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A QUESTION OF IMMORTALITY by Gordon Knight

A collection of short stories on death, love and survival


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CONTENTS A Question of Immortality

page 3

The Harvesters

page 10

Frenchie’s Curse

page 18

A Sabbath Visit

page 22

A Debt to Zeno

page 26

A Little Fratch

page 32

The Monkey’s Fist

page 38

Sacred Mountain

page 51

Nightfall in Usungwe

page 53

The Selkie

page 46

A Dish for Ophelia

page 57

Great Expectorations

page 69

The Slopes of Mynydd Du

page 71

© Gordon Knight 2013. All rights reserved.


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A Question of Immortality

H

e had often spoken to the gods while he worked, defying them to answer back. Which, of course, they never did. Until today. ‘May your soul enjoy eternal life.’ Pashedu froze, his brush poised over the girdle of the goddess Nut. The words rolled around the tomb and mocked him from far, unlit corners. Although the heat in the tomb was that of a bread oven, his skin had gone cold as a Nile perch. His nostrils prickled with the sickly smell of natron, the reek of death. He glanced up the passageway, to where the fading sunlight angled down into the tomb from the polished bronze discs held by the village boys. Nothing. The shadow of the fat Nubian overseer, Raneb, still slithered down the steps at the tomb entrance. To enter that way was death: everyone knew that. To Pashedu, his work might be just painted images, voiceless icons learned by rote. But to the priests of Amun-Ra they were the sacred keys to the afterlife. It must be tiredness and hunger, no more. The rumblings of a disturbed digestion. Pashedu stood to ease his aching thigh muscles. His arms, too, were sore from stirring the pigments and his brush fingers stiff from applying them inch by inch to the red outlines on the wall. He had eaten only a few dates and a piece of bread since breakfast, and his water skin was long since empty. His wife, Kiya, had nagged him to carry more. This was the hottest time of year, just before the floods returned to cool the burning land. Besides, she had argued, today was the day of the standing still of the sun, when dead men’s souls were led to judgement by Anubis. If Pashedu should trip and fall to his death in the valley today, it would not do to be undernourished for the trip. Pashedu chuckled. His wife was a donkey-breeder’s daughter, and had lapped up superstition with the asses’ milk. She had once eaten nothing but garlic for a week because the priests claimed it purged the soul. It had purged something all right. Pashedu stirred his pigment and bent again to put the final touches to Nut’s girdle. The fat Nubian outside, he knew, was just dying for an excuse to cut his grain ration


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again if Pashedu slipped away before sundown. Why on earth there was this sudden pressure on the work, he couldn’t imagine. Admittedly, the last pharaoh hadn’t stayed above ground very long: the heretic bitch Nefertiti had seen barely two floods after her hermaphrodite husband expired. But it was only nine inundations since the new one had been enthroned across the river. So, while dead pharaohs were good for business, it would surely be a while before this place was needed. The pharaoh was still barely sixteen, after all. ‘May your soul enjoy eternal life.’ Pashedu leapt in alarm, the brush spiralling from his hand into the dust. This time, the voice seemed right at his back. The chill of night filled the tomb chamber and the smell of natron was overpowering. He turned round slowly, the skin across his back tightening with fear. A boy stood in front of him, a rather lank and effetelooking boy. He was barefoot and wearing what looked like a night-shirt. It was remarkably clean, considering the dust in the valley. ‘How by all the gods did you get here? Didn’t the overseer stop you?’ The boy shook his head. ‘You scared me halfway to Dendera,’ Pashedu continued. ‘You do realise that you’re in great danger? The priests will kill you if they find you here.’ The boy seemed close to crying. Pashedu pulled him further into the chamber, away from the reflected beam of sunlight. The boy’s skin was cold to the touch, like metal fresh from the river. ‘Look, wait until I’ve finished here. Then, once that Nubian pig Raneb has approved my day’s work, I’ll take you back down the valley with me. I’ll say you’re a new apprentice. You’re a dead boy, otherwise. You understand?’ He pulled out the last two dates from his tunic and offered them to the boy. The other munched in silence as Pashedu retrieved his brush, cleaned off the tomb dust and continued his work before the pigments could dry on him. He had almost forgotten the boy was there by the time he spoke again. ‘Do you really believe in all this?’ Close up, the boy had a strangely high, reedy voice, almost like a woman’s. Pashedu half-turned towards him.


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‘Believe all what?’ ‘This.’ The boy swept his arm round the burial chamber. ‘The Judgement of Osiris. The Book of the Dead. The immortality of the soul.’ Pashedu chuckled. ‘It’s a life. My grandfather was chief of works for the tomb of the great Tuthmose the Third. My father worked in the tomb of Senefer, in the eighteenth year of the second Amenhotep. I myself started in the temple of Amun-Ra under the third Amenhotep. I suppose I must have pigment in my blood.’ The boy’s brow furrowed. ‘But do you believe in what you do?’ Pashedu sighed impatiently. ‘You ask a lot of questions. Look, I just get up before the sun rises over the black land and work until it sets in the red. Every morning, like the rest, I have to sweat my way over the ridge from the artisan’s village to get here by sunrise. I work nine days solid before I even get a day off, all the time under the heel of the overseers. At the end of the month, I get my dues of grain and salt and pulses and garlic so I and my family can eat. Then, it starts all over again. As it has since Ra created the sun and all things under it.’ ‘So you do believe in the power of the gods?’ Pashedu snorted. ‘Figure of speech.’ The boy sat down, his back against the sarcophagus and his knees clutched under his chin. They’d flay him alive for that alone, thought Pashedu. ‘Once,’ the boy said thoughtfully, ‘I believed in the Aten, the sun-disk. One god uniting all the land. Now, I’m expected to believe in Amun-Ra and Osiris and Isis and that our souls can travel to the stars.’ ‘Careful. It’s death even to mention the Aten heresy these days. Anyway, there’s no


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need for the likes of us to worry about immortality. That’s for the pharaohs and nobles. Us, we’re just Nile dust and so we end. Mind you,’ he winked, ‘I’ve never heard of even a pharaoh popping out of his sarcophagus once the lid’s on.’ The boy looked at the dying sunrays still playing on the newly finished paintings of Anubis and Hathor and the hieroglyphs above them. ‘My stepmother once told me that all these spells hold the key. These writings on the walls unlock the doors to everlasting life. How can mere words do that?’ Pashedu turned to stare at him. ‘You do hold your life cheap, don’t you? These,’ he gestured with the brush, ‘words, as you call them, are said to be so powerful that no scribe may write them all. Four separate ones worked on what you see. None of them was allowed to see what the others had written.’ ‘So how come they let you see them?’ Pashedu flushed. ‘I can’t read the glyphs. I just do the images.’ The boy rubbed his chin pensively along his forearms. ‘There was something so … beautiful about the Aten. The idea that there was an energy that ran through all living things. There were no complex spells for immortality. Just the warmth and light from which we all came and to which we would all return.’ Pashedu snorted. ‘All I know is that it was a disaster for business. They closed all the temples across the river and shifted everything up to that desert near Hermopolis. I’m glad I didn’t go. Times were very hard, but at least I didn’t wind up being buried alive by the priests of Amun-Ra.’ ‘I want us to go back to that time. It’s all I dream of.’ Pashedu wheeled angrily. ‘Who the hell do you think you are? You’ll get us both killed with nonsense like that.


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One word to the Nubian outside and ..’ he drew a finger across his throat. ‘That’s exactly what my aunt said. To disagree with the priests is death. But what is life without true belief? Without the hope of immortality?’ The boy’s eyes were moist. Pashedu almost felt sorry for him. He was crazy, of course. But the next person the boy spoke to in that way would probably report him to the priests and that would be that. He crouched down and patted him on the shoulder. ‘You listen to your aunt. She’s talking sense. All the likes of us can hope for from life is a full belly and death in our beds. It could be much worse. You could be in the army, or working the Nile barges.’ He stood up and returned to his wall. The green pigment had gone solid. ‘See what you made me do, boy? I’ll have to mix some more now, damn it.’

Silence. Pashedu turned round. The boy had gone, as quietly as he came. He heard heavy footsteps as the Nubian stomped into the chamber. The Nubian took one look at Pashedu’s work, turned on his heel and puffed back up the steps out into the sunset. Curse that boy, thought Pashedu. That’s another measure of grain off my allocation. ◊ Pashedu dreamed strange dreams that night. He was flying through the heavens on the sun-boat of Ra, painting in all the stars as he went. Horus, Mut, Hathor, Sekhmet - all the gods were with them. All the great pharaohs of the past in their gleaming robes of Osiris. One by one, they removed their masks. Underneath, they were swathed in funeral bandages. As they ripped them away, their faces were nothing but rotting flesh and Nile maggots. They reached out towards him with bony, putrescent hands and shook him by the shoulders until his neck ached. ‘Pashedu! Pashedu!’

His wife’s anxious face was poised over him as he woke. She released his shoulders and sat down next to him on the straw mattress. Pashedu propped himself up on his elbows.


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‘What on earth is the matter, woman? It must be another hour to sun-up.’ ‘You must up now, husband. There can be no delay. The Nubian is outside already. All the artisans have been summoned.’ ‘Why, for the love of Ptah? That damn Nubian’s already fined me two measures of grain this month.’ She took his arm and pulled him, complaining sleepily, to his feet. He picked up the basket containing his brushes and pigments and shuffled unsteadily towards the door and the darkness outside. He turned in the entrance, one hand resting against the jamb. ‘So what’s all the panic?’ ‘It’s the pharaoh. The priests have just announced it. He died yesterday morning. The rumour in the village is that it was they that slew him, though it’s death even to whisper it.’ Pashedu let out a low whistle. ‘Tutankhamun? Dead? He wasn’t much more than a boy. But, if the rumours are true, it’s no wonder they wanted the work on his tomb rushed.’

There was a cold wind at Pashedu’s back as he followed the other artisans over the ridge and down into the sacred valley. The sky was so dark and starless it made him shiver. As they approached the tomb, he heard incantations, and above them the explosions of angry voices. The priests were there already. But they were not alone. There were soldiers, torchlight flickering on the bronze lustre of their swords. The feared private army of the Temple of Amun-Ra. Pashedu’s eyes stung with the smoke of burning pitch from the torches. As he blinked away the tears, rough hands pinioned his arms. He was propelled forward by the unmistakeable goad of a sword point in the small of his back. Raneb the Nubian was singling him out to the priests with one fat, accusing finger. Soldiers quickly surrounded the other artisans as the priests led him down into the tomb. He stumbled on the steps and was jerked upright by a stab that felt as if it had penetrated to his ribs. A hot trickle of blood rippled down his backbone. By torchlight, the tomb seemed smaller, more intimate, as if the pharaoh had al-


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ready taken up residence. In the tomb chamber itself, three priests were bowed in ritual. Their words meant nothing to Pashedu, but he guessed from their gestures that the ritual was one of atonement. He was half lifted, half dragged over to the wall where he had been working the previous evening. One of the priests hit him hard across the face. The blow took the focus from his eyes and the wall was just a blur of colour, gilded by the dull glow of the torches. As his eyes cleared, he gasped. The sensation of cold he had felt the previous evening; the disembodied voice; the stench of natron; the boy he had thought deranged – only now did it make any sense. Perhaps, after all, there was an afterlife. But if so, it wasn’t the priests that held the keys to immortality.

On the wall in front of him, overlaying a week’s hard work on the figures of Nut and Osiris, was a huge, golden image, its emanations stretching from corner to corner of the tomb chamber. It was the forbidden image of the Aten, the sun disk.


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The Harvesters

T

he first time Arwyn Jones saw the painting, he knew it would change his life. Ripe stands of wheat glowed on a ridge, burnished by the late summer sunshine. Men and women in rough cambric smocks paused from the harvest under the shade of a tree, lunching on bread and fruit. In the green valley below, in front of a group of thatched cottages, men were playing some unknown game under the watchful gaze of a group of white-bonneted women. Another woman, screened from them by fruit trees, was sitting naked by a pond in the baking summer heat. It was like Merthyr Tydfil translated to Paradise. Arwyn bent to peer at the discreet perspex plaque. ‘The Harvesters’, by Pieter Bruegel. Whoever Pieter Bruegel was, he certainly knew how to capture an idyll. Arwyn straightened up to examine the picture again. From the corner of his eye, he noticed the gallery attendant studying him. Without knowing why (they were clean), he wiped his hands on the grubby seat of his overalls. His boots scraped loudly on the polished wooden floor as he stepped backwards. The attendant coughed meaningfully, but Arwyn continued to explore the figures in the painting. Weathered hands grasped scythes, frozen in mid-swing, their muscular legs braced in coarse workaday trousers. Another figure emerged from a path cut through the wheat with an earthenware jug (beer? cider?) in his hands. An emissary from the valley below, bringing good cheer to the harvesters. Arwyn took a deep breath. His nostrils filled with the scents of sweat, sun-baked soil and wheat chaff. ◊ ‘Come off it, Taffy. This is the only kind of brush you’re ever going to need.’ Arwyn caught a whiff of white spirit as the paintbrush bounced off his thinning patch and clattered onto the floor. His mate Alec was grinning at him. Alec pointed to the basement wall behind them.


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‘Perhaps your maestroship might find this a worthy canvas for his genius?’ Arwyn smiled as he retrieved the brush and zipped up his overalls. Alec fancied himself as a comedian, but at least he treated Arwyn with more respect than some of the other decorators in the firm. ‘No, really. It’s the most amazing landscape.’ He began covering the wall with wide, sweeping strokes of gold. ‘When I was a kid in the Vale of Glamorgan, I used to close my eyes and imagine a scene like that. No mine tailings; no railways; no steel rolling mills. Just valleys and wheatfields, golden sunshine and honest toil.’

‘You’ll get a lot more of that than you bargained for, if you’re not careful,’ said Alec. Arwyn turned round, to see Alec posed hands on hips, shaking his head. He had a sarcastic grin on his face. ‘More of what?’

‘Honest toil, mate. You’re supposed to be using the green on that wall.’ Every lunchtime for the rest of that week, Arwyn left Alec to his sandwiches in the basement while he climbed the stairs to the Flemish Room and stood in front of the painting. By Friday, the harvesters were as much his mates as Alec. His muscles seemed to ache from stacking the sheaves rather than from wielding an emulsion brush. That ringing in his ears seemed less the buzzing of the overhead lights and more the skylarks’ liquid song as they fled from the approaching scythes. They had finished the work by the following Tuesday. He climbed the stairs to the Flemish Room one last time while Alec cleaned the brushes. By now, the attendant had come to regard him as an object of harmless amusement. But he half rose from his chair when Arwyn reached out a hand towards the painting. Arwyn withdrew his hand as if something had bitten it and clumped back down the stairs. He helped Alec clear away the ladders and dustsheets and returned to the basement for one last check while Alec brought the van round. As he passed the gallery shop he stopped to buy a souvenir, a postcard of the painting that had filled his mind for over a week. A small notice behind the cash register caught his eye: ‘Gallery attendants wanted - full or part time. No previous experience required’. He borrowed a biro from the cashier and scribbled the telephone number on the back of his hand.


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◊ Arwyn Jones had always hated uniforms. His earliest memories were of the railway signalman’s uniform his father wore, stinking of stale fag smoke and beer. Nothing like the wonderful, yeasty smells his mother brought home from the bakery where she worked. When he started at Romilly School, his art teacher had commented on the darkness of his childhood daubings: violent images of sadist policemen, postmen torturers and railwaymen executioners. But back then, they were considered as no more than the products of a febrile imagination. Teachers just weren’t trained to spot the danger signs. Arwyn had made two vows to himself before his mother’s headstone the day he escaped from Porthkerry to hitchhike to London. One, he’d never take any job that involved wearing a uniform. Two, he’d only ever return to Porthkerry to dance on his abusing father’s grave. Well, he thought, as he settled into his new chair in the Flemish Room two months after the gallery decorating job ended, as resolutions go one out of two isn’t bad. They had tried to assign him to the Impressionists, but he had put his foot down and nearly lost the job before he even started. Drummond, the gallery director, had made a sarcastic comment about his former trade giving him an affinity with the movement (which to Arwyn didn’t seem very complimentary to the Impressionists). Drummond was a former Life Guards colonel who had shed his uniform on retiring from the regiment but not the attitude that went with it. Fortunately for Arwyn, the gallery had staff problems, so the director had finally relented. The Flemish Room it was. Arwyn had even repositioned the chair so that he could spend his days immersed in ‘The Harvesters’. Over the weeks that followed, he built fantasies in his mind around Pieter Bruegel’s figures. A man sleeping under the tree, head pillowed on his jerkin and one arm swung lazily over his head, was dreaming of ripe autumn revelries to come. His betrothed, oblivious to his bawdy thoughts, was taking bread from her satchel, her mind on the secret ripening inside her. Arwyn even began to name them. Jan, Jakob, Greta, Anna - names mostly gleaned from other paintings or the gallery shop. As the months passed, they became almost as real to him as Alec and his other former decorating mates or his few old school friends from Porthkerry.

It was one late August lunchtime, when the heat lay heavy in the street outside and the wooden floors shimmered in silence, that he first saw Jan. Arwyn had dozed off in the oppressive atmosphere and woke with a start to an overpowering


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smell of freshly cut wheatfields. Someone was sitting on the bench at the other end of the room, leaning against the wall in slumber. He wore a rough cambric shirt, work trousers of coarsely woven material and high, lace-up boots scuffed from years of work. At his side lay a wide-brimmed straw hat, dusty with chaff. His face was broad and weather-beaten, the nose apple-rosy from the summer sun. Arwyn knew him instantly. Confiding in the gallery director probably wasn’t the brightest move. Drummond had marked him down as a troublemaker since his first day; ‘wears the uniform, but doesn’t respect it,’ he had grumbled. But when he disclosed his apparition the following week to a studious-looking young lady who showed particular interest in ‘The Harvesters’, he wasn’t to know he had walked into a trip wire. First thing the following Monday morning, Arwyn was summoned to the director’s office. Drummond surveyed him with obvious distaste, the thin brush of his moustache twitching, as Arwyn did his best to stand to attention. Drummond flung a newspaper down on the desk in front of him.

‘So what’s your explanation for this, Jones?’ It was a copy of The Mail on Sunday, open at an inside page. At first, all Arwyn noticed was a colour photo of the painting that was now as familiar to him as the face he saw in the shaving mirror. ‘It’s ‘The Harvesters’, Mr Drummond … sir.’ ‘I know that,’ Drummond spat impatiently, ‘read the bloody headline, man.’ Arwyn fumbled through his uniform pockets for his reading glasses while the director surveyed the ceiling. When he finally lodged them on the end of his nose, he noticed a further, smaller photo of the young lady who had shown such interest in his apparition the previous week. Alongside ran a bold headline: ‘GHOST PLAYS TO THE GALLERY - by our arts correspondent’. Arwyn squinted at the rest of the article. These days he had to read newspapers only a few inches from his nose, but he wasn’t sure the director would like him doing that with his own newspaper. Drummond grabbed the paper from him and jabbed at the article with his finger. ‘This bit here - ‘a balding curator’ - any idea who that might be, Jones?’ Arwyn shrugged. The answer was obvious, surely.


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‘ … and this psychobabble about cognitive ekphrasis - I presume that’s too many syllables to be in your deccie’s vocabulary.’ Drummond sat back in his chair and glared at Arwyn. ‘And that bloody uniform of yours,’ he continued, ‘it’s a disgrace. You look as though you’ve slept in it every night since you’ve had it.’ He stood up and started pacing back and forth behind the desk. ‘I want the staff in my gallery to take pride in the job, and pride starts with the uniform. You wear it as if you were shovelling burgers around at MacDonald’s.’ Arwyn stared down at his toecaps, hoping the director wouldn’t notice he hadn’t buffed them to a mirror glaze. He seemed to have spent much of his life looking at his toecaps, he reflected, and he had so hoped this job would be different. The director turned on his heel one last time, reached across his desk to scoop up the newspaper and resumed his seat in one fluid movement. ‘Consider this a warning, Jones. I don’t want to hear any more about your odd fixations. Chuck out all your Star Trek or Doctor Who DVDs or whatever you get this nonsense from. They’re only paintings. Not some personal tear in the time space continuum that gives you a unique perspective on the past.’ As he left Drummond’s office, Arwyn sensed that the director wouldn’t leave it there. Sure enough, they tried to move him to the Pre-Raphaelites later that week. It was only the intervention of the union - plus the eternal staff shortages - that saved him. Meanwhile, Arwyn kept his head down and even polished his shoes every morning for the next fortnight. That wasn’t, however, the end of the apparitions. The following August, Greta made her first appearance. She had thrown off her black shawl, revealing strong shoulders tanned in the summer sun. Her stiff, white bonnet framed a kindly, maternal face (was that yeast he smelt?). She stayed almost half an hour before a school party from Peckham erupted into the room. It was summer bank holiday a year later when Jakob strode into the room in a cloud of wheat chaff. But he didn’t stay long. The long trudge uphill with that flagon of beer (or cider?) had exhausted him, and he soon left for the cool of the valley below.


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But it was Anna (mid August the next year) that tormented his soul as she wrung her hands in grief. Her secret, he knew, was destroying her. By harvest festival, she would be showing. Arwyn’s eyes filled as he watched her picking at the grey material of her sleeve, tears trickling through the wheat dust on her cheeks and tumbling onto the coarse weave of her satchel. As the summers passed, the other gallery staff eventually tired of teasing him and left him alone. They came to understand that harvest time was always the season for ‘Taffy’s ghosts’. Even some of the regular visitors instinctively tiptoed through the Flemish Room during August and early September lunchtimes. Not that Arwyn would have noticed. That was the time of year when Pieter Bruegel himself could have walked through the room without taking Arwyn’s gaze from the bench at its far end. By the time the gallery came to celebrate its bi-centenary, Arwyn had become the longest-serving staff member. So, although the director tried his best to overrule them, the PR people insisted on including a short paragraph in the commemorative brochure about ‘Taffy’s ghosts’, which they seemed to think made a good hook. After more than a decade of relieved anonymity, Arwyn was again briefly a minor celebrity, albeit the gallery director continued to dismiss him privately as an ‘addled old fool’. As a result, one morning even saw him feted but squirming on the couch of a national breakfast TV show, to the delight of the gallery PR people and the director’s undiluted disgust. ◊ Drummond seemed a little shrunken and his moustache thinner than Arwyn remembered from his last visit to the director’s office. It had been a fortnight since his ordeal on breakfast TV and he had thought the fuss had died down. The summons had come as a surprise. The director’s step was less sprightly than on Arwyn’s last summons as he paced up and down his office. But the snap in his voice was still there. ‘It’s all your fault again, Jones. I knew I shouldn’t have listened to those damn PR people - bunch of overpaid sycophants. Hear the radio this morning? Radio 4? No, of course not. Probably too busy listening to those bloody Welsh male voice choirs of yours. Well, we’ve now got Seymour Rosenberg wound up. Heard of him?’ ‘No … sir.’


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‘Well he’s only one of the most important art critics around. ‘The Flemish Fantasist’ - that’s the new theory he’s peddling about Pieter Brueghel. Load of mystical tosh and psychobabble. Should know better.’ Arywn studied his toecaps again. ‘And now there’s this daft novel based on the so-called symbolism in Brueghel’s paintings. Short listed for the Booker Prize, indeed. Probably wouldn’t even have got a look in but for you.’ Drummond stopped his pacing and gave Arwyn that rapier look of his. ‘But that’s only the half of it. Now we’ve got all these wiccans and Goths and spiritualists parading their pentagrams and body piercings through my gallery. You’ve brought most of the nutters in England down on our heads.’

Arwyn tried to mumble an apology, but Drummond cut him short. ‘Anyway, you’ve tried my patience one last time. Union or no union, from tomorrow you’re reassigned to the temporary exhibitions. Starting with the Chris Ofili perspective.’ The director smiled as he noted the consternation on Arwyn’s face. ‘Chris Ofili’s work,’ he continued, ‘makes great use of elephant dung as a medium. Perhaps you can immerse yourself in that for a change.’ Drummond was still chuckling at his own joke as Arwyn shuffled from his office and returned to his chair in the Flemish Room. Arwyn settled himself with a sigh into the familiar seat. He had just one more afternoon with ‘The Harvesters’. Barely four hours to say farewell to the characters who had become his closest friends. He squinted at the golden landscape that had filled his life. His eyes had weakened over the years, but he knew every detail, every blade of wheat by memory. He listened to the voices of his friends, chattering over their lunch of bread and fruit in the shade of the tree. He breathed in the scents of lush summer grass and freshly cut sheaves and shifted to a more comfortable position. A tree root seemed to be pressing into his back.


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◊ It came as a shock to regulars in the Flemish Room, most of whom were on first name terms with Arwyn, to find his chair moved down the room the following Monday and a new face peering at them from over the familiar uniform. Enquiries revealed the sad truth. Arwyn had ‘gone to join his ghosts’, according to the gallery shop staff (who could never resist a joke). However, they all agreed how sad it was that the gallery had lost such an enduring character.

Even Drummond allowed himself a brief - if uncharacteristic - moment of sorrow. But it was a moment of weakness that soon passed. It wasn’t long before he was thanking his stars for a blissfully ordinary, ghost-free future. His peace, however, was to last barely a year. The following August saw a heat wave that broke all records. Gallery staff members were dropping like flies and visitors’ shoes were transferring tarmac from the bubbling roads all over Drummond’s polished wooden floors. So it came as no surprise when Stevenson, Arwyn’s replacement, stood in front of him one lunchtime almost out on his feet. Shivering, in spite of temperatures in the 30s. But the story he had to tell sent cold shudders down the director’s spine. He had seen them, Stevenson said, as clearly as the hand in front of his face. Sitting on the bench, at the far end of the gallery. Not one ghost, but two. A young woman in grey, dressed like a peasant from another age. A satchel clutched tightly in her lap. Tears streaming down her face. A man, with his arm around her shoulders, comforting her. A man wearing a gallery uniform, just like his own.


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Frenchie’s Curse

T

hey say there is a great calmness in men at the point of death. Perhaps, if I had been more God-fearing, I too might feel it. But for me there is only emptiness and I go fearful into that unending night. Even though, after the sights I have witnessed the past thirty days, it cannot but be held as a blessed relief. Captain Briggs and his wife Sarah are both gone, died a fortnight since with the thirst. Their daughter Sophie (poor angel) perished shortly after. Edward Head, steward, is dead by the hand of Andrew Gilling, second mate, on account of actions that I tremble to name. For early one morning, the day after we had committed our captain’s body to the ocean, we woke to discover him bloody about the mouth, knife in hand, with little Sophie’s body still warm beneath him. Since it was he that brought a cask of spirit into the boat in mistake for water, thus dooming us all, there was little sorrow at his dispatch. Yesterday, we thought we spied a ship, perhaps the Dei Gratia still searching for us. Andrew leapt into the water and swum towards her, hollering with what little life remained in his lungs, but the closer he came, the further she seemed to move away. Finally, she was gone from view. The wind came up again and he was soon lost among the waves. He did not return. Now, I am alone in this endless expanse of ocean. Ours was a voyage ill-fated from the outset. The talk at the quayside was that Captain Briggs was returning only reluctantly to sea, having abandoned his notion of establishing himself in the hardware business. During the refit our ship, formerly the Amazon, had her cabin especially re-fashioned so that the Captain might take his wife and daughter to sea, which some argued was a recipe for ill luck. But, as I now know, it was the strange altercation over her name that set us firmly on the path to destruction. They had tasked some Frenchie signwriter from Quebec to letter the new name onto her stern. When the Captain saw it, he flew into a rage and would not pay him. The Frenchie fell to cursing, but the Captain was unmoved. Gottlieb Gondeschall, one of our crew, knew some French and was suddenly much afear’d.


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The Frenchie had mistaken the name for that of his dead wife, who had taken her own life, and now he cursed our voyage in her memory. So, we have hardly left New York, bound for Genoa, when the problems start. Our cargo is alcohol spirit, 1,700 barrels of it. The Captain, being a temperance man through-and-through, has had the cargo hold sealed for safety, though none could have drunk the stuff and still kept his mind. But, two days out, nine barrels are found empty and no sign of leaks. We had shipped an all-German crew, excepting the steward, and the suspicion lies on them, though nothing can be proved. A week out, in mid-ocean, Andrew Gilling comes on watch one morning and finds the ship’s clock spoiled and the compass wrecked. No-one claims any knowledge of the cause. Henceforth, we’ve but the stars and our own daily sun sights to steer a course by. Then, one night Arian Martens comes flying up from the lazarette, eyes staring in a frenzy and babbling in German. It’s as much as Captain Briggs can do to hinder him from leaping over the side. He has seen a figure in the gloom of the hold; a woman’s figure, with long, dark hair and skin of a deathly pallor. The Captain’s wife is short and fair and, besides, has hardly left his cabin all voyage, excepting for the call of nature. There’s much argument amongst the Germans after that about standing the night watches, until the Captain takes his pistol and threatens to shut them all in the lazarette until we reach Gibraltar. Next, Volkert Lorenson is at the helm one night around two and feels a soft hand on his shoulder. He turns round and looks into a woman’s face. The eyes are huge and unstaring and there is a great, open slash across her throat that does not bleed. Andrew Gilling is writing up the log down below and knows nothing until the ship broaches on a big crest, sails a’flapping. When he bounds up the companionway, Volkert is lying in the scuppers, screaming his head off in his native tongue. Before anyone can reach him, he dies of a seizure. Died of fright, the others said. The Captain brings his Bible down from his cabin and reads from it in the glow of the sternlight. But the other Germans just stand there staring at the body and crossing themselves. Two days past the Azores, our ship is hit by a terrible tempest. Three days and nights it rages, with seas whipped up like mountains and winds the worst any of us have known. The Captain orders the ship stripped to her bare poles and the wheel lashed. She groans in every timber as the waves torment her. The crew are fearful, and grow more sullen by the day. Finally, the winds ease and the skies clear. The stars show us we are blown far to the North.


20

On the fourth day I come on watch early in the morning and the deck is deserted. No crew below neither. I raise the Captain and together we discover the gig is gone, a line trailing over the side where they first loaded it up and then cut it free. The sextant and chronometer are missing to boot, together with the navigation tables and the best of our rations. The Captain cusses quietly - the only time I ever knew him to do so. With no crew and just the four of us to manage the ship, it will be a hard passage to Gibraltar. But we never sight Gibraltar. The sails flap uselessly for the next three days, with scarce a breath of wind to fill them. Our best efforts at navigation only show how we are drifting in circles. Both I and Andrew Gilling are much disturbed, but the Captain seems to spend most of the time reading his Bible. Then, when we are still some six hundred miles from land, another great storm overwhelms us from the south-west. With only four hands, we can do little other than try to trim our ship fore and aft and keep her out of the worst of the waves. One wave strikes us from astern like a railroad train, roars down our decks and carries away the forehatch. Its companion follows shortly after and does for our lazarette hatch too. Andrew Gilling dashes below to check the hold and reports her two fathoms deep in water and rising fast. One pump is demolished and we are too few to man the second. The Captain orders the jolly boat launched over the side. It is too small to afford us much hope in these conditions, but if the ship founders it’s all we have. Edward Head is down in the boat, on the lee side, loading her up with emergency stores, when he shrieks and points to the open forehatch. A figure is rising through it, as if borne on an invisible hand. It is a woman, her long, dark hair framing a bloodless face. Her eyes appear sightless, and her neck is slashed to the bone, but no blood gushes. The Captain hastens to his cabin and returns with his wife and daughter and his Bible. As they reach the deck, the woman turns to smile at them. It is the smile of a Gorgon. In that second, there is a roar from below decks and a great plume of smoke issues from the forehatch and lazarette together. There is no flame, but with the barrels of spirit sealed below and but three men aboard to fight the fire, it is manifest to all of us that the ship is doomed. The Captain’s wife and little daughter are embarked first, then Andrew and myself. Finally, the Captain joins us in the frail, bucking craft. We ease off on the line until we are a cable or so astern to observe whether the fire will take hold. As we rise upon a wave crest and the ship ascends into view, Edward Head is pointing at the stern of our ship and yelling excitedly. We all look up and see the cause of his trepidation. It is the figure of the woman again. She is leaning out of the window of the stern cabin, sawing with a long knife at the rope that holds us to


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the ship. The rope parts with a sound like gunshot and we are tossed sideways by the waves. As we drift quickly away from the ship, we can see her long, bony white finger pointing down at the stern. In my mind, as I now step towards that final threshold, I can see her still, her face a grinning mask as her finger slowly traces the letters of our ship’s name.

Signed this 24th day of December, 1874. Albert C Richardson, First Mate, The Mary Celeste.


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A Sabbath Visit

I

n my job, you came across all sorts of unpleasant sights. But I’d rarely encountered any quite as disgusting as the one that greeted me on entering that house in Shekhina Street this morning. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I could just make out a skeletal donkey tethered in one corner, its tail uplifted as it added to the steaming pile accumulating on the earthen floor. In another, a diseasedlooking cow leaned against the wall, its listless eyes rimmed with pus. To my right, a threelegged dog was lapping hungrily at a bloody mass that I supposed was the afterbirth. In the centre of the room, wriggling on a bed of straw in the soft glow of an oil lamp, lay a new-born infant, its naked body still smeared with blood. ‘Shabbat

shalom.’

The woman’s voice was very weak. She was sitting huddled against the wall, her features only just discernable in the darkness. She seemed little more than a girl. Her head was resting on the shoulder of her companion, an older man with wary eyes that scanned me suspiciously. ‘Shabbat ‘Who’s

shalom,’ I replied. I pointed to the infant. ‘Your child, I presume?’

asking?’ the man demanded gruffly.

‘Yehuda

ben Malachi. Census officer by order of Caesar Augustus.’ I held out the wax tablet and stylus as reassurance. ‘And you?’ ‘Yosef ‘The

ben Yakob.’

girl’s father?’

‘Husband.’ ‘Husband?’

yours?’

I couldn’t disguise the note of surprise in my voice. ‘So the child is


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Even in the dimness, I detected the conspiratorial look the couple exchanged. This was worse than I thought. The woman raised her head from the man’s shoulder and pulled back her headdress to inspect me properly. She couldn’t, I thought, be much more than a teenager. ‘He’s

mine.’

I pretended to make notes on the wax tablet as I considered my next question. How to put this without causing offence? ‘So

the father is - back at home?

The couple exchanged that infuriatingly enigmatic look again. ‘Not

exactly ….’ the man replied, his voice tailing off as his eyes gestured meaningfully upwards. ‘No

- I don’t believe it!’ I exploded. ‘You mean he who owns the house gets your wife pregnant and then makes her give birth downstairs amongst all the cattle? And on the Sabbath as well! How can you stand for that?’ The man sighed and shook his head. ‘He’s

not the father - just a friend who took us in. We couldn’t get a room at the Caesar’s Head.’ ‘So,’

I continued, stylus poised over the wax tablet, ‘what do I put? I’ve got to have a name for the record. There’s a census on, you know.’ The girl’s eyes were gleaming with tears. Her voice quavered as she replied. ‘Then

put Gavriel.’

‘Gavriel?’ ‘It

was Gavriel that came to me.’

She’s quite brazen, this one, I thought as I incised the tablet. Young wife: old husband - never a wise combination. Lucky to have such a tolerant husband, that’s for sure. ‘And

have you named the child yet?’


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The girl lifted the headdress back over her head and held it tight under her chin as she stared at the infant gaping soundlessly in the lamplight. ‘Yeshua.

His name is Yeshua.’

‘Fine.’ I completed the entry on the tablet with a flourish. ‘Yeshua ben Gavriel it is.’ ‘No!’

The sudden strength in the girl’s voice surprised me. She struggled to her feet, shaking off the man’s restraining hand on her arm. The dog growled, then returned to its meal of afterbirth once it realised there was no danger. The girl shuffled unsteadily over to the infant and picked it up in her arms, wrapping it in her headdress until she was completely bare-headed. She looked even younger with her hair loose around her throat. The flicker of the oil lamp at her feet cast ghostly shadows over her face, but they couldn’t hide the defiance that glittered in her eyes. ‘No.

It is Yeshua ben Yosef. Of the house of David.’

I scratched the back of my neck with the stylus. This girl was beginning to irritate me beyond measure. ‘Look,

lady. It’s late; I’ve had a long day; it’s not my choice to work on the Sabbath; the Romans may thank me, but the Sanhedrin won’t - so just make up your mind. I’ll put Caesar bloody Augustus if you want. You can be the one that answers to the Romans and the Temple elders. And to him.’ I gestured towards her husband, who was still glaring at me. The infant, disturbed by our raised voices, was beginning to struggle in the folds of the headdress. I could sense it working up to the bellow of its tiny life. ‘Yeshua

ben Yosef,’ the girl repeated, waggling her little finger before the infant’s unfocussed eyes to calm it. I made a great show of smoothing my earlier incisions on the tablet with the spatula before re-inscribing the name with exaggerated care. Timewasters were one of my least enjoyable occupational hazards. Besides, I could see the infant struggling again and I suspected the inevitable bellow would follow any minute. And in the corner, the donkey’s guts were rumbling like an earthquake. It was clearly building up to another feculent eruption. Time for me to go.


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The streets outside were empty apart from a few gentile street traders and a group of bored-looking Roman soldiers, who stared at me suspiciously as I passed. Even the pagans, I reflected bitterly, distrust a Jew who works on the Sabbath. The sun was already starting to set behind the pine trees as I reached my own street on the dusty outskirts of the town. I pushed aside the door covering and entered my house, leaning the wax tablet against the wall in readiness for the following day. I’d made good time from Shekhina Street and there was at least half an hour before havdalah and a cup of wine with my wife. ◊ As I write these things, my wife is getting ready for the lighting of the candles and soon another Sabbath will be over. A new week will begin and still I keep this record of my days of shame. Once, I was a scribe with honour. I have completed no fewer than three torahs, one of which is still in use in the Second Temple. Also, mezuzahs and marriage contracts for many of the best families in Jerusalem. Now, I am reduced to working as a census officer for this accursed Roman occupation, this daily witness my only source of comfort. But no more. This will be the last entry. I can go no further. For who would wish to be a scribe in these days of slavery? What is there left in this benighted world that is worth writing about?


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A Debt to Zeno

D

ion had often heard it said that looks could kill. Jealousy, greed, ambition - all these could do it too. Even a lack of piety was reputed to bring down the occasional thunderbolt on the head of an unbeliever. But he had never realised that mere words could do it. The poet’s carefullycrafted verses that he had spent the last two weeks chiselling into hard granite had killed the man lying in front of him as surely as the dagger protruding from his chest. He had known something was wrong long before he approached the narrow defile where the mountains loomed sheer over the sea and the hot wind hissed incessantly down the valleys. The donkey sweating in front of his heavily-laden cart had tugged on the lead in his hand and its ears had gone back as its nostrils scented some disturbance on the wind. The kites circling above the earthen mound that was his destination had also warned of some new disaster to add to the earlier slaughter that had happened there. A premonition told Dion, even as he goaded the donkey forwards, that it was Zeno. Zeno, whose shadow had startled him two weeks earlier while preoccupied in measuring the space for the granite slab that would complete the monument and whose words had afterwards unsettled Dion more and more as he carved each letter of the poet’s verses.

◊ ‘By the gods!’ Dion exclaimed, almost tumbling as he spun round in the half-crouch he had just assumed. ‘Don’t you believe in announcing yourself to strangers?’ He put down the measuring staff and warily inspected the man whose shadow had just loomed over him. Although silhouetted against the sky and mountains, Dion could tell that the other was of martial stock, tall and broad-shouldered and with muscles hardened by years of training. But his long hair was lank and uncombed


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and the outline of his clothes revealed more tatters than fabric. The stranger remained silent as Dion stood up and scanned him properly from head to toe. His condition and the rankness of his smell spoke of a long time away from home comforts. Apart from a dagger in the greasy rope that served him for a belt, he seemed to be carrying little of value. The new wars had filled the roads with travellers, but few of them were as desperate as this one appeared to be. His accent, when he finally spoke, was foreign but oddly familiar to Dion. ‘Friend, forgive me. I have travelled a long way and become unused to courtesies during my time on the road. My name is Zeno and I mean you no ill.’

Dion wondered briefly if the other might be a bandit. This Zeno would certainly have the better of Dion in any fight and, besides, he had that dagger. Thankfully, Dion had only come to measure up for the final piece of the monument and had neither money nor food to tempt him. ‘So why are you here?’ Dion asked, taking a careful step backwards under the guise of retrieving his measuring staff. ‘Surely you can’t be a tourist - we haven’t seen one of those since the new wars started?’ Zeno’s gaze was fixed on the simple stone plinth beside them and the gap like a missing tooth where Dion had just been measuring. Now Dion’s eyes had adjusted, he could see the other’s face more clearly. Like his body, it was toughened by years of hard training and privation, the skin leathered by long days in the harsh Summer sun. A livid scar cleaved his left eyebrow and cheek and his forehead bore the telltale ridge of a long-time helmet wearer. Definitely a warrior. But his gaze wasn’t the hard, defiant glare of the other soldiers Dion had recently dealt with, the ones that had seemed to despise his trade even as they commissioned his work. This one’s eyes were restless, shunning contact, like those of a thief or miscreant. ‘No, not a tourist.’ ‘Then what brings you here?’ Dion demanded, his confidence growing now that he felt less threatened. As he rose to his feet, the other knelt down and picked up a handful of the sun-baked dust around the monument. He studied it for a moment then let it slip through his fingers back into the earth. ‘Duty.’ ‘Pah!’ Dion exploded, before wondering if he had gone too far. But the stranger


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simply studied his face in curiosity. It was the first time their eyes had met properly, and Dion saw something in the other’s stare that stirred old memories. He had seen it in the eyes of prisoners from the wars - that combination of guilt and resignation as they were led away to death or consigned to slavery. ‘Pah!’ Dion repeated. ‘What’s duty ever done but make widows of wives and whores out of their daughters? Did duty ever plant an olive grove or put fish on the dinner table? Did you ever see duty do an honest day’s work behind the plough?’ Zeno lowered his eyes to the little pile of dust under his fingers, then slowly surveyed the panorama of towering cliffs and the breathless rustle of waves on the beach close below. Finally, his gaze fell on the measuring stick in Dion’s hand. ‘You make monuments to dead heroes,’ he challenged, ‘isn’t that a duty - both to the dead and the living who wish to remember and honour them?’ ‘Imposition, more like,’ snorted Dion. He tapped the ground theatrically with his measuring stick and puffed out his chest. ‘I was a sculptor, you know, before the wars started. You’ll still find my work in most of the best houses. But, since the whole world went crazy again, the only commissions I’ve had are funerary ones. Ruining perfectly good stone with atrocious verses. If only they’d send all the poets to the wars …’ Zeno’s chuckle faded as he stood up and ran his fingers lightly over the halffinished stone of the monument. His fingers came to rest in the gap on top of the plinth. ‘So what about the ones who died here? Was that all pointless?’ ‘Probably,’ Dion shrugged. ‘If it wasn’t for the need to give the poets something to glorify, they’d all be snuggled up with their warm wives right now instead of with one another’s cold corpses.’ ‘And the ones that got away?’ ‘Daft as brushes, both of them,’ snapped Dion. ‘One felt so guilty he volunteered for the front line and deliberately got his throat cut in the next battle. The other got so much grief when he arrived home he hanged himself. Who needs enemies when our own soldiers are perfectly willing to do the job for them?’


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‘You think they were wrong?’ ‘Just misguided. The ‘warrior’s sacred duty’, ‘death before dishonour’ - they’re just outmoded concepts. Relics of a past age. It’s the peacemakers we should be erecting monuments to.’ ‘And the poets?’ Zeno smiled. ‘Don’t you get me started,’ snorted Dion. ‘Anyway, I’ve work to do. Disputing with you isn’t going to put bread on the table.’

He tapped the measuring staff on his sandal to shake off the dust and started back down the mound to his donkey cart. Zeno followed him and stood watching while he removed the hobble from the donkey’s feet. ‘Do you think it’s possible to cheat the Fates?’ Dion ignored the question as he coiled the rope and tossed it into the cart. The stranger didn’t seem to know when a conversation was over. Besides, Dion’s initial wary respect for Zeno had evaporated once he realised he was more a man of words than of action. ‘Do you believe,’ the other persisted, ‘that one can ever stay the knife over that thread of life? Deny one’s own destiny?’ Zeno was oddly animated and nervously fingering the handle of his dagger. Dion moved cautiously round the cart to put it between him and the stranger. Perhaps the wars had unhinged the other. ‘Not even the gods can do that,’ Dion replied, taking up the donkey’s lead. ‘Anyway, the only destiny that beckons me at the moment is a plate of food, a cup of wine and a soft bed. Let’s leave the rest to the philosophers.’ He stabbed the donkey’s flank with the goad, but the beast simply put its ears back and wheezed sullenly through its nose. ‘There were three.’ ‘Three what?’ Dion asked, now too intent on urging the donkey homeward to pay the stranger much attention. ‘What do you …?’ his voice tailed off in mid-sentence


30

as the meaning of Zeno’s words struck him. The two of them stood in silence for what seemed minutes to Dion. It was Zeno who finally broke the silence. ‘So can I see the lines?’ Dion stared at him in confusion. ‘The lines,’ Zeno repeated. ‘The ones you’re carving for the monument.’ Just as he spoke, the donkey finally decided to budge. Dion tutted impatiently as he hauled on the lead and hobbled the animal again. He reached into the cart and retrieved the tablet that contained his next fortnight’s work. Zeno studied it for a few moments then sighed as he handed it back to him. Dion accepted the tablet with a mock show of reverence, which he immediately regretted. ‘Here, my friend,’ there was sadness but also an odd note of triumph in the stranger’s voice, ‘perhaps, by the time you’ve carved these lines, you’ll truly understand the meaning of duty.’ Zeno turned on his heel and retraced his steps up the mound as Dion yanked the donkey’s halter and set off along the narrow track that hugged the shoreline. A welcome sea-breeze had now sprung up to moderate the searing heat that radiated off the mountains. At the end of the bay, just before the mound disappeared from view behind the edge of the mountains, Dion paused for rest and a mouthful of water from his flask. As he looked back along the shore, he could still see the stranger standing tall and motionless next to the plinth, his shadow creeping down the mound in the afternoon sun like some monumental sundial . Much as he tried to dismiss them, Zeno’s words were ringing in Dion’s ears for the next fortnight as he chiselled at the granite slab. Letter by letter, the unknown poet’s verses seemed to seep into in his soul until even he could deny their force no longer. By the time he hitched up the donkey cart and headed back along the dusty trail to the mound, the granite slab had become almost as much a labour of love as the best of his sculptures. ◊ As he hobbled the donkey and carried the heavy slab carefully up to the monument, he paused alongside the familiar, but now lifeless form stretched out stiff next to the stones. Sunlight glinted on the bronze haft of the dagger, worn bright with years of


31

use, that had initially filled him with alarm two weeks ago. Now, it stood there in the stranger’s chest like a final, irrefutable conclusion to the argument they had had about honour, duty and remembrance. Dion had a brief flash of anger as he noted that the kites had already been at work on Zeno’s face. But, even in death, Zeno’s eyes blazed with a new defiance and the kites had not dared to touch them. When Dion had fixed the granite slab into its final resting place, he gave it a final polish before reading aloud the words that had gradually burned themselves into his soul with every blow on his chisel:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing near, We rest, obeying their laws, for ever here. He returned to his donkey cart to fetch a shovel. The earth next to the plinth was baked hard, but there was a fierce determination in Dion’s digging. It was something he owed to Zeno. And - yes - to all those others who snuggled together in death under the mound at Thermopylae.


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A Little Fratch

T

he ring had cost Wallace all of twelve guineas at Fattorini’s in Harrogate. No cheap backstreet jeweller’s ring was good enough for his Maria. No, it had to be top quality white gold and set with the biggest solitaire diamond in the shop. It represented nearly half the wages from his last voyage and more than he used to make in a year playing at Collinsons Café in Leeds. But she had broken his heart by refusing it. As he retraced his route of the previous Tuesday along the bank of the River Wharfe and up to the bridge where the hansom cab was waiting, his footsteps had lost all their earlier spring. The river was in spate after a week’s heavy rainfall, its waters slick and black in the early evening gloom. Even now, the sky still looked full of rain. Wallace’s spirits sank even further when he climbed the steps to the bridge and saw the waiting cab. Perched on the driver’s seat, fiddling impatiently with the reins, was Ackroyd, the same garrulous driver who had brought him from Wetherby station on Tuesday and who had practically talked his ears off by the time they arrived in Boston Spa. Ackroyd leapt down from his seat as Wallace arrived, touching the brim of his hat with exaggerated deference as he opened the twin doors for Wallace to step into the cab. He handed up Wallace’s black travel bag as Wallace settled back into the well-worn leather, then climbed back onto the driver’s seat, gathering the reins as he went.

‘Evenin‘, maestro,’ he boomed in that hard West Riding brogue that grated on Wallace’s ears. ‘Bahn ter station, then?’ Wallace nodded. He tried to close the trap door in the roof to forestall the inevitable tide of chatter. Frustratingly, it was still jammed open - probably deliberately, thought Wallace, to prevent passengers from enjoying the privacy of their own thoughts. Still, his own were not very pleasurable just then. ‘Tha seems a bit broody this evenin‘,’ Ackroyd volunteered as he urged the horse


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into a slow clop across the bridge. ‘Was tha yoong lady a bit mardy?’ Wallace cursed himself silently for having disclosed the purpose behind his visit to Maria and the ring that he, brimming with optimism, had so proudly exhibited to Ackroyd earlier that week. When he didn’t reply, Ackroyd leaned over the trap door and boomed even louder into the cab. ‘Tha moost ’ave a reyt chuffy one not to care owt fer a ring like that. Nowt’s same wi’em terday, reet? Mah Rita would’ve coot ’er arm off fer that ring. Mind you,’ he chuckled, ‘if’n she ’ad, ’t would’ve saved me a bit o‘ brass.’ When Wallace didn’t respond, he added a totally superfluous explanation of the joke. ‘Naw fingers, see? Can’t stand in froont of vicar and push ring onter stoomp, can tha?’ Wallace couldn’t resist a smile even as he fingered the ring still nestling in his waistcoat pocket. Everything had been so carefully planned: the red silk roses he had bought at Macy’s in New York on his last voyage; the new Houbigant perfume that was all the rage in top London society; the expensive candlelit dinner at the Royal Hotel. He had been so sure of his future with Maria, right up to the moment that afternoon when she had raised him from his knees then gently wrecked his hopes. But as the cab crossed the bridge over the swollen river and turned onto the Wetherby road, he wondered when he would next travel this familiar route to her door and whether the flame she had so unexpectedly doused could ever be rekindled. ‘Maybe your Rita,’ he shouted through the trap door, ‘knows when she’s well off. These days, women seem to expect to rule the roost. They want men’s jobs; they smoke like chimneys; they’re even campaigning for the vote. Who knows - they’ll be demanding seats in Parliament next.’ ‘ ’Appen they should ’ave ’em,’ shrugged Ackroyd. ‘Present lot ent mooch but ninnies. There’s talk there’ll be war soon, way things are goin‘. Mah Rita would sort it aht in five minutes flat - an‘ thazza fact. If ye ask me, they should give the shoov to that Asquith feller and poot mah Rita in Downing Street. She’d ’ave ’em all sorted.’ The thought of Ackroyd’s Rita - or, indeed, any woman - running the country was so absurd Wallace burst out laughing. Ackroyd flicked the reins to urge the horse on and leaned over the trap door again.

‘Tha’s feeling summat ’appier in thissel, maestro?’ he enquired. ‘Tha shouldn’t let a little fratch wi‘ sweet’eart make thee broody.’


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Wallace peered through the cab window at the river landscape slowly disappearing from view. It was hard to imagine that in just a few days he would be in the middle of an ocean, doing what he loved best, with only the restless waves for scenery. He had been prepared to give all that up, important as it was to him. But not just yet. Maria had fine tastes and it wasn’t fair to deny him the means of satisfying them. Besides, he had had to climb a steep mountain to get where he was and the view back down terrified him.

‘It wasn’t so much an argument,’ he shouted, ‘more of a misunderstanding.’ ‘ ’ow coom?’ Ackroyd’s curiosity was beginning to verge on impertinence. Admittedly Wallace had spent his schooldays and early adulthood in the north of England, but his musical career had introduced him to different social circles. He had grown unused to the directness typical of Yorkshire folk. But, he reflected, he’d probably never see Ackroyd again and, besides, he’d always found it impossible to be rude to people. Maria, trying to articulate her reasons for rejecting him, had claimed it was one of his greatest weaknesses. He would never understand women’s ability to turn carefully cultivated virtues into irredeemable vices. ‘I promised Maria - my intended - I would get a job on dry land. To me, that meant once we were married. Possibly not even until we started a family. But to her, it’s now a pre-condition of a proper engagement.’ ‘Aye, that’s the soom of it. Give ’em t’ whinnlestraws an‘ soon they’ll be after t’ whole sheaf. Take mah Rita. I wuz makin‘ a good packet coble fishin‘ off Filey Landin‘ when we first met. She were a reet picture - curly ’air joost like Mary Pickford an‘ a waist as would fit in yer ’ands. Once she ’ad me firmly ’ooked on t’ line, that’s when t’ gaff went in. It were a straight choice. Eether I packed in t’ fishin‘ or it were back to leerin‘ at Mary Pickford from thrupenny seats at t’ Regal.’ They were crossing back across the River Wharfe now on the long incline to the railway station. Wallace noticed how the river seemed calmer than the moiling stream at Boston. The catkins were already out on the trees here and the first spring crocuses were beginning to open on the roadside verges. He had the absurd feeling that they had passed from winter into spring during the three miles of


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their journey. ‘So you sacrificed your career for your Rita? Haven’t you ever regretted it?’

Ackroyd snorted, practically in unison with the horse as he urged it on up the incline. ‘Naw. What’s life wi’aht that tooch on t’ shoulder from ’er as loovs yer. It’s like tryin’ to bake bread when t’ ooven’s gone aht. As mah Rita allus says: the ideal ’usband is one as washes oop when asked and dries oop when told. Any road, maestro, at least tha’s got tha music to keep things from narkin‘ thee.’ Ackroyd tugged on the reins as the horse carefully picked its way round the potholes on the station approach. ‘So what kinda music doost tha play in t‘ band?’ ‘Oh, pretty well anything people want to hear,’ Wallace replied, flinching as the grit from the horse’s hooves spattered the cab doors, ‘music hall songs, light classics, Irving Berlin - that sort of thing.’ ‘Mah Rita looves that Irving Berlin. ’Specially that new ’un: When I’m Alawn I’m Lawnsome. She reckons she’s never ’eard owt so ’eartbreakin‘.’ To Wallace’s horror, Ackroyd proceeded to murder Berlin’s dainty lyrics in his West Riding brogue:

Norrun cares to ’ear my waws, Friendless lahk a faded rawse, I'm un’appy, goodness knaws, When ahm all alawn. The cab lurched as they drove up the deeply rutted slope to the station, mercifully sparing Wallace from hearing the chorus as Ackroyd grappled with the reins. The Leeds train was already waiting as they pulled into the station forecourt, puffing clouds of steam as it gathered breath for the day’s final run south. Wallace waited while Ackroyd climbed down from the driver’s seat and opened the cab doors for him to alight. The other’s eyes lit up as Wallace pressed a sixpence into his hand. ‘Keep the change. Or, as they say in this corner of God’s country: this is fer thee.’ Ackroyd touched the brim of his hat, with what struck Wallace as more genuine deference than before. The horse was pawing the ground, already intent on a manger of hay and a good night’s sleep. Ackroyd seemed happy to linger though, as if their conversation were somehow incomplete.


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‘Appen as tha’s a bit less mardy than when we started. ’Appen ’as ’er in Boston Spa will be thinkin‘ different when tha cooms back. Nobbut a bit o‘ blether betwixt two sweet’earts.’ ‘You could be right,’ shrugged Wallace as Ackroyd lifted his bag down from the cab. ‘Perhaps I over-reacted when she refused the ring. But, as they say, all’s not lost while lovers are still talking.’ ‘ And tha shouldn’t wurry thissel abaht gettin‘ work on dry land once tha’s doon with t’ sea. There’s allus people as’ll pay to ’ear good music.’ Ackroyd offered his hand. Wallace wasn’t accustomed to shaking hands with cab drivers, but he felt he owed Ackroyd more than just a sixpence. Ackroyd’s hand was calloused from years of tugging on fishing nets and horses’ reins and his grasp so firm that Wallace momentarily feared for his bow hand. ‘Joost in case tha’s ever playin’ rahnd Wetherby, what’s name o’ band tha plays in?’ The sound of carriage doors slamming was starting to echo through the station entrance. Wallace checked his pocket watch then immediately grabbed his bag. ‘It’s the Wallace Hartley Band. We play mostly on the Cunard and White Star lines. Today New York, Boston, Cherbourg. Tomorrow,’ he shouted over his shoulder as he hurried into the station, ‘Harrogate, Leeds - who knows, maybe even Wetherby?’ The guard’s whistle blew just as Wallace threw his bag into the luggage rack and eased himself into his seat. His hand strayed subconsciously to his waistcoat pocket as the West Riding countryside began to slide past the train window. The skies were clearing now and the fields of winter barley were stained russet by the setting sun. Wallace took a deep breath, rejoicing in the familiar scents of polished wooden panelling and plush velvet upholstery. He was finally on his way. As soon as he got to New York, he resolved, he would telegraph Maria and tell her of his change of heart. Then, he would return to Boston Spa in mid-May and, while they sat in the cornfield opposite St Mary’s Church where they had first declared their love, he would put that ring on her finger for good.

Bookings, he reflected, should be no problem for a band that had played in front of monarchs, movie stars and gentry. They could handle anything from Strauss to ragtime with equal aplomb. And they came with the highest possible recommendations:


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from the SS Mauretania, the SS Olympic and now - best of all - the SS Titanic.

FOOTNOTE: Body number 224 (male), dressed in a uniform with green facings,

was recovered by the steamer ‘Mackay-Bennett’ from the icy waters off Newfoundland on 4 May 1912. Among the personal effects found on the body were a gold fountain pen, inscribed WHH; a silver cigarette case; a silver match box inscribed ‘WHH. From the staff at Collinsons, Leeds’; a telegram addressed to ‘Hotley (sic), Bandmaster, Titanic’ - and a diamond solitaire ring.


38

The Monkey’s Fist

I

can still remember my first encounter with Captain Bob Gurnard. It was a boiling hot Summer in Whitby, and my dad had left me panting in the tiny garden of The Seine Purse. At the age of six, patience is just a dimly understood expletive. My lemonade and my dad were both in the pub, so naturally I ran in to investigate why both were unaccountably delayed. There he was, perched on an old settle made from a church pew, brass buttons gleaming all down the front of his jacket and his bushy, white whiskers topped with a gold-braided skipper’s hat. He put down his pint and gazed at me with sea-blue eyes. I knew him instantly. It was Captain Birdseye. ‘What ‘ave we ‘ere? A little sprat thrown up by the tide?’ His voice was deep and rich as fruitcake. He beckoned me over to sit next to him on the settle. His breath smelt of tobacco and beer, just like my dad’s, but the heady blend of boatyard and fish market scents on his jacket made me dizzy with excitement. My dad grinned at me from the bar as the Captain reached into his pocket and withdrew something which he concealed in his gnarled and weather-reddened fist. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he held it in front of my face. ‘If ye can guess what this is,’ he whispered conspiratorially, ‘you can ‘ave ‘im. But ye only gets one guess, mind.’ ‘Fish finger.’ I didn’t know why everyone in the pub laughed. It seemed the obvious answer. The brass buttons down the Captain’s front rippled as he led the general hilarity. He partly opened his fist, so others in the bar could see what it held but not me. ‘This, my little sprat, ain’t no fish finger. This be a monkey’s fist.’ Now I knew he was teasing me. I had been to Scarborough Zoo. He couldn’t pull the


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wool over my eyes. ‘No it isn’t. Monkeys have little, hairy fists. Yours is much too big and red.’ By now, the whole pub was in uproar. My dad came over at last with my lemonade, spilling some as he shook with laughter. The Captain slowly opened his fist. Lying in his palm was a small bundle of string, tightly knotted into an intricate ball with two long tails dangling over the edge of his hand. ‘This ‘ere little knot,’ he explained, ‘ ‘as been used by seafarers since the ancient Phoenicians. It’s saved more sailors’ lives than any other knot known to man. A rope with one o’ these weighting the end will reach a drowning mariner when other ropes fall short. Also,’ he added with a twinkle in his eye, ‘it’s a knot that’s settled many a fight over ladies from Whitby to Wellington - and saved many a key from being lost forever.’ I blushed as he took my hand and dropped the bundle into my palm. The knot was surprisingly heavy, as though it enclosed something metal within its tightly packed coils. ‘And now, it’s your lucky monkey’s fist. But don’t ye go tellin’ the other lads, or they’ll all be wantin’ one. It’s not every little sprat gets to own one of Captain Bob’s special monkey’s fists.’ I spent the rest of that first lunchtime on the settle in the Seine Purse reverently fingering Captain Bob’s lucky charm and becoming more and more intoxicated as the sea stories flowed from his bewhiskered lips. For my dad, the beer-fuelled conversation with the Whitby trawlermen leaning on the bar had much the same effect. By the time we wandered back to our guest house in the late afternoon sun, both of us were wobbling unsteadily on the uneven cobblestones of the harbour.

After that first visit, we developed an unspoken compact, dad and me. He had missed his regular pub visits and his beer-drinking mates since mum’s death from a letter of the alphabet (it was years before I discovered what the big ‘C’ really meant). And I had missed having someone to talk to who understood things: dad always seemed threatened by difficult questions. So we spent most of that first holiday without mum frequenting The Seine Purse. Dad had done some fishing in his youth in the old coble boats off Filey slip, so he soon found soulmates among the trawler crews who populated the pub whenever


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storms kept the fleet in harbour. Me, I made a beeline for the settle, to perch on the knee of Captain Bob. I wasn’t bothered to discover that he’d never touched a fish finger in his life; the tales he told were ample compensation. I’d sit there drinking in the scents of beer, tobacco, fish and turpentine, transfixed by tales of cod fishing on the Newfoundland Banks or long-lining for tuna in the Bay of Biscay. My life at junior school was barely this side of hell, but my education from the tobacco-stained lips of Captain Bob was heaven itself. As the pints flowed and his glass refilled, the stories rose in tenor until I almost fainted. I don’t recall myself, but my dad later described how he had to drag me kicking and screaming from The Seine Purse that last night of our holiday, before we took the train back to the damp greyness of Doncaster. I think that was when I first suspected that happiness always had a price. For him, it was working a machine press eight hours each day until his eyes glazed over. For me, sitting in class making plasticine battleships or wallpaper schooners and dreaming only of nights at sea under a blaze of constellations. Dad got all the holiday brochures next March, like Mum always did. But without her, none of the usual places seemed to have much appeal. I suppose we both knew where we’d wind up in the end. I felt such a sense of relief I cried buckets that first night back in The Seine Purse. Captain Bob was worried he had upset me, until dad told him it was just a dam bursting. Captain Bob fixed me sagely with those seablue eyes. ‘Ye can’t hold it back, little sprat. Water will always find a level.’ He lifted me up onto the settle until the sobs subsided. Then, he drained his beer glass and began. ‘Can ye imagine,’ he said in that low, conspiratorial voice he seemed to reserve just for me, ‘how brave them sailors of ancient times must have been? To sail through the Pillars of Hercules into unknown waters where mysterious monsters lurked. To journey beyond the limits of the known world, knowing that at any moment they might sail off the edge?’ My tears were quickly forgotten as Captain Bob navigated me once more into the thrill of unfamiliar waters. That second Summer in Whitby, I learned how the Phoenicians traded in their stout ships the length and breadth of the Mediterranean Sea half a millennium before Rome was founded; how Viking longships journeyed boldly across the globe when some still held it to be flat, and how the Polynesians navi-


41

gated their frail proas across vast oceans using only the waves and stars for guidance. Captain Bob taught me knots to secure an anchor in a howling storm or reef the topsails on a tea clipper. He showed me how to make mats out of coils of rope that would last a lifetime. Each night, dad and I would roll back to our guest house, drunk with beer and exhilaration respectively. We didn’t know it yet, but we had both found a new focus that kept us going against all the odds. As the Summers rolled by, we came to live for our annual Whitby fortnights. Dad never seemed more at ease than in the company of his fishermen friends - he’d always struck me as more comfortable with people his own age. So it came as no surprise when he sat me down at the kitchen table the day after the mass redundancies at the castings factory and asked me how I’d fancy living by the seaside. It’s probably the only time I ever really hugged my father. The night, five weeks later, when we walked together back from The Seine Purse to our rented cottage overlooking the harbour was the happiest since my mother’s death. I didn’t know then that dad had used the redundancy money to purchase a part share in a trawler, the Bon Esprit, or that I’d be dividing my time in future between Mrs Fulton (who lived in the cottage next door and rented ours out) and Captain Bob while my dad fished the waters from Reykjavik to Skaggerak. Mrs Fulton was a fisherman’s widow, with a kindly face and always aproned, her forearms habitually dusted with flour. But she wasn’t mum. The Seine Purse was my true home whenever dad was away. So, by my teenage years, Captain Bob had become almost a second father to me. It hadn’t got any easier to talk to my dad, so it was with Captain Bob that I first broached carnal matters, and his experience with women from Adelaide to Zanzibar that informed my early fumblings. When, at fifteen, my teachers concluded that any further education would be pouring water into a bottomless bucket, it was Captain Bob who helped me into employment at the canning factory. And, the day fate drove another spike into my life, it was the Captain who taught me how love could refill even the emptiest of spaces. One savage November night, as I walked in the door of the Seine Purse, I was shocked by a row of silent faces. Captain Bob called me over to sit trembling at his side. There was a tenderness in his voice that alarmed me. He took my hand in his great, gnarled fist. He hadn’t done that for over five years. ‘Bad news, I’m afraid. You’re going to ‘ave to be strong.’


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I had never seen such pain in his eyes. He was clinging to my hand like a man drowning. He took a deep, agonised breath before continuing. ‘It’s the Bon Esprit. She snagged ‘er nets on the Dogger Bank. They couldn’t manage to cut ‘em free before the storm struck. The coastguard received a mayday and sent a helicopter to search.’ I knew from the aching silence in the bar what the next words would be. ‘The Bon Esprit went down before they got there. They pulled two men from the water. But your dad wasn’t one of them.’ I don’t recall much about the rest of that night. It was just a whirl of concerned faces and soft, worried voices that made me want to scream. I don’t even remember what I did during the next two days’ compassionate leave from the canning factory. Reality only seemed to kick back in at dawn on the third morning, when a stone pinged on my window and there was Captain Bob, whiskers dripping with fog, on the cobbles below. ‘Ye remember,’ he called up to me, ‘when I showed ‘e how to do the monkey’s fist?’ I stared down at him in confusion. Perhaps he had been on the beer already. ‘How ye take summat heavy,’ he continued, ‘and ye wrap it carefully in the coils of the knot?’ He tied an imaginary knot with his hands as I watched. ‘Four coils by four by four? And when ye pulls the knot tight, it’s safely locked up for ever?’ ‘Yes.’ I had no idea where the conversation was leading. ‘What do ye get once ye’ve finished?’

‘Captain Bob, I don’t mean to be rude, but …’ ‘I’ll tell ye what ye get,’ he interrupted, ‘ye get a lifeline. Now get yer coat on and come with me.’ He led me down through the damp, cobbled streets towards the harbour, his boots clattering in the early morning quiet. I had no idea where he was taking me, until we rounded a corner and stopped in front of the lifeboat station. The crew were all lined up, tea mugs in hand, leaning on the harbour wall awaiting our arrival. Captain Bob


43

had called them out specially. As I talked to those men who had risked their lives for my father and did the same thing dozens of times a year for others, the empty space inside me began to fill again. Three weeks later, with Mrs Fulton’s encouragement (her husband had been coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat), I signed up for the RNLI training course. I qualified just in time, because after Christmas orders slowed at the canning factory. There was talk of redundancies, so, when a full-time opportunity arose on the Bridlington lifeboat, I packed my few possessions and said goodbye to Mrs Fulton, Whitby and all those memories both happy and sad. Captain Bob’s eyes were misty as he took my hand and announced prophetically that I’d always find a safe haven on the settle in The Seine Purse. But time betrays even the best of intentions. Captain Bob and The Seine Purse were gradually elbowed from memory by my new life on the Bridlington lifeboat, then in Great Yarmouth, where I transferred two years later. I met, wooed and married a Suffolk girl with sea-blue eyes and hair the colour of ripe barley. We settled in a houseboat on the Yare and, when our son arrived, I took a safer job selling agricultural and marine supplies. Our daughter arrived two years later, by which time I had completely forgotten the early lessons I had learned. That happiness always had a price. In a sense, I’ve lost most things I ever loved to the sea. As I listened to the reports on the car radio one November afternoon, I had the same feeling of foreboding as that dreadful night in The Seine Purse. Nearly two inches of rain and flood warnings on all the East Anglian rivers. By the time I neared Great Yarmouth the roads were impassable. The torrents were tearing houseboats from their moorings, carrying them downriver and out to sea into the teeth of the storm. There was no news until late that night, when a former lifeboat colleague rang. They had found the houseboat, overturned in the water. There was no-one aboard. They were still looking, he said, but we both knew that that was the lifeline you threw to relatives to stop them drowning in grief. But this time I knew there was no monkey’s fist on the end. I forgot the lessons Captain Bob had taught me. The empty spaces inside me filled with bitterness, not love. There was some random force trying to punish me at every turn. So I simply decided to do the job myself. It’s hard for me now to look back on those ten wasted years of self abuse: alcohol, drugs, debauchery - any kind of excess so long as it pushed me along the path to destruction. It left me, at forty-five, looking nearer sixty.


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Pure chance brought me back to Whitby. Mrs Fulton had died childless at 89 and bequeathed me her brace of cottages. It felt strange travelling back after an absence of over twenty-five years. There were fewer fishing boats in the harbour and more cheap tourist cafes than I remembered, but otherwise little had changed. I had intended to brief estate agents immediately, but the familiar sights and smells stirred memories that I realised I had repressed for years. I simply hadn’t wanted to remember what it felt like to belong somewhere. The cottage was just as she’d left it, even down to Mrs Fulton’s prized collection of mixing bowls and her blue marble rolling pin with the handles worn to the texture of driftwood. For a moment, I could swear I caught the smell of baking. She had left me her husband’s clothes too, all neatly folded up in an old seaman’s chest in the hall. They were not a bad fit - smelt a bit of mothballs, but there were more years of use left in them than the threadbare rags I had travelled up in. I pulled on a pair of the old man’s trousers and a blue serge jacket with horn buttons that he must have kept for best. It had started to drizzle by the time I left the cottage, so I grabbed the old man’s Breton cap from the peg where Mrs Fulton had enshrined it for over fifty years and pulled it over my greasy tangle of long white hair. There was one final ghost I had to lay. I pushed open the door of The Seine Purse with a sense of trepidation. It seemed cleaner, more antiseptic than I recalled. Its rough flagstones were replaced by carpeted floors, but the character of the place was mercifully unchanged. The old settle was still there. I walked over to inspect the small brass plate screwed to the back. ‘The Captain’s Seat - in memory of Captain Bob Gurnard 1922-2006’. So I had missed him by barely a year. ‘Right old character, he was.’

I turned round to see the landlord polishing a glass, watching me. ‘Yes,’ I smiled. ‘A real old salt. Not many of his ilk around today.’ ‘Course, he’d never been closer to the sea than the canning factory. Sick as a dog even in the bathtub, he was.’ I stared at him in anger and surprise.


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‘No. Surely you’re mistaken. He had such a wonderful fund of stories. And all that - ’ I struggled to find the word ‘ - wisdom.’ ‘Sure, he could tell ’em better than anybody. Got it all off the internet, you know. But I’m told he never had to buy a single pint in here the best part of forty years. A sad loss. He was just grand for business.’ I gently fingered the worn edges of the settle as I remembered how many of life’s lessons I had learned there at the side of Captain Bob and how quickly I had forgotten them.

‘Anyway,’ said the landlord, interrupting my thoughts, ‘you rather look the part yourself. The job’s vacant - if you want it.’

So there ye be. That’s how I comes to be here on the settle at the Seine Purse, regaling all comers with tales of storm and shipwreck, love and sacrifice. Ye did ask, after all. Captain Henry Huss at your service. Now, maybe ye’ll be kind enough to get the next pint in while your little sprat ‘ere tries to guess what I’ve got in me ‘and …


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The Selkie ‘

Dinna fret. Young Murray canna

drown - he’s a selkie.’ Sarah wasn’t greatly reassured by Mrs Flett’s words or by the touch of her mittened hand on her arm. Her son Murray was splashing about excitedly in the rockpools, only feet away from the surf rolling onto the skerries, from where the curious seal pups were studying his antics. From their vantage point on the low cliff he looked so slight and vulnerable. ‘But he’s only six, Mrs Flett, and he has no sense of danger.’ Sarah was beginning to regret her candour following her and Murray’s arrival the previous evening, exhausted by the long flight to Kirkwall and the queasy boat trip out to the island. Once Murray had been safely tucked up to dream of the next fortnight’s adventures, a few reviving glasses of single malt from Mrs Flett’s husband Angus and the smoky heat of the open peat fire in the bothy had freed Sarah’s tongue. It had been a long time since she was so open with strangers. ‘Aye, I knew it the moment ye told me the bairn was born with a caul over his head,’ Mrs Flett continued. Her huge, brown eyes seemed to overflow with compassion as she studied Sarah’s worried face. ‘Even today, there’s Orkney fishermen will gi’ a muckle for the guid luck a newborn caul brings.’ Sarah dimly recalled Mrs Flett’s eager account - amidst an alcoholic haze - of the legend of the selkies, seal folk who could briefly assume human form on land but must return in time to their native element. Angus, discovering Sarah was a musician, had even brought out a battered old squeezebox and sat by the fireplace rehearsing an impressive repertoire of selkie ballads while the keen Atlantic winds rattled the bothy windows. Sarah had slipped gratefully into sleep and woken in the morning next to the embers, cocooned with Mrs Flett’s kindness and thick woollen blankets.


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‘Well, I hope it brings him better luck than his father brought me,’ Sarah sighed, craning her neck as Murray hurtled into another rockpool. ‘Ye said ye met in Kirkwall?’ ‘Yes. At the St Magnus festival. I was performing at a fringe event and he was in the audience. Every time I looked up all I saw was these enormous, hypnotic eyes, full of … yearning. Afterwards, we got talking and … one thing led to another. Over the next five days we became inseparable.’ ‘And?’ Sarah gulped. She wasn’t used to such direct questioning. She drew her shawl tighter round her shoulders, twisting the fringe between her fingers. ‘The night before I was due to fly back, just when I thought I had found the relationship of my life, he simply disappeared. No note; no phone call. Nothing.’ ‘Did ye ever hear from him again? ‘No.’ Mrs Flett shook her head and tutted softly.

‘Ye must have felt so sair.’ ‘I was devastated; but once I realised I was just a passing amusement, I was so angry I could hardly think. Then I discovered I was pregnant.’ Their gaze turned instinctively to Murray, who was teasing a crab with a frond of seaweed. ‘Och, that must have been hard. With ye a single woman an‛ all.’ Mrs Flett’s expression was so kindly it made Sarah want to scream. If only she knew just how hard it had really been, she’d be shocked right out of her cosy benevolence. Hard, indeed, didn’t even come close. She recalled the weeks of misery, agonising over whether to have a termination. Even today, if she were honest with herself, she sometimes questioned if she had made the right decision. No matter how much she loved her son, she couldn’t escape the feeling at times that


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she punished Murray for the sins of his father. ‘Even though I’ve had seven years to heal, sometimes when I look at Murray I see his father’s eyes.’ Her finger ends, twisted tight in the fringe of her shawl, had gone white. ‘Can you believe, Mrs Flett, that love and hate could be so strongly intermingled?’ Sarah drew her knees up under her chin and hugged them to stop herself shivering. A cold wind seemed to have come from nowhere. ‘Please, call me Murron,’ Mrs Flett patted Sarah gently on the arm again with her mittened hand. ‘And remember, ye’ve no come back to greet over old times. There’s nae peace in that.’ The tears were starting to prickle as Mrs Flett - Murron - stood up and helped her to her feet. Murray was rushing up the path from the shore to display his latest find. ‘Dinna fuss. It’s nae matter,’ Murron insisted. ‘I’ll ask Angus to take Murray out fishing tomorrow. D’ye reckon he’d like that?’ Murray’s keen ears had picked up the suggestion already, and Sarah soon realised that objections would be useless. Besides, apart from a ruined mediaeval chapel and a few standing stones, there was little else to see on the island. Which, after all, was why she had chosen to holiday there, to the astonishment of most of her friends. Why they thought you needed bright lights and false bonhomie to have a good time, she couldn’t imagine. As they walked from the cliffs along the stony path back to their bothy, Murray slipped his clammy hands into theirs, skipping to keep up. He was in that ‘everything in the world is perfect’ mood that always made her want to slap him.

Next day, Angus and Murron were waiting on the beach below the bothy as the sun rose. Sarah opened the door, inhaling the sharp, refreshing tang of kelp and damp heather on the cold morning air, but Murray just pushed past her excitedly. His eyes lit up when he saw the traditional Orkney yole drawn up on the shore, its lines reminiscent of a Viking longboat and tan sails a’flutter in the early morning breeze. Murron helped him roll up his trouser legs to clamber into the boat and leaned on the prow to ease her off the shingle. ‘I’ve packed lunch for ye and Angus,’ she said as she ruffled the youngster’s hair.


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‘Be sure tae bring us back a guid, fat lobster, all reet?’ Sarah watched anxiously as Angus hauled in the sails, which crackled into life as the wind filled them. Soon, the yole was little more than a speck against the smudge of the distant mainland and Murray’s hand had long since tired of waving. She listened for a few minutes more to the wild music of the fulmars and guillemots, also heading out for a day’s fishing, before heading back to the bothy. Murron was considerate enough to understand her need for space, so she spent the day working on the new and very challenging guitar composition she was due to perform at the Wigmore Hall on their return to London. She had never felt the need to eat when wrestling with challenges, so the hours passed without even a hint of hunger pangs. It was only when the light began to fade that she checked her watch. She was alarmed to discover that it was already past nine o’clock in the evening. With the long summer days in Orkney, it was easy to lose track of time. She replaced the guitar in its case and hurried down to the headland where the lighthouse stood. It was the best vantage point, from where, on a good day, one could scan the whole sea horizon from the Pentland Firth to North Ronaldsay. She stationed herself on the cliff overlooking the skerries, where the seals, already ashore for the night, were bleating softly. But by the time the sun started to sink behind the West Mainland, not even a speck of sail had appeared on the horizon. Murron was standing in the doorway of the Fletts’ cottage, which nestled in a hollow behind the lighthouse, when Sarah finally abandoned her lookout on the cliff edge. ‘Isn’t it rather late,’ Sarah panted, ‘for them to be getting back?’ ‘Angus kens the waters,’ shrugged Murron. ‘Fished them all his life.’ She invited Sarah in and brewed her a reassuring cup of tea. They sat either side of an ancient, cylindrical peat-burning stove, on top of which a kettle, blackened with age, steamed constantly. The cottage reeked of ancient lobster creels, damp wool and peat smoke. In other circumstances, the cocktail of odours might have been nostalgic, or even comforting. Tonight, Sarah found them oppressive. She sipped at the tea, but her throat was too tight to swallow. After a while, Murron realised that conversation wasn’t helping, so they sat in silence in the gathering darkness. When the lighthouse started up, the unexpected sweep of light through the window made Sarah start. For a second, she had the ridiculous idea that a police car had


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drawn up outside the cottage, blue light flashing. The pulse of light swept through the room, illuminating their faces in turn. Sarah could see that Murron, earlier unconcerned, was now equally troubled. Murron lit an oil lamp and placed it on a low table between them, but its soft glow did little to dilute the gloom in the cottage. Though she tried to sound comforting, there was a clear undertone of anxiety in her voice. ‘I’ll just do a wee check on the VHF next door.’ She left Sarah in the pool of lamplight and the sound of her heels on the flagstones echoed down the corridor. After a few moments, Sarah heard the crackle of static, followed by the muffled sound of Murron’s voice. The only words of the reply she could make out were ‘Kirkwall Coastguard’; the rest was in such a strong accent as to be unintelligible. But the look on Murron’s face when she returned told all. ‘They found a yole capsized off Shapinsay. They think it may have been the wash from a tanker.’ Sarah leapt from her seat, nearly knocking over the oil lamp. The mug she had been cradling for over an hour slopped most of its contents onto the flagstones. ‘And what about Murray?’ ‘Nae word of Murray - or Angus.’ Murron sat down heavily and looked up at her, the misery in her face evident even in the dim lamplight. ‘But at least the bairn will be safe.’ Sarah stared at her in amazement, which quickly turned to anger as she realised what Murron meant. The flame of the lamp trembled as she slammed her mug down on the low table.

‘Don’t you dare offer me your stupid bloody superstitions! That won’t bring Murray safely back to me.’ She immediately regretted her outburst as Murron unleashed those sorrowful brown eyes on her. But, in spite of herself, the other’s doleful expression, credulous nature and little mannerisms - even the way she always wore mittens, indoors as well as out - were beginning to grate on Sarah’s frayed nerves. ‘Maybe so. But I dinna have even that comfort wi‘ my Angus.’


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Murron mopped up the spilt tea and they sat in silence again, the strobe of the lighthouse revealing their faces alternately like some grotesque theatre of pain. The smell of the lamp oil, mingling with the other stenches of bothy life, made Sarah increasingly queasy as the hours passed. Murron simply stared at the flickering wick of the lamp, the light dancing in her pupils, as if the flame held some secret that devout attention would reveal. The darkness was just starting to thin when the radio crackled into life again. Murron leapt to answer the call. When she returned, Sarah was already on her feet, scarcely able to breathe. Murron took her gently by the shoulders. ‘Guid news. They found the bairn washed ashore on Stronsay. He’s alive.’ Sarah could hold back the tears no longer. But Murron’s grip tightened as she began to slump in relief. ‘Thair’s more. They say a seal carried him ashore. An adult male. A couple on Stronsay watched it in the moonlight. I told ye he was a selkie.’ Sarah realised her fears for her son had made her selfish. ‘So, if that’s true, then your Angus may be safe as well?’ Sarah saw the pain brimming in Murron’s eyes as she shook her head. ‘But Murron, how can you be so sure?’ Murron released her grip on Sarah’s shoulders and tugged at her mittens. Sarah watched in fascination as she slowly drew the rough wool over her short, stubby fingers. For a few seconds they were both in darkness, until the beam of the lighthouse swung again onto Murron’s outstretched hands. Sarah gasped. Murron had spread her fingers. Between them, briefly spotlit in the beam, stretched an extraordinary web of translucent membranes. Sarah looked into Murron’s eyes, huge, brown and now filled with tears. As she gazed into them, a dam burst deep inside her and a seven year old memory flooded irresistibly back. The agony was over. Now, at last, she understood.


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Sacred Mountain

H

e was utterly alone. The priests had gone, chanting as they went, leading the procession of torches down through the snow on the long descent back to the valley. They had left him to the darkness. He knew that no-one was allowed to look back, on pain of death. For Inti, the sun disk, would soon be rising over the lands far to the east, where the nameless peoples of the Antisuyo lived under the shadow of Sacred Mountain. Anyone struck by the first rays would be doomed to go with him. The priests had struck him on the head, like they had the others. But they had not killed him. They had bound him in linen cloths, according to the ritual, but they had failed to take away the power of his senses. Perhaps it would have been a mercy if they had. His eyes had cleared now, although the pain still throbbed in the back of his head. In the half-light, he could see the mists lying down in the valley which had been home and comfort during his nine brief years of life. Beyond the valley stood the other peaks that formed the body of the Serpent of the Gods, just as Sacred Mountain was its head. Night had washed them clear of colours, and they were no more than a row of shadows that deepened into nothingness. It was too early for birdsong. Even the condors were still roosting, their cries yet to echo to the valley floor four miles below. Either the procession had stopped chanting, or was now too far away for him to hear. The occasional clack of an insect’s wings and the pounding in his own blood were the only sounds of life on the Mountain. He struggled to free more of the bandages from around his face. As they slipped over his chin, he gulped thirstily at the night air. There was little nourishment in it at this altitude, so it was several minutes before his breathing steadied and his heart slowed. His mouth was dry and the bitter taste of coca leaf hung on his tongue from where they had anointed his lips. He tried to moisten them to take away the taste, but it only made things worse.


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He wondered if the Gods still took you if you weren’t sleeping the Sleep of Expiation. Perhaps, he reflected with a shiver, they punished you by inflicting even worse on you than the priests. Or maybe they spared you and took the others. He wriggled again to free more of the bandages round his head and winced as they rubbed on the spot where the chief priest of the Coricancha had hit him. The rush of cold air over his neck and cheeks made his skin tighten and the hairs prickle inside his ears. He would shout and move his head. Yes, his arms, too, if he could only free them. As the sun disk chased the darkness back into the sea, surely the Gods would see him and forgive him for breaking the Sleep.

He struggled into a sitting position, his chest heaving inside the tight bandages. He could not see the others, but he knew they were there. The anointing could not keep the smells of sweat and death from invading his nostrils. He gagged, but they had made him fast for the Sleep of Expiation, so nothing came. After a few minutes, his stomach settled. He raised his chin to free his chest as much as possible, took the biggest gulp of air he could manage and shouted, louder than he had ever done. Again and again, the sound echoed from peak to peak. It poured into the valleys beyond the mist. It seemed to batter the gates of the sky itself, where the Gods lived. Surely they would hear him. As he watched and waited, he saw the first edge of the curtain of night begin to lift. A rim of orange spread and widened at the edge of the world. Soon, night was drawing back faster and faster on its rush to the sea. By now, his throat was sore from shouting. Inti, the sun disk, was coming. He closed his eyes as he felt the fatal touch of the first rays on his forehead, his mouth, his chin. In spite of the bandages, the cold was seeping through his skin and settling in his bones. His heartbeat was slowing as his blood thickened; his breathing growing more laboured with each breath. It was now or never. As he opened his eyes, the light flooded his brain. He saw that Inti had woken and was repossessing all the land from Sacred Mountain down to the sea. With the last of his energy, he raised his head and let out a whoop of joy. The priests were wrong. The Gods did not hate them. The sacrifice did not always have to be paid in blood.

He was alive.


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Nightfall in Usungwe J

‘ eg elsker dig.’ I watch his face for a reaction. Nothing. ‘Do you understand Danish?’ He looks at me, blue-grey eyes quizzical suspicious even. I edge my chair a little closer to his, so our thighs almost touch under the table. The silence lengthens and I see he’s not going to ask. He studies the shadows dissolving across the veranda as the sun slides behind the obeche trees. I wait until his eyes find my face again. ‘It means: I love you.’ He switches his attention to the glass cupped in his hands. They appear to shake as he lifts it to his lips, draining the last of the palm wine. He’s had three glasses to my one, yet it’s my head that seems to be ringing. As he replaces his glass on the table, I notice it’s a few inches further away from mine. ‘Did Jantzen teach you that?’ His mention of my father’s name starts a clock ticking in my head. I’ve scolded Abosede, our Yoruba housemaid, for disturbing us. So I know she’ll seize her chance to spite me the moment Jantzen returns with the car. ‘He taught me the words, but I had still to discover the meaning.’

He stares into the gathering dusk again, as if transfixed by the clicking chorus of the platanna frogs. The Tilley lamp paints his face in sharp relief and I notice the firm line of his chin and a patch of down the razor missed. His typical English reserve makes my skin tingle. ‘If it wasn’t for Jantzen,’ I continue, ‘there are so many things I would never have learned about the world.’ ‘Did he …’ he hesitates. ‘Did you come with him from Denmark?’


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‘No. We’ve always lived here, as long as I can remember.’ ‘And your mother?’ It’s a question I’m used to, but it still stings every time I hear it. ‘I never knew her. She died giving birth to me.’ I remember the faded black & white photo my father gave me as soon as I was old enough to understand. It would have hurt him so much to know I burned it. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I’m not. The look on his face makes me smile. At least I have his attention now. ‘Not sorry at all,’ I continue. ‘But for that, I’d never have had the life I have with my father. And I’d never have met you.’ My face is turned full to him now. We’re so close our shadows merge on the table. I part my lips in readiness just as Abosede flounces onto the veranda. ‘Massah Henning is here with car to take young massah back to Okene.’ He leaps up from the table, rather too eagerly. Abosede stands, hands on hips, a look of triumph on her face, for which she will pay dearly later. Night has already fallen as I walk out to the car with him. My father opens the passenger door, a shaft of light bathing the driveway. On impulse I slide in first, wedged between them on the front bench seat. He is trapped against the door now. I can feel the warmth of his thigh pressed firmly against mine. As the car winds down the long hill onto the Okene road, his breath seems to be getting shorter. I think he steals a glance at my breasts, but as I try to meet his eyes he turns to stare at the paraffin glow of the roadside shops. It seems just moments later that we’re pulling into Okene G.S. School compound. A light flickers outside the bungalow he shares with a pompous American Peace Corps volunteer. His houseboy is brushing the flying ants from the porch as we arrive. A few mumbled words of thanks to my father and he shoots from the car into


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the bungalow. He doesn’t look back at me, but I can see he’s walking rather awkwardly That night, after I’ve slapped Abosede, I go straight to my bedroom. It’s the palm wine, I tell my father. I slip into my nightdress and for a long time I stand in front of the mirror. My hand traces the curve of my cheek, the smooth skin of my neck and down across the youthful swell of my breasts. I do what I have done so many times and make myself too angry to cry. Then I mouth at the mirror as if it alone understands: ‘Inside, I am oyubo - I am white.’


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A Dish for Ophelia

I

t was the morning I spent practising on a turkey’s arse that finally did it. Or ass, as they call it in these parts. A pork hock I could handle; even a Florida grapefruit. But needling my way across the backside of an oversized guinea fowl from Trader Joe’s was the final indignity. It was Ophelia’s idea of course. One of the many little slights he’s inflicted in the fifteen months I’ve worked at Henning’s Body Art. Ophelia a he? Well, everyone’s big on nicknames at Henning’s. All the tattooists have one, rather like the tags of graffiti artists. On the rare occasions Ophelia gives the OK, you can even use it on your own designs. So, there’s Damien, the former priest from San Diego who unwisely propositioned a lady reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle in the confessional of the church of the Salesian fathers at 666 Filbert Street. There’s Haight, our grey-bearded hippy throwback who wears patchouli and hums Joni Mitchell songs while he works. There’s Popeye, our former deckhand on the Red & White fleet with forearms as thick as a yakuza’s thighs. And there’s me, Duchess, a drop out from Slade Fine Arts College (oh, all right, a throw out) with an Essex accent that sounds posh to the ears of most Bay area residents. Oh yes, and there’s Ophelia. Henning Petersen, Denmark’s answer to Oscar Wilde, who, according to legend, arrived on the West Coast in the late 80s declaring nothing but his genius as a tattoomeister. As the first body artist to set up on Pier 39, he quickly became fashionable among the punk and thrash metal devotees of the day, then later with the Palo Alto crowd. ‘Who’s Ophelia?’ I had innocently asked on my second day at Hennings Body Art. I was brush scrubbing used needles before placing them in the autoclave. Haight’s ears were filled with Joni Mitchell from his iPod as he copied a red koi carp onto the shoulder of a waiter from the Dragon Well restaurant. I stopped scrubbing and repeated the question, louder this time.


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‘Who’s Ophelia?’ Damien spun round, the grip still buzzing in his hand. He was halfway through a grim reaper on the thigh of a green-haired punk. She was leering at him from under her eyebrow studs. He didn’t seem to be enjoying his work. ‘Shhh.’ He brought his index finger up to his lips, almost engraving his right nostril in the process. He pointed to the cash till, where Henning Petersen was swiping a credit card for a leggy blonde with Botox lips. ‘Why Ophelia?’ I whispered. ‘It was Haight’s idea. I suggested Hamlet. More like Ophelia, Haight said - he’d be happier in the dress. Popeye over there -’ he gestured to the back of the salon, where Popeye was filling in time between appointments over an issue of Monster Truck Magazine ‘- wanted Joan of Arc.’ ‘Joan of Arc?’ ‘All burned out over a pile of faggots.’ I burst out laughing. Ophelia shot me a hostile glance from the till before turning his professional smile back on the blonde. It was the third time I’d experienced that look in barely ten hours of working in the salon. I’d made the mistake on the first day of divulging my almost completed fine arts course at the Slade, which was greeted with a snort. Then, when he proudly showed me the design books, I’d timidly enquired how often new designs were introduced. He snapped the book shut with a bang. ‘That, my child, will not concern you for at least two years. Maybe never.’ My child my ass, I thought. I was 26 and had rebelled against plaits as early as eleven. Practically everything else since then. ‘But Damien and Haight have designs in the book. And you have dozens.’ A sharp intake of breath, as if I’d asked for a pay rise already.


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‘That, as you will learn, is because I am an artist. You will find me on Gillian Anderson’s ankle. On Jennifer Aniston’s stomach. On Angelina Jolie’s ….’ he hesitated. ‘Ass?’ ‘Don’t ever,’ he shuddered, ‘use such vulgar expressions in Henning’s Body Art. This -’ he pointed at his tightly-trousered rear ‘- is lower back. This -’ he indicated his groin ‘- is inner thigh.’ ‘So,’ I bridled, ‘I guess you don’t do a big line in penis tattoos for the porn movie trade?’ Ophelia had marked me down as a troublemaker from that day onwards. Swabbing down the salon, scrubbing needles, cleaning out the autoclaves - any dirty job invariably had my name on it ‘as long as you’re sure that’s not beneath you, Duchess’. When the sea lions returned in late summer to haul out on the pontoons below the salon, it was in my direction that Ophelia waved his grip to shut the windows every time the smell grew too pungent. It was almost nine months before he let me loose on a real customer. Nine months of practising on citrus fruit, various dismembered portions of farm animals and fake skin patches. But for the visa problems it would have caused (and the cash I’d have lost), I’d have walked out after the first month. Popeye said it had taken him six and that was only because he had laughed at a pumped-up body freak from Venice Beach who insisted on a design of a python wrapping itself round his thigh and disappearing up his backside. My first victim had chosen one of Henning’s own designs, a macabre death’s head with wording of the victim’s choice. He was a pale, rather weedy youth wearing a yarmulke, who flinched every time the needle touched his acned back. It took me nearly an hour just to complete the death’s head. Ophelia checked to make sure I had been faithful to his precious design then left me to finish off. I was just about to apply the dressing to the finished tattoo when Haight tapped me on the arm. He was halfway through an Aries and Leo love heart on a sailor from the USS Carl Vinson. My nose told me he’d been heavy with the patchouli that morning.

‘Hey, Duchess. Who checked that?’ he whispered. ‘Ophelia.’


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He switched off his needle and took me aside. ‘What, the lettering too?’ ‘No, but Ophelia’s the one who gave it me. Didn’t even trust me to choose the typeface.’ Haight shook his head, his long grey locks swaying under the headband. ‘That’s so uncool. Didn’t anyone tell you?’ ‘Tell me what?’ ‘Ophelia’s mildly dyslexic. Won’t ever admit it, of course. Sometimes I even wonder if he doesn’t see it as a little test. His way of keeping everyone on their toes. You gotta double check everything.’

I looked at my victim, his back still glistening with the multi-coloured inks. ‘But what does MINODRT mean then?’ I whispered. ‘I assumed it was some disaster response team. Although I suppose he does look a bit weedy for that.’ Haight scratched his head. His face brightened with realisation before clouding again. ‘Of course. Mindrot. They were a Californian heavy metal band. Split up in the late 1990s. One of their tracks has just been revived for that vodka TV ad, so they’re having a bit of a renaissance in the Bay area.’ I should have confronted the problem right there, but I didn’t. The dressing went on in seconds and mister yarmulke was relieved of his $150 and out the door in minutes. You should keep the dressing on as long as you can, I fibbed. Don’t soak or submerse for a week. Sunlight is a no-no for at least ten days. And don’t, I prayed silently, show it off to friends before I get my meagre trainee’s pay check next Friday. Which, of course, he did. I’m going to remember Damien, Haight and Popeye in my will if I ever live long enough to make one. It’s only because they all threatened to walk out in solidarity


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that Ophelia didn’t fire me. Like me, they suspected there was more to it than a simple mistake. Oh, and I suppose the $2,500 I’d laid out for my so-called apprenticeship weighed in the balance somewhat. But it still didn’t stop him from relegating me the following morning to embroidering a Tweety Pie on a turkey’s backside. They say revenge is a dish best served cold, but it’s not just a cliché - it’s simply wrong. Revenge is best when you devise your own recipe; select the ingredients with painstaking thoroughness; prepare the repast with infinite care and serve it up to your unsuspecting victim in its most fiery, throat-burning intensity. It was another month before Ophelia unleashed me on human subjects again. After a few barbed wire anklets and zodiac symbol wristlets I was even allowed to graduate to ‘lower backs’, though Ophelia still wouldn’t let me anywhere near ‘inner thighs’. I began to garner compliments, and that ultimate measure of Bay area customer satisfaction - big tips.

By the end of that first year even Ophelia had come to realise what should have been obvious at the outset. Since he had grudgingly agreed to give me a separate, screened-off work area, revenue from female clients had quadrupled. Unsurprisingly, women who hadn’t wanted to entrust their body canvases to a male artist were flocking to me. I even began to make something of a speciality of ‘inner thighs’. My better understanding of the dynamics of the female body (plus a few things that had rubbed off on me at the Slade) gave me an advantage when it came to customised tattoos. A few of my designs (much to Ophelia’s chagrin) even forced their way into the design book at the insistence of satisfied customers. But the dish was still simmering. It was Haight, a few days after New Year, who decided me to serve it up in all its piquant glory. The salon was quiet as death after the holidays. Ophelia was still down in Carmel with his latest boyfriend, a male belly dancer from the Kan Zaman Lebanese restaurant. Haight was grabbing the chance to catch up on his reading, his nose buried in the January issue of Tattoo Magazine. ‘Jesus Christ; look at this!’ he exclaimed. Damien glowered at him disapprovingly. ‘Sorry, Damien. Hey, mellow out. I just forgot you’re still into the Jesus thing.


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Look at this piece here.’ He turned the magazine round so we could all see. Popeye pulled his reading glasses furtively out of his top pocket. I knew he hated to admit his weakening eyesight. I tipped my cappuccino down the sink - it was my third that morning and I was only sipping it out of boredom while I watched the sea lions yawning down on the pontoons. We joined Haight on the sofa at the back of the salon as he spread the article on the coffee table.

HENNING WINS TOP AWARD FOR NEW DESIGN PORTFOLIO San Francisco tattoo supremo Henning Petersen scooped the top slot at last month’s Tattoo Magazine awards for his innovative portfolio of new designs. According to the judges, Henning’s salon on Pier 39 has established a leading edge reputation for its endeavors on behalf of female clients, a market segment other local salons have so far struggled to penetrate.

Henning’s past clients include celebrities such as Gillian Anderson, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, though more recently female clients had been thin on the ground until the launch of his new award-winning designs.

Alongside a photo of Ophelia, freshly bronzed from the sunbed, was a series of photos of the winning designs. Haight turned to look at me. ‘Hey, Duchess. This ain’t fair. He’s ripped off your designs.’ ‘Morally unacceptable,’ agreed Damien. Popeye squinted at the photos before tugging the spectacles off his nose. ‘Guy deserves a boot right up his faggoty-ass ‘lower back’.’ I walked back over to the window. A huge sea lion bull reared its head from the pontoon and glared back at me, its long whiskers twitching defiantly. The look reminded me of Ophelia. As I watched it belched noisily and slid into the oil-black waters of the harbour. It was time to serve the dish.


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Ophelia came back the following Monday, having had his fill of Lebanese sausage over the holidays. He shot a couple of nervous glances in my direction and the others urged me to tackle him about the designs, but I didn’t. I had other plans, and there was one final constituent I needed for my recipe. Work picked up by the second week of January, and I was taking up to ten bookings a day by the following month. Damien even proposed hiring a second female tattooist, but Ophelia waved the idea away. Popeye got a glare for suggesting that Ophelia take on some of my female bookings himself ‘since they won’t feel so threatened by you.’ We normally got to keep the tips from our regulars, but Ophelia made Popeye pool all his for the rest of that month. One morning in early March that final ingredient descended on the salon like thunder. It was a bracing spring morning, the air cold and crisp as Chardonnay. The fog had dispersed early under the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Bay was washed clean by the bright Pacific sunlight. Business was slow, most of our regular customers having headed south for a punk revival concert down in Big Sur. Haight was sweating over a motto in gurmukhi script on the bicep of a turbaned extra from Aladdin. The rest of us were sipping coffee on the staff sofa while Ophelia checked his profile in the reflection from the front window. The first sign of trouble was the sea lions leaping in panic into the water. Somewhere along the pier women screamed. The few early pedestrians checking out the chowder restaurants and gift shops were beginning to scatter. The salon windows started to rattle in their frames as the thunder built. It seemed to be rolling along the pier like a herd of demented bison. The sound grew to a crescendo as four huge Harley Davidsons screeched to a halt outside the door of Hennings Body Art. The whole salon thrummed in tune with the tickover of their engines. Ophelia looked pale as the riders alighted and switched off the machines. The sudden silence took one’s breath away. Ophelia was the first to move. He scuttled to the staff toilet, motioning Popeye to take charge. The door slammed shut behind him and the bolt clicked across. Popeye put down his coffee and ambled over to the till just as the riders barged through the door. I recalled having caught a few minutes of Xtreme Pro wrestling on cable TV one idle Saturday afternoon. No holds barred gladiatorial combat between mountains of


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oiled muscle. Well, this quartet looked as if they might have been barred for life for bad conduct. Popeye’s no ballet dancer himself, but even he was dwarfed by them. They were all dressed in the same uniform of studded, black motorcycle leathers, red and white bandanas and beards as thick as Brillo pads. One of them spoke to Popeye in a low voice while the defiant glare of the other three threatened to pin the rest of us to the sofa. Damien started to cross himself, but thought better of it. Haight’s eyes were shut; he seemed to be balancing his chakras. Me, I just glared back in spades. After a few minutes, the one who seemed to be the spokesman thrust a bundle of notes into Popeye’s hand and turned abruptly on his heel. After a final glower at us, the others followed him out the door. I joined Popeye at the till to watch as they gunned the Harleys into life. The whole salon shuddered once again as they roared back up the pier. Several pedestrians shook their fists as the leader swung back and pulled a wheelie outside Bubba Gump Shrimp Company before rejoining them. ‘Have they gone?’ Ophelia’s tremulous voice came through the toilet door. Popeye winked at me as he shouted to the back of the salon. ‘Not yet, Henning, they’ll be about another half hour.’ He chuckled at the sound of something being wedged under the door handle as we rejoined the others on the sofa. Popeye quietly related his conversation with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse while Ophelia cowered out of earshot. ‘They’re a breakaway from the Frisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Gotta bit too tame for their liking. Things sorta came to a head when the chapter had a policy debate over whether to pay fines for traffic violations. This bunch have now christened them the Pussies from Dogpatch.’ I giggled, but Popeye silenced me with a shake of his hand. ‘They all wanna back tattoo,’ he continued, ‘of a Jack Daniels label.’ Damien frowned.


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‘Jack Daniels? What on earth for?’ ‘That’s the name of their breakaway chapter. They wanna hell raising name and that’s the best they could come up with.’ ‘I’m not sure Jack Daniels will be very pleased with that,’ Damien observed. Popeye shrugged. ‘I dunno. This whaddya call it - viral marketing - seems to be all the rage these days.’ ‘Sounds cool to me,’ Haight interjected. ‘Southern Comfort was good enough for Janis Joplin.’ I was silent. The final ingredient had just slipped into the pan. A few stirs and it would be ready to serve. ‘Hey, guys,’ I leaned forward and whispered along the sofa, ‘how would you like to see Ophelia get his ass kicked so hard he’ll be picking his low cal granola out through his nose?’ Damien and Haight nodded. Popeye gave a thumbs up. ‘Gets my vote.’ Ophelia was still shaking when Popeye released him from the toilet half an hour later. No way, he said as he nervously checked the coast was clear, no way we’re taking business from persons of that nature. Popeye showed him the $500 deposit they’d made to secure a booking. Four tattooists, one per back and another $500 when they were finished. Probably tips as well. Ophelia was bending like a reed. Most importantly, Popeye continued, they’ve heard of your record of awards. They want you to design it. No-one else will do. It’ll be a mandatory tattoo for every member of their chapter as they get more recruits. On the jackets too. Your design and nobody else’s. Ophelia preened visibly. I’d never realised Popeye had such a persuasive tongue. Just one thing, Popeye hesitated beautifully, they don’t mind Duchess but they’re a little leery of people of, ahem, your particular persuasion. You do understand. So the rest of us would have to do the actual tattooing.


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Ophelia spent most of the next day working on the design while the rest of us tried hard to concentrate on the skins under our needles. Sketch after sketch was rejected as he crumpled the sheets of paper into the garbage. How bloody difficult can it be, I wondered, to design a tattoo that’s a copy of a whiskey label? I had just over a week to season the dish, but by the time our four horsemen thundered down Pier 39 again it was close to serving. Popeye had deliberately booked them in for the Saturday, the salon’s last appointment of the day (except for one, but more of that later). They carved their way through the early diners out for a pre-prandial stroll along the pier and growled to a halt outside the salon. Ophelia had had the delicacy to make himself scarce for an hour. He had, as usual, lavished his attention on the overall concept, leaving the mundane detail to us. Once the horsemen approved the general design with a communal grunt of satisfaction, the four of us set to work on their huge slabs of muscle. Our hell raisers were surprisingly chatty during the procedure. I supposed it was to show how they laughed in the face of pain. From their lurid accounts, I gathered they were used to inflicting a lot of it too. Damien finished first - he was always the quickest - then Popeye. Haight and I finished more or less together. At the agreed signal, we applied the dressings simultaneously to the finished tattoos. Keep them on exactly one hour, we said. Not a minute more or less. Check the skin then apply a thin layer of ointment. By the way, Henning’s honoured you chose him for the design. Insisted we follow it to the letter. Popeye collected the $500 at the till and another $100 for tips before the newlyemblazoned Jack Daniels Chapter roared back along Pier 39 to the Embarcadero and on into the sunset beginning to peek through the Golden Gate. We quickly gathered our coats and left through the front door of the salon, Popeye leaving the door on the latch for Ophelia as agreed. Fifteen minutes later we were gathered round a table at the Sky Box in North Point Street, a safe four blocks away from Pier 39. Haight was experiencing a Southern Comfort on the rocks; Damien sipping a glass of Cabernet Franc and Popeye glugging an Anchor Steam Beer. Me, I didn’t need anything. I was already high on anticipation. ‘So, Duchess, whaddya goin’ to do next?’ Popeye enquired, his upper lip rimmed with beer froth.


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I looked at the row of expectant faces. I hadn’t realised how much I was going to miss them until now.

‘Well, guys, you know the new health club they’re opening over at Lake Merced?’ ‘That women-only one that Madonna’s supposed to have a half share in?’ Damien asked. ‘It’s supposed to be very exclusive - over $5,000 a year.’ ‘Guess who’s the new resident body artist.’ Popeye gave me a hearty back slap. Haight followed with an affectionate punch to my shoulder. Damien squeezed my arm with, for him, unusual warmth. ‘Duchess, don’t you ever tell me again that there isn’t a God.’ Haight disappeared to the bar and came back with a bottle of Mumm Napa Reserve in an ice bucket and four glasses. The cork cannoned off the ceiling as he opened the bottle and poured. He slid three glasses along the table then raised his own in a toast. ‘To Duchess. May her needle stay forever sharp.’ ‘To Duchess.’ ‘And may we never give her cause for revenge,’ added Haight with a chuckle. It seemed only moments later there were three empty Mumm bottles lined up on the table. By the time we were halfway down the third, I was already feeling quite ethereal. Anything with bubbles always hit the spot for me. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes to go. ‘Do you think Ophelia suspects anything?’ I asked. ‘Notta chance,’ Popeye smiled. ‘In ten minutes he thinks Jennifer Aniston’s going to walk through the salon door for her private appointment with the tattoomeister.’ ‘So where do you reckon he’s been this afternoon while we were embroidering the four horsemen?’


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‘Probably at the tanning salon,’ Damien laughed. ‘Or having his teeth specially whitened for the occasion,’ offered Haight.

I took another sip of Mumm and settled back into my chair. It was now an hour and twenty minutes since we had left the salon. The dressings would have been removed at least half an hour ago. I imagined those four Harley Davidsons roaring down the pier any moment now. Four enraged mountains of muscle hurtling through the door of Hennings Body Art. Ophelia protesting in vain about his imminent VIP consultation. I fantasised what they might be doing - maybe at that precise moment - to Ophelia’s ‘lower back’ with the biggest monkey wrench in their collection. I raised my glass one final time. ‘Guys, here’s to the Jack Daniels Chapter of the Hell’s Angels.’ ‘The Jack Daniels Chapter.’ ‘And to the strength of their spirit.’ Heads turned in the bar as, glasses raised in unison, we chorused: ‘100 PER CENT POOF.’


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Great Expectorations

‘T

oby, darling! Do try to masturbate your food properly.’

It was one of those random intervals of silence you get in any busy restaurant and Lucretia’s hissed imperative echoed in every corner. Embarrassed titters were stifled at several tables. Even in the kitchen there was a raucous outburst of laughter, which ended in a sharp yelp of pain. ‘You must remember,’ she continued, lowering her voice to a thunderous whisper, ‘that you’re an Earl now,’ then added in a true whisper: ‘you hain’t a New Zealand sheep farmer. We have a certain station in society to maintain. People have expectorations of us.’ ‘But Luce …’ Toby protested. ‘How many times do I have to remind you,’ Lucretia shuddered, ‘don’t hever humidify me with that name. It sounds like a toilet. It certainly hain’t the name of a Countess.’ ‘But, L…’ he corrected himself just in time to avert the blow from her fork, ‘Lucretia, we didn’t ’ave to claim the toitle. We could’ve gone on farmin’ perfectly ’appily in South Canterbury. Oi miss it. England is so … tucked up boi comparison.’ ‘Oh be quiet,’ she snapped. ‘Just because your dope-addled brother refused the title, there’s no reason you should. You don’t hever get nothing in life without haspersions. Haspersions are the gelding on the lily of life.’ She dabbed the corner of her mouth with her napkin. Toby leant across the table, his weather-wizened face only inches from hers. ‘You can’t change what you are with a cupboardful of etiquette books,’ he spat. ‘In there,’ he jabbed a calloused finger at her chest, ‘you’re still Lucy Hewetson from Darfield. He was a split second too slow to avoid the descending fork. He rubbed his hand


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while she carefully polished the weapon with her napkin and replaced it on the table. ‘That’ll teach you not to mock them that perspires to self-improvement. Those books you sneer at hain’t just for decoration. They’re the suppositories of knowledge. Who knows,’ she sniffed, ‘they might even teach you to behave like an autistocrat. Toby mopped up his Béarnaise sauce with the remainder of his bread roll. Lucretia rolled her eyes to the heavens. ‘Toby, you are incorrugated. Totally incorrugated.’ She summoned the bill with such an imperious sweep of her arm that the people at the next table instinctively ducked. The waiter weaved his way across the restaurant and placed a tastefully embossed leather folder at her elbow. The bill was more than they’d got for their two prize ewes at the Waitaki Valley sheep auctions. But that was in another life. She tossed her platinum card on top with calculated insouciance and handed the folder to the waiter. ‘Does that include gratuitousness? ‘No, madam,’ the waiter winked at Toby. ‘That’s entirely excretionary.’


71

The Slopes of Mynydd Du

D

ilys Morgan had never felt so angry. Caddoc Pritchard was such a stubborn, self-righteous fool. Even his sheep had more intelligence. If she hadn’t stormed out of his farmhouse, she’d probably have throttled him. Her border collie Mabli, still sensing Dilys’ mood, padded at her heels, head lowered and ears flat, as they headed across the fields towards the steep slopes of Mynydd Du. Scattered groups of sheep eyed them suspiciously as they passed. She quickened her pace as they reached the end of the drystone wall marking the farm boundary. She couldn’t wait to put the mountain’s bulk between her and her pig-headed neighbour back at Pen y Banc farm. A dank early evening mist, tainted with the smell of sheep droppings and rotting kale, was gathering around her as she started to climb the flank of the mountain along the track that led to her own smallholding. Dilys thrust her hands deep into her pockets and lengthened her stride. She had six breeding border collies waiting to be fed. At least they didn’t bite the hand that stroked them. She imagined Caddoc still standing at his farm gate, lips pursed, belly out and hands on hips like a poor apology for Henry Tudor. I wonder, she thought, if there’s a single neuron lurking in his brain that would ever dare to suggest he might be wrong. She could almost feel those cornflower blue eyes still probing her back, querulous and defiant. That strong, firm-set chin challenging her every homeward step. But there was no way she was going to turn round to look. No way on earth. ◊ ‘I do wish you wouldn’t call him ‘twp’, Caddoc. Your Glyn’s not stupid - just a little

slower than other boys.’


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Caddoc gazed at his neighbour across his kitchen table. Dilys held her tea mug cradled in both hands, blowing across the top to cool the contents. A stray wisp of her long auburn hair fluttered with her breath and came to rest on her knuckles. Her grey-green eyes were bright as beryl. ‘That’s

not my name for him. It’s what they call him down the village. You know he’s not right in the head, Dilys. All the doctors said so.’ ‘But

lots of kids don’t have the best start in life. That’s no reason for them to stand at the back of the queue for ever, is it?’ Caddoc pursed his lips. He’d had this argument so many times with himself and he was tired of it. ‘School

nearly killed him. He still can’t go anywhere near a playground without a panic attack. But Glyn’s perfectly happy on the farm, see? He likes the animals and they seem to get along with him just fine. There’s no sense in torturing him just for the sake of filling his head with French verbs and quadratic equations and the like.’ ‘And

have you asked him?’

Caddoc looked out the kitchen window. Glyn was in the yard, stacking that afternoon’s delivery of sheep concentrate pellets in the feed store. He was carrying the bags in two at a time, one 20kg bag over each shoulder. At thirteen, he was as big and strong as any paid farm hand. He turned back to Dilys. She was still challenging him with her eyes. ‘Look,

Dilys - you breed collies. You know what it’s like when you get one that just can’t be trained. Terrified of sheep, or for ever chasing its own tail. May be all right for barking at tinkers, but no good for bringing the flock in at dipping time.’

Dilys shook her head. ‘Caddoc

Pritchard, you can be so unkind sometimes. He’s your own son and you compare him with a collie dog. You’ll be taking him down the vet next for his worming tablets.’ ‘No

fear,’ snorted Caddoc. ‘Not at the prices Moggie Mostyn charges.’

Dilys put down her tea mug and leaned across the kitchen table. Her full breasts rested on the roughened pine surface, straining against her thin sweater. Caddoc


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remembered how she had done that on her previous visit too. After she had left, the wood was still warm to the touch. ‘Look

Caddoc, be serious for a moment. There are special schools, you know. And before you say it, you can get grants to cover the cost. What opportunities is Glyn going to have if he can’t even read and write properly?’ Caddoc reflected bitterly on his own attempts at self improvement. Every Wednesday for ten months he had attended those evening classes on the cultural history of Europe. Ten months of mental slog just to please his schoolteacher wife Carys. And how had she rewarded him? By running off while Glyn was still a toddler with a builder from Ystradgynlais with one GCSE and a camper van. Anyway, it had taught him a few things. ‘Trevelyan,

wasn’t it, who said education had produced a nation able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading?’ Dilys sighed and settled back in her chair again. She took a slow sip of her tea. ‘Look

Caddoc, you’ve got to give Glyn at least a chance to make his own way in life. You can’t condemn him to a farm labourer’s existence without even trying. Besides, you can’t keep him at home indefinitely. You’ll have the education authority onto you again. ’ Caddoc’s chair grated on the flagstoned floor as he stood up and walked over to the window. Glyn was still stacking the feed pellets, a band of sweat now staining his shirt between his broad shoulder blades. Caddoc felt the bile rising in his throat as he recalled Carys’ attempts to interfere in Glyn’s life after she had walked out on them for her Bob the Builder with the single brain cell. He turned back towards Dilys. ‘Dilys,

I know you mean well. But I’ve already had three years of this from Carys. Interminable phone calls. Sheaves of letters. A whole battery of text messages. She even had a solicitor onto me last year. Why on earth she’s had this attack of conscience ten years after walking out, God only knows. Couldn’t face living with me and Glyn but can’t resist interfering in our lives now her pea-brained brickie has walked out on her. Glyn isn’t like other boys, see? He needs protection from life. You don’t send a blind man out onto a busy street, do you?’ ‘Why

not, with the right guidance? I’ve bred three collies that are doing just that as we speak. Why don’t you at least let me investigate special schools for you?’


74

She was leaning back in her chair, one arm slung along the chair back. From this angle, the light from the window slanted across her long russet hair. Its colour reminded him of the autumn sun filtering through maple leaves. Something snapped inside him. ‘Don’t

interfere, Dilys. That’s all people ever seem to do around here. Why can’t everyone just get on with their own lives and leave us alone? Anyway, I don’t see what makes you such an expert on childcare. It’s not as though you’ve ever raised any of your own.’ The words were out before he could grab them back again. Dilys froze, but there was fire in her eyes. He had hit her in her most unprotected spot. She slammed her mug down on the table, spattering tea over the scrubbed pine surface. Her collie bitch sleeping under the table woke with a yelp. ‘Is

that how you win an argument, Caddoc Pritchard? Hmmm? Spit in my face because I’m a widow? Keeping a farm going on your own is easy for you. Just you try it as a woman.’ She stood up and leaned on the table, hands gripping the edge. Her knuckles were white. ‘Go

on - you try it!’

She was shouting now. Her collie whined under the table. Most women were ugly when angry, but he had never seen a woman so exquisite in her fury. ‘You

try,’ she raged on, ‘living with the local gossip. The sly insinuations. The inflated rumours because you’re seen in the pub with a man you’ve sold a dog to. The whispers if you buy a new dress. The finger-pointing if you’re a little too fond of visiting your neighbour. The …’ She stopped herself in mid sentence and gathered up her coat from the back of the chair. ‘Come

on, Mabli.’

The bitch slid out from under the table, tail low and eyes scanning the room for danger. It huddled against Dilys’ leg as she pulled on her coat. Her voice was icycalm as she continued. ‘One

day, Caddoc Pritchard, you might bring yourself to consider an awesome possibility. Something that might bring this entire fragile edifice you’ve constructed


75

crashing down on your head. Know what it is?’ Caddoc shook his head, hardly daring to speak. The rage hadn’t terrified him, but the iciness did. ‘That

you might just be wrong.’

With that, she unlatched the kitchen door and swept out into the yard. Mabli’s claws scraped on the flagstones as she scurried to keep up. Glyn had just stacked the last of the bags of pellets and stood wiping his brow in confusion as Dilys strode past him and flung open the gate to the field. As it crashed back into the wall of the feed store, she spun on her heel and walked back to Glyn. She put her hand on his arm and said something to him. Caddoc couldn’t hear from his position in the kitchen doorway. Then she strode off without a glance at him. Her head was down as she headed at a ferocious pace in the direction of Mynydd Du. Glyn was staring at him, his mouth open and his big, square head shaking as his brain wrestled with the scene he had just witnessed. Caddoc walked over to him and put a comforting arm around his shoulders. His son smelt of sweat and sheep pellets. ‘Don’t

worry, bachgen. Just a little quarrel. Nothing serious.’

The fear hadn’t gone from Glyn’s eyes. He looked at Caddoc, then at the rapidly disappearing figure of Dilys then back at his father. ‘It’s

not like when ma went, is it? Dilys is coming back, isn’t she, da?’

Glyn’s eyes were beginning to fill. Caddoc gave his nose a playful tweak, but it didn’t work. The pain in his son’s face stirred a memory that wrenched his insides. ‘She’ll

come back, Glyn. Don’t get upset.’

‘Ma didn’t.’

Caddoc glanced at the dwindling figure striding towards the slopes of the mountain, dog padding at her heels. In ten minutes, she would be over the hill and out of sight. But never out of mind. ‘Glyn.’ ‘Yes,

da?’


76 ‘Do

you really want to learn to read? Honest?’

He watched as a broad smile spread across Glyn’s face. ‘Read,

da? Me?’

‘Yes.

Newspapers. Books. Like the animal stories I read to you - you know you enjoy those. Would you like to be able to read them yourself?’ Glyn’s face reshaped into a puzzled frown. ‘Would

I be able to read letters, da?’

Caddoc shook his son’s shoulders. ‘Yes,

of course you would, bachgen. If that’s what you want. I could get the whole village to write to you if you like.’ Glyn was still frowning. ‘Da?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would

I be able to read ma’s letters?’

For a few moments, Caddoc was unable to breathe. He had given Glyn a verbal précis of the letters once they started arriving. Month after month they had sat in the kitchen, him stifling his rage as he opened each successive dispatch. He had tried his best to summarise Carys’ endearments to the son she had deserted. Tried and failed, when he finally refused to be pimp to her belated affections for their son. He looked into Glyn’s eyes. They were filling again. But this time they were pleading, not sorrowful. Caddoc glanced again at the tiny figure now already climbing the lower slopes of Mynydd Du. ‘Come

on Glyn. We’ve got to feed the sheep.’

Confusion creased Glyn’s brow. ‘But

da - we don’t feed the sheep till lambing. And never in the evening.’

‘Never

mind that. Come on.’


77

Caddoc rushed into the feed store and began flinging sacks of sheep pellets into the trailer. Glyn stood watching. ‘Come

on, Glyn. I need your help. We’ve got to be quick.’

Glyn shrugged his shoulders and joined his father in the feed store. In less than a minute, the trailer was filled with feed sacks. Caddoc started the Land Rover, hitched up the trailer and towed it into the yard. ‘Hop

on Glyn. We’ve only got a few minutes.’

They drove out to the field, Glyn hanging on to the door handle as the trailer bounced across the uneven ground. Sheep scattered in alarm as they shuddered to a halt in the middle of the field, the Land Rover wheels digging into the soft earth with the sudden deceleration. Caddoc hurried to the trailer and started to lift out the feed bags. He slit one open and began laying out the feed. He beckoned Glyn to follow. ‘Just stay with me Glyn. Lay where I lay and stop when I tell you.’

Together they spread the pellets until the trailer was empty. The sheep were already starting to scent the food. First the lead ewe clambered to her feet and trotted over to the tempting piles of pellets. Others followed. Soon the whole flock was streaming over to the unexpected repast.

Caddoc stared up at the darkening slopes of Mynydd Du, mist already gathering on its flanks. The diminutive figure was still striding with fierce determination on the track leading round the mountain. Look back Dilys. Please look back. You just have to look back. ◊ A few more steps and Dilys would be round the flank of the mountain. Several million tons of earth and rock blotting out the sight of Pen y Banc farm. I don’t care, she told herself, if I never see that place again. Never set foot in that familiar kitchen that she had mistakenly come to regard as a second home. Never let herself be deceived by a kindly face concealing an obdurate nature.

It was a warning, that’s what it was. A warning to wrap her heart in ice again and not let it melt for anyone or anything. She’d been tough enough to survive this far


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and she wouldn’t give up now. There was no way she was going to look back. Just a few more steps. She stopped, momentarily confused. Where was Mabli? Normally so obedient, the bitch had left her heels. She turned. Mabli was sitting on the path a few strides behind, ears pricked and nose twitching at some unexpected scent. Dilys followed Mabli’s eyeline to the distant spectacle below. Something odd was happening in the field next to Pen y Banc farm. Sheep, which would normally be settled for the night in the wind shadow of the hedges or along the drystone wall, were gathering in the middle of the field. She watched as one group huddled together. They seemed to be gathering in a very strange formation - almost like a letter R. Other groups of sheep were similarly huddling like white iron filings around a scattering of magnets. There was another R. And - yes - that must be a Y. A breath caught in her throat. It must be the cold wind blowing down from Carreg Goch. It was making her eyes water too, dammit. Her vision was blurring fast, but she couldn’t mistake the message that was spelt out in white fleeces across the rapidly darkening green of the field. ‘S

- O - R - R - Y’


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By the same author: Fruits of the Forest http://issuu.com/lexicographer/docs/fruits_of_the_forest The Lovestruck Lexicographer http://issuu.com/lexicographer/docs/the_lovestruck_lexicographer

A question of immortality  

A collection of short stories on death, love and survival

A question of immortality  

A collection of short stories on death, love and survival

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