rumpled man, and he responded with unique sensitivity.  The balance between them was perfect; so much so that those around them quickly forgot Tom’s dubious past.  One day a month after Tom moved in, Delphinia quietly sequestered his golf umbrella and hid it from view.  She waited another month before taking the picnic basket.  In each case, when he discovered their absence, Tom paced the corridor mouthing his distress for a while, but he did not otherwise complain.

There were rifts: one such occurred just before Christmas of their first year.  This was the only time in any year when Delphinia had to acknowledge the existence of relatives.  For all but a week of every twelve months her younger brother’s family were completely oblivious to her existence, only to appear bearing gifts unfailingly at a weekend in Advent.  Geraint Morgan eyed Tom up and down.

“Who is he?”  He demanded.  “What’s he doing here?”

Delphinia’s response was icily controlled.  “Tom is my friend.  He is here by my invitation.”

Tom ambled forward with his best attempt at a smile much improved by Delphinia’s insistence that he visit a dentist, offering his hand.   Morgan deliberately ignored it.   “It’s strange time of day for him to be visiting, isn’t it?” He said.

“Tom isn’t visiting.  He is my companion.  He lives here.”

Rachel Morgan made her first contribution to this conversation in the form of a derisory snort.

“Well!”  Said Geraint:  “Whatever would Robertson think of this, now?”

Delphinia pursed her lips:  “It has been many years now, Geraint.   If he was here, though, I believe he would thoroughly approve.”   The reference to Robertson Jett, her deceased husband, made her bridle.  “My decisions and actions are scarcely your affair, now are they?”

“We do want to see you kept safe;” Rachel chipped in.  “We don’t want to see you taken advantage of by some disgusting old man.”

“Tom is neither disgusting nor particularly old!”  Delphinia snapped back.  “And I insist you stop referring to my acquaintances as if they were not in the room!”

The visit was as brief as it was acrimonious.  The Morgans stayed only to observe the formalities while Tom retired discreetly.  He re-emerged after they had left.

“Don’t concern yourself, Tom.”  Delphinia soothed. “My brother’s family always rather lacked the social graces.” She unwrapped the present Rachel had thrust into her hand and stared at it disparagingly.  It was a book.  “I find this woman such an uninspiring author.  Do consign it to the kitchen bin, there’s a dear, will you?”

The following morning Delphinia answered her door to a policewoman.  Geraint Morgan had voiced his suspicion that ‘a helpless old lady was being victimised by a confidence trickster’, and although she was quickly able to allay those fears she took heed of the warning Geraint’s behaviour implied.  That same day she went to see her solicitor.

For five years Tom and Delphinia pursued an idyllic existence, he a devoted audience for her playing whether upon the piano or the harp, she often bemused, sometimes amused, but always stimulated by his stilted conversation, his unpredictable ‘ways’.  Theirs was a very private life, one in which they rarely ventured out beyond the usual demands of shopping or a limited social round, though exceptionally in their second summer they spent a month in France, renting a small house Delphinia had visited in her younger days.  But she fretted when she was deprived of her instruments and Tom understood this better than any.

To all things must be a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end came to Delphinia one spring morning.  Sitting opposite Tom at the breakfast table with a soft sun shining through her window she suddenly leaned towards him:

“Dearest Tom…” She began, trying to say something she would never complete.

A stroke was the doctor’s verdict, when Tom found the presence of mind to call him.   Mercifully quick, in his medical opinion – she would have known very little about it.  Tom, who would grieve for Delphinia in his own, very silent way, recovered his picnic basket and brolly (he had always known where Delphinia had hidden them) and made for the door.

Cynthia Braithwaite met him on the stair.  Cynthia was Delphinia’s most intimate acquaintance outside her companionship with Tom, and she had readily agreed to take care of him if anything happened to her.  Tom was not to become homeless; he was to continue to live as tenant in Delphinia’s apartment, on condition he looked after her harp.  In the events that followed, Cynthia honoured her promise.

At the funeral (he was the only one of the solemn gathering to be kept dry by a brightly coloured umbrella) Tom wept uncontrollably; and at the reading of the will he showed very little emotion when he learned he was Delphinia’s principal beneficiary.  An annual income and tenure of her apartment, with an additional allowance for the harp.  Cynthia was bequeathed twenty thousand pounds as a remembrance of her friendship and ‘patience with a cranky old woman’.  The Morgans were left three paintings from her son’s collection; they were to be allowed to choose which three.

The Morgans were outraged, of course, because they had seen the entire inheritance as rightfully theirs, and Tom had, in their view, taken it from under their noses.  Without Cynthia’s terrier-like tenacity Tom might still have been legally bullied out of his entitlement, but with her help he stood firm and survived the legal challenges which followed.

Finally, there came a day when Geraint and Rachel Morgan arrived at the apartment to select their choice of canvases.  Cynthia received them and Tom was not to be seen, but as they examined the pictures on the corridor wall the gentle strains of the Leibestraum wafted out to them from the drawing room.  So well-known a piece might have passed them by, yet it had a divinity even they could not ignore.

“That’s a fine recording.”  Geraint commented.  “Wonderful tonal quality.  Who is the artist, do you know?”

Cynthia was standing at the end of the corridor, next to the kitchen door.  “Yes, I do.  This…” she waved towards a substantial canvas hung to take full advantage of the light; “…is his portrait.  I think it’s a true Jett masterpiece.  It captures a virtuoso at the height of his powers, don’t you agree?”

Geraint Morgan stared at the picture.  Cynthia went on:  “He was booked to perform the Brandenburg at the Festival Hall that September; the end of a triumphant world tour.  Then one day he just stood up and walked out of rehearsals.  He was never seen again – a nervous breakdown, maybe?  No-one knew.  Delphinia was the only one who did, and she found out just a few weeks before she died, going through the paintings in Clarence’s old studio.  I’m sure she had a premonition.”

Rachel Morgan had joined her husband.  She read the appellation at the foot of the work aloud:  “Thomas Brabham DeVere, pianist.  Oh my god!  Isn’t that….?”

Geraint nodded.  Wordlessly he walked back to the drawing room door and opened it.  Tom looked up from the Beckstein, but he did not cease playing.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  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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Post Removed

Events in this country during the last month lead me to feel the flippant tone of my latest post was innappropriate.   The primitive savagery our civilized society is nurturing in its midst should no longer be tolerated.  Humour, however poor, has no place here.  This is a time for righteous anger.

With apologies, I have withdrawn the item.

Salad Days

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It is time to confess:  I am seventy.  I have reached the gates of Old Age.

I was a novice of sixty-five when I first hung up my gloves and placed my favourite chair determinedly close to the hearth.   That new dictum of ‘behaviour in retirement’ took time to learn.  I had to understand that my perception of retirement as a period of rest and dignity was not shared by others; that even as I was entering my sunset days of employment those around me were plotting my course from gold watch to dotage with meticulous care.  The list, by the time I reached harbour on my final day, was writ large upon the wall.

In case you, my reader, have yet to encounter my situation, I will introduce a phrase to you that will become familiar:  it begins  “Now you’ve got more time on your hands…”

This clause cannot be argued:  I had, at least initially, more time;  I had always hoped that would be so.   Nor could a constructive case be prepared to vie with the ensuing clause:  the pavement of the patio did need repointing, the bathroom did need modifying, that kitchen was just SO last year, and the ton of rocks we had delivered in 1990 for the rockery were finally going to get moved then, weren’t they?   All true.

Now I have acquainted you with the phrase and its possible conclusions, let me add a warning.  Do not counter with a protest:   “I was hoping to get a little time to myself,” or you will meet with the instant riposte:

“You need to keep active.  I won’t allow you to just vegetate.”

Oh, patient reader, you know me by now.   I am not sexist by nature – far from it.   But this much is undeniable; women live longer than men, a truth that has gone unacknowledged most of your life, until you hit the wall of sixty-five.  At sixty-five, as you long to melt into cabbage-like quiescence, the woman in your life will suddenly shift to a higher gear.  She will buzz about the garden, hum over the floors with the vacuum, wash paintwork you had forgotten existed, join line-dancing classes and begin a Masters Degree with the Open University.  She will tow you around the supermarket like a faithful if reluctant dog and around stately homes with vast  gift shops which swallow you whole for hours while she peruses dried flowers, china ornaments and small, expensive packets of Jasmine soap.

You see the obvious conflict?  You may observe this frantic, flitting creature with tolerant good humour, or with active distress, but never with indifference.  Inevitably you will feel guilty.  You are accustomed to keeping pace and no longer can, you feel required to enthuse when really you just want to sleep – somewhere, anywhere.

It is this tragic breakdown in human communication that drives men to abandon the comforts of home for long hours in snooker clubs, to plant allotments or live in sheds.  Let’s be absolutely clear – no man wants to spend all day in a shed.  A shed is a refuge, a place to plot the final steps on the downward spiral, arranging tools upon carefully constructed racks, or dousing the lawnmower with unnecessary oil.  There is an unwritten law which says no man must be interrupted in a shed.  This law is especially sacrosanct if the shed is also on an allotment.  Allotments are sacred ground where men are able to indulge in certain sectarian rights not shared by the female sex, like the ‘Earthing Up’ ritual applied to asparagus, or the ‘Thinning of Carrots’.

Anyway, I found retirement to be illusory:  my dream of rest from the daily toil was never realised, and all I could plead in its stead was a transformation from constructive career to demeaning labour.   Retirement merely served to rob of me of any sense of self worth or self confidence, forcing me to face my inadequacies.  All of which, come to think of it, was ideal preparation for the official new status I shall now enjoy: that of Advanced Septuagenarian.   Incapable of lifting another rock, getting down far enough to repoint a patio, or walking the distance to my allotment, at last I can claim sanctuary within my own four walls.

My list is completed.   There is more to do but I can no longer do it.  I am officially worn out!

Yay!

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  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

 

Surpassing Time

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Stopping the machine is simple.  One physical switch and the world outside the capsule resolves itself in anticipation of a landing.  Chronometer figures flicker into a discernible sequence, then they, and the world, stutter to a halt.   Out there in the silence of evening a green pasture prepares for sleep.  To my left a little row of houses, red brick and sash windows glimmering with dim illumination against gathering darkness   All is quiet.  I have chosen my location well.

I verify the figures on the chronometer with my backup instrument.  2211946.  17.42.  Day, month, year, hour, minute.  The 22nd January 1946.  5.42pm.  Exactly as planned.

The climb over a low back wall is easy.  The green back door yields to gentle pressure.  Mary is in the kitchen.

“Hi!”  I try to imitate an American accent.  “Is Michael Harris around?”

Mary looks askance at my uniform, but does not seem unduly surprised by my arrival.   “Mikey?  Yes, he is.  He’s upstairs.   What’s he done now?”

“Thanks.   Nothing to worry about, lady.  Just checking everyone for tomorrow.”

“We do have a front door, you know.  And a knocker.”

“Oh, yes.  Sorry!”

At the door of the bedroom I pause for a moment or two, listening as the young man inside moves about, busying himself with some activity I imagine must relate to packing.  Then I walk in.

“What the hell?”  Mikey is in his undershorts.  He is marginally less pleased than Mary by this stranger’s entrance.

“Hello Mikey.”  I drop the accent – it sounds phoney anyway.  Why bother?  “Putting your stuff together?”

“What are you doing here?  I ain’t done nothing!”

“You mean the MP uniform?  It affects a lot of people that way, doesn’t it?  We’re just keeping a check.  We want to make sure everyone reports tomorrow.”

“Sure!   700 hours sharp.  We’re shipping out, aren’t we?  I wouldn’t miss the chance to go home, Sarge.  No way!”

“That’s good.”  I nod approvingly.  “You’ll be going out tonight?”

“Are you kidding?   Last night in UK?  Last opportunity to show the locals how to party?  Of course I’m going out!”

“You’ll be meeting Rose, then.”  (My research is always thorough – that is something Xerxei, my arch-rival, has always grudgingly admired).

“How’d you know about Rosy?”   I have let the name slip as Mikey is folding a pair of pants ready to stow in his kitbag.  He pauses.  “Oh, right!  I guess you guys keep tabs on everything, huh?  Well, don’t worry – I’ll be on base tomorrow.  I’m doing nothing wrong.  Rosy’s a great girl!”

“She’s very fond of you!  Does she know you’re leaving tomorrow?”

A veil of sadness clouds Mikey’s face.  He doesn’t answer.

“Well, does she?”  I insist.

“I guess not.  See, Sarge, it’s so hard to tell them, you know?

“To tell ‘them’?”

“The Limey girls.  You’re right, she is kind of set on me.  But – hell, I wouldn’t stay even if I could.”

“She’s asked you to?”

“Yeah.  I mean, though – this damp, cold country?  Rosy’s fun; yep, she is fun.  Listen, I get it right, it’s gonna be a long night tonight.  Know what I mean?”

“Oh yes, I know.”  I assure him.  “You’ll get to sleep with her tonight, I’m thinking.  Yes?”

“Hey!   Let’s not get too personal, friend.”

“But you will.  The innuendo was yours – that was what you meant, wasn’t it?  Although ‘sleep’ is probably a euphemism.  You’ll screw her in a back alley somewhere and you won’t let anything come between you, will you, Mikey?  There are no rubbers in those deep pockets of yours.”

“On my last night?  I should eat my orange with the peel on?  Com’on!”

“No, of course not!   After all, tomorrow you’ll escape, won’t you?  What about the address you gave her to write to?  It isn’t yours, is it?”

Mikey chuckles.  “Or anybody’s, far as I know.  If it is, they’re in for a helluva surprise. Wait a minute!”  His face darkens.  “Look, I’ll give you a phrase, yeah?  ‘Spoils of war’, Okay?  There’s no crime, here, mister MP, all the guys would do the same if they could, and I’ll guarantee you a lot of them are.  A payment on account, against the danger, and the pain.  Now see, this conversation’s over.   I’m going to meet Rosy, and unless you want to arrest me for something, I suggest you leave.”

He’s right; the conversation’s over.  I already have more than enough.  I draw my Destructor from beneath my jacket.   Mikey pales.  “What the hell is that?”

By way of explanation I sight on his half-packed kitbag and vaporise it, then, in case he should react unexpectedly, I turn the sight on him.  Horror-struck, he stares down at the precise white X where it settles on his chest, and looks up to meet my eyes.   His death is in my face and he can read it plainly.  “Jesus!”  He says.  In a ghost of a voice he asks:   “Why?”

“You’re in my game.  You are a three hundred and twenty point target.  Sorry.”  I must stop these reflex apologies, which are becoming a mannerism.  I have no sympathy for him.  He seems incapable of speech, so I fill in the spaces.   “Let me give you a date, first.  We like dates.  19th October, Mikey, does that mean anything?  All right, maybe not, but it’s a special day, or it will be.  It’s the day, later this year, when your son is born.  Heaven knows why, Rose will name him Michael.   She’ll still be in love with you, you see – even when she knows you deserted her.”

Mikey looks, for a second or so, as if he has been punched in his stomach.  “You – you can’t know that.  How can you know that?”

“Oh, trust me Mikey, I know.  She’ll take your name, Harris, and tell everybody you died in the war.  She won’t say you were a stores clerk.  If you’re interested, you were shot down in a raid on Bremen.  After a few years, Rose will start to believe it herself.”

Mikey starts to rise to his feet.   “This is bullshit! What do you think you are?  Some sort of fortune teller, or what?  One thing’s for sure, you’re no Military Policeman.”

“You’re right, I’m not.  If you look through that window you’ll see the Tracer that brought me here, waiting in the field.  A Tracer is a TDT, a Trans-Dimensional Traveller – you might call it a time machine:  I fed it your coordinates and it brought me straight to you.   Where I come from I’m a chemical engineer, if that’s important to you.  Thing is, I’m in The Game.   I’m very good at it, too.”

My target, for such he is, edges to the window, aware my Destructor’s X is following him.   I know the materiality of the Tracer will be enough to reinforce my explanation, because it will be unlike anything he has ever seen before, or dreamed about; a silvery-white disc sitting on the vaporous edge of his dimension, transcendent and waiting.  “You ride in that.”  He murmurs.  He is silent for some time, then, and I let the minutes pass, watching his face as he slowly assimilates the reality of the TDT and a harsher truth the Destructor implies.  Eventually he is ready to speak again.  “Okay, this ‘Game’ of yours – how much do I pay to buy out of it?”

“I come from a time when your currency has no value.  In less than a thousand years when over-population has become critical, atmosphere toxic, supplies of water and food unsustainable, although there is no wish to resort to your primitive solution of war we have still to reduce our numbers to manageable levels.  Our solution is The Game.”

Mikey says, dully:  “The ‘Game’.  Sounds great.  Explain.”

“I was about to.  In The Game every living human is a ‘Passive’ or a ‘Player’.   Mostly, Passives just live normal lives waiting for something to happen; if they’re lucky, nothing ever does.  There are a select few, though – regulated by The Association – who become Players.   If you’re a Player you research the histories of the Passives looking for ‘Targets’, those whose ancestors behaved badly or immorally, and if you find one and if the Association doesn’t veto it, you can use a Tracer to travel back across time to make a correction.”

“This sounds mad to me.”

“It is very effective!   Overall, in only five years The Game has reduced world population by nearly fifty percent.  By eliminating  just one transgressor before they act we can reduce the next generation by as many as thirty individuals, because without them there are children that are never born, incidents that never happen, and so on.  Advance another forty generations and the planet’s cleansed of two, maybe three thousand hungry mouths; sometimes many, many more.  No pain is involved – the Player makes the correction then they simply disappear.  What’s more, as we’re eliminating faulty or bad genes in our species, we grow in power and virtue.  We are few enough to find space on our world and our species is vastly improved.  Good, huh?”

“Dangerous: if you make a mistake you could be one of the disappeared.”

“Exactly!  Which is why we call it The Game.  The Association takes all the care it can, they’re very strict; but inevitably there are overlaps.  I’ve checked my history and I’m sure I’m clean, but there are more than a hundred of us doing this.  If I’ve got it wrong, or if someone finds a flaw in my ancestry I’m the one who gets eliminated.  According to Association estimates, no more than five of us will eventually win through.  It’s extremely exciting!”

“Well, who or whatever you are, if it’s all the same to you, I hope you’re not one of the five.”   Carefully, Mikey returns to his bed, perching on the edge, with one eye always on that X on his chest.  “I guess that thing you got pointed at me is what does the correcting?”

“Don’t worry,”  I tell him.  “the process is painless.”

I know he will make a play, he has no choice.  When he does, I will dispose of him.  Meantime, I am gaining some enjoyment from this.

Mikey deliberately puts himself in my eye-line, staring at me.  “Seems to me this Game of yours could be doing you a lot of harm.  You’re reshaping history for yourselves, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely!  There are bad things that never get done because those responsible are never born, and there are other benefits too.   You see, our recorded history means we can monitor the changes:  that’s how The Association’s points system works. Do you know that if I had not targeted you tonight your great grandson would have been implicated in the assassination of a Russian President?   More than that, your great, great grandson financed five big business centres in Marseilles that are about to disappear.  I know exactly what alterations your absence will make, so you’re worth lots of points.  I will be Player of the Month for finding you, Mikey!”

The move comes as I expected it.   A much-emulated twist to his left side (I’ve seen the tactic so many times) and the dive to take control of my Destructor hand.   It is pitifully slow, and my reactions have not lost their perfection.   My beam catches him in mid-leap:  he vanishes in mid-leap.  He is part of the air now, a mist that will quickly disperse but can induce a cough if I am careless enough to inhale it in the first thirty seconds or so:  which is why my smile of inner satisfaction must wait until I have left the room.

I meet Mary on the stairs.  “Is he going out yet?  I made his tea.”

“Not yet.  I’d give him a few minutes; he’s changing his pants.”

My escape involves nothing more than leaving as I arrived.  I slip back into my TDT, set my coordinates to rebalance and throw that switch.  All I have to do is watch as the chronometer begins to spin and the world outside loses first form, then colour.  Five minutes or so after my departure Mary will call Mikey to his tea, and he will not answer.  Later, maybe, she will open his room and find him gone: no kitbag, only a few clothes, nothing more. She might be angry that he has left without signing off his last week’s allowance, and when she cleans the room she might notice the film of dust is a little thicker than usual, but that will be all.   Somewhere out there, I tell myself, Rose is waiting for a man who will never show.

I cannot describe for you the elated feeling, knowing that as I thread my way back through time large slices of history – structures, people, events, even wars, are altering:   I wonder at what might be the landscape when I reach my home City – who is new to me, who will no longer be there?

“Cracen.”  The voice of my old adversary surprises me.  It is not unusual to get messages, especially on my return from a Correction:   I have quite a large fan base anxious to congratulate me; but Xerxei, whose playing skills might be said to equal my own?   What can he want?

“Xercei!   What a surprise!”   I say.

“Yes,”  Says the disembodied voice.  “It will be.”

“I’ve just scored a three-twenty.”  I tell him, trying not to crow.   “Which, I suggest, must be top of the rankings this month.”

“Actually no.”   There is an arrogant nuance to Xerxei’s tone I do not like.  Has he beaten me?  I am near to home, so I reach forward for the decelerator:  fast landings are not allowed in the City.

“A little addition to your research, Cracen; one you should have spotted, and didn’t.  A story for you – a short one, very short.”   Xerxei pauses.

“Well?”  I demand.

“Rose.   At around eight o’clock she got tired of waiting, so she sought solace in the arms of Michael Harris’s best friend.   She and Tom Walbeck had a really fun night.    You know Tom Walbeck, don’t you?  He’s on your personal ancestor list, Cracen; in fact, he’s right at the root of it.  It’s a pity you didn’t read up on him just a little more, and you would have found out that he deserted Rose, just as Michael would have, given the chance.   The child she named Michael was Tom Walbeck’s son.  Anyway, to cut this short – I couldn’t let our Mr. Walbeck go uncorrected, could I?”

Shocked into immobility, I can only watch those last seconds as the chronometer counts down.  This time, when it stops, my TDT will be without a pilot.

© Frederick Anderson 2017. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Introduction of ‘Alternative Facts’…

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I live in a free country.   A part of citizenship of a free country is freedom of speech.  This is an essential component of a democratic system, and a subject not to be taken lightly, or in any way conditionally, by its subjects.  It is a cornerstone of a thinking society: without it, we are living in a new Dark Age.

When an issue of which we disapprove is placed before us, we must argue our case on the basis of reason, even if we find the opposing argument abhorrent.   Only by listening to views that outrage our own values can we put our case convincingly when we need to defend it.  Otherwise our point of view will degenerate into a hysterical mantra.  Manipulative people are always poised to feed from such narrow thinking, more than ready to change us from sentient human beings into sign-waving tools of their ambition.

Of recent years terms like ‘hate speak’, ‘no-platforming’, and ‘political correctness’ have become prevalent, depressingly mostly among the young, and unforgivably, embedded in university culture.  Any minor infringement of these ‘etiquettes’ is trampled beneath the twittering feet of  the appropriate zealous army.   Judgement by Facebook is rapidly becoming socially what the judiciary system is to the common law.

And this is dangerous.  Why?  Universities have been, historically, not merely places for the ingestion of scientific certainties, but for debate and the development of free thought; in short, forums for progress.   In today’s world they are arguably the only such forum.  There are none-too-subtle distinctions of meaning between developing and directing, so if university society sees itself in the latter role, our prospects for the future must be bleak indeed.

This is not new, of course.  Fear of the truth has always been a valid reason for concealing it, and nothing serves like a rabble-rousing, simplistic mantra placed in the minds of young idealists to achieve the thickest smoke-screen.   Witness the Hitler Youth of the 1930’s for the most powerful recent example, although there have been many other, lesser causes since.   It is why the thinking that withholds enfranchisement until the age of eighteen is entirely right – young minds need to seek maturity and balance before they make judgements.

What brings me to say this now?  I have lived long and seen much.  I have often despaired of the human condition, but never so much as I do today.  The proceedings of the last five years, especially, actually instil in me a real fear for my children’s future. If we are to proceed upon the great decisions of our future on the evidence of gossip, bias and malice, we deserve that doom which is closer now than it has ever been.

 

 

The Kingfisher

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The gaudily-clothed party of holiday-makers seemed to have settled at last.   Their car in the boatyard car park was apparently empty and locked, their enthusiastic spaniel dog had signed its name to almost everything that could offer an intriguing scent, and now they were huddled beside the mooring in two groups, irresolute.

Their canal boat rental ‘Daisy May’s’ long, gleaming red cabin stood open, her Perkins diesel puttering idly.

Abel wandered across to them. A speculative family of ducks was already in attendance; mother brown and glistening, chicks yellow going on brown and cheeping. The holiday makers’ kids were already on board, climbing onto the narrow boat’s cabin roof – four of them in all, the youngest maybe five or six.  Anxious maternal eyes watched as an attentive elder sister shepherded them to safety.

“Toby, don’t touch now.”

“Michelle, keep hold of Petey, there’s a darling.”

Two families, as Abel judged, and ready occupants for every one of Daisy May’s twelve berths.  They had driven up from somewhere in the South and would already be tired.  Comfortable or not, they would sleep tonight.

“Are you ready to go, everyone?”  He asked in his lazy, familiar drawl.

Malana, watching from her steamer chair on the front trestle of the boathouse, saw how easily Abel drew admiring stares from a pair of teenage girls in the company.  He was a big man, broad and muscular, his body honed by his lifetime on the canals.   Love of this work exuded from every pore, but he never hurried, or betrayed any anxiety.  It was a confidence that was inspiring.

The teenage girls began to giggle conspiratorially.  “The cabins are so small!”  One of the older women complained.

“She’s seventy feet stem to stern and she’s got everything you need.”  Abel told her.  “You just have to remember it all happens in a space eight feet wide.   Now;” He addressed the older man.  “Remember what I showed you?   Up is forwards, down is back.  It’s a tiller, so push left if you want to go right, right to go left, Okay?  Oh, and you steer from the back, so you need to push off from the mooring, or come off stern first.  I’ll leave you to it.  Enjoy yourselves and take it slow!”

Malana drank in Abel’s measured, capable steps as he returned to her.  She greeted him with her twisted half-smile, patting the seat beside her own in an invitation.  “The last one.  You’ve had a busy morning!”

“Busiest day of the year!”  He lowered himself into the chair, extracting a squeak of mild protest from its seasoned wood.  Malana wondered, not for the first time, if all that muscle was sculptured from marble.  “I’ve got everything hired out until Sunday now.”

“And no boat hauled up.” Malana glanced towards the empty slipway that skirted the boathouse.  “What are you going to do all week?”

“Problem, I know.  I was going to fix the seals on ‘Darling Gracie’s’ pump out valve, but we were short by a couple of boats, so I had to put her back in the water.  More than that, we called in ‘Daisy May’ from dad’s yard.   Moira overbooked us again.”

“I thought I didn’t recognise this one.”  Trying to disguise her amusement, Malana watched as ‘Daisy May’s’ novice crew tried to leave the mooring forwards, frantically thrusting their fending poles at the bank.  “She looks a nice boat.  When did you bring her up?”  Abel’s father ran a twin boatyard some thirty miles south on the Grand Union Canal.

“Dad brought her on Wednesday.  I still had to fit her out with some stuff, though.  She’s brand new.   We only bought her this Spring.”

Down on the canal, the elderly man at ‘Daisy May’s’ tiller was becoming increasingly agitated.

“I’ll just be a minute.”  Abel apologised.

Offering Malana another prospect of his departing figure the young boatyard owner strode (almost hurrying, she thought) down to the mooring, calling out to the elderly man.  “Mr. Yardley, sir, put her in reverse!  Down!   Down for reverse!  See, it’s pulling water over the rudder, so now put your tiller hard left.   Nope, left – that’s it.   Now you’ve got her!   Straighten your tiller nice and easy, see  – there you go!”

Several tons of steel narrowboat backed out into the placid water of the canal, its inexperienced helmsman grinning at his success like a Cheshire cat as children cheered and a manic spaniel raced back and forth along the cabin roof.

“I thought you took them up to Handyard’s Lock first, to show them the basic stuff.”  She said as Abel returned.

“I do.  Some take longer to accept it than others.  They all think it’s easy, I can do this, so they don’t listen.  It is easy, but they don’t listen.  He’ll be all right now.”

“You’ll have to buy a couple more boats.”

“Well, the business is there, certainly.  But we already have fourteen in the water, and they’re getting more expensive every year.”  Abel shrugged.  “I don’t know; maybe. I sort of like life as it is.”

Sighing, Malana turned her face to the sun, closing her eyes.  “You have it all here, don’t you?  The canal, your boats, a quiet country lane miles away from the traffic, miles away from the world.  I envy you, sometimes.”

Abel chuckled. “Envy me?  Well, I don’t think I ever saw myself as that lucky.  Maybe I am.”

“Absolutely you are!  I look at you, always contented, not a shred of ambition anywhere in your body?  Every time I see you it’s the same.  You’re just happy, aren’t you?”

“And you’re not?”

Malana sat up in her chair, suddenly decisive.  “I could use another beer.  Do you have anything for lunch in there?  A sandwich or something?”

“There’s bread, and beer in the fridge.  Help yourself.”

But she had already left him, nimbly skipping through the clutter of tools and stores to the back of the boathouse where, behind a row of foggy and randomly cracked windows, Abel lived.

His was a ramshackle existence, one she had known for as long as she had known the boatman.  He had grown up here, helping Mark, his father, with never much use for school or learning, although he had learned his craft well enough; and when Mark bought the site down south, Abel simply took over.  There lingered a friendly odour of generations (who knew how many?) behind those smutty window panes that was familiar to her, a kind of mustiness that felt comfortable.   A living area, chairs, a sofa scattered with magazines and tour brochures, a worn Persian carpet, today littered with the detritus of ready-meal life, that might just as easily play host to a misbehaving outboard motor, or a bilge pump.  Adjoining this, a kitchen – small but clean, with a bread bin, fridge full of beer, some ham…

It was hot.  Midday sun beat down on the boathouse roof, the spread was melting as she applied it to the bread.  Two bottles of Coors were coldly welcome in her hands.

“Thought you’d like another beer.”  She said, rejoining him.  “When are you going to build yourself a proper house?”

“I wonder how many times you’re going to ask me that?  I wonder how many times I’ve given you the same answer.  I like being right here, by this old canal. I’m happy as I am.”

Malana didn’t respond for a minute.   She sucked her beer, listening to the waterside birds as they cheeped and clucked their way through a day’s commerce, trading beauty for bread with the tourist boat people passing by.

“The canal’s changing, though.”  She said at last, and Abel didn’t have to answer, because the peace was disturbed by a heavier diesel chug which, growing in volume, finally resolved itself into a sleek white river cruiser.   “Isn’t that ‘Moonlight’?” She asked.

Abel nodded.  “It was.  Old Tarbut got too decrepit to use her, so he sold her on to Armand Brothers.  Now she’s ‘Number Three Four Seven.’   Where’s the romance, huh?”

“He was nearly blind last time I met him.”  Malana chuckled.  “I hope they cleared the cabin of all those spiders.”

“I’m sure.”   Abel waved to the couple who stood arm-in-arm at the boat’s smart little wooden wheel, and they waved back.  “Pair of townies like them, They’d be running round the deck screaming otherwise.  You’re right, though.  Things are changing.  Maybe twice as many holiday makers these days.  It isn’t a bad thing, I don’t suppose.  Good for business.”

“I remember a day like this, not too many summers ago, you and I went skinny-dipping down there.  We couldn’t do that now.   We’d be caught.”

Abel allowed himself a twitch of a smile.  “We were bloody nearly caught then, I seem to recall.  We were eleven years old.  The rules were different.”

“My dad wouldn’t have thought so.” Malana sighed.  “Twenty years!”  She sat up, suddenly.  “There!  Did you see it?  Woodpecker!  Just a blue flash, but I know I saw!”

“Oh, him!  He’s been around a while, now.  Don’t know why – they prefer the rivers, normally.  I expect he’ll move on soon.  Nineteen.”

“Nineteen?”

“Nineteen years.  That was the year of our eleven plus.  I failed.”

“And I went on to Partondon Grammar, for all the good it did me.”   She closed her eyes, lost in a golden haze of reminiscence.  “But still, it was a beautiful summer.”

Neither spoke then, but reclined side by side, at one with their thoughts.  Some were the times they might doze for a while, here, with the water for company; until waking, she might turn to see his sleeping face and smile, as a lover might, at his innocence.  They were companions, friends, confidantes; and whether in the cold rains of winter or the summer heat this boatyard had been almost as much a part of Malana’s life as Abel’s.  Here she had learned watercraft, taught herself how to paint the glossy barge art that adorned the holiday narrow boats just as gaily as the barges of old. If her love of art had been born here, so too in turns she had been baptised in tar, antifouling, engine oil and grease; been exhausted, elated, proud and angry, but most of all she had felt the love that this place wrapped around her.  For as many hours of the week as were spared to her, she would come here, and always she would feel welcomed.

“Ah, here we go.”  Abel said.

A big river cruiser had burbled quietly up to the mooring, the sound of its engine lost in the silence of their thoughts.  A spare looking man was already ashore, while a woman in a green blouse held a line from the stern, ready to tie off.

The man looked up as Abel approached him.   “How much for the mooring?”   He demanded crisply.  “We’re staying overnight.”

“Not here, this is a private mooring.  There’s a public staithe at the Stag and Hound by Handyard Lock.”

The man flushed immediately, primed for combat. He was short in stature and aggressive by instinct.  A terrier, Malana thought; and he’s not enjoying his holiday. “What am I supposed to do, then?  I’m not going to moor outside a pub!”

“This boat’s from Robertson’s, isn’t it?  You could wind by the lock and take her back there.  It’s no more than five miles.  It’ll be quieter around their yard.”

Malana allowed herself to chuckle openly, watching the man’s peacock strut as he vented his frustration.  Abel was unmoved and unmoving.  The man waved his wallet, Abel shook his head, and the scene played itself out, the one spoiling for altercation, the other patient, but obdurate, until there were no lines left in their script.  At last the visitor climbed back on his boat and, with a well-chosen selection of over-the-shoulder invective, sailed on.

“You could have let him!”  She rebuked, as Abel returned.

“Right!   They’d be queuing up by tonight.  I must have six signs saying this is a private staithe, They get worse.  What if one of my own boats comes in – a repair or something?”

The friends sat side by side, sucking their beers and watching a steady flow of tour boats pass by.

“What are you going to do, Abe?”  Malana asked.

“Do?  Me?   Tidy up the boathouse this week, I reckon.  And I’ve got yards of paperwork to catch up on.”

“No, not this week.  I mean, with the rest of your life.   You can’t live at the back of a shed forever.”

“Why not?”

“You’re worth so much more, I suppose.”  Malana said.

He took her hand gently and held it, and if her fingers trembled at his touch, he did not seem to notice.  “You know, I’ve often wondered about this ‘worth’ thing.  About chasing ‘success’, whatever that means – about always wanting a little bit more.  The way I look at it, I have what I want – all I’m really entitled to want – this is my little place in the grand scheme of things.  If I tried to change more than I needed to change, I’d only end up making myself unhappy. Other people, too.”  Abel added.  “Of course, it’s different for you.”

“How?  How is it different?”

“You like it – the pressure, the rushing about.  You enjoy the challenge, I expect.  That isn’t for me.”

“Yes, I suppose I must.”   She said.  “Don’t you ever want – anything – to be different?  I mean, you must sometimes ask yourself whether there could be another way?”

“Nope!”  Abel grinned.  “Everything seems to me to be just as it should be.”

He pushed himself out of his chair and walked down to the mooring to tidy a line his last customers had left beside the water.   “They’ll be missing this!” He called over his shoulder.  Malana did not answer.  When he turned around he saw she had gone.   Such arbitrary departures were lately a peculiarity of her visits, so he assumed she had needed to go back to her work.  As he returned to the boathouse he pictured his friend there as he always saw her.  Trim and pretty still, with her hair about her face in the breeze and that fond, slightly cynical smile, and he thought how nice a picture that was, and how peaceful her nearness made him feel.  He almost laughed aloud, as he often did when he daydreamed of Malana, at the sheer joy she brought him.   Tomorrow she would be back, just as usual, and he would look forward to her return.

 

Malana set her little car popping around the twists and turns of the boatyard’s narrow lane, heading  towards a village where the lane emerged onto a main road, which, in turn, would lead towards a town.  As she drove she wiped tears from her face, trying to ignore  the thump of her suitcase as it slid from side to side across the back seat.   When she reached town she would join a motorway to a city and an airport where a man she had agreed to marry would be waiting.  It was the third time she had made this appointment, and he had proved his love for her by his infinite patience when she had failed him twice.   That she could not return his devotion made her sad, and leaving the only man she could ever love cut a wound in her heart, but it was time for one promise, at last, to be kept.

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Voyage of Tomas the Carpenter

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“Pleasant, is it not?”

Tomas frowned at the intrusion of the voice, because it had visited him from time to time over the last few hours, and he feared he was going mad.   There was no-one else aboard his self-built boat, no-one to talk to; but more importantly, no-one to help him.  He sighed, his elbows propped upon gunwales which bucked in leisurely fashion to the rhythm of the waves, staring out at a featureless, seemingly endless sea.   Yes, the view was beguiling in its way, he supposed:  wavelets capped by the pink reflection of a rising sun, a placid seascape in all of its might and glory.   Only one prospect might have excited him more.   Where was land?

“I don’t understand it.”  Tomas murmured, keeping quiet as if he was afraid the author of his inner voice might hear.   “I couldn’t be more than an hour from shore.”

“That was before you fell asleep.”  Said the voice.

This was true.  Acting alone, catching the tide in the early hours of a Tuesday morning, Tomas had found the little vessel he had constructed to be a heavy burden on the ancient, cracked slipway at the foot of Chorlden Farm Road.   He had built it well, a little carvel hulled fishing boat with a rudimentary cabin, and he had built it alone, too.  Tomas did most things alone, with independence he valued, but which often cost tiredness.

“I can’t have slept more than a few hours.”   He remembered his struggles mounting the outboard motor, and his jubilation when it started.  He remembered pointing his boat’s trim little stem towards open water for its first voyage.  It rode well.  It did not leak.   That was all he remembered, for he had dropped into an exhausted sleep.  “But only for a few hours.”

“Feel your chin.” The voice told him.

Tomas complied, and was shocked to find his fingers were running through a short, silky beard.   “I grew this while I was asleep?”   He asked incredulously; wondering why he needed a non-existent companion for confirmation.   “How long was I out?”

“A long time.”

“So I’m out of sight of land, the engine has run until its fuel was all used.  I’m adrift and I don’t have the faintest idea where I am!”

“That’s certainly true, although it wouldn’t help you if you did.”

“I could send up a flare.”

“You could.  No-one would see it.”

“Why not?”  Tomas asked suspiciously.  Then… “I’m not talking to myself, am I?  Just where are you?”

There couldn’t be anyone else aboard – there was no space for concealment; yet he was becoming more and more certain the voice he heard had its origin somewhere on his boat.  Nowhere in the stern – he occupied the well deck himself and apart from equipment chests beneath two small side benches (which he had already checked many times) there could be no place to hide.  Such a tiny ship had no bilge to speak of, merely a few slats to raise his feet above the contours of the keel.  Who, or whatever it was must be forward somewhere – but where?

Tomas ran his eyes carefully across the contents of the open-backed cabin.   No more than a shelter, just enough room for a single berth and a shelf.  The packet of sandwiches he had prepared for his day’s sailing rested there.

“Down here.”  The voice said.

Peering into shadow beneath the shelf, Tomas met two pairs of pinhead sized eyes, reflecting dimly as the low sun sought them out.  The owner of one of those pairs of eyes moved forward into full view.

“But you’re a mouse!”  Tomas protested.  “Mice can’t talk!”

“This one can.”  Replied the mouse, in quite cultured English.  “Mind you, there is some effort involved – a matter of lung capacity.”

“I must be dreaming this!”  Tomas shook his head, rubbed at his eyes.  “I’m still asleep.”

“I wish you were.”   The mouse replied.  “It would put us all to a lot less inconvenience.  As it is…”

“As it is I am wide awake, lost at sea and conversing with a rodent?”

“That about covers it, yes.”  The mouse nodded, sagely.  “Look, can I introduce my wife?  She won’t talk to you, but as a matter of courtesy?”   At this the owner of the second pair of small pinpoint eyes advanced from the shadows, and Tomas could swear he saw it give a little curtsey.

“How do you do?”  Tomas greeted the creature with as much irony as he could muster.  “I don’t suppose either of you know where I am, do you?”  He chided himself:  “That’s ridiculous!  I’m asking two household pests for directions!”

“And being rather rude about it, too.”  The first mouse said severely.  “We shan’t get anywhere if we resort to personal abuse.”

“Or, indeed, if we don’t.  Is it possible to end this conversation?”  Tomas asked, tersely.

“We could,”  acknowledged the mouse.  “But there is something you should know first.   Something quite important.  You see, you have been asleep for some time.  I have no knowledge of your name, but I don’t suppose the initials R.V.W. would apply?”

“Rip Van Winkle?  No, they wouldn’t.  My name is Tomas.”   Tomas told the mouse, heavily.  “How could I have slept so long?”

“That was arranged.”

“Arranged?   How?”

“By the Great Arranger; (these words induced the second mouse to simper fearfully) He who foretold Cheesehalla!  We mice have awaited His coming for generations.  He had to keep you quiet while it all happened, you see.  We needed you.”

“One of us is going completely insane.”  Tomas said, convinced it was himself.  “While all what ‘happened’?  Needed me for what?”

“The end of all things; the Great Flood,   You’ve missed out on quite a lot of stuff, actually.  Ratnarok, in fact.  Solar flares, all the ice melting, the land dried and shrivelled to a husk.  Most spectacular!”  The mouse saw Tomas’s shoulders shaking.  “What are you laughing at?”

“You!”  Tomas spluttered.  “I’ve never heard such utter codswallop!   Cheesehalla?  Great Flood?  And I slept right through it?  Which particular bush do you think I was born under?”   He controlled his breath with a struggle.  “All right, all right.  If this gigantic fry-up happened, why wasn’t my boat affected?  Why am I still alive?  I don’t see any scorch marks.”

“We were pardoned because we are under the protection of the Great Arranger Himself (at this, the second mouse cowered and covered her eyes with her paws).  You see…”  the mouse said proudly, puffing out its chest,  “I am his Chosen One! (and she’s the Chosen One’s wife).”  It added as an afterthought.

“And I’m your low-budget Noah!”   Tomas snorted.  “Enough of this.  Tell me which direction will get me back home.  I’ll paddle it if necessary.”

“You’d have more success diving.”   Said the mouse.  “I’d say your home is quite a few fathoms down.   You might find it, but things are pretty murky in there.”

Preposterous as it was, this conversation had so distracted Tomas that he had failed to keep watch; so the thump of contact, when it came, was a surprise.   He hastened forward to see what his boat had hit, clambering around the cabin.  His rodent companion scuttled up beside him.

“A buoy!”  Tomas cried, triumphant.

The structure certainly looked like a buoy – large and metallic, roughly conical at its visible base, topped by a tall mast that supported a large, unlit lamp.

“Not a buoy.”  The mouse said.  “It’s a mast.  Don’t you recognise this?”

“No.”  Tomas replied, shortly.  “I don’t.”

“The words ‘Eiffel Tower’ have no significance?”

Thereafter, Tomas said very little for a very long time.  Pale with shock, he did manage to throw a line around the top of the Eiffel Tower, securing his boat while his mind drank in the full meaning of everything the mouse had said.  He sat in the stern and stared at the empty sky, reflecting that this was not how he had intended his maiden voyage to pan out.  Could he believe all this was achieved by some sort of super-rodent?  Right then if he had seen a returning raven he would have believed it.  But there was no olive branch, no sign of life.

“If…”   He said finally; “if I’m not dreaming and all this is real, I must have drifted south for at least a hundred miles.”

“More ‘borne up on the storm’, I’d say.  It was a miracle you slept through it.  My wife had a terrible headache.”

“So – you seem to have all the answers, Mouse.  What happens next?  What does your ‘Great Arranger’ have in store for us?  I suppose we just sit here, do we?  I suppose we have to hope that others will find us, don’t we, before we die of thirst or starvation?”

“Ah.”  Said the mouse.

“Ah?”

“There is no-one else.  The Great One made sure of that when he cleansed the Earth with his fiery plague.”  The mouse paused, expecting Tomas to enquire what on earth it meant by a ‘fiery plague’, but Tomas just stared at it.   “It is very regrettable, of course;  the Great One went on retreat for almost half a lifetime to consider it – it was the only solution.  They were all beyond help, you see.   All fornicating and lying to each other and jabbing at their little electrical machines (the mouse’s wife made a ‘tutting’ sound – the first sound Tomas had heard her utter) …those machines were the last straw, in fact.”

“Mobile ‘phones?”

“Yes – yes, yes, yes!  Your mobile ‘phones were the cause of your final fall from grace.   Have you any idea how intolerable those intense radio waves are to small creatures such as us?  How they hurt our ears and permeate our brains?  It couldn’t go on, you see.  It had to stop there.”

“But I have – I had – a mobile ‘phone.  Doesn’t that make me as hopeless as the rest?  How is it that your ‘Great Arranger’ let me survive?”

“Are you sure you want to know this?  Very well.  If you were pleased to take another look at our mooring, you would see that the place where you tied off is a little higher than it was.  That is because the water level is gradually subsiding.  There are tides to be considered too, so if I were you I would leave plenty of line and tie off further down.”

“Surely that shows the water will drain away eventually.  We just have to wait!”

The mouse looked doubtful.  “There is a problem.  Our calculations suggest it will be a lifetime before the water is all drained away.  That’s a mouse’s lifetime, of course.”  It added, helpfully.

“Calculations now!  You make calculations?  Oh, I forgot;  not you.  The ‘Great Arranger’, yes?  And this is your lifetime, which is about a year.”  Tomas paled as the significance of the wait impressed itself upon him.   “There’s no fresh water!  I’ve only got my sandwiches!”

The mouse shrugged, and yes, it was the first time Tomas had ever seen a mouse shrug.  “That does pose a problem.”  It admitted.  “Fortunately, the Great One foresaw it.  We – my wife and I – we shall not see land again, although, of course, our children will.   Oh, we are expecting a family, by the way.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you.  Our children, and their children, and their children’s children, will be the first to stake their claim to the new world.”  The mouse clasped its front paws behind its back, and began trotting on its hind legs back and forth upon the gunwales: “A world where we mice shall have total domination, unopposed by the ravages of man.   A brave new world, a…”

“The squeak shall inherit the earth, eh?  I think your brave new world cats might have something to say about that.”

“Oh, I didn’t mention, did I?   Our fiery plague took care of the cats as well.  In fact, it took care of everything that might stand in our way…”

“Everything?”  Tomas’s eyebrows reached even greater heights.  “All other animals, all the birds, just wiped out?”  The mouse had stopped pacing, and now stood posed upon the top of his little vessel’s bow, gazing into the sun of morning with a rapt look on its sharp features, and Tomas caught himself staring at his little shipmate with his mouth wide open.  Mighty as the struggle with his unbelief seemed, however, he could not doubt the evidence before him.  At last he said:  “Suppose – just suppose – all this is real.   The Great Flood without the animals two by two, your ‘Great Arranger’ – all of it.  Aren’t you forgetting something? ”

“Hmmm?”  The mouse glanced over its shoulder;  “What?”

“I won’t survive, will I?  No food beyond that packet of sandwiches; no water?  So your ‘Great Arranger’s’ plan for me is going a bit awry.  And I wouldn’t give much for you or your brood’s chances either.  Even if you pinch my packed lunch it won’t last all those little mouths more than a few weeks at the most.  You’ll all starve.”

“On the contrary,”  The mouse said.  “You exactly fulfil the Great One’s plan.”

“Oh, really?   So you have some other source of food to keep us alive for all that time, have you?”

“Yes.”  The mouse responded, and its tiny red eyes took on a hungry look.  “Well, not ‘us’, exactly.”

“No.”  The mouse’s wife was somewhere behind Tomas, articulating a sentence of its own for the first time.  “Not ‘us’.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waste Disposal

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amy-3“I think I asked you to put out the trash, didn’t I?”  Amie asked.  “I did, didn’t I?”

“Amie, clearing the refuse isn’t time sensitive.  I’ll do it after I’ve finished.”  Malcolm, frowning with concentration, applied a wing strut to his model of the ‘Wright Flyer’.  It was his sixth attempt.  The glue wouldn’t let the piece sit in position, but kept sliding it to one side.  “Isn’t it amazing people used to fly a thing like this?”

“I don’t care.   I don’t care about your bloody pile of sticks.  I asked you to put the rubbish out.  You haven’t.   Just like I asked you to clean up the living room, and you didn’t.  Or cook for us last night….”

“All right!”   Malcolm sighed in resignation.  “So I don’t do everything you want, the moment you want it.  Look, Amie, I’m entitled to some time of my own, you know?”

“I suppose I have to do it myself!”   Amie grunted.  And it was a tiny, porcine grunt, one of her mannerisms that Malcolm had found so attractive, once.   She stood in the corner of their living space, glaring at the model and its dedicated constructor.   “Must you keep tuning the light to orange?”   She demanded.  “You know I hate it.”

“I told you, it’s a good light for intricate work like this.  I won’t be long.”

“Work?   That isn’t work, Malcolm, that’s a hobby.  You know, like making cathedrals out of matchsticks or little handbags out of string?  I wouldn’t mind if sometimes – just sometimes – you actually did some real work!”

Malcolm treated Amie to one of his paternal, superior looks.  “I work just as hard as you, Amie.”

“Oh, you do!  You mended the cracked tile behind the cooker. Let me see, when was that?  Yesterday – or was it the day before?  That’s just it, Malcolm, you don’t!   You don’t do anything I ask, you don’t help, you don’t…”

“Okay, okay!”  Malcolm was on his feet, blazing back.  “While we’re on the subject of ‘don’ts’…”

“Yes?  While we’re on the subject..?”   Amie strode forward, facing her partner like a pugilist, legs astride, hands on hips, only the table and the model aeroplane upon it separating them from total war:   “What are you going to bring up next?   Come on, let’s have it!”

“Well’ it would help if we…I mean, if you…”

“If I still slept with you?   That’s what you mean, isn’t it?  Same old, same old!”

“Knowing there’s no affection, no love anymore.”

“Oh, right!  No lurrrv!”   Amie breathed deeply. “So the fact that you’ve developed into an overweight, bone idle bore is my fault, is it?  So the sum of your romantic accomplishments would measure up to those of a rampant bull elephant is down to me, yes?”

“Possibly!  Not that it would worry you, and mostly it doesn’t worry me anymore.  It’s just that we still keep nights and days, and right now is the time of night when I miss it most.  But no problem:  any inclinations of a pachydermatous nature have long faded; although I’m surprised you even remember them.  Do you realise we haven’t had sex in ten years?”

“And you’ve been counting, of course…”

“Absolutely I’ve been counting.   And you know that very well.   How many times have we walked through this same argument?  Every month?”

“Every week.”  Emotionally fatigued, Amie drew out a chair to sit across the table from Malcolm.  “Every week.  Look, Malc, I know my role in this relationship.  I haven’t forgotten what we promised, and I will sleep with you again, honestly, when the time feels right.  I simply need a little space, like you.  Me time, you know?”

“Ten years?   You get out of practice, Amie.  People forget.” Malcolm met Amie’s sad look, determined to hear the words he needed, yet dreading his answer, too.

“We’re a couple.  That’s never going to be in doubt, Malc.”

“But you don’t love me.”

“Why must we always confuse sex and love?”  She clasped her hands together, resting them on the table-top.  Her fingers seemed to fascinate her.   She tapped them, each onto its opposing knuckle, making a hollow sound.

“Because without it we get unhinged.  Or maybe that’s just me.”  Malcolm said gently.  “Amie.  You – don’t – love – me.”

Her mouth twisted around her words.  “You’re cornering me.  Don’t do that, Malc.  Perhaps we don’t have the passion we used to share, but…”

“Amie, it’s time to be cornered.  It’s time to be honest.  You don’t love me, do you?”

“I’m not sure I ever did.”  As she spoke them aloud, Amie ruminated upon the power of those words, and the freedom they engendered.   Not to live the lie anymore, to have said the truth she had known for all of their years together.  “Are you sure you want to do this now?”

“I want to have it out so I can look at it, think about it.”  Malcolm’s voice was dangerously quiet.  “Why on Earth…?”

“We were young…”

“Idealistic.”

“I admired you, so much!”

“But you weren’t stupid, surely?”

“Malcolm, you represented hope, for me:  you did!”

“Hope – that’s a poor substitute for love.”

“It was what brought us here.”

“Yes.  And now we’re stuck together, like this bloody model!”  Malcolm rose to his feet.  “I think this might be a good time to put out that rubbish.”   He disappeared in the direction of their kitchen.

Amie called after his retreating back:  “If we’d just met and got to know each other like any normal boy and girl?”  Malcolm did not answer.

Left to herself, Amie allowed a tide of emotion she had contained rigidly within herself for so many years to wash over her.   She wept gently, recalling the dreams she had dreamed, all the joys she had believed she would share – all come to this dark nothingness.  And her thoughts, as they slipped ever closer to the precipice of despair began to fuel a sense of bitter injustice, of inexcusable wrong.   Those linked fingers still rested upon the table; now, though, they grappled, wrestling each other, left hand against right in self-mutilating fury.

Malcolm found her thus, taut with simmering rage, when he returned ten minutes later.  “The rubbish chute’s blocked again.”  He said mechanically.  “I’ll have to clear it from outside.   I won’t be long.”

Amie’s reddened eyes followed him as he went out through the vestibule, closing the door behind him.  ‘We don’t want you to catch a chill from the draught’ – her mind repeated the stale old joke he always made when he closed that door, although this time it remained unsaid.   She watched through the window of the door as he prepared himself to face the conditions outside, then his back and the opening and closing as he finally left, trash bag in hand.

She hated that back!  She hated his smug expressions, his indefatigable humour, the very smell of him!

Inside Amie all the strings were snapping, all the contents of her emotional cauldron bubbling to a boil.   With a deliberately closed fist she smashed the model of the ‘Wright Flyer’, slammed it into the table; then with determined force she raised the table edge to throw it on its side, screaming at the pieces of wood and plastic as they scattered across the floor.   Having achieved her necessary outlet of destruction, an icy calmness overtook her.   She was apart, somewhere outside herself, watching as she walked towards the vestibule, through the door.  At the outside door she stood for a moment, quite still.   Then she reached before her and threw the lock.

“Amie?”  He was outside, no more than four feet away.   He heard the click as the tumblers interlocked.  “Amie, what are you doing?”

Her mind fixed in a grim determination of which she had never thought herself capable, Amie glared through the window in the door as Malcolm turned and headed towards it.   He tried the door handle, shook it vigorously.  “Amie?”

Amie did nothing.  She just smiled.  She smiled at Malcolm, at all the failed years.  She smiled because she could already see the first traces of vapour on his visor; the panic in his eyes.

“Amie?   For God’s sake, Amie!”

She smiled because she knew that for such a simple task he would not have attached his safety line, or bothered to check the bio-systems inside his suit.  Custom and habit had made him careless with the years.  Those systems would fail very soon, and when they did his grip would loosen.  But the last surprise was his.  She saw his eyes – saw the flame within them quieten.  He accepted. He understood.   Perhaps he even wished it.  And he let go.

Amie’s last sight of her life partner was a dwindling white dot in the sparse light of sun star Proxima Centauri. The little craft that had been constructed so carefully to make its interior feel like a warm and comfortable home had already begun to slow down.  Soon, in only a matter of months now, it would navigate itself into orbit around that fertile planet where they had been entrusted to settle, she and Malcolm, and to raise the first children of a new civilisation.  It had always been a vain and tragic hope, this last gesture of a dying race on the burning world they had left behind – two people meticulously chosen for their compatibility, for their patient, sanguine natures, for their mutual respect.

Amie listened for a little longer, until Malcolm’s gasping breaths were lost, out of the range of his communicator, then she switched it off.   She returned to the kitchen to make supper.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spine Call

Great writing from Sean Patrick Whiteley’s blog. Please, go visit!

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spinal-column-sara-youngRrrrrriiiiiiiinnnngggg. Rrrrrriiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggggg.

‘Hello.’

‘Roland, hi, it’s me.’ Breathing. Breathing.

‘What’s wrong? You sound out of breath.’

What’s wrong? I’ll tell ya what’s wrong, Roland. It’s my spine.’

‘Well, that doesn’t sound good, friend. The spine is important. The spine is everything.’

‘Don’t ya think I know that? Aaaahhh!’

‘What just happened? Are you okay?’

‘Aaaaahhhh! Egads!’

‘What’s happening over there?!’

‘My spine! It’s my spine, Roland!’

‘What’s wrong with it? Do you need help?’

Breathing. Breathing. ‘… No… No, it’s stopped, now…’

‘What’s stopped? What’s happening?’

‘My spine, Roland, it’s doing something to me.’

‘What do you mean it’s doing something to you?’

‘It’s moving. It won’t stop moving.’

‘I don’t follow you, friend.’

‘You don’t need to, Roland. Just listen to me.’

‘I’m listening, I’m listening.’

‘My spine is moving. Moving, violently. It hurts.’

‘Perhaps, you should lie down, my friend.’

‘I can lie down…

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Princess of the North Wind

 

I’m cheating a little, because I wrote this story a few years ago, and I rediscovered it this morning in an editing fit.   It is very long, so please pass by if you do not have time to read it, or find it irksome; but it is here because it is one of my favourites, and it ventures into a genre where I do not often stray.

In the Kingdom of the North Wind where the mountains meet the sky there is a valley, which is no more than a tendril of poor pasture pointing towards heaven like a tremulous finger.  Few will ever travel this way, but those who do will find within the valley basin where the trail ends a village, a cluster of dwellings made from stone and straw that huddle in a frightened circle.  Sparse fields of grain lie thinly on the stony dust; cattle and sheep accustomed to starvation’s edge graze where they may.  You who discover this place should feel no guilt if you shudder and quickly pass, for here can there be no rest for human life.

Yet if you pause long enough to turn your eyes to the east of the valley and towards the highest peaks you may see against the grey mist of the mountains a hill which stands apart, and a house upon it.  When the sun sets on a summer evening; and when at dusk a wolf gives tongue in mournful echo, the windows of the house glow red as blood.  No birds sing.  It is a lonely house, in a lonely place.  And no-one living is there.

By a cracked untended path you may reach it, this house:  where sometimes in a night of dreams you come, brushing through weeds that reach for you, that cling and wrap themselves about you, grasping the great iron ring upon that dark, dark door and turning the cold iron latch – and I may be waiting there to greet you on those nights.  For I am darker than all nights – I am darkness itself.

Who am I?  To my chosen few I am salvation, the one true promise of eternal life:  to you I am a visitation, she who stands behind you at your passing – she who waits.  Where peace can be found in a bite, I am teeth:  where solace waits at the end of a slash or a cut, I am knife.  Where nemesis is a gun, mine is the bullet.  I will take you to Him when there is no returning.  Fear me, for I am death.

Who is He?

To me He is a condor in the evening sky, a soaring majesty, a noble hawk.  To me He is at once love, and the synthesis of love:  spiritual and final, creation and oblivion.  When I am with Him He is all that I am, all that I aspire to be: as He leaves me, my life leaves with Him, and I am as nothing – sand – until He returns.

Once as a child I trod that path; once, a very long time ago.  In days when I was too small to reach the iron ring but the door of the house was opened to me, and the north wind bore me through.  I came although all in my village forbade me:  I came seeking a way to leave my hunger, to turn my back upon fear.  I was six years old and fair, the first evening I sat before His table and I had never seen food such as the food He gave to me that night, nor heard spoken wisdom as wise as His.

Within these walls I stayed:  who would not?  Within these walls I fed, slept and grew to be a woman: tall with flaxen locks and beauty for no-one’s eyes but His.  Yet He did not come to me, though so often I would have welcomed Him.  There were long, solitary days when He was far off,  long nights alone listening to the wind for a hint of His approach, desperate for a word from His lips, a smile or a kindness.  But there was always food upon the table, always wine to drink, a fresh, clean bed to sleep upon, and then, when He would return, hours upon hours of talking, so the night stretched out forever before us.

Ah, such times!

It was the winter of my eighteenth year, was it not?  Aye me, my memory plays such tricks upon me now!  The snows had come early.  There were logs piled high upon the hearth and a fierce fire in the grate that night.

He had returned upon the blizzard’s wing, an apparition first, then a man.  As always, I knew He was with me long before I saw His noble face, heard His voice like honey in my ears.  We were seated before the flames, deep in thoughts of times, and I may have been close to sleep when He bore me up as He had never done, took me to His breast as He had never done.

Upon that night He gave me life: eternal life.

#

Kinorvich probed the embers with a stick, as though his moody eye might read some message from the sparks.

“There were two more on the moor today.”  He said.

“Three last week.”  Cabal muttered through yellowed moustaches.  “One of my best breed ewes among ‘em.  It would be better if all the meat was taken, or at least if we could bring home what’s left.”

“You’ll not bring bewitched flesh to my door!”  Ursa’s voice, keen as scythe on stone, warned him.  “I’ll not have death enter here until its time.”  For emphasis she beat a wooden paddle into the pot of cornmeal that hung above the fire.  “It’s spoiled meat, Cabal.”

Rochar grunted his agreement.  “Bled dry.”  He said.

Calchis contented himself with a silent nod.

There were four men around Ursa’s cooking fire:  Kirnovitch who was her husband and three others who counted themselves the elders of the village.  They were no more strangers to Kirnovitch’s poor hovel than they were to this theme, for every week they gathered here to tell the same dark tale of carcasses left ravaged for the wolves upon the mountain slopes.  Were they to acknowledge the truth they might concede those that were slaughtered were semi-wild creatures, strays that had wandered from the flock to eke out their own existence:  but these were poor men, and every kill was counted as one of their own.

“The sacrifices make no difference. Something must be done.”  Calchis said (as he had said each week of each year since any there could remember).

“We could stop the sacrifices?”  Kirnovich suggested (as he had suggested countless times).

“Don’t you!  Don’t you!”  Ursa warned.  “She will come!  She will and she’ll have us all!”

And usually the conversation would end there, because that threat held them in terror.  This day, though, maybe because of the onset of winter, or maybe because the harvest had been blighted and stores of corn were low, it continued.

Cabal said:  “Has anyone ever seen her?”

The gathering fell to silence.  After a while, Rochar, whose voice lisped through teeth jagged as the rocks on the fell, murmured:  “Don’t no-one ever see her.  She comes by night – as demons come.”

But Cabal was not to be deterred:  not this time.  “We speak of Yelena as if she were some supernatural thing, still among us.  Why?  I remember the day she left us and I tell you, she died.  She just wandered up into the hills and didn’t come back.”

“She was a beautiful child.”  Ursa reflected:  “Always sad.”

“There were those saw her enter the house.”  Kirnovitch remembered.  “There are those say they saw the witchery come upon her.  She was warned.  Oh, she was warned!”

“Yelena’s dead.”  Cabal affirmed.  These killings – they’re some beast, something we don’t see, but lives up there.”

“With teeth that cut so?”  Rochar asked.  “Those bites are made by no beast, Cabal.”

Once more, silence:  four men and one woman studying the fire.  At last it was Kirnovitch who spoke.  “We could send for the Shaman.”  He said.

#

face-stage-1-2016_04_04-15_16_25-utcOnly when the snows lifted from the high pass, only with the springtime, when the first buds were appearing and the grass was spattered with harebells would he come; unremarkable at first, a hunched figure who bore a burden upon his shoulders and a festoon of mysterious sticks, stones and bags about his waist.  He was smaller, he was more care-worn than the common man and there was a dark scent of nature about him which was neither unpleasant nor enticing, but made the villagers step aside, for they were at once both curious and afraid.

His tunic of thick hide was stiff, as though badly cured.  Beneath it a jerkin of un-dyed wool, woven in light and dark thread so it had the appearance of rough chain-mail.  His leggings were of a woollen cloth too and bound to his calves by thongs of cow-hide.  There were no shoes upon his feet; these so hardened that his toes resembled walnuts and his nails were black.  The whole untidy assemblage of skins and cloth was topped by a head somewhat larger than a normal man’s, a head framed by bleach-white hair which fell untended about his shoulders.  His face?  Well, by the constant attention of the elements this was blackened too, a midnight only brightened by two tiny stars of eyes – and as you moved these stars would follow you.

Without a word he sat down on the hard compound of the village square while the people gathered around him.  He took the food they brought him to eat, picking through the best they had with his blunt fingers, snuffling and grunting like a hog.  They brought him their best mead to drink, which he quaffed heartily through thick lips.  Then, in the middle of the village in the middle of the afternoon he fell into a deep, snore-punctuated sleep.

That night it threatened rain.  For hours the villagers had prowled and sniffed about the Shaman’s slumbering heap like hungry dogs, never venturing closer than an arms-length, never daring to reach out.

“Will we invite him inside?”  Kirnovitch wondered.  Ursa and he sat eating their meal by the doorway of their stone hut, where Cabal joined them.

“Better not to.”  Was Cabal’s opinion.  “If he wished it he would ask.”

“The rains are cold this early in the season.”  Ursa observed.  “He is a great age, I think.  Should he die that will bring another curse upon us.”

“He is a Shaman.”  Cabal reminded her.

“He is still mortal.”  Ursa said.

So Cabal and Kirnovitch made a shelter of a goatskin, which they stitched onto a frame of sticks.  Very carefully they arranged this canopy over the Shaman’s inert form.  He did not stir.

Next morning the whole village was awakened long before the dawn to a cacophony of human sound:  screams of anger, curses, a banging of staves; wood on wood.  Its sleepy citizens emerged from their hovels to witness their Shaman jumping as though the earth beneath his feet were aflame, flailing at the empty air with the remnants of the shelter Cabal and Kirnovitch had so thoughtfully constructed and shouting in gouts of meaningless language.  A particular space above his right hand drew those pin eyes like some invisible enemy.  He swiped at it viciously then unsheathed a knife from his belt as he set off in pursuit of it across the compound, yelling at the top of his dry voice.  When he seemed to finally have his imaginary foe cornered at the side of Calchis’s hut he thrashed at it, swore at it, stabbed it until he was satisfied it no longer threatened him.  Then he stopped, pulled his leggings to one side and urinated.  At some point in this final process the Shaman seemed to become aware of the eyes that were watching him.  He glared about him defiantly.

“I piss upon the spirit.”  He growled.  They were the first intelligible words he had spoken.

“He’s possessed!”  Said Ursa, awestruck.

“He’s drunk.”  Calchis said.  “Better give him some more mead.”

So the Shaman slept once more, and the village was returned to peace.  All morning the villagers went about their tasks, skirting around his crumpled form with the respect they might give to a corpse.  The sun had slipped beyond its zenith in the sky before he woke and they fed him, still clinging to a thread of belief which hung from this faded cloth of hope.

He ate hungrily, he let pass a propensity of wind, then he rose to his feet.  Without a word to anyone, he walked out of the square to a place beyond the village’s edge and stood facing the hill, staring upward toward the house that neither did nor said, but stared blankly back.

Then he took a single stone from his belt, held it up above his head and shook it three times.

Three times.

Next, he took a single stick from his belt, a stick no more than a hand in length and carved with tiny symbols which he also raised to point at the house, and shook it five times.

Five times.

Then he drove the stick into the ground and stamped upon it with his feet – seven times.  And still the house stood as it had always stood, expressionless and empty, upon the hill.

The Shaman stepped forward, walked ten paces towards the house.  Now he began a song, a song from behind closed lips in a high, keening voice – a song with words no-one, perhaps not even he could understand.  But the house heard; and the house answered.  It answered with a breath of chill air that ruffled the grass of the valley as it came to wrap itself about the Shaman; circling, finding out.  And the Shaman took from the bag that hung from his right hip a handful of earth – earth that was little more than dust, to cast into that air:  and the air took it up.  The air made the earth harden, and sharpen, so each grain of soil became a shard of glass and each shard flew about the Shaman until it found its place – then it struck, piercing the old man’s flesh with not one, but a thousand barbs.

“Ay-HA!”  Said the Shaman, swiping at himself irritably.  “Ay-AH!”

At the last ‘AH!’ the shards dispersed, falling to the ground as soil once again.  The villagers who had gathered at the edge of the compound to watch gasped in astonishment.  Grunting his annoyance and bleeding not a little, their Shaman stamped back to them, wordlessly accepting another bladder of mead from Cabal’s wife with which to re-seat himself in the middle of the village, quaffing and burping by turns.  The elders, Rochar, Kirnovitch, Calchis and Cabal stood watching him.

“Her name!”  The Shaman demanded gruffly when he was done.  He met with an uneasy silence.  Hers was a name rarely spoken, and never in the open air where she might hear, where she might be invoked.

“Her name?”  He repeated.

“Yelena.”  Calchis muttered at last.  “Her name was Yelena.”  Feeling how all the eyes of the village were turned upon him, he added uneasily:  “She was my daughter.”

Behind him Mutai, Calchis’s wife, stifled a sob.  The Shaman rose to his feet.  He shuffled across to where Calchis was standing and without ceremony grabbed the poor man’s head between his hands, squeezing as though he might draw every thought that was held secret there.  For a minute, maybe more, the pair were joined so, eyes locked upon each other.  Then the Shaman stepped back.

“Not ‘was’.”  The Shaman growled.  “’Is’.  But she is no longer your daughter.  She is wedded now.”  He enunciated the word ‘wedded’ with such weight of meaning that it brought a gout of spittle to his mouth which he rounded and hawked onto the floor.

Mutai’s expression was incredulous:  “Yelena?  Alive and married?”

This news brought such light and joy to the woman’s sad head that she even contemplated a celebration – a feast.  A wedding feast!  Her daughter was not dead!  The ludicrousness of the situation came upon her more slowly.  Yelena would not return to her; the Shaman’s eye vouchsafed it.

It was up to Calchis to ask:  “What is she, then?”  And he immediately regretted his question, for it earned him a look of withering scorn from the Shaman.

“What is she? She is a warden, a Thresher: one who feasts on the blood of the dying, who waits at the door of death.  Sometimes, when hunger is upon her she may take the living, too – for that is the bargain she has struck.  That is the essence of the man or the beast she has taken to her bed.”  Then perhaps Mutai’s helpless expression softened the Shaman’s old black heart, because the hard edge in his voice was missing when he added:  “You should not rejoice for your daughter, woman.  Her bridegroom is not of this world.”

“But she lives!”  Mutai clung to the thought.  “While she lives, can we not hope?  Some spell, magic man; some incantation, surely, to bring her back to us?”

“Yes.  In her fashion, she lives.”

“Has she grown to be beautiful?”

“Yes, in her fashion, she is.  When she comes to man in the night she is beautiful….”  Here the Shaman paused, as though dwelling upon some memory of his own.  Then he came to himself again, and said.  “Even if there were spells to bring her back to you, they were better left unwoven.  I tell you again, she is no longer the daughter you knew.”

At this, the elders of the village – Rochar, Kirnovitch, Calchis and Cabal – gathered together and spoke between themselves:  now they were given the truth, what should they do?

Rochar and Cabal favoured asking the Shaman to make a spell that would cast Yelena out from the house on the hill.  Cabal reminded them once more of his ewe, left savaged upon the hillside.  Kirnovitch listened impassively, knowing Rochar’s capacity for exaggeration and suspecting Cabal’s ewe, like all the other stock that had been taken, was a wild stray which had once borne Cabal’s brand.  Calchis defended his daughter.  After all, he pointed out, Yelena had never troubled them.  Yes, they were wild strays, the creatures she took, not their own precious animals; and she had never come to the village.  She had never attacked the place that gave her birth.

The elders went to their beds that evening undecided as to what they should do.  The Shaman accepted Kirnovitch’s offer of lodging for that night.  And that night, she came.

Whether it was because of the Shaman’s probing; whether it was the Shaman she sought, no-one could know.

#

How strange it seems to travel this path, the wind and I moving as one!  And in the stillness, how small the house – the tiny womb – that was my house once!  Was that woman my mother- he my father?  They lie curled within their womb, asleep so deeply; husks of corn long winnowed:  they will be gone so soon – so soon.  And it is not they I seek.

Who was it?  I move from house to house as only I can move, listening.  I know he called me:  I heard his summons in my earthly name and I will know that voice again, mewling in its muddy craw, sodden with mead, devoured by rabid age.

House by house:  faces I knew, rapt in sleep: all who curse me, none who understand that it is by my Prince’s patronage alone that they are here:  it is by my intercession they are spared.  It was I, was it not, who pleaded their cause the year of His great anger, the year I wintered in His bed?  ‘Lord, is it not their food we plunder; their creatures we feast upon while they barely live?  If you should erase them from your land, who else would tend these cold, dead slopes?’ Yelena the cursed, who should be Yelena the blessed – but what care I for them?  They are as nothing.  They are dust.

All but this one – face wizened as a furrowed field, snores heavy with drink; he is something other.  I would speak with him.

“Wake, old man!”

My voice is soft as the mist of a dream, yet he hears it.  His eyes open.  He sees me!  Marvel at my beauty, old man!  Ravish with those pig eyes all your wasted body cannot have!  “Who brought you here?  Show me the ingrate who summoned you!”

He smiles:  “You did, hag!  It was you who brought me!”

There are others – two others – in this hut and they waken now.  I hear the sharp intake of breath; I smell the woman’s fear.  She does well to fear.

“What do you want, old man?”

But he does not answer me.  Though he knows that his neck would break at my single stroke, though he knows I may take his gut in my hand and twist it until he is beyond pain, he says nothing.  Instead he opens his hand so I may see he holds a stone within his palm – offers it to me so I may touch it.  He wants me to touch it, to take it.  I might do that yet, so strong is his will…’take the stone’…

#

Cringing, hardly daring to open her eyes, Ursa watched as the woman – who was not real, could never be real – stretched out her arm to the Shaman.  Yelena!  This was Yelena, come so far from the human child.  She saw long white fingers extend – as an eagle’s claw extends – to something in the Shaman’s hand.

She felt, rather than heard, the old man’s incantation as sweetly and richly as any music:  saw those fingers close about something – something small.  Saw both figures; recumbent, bent old man and tall, inexpressibly elegant woman in frozen stillness, their eyes only for each other.

Then, of a second, the Shaman’s hand had reached and grabbed.  His grip was a vice about the woman’s wrist, tightening.  He was shaking the wrist, shaking the hand, shaking the stone it held, three times.

Three times.

The woman screamed: and her scream was the cry of the rabbit in the snare, the fox to her young from the hill.  Her body shrank back – drawn flesh about the bones which made her, the small stone she had taken searing red between her fingers.  Her robe of grey mist swirled to wrap itself about her, and she was gone.

On his feet at once, the Shaman ran from Ursa’s hut in pursuit.  He ran and the black night in a cloud gathered to follow him.  He ran to the stake, the stake with runic signs he had driven the previous day into the ground.  He ran there and he stamped upon it five times.

Five times.

Then as if upon his summons the ground opened at his feet, but still the Shaman, shouting fiendishly, ran on, chasing the grey ball of Yelena as it rushed faster than a lightning bolt towards the house on the hill.  In his wake, the earth was split by a jagged fissure which opened wide enough to swallow him.  He might have been running for his life, but fast as he might run the spirit that was once Yelena was faster.  The door of the house on the hill slammed shut behind her.  The ragged earth ceased to split.  There was silence.

For a long time, it seemed, the world stood still.  The villagers, huddled in the village square, staring in wonder at the crevasse; the Shaman before the house on the hill with his arms outstretched, fingers pointing to the stars.  Then came the cloud.

It swept in from the east, above the mountains.  In the featureless night sky there was little evidence of it at first, save for the flickers of lightning emanating from its midst.  Sheep that saw its coming bleated piteously from the pastures, and as it drew closer the air itself took up the vibration, an angry bee-swarm buzz of higher, ever higher pitch.  Above the house on the hill it gathered in a boiling mass, black on black, and the blue flashes of discharge from it spread like a fan across the sky.  From its heart He came, a white fury in human form twenty times the height of any natural man with lightning playing about His head and arms of fire to strike down upon the Shaman.  Ursa wailed her horror as the old man’s body was lifted and tossed into the air like a thing of rags:  and a thing of smoking rags he fell, still upon the ground.

A bless of spring snow and the first light of morning would discover the old Shaman crumpled upon hard earth.  He wakened slowly, sending reluctant nerve-pulses to each of his limbs to see if they would still move for him.  Only when he was sure nothing was broken did he open his eyes:  only when the pain in his head began to clear, did he raise himself to look around.

Before him the house upon the hill stood as faceless and lifeless as ever, still shaded by the mountains:  behind him the path which led down to the village was much as before;  the fissure had closed so only the irregular line where it had been was visible.  But all about him was dust, and nothing but dust.  No spring shoots, no grass, no crops – no food.  There was not an animal in sight.

With a sigh, the Shaman dragged himself to his feet.  Turning his back upon the house he limped down the hill towards the village.

The villagers were gathered in the square, their fear still etched in their sleepless eyes.

“She is gone.”  The Shaman muttered.  “Give me mead.”

Ursa mutely offered the bladder of mead and the Shaman emptied it.

“What…” Rochar asked, “has become of the land?”

“It is cursed.”  The Shaman shrugged.  “It was always a possibility.  She is very strong, and the bridegroom still comes to her – he was stronger.”  He probed his bones delicately, wincing at each new weald or bruise.

Cabal stalked forward until his face was inches from the Shaman’s own.  “And the animals?”  He growled.  “Are they cursed too?”

“Cursed, or scared.  They might return, they might not.”

“Then how do we live?”  Calchis, his arm about Mutai’s heaving shoulders, shouted:  “Without animals, without crops – look at this!  Look what you have done!”

The Shaman rounded on Calchis, and his reply had the snap and snarl of a timber wolf.

“Why did you call him?  Why?  You wanted rid of a Thresher and he did as you asked.  Do not blame me for the consequence!  Did you think I would leave without a fight?  Did you?”

Cabal stepped back, a furrow of perplexity in his brow.”We called you.  ‘He’; ‘I’; what is this?”

“And has she?”  Kirnovitch asked suspiciously:  “Has she left?”

First to realise, Mutai sobbed.  For all she saw was changing, and it was not the Shaman’s bent form that stood before her now.

#

They see me!  They all see me – she who claims me, and her man, the one with the vile teeth, the self-important one – all of them.  I rise before them from that dried husk like a bright angel.  They see me and they cringe with their terror writ in tears upon their faces, their whining fear writhing from their lips!

I tell them.  I speak my words to the wind; the north wind:  “Did you think – did you dare to think – you would find salvation in this old snakeskin of a man?  Did you think in your arrogance; in your ignorance, he would be any match for the power of my Master?  He is chaff!  His magic had no more potency than an innocent child’s wish!

“Foolish people!  Foolish, and doomed!  I will go; leave now, before the sun discovers me.  Yet do not run:  you cannot run for I shall always find you.  Wait upon the night, the darkest night of the moon, and hear this, my promise to you who would destroy me.  When that night comes I will return.”

#

In the Kingdom of the North Wind where the mountains meet the sky there is a ruined village, a cluster of dwellings wherein I feasted once, on a dark night of the moon. Within those walls nought but bones remain.  Sparse fields of weeds lie thinly on the stony dust; cattle and sheep accustomed to starvation’s edge graze untended where they may.  You who discover this place should feel no guilt if you shudder and quickly pass, for here can there be no rest for human life.

And I – where, now, do I live?  In life the house upon the hill stands empty now, though in dreams you may still find it, and I will wait to welcome you.  Remember always I am near.  As your breath shortens with the years I am closer.  But upon any night – any dark night when the North Wind blows and I am hungry a black cloud may bring me, for I am Princess of the North Wind.  Know me – I am death.

 

©  Frederick Anderson, June 2014.