The Skinny and the Mule

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from photo by Dani Corona on Unsplash

Pietro Valdez was having a bad morning.   Bad mornings usually found him leaning against Enzo’s doorpost, beneath the shade of his friend’s straw roof, and this morning was no exception.  Here he could rest, draw on a self-rolled cigarette, and contemplate the injustices that existed in the world.  Inevitably, he would reach the same conclusion as always; that every one of those injustices was stacked against him.

So, maybe he had been a little late setting his nets in the river that morning – just a little, tiny bit late.  What did it matter?  Pietro had a problem.  His whole village had a problem.  No matter how early he, or anyone else who fished the river should rise from their beds, Rodrigo – Bang-Sticks Rodrigo – would take all the best fish!  Pietro stared along the river bank towards Rodrigo’s moored boat with half-lowered eyes, his head full of vengeance. Of course, Rodrigo’s little dock was busy; Luca, Bang-Sticks’ son and his friend Raul were boxing Rodrigo’s catch, loading it into a dilapidated but durable truck that would take it to market.  In the warehouse behind the dock Luiza and Yasmin, Marco’s two girls, would be preparing more fish for drying.

Feeling a pat on his shoulder, Pietro turned to discover Enzo, his friend, had sidled out of his hut to lean against the other door post.  Pietro passed his cigarette to Enzo.

“Business is good.”  Enzo commented, sharing Pietro’s thoughts.

“Good!”  Pietro spat his ire into the dust.  “Good!  That bastardo was at the eddy pool this morning, blowing up half the fish in the river.  What is left?”     Pietro’s nets had come in empty, again.  So!  There was no money, there was no food.  Luana, his wife, could hurt him when she got this mad.  Again!  She had thrown a pot at him and today – he rubbed his shoulder ruefully – she had not missed.

“Matters,” He muttered; “Cannot rest.”

Enzo grunted.   “I do not see what you can do.  Rodrigo has a deal with Carlos Eduardo, Carlos Eduardo gets him sticks of dynamite in return for thirty percent of his catch.  It is business.  Don’t say you wouldn’t have done the same deal if you’d thought of it first.”

Pietro shook his head.   “He dynamites the fish!   Soon there will be no fish at all in the river, then what does the village do?   What does Thales do?  What does Marco do?”

“Marco goes to work for Carlos Eduardo.  Already he is thinking about it.  I talked with him yesterday.”  Enzo answered.  “I am thinking of it myself.  Maybe you should.”

“I, Pietro Valdez, work for a gangster who grows fields of Marijuana?   What does that make me?”

“Rich?  It is very good Marijuana.”

“Or dead.  Carlos Eduardo is a very nasty man.  His henchmen are very fond of guns.”  Pietro muttered.  “No, I am a fisherman, not a grower of drugs.  I want to feed people, not send them crazy.”

Thoroughly subdued, Pietro fell silent, and together the two men shared their one cigarette, brushing flies away from their faces as they contemplated the vast waters of the river in the morning heat.   In such mood an hour might easily pass without either moving or speaking a word, but today Pietro’s attention was drawn to a small commotion behind Bang-Sticks dock, where Rodrigo’s son Luca was preparing for his trip to the market in Almeres, fifty kilometres away.

“What is that?”

“That?”   Enzo replied.  “That is trouble, my friend.”

A girl dressed minimally in shorts and a t-shirt was attempting to talk to Luca, with limited success.  She might have been, as Pietro judged, no older than twenty-four or twenty-five years, and clearly her attempts at flirtation were falling on stony ground.  Luca was wiser than his years, and in Pietro’s closely guarded opinion, more interested in Raul than in female company.  This was an insult he was saving for that special argument with ‘Bang-Sticks’, when the opportunity eventually arrived.

“She is pretty girl.”  Pietro observed.

“She is a ‘Skinny Girl’.  Keep away!”  Enzo warned.

“That may be difficult.  She is coming towards us.”

The girl had abandoned her charm offensive on Luca, and was striding along the riverbank in their direction.  Pietro was familiar with the ‘Skinny Girl’ appellation, of course:  everyone knew it.   A very astute group of young women had banded together in the last three seasons with the sole purpose of taking over the drugs trade on the river.  Using their natural abilities to charm they were picking off owners of small to middle-sized fazendas one by one, trusting in the farmers’ deference towards women.  Once they found a way into that plain farmer’s bed, though, the women showed no such compunction, and shot them dead at the first opportunity.   So far, they had made no attempt to unseat any of the larger drug barons, bigger players unlikely to fall for their fatal game.  Knowing their depth, and in regions where police presence was rare, they were thriving happily on the proceeds of farms like the one owned by Carlos Eduardo.   Lecherous to a fault, Carlos Eduardo, Pietro thought as he watched the approaching girl’s easy, hip-swinging gait, would be easy meat.  Nevertheless…

“You have a boat!”  Her voice was sweet, almost a song, and her teeth were many and incredibly white.  She flashed her dark, Hispanic eyes at Pietro.  “A boat with a big, big motor.   That man Luca says”…  She stopped directly in front of Pietro, so close he felt the warm whisper of her breath.  “You have a big, big motor, yes?”

Pietro was wrong-footed by the girl’s proximity.     “I suppose so.”  He muttered.  No matter that Enzo growled a warning, his friend was already caught in the web.  “You want my boat?”

“I need your boat, Pietro, you will help me, I know!   You are Pietro, yes?  You are a generous man, everybody knows Pietro.”

“You asked Luca.  What’s wrong with Luca’s boat?”

“Luca?  He has such small motor.”  The girl shook her head sadly, holding up a thumb and forefinger to reinforce her point.  “Once in a month only, down the river to Minacura!  That’s two days each way.  Just you and me,  two days on the river one way, two days back.  You and me, alone, eh, Pietro?”   She laughed lightly.  “Ah, but can I trust you?  I hope I can trust you!”

Enzo snorted.  Pietro was experiencing sensations incompatible with the early hour and his abiding sense of grievance.  Reason had to prevail.  “What’s in it for me?”  He demanded.

“What is in it?  What is in it??”  The girl’s eyes glittered.  “You want money too?”

“I have expenses.”

“It is alright, I tease you!  Of course there is money.  Each run, 150 Real!  Think what you can do with 150 Real!”

“Two hundred.”

“Oh, Pietro; so greedy!  One-Seventy-five!”

“You buy the fuel.”

“Agreed!”  The girl reached up and stroked Pietro’s cheek with long, elegant fingers.  “There are police on the river so we travel by night.  We will be such good companions!  Tonight, eight o’clock, okay?”

“Tonight!”

“Of course!  Why not?”

Pietro was thinking of Luana and the necessity for explanations which accounted for a number of reasons why not.  But money was money, and a cash argument would weigh heavily with his wife, as long as he kept her away from his travelling companion.

Eight o’clock that evening found Pietro and his boat moored up on a stretch of river tributary that adjoined Carlos Eduardo’s ranch.   The girl, whose name had proved to be Viviane, materialised rapidly from the darkness where forest bordered the water, followed by Paolo, Carlos Eduardo’s ostler.   Both were laden with heavy bales wrapped in waterproof plastic, which they dumped unceremoniously into the boat.   Pietro could see that Paolo was ill at ease.  He kept looking up and down the river, and seemed anxious not to make a noise.  No sooner had the first lot of bales been loaded than the pair vanished again, leaving Pietro to distribute his unexpectedly heavy cargo as evenly as he might.  Satisfied, he rolled a cigarette, drawing contented smoke as he wondered how easily Carlos Eduardo had fallen for Viviane’s  ploys.  Eventually, he supposed, the whole village must learn to fear Viviane and her ‘Skinny Girls’ as much as they had feared Carlos Eduardo. If so, at least one advantage was his: he had a ‘big motor’.

Had he noticed the raised voices in the distance?   What was the clamour about?

Paolo came bursting out of the trees, loaded with yet more bales.  Viviane, similarly burdened, was close behind him.

“Come!  We load this.”

The shouting was not so distant any more.  The voices were angry.

“All this?”  Pietro protested.  “It is too much!  We won’t get all this through the gorge!”  But the bales were already stacked, on top of those he had already distributed.  Viviane was specific.  “We leave now!   Don’t start the motor!”

Pietro recognised the ingredients of a disaster immediately, but his sense of self-preservation persuaded him this was the wrong place to ask questions, so he did as he was told.  He cast off his dangerously unstable boat swiftly, as Viviane slipped into the prow, and Paolo melted back into the trees.  As he turned into the current he could hear the crashing of angry feet in the undergrowth.  It occurred to him that maybe Carlos Eduardo was not so gullible, after all.

In the darkness Viviane’s ashen face was almost luminous.  “What do we do?”  She cried, clearly no longer in command.  “Tell me, what do we do?”

A gun discharged in a burst of venom from somewhere close by.  Bullets snicked off the water.

“We start the motor!”   Pietro replied quietly.   “Stay down, and do not say my name!”

#

“We have lost them, yes?”  Viviane hissed.

An hour had elapsed, in which time neither the owner of the boat nor his young companion had spoken.   Upon reaching the point where their tributary joined the main river, Pietro had turned upstream.  After a half kilometre battling the current he had tied off his boat at a place where the trees overhung the water, concealing them from view.

“Yes, for now.  We are fortunate they had no boats moored nearby.  They will be hunting for us downstream, thinking we are making for Minacura.”

Viviane sniffed.  “This is no use.  If we go to Minacura, we will be following them.  Sooner or later we must meet.”

“This boat wouldn’t make Minacura anyway, with so heavy a cargo;”   Pietro told her.  “Our best bet is to meet up with your gang somewhere further upstream.  Maybe you should ‘phone them now?”  His comment met with silence.  “That’s a good idea, yes?”

Viviane said:  “What ‘gang’?”

“Why, the ‘Skinny Girls’.  The Skinny Girls gang.”

“I am not ‘Skinny Girl’.  I have nice figure, don’t you think?”

A cold hand grasped Pietro’s heart.  “Wait a minute!  You are not a ‘Skinny Girl’?”

“No.  I am a student.”  Viviane answered proudly.  “I am at university in Brazilia – third year.”

“Then this was – what?   You were trying to steal from Carlos Eduardo on your own?  No gang to help you?”

“Paolo; he helped me.”  Viviane grinned.  “He was very helpful!   And when we get these bales to Minacura and we sell them I shall be very rich and I shall be able to pay for my last year’s tuition.  You help me, Pietro.  Then you can be rich, too!” Pietro put his head in his hands.  “You.  Brave man with big motor – what is wrong with you?”

“Just this.   My boat is overloaded, it will not pass the fast water in the gorge on the way to Minacura.  All right, maybe we throw some Marijuana in the river, then we have a chance; but Carlos Eduardo is no fool.  Right now he is on his cell phone to his buyer in Minacura to tell him what has happened.  He is on his cell phone to police in Minacura (who he pays) to tell them what has happened.  Viviane, you cannot just sell marijuana on this river, you need connections.  You need to make deals, you need time to build up trust!   Right now, we show ourselves even five kilometres down river with this stuff and we are dead.”

Viviane fell quiet for a moment before she said unsteadily.  “I have done things for this a respectable girl should not do.  I cannot fail – I cannot have done what I have done for nothing, for no reason.  We can do it.  We will do it.”

“No, Viviane.  You can’t, and we won’t.”

“Then what can we do?”

#

“Why are you out so early?”  Enzo was surprised to discover Pietro busy with his nets.  “Can’t you sleep, my friend?”

Pietro smirked.   “Some nights I feel I have not been to bed.”

Enzo glanced cunningly at him.  “Ah, the girl.  But you did not make the trip with her, no?”

“Wiser counsels prevailed, Enzo.”   The fisherman’s eyes were fixed upon Rodrigo’s dock, further up the river bank.  “I am a married man.”

“But still…”  Enzo followed Pietro’s gaze.  “Bang-Sticks is not out yet.  If you hurry…”

“Exactly.”  Both men were now watching as Rodrigo, appearing by his behaviour to be unusually agitated, shouted and gesticulated at a defensive-looking Luca.  They were too far away to hear what was said, but far enough to see two jeeps approaching Rodrigo’s warehouse from the landward side.  Carlos Eduardo was being driven in one, in the other were two extremely large bodyguards, both armed with semi-automatic rifles.

Pietro had known they would come, and in his view the timing could not have been better.  A stranger girl could not be seen talking to anyone in a village as small as his without arousing suspicion, especially if that girl intended to steal part of the local drugs baron’s harvest.   Viviane had been talking to Luca just yesterday, so it was obvious where Carlos Eduardo would look.

Naturally,  since Viviane had been seen with Pietro too, he had no doubt Carlos Eduardo would want to follow that up – he was not worried.  He had nothing to hide, as long as no-one saw the two bullet holes in his boat.  As for Viviane, he was sure she was well on her way back to her university by now, chastened by her experience and no richer than before, but unhurt.  And she was getting a good start on Carlos which would get better, the longer he was detained by the discovery of his marijuana, stashed as they had left it last night, in Rodrigo’s warehouse.

Rodrigo?   Well, those bales of drugs were still intact, so he would count himself lucky if he survived with only a little roughing up, but Pietro was sure he would get no more dynamite.

 

 

© 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proposal

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“Marry me!”

“Don’t be silly, I’m more than twice your age!”

“I don’t care, I like a mature man.  Marry me!”

“Will you stop this?  No, of course I won’t marry you.”

“Why not?  Don’t you love me?”

“You know I love you!”

“Marry me then!”

“No!  For the umpteenth time today, I won’t marry you!”

“Why not?”

“You know why not.”

“I don’t care!   Marry me!”

“For God’s sake!   I can’t marry you.  I’m your father!”

“That’s not what Mum says…”

The Rose

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<a style="background-color:black;color:white;text-decoration:none;padding:4px 6px;font-family:-apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, "San Francisco", "Helvetica Neue", Helvetica, Ubuntu, Roboto, Noto, "Segoe UI", Arial, sans-serif;font-size:12px;font-weight:bold;line-height:1.2;display:inline-block;border-radius:3px;" href="https://unsplash.com/@disguise_truth?utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=photographer-credit&utm_content=creditBadge" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" title="Download free do whatever you want high-resolution photos from Anastasia Zhenina"><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px;"><svg xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" style="height:12px;width:auto;position:relative;vertical-align:middle;top:-1px;fill:white;" viewBox="0 0 32 32"><title></title><path d="M20.8 18.1c0 2.7-2.2 4.8-4.8 4.8s-4.8-2.1-4.8-4.8c0-2.7 2.2-4.8 4.8-4.8 2.7.1 4.8 2.2 4.8 4.8zm11.2-7.4v14.9c0 2.3-1.9 4.3-4.3 4.3h-23.4c-2.4 0-4.3-1.9-4.3-4.3v-15c0-2.3 1.9-4.3 4.3-4.3h3.7l.8-2.3c.4-1.1 1.7-2 2.9-2h8.6c1.2 0 2.5.9 2.9 2l.8 2.4h3.7c2.4 0 4.3 1.9 4.3 4.3zm-8.6 7.5c0-4.1-3.3-7.5-7.5-7.5-4.1 0-7.5 3.4-7.5 7.5s3.3 7.5 7.5 7.5c4.2-.1 7.5-3.4 7.5-7.5z"></path></svg></span><span style="display:inline-block;padding:2px 3px;">Anastasia Zhenina</span></a>It is one of those hot summer days Daniel will dream about when autumn comes.  He is ensconced in his favourite garden recliner beside his little table:  beer, book and biscuits; all, he tells himself, he needs from life.   Beside him, the gnarled bush rose his wife so loves and tends that it never seems to ail or fail is a mass of flowers, drawing its audience of apis mellifera with the accomplished confidence of a garden celebrity.  Beyond his outstretched feet and across a flagstone path a cotoneaster is enjoying attention from a much larger crowd of smaller but more dextrous bee creatures.  The cotoneaster is another ancient hero.  When the plant was young Daniel set a trellis for it to climb.  He has kept it trimmed to shape through the years so the trellis host, rotting now, is kept erect by its mature guest. Timber entwined with timber, each supporting the other, neither able to fall.  Daniel feels comfortable here, in this place, attuned to the humming of bees and the dappled shade of the sycamore tree that watches over him, protection against the day’s naked heat.

This garden unites them, Daniel and Rachel, man and wife.  Among flower beds by the patio Rachel is tending her hostas, plucking snails from their leaves after morning rain.  Sipping his beer Daniel watches his wife’s wiry, dedicated figure as she works, and he laments, quite idly, the cruelty of their years.  If only Ella could be here to share it with them…

He bears these wistful moments with greater equanimity now.  They no longer hurt him as once they did.  But sometimes, now and then, when his mind is free of more urgent thoughts, his memory will pluck a picture of an excited little girl in her white dress, laughing as she runs to him, warm and vibrant in his arms.  And he will weep – yes, there are still tears – to think of her, before he can shut her from his mind.

“It was a long time ago.”

He must have closed his eyes, for Rachel is standing, looking down upon him with the critical coldness of a stranger, her bucket of unhomed snails clutched in her hand.  It is an expression he recognises.

“I still hope, you know.”  He tells her, and his eyes say ‘I’m not heartless.  I remember’.

Rachel frowns.  They have not spoken of Ella for a while.  “You shouldn’t;” she says brusquely.  “Not now.  Not after all this time.”

“She was my little girl.”  He says.  “I miss her too.”

“There’s no sense in thinking about it.”

“She could be out there, somewhere.  She could be married, or something. We don’t know!”  He insists.

“I think we do.  Drink your beer before something dies in it.”  Rachel snaps.  “Stop resurrecting the past.”  She turns away.  “I have to lose these damned snails.”  And she walks briskly down the path, heading for the garden gate.

Daniel watches her, awake now.  His mind is bursting with the accusation ‘you shouldn’t have left her’, yet he bites upon the words.  It is a poniard too often thrown, one which has found voice frequently in the past – in the twenty-four lonely years.   His little girl.  His little Ella.  She was left to play by herself in the front garden, his little girl.  Rachel was in the house, doing…what, he doesn’t remember: it doesn’t matter, now.  She was not there, and he was not there, and Ella was gone.

The effort of suppression is too much.  The bubble of his anger finds a way to rise: He calls after his wife’s retreating form: “Why did you leave her on her own?” and he sees her freeze in mid-stride, which pleases him in some perverse way.  She has to grieve as he grieves.  She has to be suffering, too.

“How many times?”  She rounds upon him, clipping her words icily.  “How many times have we gone through this?  Whenever you get one of these moods…”

Daniel’s resentment is darkening now.  “I couldn’t be there.  I was away, working.  I wasn’t there.”

“You weren’t there.  Twenty-four years ago, you weren’t there, and I was…”

“And you left her alone.”  He feels the tears well up inside him.  “My little girl!”

Our little girl.”  Rachel reminds him, expressionless.  She is returning to him, to his bloated form slumped in that disgusting chair, wondering with every step by what device she has ever loved him.  “Our little girl, Daniel.”  Wondering how they are still together, still man and wife; as if the ugly, knotted rope of their guilt, far from releasing them, binds them to each other in this garden.

She stands above him, glaring down. “The gate was shut.  She couldn’t get out of the garden.  It wasn’t the first time she had been allowed to play out there.  I was no more than a few steps away, in the kitchen…”

“You left her alone!”

“Yes, I know.  And she was ‘your little girl’; I know that.  You never cease to remind me.  But I also know ‘your little girl’ was autistic, and much as I loved her there were occasions when I had to get away, even if it was only for a few precious minutes.  You know that too, don’t you, Daniel?”  Her clenched fist bangs down upon Daniel’s little table.  His beer glass hops and gyrates dangerously on the wooden surface.

He cringes as though the assault is personal.  “She could be difficult.”

“Difficult?  Difficult!  You were never at home.  You never saw how she was with me – what she did to me, nearly all the time.”

Rachel spins on her heel, stalking angrily away towards the gate, swinging the bucket so hard its unwilling passengers rattle within it.  Daniel, daunted by her sudden temper, watches her go.  She is right, of course, he reflects.  It is a scenario they have replayed so often down the years.  The gate he made for their front fence, how he set the latch high so Ella could not reach it: the quietness of their road, the attentiveness of Mrs. Partigan, their neighbour, who missed nothing that passed her window.  Yet she had seen nothing that day; had been ill, she said, so she hadn’t even noticed Ella playing in the garden, although she thought she recalled the child’s voice, raised as it so often was.  Otherwise a peaceful day, like so many peaceful days when he was far from home, a peaceful day when Ella was taken away from them forever.

And Rachel never wept!  Even when the police said they had no clue, and warned them to prepare for the worst, she remained dry of tears.  Instead, she closed down – drew the shutters over her emotions and entombed her soul.  He saw it happen, watched helplessly as grief took out her heart and put it somewhere far beyond his or anyone’s reach, so only ice remained.  Oh, yes, he remembers!

Another confrontation, another failure to pierce that armour, yet still he will seek a way to hurt her.   Her retreating back infuriates; he wants to stab at it, prise open those doors always barred against him.  He has never found the weapon, but he does not cease to try.  His eyes cast about him, seeking ammunition, something new and untested.  His anger settles upon the rose.

“I’m sorry.”  He calls after her with affability that does not disguise the cunning in his voice.  “To change the subject, then.  I think it’s time to replace our elderly friend, don’t you?  I’ll dig it out this afternoon.”

This time Rachel’s progress is not halted, but there is hesitation in her step.  “What ‘elderly friend’?”  She asks drily.

“Oh, the rose.”    The rose – her rose.  The rose she planted as remembrance, she said, in the weeks that followed Ella’s departure.   Crooked and deformed as his marriage, he is suddenly offended by it and would remove it from his sight, but most of all he would destroy it because it would hurt Rachel.   The voluptuous blossoms are vulgar and blousy, the rattle of bees is loud and disturbing; but more than that, Rachel loves it.

“Not the rose!”

Is it the guttural change in her voice that alarms Daniel?  She has stopped, turned to face him once again.   This time the bucket slips from her hand, scattering its cargo on the path as she quails beneath the weight of his threat.   Her pallor is the colour of calico, her hands shake.   “Do not ever touch the rose.”

“It’s coming up!”  He says.  “I’m going to dig it up this afternoon!”

“Why?  It’s flowered better than ever this year.  Don’t, Daniel.”

He taunts her.  “I’m tired of it.  It’s time to move on.  It reminds us every time we look at it – it’s like a tombstone…”

And he knows.

Rachel does not have to stagger towards him, her breathing short, her limbs barely carrying her.  She does not have to grab his shoulders, almost falling onto him, implore him in frothing gasps.  “We agreed! It’s her memorial. You mustn’t!   You mustn’t!”   The tiny seed of suspicion that has lain dormant in the tilth of his memories is stirring.  First shoots of an awful truth are germinating in his mind.

Like a tombstone.

Daniel should be consumed by fury, yet somehow he cannot feel anger, only pain.  He rises, ready to catch Rachel as she collapses, and guides her into his chair.  For once in twenty-four years he sees tears coursing down her face, and for the first time in all of their years together he sees her helpless, unable to cope.  He hugs her close to him, saying, perhaps without thought:  “Never mind, dear.   Never mind.”

“I couldn’t tell you…”

“No.”

“I didn’t mean…it was no more than a push…she fell.  It was the table, Daniel.  She hit her head on the kitchen table…You wouldn’t have believed me.  No-one would have believed me.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”  Daniel says.  “I won’t disturb her.”

“She’s so peaceful, Daniel.”

“I know.  I feel that.  I know.”

They both fall silent.  He draws up another chair, and they sit together long into the evening, bound to one another by their garden and embraced by the outstretched branches of the rose.

 

© 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chances for Psychical Research?

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The stately homes of England
Though rather in the lurch
Provide a lot of chances
For psychical research
There’s the ghost
Of a crazy younger son

Who murdered in 1351
An extremely rowdy nun
Who resented it
And people who come to call
Meet her in the hall

The baby in the guest wing
Who crouches by the grate
Was walled up in the west wing
In 1428

If anyone spots
The Queen of Scots
In a hand-embroidered shroud
We’re proud
Of the stately homes of England

(Excerpt from song ‘The Stately Homes of England’ by Noel Coward)

 

If I may, I want to engage you in the sort of conversation that frequently occurs when the whisky has been passed around for a third or more times, or a cork is popped on a second bottle of rich burgundy.  Experience, if you can, that warm after-dinner glow –  I want to immerse you in candlelight and comfort you with the crackle of a log fire, for it is in such cossetted mood that the company is inclined to discuss real questions; those that explore the true meaning of life.  And one of those questions will almost certainly be:

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

Does it surprise you to learn that I do?

My encounters with the spirit world are rare, I grant you.  I can think of three, possibly four such moments in all of my long years which defy rational explanation; for now, let me select just one.  Let me show you this picture?

How odd, you might think, to produce a photograph in this dim light – especially one so contemporary and unremarkable!  Yet, if you hold it close to the candlelight you may see it as I do.  Though dressed in modern clothes, this building; ‘The Grange’, is the surviving wing of something that was very old, a great house raised in the 16th Century, when a Tudor rose ruled England and no head that rested upon other than Catholic shoulders could feel secure.  Oh, it has been altered much since then, renovated and remodelled many times, but its soul is not in doubt, and its heart, its beating heart, is more ancient still.

It is the unseen that must detain us here.  Imagine the foundations upon which this remnant of a mansion sits, because its footings harbour a secret:  once they founded a priory, the indulgence of a bishop whose goods and properties were coveted by an acquisitive King.  Once, these unruly thickets and meadowlands were a park with gardens tended by monks.   And although few tales or sketches of that bishop’s country palace survive (it was stripped of its gold and levelled by the forces that drove the Reformation) those stones – those ancient, buried stones – have their memories.

At the time my story starts the house itself lay abandoned, but nestling at the foot of the hill upon which it sits, beside a field gate, was a small caravan occupied by a man I knew as ‘Pete’.

Pete lived alone.  He was a polio survivor whose disabilities meant that he rarely left his compact home.  If you ask me for my most vivid memory of Pete I would have to admit it was his warmth.  No, I am not referring to his kind and caring nature, though doubtless he had one; I am talking about the heat of that caravan.  Upon a summer night when he opened his door a blast of hot air would greet his visitors like a Sirocco:  once inside it could flay the skin from their bones.

The source of so much radiation was a diminutive coke stove which crackled away, winter, summer, day and night at one end of the little van.  Guests would be urged to replenish its fuel from time to time, if its ferocity threatened to abate.  Personally, I became accustomed to the torment; it was a price worth paying for the tales Pete could tell.

Pete’s lifestyle afforded him plenty of time for study.  He was well versed in the lurid history of ‘The Grange’ and would describe the hauntings from its past with vivid conviction.   I, sometimes in the company of friends also drawn to this place, was a rapt audience for his stories of restless shades he had seen drifting through the darkness beyond his window, of grey-habited monks toiling in a garden that no longer grew.

“Whenever the moon’s up you’ll see them.  They look strange, of course, because in those days there was no wildness; no bushes or trees, unless ‘twas they that planted them.  So you see them moving through the underbrush as if it didn’t exist.  They walk along paths that’s not there anymore, digging in new trees that disappear with the moon, or…(here Pete would pause for effect)…just once in a while planting a tree that does still exist!  That elderly gentleman, the yew at the bottom of the cornfield there – I seen that as a sapling, with a couple o’ young initiates tending it.  And now…There it is!   Grown!”

At the zenith of our enthusiasm Pete rarely passed an evening of the full moon alone.  Two or three of us would be perched on the edge of his bunk, sipping hot tea as we stared through his window at the rough meadow and the gaunt, empty house on the hill.  His voice coached us from the darkness:  “Look carefully!  Remember they were smaller people then, and they walk on ground they tilled five hundred years ago.  The level of the land’s higher now, much higher in places:  sometimes you can only see them from the waist up.  There – over there.  See?”

But we never saw.  The blue land, silent in that eerie light, surrendered none of its secrets to us.  Pete’s explanation was simple:  “Vision isn’t given to everybody.”  And we accepted it.  He enjoyed our company, and we were willing enough to provide.

Nothing is forever.  I called one day to find the little caravan padlocked and its curtains drawn:  although I asked, nobody knew where Pete had gone.  I never saw him again.

Is that the end of the story?  Oh, no.  Ghosts I have promised you and a ghost you shall have.  The same year Pete disappeared The Grange was bought by a local landlord, who intended to turn it into apartments.   We knew the gentleman, and asked him if we could spend a night in The Grange before its interior was gutted and altered forever.   A bonafide ‘night in a haunted house’.

To our surprise the landlord agreed so, loaded with enthusiasm and sleeping bags we embarked on a ghost hunt, a night I can remember to have been one of the coldest of my life.

We were four.   On the Grange’s middle level we made a pitch on bare boards, surrounded by the workings of carpenters and builders; new un-plastered stud walls, stacks of plumbing and sanitary wares, some doors that were new, some much older.  Our sleeping bags did nothing to defend us against the October cold, so after a couple of shuddering hours of conversation and too chilled for sleep, at the dead of night we set off on a tour of the house.

There were many rooms to explore, many doors to open, all shrouded in darkness so intense we could touch it.  With our torches as our tentative guides we probed a confusing agglomeration of structures either old and part-demolished, or new and incomplete.  Too much was already altered – the structure of the old place was gone.  We quickly resigned all thoughts of haunting in so cluttered an environment.  The consensus was for abandonment and home.

The last door we intended to investigate was a modern one, set in a partition wall on the ground floor, at the centre of the house.    We expected nothing from it, having already opened a dozen precisely similar doors, and mentally, in my mind at least, I was already starting my car, looking forward to the full blast of the heater.  One of our group turned the handle briskly, thrusting the door open, expecting to reveal yet another small room in the making.  He was wrong.

Instead, we found ourselves staring through the doorway into a large hall bathed in soft, grey light.  A long refectory table made from three large planks dominated the centre of this space, at the further end of which, upon a substantial chair, was seated an aged monk.  Such was the light and the state of his habit, it was difficult to tell whether its colour was grey or brown; his face, certainly, was drained of all colour, but I recall exactly how he looked, and how his eyes raised to acknowledge us.  There was no feeling among us of shock, we felt no need for fear; in fact, the overwhelming sense was of intrusion, and it was that, perhaps, that induced our group member to quietly and discreetly close the door.

Initially I might have wondered if the others had shared my impression, but their odd behaviour confirmed for me that they had.  Before opening that door we had all been fairly buoyant, talking eagerly about going home.  Afterwards no-one spoke.  We walked away; we almost tiptoed.  There was no double take, no rush to open the door again, not even a conversation about what we had seen for several minutes, when the darkness suddenly descended once more and we realised all our torches had gone out.   Much later, when we had packed our sleeping bags back into the car and settled for the journey home, we agreed we would write down our individual versions of what we had seen.  When we compared these notes the following night they were surprisingly consistent.  Three of us had shared exactly the same experience in every detail, only our fourth insisted he had seen nothing.   When it was suggested we go back for a second look, however, he displayed marked reluctance.  In the end, we returned the key to our friendly landlord.  We did not return; not then.

One outstanding feature of what I will call ‘supernatural’ experiences is absolute clarity of memory.  I will never forget any detail of that ancient hall, although it happened a lot of years ago.  It remains with me:  it has become a part of my psyche.  I might make a number of attempts to explain, or to justify a collective illusion shared equally among my friends, but I can never satisfactorily pass it by.

There is a footnote.  In fact, one of our quartet did return to The Grange.  The following year those renovated apartments were put up for rent and I, with my immediate family, moved into the uppermost flat, the windows of which are shown in the photograph.  In all of my stay there, I had no further visions or clues that would lead me to suspect anything ‘supernatural’.  The place was warm and the views from those windows quite breathtaking.

In the summer of my second year at The Grange, a truck came to tow Pete’s caravan away.  I have never forgotten him, or that night.  I would wait more than twenty-five years for my next brush with the spirit world, one which would convince me that there are boundaries beyond which logic has no dominion.   But that’s a story for another time…

Tantrums and Toys in the East

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There is a remembered time of the nineteen-sixties when we all marched to plead with those supposedly wiser than us to ban ‘The Bomb’.  We were nations tired of war, sickened by the bestiality of Hiroshima, and more than a little afraid.  We recall the Cuban Blockade and a blunt Russian with porcine features banging his shoe on his desk before the United Nations Assembly.

From Nikita Khrushchev to Kim Jon-Un; from October 12th 1960 to – when?   October 12th, 2017?

I’m sure most of us have a personal image of Kim Jong-Un.   Mine is of a fat oriental enthroned before a pool full of barracuda, stroking a white Persian cat.  No matter how amusing his appearance and manners, however, we should be taking him very seriously indeed.

Prima Facie he is the stage villain, interlacing his strutted hour with dire threats signifying nothing, but behind the Shakespearian façade lies a fatal combination of ambition and delusion.  You can negotiate with ambition, but you can’t reason with someone who is delusional because they have a reality that is separate from yours; nor can you control them, because that reality has a different set of rules.

Kim appears, at least, to be very intelligent.  This may be because he is Queen Ant in a large heap of collective intelligence, or an attribute solely his own; personally, I suspect the former.  Whichever is the case, his regime has successfully conducted a black economy for many years, fuelling his nuclear ambitions with illegal exports, laundered money and bogus ‘banks’, the proceeds from which have not only enabled him to build a substantial war machine, but kept the People’s Republic of North Korea’s elite in luxury while its subjects struggle by on incomes averaging a thousand dollars a year.

Despite sanctions, PRNK manages to trade with about eighty countries throughout the world, including such as Germany and France.  The vast majority of that trade, though, is with China.  Chinese oil keeps the engines of the North Korean economy turning, and Chinese banking allegedly launders the money for its nefarious projects.  China is the one nation with the power to bring Kim to heel.

PRNK’s lunatic ambitions expose our saner world to a number of dangers, not least of which is nuclear proliferation.  In the publicity surrounding Kim’s inspection of his nice new miniature H-bomb he took care to emphasize its capacity for mass production:  North Korea’s arms trade with Syria and Iran thrives.  They should make eager buyers.

So, is this it?  Has the West, which has kept the lid of Pandora’s jar screwed firmly down for seventy years finally met with someone mad enough to open it?   We must have expected this, surely?  We must have made other plans?

Every now and again, history throws up a monster whose fame is measured by genocide.  Ultimately, it was left to a combination of American presidential strength and the political checks and balances within USSR to prevent Nikita Krushchev from joining that small, exclusive club.  Do such checks and balances exist today within PRNK, or is the comical figure of Kim Jong-Un destined to be next, and by far the greatest of its members?

 

The Private Truth

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RHaworth – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

When Malana left, the white house on the corner had been an inn.  Now it was someone’s home. There were flowers on the forecourt where benches and tables once stood – that same someone had built a low wall around the flowers and lavished it with white render, butter-thick.  The old inn sign with its painting of a barge was gone; its bracket, carelessly daubed with splashes of white paint still clung to the front of the house, naked and neglected.  Reluctantly, it seemed, the new owners had permitted one sign to remain, hanging drunkenly from their pristine gable end. ‘The Marina’ it said, and waved a wind-stirred finger into Basin Lane.  Malana followed it, her hand sweeping lazily over the steering wheel, for she knew this turning well.

Leaving the village street behind, she felt herself plunging, almost tumbling, back into her past.  In this hired car she was driving along a country lane she had walked very many times; amid choirs of humming bees, hedges rich with white flumes of cow parsley, garlands of campion and wild rose.  A short mile with sun on her face, or sun in her heart?

Intensity of memory washed before her like a bow wave, threatening tears as hired metal savaged the overgrowth, wheels bucked on irascible tarmac, around narrow bend upon narrow bend.

And one final bend.

High hedges like drapes sweeping apart, the old weathered gate, as always, hanging open; that rough dolomite rectangle he could never be persuaded to tar down, his customers’ cars strewn upon it in woeful disorder: fewer than she remembered.  And the path which was the final part of her journey, carving a way down through tangles of columbine and nettle to the canal.

Malana parked up alongside a Range Rover imbued with genteel old age. She drew a deep breath.  Standing and stretching cramped muscles, she could glimpse the boat house roof still intact peeping above a weed forest.  Its presence reassured her, gave her courage, even eagerness, to descend the path.

Twenty yards, no more; careful to avoid wasps milling around a discarded carton oozing something red and sweet, wondering with every step what changes, if any, she would find and hoping there would be none; the permanence of grey concrete with the boat house that stood in defiance of change at its head, the little row of jetties with maybe a narrow boat or two tethered between, the reflective calm of the old canal sleeping darkly beyond?   So short was the path she could not be kept waiting long, and in a dozen tentative paces that familiar vista was spread before her, substantially the same.  It was all there, if a little more weed-bestrewn and somewhat smaller than matched her recollection.

And there too, somehow unexpectedly, was Abel!  She started; unprepared, though heaven knew she should have been, to see him straightaway.  She had envisaged seeking him out, entering the cool dark of the boathouse, or checking the cabin of a solitary narrow boat tethered to one of the jetties.  But no, he was here, in open view.

He was painting antifouling onto a hauled-up river cruiser of a kind she knew he hated and she had no doubt it was he, though his back was turned, by the square set of his shoulders, by the firm plant of his feet upon the ground.  Why had she travelled so far, not really believing she might find him so easily, or find him at all?

Approaching him, taking these last few steps might be the most difficult of her life.   He straightened as she drew near, sensing her presence, but he did not turn around.

“It took you long enough.”   Abel said.

She could not imagine he would recognise her step after so long, so had he mistaken her for someone else?  “I know.”  Malana dug deeply to discover her voice.   “I had…things to do.”

She moved to stand beside him – to his left, as she always did, which suddenly seemed so natural to her, as if in a few steps she could make the years vanish; slip herself back into her past.

“Ten years.”  He said, inducing a flutter in her heart.  How, without so much as a glance, had he known it was she?  The years, the months, the days: had he been counting them too?

“Is it that?”  She struggled again to find words.  “Yes, I suppose it is.”  She said.

“I thought you were coming back after lunch.”

Malana smiled a smile that expressed the breeze of contentment she felt; and she turned to feast her eyes upon Abel’s remembered face, praying she would see her happiness reflected there.  What had she hoped; that he would be exactly as she remembered – that same humour, that same tacit, complacent grin?

She saw it at once, the change in him.

He was older, of course; his wind-harrowed skin etched and stretched by winters of frost and summers of heat and rain, but it was not fierce weathering, for compared to some the canals were a gentle mistress.   No, it was not a history of seasons that she could trace in his lean features.  It was a ghost.   He read her concern.   “Lot of things different.”  He said.

The relaxed, easy drawl of his younger voice had gone and left a tension, even a bitterness in its stead.  She bit a lip that threatened to quiver.  “What happened, Abel?”  She nodded to the glass fibre boat he was working on.  “What are you doing with this?  You used to despise these things.”

“Steel boats are expensive now, and there’s some can’t afford the tariff.”   Abel slapped a brushful of paint at the exposed hull.  “It wasn’t a good investment, believe me.  The bloody thing cracks like an egg if it gets in a collision.  I’m forever repairing it.”

“You haven’t answered me.  What happened?”

He made no immediate reply but continued with his painting, as if he were searching for an answer that would satisfy, and yet keep his private truth concealed.   At last he said:   “Dad died, seven years ago.  I had to close his yard, there was no way I could keep two running.  He had debts.  We sold two of the boats to shoulder that, and then a couple of winters ago we got more rain than Noah could have coped with.   The river burst its banks up at Chalferton and overflowed into the canal system.   It did a lot of damage.  The navigation’s still closed up at Handyard’s Lock, so we’re just on a branch, for a while.” He smiled, but only with his lips.  “A few misfortunes, really.”

She said gently:  “It’s good to see you, Abe.”

“And you.”  He nodded tersely.  “You married, I heard it said.  To a rich American, was the word about.  What brings you back here?”

“Yes, I was married, for a while.”  Ever since her flight had left New York she had wondered how she would answer just this question.  She could claim she needed to visit her parents, anxious for her father in his advancing years – or maybe she needed to put distance between her and the man she was leaving.  There was some truth in that. New York had crowded her, the rush and hustle of city streets made her frightened and the pace of each day tore her inner peace – that precious peace she once knew with Abel – to shreds.  Could she tell him the truth she had denied to herself; that her journey was really to find him: how much she had missed him, thought of him, worried for him every day for ten years?  And now she was standing at his side, how could she tell him all she wanted was to fall into his arms?

“I’m not married now.” Malana murmured, half to herself.  “Or I won’t be, in another three weeks.”   She forced herself to meet Abel’s eyes.  “We both have sad stories, don’t we?”

“Looks like it.”  He matched her stare.  “It didn’t work out, then?”

“It isn’t his fault.  His work takes him away for weeks at a time.  But me and the big city?  I’ve been on my own a lot, these last ten years.”

He grunted. “Seems like you should have stayed, then maybe things would have turned out better.”

“You never asked me to.”  It was all she could manage to keep the tremor from her voice.  Why hadn’t he asked?  For all the years they had spent together they had been fast friends, and he must have known how much she loved him, yet he had never given her cause to hope he cared for her in return.  She drew a breath, saying;  “I’m sorry about your Dad.  I always liked him.”

“Yes, he was a miserable old bugger, but he had his ways.  It’s a pity one of them wasn’t writing cheques.”  Abel frowned, avoiding her gaze.  “It really is good to see you.”  He repeated, as if he was striving for sincerity.  He had thought her his friend, believed they would always have that closeness, and he wanted so badly to say how he had missed her, and tell her of the betrayal he felt when she left without warning, left when he needed her most.  All these things he might say, but could never say, now or then.  “Are you staying in the village?”

“No.  Mum and Dad moved to Frebsham five years back; but then you’ll know about that.”

“I did hear.   Forty miles.  That’s a long way.”

‘Like another universe to you’, Alana thought.  “I’ll maybe stay in town a couple of days.”  She said; and then, when he made no reply, but was still, and remote, lost inside himself, she said:  “Look, you’re busy…”

“What will you do now – stay in England?   I mean, if you’re divorced…”

She smiled faintly.  “Not quite.  Not yet.  I’ll have to fly back, to finalise things, you know?  I’ll maybe look for a job up Frebsham way;  I don’t know.”

“Well, while you’re here you must stay for lunch.  I’ll get cleaned up…”

“No!”  She said it too quickly, bit back on the word.  “I mean, no, thank you.  I ought to get back to town, get booked in somewhere.  It’s the high season…”

“We were friends!”  He blurted out.   “We were friends most of our lives, you and I!”

“Yes, I know; and we’re strangers now.  My fault – all my fault.   I should have been there when you needed… I just wanted something – I don’t know; something more, I suppose.”

How had she believed a reunion could succeed where the past had failed?  Yet she was sure that love was there, and still she hoped – hoped to hear the staccato fracture of ice; to have him reach for her, take her in his arms and make the world come right!  For all her pride, she could not conceal the plea in her eyes, or dare to speak, lest her voice should give her away.

“Lunch in twenty minutes!”  It was a call from the boathouse.  “Abey you demon, you’ve got company!   Why didn’t you say?  Shall I lay for three?”

A figure stood, fresh-faced and smiling, in the door of the boathouse, with one hand against the jamb.

“No, she isn’t staying!”  Abel called back.   And to her:   “It’s a pity, though.  Peter’s a lovely chap.  We’ve been together three years now.  I’m sure you’d like him.”

At that instant, Malana’s eyes were drawn towards the cool waters of the canal.  For a second, no more, sunlight flickered on the blue iridescent flight of a kingfisher.

 

© 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

 

A Damascene Moment

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Hans Spekeart – Conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus

I’ve had an epiphyllum – or an epitaph? No, that’s not it.  I’ve had an epiphany!

Some years ago they who seek the bubble technology even in the cannon’s mouth persuaded me to ‘invest’ in a laptop (I could never reconcile the word ‘invest’ with the context of a computer because they depreciate at 100% the instant you buy them, making them about as sound a gamble as penny shares) ‘because’, they said; ‘look at the advantages’, they said; ‘you can take it anywhere’, they said; ‘you can work even when there’s no electricity, they…’ – well, you get the idea.   I’m sure you’ve heard all these things too.

So, I invested.

And I tried hard.   I really did.

But then I had my epidural – last week.

The result?  I am sitting before it now.  Be envious, all you less fortunate mortals!   Be insanely jealous, as you squint down the tube at your fifteen inch screens and your 1.5 font size task bars – as you try to read ‘don’t add space before paragraphs of the same type’ or discriminate between ‘Find’, ‘Replace’, and ‘Select’!   As you reach into your drawer once again for the magnifying glass in your hopeless quest for ‘Delete header/footer’ think of me and my twenty-seven inch – yes, twenty-seven inch – MONITOR!    (Of course monitor – what do you think I was talking about?  Oh, please!)

Yes, I’ve returned to the fold.   I am working with a desktop PC once again, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and a screen large enough to serve dinner through.   I have sufficient disc space for the archives of the National Library and a work screen so large I might need a small ladder to see the top, all for about half the cost of a new notebook.  It is, although you might judge me guilty of understatement, colossal fantastic majestic superb spiritually fulfilling and just bloody marvellous!

Confession time.

I was getting to the point at which my lack of vision was getting in the way of my writing.  Although I am a contact lens wearer I have always needed spectacles for close work and reading.  Down the years my eyesight has deteriorated, aggravated by macular degeneration (for that fascinating whirlpool effect) until now, in spite of long range vision which is still good, I cannot read small print even with optical help.  Imagine, then, what a pleasure it is to be able to write this with only my contacts to assist me.

I haven’t disposed of the laptop: no doubt I will still use it from time to time, especially because it carries all my music files.  But as a working instrument it can offer no contest to my new prize.  MF, as they say.

I abjure you all, follow my lead.  Subject your laptops to a Ray Bradbury moment!  Your eyes will thank you for it, and WordPress will be filled to overflowing.  Enjoy your own, unrepeatable, Damascene experience.

Skywatch

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eagleIn France and in Holland, the forces of law and order are experimenting with eagles as a means of bringing down ‘unauthorised’ drones.  The dreadful talons of these majestic birds are apparently able to crush propellers at a stroke, and the only training difficulty the French or Dutch have experienced is in teaching them to deposit their ‘prey’ in a safe situation, avoiding the heads of innocent pedestrians.

On the face of it, this seems a delightfully low-tech solution to a high-tech problem.   Animal lovers will be pleased that the eagles are sensibly employed in this fashion, rather than in catching and savagely dispatching sweet little fluffy bunnies.  It might have more validity, were it not for the reward an eagle earns for grounding a drone, which is – you’ve guessed it – a sweet little fluffy bunny.

But consider for a moment:  these are large, very powerful birds of prey, whose feeding customs include the taking of newly-born lambs.  Is it really a good plan to deliberately bring them into close proximity to people?  Who knows what the worst-world scenario could be – certainly the robbing habits of seagulls around those seafront lunchboxes might pale into insignioficance beside an eager eagle and an unguarded pram…

Fat

This is a great piece from georgeagak.wordpress.com. Who knows, maybe some of the neanderthals out there are gifted with ears. If so, maybe they’ll listen.

Sliver of Darkness

Hi, I’m Dorcas, I had lost my beauty to spare tyres, but only 2 months in this weight loss program, I lost 50 kilos, and I’ve got my beach body back!

Hi, I’m Titus and used to have a lot of belly fat that my doctor said was the sole cause of my erectile dysfunctions but only 2 months in this weight loss program, I lost 30 kilos and I can now hit that thing!

These are the lies they have used to mint billions and leave behind broken people in pursuit of illusionary beauty.

Beauty is a multifaceted phenomenon that can’t be defined by weight alone. In fact, the last time I checked beauty wasn’t synonymous to Slim!

You peg my worth on the sizes of my body parts and expect me to use it as collateral to buy acceptance.

The media is quick to give you statistics of…

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The Michelin Star

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Paul Carmino found himself discreetly studying the figure seated opposite him, avoiding the obvious stare, yet needing to know the energies that drove a great chef – what motivated that ample frame, those fever-bright eyes?  The two men had been seated together now for almost an hour; questions and answers, and Carmino thought that Bruno Toledi’s replies had been honest, although it had not escaped his attention that he was the audience, Toledi the only player.  The stage was his.

Slightly perturbed, Carmino checked his recorder’s battery.  It was, as he suspected, almost spent. He must wind up their conversation soon. Opportunities such as these were rare; to be prized.   He should miss nothing.

“Bruno.  How did your love of cooking begin?”

Instantly Bruno Toledi’s face became alive.  He thrust his weight forward in his creaking, protesting chair.  His hands began to talk.   “It is from my childhood, you know?  It is from my blessed mother.  She showed me to cook before even I could read!  I am little…”  He measured from the floor with his hand.   “She sit me on the table and she teach.  Young man, you should never underestimate teaching:  its power!”

“So you cooked a lot when you were a child…”

“All the time!”  Bruno waved toward the window, dismissing the intrusive rays of evening sun.  “Others, they go out to play.  Me, my playground is a kitchen.  I cook all time!”

“Didn’t it worry you?”  Asked Carmino.  “Did you never think you might be missing out on a childhood?”

“Now you offend me with clichés?  Miss out?   No.   No!”  The chair leather squeaked beneath shifting pressure.  “I learn.  At twelve years old I am making food you could only dream about. You know what?  What is at the heart – the very beating heart – of my genius?  It is discipline, my friend.  As a child I learn discipline.  A simple thing!   Look at me now – a restaurant in a perfect place, two Michelin Stars – the world treads a path to my door, my friend.   And at the heart of my kitchen?  It is discipline!  But now I tell you – there is more!”  An expressive hand dived beneath Bruno’s jacket so violently Carmino almost jumped with alarm, but all that emerged was a photograph.   “This I show to you, to make you laugh.  Most people keep pictures of their childhood, yes?  Their mammas, their papas, uncles, aunts?  I have only this.  This is all I keep!”

Carmino found himself studying a snapshot of an impressively lumpen piece of Victorian kitchenalia, from which there sprouted a formidable wooden handle.

“This I still have in my kitchen.  You would probably think of antique; which I suppose it is, really, you know?   And it might not seem too hygienic, no matter how clean I keep it.   But you cannot get the machines these days, and if you want to use meat in a good pasta you must grind it yourself.   Must!   The bought stuff – no, no.  It is a travesty, a punishment, that stuff.  No.”

Carmino felt an obligation to laugh.  “Us youngsters, eh, Bruno?   We don’t know nothing, do we?”

“You learn!  Good ingredients; first lesson!  Loyalty to your suppliers – first lesson!  Massano, he knows what I like.   I get from him, always.  And the same with all suppliers; only the best.  The pasta – best flour.  The same the tomatoes, sun dried and sweet; and if I have to import them in this pig of a climate, and they are expensive, this I do.  It is for perfection, this, you know?    Then what I cannot buy I must prepare for myself.  Nothing wasted – I make my own stock, the pot on the range all the time, working.  Reduce, reduce, reduce.  No matter what the art I paint onto a plate, the taste is always unique; always my own.”

“And always quite exquisite.”  Carmeno acknowledged.  His battery warning light was beginning to blink.  “Tell me about Miss Mountjoy.  You took her under your wing, didn’t you?”

“Selina?  It’s true.  It’s true!  She is such lovely girl.”  Toledi sat back, his smooth features furrowed by a frown.  “You said you want my story.  Why you ask about Selina?”

“Because she learned the arts from you?  Her genius was born of yours.”

“Si; yes.”  The mighty maestro of cuisine heaved himself heavily from his chair, running his fingers through lank, untidy locks that seemed to fall forever forward.  The view from the window took his eye for a moment and he ambled towards the glass.   “Genius is not something even I can create.  It is a gift – some little drift of golden dust that floats through a window somewhere on such a day as this, to land maybe upon the brow of a birthling child.  It is chance.  Selina, I see from the moment we start to cook together she has that gift.  She has the touch, she honours food, she needs only to gain the knowledge…”  he tapped his forehead …”my knowledge, and she will do wonderful things.  So what could I do?  Of course I teach. Learn as I did once – only from the best, the best will come.”

“And so she becomes a great cook.”

“As you say.  If I tell  you – and this is my little secret thing – that no-one is without fault?  If I say I cannot always find perfection in my raw materials but I must rely on others like Massano, and then I will say to you that Selina is a greater reader of ingredients, she needs no-one to help her judge, you will see what I mean, yes?”

“I think I do.”  Carmino nodded.  “She’s a very good buyer, as well as an excellent preparer of food.”

“Exactly so!  The suppliers, they fly to her like birds.  They take the grain from her palm, she makes the best deals, she bargains…”

“But you said everyone has a fault – there is always a weakness.  What about Selina Mountjoy’s weakness?”

“Ah,” Sighing, Toledi returned to his chair.  “Yes, she has fault.”

“In her cooking?”

“Perhaps.  If you say discipline has a place in our art.  If you say patience is greatest lesson you learn, then yes.  She has not patience to stay, and to learn all I have to show.  It is surprise to me!  I am surprised when I learn she has bought that house in the village; and I have to see with my own eyes the kitchen equipment, the tables, the seating she has had delivered there, and I have to hear with my own ears when my suppliers who I have known so many years are no longer loyal.  It is sad.”

“Really?  Doesn’t it make you angry?”

“Angry?  No!  Well, yes, maybe at first.”  Toledi spread his hands.  “Disappointed.  It is life.  What can you do?”

The light on Carmino’s recorder was telling him his battery was dead.   Reluctantly, he shut it off.   “Well, that’s it.”

Toledi smiled bleakly.  “You will be kind to me, yes?”

#

These were other chairs, and this was another room.  In the background the clinking of glass and murmurs of conversation around a bar, not busy at this early evening hour.  Between the chairs, a table.  On the table, two drinks – one of whisky, one of deep red wine.

David Murchison caught Carmino’s pensive look.  “What did you make of him?  I mean, as a man?”

Carmino studied his glass, swilling the amber liquid within it idly to catch reflections.  “If I was unkind I would call him fanatical, but that isn’t a term one uses lightly these days, so I’ll settle for ‘perfectionist’.  I couldn’t separate him from his cooking.  He doesn’t stand up by himself.  But if you want a diagnosis I have nothing to offer you.   I wouldn’t say he’s ill.   Actually, knowing I was going to interview him, I booked a table at his restaurant.  The pork dish I had was – well, lacking a more adequate word – sublime.   Absolutely sublime.  There’s no doubt, I suppose?”

“None.”  Murchison said.  “Selina Mountjoy hasn’t been seen since Wednesday.  Her parents have lost touch with her, she hasn’t appeared at her new restaurant venture, and there are supplies rotting on the doorstep.   Above all, though, the test results on Toledi’s kitchen stockpot have come in.  They show traces of human tissue.  I’ d say an arrest is imminent.”  Murchison looked concerned.  “Are you okay, Paul?   You’re as white as a sheet.”

“Did you say ‘Wednesday’?”

 

© 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