Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Welcome Light

Tonight, thought David Morrell to himself, we can celebrate. He had expected good news from the consultant at the out-patients clinic. But it had been more than being given the “all clear”. They had actually discharged him. When he left the hospital he’d telephoned Mary and told her that it was all over. They could pick up their lives again.

“And how was your day?” he’d asked, “Was the presentation a success?”

“Davey – they gave me a standing ovation! I knew I’d got something good for them, but really I was … I was overwhelmed. But that’s nothing. I am so, so glad that you’re well again at last. It’s been dreadful for you. And I’m so sorry I wasn’t with you today”

How typical of Mary. Self effacing, selfless. She, the quiet one, who always looked understated. He knew from her colleagues, and what he had read about her, that she was fast becoming a world leader in her field.

“When will you get home?”

“Oh … my train leaves in an hour. So it’ll be about 7.30 I guess.”

“I can’t wait! We’ve so much to talk about. I’ll walk in to town and get us something to celebrate with. And I’ll have the welcome light on for you!”

The welcome light! David smiled to himself. Was it ever not on for him? It seemed strange that a top scientist should attach such significance to it. It was like a superstition. He had gently teased her about it, and she’d blushed faintly. “Not really,” she’d told him. “It was always a tradition in my family.”

David thought he understood. Mary was one of a large family. Her father had been in the Merchant Navy and was often away for months at a time. For her mother the welcome light had been a sort of a talisman, to guarantee her husband’s safe homecoming. It burned in an upstairs window from the moment he left the house, until his return.

The train was only half full. He found a window seat. For the first half hour of the journey he read his newspaper. When the last straggling suburbs gave way to open fields he stared out across the countryside, reflecting on how fortunate he had been. He had had a narrow escape, he knew, and at no small cost. After what the doctors had had to do, he and Mary knew that they could never have children of their own. She had made little of this when he had told her, but he knew that it must have been a blow. “Some things just aren’t meant to be, Davey.” And she’d not talked about it again.

The journey west brought a change in the weather, and when at last he stepped down on to the platform he drew his coat around him and pulled his umbrella from his briefcase. He hurried across to the car park, dodging puddles. He threw his coat on to the back seat of his car, started the engine and waited for the fan to clear the mist from the windscreen. Then he eased the car out of the parking space and tuned the radio in to a local station hoping to hear the weather forecast. He caught the tail end of the news report … the resolution of a dispute at a local factory, a fatality at a pedestrian crossing. “Poor devil” thought David. “Some of these drivers are just crazy”. He turned up the volume as the forecast came on. A stormy night was in the offing it seemed. Thank God for a warm house and a warm welcome. Like Mary’s father, he felt that he was returning home again after a long journey.

At last he turned into the lane where he and Mary lived. At any moment now he would see it, the welcome light, calling him, as it were, to shelter and safety and the comfort of a good woman.

But only utter darkness lay ahead, and with it the stark realisation that he faced the end of his world.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Vagrant

At first I though Sam was sleeping when I found him lying under the hedge on that bright winter’s morning. But he was quite dead. “Poor old chap” I said to myself. For some reason my first instinct was to find an old blanket and cover him, though God knows, he was hardly in need of protection from the cold any more.
Over the past couple of years he’d been a “regular” in our street, appearing on my front doorstep and those of my neighbours where he could be fairly sure he’d get food or drink. I guess we are a pretty well disposed lot. No-one ever threatened him or sent him off. But then there was a decency, even a dignity about him. He communicated by look rather than voice, and in doing so he brought out the best in us.
I’m not sure how he came to be called “Sam”. It may have been old Mrs Dobson, two doors up from me, who had so named him. She had a stone seat in her front garden, and Sam would make himself comfortable there on occasions, often dozing for much of a sunny afternoon under the shade of her cherry tree. She referred to him as “just an old vagrant with a bit of a cheek”. But she let him be.
We thought it a nice touch when she had the small brass plate made and inscribed with “Sam’s Place”, and set on the back rest of that seat. And the engraving of the cat’s head under the words wasn’t a bad likeness of the old tabby. I miss him.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Pride and Palimpsests

Palimpsest: a manuscript on which two or more successive texts have been written, each one being erased to make room for the next. (Collins Dictionary).

Like 99% of the general population, I’d no idea what the word meant. If I’d been wise to it, I wouldn’t have come within a whisker of losing my inheritance. I was aunt Dorothea’s only living relative, but her opinion of me was mixed at best and I knew she’d toyed with other ideas about what to do with her considerable fortune when the time came to pass it on.

I’d answered an advertisement in the county magazine: “Pet Portraiture and Palimpsests”. Always trying to find ways to secure my niche in my aunt’s good books, I thought I would treat her. Her birthday was fast approaching, and I was certain that a painting of her adored white Persian cat would go down a treat. I didn’t bother to seek out my shorter Collins dictionary to find out what was a pali-whatsit. More fool me.

I should have suspected something wasn’t right when Tom arrived in a white van at my aunt’s house one morning by arrangement when she’d gone up to London for the day. I mean, he was a total caricature, complete with beret, Breton shirt and goatee beard. But I despatched him to the garden where I knew that Scheherezade had adopted a classic pose – as was her custom – in the sun. I sat and read the paper and let him get on with it. He was a fast worker, popping his head through the open window after an hour and calling out ‘All done!’

He didn’t hang around (I’d paid him cash in advance). I’d assumed that the finished work would be delivered in due course. That was another lesson I should have learned – don’t take things for granted if you don’t want to be taken for an idiot.

Aunt Dorothea returned late in the afternoon and duly made her way out to the garden where Scheherezade was presumably still sleeping.

Her shriek would have woken the Gods. ‘Oh, you wicked, wicked boy! What have you done?’

She ran in, clutching the cat in her arms. To my horror I realised that Tom had painted her OK. I mean, literally painted her. She had been transformed - into a very fine tabby indeed. The marking was classic. Only her eyes were the wrong colour, of course.

Fortunately, like most cats Scheherezade was fastidious, and lost no time getting to work on the overpainting with her tongue. I think that Tom, joker as he must have been, used paint flavoured to appeal to feline taste buds. Probably fish paste. But it took her two weeks to wash away the last trace of the results of his undoubted skill. I though it a bit of a pity, but was careful to avoid sharing my opinion with aunt Dorothea.

I did see Tom just once more, a couple of weeks later, driving too fast for me to hail him down as I should dearly have liked to have done. The familiar logo was on the side of his van. But as it receded in the distance I caught what was emblazoned on the back. I felt well and truly mocked:

Revamp your cat – just visit Tom
At tabbymakeovers.com!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

His Little Singing Thrush

Two strong hands grasped my shoulders from behind. I felt myself being pushed over the low parapet. Horror struck, I gazed into the blackness.
            I knew it was my uncle Tod before I heard his voice. It wasn’t just the power of his grip. It was the familiar smell of his hands. Sort of metallic and gunpowdery.
            ‘You little bugger!’ he spat down my neck. ‘Just you let me catch you here once more and I’ll throw you down – no kidding!’
            I believed him. I’d have been about eight years old then. I don’t remember what had drawn me to the well at the end of his and aunt Mavis’s garden. I suppose that like most youngsters I was fascinated by anything deep and dark, more so if you couldn’t see the bottom.
            Later that day, when he returned, mellow, after two hours at Butcher’s Arms, he spoke to me again. He wasn’t angry like he had been. But he was certainly out to frighten me.
            ‘I meant what I said about the well. There’s no water to he had from it now. Not since they drilled the bores for the new estate. But d’you know what is down there, boy?’ He brought his faced close up to me. The was a dampness on his brow, and beer on his breath.
            I shook my head.
            ‘Snakes, lad! Poisonous snakes! Just one bite would kill you. They’d be all over you. You wouldn’t stand a chance …’
            I took him at his word. Even when I left childhood behind I avoided going anywhere near the old well. But it wasn’t too long after he caught me there that he left. He had a scrap yard that for some reason a couple of property developers had their eyes on. Tod Drummond, barely literate as he was, was cunning. He played the two off against one another, and by all accounts made a killing when he sold it. Aunt Mavis wasn’t sure just how much he’d made as it was a cash deal, and he didn’t hang around to tell her. She put it about that he’d gone off with what she called a “fancy woman”. She was pretty upset for the first few weeks after he left, but then settled into a kind of routine. If you could call it that. She kept herself to one small room, and kept it clean and tidy enough. But she let the rest of the house go. As the years went by it shed slates, gutters and plasterwork like a moulting animal. The garden became neglected and overgrown.
            For a long time I made only occasional visits to my aunt. I was her only living relative, and I felt a sense of responsibility for her. I felt sorry for her, too. She’d had a hard life with uncle Tod. She’d been much under his thumb, and he had a nasty side to his character, which usually showed he was drunk. He’d come home from the pub and knock her about. Yet he could be affectionate too. In those days she’d been in the habit of singing about the house and in her little kitchen garden. “My little singing thrush” uncle Tod called her when he heard her.
            I didn’t like to see her home in the state it was and I offered to help her with repairs, but she always refused me. ‘One day it’ll be yours, Davy. You can do what you like with it then.’
            When I started with the light engineering company in Sefton, just five miles away from where aunt Mavis lived, I started calling in on her more frequently. She always made me welcome and appreciated my doing the occasional bit of shopping for her. As she grew older she became less able to get out and about. She had arthritis and was inclined to be unsteady on her feet. She refused any other help and I guess I and my wife, Sally, were pretty much the only people she saw. I wonder now if this had something to do with uncle Tod. She seldom talked about him, but on the rare occasions that I referred to him, she was defensive. No doubt there was gossip in the neighbourhood, and she wouldn’t have anything said against him.
            Late one afternoon, as I let myself in through her back door with a bag of shopping, I heard her singing softly to herself. Her voice wasn’t what it had been, but I recognised the tune.
            Hark the mavis’ evening sang
            Singing Clouden’s woods amang …
            ‘That was a favourite of uncle Tod’s, wasn’t it aunt?’
            She was pensive for a moment. ‘It was …’ She was Scots, of course. ‘Burns. Set to music by one of your English composers’. She stayed lost in thought. Then – ‘he was a good man … once. Gentle, even, would you believe it? Then the drink got to him …’
            ‘Perhaps it was as well he left.’
            ‘Perhaps. But he took everything, Davey. Left me with nothing. He had money. But I never found … he never left me with a penny.’ She looked away from me.  ‘All went on women and drink, I dare say.’
            ‘You know I’d always help you out, aunt Mavis. I don’t know how you manage at all on your pension.’ She shook her head emphatically. But she never kicked up a fuss when I arranged for a few bags of coal to be delivered to stock up the bunker outside the back door.
            Not long after that conversation things began to get busy at work. I sensed that there were some changes afoot and Jim Denton, the owner of the business seemed anxious to get a number of orders processed quickly. One afternoon he called me into his office. His jacket was slung across the back of his chair and his tie was loose about his neck. His hair was more than usually unkempt.
            ‘David – thanks for dropping in. Take a seat.’ He waved me to the chair opposite his at the desk. ‘Thing is, there are going to be some changes around here and you need to know.’
            ‘What changes, Jim?’
            ‘To get straight to the point, I’m selling the business. Langton’s have made me an offer, and it’s too good to refuse. Mary isn’t as well as she was, as you know. I’d like to have more time with her. And this is my chance to get out and retire reasonably comfortably.’
            ‘That’s great Jim! I’m pleased for you. Mary will be thrilled, I’m sure.’
            Jim nodded. But he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He must have known that his decision would have consequences for me that wouldn’t be so good. Langton’s was a much larger affair than Jim’s, and a competitor. The chances were that they would simply close the smaller factory. And even if they didn’t, I very much doubted that they would be inclined to keep me on as manager.
            ‘I know this has come as a shock. I’m trying to get an assurance out of Langton’s that they’ll keep this set up running and hold on to the men.’
            ‘D’you hold out much hope? I mean …’
            He didn’t let me finish. ‘They know that this company is efficient and cost effective, OK. And innovative, too, thanks mostly to the work you’ve done. You’ve got a great future, David. If they decided there wasn’t a place here for you, you’d have no trouble finding something.’
            If his optimism was genuine, I didn’t share it. Yes, I could probably get a job. But it could be a hundred, two hundred miles away. Sally would be devastated, and the kids would be upset too, having to leave their friends and moving to another school. And then there was aunt Mavis.
            I stared at the distance out of the window. No doubt Jim knew more or less exactly the impact his news had had on me. ‘Davey,’ he said, ‘you know that I would far rather that you took over the business, for all sorts of reasons. If you were in a position to match Langton’s offer I’d …’
            ‘Not a snowball’s chance, Jim. You know that. I’ve a fair idea what the business is worth – what Langton’s are offering for it. If I went to the bank and asked for a loan that size, they’d laugh at me.’
            Jim took of his glasses and polished them absent-mindedly. I could see that he felt awkward. He’d been a good boss to me, and a good employer to the men on the floor. And I couldn’t blame him for making the decision he had. In his shoes I’d have done the same.
            ‘You’ll make out, David. Any job you apply for, I’ll give you a bloody fine reference. This business owes a lot to you, and so do I’.
            ‘Thanks for that, Jim. There’s no need to worry about me.’
*  *  *
Sally took the news badly, as I knew she would, when I broke it to her that evening. She tried to make light of it, bless her, but I could see that she was trying to sort out the implications of it all in her mind.
            ‘I … I’d always thought that you’d take over the firm entirely one day. Jim had such a good opinion of you.’
            ‘I think he’s more worried about his wife that he let on. I can see why a clean break is so attractive. Particularly if Langton’s are making the sort of offer I think they are.’
            ‘Will you start looking for another job?’
            ‘Uh-huh. It might be sensible to put out a few feelers.’
            ‘Will we have to move? I mean, the kids are settled, and then there’s your aunt. She’s got no-one else, and she’s really become quite dependent on us. And, Davey …’
            ‘It’s just that I’m … I’m not too happy about her’
            ‘Aunt Mavis?’
            ‘Yes. I called in on her today, and I talked to her again about seeing the doctor. And she agreed …’
            She’s agreed to see a doctor? That’s not the aunt Mavis I know … something must be up with her. Did she tell you what was bothering her?’
            Sally shook her head. ‘No. But I didn’t like her colour. Sort of yellowish. Davey – I think she’s got jaundice. That could mean something bad, couldn’t it?’
*  *  *
The doctor at the GP surgery was inclined to be reassuring. But I could see that he wasn’t entirely happy. His decision to order a raft of tests ‘just to make sure’ suggested to me that he wasn’t sure at all. I played down my misgivings to Sally, but aunt Mavis herself had an air of quiet resignation as I helped her into the car and took her home.
            ‘Whatever his tests show, I want him to be absolutely straight with me. If it’s bad I want to know. There’s one or two things I need to sort out before I …’
            ‘Don’t worry, aunt,’ I reassured her. ‘These days they tend to be honest and up front, even if the news is bad. But I’m sure it won’t be. Like he said – there’s lots of causes of jaundice. Often people get better with rest and a change of diet …’
            ‘Not so often when it’s in people as old as I am. But we’ll know soon enough, I suppose.’
            She was right on both counts. Within two weeks she was told – as gently as these things can be done – that she had an inoperable cancer. There was certainly some effective treatment she could have that might give her a year or two. But she was quite adamant that she wasn’t having any of it.
            In fact I think she did not very much want to go on living. Perhaps because of this her health began to deteriorate quickly, and within a month she was admitted to the hospice in Sefton, just a short walk from where I worked. And it was from there, late one afternoon, that the sister on the ward where she’d been admitted telephoned me.
            ‘Is that David Mason? I’m calling about your aunt, Mrs Drummond. She’s taken a turn for the worse. She’s quite agitated and she’s asking for you. Can you come in and see her?’
            ‘Of course. I could be with you in, er, twenty minutes or so. Is she very bad?’
            ‘She’s not good. She’s got herself in a state. Just come as soon as you can without breaking any speed limits.’
            Half an hour later I was at my aunt’s bed side. For a moment it seemed she didn’t know me. I think her sight was failing. But when she heard my voice she seemed to become calmer.
            ‘Davey! Oh, I’m glad you’ve come to see me. There’s something …’
            ‘It’s OK aunt. It’s me. You’re going to be fine.’
            She shook her head. Her eyes closed. ‘It’s the end for me, Davey. But there’s something … something I have to tell you.’
            ‘What’s that, aunt? Take your time. There’s no need to upset yourself …’
            ‘It’s about the old fox, Davey …’
            For a moment I’d no idea what she was talking about. ‘The old fox? What old fox?’
            ‘I killed him, Davey. I shot him with the rabbit gun. He was … blind drunk. He came for me with a knife. I shot him.’ Her voice grew weaker, and she seemed to drift.
            ‘Aunt Mavis … you don’t mean … you can’t …’
            Her voice fell to a hoarse whisper. ‘The old fox. Tod … the old fox …’
            Her breathing became laboured, noisy. She lapsed into unconsciousness.
            The sister looked in around the drawn curtains. She stepped over to my aunt and checked her pulse. She turned to me. ‘Best let her rest now. She’s comfortable – not in any pain.’
            I nodded. I knew what she was telling me. Less than an hour later my aunt was dead. And on her death bed she had confessed to me that she had killed her husband. 
*  *  *
The police officer who interviewed me was hardly overwhelmed by my account. In fact I felt rather foolish reporting it at all.
            ‘So what you’re telling me, sir, is that your elderly aunt told you, just before she died, that she shot her husband … about 15 years ago? Had you any reason to suppose she did kill him?’
            ‘Nothing she ever told me before had made me suspect it. But with hindsight … I don’t know. It was strange that he should just have gone as she always claimed, without ever any contact at all.’
            I had given all the details as I knew them, and they were sparse enough. Little wonder the police were sceptical. They recorded the interview with me and said that they would make some enquiries and be in touch. I found myself doubting that they would even bother. In the mean time I had other business to attend to. I’d had a telephone call from a solicitor’s office. My aunt had made a will, I was told, and would I come in to discuss it. She had left a small estate, and I was the sole beneficiary.
            ‘It’s all quite straightforward,’ Mr Donaldson, the junior partner, told me. ‘There is her property, of course, which she owned. And a small sum of money in a savings account. And there is a letter addressed to you which I understands contains instructions about her funeral.’
            I was under no illusions as to the value of her estate. The house was small, in disrepair and worth little enough in the economic climate at the time. Sally had murmured to me that it might make the difference so far as an offer to buy Jim Denton’s business. I’d shaken my head. ‘There’s no question of that, really.’ And she’d not asked again.
            Later that evening, I opened the envelope and scanned through the short letter. Its significance took time to sink in. ‘Oh, God,’ I murmured. Sally looked up from her book sharply.
            ‘Something wrong?’
            ‘No … well, yes. If aunt Mavis did kill him, then I think I know where she dumped his body.’
*  *  *
The two police officers leaned cautiously over the crumbling brickwork of the parapet and gazed into the well. We’d had to fight our way through the brambles to reach it. I hadn’t been near the place since my encounter there with uncle Tod, so many years before. Yet an irrational dread reared up inside me.
            ‘You OK sir?’ one of the officers asked me, looking up. ‘I can’t think there’s anything too bad down there. It’s pretty much full of trash.’
            I’d not expected to see the collection of old cardboard boxes, empty pain cans and assorted garden rubbish that nearly filled the well. It came to within a just a few feet of the parapet itself.
            ‘Any idea who threw it all in there?’
            I shook my head. ‘I’ve not come here here since I was a boy. My uncle made it clear that I wasn’t to go near it. Said it … it wasn’t safe.’
            He nodded. ‘He was right there.’
            ‘Well, whether you think his body is down there or not, if I’m going to have my aunt’s wishes honoured I’ll have to get it cleared.’
            ‘I take your point sir. It would be sort of … disrespectful to throw her ashes in among all that garbage.’
            There was the sound of a vehicle pulling up out in the road. The officers seemed to have expected it. ‘That’ll be forensics,’ one of them muttered. Two white garbed men came round the side of the house carrying heavy cases.
            ‘OK, sir. Best leave this to us now. If there are any … if there is anything under that lot, these guys will find out pretty soon.’
*  *  *
I’d never have the stomach to do the job that the police did over the next few days. I didn’t ask what sort of state whatever was left of uncle Tod was in, and they didn’t tell me. I think that aunt Mavis must have got his body into his old sleeping bag before she wheeled it down to the well in a barrow, because they asked me if I could identify a piece of material they showed me. Lying across the body they’d found the corroded remains of a .410 shotgun, and a kitchen knife with a long, stainless steel blade.
            Things moved on quickly from there. Following an inquest the Coroner recorded a verdict of the unlawful killing of my uncle Tod, and while it was never fully established that my aunt was the one who had shot him, the police told me later that, so far as they were concerned, they weren’t looking for anyone else.
            I felt duty bound to carry out aunt Mavis’s wishes so far as her ashes were concerned, rather than have them interred in her husband’s grave. The well, even after it had been cleared, was not deep, and there was no water at the bottom. I couldn’t bring myself to just empty the little casket down it, and instead hired an expending ladder so that I could place the box with at least a measure of respect against the wall at its floor.
            I can’t deny that it was a scary experience. I’ve never liked the sense of being enclosed, especially in the dark. I’d taken a flashlight with me, and after I had placed the casket, it was in its light that I saw the two loose bricks in the wall of the shaft, just a foot or two from the bottom. As I reached to prize them out, a gust of wind blew through the tangled brambles that partly surrounded the well’s mouth. The tremulous hiss brought back, momentarily, a terrifying memory.
            ‘Uncle Tod’s snakes … ‘ I muttered as the loose bricks fell to reveal what was hidden behind them.
*  *  *
‘No. We’re still negotiating,’ Jim Denton told me in his office a few days after I had finally had the well filled in. I had asked him if the deal with Langton’s had been completed. ‘They’re stalling, I think. In the end I’m afraid they’ll drive a hard bargain. But whatever it is, I’ll have to go through with it. Mary’s no better, you know.’
            ‘Jim – if I were able to offer you what Langton’s had originally proposed, would you be prepared to consider it?’
            He stared at me. ‘Davey – there’s nothing I should like more. But you told me you just weren’t in the running. What’s changed?’
            ‘My late lamented aunt was rather better off than I’d thought.’              

            My left hand dropped to my pocket. My fingers clasped the small canvas bag that lay in it, and felt the stones, hard and smooth, that it contained. Yes, my aunt had been better off than I thought. Or than she herself ever knew. Uncle Tod’s legacy of gemstones was too well hidden, too well guarded, even if the snakes were no more than his fabrication.
            Together Jim and I stood up and shook hands.
            ‘Consider it a done deal, Davey! Congratulations!’

Sunday, 22 April 2012


Blessed morphine … the pain is receding. Sister looks down on me and smiles. 

            ‘Are you feeling more comfortable now, Hector? 

            I nod and murmur my thanks. They are universally kind here at St Anthony’s. She leaves the room softly. I fall into a light sleep. 

            Time passes. Minutes, perhaps half an hour or so. And suddenly I am wide awake. Someone is standing at the end of the bed. A girl in uniform, a care assistant I guess. I think I have not seen her before. Yet there is something almost familiar. A memory … 

            ‘Hello Father,’ she has a faint accent. I think it may be German. They must have told her who I am, though soutane and surplice are locked away in the cupboard by the door. Probably they will remain there. I think I shall not robe for Mass again. ‘Sister asked me to come and see how you are.’ 

            I peer at her, squinting a little to try to make out her name badge. There is something about her hair – a chord of music drifts through my head. Debussy - La fille aux cheveux de lin. And her eyes – she smiles with her eyes. 

            ‘My name is Isolde …’ 

            Yes. Of course. Your name is Isolde. And I begin to wonder if I am dreaming. 

*  *  * 

Her name was Isolde. I can remember when we first met. It was on a river boat, hired for a party given by the parents of mutual friends. She told me that her father was in the Swiss diplomatic service, on a posting to London. She was a few months past her seventeenth birthday, and I just a year older. Her English was near perfect, yet she seemed somehow to be out of place there. And because I was inclined to shyness then, we stayed talking together, perhaps finding security in each other’s company. And I think by the end of that evening, several hours later, I was already in love with her. We had become soul-mates in the briefest space of time. 

            In those days there was still an essential innocence that was common to most young people who found themselves in love. By that I mean, there was not the urgency to consummate, to sleep together at a time when they barely knew each other’s names. The age of free love had not yet dawned, although it was very near and would in the not so distant future affect us both in very different ways. Then there were codes of behaviour and unwritten rituals to be adhered to. Yet I cannot imagine otherwise than that our hand holding and gentle caresses were any less exquisite than the long nights of passion that seem to be the norm today. No – I don’t think I am being old-fashioned: I really believe that something precious has been lost in the search for and indeed the insistence upon instant gratification. 

            As the weeks went by we met often. We would take the train out of London to be in places where we could be alone together and delight in each others company. Yet even then we knew that our time together must draw to a close. Isolde had gained a place at the University of Lucerne to read English Literature, and would be leaving England in the autumn. At the same time her father’s posting would end and the family return to Switzerland. I suppose I had hoped that I might visit her there, perhaps at Christmas, but I perceived a barrier: Isolde’s family were strict Lutherans and I was a Catholic. And besides I was … I am, black. 

            One day late in the summer, as we lay on the grass beside a wide estuary in Kent she raised herself on one elbow, looked down on me with those smiling eyes and put her forefinger to my lips. I had voiced my sadness at the thought of our parting, wondering when we might, eventually, see each other again. 

            ‘We will write. Often. And then we will see!’ But I think that even then she knew that her future and mine were set upon different courses. And I think that was because she knew me better than I had ever realised, better even than I knew myself. 

            A great flock of geese rose from the mudflats below us, scattered across the sky and then drew together again forming into a ragged skein, and made eastward to the sea. Isolde turned to gaze after them, and I sat up to watch with her and listen to their calling. She began to murmur, to half chant what I took to be verse. I did not recognise it: 

And on a morning, such a morning as there might have been
In the deepness of time, and in a time of innocence,
When a shimmering ocean swept across the bay
I saw the geese …
And I wondered at the unencumbered grace of that formation
As it curved sunward. And when they lost themselves
In the fierce glare, and then gave voice, it was as though
They passed beyond the confines of this world.
For how could the tuneless call of great wild birds
Be so uplifted? For I thought I heard that morning
Not the brash, mournful cry of marsh fowl
But echoes of another firmament. I heard, it seemed to me … 

            Her voice faded. I wondered if what followed was lost to her. But then she turned to me with a look of expectation that said ‘go on – this is ours!’ I must have read it, or something like it before, because the words came to me quite effortlessly and to my complete surprise: 

… I heard, it seemed to me
The sound of trumpets at the Gates of Paradise. 

            ‘Yes!’ That is it, exactly!’ And she leaned over me and kissed me. 

            Two weeks later she left took a flight with her parents to Geneva. And I never saw her again. 

*  *  * 

Isolde has been a regular visitor to me over the past few weeks, since that first time when she stood at the end of the bed as I drifted out of sleep. I believe that the child has become fond of me. This evening, long after she should have gone off duty, she is sitting with a pad in the chair to one side of the bed, sketching the biretta placed on the bedside locker. 

            She is silent, and I say to her, ‘Why do you stay on here? I am sure you have friends you would sooner be with.’ 

            She shakes her head. ‘They can wait. They have time.’ 

            ‘Unlike me?’ 

            She makes no direct response to my question. ‘If you must know, I feel ashamed to think that you – Father Hector Ademokun of the mighty Roman Catholic Church – have not had a single visitor since first I met you.’ She smiles. ‘I am trying to make up for the failings of my fellow men and women!’ 

            Isolde knows something of my past. She knew very soon after our first meeting that, half a century ago I had loved her grandmother more than I have ever loved anyone since. And she is the only other living soul who has known this. But does she know that her grandmother – dead these last five years – has never, for one single day, been absent from my thoughts? Indeed we were – are – soul-mates. Nothing can change that. Not even my faith, or the crumbling remnant of it that still lingers. 

            She told me that the Isolde I had loved never married. Swept up in the movement towards free love and the illusion of freedom, she became pregnant when in America, shortly after graduating. She returned home to a shocked and reproving family and gave birth to a girl who would one day become Isolde’s – this child Isolde’s – mother. She spent much of her life as a recluse, writing – quite successfully – and painting. 

            ‘I really miss her. She was a lovely grandma to me. When she died, she left me a painting, one of her best. I think it is perhaps the most precious thing that I own.’ 

            ‘What is the painting of?’ 

            ‘A flight of geese. They are flying towards the sun across a glittering sea. I think … sometimes I think, that it is a vision of heaven.’ 

*  *  * 

I am very near to the end now. The staff here at the hospice are beyond praise. I have no pain and I am sometimes even comfortable. As I said … blessed morphine! 

            Isolde has come to see me, as she does several times a day now. She pulls the chair close to me. 

            ‘Father – I am … I am going away for a few days. Home. To Switzerland. So I thought I’d come … come to say goodbye’ 

            She takes my hand. I turn to her and I know that a tear is rolling down my cheek. I will never see her again. 

            ‘You have been so very, very good to me. I ask myself, why?’ 

            She does not answer immediately, but instead says: 

            ‘Grandmother … grandma, loved you so, so dearly.’ And then, ‘you know why I …’ and her voice catches and falters. 

            I think I am falling into a dream. Perhaps my last. She leans over me, and that beautiful flaxen hair falls across my face. Her lips brush my forehead. 

            And I know at last that we never lose those we love, because we see them for ever, deep in the eyes of their children. And of their children’s children. 

Outside in the park, where I am told there is a wide lake where waterfowl nest and find sanctuary, I can hear the cry of the geese. And their calling reaches a crescendo, like a mighty fanfare, as they rise together from the water.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Going in Circles

Going in Circles

I realised that something had got Tommy really fired up from the moment he answered the intercom at the front door. It was something in his voice, though his greeting was as terse as ever.

            ‘Mike – good you could make it. Join me in the study. And put the kettle on as you come down.’

            The door release hummed. I let myself in. Minutes later I was standing behind him, a steaming cup in each hand, while he stared into the monitor on his desk. He spun his chair round to face me.

            ‘So. Here you are. I thought you might be interested – well, I know you will be.’

            ‘What have you got there Tommy?’ I nodded towards the screen.

            ‘Proof. Evidence. It’s … it’s mind blowing. But I knew. I’ve known for a long time.’

            ‘Proof of what?’

            ‘That they really are out there …’

            ‘You’re surely not still chasing aliens. I thought you’d left that one behind. I thought you were smarter …’

            He slapped his hand down on the arm of the chair. ‘Just get this, Mike. This is no wild theory. I’ve worked it out from pure observation. The maths is complex. It took me years to get on to the right track. But I’m there now. I’m at a stage where I can make predictions that are borne out by real events. Look at this …’

            He turned back to the computer monitor and tapped at the keyboard. An image filled the screen. Strange, geometric and – yes - beautiful. I knew that I was looking at a photograph of a crop circle.

            ‘But that’s all been debunked! Guys going out into the fields at night with ropes and planks after a few drinks.’

            ‘Mike, do you honestly think a crowd of drunks could have made that?’ There was excitement in his voice.

            ‘OK. So maybe they did this first and then laughed all the way to the pub.’

            ‘Not this one …’

            ‘So how do you know?’

            ‘This circle appeared at the foot of Milk Hill in Wiltshire on the 7th July. Those are the map coordinates at the bottom of the screen.’


            ‘Mike – I predicted it. I knew – to the hour – when it would appear. And where. I’d known for quite some time.’

            ‘You got some eccentric friends who do crazy things in their spare time then?’

            ‘Stop being so bloody obtuse. Who – what – made this are no country yokels. They aren’t even remotely human.’

            ‘Not human. So what are they?’

            Tommy’s brow furrowed. He shook his head. ‘That’s what I don’t know. The only thing I know for certain at the moment is that they make crop circles – or most of them – and other phenomena as well. They’re immensely powerful – and much, much more advanced than we are.’

            ‘So what’s behind them – I mean, why do they make these things?’

            ‘Looks as though they are … communicating. But that’s just a guess. It’s all part of a much larger pattern. Certainly it’s not just confined to the Earth. It’s possible, of course, that they make them as a sort of challenge, a test if you like.’


            ‘Uh-huh. I mean, I hardly think that they aren’t aware that there is intelligent life of this planet. Maybe they were just waiting for someone to suss it all out, and then …’. Tommy hesitated. I wondered if he felt he’d said too much. But I was really playing him along. I mean, the whole idea was so far-fetched. He had to be kidding.

            ‘Are you thinking that they might do something when they realise that we earthlings are on to their game? Taking a bit of a risk there, aren’t you?’

            A smile played across Tommy’s lips. ‘I think you’ll agree that I have little enough to lose. These guys can do anything, even …’

            I shook my head forcefully. ‘Your problems are one thing – but what about the rest of us? I mean, this could be one mighty can of worms …’

            ‘Mike – don’t try to kid me that if you had the chance that I think I have now - if what had happened to me had happened to you – that you would have hesitated for a moment …’

            And he was right. They’d done their best for Tommy after the accident. But it would have taken a miracle to make him what he had been. Were it not for his intellect and his creativity I’m pretty sure he would have given up. Even so, he was tormented by frustration and resentment which could make him very difficult to live with. In the end, even his long suffering wife had found it impossible.

            ‘I’m going for it Mike. And I’m not waiting. If I don’t do it in the next few weeks, then it will have to wait until next year. And that’s too long.’

            ‘So what is it you’re proposing?’

            ‘You’ll know in good time. I’ve worked out where and when the next series of circles will appear. And I am going to be there for one of them. Right in the middle. I’m going to meet them, Mike.’

*  *  *

I couldn’t take him seriously. In fact I worried if his frustration had sent unhinged him. It was just too far fetched. Yet, as the weeks went by I found myself drawn to the web sites that monitored the appearance of the crop circles. Four, in fact, materialised in Wiltshire as the crops grew to maturity. One was clearly a fake, but the others I could not be so sure of, they were so strangely unworldly.

            On another visit to Tommy he’d remarked on these. ‘Oh, yes – I knew they were coming. But they weren’t … weren’t in the right place. Too far off the beaten track. But it isn’t long now …’ He wouldn’t say any more. I guess he thought that I might interfere with whatever it was he was planning. But I don’t think I would have done. Because I never really believed him, until it happened.

*  *  *

Within a few seconds of switching on my mobile phone that morning in late August the familiar jingle announced a text message. It had in fact been sent a couple of hours before I’d woken. It was from Tommy. Just two letters and two five digit series of numbers, and the words “come now”. It took me only a few seconds to recognise it as map reference. As a keen walker, I had a good supply of large scale maps in the house, and it was only a matter of minutes before I was poring over a sheet spread out on the dining table. I pinpointed the spot quickly enough: in the low lying fields south of the Vale of Pewsey in the north of Wiltshire. The heart of crop circle country.

            A couple of attempts to raise Tommy on his mobile proved fruitless. It was switched off. Not even taking voicemails. That was unlike Tommy. For the first time I felt a sense of misgiving. I pulled on a jacket, grabbed some walking boots from the under stairs cupboard and went out to the car.

            It was still quite early and there was no traffic to speak of. A diffuse early-autumn mist lying low over the ripening fields gave an atmosphere of soothing tranquillity. A copper sun hung above the horizon. As it brightened I pulled the visor down over the windscreen. Soon I was closing in on the field that Tommy had identified as the place where the event – whatever lay behind it – was to happen.

            Driving, now more slowly, over the brow of a hill, I was briefly dazzled by the glare of the sun as the tendrils of mist dispersed. I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. And as my sight returned, I saw it in the valley below me.

            I was at once reminded of one of those NASA photos of a spiral galaxy, seen obliquely as so many are. The thing was pristine, exquisitely sculpted. No, I thought to myself, this is far beyond the ability of human beings to have created. Could Tommy have been right? But Tommy, where was he? For a moment I wondered if he would come riding up the lane, calling out ‘I told you so!’ But there wasn’t a sign of him. Then, as the after-image of the sun faded from my vision I saw something at the very hub of the circle. Something dark and crumpled.

            I jumped out of the car and without even slamming the door shut I started running. I came up to a gap in the low hedge from where a trail of flattened barley that I knew had to be Tommy’s track headed out into the field. In spite of the uneven ground I kept up my speed.

            And at last I came to the eye of the circle and found what I had dreaded finding after that first glimpse from the hillside.

            Tommy had adapted his powered wheel chair into what he called an “all terrain” model. He’d been quite proud of it, with its low centre of gravity and bulky tyres. This spot, with its proximity to the road, would not have presented any real challenge. But now it was almost beyond recognition. The tyres themselves had burned away, their remnants still smoking. The metal frame was twisted, scorched and broken.

            As for Tommy himself – nothing. For a while I shouted his name, but silence was the only answer returned to me on that still morning.

            In time the realisation came to me that he really had gone. But where to I don’t expect I’ll ever know. I miss him more than I could have anticipated. But there is a part of me that hopes, even believes, that he did find what he was searching for.

            Tommy – if you are out there – somewhere – I hope that it is all that you wished it would be.

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