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

 

 

Charlie Gard

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

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

There was a time when doctors advised – no more.

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

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

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

Is this the health service any of us want?

Russell Grimley

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“You want your usual?”

“Has she been in yet?”  Russell Grimley was on edge.  Sol Abrahams’ café, just across the street from his flat, was his sole supply of victuals in this last year, but just lately his erstwhile girlfriend had taken to eating there too.

“Marika?  No.   She don’t come in this early.  You want your usual?”

Russell gave a single eyebrow response.  Ever since Sol had introduced him to his special breakfast pasties he had eaten nothing else – they were too addictive.   “And coffee.”  Sol completed his order for him.  “I’ll get it for you.”

Russell bolted his food down, almost choking in his haste to escape an encounter with Marika, who he felt sure was stalking him, and to keep an appointment at his doctor’s surgery.

He had no faith in the power of medical doctors to heal, and he had no faith in Doctor Staffana.   Even this morning’s act of attending Doctor Staffana’s waiting room, crammed as it was with the sniffling and the coughing, set his nerves to jangle mode.  However, the wait gave him time to wonder at Marika’s vengeful persistence, since they had mutually agreed they could not live with each other anymore.   Did she still feel aggrieved, just because he had sold her revolting pet dog while she was out at work?

“Does it hurt?”   Doctor Staffana gripped one of his shoulder blades with a vigour that threatened to tear it off.  Russell yelped.

“When did you first notice this?”  The doctor prodded the other shoulder blade.

“A couple of nights ago.”

“It was the pain, you felt?”

“No.  It hasn’t hurt at all, until you did that.  I just had the sensation of lying on two tennis balls, or something.  Then, last night, worse.”

“I think we must refer you, although I warn you, the waiting list for this specialist is very long.  In the meantime, take this course of antibiotics.  Any allergies?”

#

Mr.  Ranjit Singh, the specialist, studied his notes, stared over the top of them, then hid behind them completely.   At length he allowed them to float to his desktop.

“You have been coming to see me for six months, Mr.  Cringey…”

“Grimley.”

“It says here you are Cringey.  Are you not Cringey?  You seem to have the same complaint?”

“Never mind.  Cringey will do.  Can we do something?  This is getting worse!”

Worse?   Much worse.  The deformation of Russell Grimley’s shoulder blades was now so noticeable he was, in appearance, a hunchback.   At work, his specially made jackets and his built up shoes had failed to disguise the prominence of the bones or control a peculiar hopping walk that seemed to go with them, and had earned him a street name: ‘Quasimodo’.

Mr. Singh turned to his computer screen, perused the information upon it for a few seconds, then made some experimental stabs at the keyboard.

“Your case is most interesting.   Most int-er-est-ing.   Yes.  The concensus seems to be you have a genetic condition we call Proteus Syndrome.   Have other members of your family suffered similar bone overgrowths?”

“No!”

“Well it has manifested itself rather late, which is probably to your advantage, as it appears to have restricted itself to your scapulae.  There are those very pronounced clavicles, and we have to keep an eye on your spine, but the distortion may never spread further.”

“What are you saying –  I’m like the Elephant Man?   Can’t you do anything?”

“Your condition is very rare – however, we have come a long way since Mr. Merrick: there are certain drug treatments…”

#

In the months that followed Russell Grimley’s life became intolerable.  His condition worsened, prohibiting any attempts to sleep, as had always been his custom, on his back.  What was more, his rapidly altering centre of balance caused his gait to degenerate into a series of hops which made the stairs from his apartment to the street almost beyond his capability.  Sol Abrahams was the first to acknowledge these changes.

“You don’t look well, Russell!  Why  are you walking so odd?   Do your feet hurt you, maybe?”

Soon after, Grimley’s employers, feeling that his profile no longer matched theirs, sacked him.   And now there was pain, sometimes so acute Russell felt that his shoulder blades must burst with the agony.   One afternoon, as he lay on his side in his bed with no reason to get up, they did burst.

Or at least, that was how it felt. It felt as if the blades had turned upon their axis and, true to their name, slashed like razors through the flesh of his back.  His screams echoed through the rooms of his fourth floor flat, turning heads far below in the street.  Unconsciousness swept over him like a merciful grey veil.

#

In time he must wake, Russell told himself: at the same time wondering how, if he was as unconscious as he thought, he was able to make such an objective assessment.   Colours whirled about him; his head sang to him in plangent tones.  Was he awake after all?  Was he drugged?

Russell tried blinking to clear his vision, once, twice, then again.  He tried turning his head to one side.  Yes, his eyes were capable of functioning, that was certain, but what they saw made little sense.  He was looking down through a whirlpool of detail to a central, stiletto-sharp object: the object, he suddenly realised, being Sol Abrahams’ nose!   So strangely altered was Russell’s vision it took him a moment to recognise the café proprietor, a moment more to see that Sol Abrahams, standing in the doorway to his emporium, was looking back up at him.  There was nothing between them but the clear vista of the street, and Sol’s eyes were wide with terror!

#

Detective Sergeant Oliver Wadforth ran tired fingers through his hair, reluctant to meet the gaze of the strange apparition that faced him across his desk.   “Let’s get this straight.”  He said.  “You were perched on your windowsill, and you wanted Mr. Abrahams to help you?”

“Yes.  Although I prefer the word ‘sitting’ to ‘perched’.”  Russell was resisting a powerful urge to bang his mouth on the edge of Wadforth’s desktop. Speech was unaccountably difficult.  “I panicked!”

You panicked?   Imagine what that poor old man felt, standing in front of his shop, when he saw you looking like that, perched in a fourth floor window?  And then, to make matters worse, when you swooped down on him with those – those…”

“These?”   Russell asked helpfully, stretching his shoulders.  They were very new, his wings, and they felt stiff.

“Don’t!”  Wadforth made a grab for his paperwork, which whirled like butterflies before the draught Russell created.  “Don’t flap those things in here!”

“I didn’t think!  I mean, when did I learn to fly like that?  I woke up to find myself on my windowsill and I just wanted to get down to him, to ask what was happening to me, that’s all.  It all seemed so natural.  Will he be all right?”

“I won’t lie to you.  It was a heart attack.   He’s doing OK.   But what the hell do I do with you?  Technically, you’ve committed no offence, although there should be some law to stop you doing it again.  So I can’t charge you, but nor can I let you walk out of here like – well, like that.”

“You could call my doctor.  He’s been following my case.”

#

Mr.Ranjit Singh’s notes seemed to occupy him for a long time, a space Russell filled by banging his mouth on a peanut bar his receptionist had thoughtfully provided.   Eating was yet another of the myriad things that were proving more difficult as the hours passed, because he no longer possessed arms or hands to hold onto food, and he had yet to learn to use his feet, the talons of which still protruded through the wreckage of a pair of shoes.   Eventually Mr. Singh looked up.

“There can be no doubt about it.”  He said.  “You are a bird.”

“Is it curable?”  Russell asked.

#

The ‘Cringey’ remained the City Zoo’s star exhibit for much of that year, and eventually it seemed Russell’s life story would be reduced to a placard that explained him to a host of curious visitors, who came to stand in open-mouthed awe before his cage.  His twelve-foot wingspan was majestic, his dark, green-tinted plumage a wonder to behold, so when he exercised in the ample space the Zoo provided his soaring flight filled the audience with admiration.

His keeper was kind enough, though perplexed at his unique condition:  “Why, I know you must be lonely, like; but I’ve no idea where we’ll ever find a female to keep you company, and there’s the truth.”

Russell had long forgotten how to talk in anything other than a series of squawking cries, so when, in late November, he noticed Marika standing among his devotees he had nothing he could say, nor anywhere to hide.  The piercing focus of his eyes could not miss her smirks, forcing him to pause, humiliated, in the middle of shredding a dead rat his keeper had provided for lunch.

Thereafter Marika came every day; she came to his cage, and stood watching him or sat on a close-by bench, often eating one of Sol Abrahams’ special pasties.  She would flaunt the food before him, agitating him until he could no longer stay on his perch, but flew around his enclosure, seeking refuge.  Sometimes he even skulked in his night-box until she went away; but then, sometimes, too, he would vent his inner anger with a screeching sound he had invented, glaring down upon her with baleful looks.  And so matters endured right through the winter, until upon one early March day he noticed how large and loosely fitting was the coat Marika had thrown around her shoulders, and how she stooped.  Was it his imagination, or had her walk taken on a peculiar, halting gait?  No,there was no doubting her disability, and as it increased her visits became less frequent.  In May, they ceased altogether.

“It’s a miracle!”  Russell’s keeper enthused one day in June while cleaning out his cage.  “A perfect female match for you m’beauty, and a companion at last.  I’d start doing a bit of nest-building, if I were you!”

 

© 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

 

 

 

 

 

Crooked Meg

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Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall.  Jacintha’s covered it with gentle fingers.   “It feels so special, here.”  She said, her voice subdued almost to a whisper.  “I just know we could be so happy, darling.  This has to be our house!”

Beside them an Agents’ ‘For Sale’ board rattled.   “The view is to die for.”  Martin admitted.  “You can see miles from those French doors in the kitchen, absolutely miles!”

Martin would never confess that, even with the aid of thick spectacles he always wore these days, horizons could be no more than a haze.  He could see the house, though.  Yes, he could see that.

It was a truly tempting piece of architecture:  five bedrooms, palatial bathrooms, open-plan kitchen and diner, living room, study, and so on.  A double garage with a loft above it, a half-acre of wild, heather-strewn land.   Yet it was the last house on High Croft, a development of eight newly built houses, the other seven of which had been bought long ago.   Why had no-one wanted it – or was it merely a matter of a price he already considered cheap?  Could he make a cheeky offer?

“Alright, dear.  If you like it, it’s ours.  I’ll call the Agents.”

Jacintha smiled her satisfaction, suppressing a little whoop of joy within.  It would never do, in her relationship with Martin, to express emotion more honestly.   Martin must be expected to conform to certain conditions, as must she.  He was, after all, somewhat short of her image of the perfect man, but she took pride in his apparently limitless wealth, and his predilection for spending it on her.  He was also good company; even mildly amusing, at times.

Martin found his mobile ‘phone in his breast pocket.  The ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in noisy reminder.

“It’s a little windy here.”   He said.  “There was a pub just down the hill:  I can make the call indoors.   Last one there buys the first round!”

Seeing her husband running like the cumbersome fool he was, Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered man in a waxed jacket who witnessed this humiliation from across the road.  She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reduced them to an elegant walk.  Ahead of her, Martin’s outburst of fun was already over.  He was looking back for her with an embarrassed smile.

The pub was unpretentious, but comfortable.   Jacintha picked a settle with a table by the window while Martin bought drinks.

“You looking to buy that house up top of the hill?”  The Landlord responded, wrestling with the new experience of preparing a Harvey Wallbanger.  “It does get cold in the winter, mind.   You can get snowed in for a month sometimes, easy.  There was a time no-one’d think of building anything up there, not even a cow shed.  It’s three hundred feet above the treeline, isn’t it?”

Martin joined Jacintha on the settle by the window.   “The landlord thinks we’re mad.”

“Perhaps we are, a bit.”   Jacintha murmured.  “I love the open moors, darling.  The air is so fresh up here!”

“And there’s so much of it!”  Martin agreed.  “I’ll get the deal sewn up.”  He delved for the Property Agent’s specification sheet, lining up a telephone number to tap out on his mobile.

“The wind up there, it blows forever.”

The voice caught Jacintha and Martin by surprise.   Their eyes rested upon the figure who had watched their feeble attempt at a race not long since, and who stood over them, perhaps intent upon Jacintha, now.  This was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills, Martin considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features.   Jacintha, finding she was breathing too fast, collected herself hurriedly.  “Does it?”  She responded lamely.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  It’s wonderful.  I love to feel the wind on my face, it’s so…so inspiring!”

“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?”  The man said flintily, and his jaw hardly moved when he talked and his lips were thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth.

“I think so.”   Martin was aware the proprieties had not been observed, and more aware than Jacintha, perhaps, of how pink she had become.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…”

“Abr’ham.  That’s my name.  You can call me Abe.”  The man waved an airy hand towards the other occupants of the pub.  “Most everybody does.

“That used to be Meg’s place, there.  You wouldn’t think it, would ‘ee?   Oh, not the ‘ouse, o’ course.  Stone, ‘er place were, with flags for a roof and a door o’ planks she borrowed off the loose boxes from the Squire’s stables.  They’d make Meg laugh in that squeaky voice ‘o ‘ers, all them modern things we takes for granted now.”

“Really, Abe?.”  Martin accorded the newcomer one of his mildest smiles;   “She sounds like a real character.  Did you know her well?”

“Know ‘er?  Why bless you, yes.  Ever’body lives up ‘ere knows Meg.”

There was an uneasy pause.  Martin decided to break it.  “I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Martin; this is Jacintha, my wife.  I would guess you know a few things concerning the house?”  He did not wish to seem inhospitable.  This man gave the impression of living locally; a villager, maybe.  “If we tempted you with a drink, perhaps you could fill us in?”

“Well, I thank you kindly.  Yes, I could use a pint of draught.”

“I’ll get us all another round.”  Martin said.

No sooner had Martin departed for the bar, than Abe had taken his place on the settle next to Jacintha.  “I adore the house!”  She self-consciously smoothed her skirt over her thighs.

“You’ll be ‘appy there.”  Abe said.  “You’m a strong woman, I can see that.”  Martin brought the drinks.  “You’re def’nitely going to put in an offer, then?”

Martin set the glasses on the table.  Realising his seat had been taken, he pulled up a chair.  “I think so.  We are, aren’t we, Darling?”

“Oh, yes!”  Jacintha breathed.  “Wild, open moorland like that, full of myths and legends – I couldn’t ask for more!”

“My wife is an artist,” Martin explained, failing, as he always did, to keep all trace of irony from his voice.  “She writes.  And paints.”  He added as an afterthought.  “Do tell us about this Meg?”

Abe sipped from his pint of draught.   “Ah!  Crooked Meg, she’m better known as…”

“Oh, why?”  Jacintha cried.  “What did she do wrong?”

“Meg?  Meg done lots that was wrong, but it aren’t the reason for her name.  No, Meg was a goatherd.   She was a goatherd because that’s what her father did until the day he died, and there was a herd of goats to feed, so Meg just took them over.  Ever’one has to make a living, and that was Meg’s.”

“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”

“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here.   They smelled unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too partic’lar how they fed their beasts.  Very few of ‘em had land of their own; theirs was a poor living and they couldn’t afford it, so they just drove their herds about the lanes, letting ‘em graze off the verges, or, if no-one were watchin’, off a legit’mate farmer’s crop, which, o’ course, being goats, they stripped to the soil – left nothing!”

“Gosh!”  Jacintha was enraptured.  “That must have made the landowners awfully cross, mustn’t it?”

“That it did, Missus.”  Beneath the table, Jacintha felt Abe’s hand grip her knee.  “It did madden old Jacob Morrow, when he found ‘er in his cornfield, that’s for sure!”

“I imagine so.”  Martin’s face wore a perplexed look.  “I imagine ‘old Jacob Morrow’ would have taken measures to stop her?”

“Measures?  Oh, ‘er took measures alright.  Jacob were a poor tenant farmer see?  He couldn’t afford to lose all that corn she were takin’.   No-one blamed him.  Not at all.”

“Blamed him?  Oh my gosh!  Blamed him for what?”  Jacintha’s hand was engaged in a covert tussle with Abe’s hand which, having found its way to her leg, seemed reluctant to leave.

“He took after ‘er, see?   An’ she ran, ‘cause he weren’t a good tempered man, and he’d have beat her senseless.   Well, she don’t have time to open the five-bar gate, do she, so she clambers over.  Done it many times afore, no problem for Meg, not that.  If’n this time ‘er hadn’t caught ‘er foot in the third bar, and fell back-over!   You might say it saved ‘er, in a way, ‘cause with ‘er screaming  Jacob got frightened and lef’ ‘er alone.”

“God, that’s horrible!”  Jacintha whispered.

“Horrible, aye.  Some say ‘er back were broke, some say her hips.  Still she dragged hersel’ two mile to get home, ‘cause they made ‘em tough, back then, and there weren’t no doctorin’ if you was poor.   She healed bad, though.  Ever after that she were bent over back’ards like a billhook, she were.  That’s why she’m called Crooked Meg.”

“Poor woman!”

Abe nodded into his beer.  “Poor woman, ah!”

“Yes, it is an engaging tale.”  Martin, who was not oblivious to the wandering progress of Abe’s hand, was sceptical.  “One thing puzzles me, er…Abe.”

“Ask away.”  Abe said.

“At the beginning of your story you spoke about this woman as though you knew her personally.     You said she had a squeaky laugh, if I remember.  Yet a tragedy like hers couldn’t happen today, could it?  This took place – what – a hundred years ago?”

“More like two…”

“So how….?”

“Oh, Meg’s still around.”

“Sorry?”  Jacintha, alarmed, froze in her struggle against Abe’s advances.  Suddenly lacking the rustle and scuffle this had caused, the silence was palpable.  Abe’s hand took instant territorial advantage.

“I said Meg’s still around, Missus.  Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time.  Where you’m going to be livin’, you’ll come across ‘er a lot.”

Martin frowned:  “So this is a ghost story?”

“Well, some might call it that, but only from a distance, if you see what I mean?  See, this isn’t the end o’ the tale.   Affer her accident. Meg couldn’t herd her goats no more, ‘cause she were crippled, so she took after gettin’ ‘erself a husban’.”

“Not easy, I imagine.”  Jacintha muttered, renewing her resistance with increased fervour.

“No, she weren’t exactly a pretty dish.  But those were desp’rate times and they had desp’rate people in ‘em.  She married Ben Stokesley, she was the only one who would.  They was a foul family, them Stokesleys, and no sane woman would have had ‘em.  Some say Meg weren’t sane, though, even then.”

“After all she’d been through….”

“Exac’ly.  He were a drinker, were Ben, like all his kin.  Most the time he were too drunk to stand, and when he could stand he beat Meg until she bled, poor woman.  He didn’t hardly never work, an’ she couldn’t, so they never had nothing.  They was so poor they did eat grass from the hill from time to time, until one day Ben went out and sold Meg’s house from under her.  It were hers and her father before ‘er.  Meg couldn’t stand no more.

When she found out, crippled as she was, demented as she was, poor screaming soul, she tore that house apart, stone by stone, timber by timber; and when Ben come’d home, roaring drunk having poured the money he’d got for the ‘ouse down he’s throat, she picked up the heaviest stone and she crushed he’s skull.   That’s where they found ‘er next morning, still sitting on Ben’s body and shouting out like the spirits of the moor were a-hunting in her head.”

“Dear Lord!  Whatever happened to her?”

“Some said she was took to sessions and hanged, some that she were put in an asylum, because her madness wouldn’t ever free her.  That weren’t truth of it….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”

Jacintha was ashen.  “No, please, you must.  Go on.”

“Well, local folks knows.  The Stokesley family came after ‘er. They did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch.  I reckon she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn.  Ask anyone here – they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year us ‘ave heard her screams jus’ at sunrise, just afore the day comes.  Her house was razed to the ground, you see, nothin’ left.  But it was her home, and she don’t take kindly to anyone else living there, even with their fancy porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Now I don’t want you to worry none, now.”

“Not worry!”

“Well, you don’t ‘ave to believe all you hear – mind, didn’t you wonder how ‘twas such a grand ‘ouse stands empty?  For more ‘n two hundred years no-one dared build on that land for fear of Meg.  But there ‘tis.”   Abe sighed.  “There ‘tis.”

“Oh, Darling, this is awful!”  Jacintha exclaimed.

“Yes, well.  Yes.”  Martin decided.  “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!”

His wife attempted to rise from the table without more intimate contact with Abe.  In this she failed.   Her face was inches from his flint-sharp features as he murmured.   “Pity!   Still, we being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?”  He turned to Martin, whose neck was becoming dangerously red.  “You’ll be quick to put that offer in, now, will ‘ee?”

Martin stumbled. “Yes.  Well, no.  Perhaps not yet.   We may take a little longer to consider it.”

“We do have one or two other properties to look at.”  Jacintha explained hastily.

Abe watched as his two drinking companions scuttled from the dark mood of the public bar into bright forenoon sunshine.  The Landlord called over:   “They was in a bit of a hurry, weren’t they, Mr. Abrahams?”

“Yes George.  Yes, they were.”   Abe sighed, then ferreted for his mobile ‘phone.  Holding it beneath the light from the pub window, he tapped out a number.  “Marcus!”  He hailed, in a voice that had lost all of its rustic burr:  “It’s Jocelyn, dear boy; Jocelyn Abrahams.  Marcus;  that house on the High Croft estate – ‘Woodlands’, I think you’ve called it?   It’s been empty for a year now; I told you at the time no-one would pay two hundred and fifty thou for it.   A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I?  Anyway, have you thought any more about my offer?  One-seven-five, yes.   Oh, you’ve got a view, have you?  Well, if they don’t bite, you just call me and I’ll be in your office in the morning.  Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better.   Yes.  I’ll look forward to it.”

© 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 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.