Continuum Episode 8 – Celeris

The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “And you are Lady…?”

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

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

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

“Are you?”  She returns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She demurs, “Oh, you don’t…”

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

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

“Strange indeed!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But…?”

“But I’m not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This?”

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

“Are we all present?”  Portis asks.

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

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

“You will learn.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cassix shakes his head.  “I cannot say.”

“You are the Seer.  If you can’t…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very well.”

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

#

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Two A Letter

The story so far: 

In Abbot’s Friscombe, the nearby home village of the Smith family, Jennifer Althorpe, a journalist for a major national newspaper devoted to sabotaging Joe’s brother Ian Palliser’s political career is at work, trying to stir up a scandal story by rekindling anger over Joe’s reputed involvement in Rodney Smith’s fatal motoring accident, some years before.

Meanwhile, unaware the net is closing, Joe accepts Sophie’s invitation to go horse riding together – a lyrical day out culminating in an act of love which Joe unwittingly destroys by blurting out the name of Marian, his deceased lover.

For the whole of that night Joe lay uneasily in his bed, applying the salves of drink and deductive reasoning to his wounded conscience.  But the more he explored his thoughts and feelings, the more he had to accept there was no logic to be found.  Sophie was as perfect a companion, perhaps even a partner, as he could ever wish for; he was attracted to her and yet he had used her.  Brilliantly though Sophie’s star shone, at one spontaneous, disastrous moment it was Marian who had filled his heart.  Just as once, in another unforgettable instant, Emma Blanchland had worn Sarah Halsey’s mask; Emma Blanchland who was now Emma Peterkin and lost to him forever.  Why?  What part of him insisted he should not move on, but always cling to the impossible, to the memory, to the romantic dream?  He was fairly certain he could fall in love with Sophie – if it were not too late.

In the afternoon when Joe returned Julia had a letter for him from Carnaby, his solicitor, suggesting they appoint to meet, so he had telephoned:  the old man seemed to think there was a matter of some importance to resolve, and Joe had promised to visit him at eleven the next morning.  Before he left for the town, he called Sophie, counting himself fortunate that it was the daughter, not her mother, who picked up the ‘phone.

“Mr. Palliser; how considerate of you to call.”  If words were knives their cut could have been no deeper.

“Please, Sophie, don’t be angry with me!”

“No?  You have other expectations?”

“I know I messed up, and right now it must seem unforgiveable, but Sophie…”

Seem unforgivable?”

“Alright; alright.  Completely unforgiveable.  And I wish I could explain it, I really do.  You can’t imagine how wretched I feel!”

“Oh, I believe I can!  About as wretched as you made me feel, and a little worse, I hope!”  Sophie sighed, letting her anger dissipate, then said, in a more subdued tone:  “It was a mistake, Joe – an awful misjudgement.”

“Something terrible possessed me.  I can’t explain how, but there’s so much that’s  good between us, so much that feels right, and I… ”

Sophie cut in:  “You might as well know, I’m driving up to London with Daddy this evening. He thinks it’s time I made use of my Two-One in Art History, as do I.  He knows the owner of a gallery who will offer me some work.”

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t believe I will.  The Bayswater flat is big enough for us both and I shall live there.  Daddy will continue to come back at weekends, of course, but I rather think I will stay in town, at least for a while.  It’s time I built an existence of my own.”

“So that’s it?   One stupid mention of a name, and it’s all over?”

“I think it’s for the best.  On a personal note, Joe, there are things you need to sort out.  When you’ve found that brother of yours, see if you can find yourself.”  Her voice was chill.  “Until you have, I believe I should keep well clear; for my own sake, do you see?”

Before he could make any riposte, the line went dead.

Had he means to see, to hear, Sophie after she replaced her receiver, Joe might have bitten back the helpless frustration he felt.  For the Sophie that her mother saw, across the hallway of their home was pale, with eyes dark-shaded where she had not slept.

“He matters, doesn’t he, darling?” Emily Forbes-Pattinson said.

Sophie nodded in silent reply.  “Do you know the one thing he didn’t say, Mummy?  Not once.  He didn’t say he was sorry.”

 

Joseph set off for his meeting with Carnaby in Braunston with Sophie’s words still churning in his thoughts, and only the urgent compulsion to find Michael driving him on.  He could harbour no illusions – his solicitor’s urgency must mean the result of Marian’s autopsy had arrived, and he was giving way to some form of panic, beginning to feel the need to put physical distance between this place, these emotions, and himself.  Perhaps Emma’s advice and Ian’s offer would not have been such bad choices after all.  With this conclusion refusing to take a sensible form he parked up outside Carnaby and Pollack.  Carnaby was in reception when he arrived and greeted him cordially.

“Joe, Joe!  Come in; do.  Take a seat.”  Carnaby waved a bunch of papers in one hand as he sat behind his desk, stirring up a small flurry of dust from the tooled leather.  “Here!”  He said triumphantly, as though he had just discovered the papers:  “These!  Are you sitting comfortably, my dear boy?”  Joe nodded, waiting.  A pause, then, with sudden gravity:  “Are you ready for a shock?”

Joe did not answer – could not.

Shock!  Marian, dead in his arms, filled with the drugs he had bought her – the moments of that night he could not remember, no matter how hard he tried.   Second autopsy, police investigation:  oh, god, what had he done?  A surge of sheer fright rose in his chest:  he could hear his genie’s insane laughter, see the mist rising.

“Dear chap!  You look quite ill!”  Carnaby pressed his intercom, summoning aid.  Struggling to breathe, Joseph recovered sufficient consciousness to discover he was accepting a glass of water from an attentive secretary.  The elderly solicitor was bending over him, his face a mirror of concern.  Joe drank deeply.

“I really did not mean to alarm you, dear chap; I am so, so sorry!”  Carnaby fussed.  “Do you feel better now?”

The secretary was called Naomi and she was, Joe thought, quite pretty.  Her large dark eyes were anxious. “Should I call the doctor, do you suppose?”  She asked.

Joe raised a hand.  “No, it’s all right.  I get this sometimes, I’m not ill.  Did I pass out?”

“Very nearly, I think.”  Carnaby told him.  “Have you had this looked into, Joseph?”

Joe said that he had, that the doctors had told him it was all to do with stress.

“Well, I have good news then.”

Joe was incredulous, and must have looked it.  “Good news?”

The solicitor nodded to Naomi, who retreated, closing the door behind her.  “Yesterday I received these…”  He waved the papers again.  “The full copy of Marian Brubaeker’s Last Will and Testament.  The terms of the will make it clear you are Mrs Brubaeker’s principle beneficiary.  There are some details to be worked out, of course, but you may rest assured.  You are heir to virtually her entire fortune.”

Joe was still trying to clear the buzzing in his head.  He blinked at Carnaby:  “But I thought her husband…”

“No longer.  Mr Brubaeker won’t contest it.  That’s final.”

“Weren’t the police involved?”  The journalist – Lynd – had he been lying?

Carnaby shook his head.  “Brubaeker was asking for a second autopsy at one stage, but of course with the information now at our disposal, he won’t want to proceed.  No point, dear boy, is there?”

“Information?”  Joe repeated stupidly.

“There!  You see?   You haven’t had the letter!  Third party in this matter is so inefficient!  I’ve never dealt with such a slipshod firm! (Carnaby’s opinion of a no doubt beleaguered Mr Gooch had obviously altered in the course of their dealings – such reversals in Alistair Carnaby’s estimation were not uncommon)  You should have been told, Joe, because you obviously didn’t know.  Marian Brubaeker had congenital heart disease – she would have been aware of it, especially because, it seems, in her case corrective surgery didn’t work.  I obtained a full diagnosis from the record of her medical history, which, if anyone else had bothered to examine it in detail, would have saved us all a lot of trouble.  My take on this is that Mr Brubaeker was well aware of his wife’s condition, but completely unaware of you until her will was read to him.  The second autopsy threat was nothing more than that – a threat.  He hoped to see you scurry away at the proposition of a police investigation.  Bless her, she could have popped off at any moment.”

“So she died of a heart attack?”

“Heart failure,” Carnaby nodded.  “Hastened possibly because she was in the habit of taking stimulants, but there was no doubt as to the cause of death.  The day before she died she had seen her consultant:  he foresaw an event and tried to persuade her to stay in hospital, but she wanted to die in her own home.  So that was that – dreadful affair, absolutely tragic.  Poor woman!

“But if I may be so indelicate this makes you a rich man, Joseph.  Because Mrs Brubaeker had been examined by a highly qualified consultant close to her time of death we have the best possible testimony that she was of sound mind, therefore her husband – they were virtually estranged, by the way, did you know that? – has no grounds to contest the will!”  He slapped the papers down on his desk then performed a small act of contrition, tidying the sheets into a neat stack.   “I will proceed with the details at this end, if in the meantime you seek some advice as to the disposition of funds.  I can help you with that, too, if you so wish.  Take time to consider, Joseph; that’s my recommendation.  Oh, and one more thing…”  Carnaby pulled a sealed envelope from his desk drawer:  “Amongst Mrs Brubaeker’s effects we found this – it’s addressed to you.

“Of course, the assurance of this money will grease the axles of your house purchase considerably, unless your plans will now change?  I imagine you could afford something rather larger.  I’ll send you the paperwork.  Now, do you want me to order a car for you?  I don’t believe you should drive yourself, at least not for a while.”

Around the corner of the street there was a café Joe had used occasionally in the days when he was Carnaby’s clerk.  Still somewhat disorientated, he sat heavily at a table, ordering coffee and sandwiches from a fragile-looking waitress.   Then, with some apprehension, he opened the envelope Marian had addressed with the simple word ‘Joseph’, and unfolded the letter it contained.

“My dearest, dearest Joe,

Oh, how should I begin this letter?  The very fact that you are reading it means that now you know a truth I could never bring myself to tell you.  You see, I have the mark of The Reaper upon me as surely as you have the mark of Cain upon you.  We both know our destinies, don’t we?

I told you once, Joe, that although you have many gifts, earning your own living does not feature among them.  So I have made certain you will never have to, my dear.  I don’t expect you to run my businesses if you don’t want to, in fact I wonder really if you should. Janessa Marchant, whom you know, would make a very able Managing Director if you wish them to continue.  I took the small liberty of offering her an interim contract until you decide what to do.   My solicitors are arranging valuations, so you will be able to sell them for quite a handsome sum if you elect to do so.

  Darling boy, you have given me a life; something no amount of money can ever repay.  Our years together have been such a wonder to me, more precious than words can express.  Thank you for each minute of each hour of each day we spent together, for your patience with my silly tantrums, your understanding of my moods and needs.

Don’t mourn me, please.  Don’t feel grateful: the gratitude is all mine.  If you keep the Alsace house, as I hope you will, when you visit there in one of those glorious summers spare a moment to remember me?  I cannot imagine anyone else but you inside those walls, my darling.  We were so happy there, weren’t we?

Take very special care of yourself.  Live, love someone who understands you, be happy, my sweet Joe.

In my last sleep, with my last breath, I will think of you.

My deepest love,

Your Marian.”

“You alright, mister?”  The waitress asked him.

 

There was nothing that Joe could do with the rest of that day, or most of the day that followed.  So profoundly affected was he that thoughts of Sophie, or Michael, or the Parkin murder and everything that arose from that were pushed to the back of his mind for a while.   Instead, he was filled with the recollection of his last night with Marian;  with his new understanding of her behaviour in those few final hours, which shamed him now because of the tawdry manner in which he had attempted to cover up his involvement in her death.  Although he could only consign that dreadful morning to the past, he resolved to accord her memory the respect he denied to her body in death.  He would walk with her forever in his thoughts.  Without regret or apology, Marian would always have a place in his heart.

On the evening following his appointment with Carnaby, Joseph told his aunt and uncle of his inheritance.  How should he not, when its consequences would affect all their lives so profoundly?  To his surprise, Owen’s was the gentler, intuitive reaction:  “I suspected there was something more to tell, Joseph.  You know old chap, for such a secretive person you’re deplorably bad at keeping secrets.”

Julia was infuriated.  “How dare you not tell us, Joe?  How could you keep something like that from us?  That poor woman!”

But it was a tempest that soon blew itself out.  They were happy for him because they shared Marian’s assessment of Joe’s character, and they could be content now, knowing that at least he would be comfortably off.

Although Marian had forbade him to mourn, Joe grieved for her in ways he could not share with his aunt and uncle, for Marian was no more than a name to them.  Instead, he ‘phoned someone who had known her well.  “Is that Janessa?  I thought it only fair you should hear this from me.  I’d like you to stay on as Managing Director, if you would.  Yes, I will be keeping the companies on, but I’ll be only distantly involved.  Marian had great faith in you.”

“I’m so glad,”  Janessa rejoined;  “I’ll get on with the Winter collection.  It’s good that something she achieved will survive in her memory.  We all loved her, you know.”

“As did I,”  Joe said.

For an hour, or very nearly, he and Janessa shared words that expressed their remembrance of Marian, opening gates that perhaps had been closed to them both.  And if it is not remembered who wept and who did not, at least this mutual expression of grief was a way for them both to rise above depths of woe; which in Joe’s case allowed him to begin thinking rationally again – thinking, that is, of Michael.

 

“Ah, I was expecting you.”  It was something less than a welcome.  Margaret Farrier surveyed Joseph from the shelter of her doorway.  “You’d better come in, I suppose.”

Hatton House was a smart, double fronted stone building towards the west end of Cross Street, the road which ran from Church Lane by St. Andrew’s Church to Feather Lane at the corner where stood the now-closed King’s Head pub.  Margaret’s Georgian front windows overlooked most of Hallbury to the Common beyond; then beyond again to the grey backcloth of the Calbeck Hills.

Margaret Farrier was something of an enigma as far as the village was concerned; very tall, almost six feet in height, with a pride of bearing which spoke of a distinguished family whose history in the Parish traced back a number of generations, Her appearance was that of a woman twelve years younger than her true age; her skin still moist and youthful, her eyes lively, her mouth firm.  The hair on her head was almost jet black, tied back so it shone.  She was in all ways an impressive lady, with an indomitable disposition.

Her associations also served to impress.   The meadow across the street from her house was Farrier’s Meadow, named after her great grandfather:  a roadside bench on Church Hill bore the family name; a steep rise behind the house was Farrier Hill.  Even the old wrecked thresher that lay crumbling in Flodder Field was known as the Farrier machine.  Then there was a scholarship to the local High School, a prize for the Shire’s most promising artist.  Yet distinguished as she was Margaret was in her forties now and unmarried.  Her only close relationship, as far as was known, was with her brother.  Patrick did not live in the same house (he rented a room with the Pardin’s on Feather Lane) but would, for example, always accompany her to church, or take her to Braunston, if she had need.  General opinion agreed that neither of them would ever marry, and it was almost certain that with their departure, the Farrier family line would die, too.

Margaret led Joe briskly to her drawing room, motioning to a chair.

“I’m not to your liking.”  Joe said, as he sat down.

She stared.  “What makes you say that?”

“I make ripples?”

“You are given to cause disruption, yes, that is true.  However, that is not always such a bad thing, young man.  You should be careful with your relationships, perhaps.  You have the village fairly buzzing with rumours.”  She sat opposite him, folding her knee-length skirt carefully across her legs.  “Now, what do you want of me?”

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Debbie Hudson on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Six. A Minor Tapestry

There was a rising bubble of panic in Karen’s chest.  Not fear – it could not be fear of the tall stalker who had followed her from the park – she knew herself, didn’t she?  She was tougher, much tougher than that!  Excitement then?  She was almost running through the twos and threes of shoppers on the street, casting about her for something, anything she might use to her advantage.  The next turning led into the street where she had her office; she did not want him to follow her there.  But what could she do?  He was close, too close!

Then, across the street, she spotted the familiar bobbing gait and beetling eyebrows of Bob Stawkley, Patrick’s superior at the Planning Department.  Karen didn’t know him well, but she could at least be justified in engaging him in conversation.  She launched herself through the traffic without a thought of injury, gaining safety on the further side amid squealing brakes and outraged car horns.

“Mr Stawkley!”

Bob Stawkley’s bushy eyebrows were raised in horror.  “Good God, woman, you’ll get yourself killed like that!  Whatever is the matter?”

“Oh, nothing; clumsy me!  I just wanted to talk to you, that’s all.  Have you got a moment?”

“It must be pretty serious if it’s worth risking your life for.  I suppose I have, then, haven’t I?”

“Bob.  Do you know a lad called Gavin Woodgate?”  It was a bizarre, haphazard way to begin a conversation.  It didn’t fool the old department chief for a moment.

“Are you in some sort of trouble?”

“No, of course…”  Karen saw her attempted nonchalance was failing.  Honesty prevailed.  “Well, yes.  I’m being followed.  A tall man with long hair and a leather coat.  Can you see him?”  She didn’t want to look for herself, to risk engaging with those fierce eyes a second time.

Stawkley’s luxuriant eyebrows lowered as he cast a glance up and down the road.  “No.  There’s no-one fitting that description.  Miss Eversley – Karen – are you all right?  You look badly shaken.”

She felt able to turn now, disbelieving:  for the large man to have vanished so rapidly seemed impossible.  There were no side alleys or even shop doors immediately available, yet he was nowhere to be seen.

She inhaled deeply.  “Oh yes.  Thank you.  I’m so sorry, Bob.”

“Your office is just up here, isn’t it?”  Stawkley was solicitous.  “Do you mind if I accompany you?”

“There’s no need…”

“Nonsense.  I think there is.  If nothing else I can ensure you get across the road in one piece.”

He insisted, taking Karen’s arm in his.  She did not resist: after all, they were not exactly strangers.  Bob Stawkley was her sister Suzanne’s contact, one of many to whom Karen owed her business’s survival in the early days.  Stawkley saw her safely back to her office.  She offered coffee, he declined.

“I really must be on my way.  You’ll be fine now, Karen, there are no tall men out there.  Incidentally, no, I have no recollection of anybody called Gavin Woodgate.”

So she thanked Bob and let him go.  As soon as he had loped from view she locked the doors, made coffee anyway, then sank into her chair to celebrate her escape.  Purton’s plain brown envelope was lying as she had left it on her desk.  It was a moment which could be delayed no longer.

Two files slid out when she tipped the envelope.  The first, a wedge of papers, prefaced by a photograph of a pallid, clean-shaven youth with Brylcreemed brown hair and ill-concealed acne, was made up of letters in scrawly handwriting, a few old family snaps and copies of various examination certificates.  There was also a tidily composed precis of the information she had learned in person over their memorable lunch.  Gavin Woodgate was last seen by his friend, Mark Potts who drove past him as he was walking on the High Pegram road at around three on a Sunday afternoon.  The weather was fine.  Did Gavin have other friends?  Apparently not.  Gavin’s hobbies were stamp collecting and train spotting.  Maybe that explained a lot of things… a quiet boy, a loner most at home in his own company.  Not the socializing type.

The second file was slim:  a photograph of Anna Parkinson depicted a grim-looking girl no older than her teens with straight, lifeless hair and defiant eyes.  The image had been lifted from a police record, Karen was sure – everything about her picture trumpeted disillusionment and rebellion.  There was not much more:  Anna had no known connections except for a Caleybridge landlady who was owed rent.  She was last seen on 21st January on the High Pegram Road, at two o’clock in the morning.

She would have been cold.  It was probably snowing then, or at least there would have been lying snow.  Karen imagined Anna wearing thin, cheaply alluring clothing, abandoned to fend for herself on a country road in the early hours,  watching as her client for the evening’s car retreated into the distance. Maybe she explored this middle-aged (Karen assumed he was middle-aged, though she didn’t know why) pervert’s favouritism to its limits, and maybe his actions were tweaking his conscience now; or was he simply covering himself for the time when her body surfaced in a ditch somewhere?

Thin as this minor tapestry of information seemed, it was riddled with obvious flaws.  Gavin:  train-spotter and philatelist; a boy who worked in a large County department yet who, if this picture was to be believed, had only one friend.  Anna, beloved in the eyes of someone high in the County establishment, should be a call girl of some sophistication, surely, to attract such elevated prey?  She should not be what her picture so clearly depicted – a streetwalker, a common pro from the sad little rank that hung around the bridge on Railway Street each night.  No, she was looking at two photographs, both of which were lies.  Who was she really looking for?  Who were the real people behind those two bland images?

Then there was that thin thread of coincidence surrounding three non-descript and forgotten ruins in some barely accessible field.  Why were two people whose disappearances were months apart, last seen on that same country road, and why did Purton and his colleague infer that their disappearance had something – some connection – with those ruins?  Might there be some link to the Turnbull letter?

Karen remained in her office, clinging, despite herself, to the false security of a locked door.  Yes, she had work, but nothing that could not be deferred until the immediate recollection of that darkly evil man had faded for a few more hours. Come evening though, she must stake out a man accused of an affair with his secretary.  Life had to go on.

By mid-afternoon she had run out of excuses; she must eat.  She would go home, snatch a quick sandwich before the stakeout. Nevertheless, she was still fluttering inside as she scanned the street, but of the lank-haired, black-coated man there was no sign. Encouraged, she ventured out.  Two hundred steps to the alley where her car was parked – she had counted them many times.  In a hurry, it was one hundred and eighty-two.  Karen hurried.

#

County Hall’s switchboard put the call through.  The instant Patrick heard Karen’s voice he knew she was in trouble.

“I’ll come right over.”

“Your work…”

“What are juniors for?  I’ll be there in ten minutes.  Karen…”

“Yes?”

“Don’t be afraid, OK?”

#

Karen was waiting for his buzz on the street door:  “Has anyone followed you?”

The road was empty.  “Not as far as I know,”  Patrick said.

He saw her pale, anxious face as she leant over the balustrade at the top of the stairs;.  She had obviously been crying.  As soon as he got to her he took her in his arms and for a moment he thought she would resist, but no; she clasped him to her as if she might drown and he felt so grateful she had called him – that he was the one she had turned to when she needed help.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”  He gently stroked the hair from her eyes.

“Come inside.” She said.

She shut the door behind them, locking it with unsteady fingers.  “I wish I had a bolt on this.”  She said.  “I should have a bolt; it would be safer.”

“Karen, has someone tried to get in here?” Taking her hand, he asked; “What’s the matter, darling?”  using the word inadvertently; allowing it to slip out in the onrush of his feelings for her.  It did not go unnoticed.  She squeezed his hand.  “I’m not normally like this.  I’m sorry. Thank you for coming so promptly, I must have sounded awful on the ‘phone.”

“I was happy to hear your voice – awful or not.”

“Someone followed me, a man – this morning, in the park.  I thought I’d lost him; but when I came home and pulled up outside, he was there again; the same man.  He was, standing at the end of the road, just staring at me!”  Karen’s eyes began widening with panic.  “Pat, he knows where I live!

“Well, he isn’t there now.  The road’s deserted.”  Patrick assured her. “Describe him to me?”

Karen gave him the man’s description.  She was talking fast, as a frightened person will, and Patrick was worried about her. “Listen, I’m here now.  Whoever he was, he’s gone.”

She nodded dumbly.

“Are you alright?  Do you want me to stay around for a while?”

“You must have left work early or something.  You’ll get into trouble.”  She was biting her lip furiously.  “No!  No, I don’t want you to go!”  She hit herself on the forehead with the butt of her hand.  “Oh, God, what do I want?  Look, you’d better get back to work….”

“If you don’t want me to leave, I’m here.  Don’t worry about work!”  He put a hand on her arm:  “Let’s make some coffee, and we’ll decide what to do next.”

Karen made no reply but gave the same unspeaking nod as before, her chin tucked in and eyes downcast.  Patrick followed her to her kitchen, intent upon helping her until he saw how she kept her back to him, and the tension in her shoulders told him she was crying.  He withdrew to the main room of her apartment, a warm space just sufficiently furnished – cream carpet, blue fabric couch, an overstuffed armchair – to be comfortable.  Her window looked out over a panorama of Caleybridge; its old streets, the river, the offices where he had been working half an hour since:  it looked so vital and alive; the greens of the park fizzing with soda freshness in Spring sunshine.  It drew him, that window:  Karen had set up her table so the vista was beside her when she ate, and  Patrick found himself migrating towards it, perching upon one of four bentwood dining chairs like an eager crow, impatient to fly down upon the spoils beneath.

There were sounds of paper towelled nose-blowing from the kitchen before his red-eyed hostess finally appeared, two mugs in her hands.

“This is a nice room!”

“I’m so, so sorry! I’m being stupid!.”  She put the mugs on the table, drawing up the opposite chair.  “It’s just so…”

“Have you seen this guy before – have you any idea what he might want?”  Pat asked her.

“Until today, no.  No, never.”  She stared into her coffee as if there were answers to be discovered there.  “I expect he’s going to turn out to be someone I owe money to, or something.  That would be sensible, wouldn’t it?”

Patrick grinned.  “I don’t know.  How many people do you owe money to?”

“Not too many.  Pat, I can’t explain.  There was something about him; something not quite…human.  His eyes!  Oh, God, his eyes!”  She raised a hand, shielding her face so he should not see evidence of resurgent tears.  “This is such nonsense.  I have work to do this evening; I have to go out again.”

“Then you don’t go out alone.”  He said.

He held her case for her as she locked her door.  She was shaking so much she could barely locate the key so he reached out to steady her hand again, which made her smile for a moment because she saw the humour of her situation.  “Karen Eversley, investigator.  Isn’t this ridiculous?”

“You’ve been badly scared.”

She coloured briefly, as though she wanted to admit to something more than fear.  “You’d better believe it.”

Karen drove them to a small car park which overlooked an office block in the town’s main business area.  The entrance to the building was about sixty yards away.

“Now what?”  Patrick asked.

“Now we wait.”

“What are we waiting for?”

“Who, rather than what,” She corrected him.  “Donald Carrington, who works in there.  We’re waiting for him to finish work and come out.”

“And then?”

“His wife tells me he never gets home before ten.  She thinks he’s with his secretary.  I want to see if she’s right.”

“Gosh, this is a real stakeout!  Although, of course, we can’t see inside.  I mean, secretary – office – nice big desk, where better?”

“Somewhere with cushions!  Anyway, I’ve managed to get pictures of both of them, so if they both leave at ten o’clock…  Could you get my camera out for me; it’s in the dashboard compartment.  And there are a couple of photographs of our culprits in there, too.  You might as well have a look, since you’re here.  Two pairs of eyes are better than one.”

The camera was evident by its sizeable lens.  The photographs took a little more time to discover.  “Wait a minute!”  Patrick said.  “I know him!”

“You don’t, do you?”

“Not really.  I’m teasing.”

They sat in silence for a while, studying sporadic activity across the street.  Patrick assessed the photographs:  a middle-aged, care-worn man; a very ordinary woman looking a little dowdy, a little careless of herself.  She might be five years younger than her alleged lover, or five years older.

Karen said, after a while:  “Look, Pat, I’m being very selfish with your time.  You don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Would you be happier if I didn’t?”  He asked her seriously.  “I can stay or go; you just say the word.”

She smiled a happy, relaxed smile.  “Then I’d really quite like it if you stayed.  If you didn’t mind.”

“Mind?  Spending the evening with you?  Why would I mind?”  Patrick hesitated: “I don’t want to take advantage of you.”

“You’re not.  In fact, a little closeness would be good for me right now.”

“We could call it our cover,” he suggested, putting his arm around her shoulder.  “The courting couple.  It would look more convincing – what do you think?”

Compliant, she snuggled into him.  “Hmmm.  Not too much courting.  We’ve got to keep our eyes on that door.”

“It’s a nice way to stake someone out.”  He said, as a hand somehow found a way to her knee.  “We’ve got at least five hours before ten o’clock.”

“Maybe, maybe not.”  She murmured, distracted.

“Still, it’s a long time.”  He said.

“Well, it would be, if…”

“If what?”

“If that wasn’t my mate Carrington just popping out of his door right now.”

“Damn!”  Patrick blinked at his watch in the dim light.  “Five-fifteen.  That’s just unfair.  I was getting on really good terms with this leg.  I suppose we could pretend we didn’t see him?”

“Shut up and let me do the pictures.”  Karen focused her camera on a departing Mr Carrington.  She took several shots, tracking his progress along the pavement until he disappeared, merging with the crowd.

“So now we wait for the naughty secretary?”  Patrick asked, persisting with Karen’s knee.

“It turns out she isn’t naughty at all. But yes, we wait.  What are you doing with my leg, young man?”

“My interests are purely aesthetic:  it is a beautiful leg.  I’m simply helping you pass the time.  ”

His hand was seeking, experimentally.  She stopped him.  “No, Pat.”

“It’s always safer on higher ground?”

“Not right now, alright?  Please?”  Karen turned so their faces were inches apart, so their breath mingled and the warm scents of each other made the moment impossibly intimate.  “Behave yourself,”  she chided him.  “Let me concentrate!”

It had begun to rain quite heavily.  Carrington’s secretary did not appear until a half-hour later, raising an umbrella and trotting briskly along wet pavements to the bus station.  Karen tracked her in the car, having to park at the roadside as they watched her catch her bus.  “Follow that bus?”  Patrick suggested.  “I’ve always wanted to say that.”

“No need.  That’s the South Monckton bus.  She’s going home.  Whatever my boy is doing, he isn’t doing it with her.”

“So what now?”  Patrick asked.

“Until next week, probably nothing. It’s always the same night, you see.   I’ll put in a progress report to his wife and who knows?  She may resolve the question with a domestic discussion before then.  She might join up the dots for herself. If not, next Wednesday I follow him.  Wall-to-wall excitement, isn’t it?”

“I’m on the edge of my seat.” Patrick felt concerned.  “Karen, are you going to be okay tonight?  Are you going back to your apartment?”

They were easing their way through late rush-hour traffic, a world full of pan-demonic, dashing people chasing buses, aiming for the station and trains.  It was difficult to imagine the loneliness, the vulnerability another couple of hours would bring, as these rain-soaked streets cleared of people and darkness took over.  The hour of Karen’s sinister stalker would have to be encountered, and he did not want her to be alone when it came.

Karen gave him a wry grin that failed to achieve its intended bravado.  “I’ve been such a wimp!  I’m in a tough profession, Pat.  I have to take care of myself.”

“I can’t help this,” He admitted.  “I worry about you.”

She replied seriously.  “I’d rather you didn’t.  That’s a responsibility I could manage without.”

“You’d rather I didn’t care about you?”

“I’m going to take you back to your car,”  Karen said.  “If it’s any consolation, I’ll probably stay at Mum and Dad’s place.  I could use a home-cooked meal, anyway.”

She did as she promised.  The Daimler stood waiting in the council office car park and Patrick thanked providence that he had left the roof up that morning.

He did not want to leave her.  “This is my number at home, so if you have any trouble, call me.  See you on Friday after work.  The Hunters, yes?”

“Yes.”  Karen took the scrap of paper he gave her with a smile that lit her face in a way he had not seen before.

“You deserve a special ‘thank you’,” She leaned across and kissed him tenderly.   “Thank you, Pat, for saving me.”

He clasped her hands in his.  “What are we, Karen?  To each other?”

And she smiled that same smile.  “We’re friends.”  She said.

“Didn’t that kiss mean we’re a little more than friends?”

“We’re kissing friends.”

He watched as she drove away, positioning himself so she would not see, as he had already seen, the folded slip of wet paper pinned beneath his car’s windscreen wiper.  Extracting it carefully, he got into the Dart’s driving seat before he peeled the fold apart.  The ink had run, but its hand-written message was concise and readable.  It said:

‘STAY AWAY FROM KAREN EVERSLEY’.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Four.   A Game of Hearts.

 

Karen Eversley kept her word.  Patrick discovered her occupying a window seat in the lounge bar of The Hunters, staring moodily into a glass of something short.  When she saw him, her features tightened in a slow smile that her eyes failed to imitate.

“I thought you weren’t coming.”  She chided him lightly.

Patrick apologised. “I’ll get us some drinks.  Another of those?”

She watched him as he returned from the bar, idly wondering what lay in the eaves beneath that tousled mop of hair that so attracted her.  As he carefully set their glasses on the small table beside them she picked out the little shards of reserve at the corners of his green eyes.  “You were thinking about standing me up, weren’t you?”  She accused him.

“No.”  He hesitated.  “Well yes, maybe. I’ve been doing some hard thinking.”

“Why?”

Patrick stared into his beer-glass,  “Doubts.”  He said.

“About, is this a good idea?  Did we get carried away, the concert and everything?”  Karen asked, adding cynically, “or maybe I just don’t look so good in this light.”

“You look – you look incredible!  It’s because…”  He stuttered into silence.

“Ah!”  Karen’s smile was thin-lipped, “The bush telegraph’s been at work, hasn’t it?  The Chinese whispers, the Caleybridge underground?  What have you been told?”

“Alright, perhaps I have – heard something!”  Patrick acknowledged.  “Oh, how do I say this?  Karen, I like you, a lot.  But is there anyone who might be concerned, our meeting like this?”

“You mean is there a jealous boyfriend-stroke-husband-stroke-girlfriend?”

“It did cross my mind:  would you?”

“Would I what?”

“Stroke a girlfriend?”

Her eyes brightened.  “I might.  Then again, I might return the question, mightn’t I?”

“I think you already have the answer to that.”

“Whereas?”  She asked.  She was looking at him in that certain way, and he might have reached for her hand, or at any rate close the heavy curtain of distance he felt was hanging between them.  The easy familiarity of their Saturday date whirled like corn-chaff on an awkward breeze.  “Whereas I wouldn’t want to destroy anything.”  He said.

The clouds crossed her eyes once again.  “Don’t worry, you aren’t.”  She volunteered nothing more.

Patrick could not read her expression.  Was she angry or simply uneasy because he had learned something she would have preferred to keep secret?

“Boulters Green,”  Karen said, after they had sipped their drinks in silence for a while.

“Three ruins.”  Patrick replied.  “do not a village make.”

“Not in our eyes, certainly.  But Frank Purton thinks it is a village.  And Mr Purton is paying my fees; so help me?”  Her handbag was open beside her on the seat and she produced a piece of paper from it, tossing it onto the table so he might see.  It was a letter.  Patrick did not reach for it at once.

“Frank Purton.  Isn’t he something in the County Clerks’ Department?  He does legals, doesn’t he?  What’s it about?”

“Questions, questions! Please, Pat; read the letter?”

The letter was coarsely hand-written, barely readable in the half-light of the bar.

Dear Councillor Burnett,

Now my son Casper is of an age for schooling I would wish him to attend a local preparatory school.  I cannot find such a school or how it is for him to get there, as I have no transportation at all.

Please write for me to say what I am to do.

Yours respectfully

Joshua Turnbull.  Number Three, Smith’s Lane, Boulters Green.  He is aged five.

“Joshua Turnbull, he thinks it’s a real village,”  Karen said.  “And Councillor Burnett, he’s worried because he’s chairman of the Education Committee and they’ve already had to ride out one scandal this year.”

“You mean the Beauchamp case?  Yes, I remember.”  Patrick replied half-absently, reading.  The scrawl was heavy and rich in ink, as though scratched by a crude instrument; perhaps a quill.

Karen watched him.  “I investigated the Beauchamp case for the County.  Frank Purton instructed me on that one, and now he’s asked me to follow this through.”

“It was you who caught the demon teacher?  Wow!  I am profoundly impressed.”

“The work’s important to me, Pat; I need it.  I need to do well too so I could use your thoughts.  What does that letter say to you?”

Patrick gave his impressions of the letter, and she frowned.  “Those were my conclusions.  It isn’t any older than a couple of weeks.  It was delivered last Monday, stamped and everything, with a Caleybridge postmark.”

“Not a Boulter’s Green postmark?” Patrick suggested flippantly. “I suppose he posted it while he was in town, him not having any transportation and all.”

“You think it’s a hoax, don’t you?  So do I.  But why?”

“I can’t explain it any other way.  It’s the ‘why’ that troubles me, too.  What is there to be gained from it?”

“Some political points, maybe.”  Karen sighed.  “Anyway, it seems to have run out of mileage.  I’ve checked all around the County departments and nobody’s heard of Boulter’s Green.  I’ve even been into the census records and looked for birth certificates.  Nothing!  The only lead I had was those three ruins.”

“So, is that why you agreed to meet me tonight?  Your last hope of keeping the case open?”

Karen’s fingers played with the stem of her glass and she did not speak for a while, because the thoughts in her mind ran too deep for speech.  Then she murmured:  “No.  No it wasn’t.”  And she glanced up at Patrick, giving him the feeling that there was an added note behind her voice.  “Walk home with me, Pat.  No strings, no promises.  Just that.”

They strolled along the riverside path that followed the Caley’s meandering journey through the town’s Albert Park, watching as children cast bread upon the waters, and listening to the waterfowls’ eager demands.  Sometimes they were arm-in-arm, sometimes Karen would break away, turning to lean upon a railing, or just to create space between them.  They spoke very little.

Leaving the riverside after the bridge that took it beneath a main thoroughfare, to Patrick’s surprise Karen guided their steps, not in the direction of her parents’ house and the place of their weekend meeting, but up a network of roads on one of the sharp, steep hills which bordered the river, arriving at a small block of purpose-built apartments.

“I live here.  I have the top apartment.  It isn’t very grand or expensive or anything, but its home.  Sometimes I go back to stay at Mum and Dad’s for weekends.”  Karen had stopped in the shelter of the street door, turning to lean against the brick recess as she sought her keys.  “Thank you for walking with me, Pat.”

“This is goodnight, then?”

“Yes.”

He wanted to kiss her, but somehow he knew it would expose him to a gentle rejection,  “Will I see you again?”

“Possibly.”

“That’s it?  I have to make do with ‘possibly’?”

She gave a faint smile and looked away.  “Possibly.”

Impulsively he took her chin and turned her face to him, so she couldn’t hide the clouds in those cool blue eyes.  “Karen…”

“No!”  She said sharply.  “Look, Pat, it isn’t as simple as you think.  I’m not good at hurting people, you know?  There are loyalties…”

“Then the bush telegraph was right.  There is a Tim.”  He said grimly.  “That’s alright.  I understand.”

“Do you?”

“Well, honestly, no I don’t.  You’re sad.  You’re unhappy about something and I want to help, Karen.

“Could be because I gave up smoking last week?”  She volunteered another weak smile:  “Jumpy!”  She twitched her fingers a few times as a demonstration.

Patrick shook his head.  “I’m not wrong about us.  We may have only just met, but…”

“Stop!  Just stop!  You found out about Tim.  I suppose I expected that you would, but you’re going too fast and I’m not sure I’m ready for that.  Okay?  Goodnight, Pat.  Look, just…goodnight!”

The key was in the lock, the latch was turning.  Then she was inside and gone, and he was left with a blank, unfeeling door closed to him, and a half-curious look from a man passing on the street.

“I know about the martial arts, too.”  He said to the door.

Patrick began the long walk back to his car as the last of the daylight faded, a red sun slipping beneath the far horizon like a weary traveller, pulling the distant hills like blankets over its head.  Its final efforts bathed Karen’s little apartment building in a soft vermillion glow, making mirrors of its windows to hide the sorrow inside.  His mind was a whirl of thoughts and pictures.  He could envisage her tiny hallway as she entered, her quick steps into her private world and in his fantasy he thought that she might be secretly weeping.  He could see her cheeks wet with tears, hear those quiet, lonely sobs in an empty room.  If he had doubted before or if he had wanted to keep a distance between them, he was certain now.  His heart was hers.

Standing back from her window Karen watched him walk away, filling the void of sound with her own imagining so she might hear his firm tread on the pavement, feel his purpose rush through her like a howl of need.  He was so strong, with such confidence in his stride, such power!  And her heart was full of wishing, but her head would not let her call out foolishly, or run after him, or catch him in her arms.  She stayed to see the sunset, looking down over the town and bound by the enchantment of flickering streetlights as they caught fire, red embers into yellow flames.  But there was a conscience within her that would not be ignored.  Karen went to her ‘phone, picked it up and dialled.

“Karen?  Hello, love, where’ve you been?  I called three times.”  Tim’s voice contained a hint of petulance.

“I know, you called home:  Mum told me.  I was out.  You sound tired.”

“Yes, I am.  Busy day!”

“Beginning to wish you’d stayed in Caleybridge?”

“What?  Oh, no.  No, I did the right thing, Kerry.  I miss you, darling, of course, but it’s my career, you know?”

Karen knew; Tim repeated it often enough.  Tim was strong, wasn’t he?  Probably much tougher than Patrick.  Tim was intelligent and kind?  Yes, but Tim’s was a policeman’s ponderous, deliberate strength, humourless and slow.  She had to try and sound enthusiastic, although to convince him she had first to convince herself.  “I miss you, too.”  She tried, but maybe failed – she thought she had.  She covered quickly:  “Anyway, you were ringing about next weekend, Mum said?”

“Yes.  I’m off duty all through from Friday to Monday so I can come down.  We can maybe spend some time together?”

“That sounds lovely.”

“I’ll drop in on Saturday morning.  Maybe we can go for lunch at the Mason’s Arms?”

“That sounds lovely.”

“Yes, well…”

All at once, without warning, the conversation was over.  There was nothing either of them could drop into that stony silence.  They faced each other, across the miles:  he in London, she in her provincial apartment, and they had nothing to say.

“I’ll see you on Saturday, then?”  Tim prompted.

“Yes, see you Saturday.”

“Okay.  Love you?”

It was a question.  “Of course.  Love you.”  Karen said, reminding herself there was a time when they would hang on the line, each waiting for the other to put down the receiver, each with a new promise of devotion.  Tonight she did not wait for Tim’s response.  She rang off.

Emptied, Karen dragged herself into her kitchen, found some bread and put together a sandwich of a Bolognese sauce she had made the previous night.  Then she ran a bath, filled it with an obscene amount of bubbles and slid inside their envelope of care, taking her lumpy old sponge from the rack, soaking it, and thrusting it into her face until the foam got in her nose, making her splutter pleasingly.  With warm water for her blanket, she settled back to let dilemma have its say.

Tim Birchinall.  At school, he was the fit one, the natural athlete who played in the school rugby team.  Karen dated him then; meetings after school, embarrassing each other with words, experimental kisses in dark corners, a couple of trips to Baronchester on the bus.  Tim was fun in those days and Karen liked him, but they were really never more than friends.  He was a trophy boyfriend who drew looks of envy from less fortunate girls.  They lost touch when school was over.  Karen went on to college, Tim found his niche with the police.

Some years later on a seaside visit to Harterport, a few months after her older sister Suzanne died in a motorbike accident, Karen was basking in hot July sun on a crowded beach and trying to eat an ice-cream faster than it melted.  In her new bikini she was shuffling self-consciously through dry sand towards the promenade steps when she was swept off her feet by three very large males in bathing trunks who were doing more charging than looking.  Prostrate in the sand and liberally embellished by ice-cream she was offered the assistance of a big, friendly hand.

“I’m terribly sorry!”  A resonant voice apologized; “That was really clumsy of me – are you hurt?”

Karen was about to unleash an appropriate reply when she realized she was being helped to her feet by an Olympian.  She choked back carefully chosen invective. “Only my pride.”  Her eyes took their time travelling up her assailant’s body, eventually reaching his face.  “Good god!  Tim Birchinall!”

A fully-grown, fully matured, fully swoon-inspiring Tim grinned at her.  “Karen Eversley!  Now fancy meeting you here!”

And so it began – slowly at first; because outside a sports ground Tim never did anything quickly, but by the winter of that year they were in a relationship of sorts.  The heat, the romantic heat, the passion – well, that was always there on Karen’s side but Tim seemed quite happy to maintain a little distance:  kissing goodnight, familiar touching, intimate whispers, no more than that.

The change came one night in January.  Tim, who was a member of the Beaconshire force then, played rugby for the County Police and whenever Karen’s work allowed she followed the team.  She was a devoted supporter, organising kit, arranging the half-time snacks, and cheering dutifully from the touchline.

It was a Saturday: the team was playing away and it snowed.  In terms of the match itself that meant little, apart from very cold feet and a few bruises on hard ground; but when it came to persuading the coach driver to take the team home it meant a great deal.

“Too risky in this.”  They had let him get near a pub and he was eyeing it longingly.  “The main road’s blocked anyway.  It was on the news.”

There was not enough accommodation.  Bea, another of the groupies, was philosophical:  “We’ll have to double up.”  She said, and she was almost laughing out loud as she said it.

“You and I?”  Karen suggested hopefully.

“You are kidding?”

“Look, mate,” Karen told Tim; “It’s me in the bed and you on the chair, right?”

“Of course!”  Tim reassured her.  “Karen, would I?”

And, of course (extremely drunk and with disastrous ineptitude) he did.

All of which was three and a half years since, years in which, for all the good intentions, nothing special grew.  Far from improving Tim’s positivity and initiative, the police force seemed to have sapped him of what little he possessed, and his sense of fun had disappeared.  After a couple of those years questions began to be asked which Karen answered defensively, but doubts could not help but form in her mind too.  In a way she was glad: the lot of a policeman’s wife was not always a happy one, after all, and as time passed her commitment to that vision of her future dwindled.

Then Tim had suddenly announced he was going to join the Metropolitan Police.  Karen saw his move to London as having far more than mere geographical significance.  London, with all it meant in terms of distance and lifestyle, was an opportunity to draw a natural line beneath their relationship.  He would meet others and she would be suitably sad to lose him.  They would naturally drift apart; go their separate ways.

But Tim kept coming back.

At twenty-five years old Karen was tethered to a man.  Not uncomfortably so:  although bedroom time was scarce to non-existent, she was always comfortable with Tim, always safe.  And she might easily spend a life on just those terms with him, if thoughts of London attracted her; yet the doubts were there – the questions.  There should not be a time when you have to try to love somebody; to recapture the emotions that drew you together, so long ago.  And she was having to dig more and more deeply to find those things which she should feel every time she heard his voice or saw his face.

And now?  Now there was Patrick; she would not investigate him in the way she might check someone out for a client; she couldn’t do that to him.  So he would remain someone about whom she knew little or nothing, except that his parents were wealthy enough to buy him an expensive car for his twenty-first.  Yet he was thoughtful, he was perceptive, and when her head rested on his shoulder there was a feeling of rightness about it that might remind her of early days with Tim.  He made her laugh in a way Tim could never do.  Patrick who said he wanted to know her, yet flattered to deceive.  And she was – for a while: flattered, that is.  Patrick who, she told herself, wanted her.  His deception was his ease of manner, belying his upper-class roots and giving an impression of being available to her, a bridge across that great class divide.  But these matters, even if she might overcome them, ultimately rested in the judgment of others.  Karen drew a picture in her mind of a cocktail party in the course of which her father would meet with Patrick’s, and despite herself she began to laugh.

The water had cooled.  She rose from it reluctantly, towelled off as she held onto a little fantasy of hands around her, drying her body; smooth strong hands which she took to bed with her too, still imagining.  The hands were not Tim’s.

That night the sky was full of shadows, strange fleeting shades across the moon that darkened her window.  She could not know who or what they were, those shades, but she fancied she could hear their cries.

Were there steps yet that she could not hear – striding feet upon the pavement beneath her apartment? Feet that struck the stones so harshly they spoke of hatred with every tread?  Were there eyes darker than the night that watched her windows, knowing now where she slept and where she bathed, and when she was sure to be alone?  She would sleep while those eyes stayed open, and by morning they would be gone.  For now – for a while yet…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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 Place that was Ours.  Chapter Nineteen – Moments From the Grown-up Years

I recall the afternoon so well.  Angie and I were both at home, for once, when the telephone rang.  It was a call – no, it was the call I had been expecting.  I remember Angie’s face as she watched me answer it, set and serious, those intense eyes of hers giving her message of defiance at the news we both already knew must come.

The caller was my agent, Allen Ranton.  The conversation was brief.  When I replaced the receiver, Angie was coiled tightly, overwound.   “Well?”  She demanded, her voice unusually harsh.

“Ranton’s cut the deal,”  I said.  “Torley want me.”

Angie nodded.  We stared at each other, shaken by the arrival of a moment we had both dreaded.  “That’s it, then.”  She said.

“I can’t turn them down.”  It should have been a joyous occasion, the final gesture which announced my arrival on the big club scene; we should have been cavorting in a crazy circle, dancing for sheer delight.  Neither of us felt like dancing.  Angie began clearing our coffee mugs from the table, already with her back to me, already walking away.  “Ange, the money’s unbelievable!  You’d be able to have whatever you wanted…”

“It’s not about money.  Money doesn’t matter to me, Chas; ah thought you knew that…”

“Nor is it for me.  A big Premiership club, the chance to play in Europe, that’s what matters to me!  But Ange, we’d be able to try for a baby, properly, I mean…”

“Don’t do that to me!  Ah’m not goin’, man!  Ah dinna care what’s at the end of it, it’s two hunderd an’ fifty mile away.  Ah’ve a life here, an’ work, an’ friends, y’kna?”

“It’s my life, Ange.  It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of.”

She turned back to me, putting the mugs aside so she could wrap her arms around my shoulders and kiss me.  “I know, Chas.  I know.  But I have my life too.”

Upon the Sunday of the week following Ranton’s call, Angie and I set out to visit Malcolm and Debbie, Angie’s parents, in Casterley, because we would not keep our decision to split up a secret from them:  they were precious in Angie’s life and they had become very special friends in mine.

The diversion was Angie’s idea.  “D’you remember that little wood where we walked a few year ago, Chas?  Ah’d like to go back there again.”

“The Step Wood?”  I remembered it well.  Glad enough to delay what might prove an unpleasant interview with Angie’s Mum and Dad, I found the road that would lead us to the wood easily enough, and turned off our regular Casterley route.  From this, the Carlton end, the diversion would consume several miles, so I settled back to enjoy the drive while Angie called her parents on her new mobile ‘phone.  The length of our search matched the length of her conversation.

“It’s here somewhere; I can see the trees – and there’s the stone bridge!  Oh, Chas!”

I did slow down enough to be certain, but the high wire fence with its tethered warning signs against trespass left no room for doubt.  Behind it, the full-leafed flora of our Step Wood crowded up and thrust fingers through the wire, like a prisoner crying for escape.

Angie was genuinely moved.  “Why would someone do that?”

“I guess it’s private land.  It’s quite a new fence, so maybe they’re going to develop it.  Houses or something.”

We completed our drive in silence.

There are some who will talk about ending a relationship as if it were a habit, like drinking or smoking, that can simply be given up.  Others will speak of recriminations, of bitterness and fights, or again of their tugs-of-war over custody; and there are some, all be they relatively few, who will confess to ‘remaining friends’, whether genuinely or not.  One thing, though, is common to all of us who stand on the further shore; an extra line among the many on our brow that is deeper and reminiscent of a scar.  It is indelible – it will never be erased.

I cannot say that Angie and I were ever truly finished.   For a long time after I moved out of our Carlton apartment we continued visiting each other, spending some time together when we could; but although I longed for her we were never man and wife after the day I packed my last bag.  Were we friends or just two people in the grip of a habit we could not break?   I don’t know.

I was, and I am, proud of Angie; of all she has achieved, and the part I played in helping her to reach the goals she so richly deserved.  Her love of life is as infectious as ever, the light in her eyes as bright, but there is a place on her forehead she cannot disguise when she frowns – a furrow as deep and livid as a scar – as deep as my own.

The dawn of the Premiership was too much for Casterley Town’s delicately balanced finances.  They plunged into a cess-pool of health and safety demands, tottering ticket sales and years of unpaid debt, closing their turnstiles for the last time at the season’s end.   Within weeks the bulldozers had moved in, clearing the grey old stadium away to make room for a new manufacturing plant that a company called Wesfane Electronics claimed they needed for construction of their industrial coolers.  The story that Mack Crabtree had bought the stadium and its debts for a minuscule sum, then settled the debts and sold it on to Wesfane for a small fortune took time to leak out and was of little consequence to the local population, who mourned the loss of their football club only briefly before transferring their allegiances to Bedeport Rovers.

I watched Casterley Town’s departure with no sense of loss, only commenting to John Hargreave in one of our last telephone conversations that I thought the new industrial unit seemed very small to be in the business of assembling big industrial coolers.

John sounded cynical.  “Doesn’t really matter Chas, man.  Have you any idea how hard it is to get an industrial cooling unit off Wesfane?  I checked them out.  The trade’s barely heard of them, and they reckoned their order book’s stacked up for years ahead. Not taking any more orders, is what I was told.”

“Maybe that’s why they need the extra production?”  I suggested.

“Aye, maybe.”

I did no more than glance at the little book John Hargreave bequeathed to me for a few years.  I had no superstitious fear of reading it,  only a healthy dislike of anything to do with pen and paper which would have to be overcome by something startling, like the words ‘I AM ON FIRE’ in capital letters.  John’s book contained nothing so dramatic, being rather page upon page of close handwriting which I took to be diary entries, only relieved by some curious letters and figures on the last two pages that I decided on initial inspection to be not worth the pain of deciphering.   My boat was moored above the tidal lock at Bedeport until recently, and somehow the book ended up in a cupboard above the stateroom berths.   Somehow?  This is how…

Footballers and their families necessarily spend much of their time in each other’s’ laps.  Mostly, because there is no alternative, we do our best to make the social scene enjoyable, but there are times when my yen for solitude kicks in, and my best defense against the world is open water.  I enjoy sailing, so although the round trip from my southern home was more than five hundred miles if I had a break I would take off for Bedeport and spend a day or two days at sea.  Which is how I happened to be wandering the streets of that town one Friday night, trying to decide whether I wanted to eat ashore, or deplete provisions on the boat before I sailed.

I spotted her first, in a new Italian restaurant I had not tried.  She was sitting alone at a table laid for two, and judging by the dejected slope of her shoulders, laid bare by a black halter dress, she had been there for some time.  She looked up as I approached, probably hoping I was someone else.

“Chas!”

“Hello Nel.  Fancy meeting you here!”

“Dare I call it my local stomping ground?  No, probably better not to.  I’m on my third one of these.”  Nel gestured towards a nearly drained Martini.  She said ruefully:  “My companion for the evening’s a little late.”

“How late?”  I asked.

“I think it must be two hours – nearly.  Hell Chas, I’ve been stood up, haven’t I?”

“You’ve tried his ‘phone?”

“It’s on message.”

“Okay, that’s a yes, then.  You must be hungry, will you have dinner with me?”

“Why not?  I hope that didn’t sound too eager?”

“Not eager in the least,”  I told her, signalling to a hovering waiter that his landing pad was ready at last.  “What will you have?”

Until that night I had scarcely spoken to Nel on other than business affairs, yet we were friends.  Over the next two hours, though, we poured out our personal lives, assisted admirably by a bottle of wine and two further Martinis.  Business matters received not one mention.

“I don’t normally go on dates.”  Nel informed me as she polished off the last of our dessert, “Does it show?”

“Not obviously.   I can’t understand the mentality of anyone who could stand you up.”

“I’m not good at dates.  I don’t do relationships, you know, Chas.  I don’t even have a cat.”

“I didn’t know, although I sort of guessed you weren’t married.  I mean, no rings or anything.”

“Oh bloody ‘struth, no!  Marriage?  Stick marriage!   Mummy and Daddy taught me all I needed to learn about bloody marriage.  Did you know they decided to divorce right in the middle of my GCE ‘A’ Level Exams?  I’m upstairs studying while they’re downstairs screaming at each other!  No, no marriage for me, young man!  No!”

“It isn’t always hereditary.”  I looked up to meet her green eyes staring dreamily at me.

“You’re lovely, Chas!  You’re a beautiful, brilliant young man and if I could meet someone like you I’d marry them tomorrow; but don’t worry!”  She slapped the table for emphasis.  “You’re too young for me, dear boy.  Much, much too young!”

“I wish you’d stop treating me like I was still in short trousers,”  I told her.  “Anyway, you’re not my grandmother; what’s the difference between us?  A few years?”

“Ho – ho!  And a few more, sweetie. Are we done here?”

I scanned the empty plates.  “I guess so.”

“Good.   Not that I don’t mean – thank you for the meal, and stuff – because I do.  I do. I was ravenous, in fact.  Now I’ll just pop to the restrooms and then we’ll head for – oh, frig!”  Nel’s attempts to rise teetered for a moment at the edge of disaster.  “Chas, darling, I wonder if you would mind steadying my arm?  Just as far as the bathroom, darling – not inside, you understand?  Nothing so personal.”

So I helped her to her feet as decorously as possible, then steered her on her course towards the restroom, trying to disguise a smile as our anxious waiter snatched a chair from her path.  Nel drew herself up as she passed.  “I’m a lady of poise and elegance, you know.”  She informed him.  “You’re lucky to be enjoying my patronage.”

While Nel was indisposed I called a taxi, settled the bill and provided three autographs, because the maître had recognized me and spread the word.  I prayed none of them had called a photographer. For the ten minutes before Nel re-emerged I was a sitting duck.

Somehow we made it to the pavement.   The taxi made it shortly after.

“Can you drop me at the West Dock,”  I told the driver, “and take this lady on to Casterley, please?”

“No, man – no way!  Ah can tak’ yer down the docks, like, bur Ah’m not gan ter Casterley this time o’ neet.”

Nel blinked owlishly at me.  “What time of ‘neet’ is it, might one enquire?”

“Half past twelve.”  I told her.  I started waving money:  “Not even if I…”

“Nah, nor even if tha’ waves the Croon Jools.  Ah’m not poor, an’ ah’m finished fer the neet affer this.”

“North Docks it is then.”  I said.

“Chas!  What am I going to do?  You aren’t going to drive me home, sweetie; not after the drinks you’ve had.”

“We’ll spend the night on the boat.”

“There’s a boat?” As our taxi turned onto the quayside the North Docks Marina came into view.   I nodded in the appropriate direction.  “That one?  Is that yours?”  Nel sounded impressed.  “Driver, you may take us to our yacht.  I did not know you possessed a boat, Chas.”  Then, drawing nearer to our destination:  “Not that it matters; I couldn’t get down there if I was stone-cold sober, darling.   Aren’t there stairs, or something?”

We managed the transition from shore to jetty by means of a ladder which really wasn’t very testing, although it brought forth a variety of girlish noises from my companion.

“Oh my god, is that one yours?” She padded along the jetty behind me, letting me carry her heels, swaying dangerously as I released the cover that allowed access to the well deck.  Shore to ship would prove our greatest challenge, extracting a series of squeals and a frankly undignified jump which culminated in a tangled heap on the deck.   Face to face we appraised each other.

“Oh, Charles, you are naughty!”

“No I’m not!”  I replied, firmly.  She smelled of Coco Chanel with essence of distillery.  I helped her to her feet.  “Would you like some coffee?”

“God, no!”

“Well then, it’s bed for you.”  I unlocked the hatch to the after stateroom.

“There you go again!  Control yourself, Charles!  You’re behaving like a dreadful animal, you know.”  I turned up the light.  “Oh, my lord, is that all bed?”

“Most of it.  The head –sorry, the bathroom – is right there. I know it looks like a cupboard but it contains all the facilities you want – including a shower.  Have fun!   I’ll put some heat on for you, and I’ll be in the forward berth if you want me.”

Nel picked up a dog-eared little book that was lying on the coverlet.  “What’s this?”

“Nothing important. Something I brought up with me to have a look at this afternoon.  Just pop it in one of the overhead cupboards if it’s in your way.  I hope you sleep well.”

It was close to ten am when Nel’s head appeared in the hatch that separated the well deck from the saloon.  I was at the table with coffee in my hand.  “Hi!  Want some?  It’s in the pot.”

“Yes, please.”

“You didn’t want any last night,” I challenged her.

“Oh, Chas, I was dreadfully drunk!  I’m really sorry.”  She gestured down to her black dress, “I’m ready for my walk of shame!”

“Don’t go yet.  Do you want something to eat?”

“You must be kidding, right?”

“I am, actually, yeah.  But don’t go.  Come sailing!   Two days off the coast; its beautiful out there this morning and the weather forecast’s great!  We’ll have fun!”

“Your favourite expression.  But no, I can’t Chas.  I’ve got to feed my poor cat…”

“You haven’t got a cat.”  I accused her.  “You admitted as much, last night.”

“I did?  All right then, I want to look after my dress; this isn’t exactly sportswear.”

“Wear these.”  I picked up a neatly folded outfit of grey slacks and a fleece, and tossed them to her.  “I even have a pair of rope soles about your size, I think, and a storm jacket.  It’s alright, they’re all perfectly clean, they were only ever worn once.”

Nel sighed.  “I’ll try them on,” she said.  “You can really sail this boat alone?”

“Of course.  It’s not that large, and it’s a motorsailer; it practically sails itself.  The trickiest bit is getting out of the marina.  You can crew for me if you like.”

“Or I could submit to the demands of my tortured body by stretching out on the cabin roof and going to sleep?  I should have brought my cossy.”

“No,”  I told her.  “This is the North Sea.  You shouldn’t.  You’ll come, then?”

“Yes, Charles.  Thank you for inviting me.”

So, for the next day and a half we sailed, and once her initial frailty had passed, Nel was an enthusiastic, very competent crew, meaning we were able to keep the boat under sail for much longer.  We made our way up the coast as far as a little abandoned fishing harbor I knew that was set into the granite cliffs, and we moored there for the night.  Nel was aglow, her eyes shining as we ate together in the galley.  I had never seen her like this.  It occurred to me, therefore, that I had never seen her truly happy.

“This is a wonderful experience.”  She said.

“For those who take to it,” I agreed, “There’s nothing better.  Maybe we might do it again sometime?”

“Yes.  Oh yes! They were really seals!  I’ve never seen so many in one place!”

Snugly clad against the sunset wind, we climbed worn-down stairs cut into the rock that fish wives had once used to carry boxes of their catch up from the tiny harbor to their village at the cliff-top.  They were steep and narrow, those stairs; in bygone days glazed with fish juice to a treacherously slippery sheen, now tamed by the sure-footedness of our rope soles.

We sat together at the headland on a ruined wall for an hour or more, watching the sea’s darkening mood as the sun set behind high hills at our backs.  Nel had snuggled against my shoulder and I moved to kiss her because it seemed so natural.  Because I had never kissed Nel before, no matter how much I’d wanted to.  She blocked me, her hands against my chest.

“Woa!  No, Chas!”

I drew back a few inches, stroking her cheek.  “You don’t like me so much now you’re sober, huh?”

“You know it isn’t that.  But I meant what I said last night (what I can remember of it); I’m too old for you, darling.  It won’t work!”

“I’m not asking for a lifetime’s commitment, Nel.  Just so you know, the difference in our ages matters not one jot to me.  Never mind, I’ll keep my distance if that’s what you want.”

Nel smiled, running her fingers through my hair.  “It’s what I want.”

Back at the boat, our wind-scorched lungs pleaded for rest.  Nel seemed especially fatigued, so we made our way to our berths, and searched in the wave-lapping darkness for a sleep that never quite arrived.  Time eddied and drifted, so I had no idea what hour it was when I heard my cabin door click gently off its latch.

“I’m cold,”  Nel said.

“Really?  Shall I turn the heating up higher?”

“No.”

“Do you want to…”

“Yes, please.”

I tried to discern her form as she stood beside me in the darkness; “What on earth are you wearing?”  I asked.

“Unless there’s something I’ve forgotten, nothing at all.”

The next morning the sun woke us through the window of the forward cabin.  Nel, rebuffing my refreshed enthusiasm, slipped from the bed and struck a pose with her back to me in the doorway.

“Venus De Milo?  What do you think?”

“Please, she was built like a tank!”

“Aphrodite at the bath?”

“No bath.  Anyway, she was another one with a small head.”

“Speaking of small heads…”

When Nel returned some minutes later, she was holding that little book – John’s diary – in her hand.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking of – things – so I took a look at this.”

“It’s a diary,”  I told her.  “John Hargreave, my best friend, kept it before he died.  He went down the Bridge, you know?”

“I remember that, yes. Most of the writing in here is just fantasy stuff.  Key sequences for games and such.  It’s just these last two pages that puzzle me.  Lists of letters and numbers…do they mean anything to you?”

“I’m clueless, I’m afraid.”

“I think they follow the diary dates; for instance, all these figures in this block apply to the 12th of the month.  See this? LBEWHT727MB1812WE HCL19. What can that mean?”

“I have no idea;” I replied honestly.  “Have you any thoughts?”

“Maybe.  Look at the last entry:  WE1225MB1403, scrawled very quickly, I’d say, almost as if he was in a hurry.  Chas, I love this sort of detective work; may I…?”

“Of course.  Go for your life.  But I should warn you, this is all history.  John, bless him, was dead and buried a few years ago, now.”

“It’s probably nothing, but old secrets fester, and people get careless with the years.  I’ll see what I can discover.”

“We ought to set sail, I said.

We ran before the wind most of the day, using the time gained to navigate close to the Farrin Islands, sending Nel into transports of delight as ever-curious seals swam almost within reach.   When we finally made landfall at Bedeport it was early evening, but Nel politely rebuffed my invitation to dinner.  We said our goodbyes, awkwardly, on the quayside.

“Are you going straight back to Torley?”  Nel asked.

“No, I’m going to take the boat to be refuelled first.  Where’s your car?”

“Up in the town.   Can I send these back to you?”  She gestured to the clothes she had borrowed, never knowing they had been last worn by Angie.

“I can get back up here next week.  Shall we…?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you said you loved the sailing….”

“I did, before we – before I – slept with you.  Now, I’m less certain.”

“I’m that bad in bed?”

“No – oh, no.  Quite reverse.  I’m a little scared, to be honest.  Look, I’ll ‘phone you, Chas.  Thank you for a lovely time!”

Nel gave me a kiss that was a peck and just a little more.  Then she turned her back, putting a skip in her step as she walked away.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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 Place that was Ours.  Chapter Fourteen – A fractured Dream.

 

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On the street the temperature was dropping, and clouds from the east were threatening snow.  I hurried home, mindful of my mother’s words and the conversation that was beginning in my head.  Was she right?  Was it possible a girl with whom I once spent twenty minutes of inexpert passion on a river bank could still mean more to me than the one who loved me now and shared my bed?  Could I – would I – betray Angie so callously over nothing more than a fractured dream?

Indoors, I set up a fire and then began to cook, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I turned off the stove.  Five-thirty found me sitting in our bay window, watching a snowflake corps de ballet as it danced before the glass, and the steadier trickle of people coming home from their work.  My eyes picked out Angie as she appeared at the end of the road; head down against the wind, clicking along the wet and whitening pavement on busy feet. I responded to her jazz-hands wave as she ascended the steps to our door.

“Here’s a night!”  She stood in our little lobby, brushing snow from her coat.  “Feel them!”  She reached out for my hand, squeezing my fingers as she passed, heading towards the bathroom, and casually shedding clothes as she went.  Pipes juddered as the shower turned on.   I felt that completeness of Angie wrapping itself around me as it always did when we were together in the primacy of our private lives, and I was immediately rested and content.  No, I told myself, could be no-one else.

Back at the stove, I was throwing stir-fry stuff absently into a wok when she joined me, gently resting her hand on my wrist and sliding the pan aside.  She came close to invite a kiss, then draped herself against me, letting her towelling robe fall carelessly fell open.

“Are you hungry?”  Angie giggled deliciously.  “Why yes, I do believe you are…”

Later, as we sat before the fire, Angie asked:  “Did you see your Mam?”

“Aye.”  I relayed almost everything that had passed between my mother and me.  “She says she’s quite happy with the way things are, but I don’t entirely believe her.  She’s so edgy these days.  I was a bit worried about her.”

Angie nodded sagely.  “It’ll be the ‘H’, man.  It get’s t’you like that.”

I stared.   “’H’?”

“Oh, come on!  Ah thought you’d kna’ about that at least!  Smack; heroin, Chas!  She must ‘a been on it a year or two, I’d reckon.”

“No!  Oh, god, I didn’t know.  I mean, I didn’t see it.”

“Man!  Are you a divvy or what?  I saw it first time I met her!”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Would that ha’ been polite, like?  You’re too innocent for this world, you!  Mind, it were another little stone wor Terry managed to drop into the conversation the other night when he were tryin’ to run you down.  He reckons they’re all on it, up Bertie’s.  Brasso’ll be keepin’ ‘em hooked up, I ‘spect.”

“Brasso?”

“Brasso Moziadski.   Tall, thin bloke, sharp threads.  Looks like he’s a lawyer, or sommat, but ‘e’s not.  He’s the biggest dealer round here.  Drives a dark blue BMW?  You must ‘a seen ‘im!”

“Aye.”  I acknowledged.  “I might have.”

After administering a new shock, Angie fell silent for a while, just gazing into the fire.  My mind played around with this explanation for my mother’s behavior, which ascribed the tension that gripped every fibre of her being to a simple need for to score.  Meanwhile, Angie seemed to be steeling herself.  And, at last, she spoke.

“I been thinkin’ about it all afternoon: about us, y’kna?  Chas, be honest wi’ us now; do you seriously want me to come with you when you go to Carlton?”

“Yes.” My answer came without hesitation.  “I’ve never been more serious.”

“Only it’s a big thing for me.  I’ve lived here all my life, y’kna?  All my friends and my relations are here.  I’d be leavin’ them all behind, if I did – if I came with you.  Y’see?”

“I do see.”  I told her.  “Can I say something now?”

Her eyes were uncertain.  “I s’pose.  But Chas, I’ve worked all this out…”

“Angie, I love you.  I’m not going to let you down, am I?”

“Mebbees.  Or mebbees I’d be the one to let you down. Promises we make at nineteen aren’t meant to be kept, Chas.  They really aren’t.” She shook her head impatiently.  “I cry too easy around you, y’kna?”

“Am I going to be allowed to make a case, here, like?”  I protested, “Or are you going to walk out on me without eating that bloody stir-fry?”

“Is it still there?  I’d forgotten about that.”  She smiled through her tears.

“It’s a waste of good vegetables.” My pathetic attempt at humour was designed to cover an awkward truth – I was panicking, because a pit of absolute despair had suddenly opened up beneath me, and the reason for it seemed unaccountable unless this was love?  This – something – that was completely new to me?  Love, or need?  Had I grown to need Angie so much I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her?

”No.  No, let’s not do this now.”  I said.  “Wherever you go you’ll find friends, Ange.  I’ll be joining a proper club, you know, and the other guys will have wives and girlfriends, and besides, you’re just – just so – well, people just like you.  They’re drawn to you.  I was.”  I ended rather lamely.

“I suppose.”  Angie rested her head on my shoulder.  “Chas, I love you.  I wish…oh, you don’t know how I wish…”

“I don’t want us to part.”  I said, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.  “And we needn’t.  Let’s see how things turn out, Ange.  Give us that chance, will you?”  Angie was quietly tearful, my own heart was aching and there seemed no solution to our pain, no chance of escape.  The welcome warmth of the fire had become an oppressive heat, such that I was finding it difficult to breathe.  I had to escape.  “Sorry; I’m sorry, really – think about us a bit more, please, because I love you, Ange, and I can’t stand this.  I’m going out.”

The bubble of anger in my heart was not for Angie.  I tore myself away from her not because I felt she had betrayed me, but because I knew I had betrayed myself.   I slammed the door behind me not because I was turning my back on the home she had made, but because there was no home for me, anywhere.  My childhood, my whole miserable life had bred a fear of relationships in me and I knew it was a reserve that showed – that try as I might I could not give her the true and selfless devotion that would let her build her world in me, let her trust me.  She believed I would let her down, and perhaps she was right.

The snow fell fast enough to hide my tears, the cold air offered an alibi for my reddened face, my interrupted breath.  Nevertheless I avoided the town and its still-busy streets, choosing instead to take the alley which led from the far end of The Avenue past the blind ends of a trio of similar culs de sac and on in the direction of the park.  I walked briskly, ignoring the slips and slides of my inadequate shoes on the snow-slick pavement, kicking back at it with furious feet, slamming against walls and fences with aggrieved fists.  So preoccupied was I with my inner noise I was deaf to the lonely darkness and oblivious to the approach of running steps.

The first I felt was a sickening blow to my head, the first I saw was a galaxy of stars.

I was stretched out on the pavement.  A knee pinned my chest.  The thrust of a boot raked into my side with such murderous precision it may have made me scream.

“Too proud fer yer fans kidder, isn’ the’!  The great friggin footy star, yeah?”

Another voice.   “Friggin’ wanker!

Another:  “Mak’ ‘im nice an’ pretty fer ‘e’s girlfriend, like!  Frigging prick!”

The boots were heavy, the kicks vicious and well-aimed, but the surprise was over.  Kicking upward as hard as I could once, twice, three times I found the groin behind the knee, making its owner groan and shrink sufficiently to release me.   I rolled to my feet, counted three of them: balaclava’d heads snapping at me like dogs.

Remember the rules, the street fighting rules: which one looks like the leader?  Pick him out.  Don’t try and counter all three; go for him and him alone.  Don’t let up.  Never let up.

The one that was tallest, noisiest.  “Yer kna wha’ us ganna do ter the’, wanker?  Wor gan ter break yer legs, man!  Tha’s nivver gan ter play footy again, frigger!  Finished, man; finished!”

I sent him the best message of defiance I could muster.  I heard his nose crush.  Then I was straight after him, not letting him draw back, not giving him a second before I got in a perfect groin kick to bend him double.  But they were three, I was one.  Almost too late I saw the iron bar clenched in the smallest one’s hands, and though somehow I rode the first scything swing it scored across my calf, opening flesh.  Hands pinned me so thoroughly I knew I would not avoid the second.  They were intent upon crippling me, these darkly clad men.

“Stand still yer little frigger!  This is a message from one o’ yer fans, like!”

The bar was swinging, my eyes closed against the certainty of pain.  Heaven would have heard my involuntary shout – it was not heaven that answered.   There was a crack like an egg, but of bone.  The iron bar clattered to the ground, the bar wielder’s knees crumpled.  My hands were suddenly free to unleash a haymaker of a punch, the hardest I could muster into the ribs of the noisy one, while behind me my third assailant was being treated with savagery.  The grey shape that had materialized out of the snow had grounded him, subjecting him to a furious sequence of kicks.  Seeing I was out of danger, though, the shape desisted quickly, grabbing my arm.

“Come away, lad.  Ah think I might ‘a killed the stupid bugger!”

Even in my disoriented state (by this time I must have had several blows to my head) I could see the iron bar wielder was not in a good state.  Lying inert in the snow, a dark red halo was growing around his head.

“Police!  We should call the police.”  I managed to drool out.

“Frig it nah!  Ah’m gannin nowhere near the chatties, lad!  Coom on, run!”

I made no argument.  Run – or stagger – I did, supported by my savior’s arm as together we retraced my steps back to the apartment.  I wondered vaguely as we went why the grey shape had a voice I found familiar.

“Footsteps!”  I pointed behind us to our trail in the snow.

“Aye.  But this snow’s going to keep up all night.  Blowin’ a bit, too.  They’re coverin’ already.”

Angie emerged from the kitchen as we burst through the front door.  I could see from her expression I was not a pretty sight.   She moved instantly into caring mode.  “Come away, man, take off those clothes, I’ll get you some towels.  Who’s your friend, like?”

I think I already knew.  Watching as he unwrapped himself, taking his flat cap from his balding head and unwrapping the scarf from his face.  “Dad.”  I said.  “He’s my Da’.”

I was treated to the broad smile of a man at war with his teeth, and for once in my life I felt genuinely glad to see him.  “Recognized me, then. Hello, son.”

“Da’, this is Angie.”

“I kna’ lad,”  My father said,  “and a canny lass she is.  Make sure yer keep yer ‘ands on this one.”

“Pleased to meet you.”  By this time, Angie’s eyes had widened into saucers. “I thought…”

“I kna, Angie, pet, ah’m supposed to be the most absent of absent fathers.  But since ah’m ‘ere, ah’m wonderin’ if you’d mind washin’ this for us?”

From beneath his donkey jacket my father produced a brutish-looking adjustable spanner, its grips encrusted with blood.  Angie stared at it.  “Shouldn’t we get rid o’ that?”  I asked him.

“Nah, lad, no way!  That’s the only one big enough to fit wor bath taps at ‘ome.  It’ll clean up canny!”

Angie took the spanner between thumb and forefinger and nearly dropped it because it was heavier than she expected.  “Do you always carry a spanner when you go out?”

“Aye, lass.  Yer never kna’ when yer gan ter meet someone wi’ a loose bath tap.”

Angie nodded.  “Of course.”  She disappeared into the kitchen.

“I’m lucky you were passing by.”  I said, not really believing it.

“Luck had nowt tae do wi’ it.  Ah’ve been followin’ yer’ for days.  I were keepin’ an eye on they, too.  I kna’d they were workin’ ‘emselves up to have a go, like.  Ah’m stayin’ ower the Black Horse, where they drink, y’na?  The skinny one was lanterin’ about how you was too big fer yer boots an’ as how ‘e wanted ter fix yer, like?  But it were more than that.  They were plannin’ ter get yer anyways, Chas.  Ah follered them tonight ‘stead o’ you – for a change.  It were less damp.”

“It’s good for me that you did,” I said.  “But how did they know I’d be on the street?  I hadn’t planned to go out.”

“Ah don’t think they intended to get yer on the street, son.  Ah think they was comin’ ‘ere”

I had scarcely time to absorb that thought before Angie returned to bandage my leg, demanding we explain.  I described events leading up to my father’s appearance, omitting the reason he was able to intervene so quickly, and hoping she would not spot the fault in the logic.  “I could place one of the voices,” I told her, “It was that troll from Pellosi’s.  I thought he was just a bad accident, but looking back on it now I think he had meant to be there.”

“It’s likely.”  My father nodded.  “They was drinkin’ wi’ a friend o’ there’n, used ter be Town’s best player ‘til you showed ‘em as how it should be done.  Reckon it were him tryin’ to get ‘e’s own back tonight, like.  Guy Harrison – y’ kna’ ‘im?”

“Guy Harrison!  Way aye!  He’s still in the team.”  The more I thought about it, the less this information surprised me.  Guy had already tried to injure me once, in training at the beginning of the season.  Guy would not know of my intention to leave, and if I stayed the club wouldn’t renew his expensive contract; not just to be my understudy.

“We should tell the police,”  Angie said.

“Nah, no police.”  My father was emphatic.  “Me and the chatties round ‘ere, we go back a long way, Angie pet.”

“Don’t leave your bicycle around him.”  I advised Angie.  “He’s canny light-fingered, like.”

“Yeah?  He saved you, that makes him alright by me.  Anyways, I haven’t gorra bike.”

“What brings you back here, Da’?”  I asked.  “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again.”

This brought a sigh from my Da’, and I thought that I saw the effort go right through him, as though his rib cage was a rack of iron he had scarcely strength to lift.  “Ah’m not stayin’, son.  I’ve been hearin’ about yer and yer football an’ yer made me proud, y’kna?  I wanted ter see yer again, an’ tell yer, I suppose.  Then I got ‘ere an’ I’d not the courage to approach yer, like.  Not affer leavin’ yer the way I did.  An’ I’ll be awa’ again, now, likely.  I’ve a good woman waitin’ fer me, where ah’m from.  But I wanted ter warn yer, ‘cause I thought yer might be in trouble, an’ I were right.  Nor about tonight, mind, that were just Harrison, but there’s summat in the wind, ah can smell it.  Watch yerself with Mack Crabtree and Marty Berry, Chas; they’re bad people, y’kna?”

“I think I already know about Mack Crabtree,” I said,  “But Martin Berry?  He seems canny to me.”

“Aye, he’s friend enough to yer face, but keep facin’ ‘im, lad.  Don’t turn yer back, awright?”   He raised himself to his feet.  “Now I’ll be on ma way.  You’ll be awreet now, and I’ve some sleepin’ to do.”

“Stay!”  I said.  “We can make you comfortable here.  There’s so much to be said, Da’.”

“True, there is.  I’m not goin’ back fer a day or so yet, so if tha’ wants some catchin’ up, we’ll do it tomorra, because you’ll not be training wi’ that leg. But meantime this young lass doesn’t kna me, so she’ll not be com’fable wi’ me in ‘er home.  Besides,” My father nudged me knowingly;  “I’ve a feelin’ you’ve got some bridges to mend, son.”

Angie saw him to our door, helped him slip his jacket around his shoulders and watched his back as he hunched against the snow.  Then she turned to me with her face a picture of concern.  “Oh, Chas, man!  Whar’ ever am I going to do wi’ you?  I can’t even trust you to go for a walk on your own, can  I?”

“Then you’ll have to stay with me, won’t you?”  I told her brightly.  “I need looking after.”

It was no night for righteous sleep.  We lay awake together, Angie and I, listening for the wail of sirens, half-expecting a heavy knocking on the door that might announce the presence of my father’s dreaded ‘chatties’.  Neither happened.  Did I wonder if two of my earlier attackers might return?  Honestly no.  I felt that our deterrent effect upon them would be sufficient to keep them busy with the accident and emergency department of Bedeport District Hospital at least until morning, by which time I would have had a meaningful discussion with Guy Harrison.  At the stroke of eight I limped along to the Town ground with exactly such an encounter in mind and was gratified by his pale mask of surprise when he saw me come through the doorway of the home dressing room unassisted by wheels.

If you have never entered a room in which, until the moment you thrust wide the door, you have been the occupants’ sole topic of conversation: if you have never been the object of dislike, maybe even hatred, of each one of those occupants; if you have never experienced a silence in that room of such toxicity the very air seems to be reaching for your throat, then it will be difficult for me to describe it for you.  Suffice it that no-one wanted to see me walk through the door, or had believed that I could; and from that I deduced that the plot to injure me had been shared, in some form or another, with everyone there.  It was a palpable moment, if a brief one.

“Yer late for training!”  Pascoe snapped.

“Injury, Joe.”  I told him.  “Flesh wound, nothing much but I’d better keep off it for a day or so.  I’ll be sorted by Saturday.”

“Sit in, then.  We’re going over tactics for Abberton.”

And that was that; but from it I saw, with refulgent clarity, the true undercurrent of resentment I caused in the first team at Casterley Town. I had offered friendship, without ever, as I can remember, dealing underhandedly with or deliberately offending any member of it, yet they disliked me with an obdurate resolve I would never break. If ever I wanted ratification of my decision to leave, it was given to me then.

In the meantime, I needed to keep Angie from becoming entangled in this thicket of plotting and to avoid further violence.  Where originally I had intended to confront Harrison with a direct threat, now it was simpler to channel my message through Pascoe.  As the other players walked coldly past me from the dressing room, I grabbed his arm.

“Can you tell them not to worry, Joe?  Between you and me, I won’t be here next season.  It’s not official yet, mind.  Can you, sort of, pass it around?”

Pascoe glowered at me.  “Ah don’t care if yer friggin’ leave or not.”

That was a bluntness typical of the man.  I didn’t mind;  I knew the message would get through.

With my mission completed, I returned to the apartment.  Our telephone was ringing.

“Chas?  Hi!  It’s Dave Corker, County Record; I hear you’re up for transfer.  What can you tell me, mate?”

“Unfounded speculation,”  I said.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

 

 

See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown…

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Honey (Labrador; blonde, too fat) exhibits all the cool intelligence of her breed.   Wide brown eyes, folds of extra flesh that cushion her head as she sleeps, a judgmental poise that speaks of wisdom as old as time.  She surveys her territory from her French windows with an imperious air, where her growl of warning causes the boldest heart to flutter.  She does not merely understand the word ‘cat’, she can spell it; just as she knows three words for ‘walk’.   She is 34 kilos of muscular objectivity.  Any intruder would be entirely justified in vacating her space with all possible expedition – or, if you prefer, running like hell.

“Is the dog all right?”  Our postman asks nervously, as Honey shows him a mouthful of teeth.  He has read the sign at the gate:  ‘Intruders may be gnawed.’

Never have appearances been so deceptive.

Confronted by a stranger male of our species Honey reacts like a garrulous gander; head borne low, eyes wary, throat vibrating with guttural sounds of danger – but just like the gander she utters her threats whilst walking backwards, and if her immediate pack members are present she will hide behind their legs.  In such situations I have sometimes wondered if she were moved to carry out those muttered menaces she would bit my leg rather than that of the intruder – a sort of assault by proxy:  fortunately, however, although she has no love of men she has never been moved to bite.   Ever.

Females evoke suspicion, though hostility is rare.  Children provide amusement, for the most part, as long as they do not tease her.  She is selective in those she likes and those she does not, whether of our species or hers.  She will not tolerate the ritual bottom-sniffing that is expected by other dogs she meets.  She detests small-talk.

She likes:

Investigative walking,

Chasing (birds, cats, anything that will run away)

Tummy rubs

Back scratches

Moisturizing Creams (which she licks, BTW.   Honey doesn’t moisturize, personally).

 

She dislikes:

Wearing a lead that is unfashionable

Wearing a lead at all

Confronting anything (birds, cats) that will NOT run away

Floor tiles (She skids on them and they terrify her).

Postmen.

It is five years since Honey interviewed us in some depth and decided she would agree to be part of our family.  She was a rescue dog;  by which I mean we rescued her former owners from her.  There was no written contract – Honey mapped out the terms of our agreement by her actions, and obedience is not a word that applies to Honey.  She is not entirely disobedient; she will respond if lacking better things to do, generally subject to negotiation.  She will not, for example, abandon a really interesting scent in the cause of ‘coming to heel’, or return indoors on rainy days, at least until she has swum in a minimum of two polluted ditches to load up her claws with mud.   Nor will she consent to visit anywhere resembling a veterinary surgery, allow clandestine attempts to cut claws, or agree to have reeking flanks washed after rolling in a particularly interesting odor.

The areas where response is possible, and therefore our House Rules, have developed and modified over the years of her stay.  There are many, so I will limit myself to a few examples:

‘Bed’ – she will go to bed if commanded.  (‘Bed’ consists of the most comfortable chair or settee in any given room, whether or not it is already occupied).

‘Game’ – this consists of ‘rough-housing’ and allows Honey the opportunity to practice on her Pack Leader the moves (and wounds) she would like to apply to the Postman, if she had the courage.   The throwing of balls or Frisbees as a ‘game’ is not recognised.     She is happy to chase or catch a ball, with the object only of acquiring the ball.  Apart from a certain squeaky rubber item which has become her lifelong companion, all toys are for trade.   If Honey presents either of her pack members with a toy she makes it plain she wants something in return.

‘Treats’.   She can hear the opening of the appropriate cupboard door for one of these (usually a chew) from approximately half a mile away in a gale. ‘ Treats’ are an entitlement, not a bargaining chip.  They are awardable upon set occasions, like the end of a walk, or returning from garden ablutions before bed.

‘Walks’.  Walk times are prompted by the closing music of certain television programs, or when anyone passes within ten feet of her lead, which hangs in the hall.  The route for a walk is determined by Honey, who will pick her desired program for the day.  Attempts to vie with this are subject to refusal.   The whole exercise ceremony is complex, and takes account of such things as clothing worn, weather, and the possibility of a ride in the car.

‘Daily Schedules’.  These must be rigorously observed:  Honey rises at 7:00am, acknowledging the right of the male Pack Leader to have his first coffee of the day in peace.   Bedtime is midnight at the latest, when the dominant female retires.  (Female Pack Leader’s status is constantly questioned, and this issue often results in argument.  If FPL fails to keep to designated bedtime, Honey will tend to retire by herself).

‘Meals’.  Meal times are 7:00am and 5:15pm, with a special exception for Tuesdays when cooked fish is on the menu, which she is happy to eat as soon as possible, often straight from the pan if the cook turns her back.  At the moment food approval ratings are high, but it is incumbent upon the Pack Leader to vary her diet from time to time.   Honey has a special look of disappointment she reserves for a choice that has been badly made, together with the final sanction she may return the dish with interest ten minutes later on the best rug.

In return for our consent to honor these basic conditions she has formed a deep attachment to us; a devotion a little like stalking.   In practical terms this means we must survive the rest of her lifetime without stepping backwards, knowing that to do so will mean falling over Honey.  It also means she feels free to follow her Natural Retrieval Instinct Part One, which consists of bringing back any box or packaging we throw away.  She seems never to have achieved a Pass Grade in Natural Retrieval Instinct Part Two; delivery of the retrieved object in good condition to her owner.  Instead she tears the object, symbolically, a few times, before losing interest.

The fierceness issue; that deep bass voice which could give such an able rendition of ‘Old Man River’ (if she knew the words) has never withstood any logical test.  An early morning outburst occurs as she erupts from the door into the front garden, although there is rarely any threat at that hour.   Thereafter she will sit on guard at the gate, ready to bark a warning at – well, not everybody, as it happens.  Uniforms generally evoke a savage-sounding response, otherwise we can only conclude that her vocal warnings imply a judgement of character.

So here we are, Honey’s pack, five years on.  I won’t pretend they have been easy years:  the words ‘Dog Pound’ have been uttered more than once, and by her reception of him, I judge she has never quite forgiven our son for bringing her to us.  But she has condescended to share some of her time with us, to deliver her verdict upon other dogs she meets and for that, I suppose, we must be grateful.    Otherwise please do not stint in your sympathy:  we are truly worthy of pity.