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SIX TALES

Francis Pettitt

1999


 

CONTENTS

 

The Last Trumpeter

The Woolthorpe Affair

Kevin’s Story

When Santa Died

Unfinished Antiphon

The Summer House

 


 

THE LAST TRUMPETER

 

Agroponte is a town easily missed by those travellers en route to the more seductive beauties of the upper Arno valley. Deprived of a large part of its mediaeval centre in desperate fighting during the final months of the last world war and surrounded by a circle of decaying industrial suburbs, complete with derelict cement works and rusting mills, the town does not readily invite the fine arts tourist into its womb. Yet it possesses a certain charm, occupying a dramatic position just above where the river Mambro, narrowed at this point by steeply rising gneissian slopes, noisily negotiates a virtual right angle, re-setting its course towards the gentler plains of Arezzo’s region.

I had parked my V-twin motorcycle on an irregularly paved street in the centre and was waking up to a early August morning in the lower Apennines drinking a cafe corretto, (that is, corrected by a drop of grappa or eau-de-vie at a pavement bar.) En route to the higher evergreen-clad slopes of the main range of hills, I was keen to escape the suffocating heat of an Italian mid-summer noon and the even worse prospect of culture pilgrims’ coach-loads zombying into the Arabian temperatures of Florence’s renaissance squares.

True, the town of Agroponte was not wildly appealing but it had a lively atmosphere, and the farmers’ vans coming with their zucchini and aubergines into the main market square enhanced the tight-knit sociability of a provincial centre. The natives appeared most friendly towards me.

After digesting a delicious egg and cream pastry I returned to my means of transport and revved up the motor into a gentle feline purr. I began biking towards the main road, passing through a town gate with one tower remaining, just noticing by the side of my eyes a magnificent old bridge leaping over the tributary feeding into the Mambro, which because of its venerable age and uncertain structural condition, was now ignominiously consigned to pedestrian use only.

The narrow highway soon led past vine-drooped stone walls and modest houses festooned with vividly crimson geraniums. The traffic was still light and I could hear the rush of the river through the secure padding of my crash helmet.

I increased the throttle. The machine was performing well. The road was clear ahead. My body felt revived.

Suddenly, I noticed an almost English-green expanse of lawn ahead, on the right between the road and the river. Seeing the emerald grass bespeckled by little white stones I realised it was a war cemetery.

For four months after the liberation of Florence the Eighth army had made little progress through the wild northern Apennines into the industrial heartland of the Po Valley. This was partly because it had been starved of resources and ammunition now dedicated to the D-day engendered thrust through France (it had even called itself the "Forgotten army"), partly, too, because of the Fuhrer’s orders to his largely schoolboy troops to "fight to the last man and never surrender". Consequently, more men fell in action during those last few frantic months than in the rest of the campaign put together.

I decided to stop for a visit, more out of feelings of homesickness for an English-looking turf, so welcome after all those scrubby brown-dried collection of lawns Italians in summer still insist in calling municipal parks.

The cemetery was quite small and immaculately kept. Between each simple War office regulation headstone, simply marked with the name, age and rank of the fallen soldier, was planted an enchantingly perfumed miniature rose bush. I was stunned by how young some of them were when they fell. Elegantly topiaried hedges surrounded the expanse, in the centre of which rose a cross, which would not have been out of place in a Home Counties Parish churchyard, to the memory of those dead soldiers who had no grave and no name.

After reading some entries calligrafied in the Book of Remembrance kept in a little brick cupolaed gazebo I sat down on a wooden bench and somewhat irreverently began rolling a cigarette. As I watched the clouds of liquorice-paper perfumed smoke ascend into the air like an oblation to Arcadian Gods I was startled by the sudden appearance of an immaculately pin-stripe suited man, hatted with a well-dimpled Homburg, and carrying a brilliantly polished attaché case under his left arm, striding confidently towards the central memorial cross area.

He seemed so self-possessed and intent on his progress towards the cemetery’s axis that I had no wish to interrupt him, not even to wish "Buongiorno". I tried, instead, to remain unnoticed on my bench near the manicured hedge. Clearly, this medium-built late-middle-aged man with a neatly cut greying moustache was not the cemetery’s gardener. He was much too smartly dressed for that. His couturiered appearance also seemed inappropriate for any administrative role in the cemetery unless it was at some official function? Who was he and what was he doing here?

I looked at him all the way down the gravelled path to the central area and was glad that he still had not noticed my presence. The man then halted before the octagonal Carrara marble pedestal and briefly stood still, as if in contemplation.

And then he unzipped his briefcase and took from it a silver trumpet, raised it to his lips and started playing in limpid and incisive tones. It was an aria from Verdi’s Don Carlos, Act three, where the Count contemplates retiring to a monastery.

I heard in silence, seduced by the clear argentine tones of the valved instrument intoning against a rushing background of the river fast flowing over the rapids and the buzzing of an occasional scooter passing by.

Other numbers followed: a sentimental Neapolitan ballad, a military march with a very jaunty polonaise-like rhythm and, wonder of wonders, the exiles’ chorus from Nabucco. The unknown trumpeter and the instrument merged into one, audience and orchestra, action and landscape, coalescing into the rising heat of the day, the obfuscating sky, and the lambent sunlight.

Then the solo concert stopped as suddenly as it had started. With equal precision the trumpeter replaced his instrument in his briefcase, and turned away from the cross to return.

As he began to walk towards the entrance I plucked up the courage to come out of my secretive arbour and approach the trumpeter.

"Good morning" I announced.

"Good morning to you," he replied, without an eyelid of surprise, as if he had been expecting me all this time. "Are you a forestiero? Welcome to Agroponte. Perhaps you are English? Ah the great British Empire! Where has it gone?"

He said this with an infectious smile and without a hint of malice.

"Why yes, I am British." I confirmed

"And which town in England were you born?"

"London, Lewisham SE13 to be exact."

"London. Ah London, what a great city. My cousin has lived there and he has told me all about it: the fog and the House of Parliament, Her Majesty and the cricket. You know, your country has taught us democracy, and taught Mussolini!"

We walked in silence for awhile. The gravel crunched dryly under our feet.

"What a fine place to play the trumpet; it’s so peaceful here, so quiet" I commented. "Is that why you have chosen this place?"

"Partly, yes; I do not disturb the neighbours, that is true. But I really come here to play to the soldiers."

"To play to the soldiers?" I tried not to sound too surprised.

"Yes, to play to the soldiers."

"That’s fine, that’s a really fine thing to do." I said, trying, in my mind to justify his action. "And how often do you come here to play?"

"I try come here to play every morning around 10 o’clock. But, unfortunately, it is not always possible and the soldiers have to do without me. You know how it is: there are commissions to do in the town, then there’s shopping with the wife, and sometimes I catch a cold and then my lungs refuse to produce enough air for the trumpet. I don’t like to give of my second best. It would be disappointing for the soldiers."

"You play remarkably well. Was that last piece from Rigoletto?"

"Yes, bravo. It’s from Act Two, you know when the Duke tries to find where Rigoletto has hidden the daughter he is in so much love with. But, you should know I have been playing with the Agroponte Municipal Town Band for over forty years now. Not always the trumpet, mind you. I’ve had to play on the ophicleide (what an instrument!) or stand in for the Cornettist if they were indisposed or otherwise not available. After all these years I would expect to be proficient, although, sadly, that is sometimes not the case with some of my colleagues."

The principal aim of traditional Italian town bands is to make a festive sound. They always, in my experience manage to produce the second and sometimes even succeed in the first. Clearly, with a trumpeter like this man the Agroponte Municipal band must be a cut above average.

"Do you just play to English soldiers?" I asked.

"Well," he answered. "The Germans kicked me and many like me around very badly. It was a rough time with them around I tell you. And the Italians didn’t do so badly at kicking me. And, between you and me, the British sometimes kicked me around too. But it doesn’t matter any more now does it?"

I heard him in silence as he went on. "Of course, I like to play to the British soldiers most of all. But I do find the time to play to the Italian soldiers too and once a month, if I can, I go to the biggest war cemetery there is this side of the Apennines - the German one they were only permitted to build five years ago - and even play a little to them. But not Wagner!"

We talked a little more about the heat of the summer weather and the lack of rain, of course, and then how well I found myself in the country and how long I intended to stay. We were just about to step through the cemetery gates when I felt impelled to ask my trumpeter the question that had bugged me all the time I had been in his sight and his company.

"Do you really believe the soldiers can hear your trumpet?"

"But of course they can hear it, of course they can."

The day was now warming up fast. With cordial promises of another meeting, perhaps an invitation to the bar for a cappuccino we parted. I ignited the V-twin and began my sinuous escape from the growing heat of the plains on the twisting B road up above the foaming river, the serenaded soldiers lying in their beautiful green and the industrious market, towards the resin-scented pine forests of the upper Emilian Apennines.

 


 

THE WOOLTHORPE GATHERING

 

For many years their vernal love, reborn in a smudge-earthen East Anglian marsh had been driven out by the diurnal tedium of the marriage contract. The relentless storming of the years had begun to crease his face, and fatigue his muscles and the erstwhile bloom of Margaret’s features; despite her excellent bone structure finally succumbed to the fiend of time. Those flights into the blue skies of unlimited lovemaking seemed so far away now that it appeared to him that they had barely existed.

So when Albert joined the local Reformed Primitive Druid chapter at the suggestion of his Prescelly Mountains Works Manager Margaret was especially pleased for him, and for her. A bit of the antique Celtic mysticism might sink through his balding pate, do them both some good and inject sorely-required passion into their drooping sex lives. She had read quite a few books about earth-goddesses and stone circles and felt that pre-Christian fertility rites might do the trick.

When the evening came they both prepared themselves and hastened to the Festival on Woolthorpe Common organised by the chapter’s high priest, Aneurin.

This was the big one. Samain, the Celtic festival for the end of summer, one of the most important and sinister calendar festivals of the Celtic year was held when the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to mankind. The gods played many tricks on their mortal worshippers; it was a time fraught with danger, charged with fear, and full of supernatural episodes. Albert thought of the impending letter from his bank manager. His thoughts then mazed through the Monte-Carlesque financial venture he had been impelled to go on through the receipt of an email SPAM. The "free" loan he’d been persuaded to sign subsequently intervened together with the dismal failure to fix his friend’s erratic hard disc. These ruminations were followed by the sudden aerosol of religious enthusiasm experienced in insomniac nights, the strange vision of a still-flowering tree when leaves were falling everywhere, the sounds of exotic cockatoos among the rock pigeons of the nearby municipal woods.

The full moon boded well for the festivities as they gathered under the diseased oak in the centre of the rugby pitch. An argentine aura bathed the participants in ethereal light. Bankers and car mechanics, checkout mothers and legal secretaries were all rendered equal under the all-seeing eyes of the goddess. The oak forgot its diseased branches and polluted bark while the carcinogenic fumes of the town behind them bathed the weak wattage of the condemned street-lamp in iridescent colours.

From an aquamarine plastic raincoat the treasurer withdrew a grimy black plastic object on which he pressed a button. The tape recorder exhumed tinny midi synthesis ambient sounds, permeating the cold, dewing grass and the flabby whisky-liveried flesh of the more superannuated members while the cassette hiccuped on its patches of bald ferric oxide.

Sacrifices and propitiation of every kind were thought to be vital, for without them the Celts believed they could not prevail over the perils of the season or counteract the activities of the deities. From Town Hall and Government office, from executive suite and gaffer’s hut the written oracles of memos and reports, the sudden sealed envelope and the evening call launched spasm of uncertainty in Albert’s varicose veins. Drops of congealing sweat drooled down his ill-designed stubble.

The wicker basket the secretary of the local choral society had brought along relieved his, and their, anxiety. Within it a pallid, plume-less battery chicken ineffectively mildly squawked strangled chords through the suburban dusk mingling its hopeless calls with the rumbling sounds of a lone monoplane scouring the skies above. Edith hoped that the despondent fowl’s cries would not attract the attention of the occupants of the handful of neighbouring houses

The selenic dance began and increased in its well-meaning fervour. Slapping of superfluous flesh penetrated the dank night, almost blotting out the tweeting sounds of two little owls and the Mozartean roulades of a nightingale. Breasts and beer bellies heaved up and down in a Saxon imitation of a shuhlplatter choreography.

While the unrobed acolytes balleted like Disneyan ostriches in a frantic effort to keep warm, Albert cast his eyes on Elaine, a still nubile brunette with pert petite breasts who was executing a Poussinesque dance of grace and delicacy. For some months he had dedicated his time at the earth-scriptural meetings to uncovering the archaeology of her taut and appealing body curves hidden beneath an unfashionable dress. To the measure of foursquare rhythms the high priest intoned the first line of Taliesin’s bardic ode.

Albert stepped slowly but deliberately towards Elaine: his heart burned with a faintly recollected fervour, reminiscent of his Caftan days. Did she wear such ugly clothes just to provoke his confined desires even more? Why did her placid beauty seem even more appealing when cloaked in such undesirability? Just as he began to stroke the ionic curves of her perfectly formed posterior he felt a pressure at his back.

The moon was now full in her preternatural chaise longue eiderdowned by cloudy trails in midnight’s hemisphere.

Turning round Albert saw the face of Margaret, not as he had been used to seeing her these forty years, but as the young fresh dryad of the trees he had first seen. Her face smoothed of its lines, refreshed in its bloom, entwined him within the laser-beams of her eyes. His heart pounded more deeply, aflame with a long-suppressed passion as he felt his heart injected with a burning and ardent pain that filled his arteries, his whole body, and his supernal mind. Attempting to grasp the newly shaped languor of her thighs he collapsed into an immobile heap, falling upon her newly painted crimson toenails. A small ivory-handled kitchen knife loosened from her hand and tinkled past his numbed fingers, its blade entrenching the sodden turf.

* * *

The calls of astonishment mingled with the police car sirens, the ambulance and the humbler gyrations of the clapped-out straining diesel of the local RSPCA as the alien vehicles approached the gasping heath gathering through the narrow streets of the huddled, decaying terraces below.

Meanwhile, the bleached chicken had pecked its way out of Mrs Rampton’s basket and was attempting to find its way to freedom across the starry heath.


 

KEVIN'S STORY

 

The red telephone kiosk stood incongruously by a slope of conifers in the hilly landscape. From its rusting interior a lone bulb attempted to pierce the thick darkness of the late winter evening. Someone stood inside. A slim boy of seventeen of medium height and fair hair was holding onto the receiver with both hands. In the mini-bus parked in the gravelled lay-by next to the kiosk an attractively featured woman in her thirties sat alone, puffing at a filter tip. Above the desolate heathland a myriad stars pricked the ink-black sky. The elegiac hooting of an owl echoed through the forest. It became very quiet.

Kevin replaced the receiver on the hook. As he came out of the kiosk he suddenly burst into uncontrolled tears.

"I can't, I can't," he repeated.

Veronica stubbed out the cigarette and put her arm round him in an attempt to comfort him. "I know it's difficult Kevin. But we've just got to live, that's all. Be brave. You'll pull through."

Kevin was spending what was known as a "residential". A student with moderate learning difficulties at Eastwick College, he was taking a course which it was hoped would put him into the running for mainstream lessons. He wanted to take GCSE exams. He also liked helping people. At Eastwick he attended the local nursery as a volunteer once a week. The nursery supervisor had already written a glowing report to the college tutors about his caring attitude. "An invaluable help to the nursery staff" the report said. As a result his self-esteem, which often appeared low to his teachers, rose. He began to show more confidence.

The "residential" involved going to a different part of the country and learning to manage living away from home. Kevin was staying at a cottage in the heart of Yorkshire. He had gone there with six of his classmates. Together with Veronica and her companion Richard he learned to do things together. The previous evening they had had a delicious ratatouille he had prepared using a recipe from his grandmother to whom he was very attached. Tonight it was George's turn: Irish stew was promised.

The residential had gone well so far. It had helped to take his mind partly off the personal devastation, which his brother's attempted suicide had caused. He looked up to David and when the elder brother obtained a scholarship in engineering at Stephenson University Kevin almost envied him. His brother was so much more talented than he was. They enjoyed doing crossword puzzles but it was David who got all the right clues. Still, if he worked harder Kevin too hoped he might get somewhere with his life. His parents expected it of him, anyway. Some of his teachers thought they might be pushing him too hard. But he was afraid of letting them down.

He remembered when the phone ran at the semi-detached army house where the father, who was part of the Medical Corps, and his family lived; the world seemed to turn upside down for him. A terse message from his brother's university tutor: OD, an emergency ambulance to the hospital, two drips, three nurses and a life-support machine.

His grief seemed to be without outlet. Used to the regimented, repressed military emotions of his Scottish mother and father Kevin felt he could not talk to them. And they in turn, instead of hugging him, displaying and sharing their grief with him, kept tight-lipped, silent. He could not stand the silent front they presented towards him.

The phone-call confirmed that the situation was still grave. Kevin apologised for his tears to Veronica;

"I'm sorry, it's so awful. Here I am enjoying myself and having a good time when my brother is near death in a hospital bed far from home, far from me."

The residential ended and the small party returned to Eastwick College. It was judged a success by all who took part. Even the two girls, who had originally scorned the idea of going to "cow-pat" country, enjoyed their trip to the Yorkshire moors. They had skimmed stones along the freezing February waves that lashed against the seaport of Filey. They had mingled with happy shoppers on market day at the county town. They had even proved themselves good walkers and beaten some of the boys back to the cottage after a gruelling all-day hike in the surrounding hills, even if they admitted the decomposed corpse of a sheep they had come across covered with carrion crows was a little too much.

Mick, who had been able to bring his customised mountain cycle with him on the mini-bus, had been glad to do a considerable amount of biking. He could now return to Eastwick and tell his cycling club how he had freewheeled at sixty miles an hour down the highest and steepest hill in Yorkshire. The stay had been crowned by what every one considered was a scrumptious meal at the local inn, the "Red Fox". The portions had been so large and they had even been allowed to drink a glass of beer without being asked their age.

However, on the first day back at college Kevin looked even more distressed than ever before. His hands were visibly shaking. His face moved nervously around; his eyes could not fix themselves on any one object for long.

Veronica was training as a councillor. She already advised students in emotional difficulties at the college. When she saw Kevin she could see that something else had happened. Had it come to the worst? Had his brother died? What could have happened this time? He sat in the privacy of her portakabin office situated in what had formerly been a school playground.

"Kevin, what's up now. Please tell me," she spoke anxiously.

"My dad, it's my dad. When I got home last night my mum showed me a telegram sent from his unit in Bosnia. He's been shot, badly. They had to airlift him back to the military hospital in this country. I am not allowed to see him. They say that he is in a coma," stuttered Kevin.

"That's terrible. But you've got to be very brave now. I know your mother doesn't like to demonstrate all that much affection to you. But she loves you, she really loves you. She needs your support, although she pretends not to want it. You can help each other," comforted Veronica.

"I have tried to but I feel so useless. I can't do anything in this situation. I can't change anything. These things are horrible. I feel helpless," he insisted.

"Why should you feel helpless. You can help just by being yourself. You may not sometimes realise the help that you can give people. At the nursery they tell me that you are the most caring young volunteer they have had for a long time. Don't underestimate yourself, don't."

"Thank you, Veronica, " he said, "you are so good to me."

He carried on with his course at the college. Mervyn, his maths and computer teacher, had heard from Veronica about the family tragedies that had fallen on Kevin and treated him with special consideration. Although Kevin often appeared not to understand his explanations, although he repeated them many times, Mervyn tried always to be patient with him. It would be unprofessional to be otherwise.

One day he asked Kevin what the situation was like at home.

"Much better," he smiled.

"How's your brother?" asked Mervyn, curiously.

"Oh, we went to the pub together two nights ago. Of course, he's not supposed to drink but he had a little glass anyway," beamed Kevin.

"And your dad. Is he out of his coma?" questioned Mervyn.

" Yes he is. The hospital says that they'll discharge him soon. We really look forward to seeing him back at home."

"Has he told you anything about his experiences in Bosnia?"

"No, he doesn't want to tell me about them at all. The situation appears to be so terrible out there. So many people dying. I think he's talked to my mum a little bit about it, though," he replied.

Mervyn was glad that things had started to take such a definite turn for the better. He was glad for Kevin. And anyway, without suffering there can be no personal development, no self-maturity.

Pamela, the college's Special Needs co-ordinator, was particularly scathing about Kevin's mother.

"When I phoned her up yesterday to sort out his grant I said to her "I'm sorry to hear about the problem with Kevin's brother." She replied "what problem? There's no problem with his brother, none whatsoever." That's the kind of woman she is. Hard, doesn't want to show any emotions, keep them well wrapped up. That's what a Scottish Calvinist upbringing does for you. If that's religion I want none of it. I fear something's got to snap in Kevin soon. He's not really that strong."

But he kept a proud face as he carried on with his course. His maths teacher was particularly pleased with his progress.

"I think I'll put you into the highest level for the maths exam this summer. I'm quite confident you will pass," said Mervyn.

Then, two weeks later, the bombshell landed.

"How's Kevin's family?" Mervyn asked Veronica. He didn't like to ask Kevin directly about his family.

"His brother's dead," said Veronica abruptly.

"Dead?" Mervyn froze. "But I thought he was on his way to a full recovery."

They sat together in silence for some seconds.

"Evidently he had a relapse. The consultant did fear brain damage. Went back into a coma and died," explained Veronica.

"Christ," exclaimed Mervyn, "how are the family taking it."

"The dad's back in Bosnia," replied Veronica.

Two weeks later the news came that the father had been caught up in an ambush in central Bosnia. Snipers had got him while he was escorting an International Red Cross food aid convoy. Somewhere near Tusla. Kevin wasn't too sure about where, exactly. This time, however, it was even worse than before. An emergency airlift had taken him back to the military hospital at home. Although he was receiving every care it was still doubtful whether he would pull through.

"It's an unfair world," thought Mervyn when he heard the news.

Veronica's own experiences of school were not inspiring ones.

"I didn't learn much about the usual subjects. I admit I mucked about a bit," she said to Mervyn over a coffee break. "But that was hardly surprising when I consider some of the teachers' attitudes and the facilities my school had to offer. What I did learn was how to handle myself with other people although many of my relationships, especially with men, were mixed blessings."

Now she wanted to make up for all those years wasted as far as her education was concerned. Since her appointment as student advisor she had started an intensive degree course in counselling. She became very involved in her subject although she admitted many of the books she read were hard going with their sociologese jargon. When Pamela obtained funds to attend an international conference on student counselling at Biarritz she invited Veronica along.

"But I haven't really got much to say at the conference," she protested.

"Yes you have. I know you've been doing a lot of counselling work at the college, especially with Kevin. Perhaps you could include some of your experiences worked into a case study," suggested Pamela.

"Me, read a paper at an international conference in front of all those specialists and authorities. I just haven't got the know-how and preparation. You must be joking," she laughed.

" No I'm not. You can do it," affirmed Pamela.

Three weeks later Veronica came back to work at the college radiant with confidence. She had written a paper using her experiences with Kevin. She had delivered her paper in front of a distinguished panel of international authorities and she had received praise for its unusual approach to counselling theory. She had also thoroughly enjoyed herself at the fashionable French seaside resort and had struck up an intimate friendship with Alphonse, a handsome professor at the Sorbonne. "My word, those Frenchies could teach these Brits a few things about love techniques," she concluded to herself.

Moreover, she did feel that some good had come out of her student's despairing situation.

On a bright, balmy, spring-like January morning Kevin was doing his turn working as a volunteer at the nursery. An assistant came into the room where he was organising a game of tag with excited toddlers.

"Can I leave you with the kids," said Kevin, " I'd just like to phone up my mum. She sounded very depressed this morning. I really feel the need to hear from her now."

Peter, the assistant, was pleased that he had become more concerned about his mother. Perhaps, in this time of family crisis, the two could really get together, remove the armour hiding their emotions and truly help each other.

Kevin came back, ashen pale, from the 'phone.

"What's the matter?" asked Peter anxiously.

"I've got to get home urgently," he replied, "it's our next-door neighbour who answered the 'phone. Something's happened to mum. The neighbour said she went next door to borrow some vanilla essence for a cake she was making for her daughter's birthday. She rang the doorbell and got no reply. She tried knocking and still there was no reply. Then she looked through the letterbox and saw a body on the hallway carpet. She rushed back and phoned up the ambulance. The paramedics found mum lying unconscious in a pool of blood. They rushed her to hospital and she's now on a life-support machine."

Kevin stated these facts with stoic bluntness. He had obviously begun to handle his family situation with greater detachment.

"Jesus. Is there anything we can do?" Peter, the assistant, was full of concern.

Kevin continued: "luckily the doctors say that she is now out of danger, although she'll take a long time to recover."

"But is there anything we can do," reiterated Peter.

" No, it's all right thank you," he replied, "I've been told I can't visit her yet anyway."

Why had Kevin's mother done this to herself? She had come across as a very self-contained person who rarely let others know what concerns were really on her mind. And apparently there were many of them right now. Without a release through conversation or confession she must have increasingly locked herself within herself, presenting a false "everything's all right" front to the outside world. It could not last, Peter thought. Perhaps what happened now was inevitable. She must finally have given way to her emotions after all. She must eventually admit to her need for therapy, for help.

When the rest of the nursery staff heard about the news they rallied round Kevin. "We'll send her a get-well card," they suggested.

"She is not allowed any mail. Besides she's been transferred to another hospital," explained Kevin.

He appeared shaky and uncertain on this point. Was there some doubt about what his mother had done? It was understandable, however. He must somehow, mistakenly of course, feel ashamed about what his mother had carried out to herself. False pride, that was all. Odd though, about not being able to receive any mail.

Later that day Peter phoned up Kevin's home from his staff-room. He had only recently been told that Kevin had a younger sister. Was she still staying at home? How was she coping with these events? Peter felt extremely concerned for her.

The phone rang three times. Then the voice of a middle-aged woman with a strong Glaswegan accent came through on the line, loud and clear. It was Kevin's mother.

"Mrs McCormick...are you all right?"

"Am I all right?" she laughed. "Why shouldn't I be? Is that Peter at the nursery?"

"Yes, it's Peter."

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing. Kevin just thought that something might have happened to you and I phoned to make sure that nothing had," replied Peter.

"Of course nothing's happened to me. Why, is this some sort of joke?" she quizzed him.

Peter felt puzzled, uncertain. Was he losing his grip on reality?

"But then what about his brother?" he asked hesitantly.

"His brother's very well, thank you, and studying for his finals at university," replied the mother confidently.

"And his father...Bosnia?"

"What about Bosnia? His father has never been to Bosnia. These past two years he's been a medical orderly at the hospital, thank God. Why all these questions? What has Kevin been telling you?"

"It's all right. Just wanted to confirm something, that's all. Thank you Mrs McCormick. Goodbye."

As he replaced the receiver Peter stood momentarily stunned. He felt a mixture of disbelief and rage within.

When he saw Veronica in her portakabin that afternoon he told her about his 'phone call to Kevin's mother. She turned pale and stood still, staring at him. Peter feared she might faint.

"Sit down, Veronica please. Look, I'll make you a nice cup of tea."

"No sugar please," she replied after a few seconds of silence. "This is unbelievable."

"You can say that again," Peter commented.

During the next few hours Veronica entered into a state of considerable shock. She had trusted Kevin, built a bond with him through her counselling. She had even suffered with him and learned about her professional attitude to her counselling through her experiences with him. And now her case, her world had been torn down in an instant. She felt she could no longer trust anyone. She could no longer trust herself. Where was her perception? How many other things which she had truly believed in were, in fact, full of sham, false? The paper she had delivered at the Biarritz conference. Funny, it had certainly fooled those professionals. It was all a hoax. Her life had become a hoax. She may have sometimes been a victim of liars before, especially men. She thought all that was behind her now. Her professional training would give her the detachment and cool approach, which she craved for. Now even that was gone. She felt betrayed, made an utter fool of. The praise she had received for her paper was empty false praise. They would start laughing at her behind her back like hyenas. She would give up her course, give up her job at the college and become a waitress instead.

Why had Kevin done this to her? Well, perhaps, she shouldn't take it so personally. He had done it to everyone else he met at the college, to a greater or lesser degree. There must be a deeper reason for his story. It must have been a plea for attention, a cry of help. Both his sister and his brother were doing so well with their studies. And he was struggling with elementary sums. But then why do it this way?

The next day, his class having been prepared by Veronica, Kevin stood up and told them the truth about his brother, his father, his mother and most importantly, about himself.

That evening at her home Veronica sat down before her typewriter. She had previously received an invitation to go to Berlin to speak at an international delegation of college councillors. She started typing.

" At least I know now what my next paper will be about", she thought to herself, "and I'll make it a really good one this time."

Outside, in the twilight of the flat's courtyard, the evening clouds lifted and, through her window, Veronica could clearly see the constellation of the Little Bear with the Pole Star at the tip of its tail. The unrestrained song of a lone nightingale burst through the crisp March air.

 


 

WHEN SANTA DIED

 

By most accounts the age at which children today no longer believe in Santa Claus, indeed the age at which children first learn about cocks and tits, and participate in their first clumsy sexual play, is fast decreasing. As a child, doubts as to the existence of the first entered into my head when I was about six or seven. My argument was oddly Jesuitical for a small boy. "God rewards virtue and punishes sinners" were statements I had learnt from my attendance at Sunday school. I had also heard that the rich "could not bring their camels into the Kingdom of Heaven," or something like that. I knew the Bible to be an old book, so now it must be Rolls Royce Silver Clouds or Austin Princesses that the rich would not be allowed to park in the forecourt to the Pearly gates. Our family was safe with its Zephyr Zodiac Mark II. Then why did those playmates whose fathers owned Populars or Reliants or (worst fate of all) no car at all get such paltry rewards for their virtuous life at Christmas? Not even a Meccano set no. 3? It seemed quite unfair. There was something wrong about the whole thing. This was my first intimation of the essential unfairness of life on this planet.

***

It was agreed by even the most envious of neighbours that theirs was a happy combination. Since their marriage seven years previously, Helen and Nicholas had found little to argue about and much to be thankful for. Their loving union had produced a lively infant in flaxen-haired Michael. After a very few lean years in his American-owned software house, Nicholas had now risen to become a sought-after Web-site design consultant of some repute. From their single-bedroomed "starter house," erected in a former Essex swamp, they had been able to move to a distinct arts and crafts mansion in Milford Park. Not only was there so much more space in their new home, with its warm terracotta colouring and its extensive mature garden, but the local inhabitants, too, appeared to have more space in their own heads and Helen and Nicholas soon became members of the local institute with its origami classes and fen-shui courses, grateful that they would no longer have to witness those former local Friday night sports of car-burning and tree-hacking in the Essex marshes.

Autumn lingered long that year and, although leaves still half-dressed several of the larger trees in the municipal park it was now deep in the season of advent and Michael was already aware that within a few weeks there would be another exciting Christmas to look forwards to with lots of presents and lots of sweets. He had his eyes particularly on a Rivarossi Train set he had seen in the window of the local toyshop. (Yes, such places still existed in the area where they lived.) The beautifully detailed features of the locomotive pistons and the passenger dining tables he could see within the windows of the Pullman coaches in all their authentic livery particularly enthralled him. He knew his dad would help him make up an Alpine scene with double-switch back tunnels and grazing plastic goats and looked forward to seeing the first express train transverse the Lego viaduct he was proposing to construct across the ravine before it descended into the chalet model town’s station.

Everything seemed headed for another traditional Milford Park family Christmas, indeed, for another five years of conjugal bliss, were it not for Nicholas’ sudden, unexpected announcement one dank November evening back from work that he had been asked to attend urgently a de-stressing fortnight by the firm’s medical advisor.

Helen was surprised. "But darling, I know you’ve recently been working longer hours than normal, and look frequently tired, but you always appear so refreshed after your Saturday afternoons on the golf-course."

"I know, my love," answered Nicholas, "but I do respect Dr. Lombroso’s wise opinion (remember how he dealt so sympathetically with old Franklin when he started coming in to work on Sunday evenings) and the company is paying all my expenses."

"But where are they sending you?" queried Helen.

"That is a closely guarded secret," replied Nicholas. "It’s considered that the therapy works best when the patient is completely isolated from all work and family contacts."

"Am I, your wife, just a family contact?" questioned Helen with barely veiled irritation.

"Trust me," Nicholas assured her in his warmest tones. "I believe implicitly in the Company’s employee medical insurance policy. Treat it as a mere check-up. After all, you wouldn’t want me to finish up like that spark Hely-Hutchinson, you know, the one whose been a resident of the Abney Institution for the last three years."

Helen’s face eclipsed. Hely-Hutchinson, or Bunny for short, had been one of their most helpful neighbours when they had first landed in Milford Park. When Bunny was discovered by the park-keeper the previous spring hopping with only his jock strap on the bed of daffodils the company mobilised its emergency plan before the newspapers mobilised their reporters. Helen still visited his discarded wife on a regular basis, making the tea and offering sympathy.

Helen’s doubts about Nicholas’s restorative sojourn were not assuaged by his references to erstwhile colleagues and friends. "That’s hardly going to be the case," she complained. "But then I’m only your wife not your medical advisor."

***

The fifteen days at the unknown sanatorium did not pass too slowly for Helen. "I sometimes feel like a virtual widow," she tried to joke with herself, "but I suppose I shouldn’t interfere too much with Nicholas’ business affairs."

"Where’s daddy gone? When’s he coming back?" Michael asked regularly and tirelessly.

"Honeybun, I’ve already told you. Daddy’s gone for a special servicing in a special garage for humans. When he comes back he’ll be as gleaming bright as a new Volvo estate," replied Helen with a hint of irony and put Michael’s coat on, ready to take him to Saint Athanasius’s C of E primary.

***

When Nicholas returned he seemed a different person. Waiting in the porch Helen knew this as soon as he stepped out of the private unmarked ambulance onto their gravelled forecourt. Gone was his infectious smile and affable personality. Instead, a grim scowl surfaced on his face, a close-mouthed appearance overcame his countenance and a peculiar shine glistened in his eyes. With stiff, close steps he crunched the ground and stood drooping before her like a species of desert vulture.

They both looked at each other silently: Helen with a perplexed silence, Nicholas with a silence of searching scrutiny.

"My love, my love. What’s wrong?" Helen’s suddenly chilled eyes seemed to say.

She tried to attract the attention of the ambulance driver, who was manoeuvring a rapid three-point turn in the avenue before their five-barred gate by waving at him, but with the screech of a skid the vehicle quickly disappeared beyond the last remnants of greenery from the acacia trees.

Only Michael’s infant enthusiasm broke the silence. "Daddy, daddy," he exclaimed tugging at his father’s flannel trouser leg. I’m so glad you’re back for Christmas.

"There will be no Christmas this year," replied Nicholas with a metallic tone.

"What daddy, no presents? No train-set?" pleaded his son.

"Santa Claus does not exist. He is a creation of the sodomites, of the lost children of Israel," explained the father.

Then what about my birthday?" Not understanding, Michael was close to tears.

"All presents will now be performance related," asserted Nicholas, irritably depositing a small brown suitcase down on the encaustic tiles of the porch floor.

"Where on earth have you been and what have they done to you?" quizzed Helen anxiously as they entered the mirrored hallway of 34 Wilberforce Avenue. But she could see that Nicholas’ face twitched with irritation and she felt that she could only find out more about his strange metamorphosis by subtler, more indirect means.

***

The next few days were a revelation or rather a book of revelations for her.

"There is war in heaven," affirmed Nicholas after Michael had been put safely to bed and he and Helen were ensconced in their armchairs in the rosette ceilinged living room.

"What do you mean?" his wife quietly asked. She knew that if she was to find out more she needed to tread softly.

"We must establish His kingdom. The time of the Gentiles is ended. His invisible return is nigh. It is written in the Book."

"What book?"

"Why the Book of Daniel and the Book of revelations. Why have I not seen it before until now? They are God’s timetable for the affairs of this world. Only their constant reading can give us the authentic insight into our own destiny."

Over the next few days, for Nicholas did not return immediately to work Helen learnt more. From him she heard of Pastor Russell and Judge Rutherford, watchtowers and Gilead and of the founding of the society in the prairies. Indeed, she could hear of nothing else. Nicholas had installed his mini-disc player in a locked closet with speakers throughout the house and "sermonettes", as he said Helen should call them exuded in strong mid-western accents from all corners of the house.

"Whatever you do," said Nicholas, "don’t phone up work and talk about me."

But Helen did exactly that and was in mid-way conversation with the lilting voice of the chief personnel officer. "It’s quite all right Mrs Wilding, just give it a little bit of..." when Nicholas’s hand firmly came on the receiver.

"What did I tell you not to do?" he roared at her.

"But, but, but..." she pleaded.

"Look, you don’t seem to understand anything at all," he said. "I have done all this for promotion. I’ll be brief. I could only get so far in this firm being C of E. The chief executive Oziah Washburn III flew specially directly from Toulouse, Kansas to se me talk to me, convert me so that I might be a more efficient executive, be promoted to the higher echelons, work more equitably with the top brass. You see without the bonding I could not advance any further, without my repentance and renewal I would be letting both the company and myself down. Can’t you see, can’t you see that?" insisted Nicholas.

Helen looked straight into his changed eyes and said nothing.

"Perhaps it’s all for the best," Helen mused to herself in her half-sleep. "Our standard of living has certainly improved since his considerable salary rise. And then Nicholas might become a little less enthusiastic as the novelty wears off.

For the next few weeks the mini-disc player whirled during most of the daylight hours at Acacia Avenue.

Helen listened, exhausted, her brain accepting like her body after a relentless night of love-making, to the "sermonettes":

"And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O sovereign Ruler, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell upon the earth? And there was given to them, to each one a white robe; and it was said to them that they should rest yet a little while, until both their fellow-bondmen and their brethren, who were about to be killed as they, should be fulfilled.

***

Finally, Helen could bear it no more. The crisis started when she was ready to support one of her friends at the Institute as Tory councillor at the local Town Hall.

"Have nothing to do with governments or politics. Never vote again. Avoid prostitution of your soul," harangued Nicholas.

And when Michael’s school phoned her up to say that he had had to have some first aid as a result of an accident in the playground and that he should have a tetanus injection Nicholas pronounced to her: "Do not draw blood neither have blood drawn for you for God’s body is our blood an we should not accept any other or defile our souls with it."

Helen knew that it was now or never. One evening, as Nicholas attended the local kingdom Hall "to pray for her soul and her conversion" as he put it, she packed her bags and silently left their Home in Acacia avenue, Michael’s hand firmly held in hers.

She knew where she was going as they took the Underground to Euston. The train slid through the pale winter green of the Midland plain. Michael was asleep for most of the Journey, only waking at Birmingham New Street to change trains for a local branch line.

The fleeing couple informed the conductor at which unpersonelled station they wanted to stop. The car was waiting as their nostrils hit the frozen air and smelt the tired clay and dying hawthorn scent.

Helen and Michael sought refuge with a dowager aunt; a relative she had always amicably corresponded with but never actually met on years, in a half-timbered Tudor farmhouse in Shropshire and hoped to God Nicholas would never find them again. With her small allowance she knew she could live adequately and, furthermore, be able to protect Michael from the doomed messages emanating from the mouthpiece her husband had become. The rambling construction was, furthermore, well-alarmed and secure locks had been placed on all the entrances and exits.

Michael was thrilled. Not only would he be able to have a Christmas once more with presents but also he loved playing in the old living room. The expansive chamber possessed a big stone inglenook fireplace on one side.

On Christmas Eve, just before midnight Michael, filled with excitement at the prospect of the morning to follow, was still not yet completely asleep. He had said his prayers, even commending his father to the heavenly host and was listening to the cavernous hooting of an owl outside his window on the branch of the linden tree. In this half-awake state he was suddenly startled by an abrupt hollow thudding noise coming from downstairs. In his anticipation he imagined it must be Santa Claus coming. "So he does exist after all," he said to himself "Santa Claus lives!"

He opened the living-room door and entered in. The Christmas tree stood erect and shadow-like in all its pine-needled glory. Its scent permeated the wood-burnt air, reminding him of summer in the mountains. Little reflections were coming from the baubles Helen had so artfully dressed its branches with and from the top an electric star still flashed on and off. Michael’s bare feet sank into the thick Turkish carpet. It was quite silent and behind the half-opened curtains the blanched rays of the moon bathed a light mantle of fresh snow on the lawn.

The noise seemed to have quite stopped. He approached the fireplace. The embers of the fire had not yet died down and a thousand little red sparkles gave out just enough light for him to make out an arm dangling down just above the grate.

"Come on Santa Claus, where are my presents?" he asked.

He knew it was Santa Claus. Was he not dressed in white and red? Just like the arm. But that red was not his cloak. It was bare skin. Michael hesitated. He looked up to see where the arm was joined. As he peered into the gloom of the recess his eyes stared right into a familiar face covered with blood. It was his father, but his eyes did not move in their whiteness and the hanging down features revealed a mouth that reversed itself into a fixed smile that seemed to say "I promised you I’d be back."

Divided between staying and leaving, his legs moving to and fro as if glued to the floor by nervous anticipation, Michael at last tore himself away and ran upstairs to his mother’s bedroom screaming "Santa’s dead, Mummy, Santa’s dead!"

"Of course, he’s not, I’ll show you," replied his drowsy mother as she stepped out of bed, put on her floral dressing-gown and walked dreamily down the stairs towards the living room.


 

UNFINISHED ANTIPHON

 

Central Italy. The Angelus bell tolled across the dusky hills. Its plangent tone added a tenor to the crystal-like tinkling of the goat bells as the animals scratched their way around the olive groves. The setting sun incarnadined the white-washed facade of the little church on the hill. In the distance, beyond the undulating hills, the cupola of a large cathedral stood out against the blooded sky.

A gravelled terrace extended in front of the church. Down one side of it a clerical figure in biretta and long gown paced up and down. With both hands he held a breviary. Mouthing the words silently Father Antonio read a meditation. In his forties, the priest's hair was greying but his sharp jaw and distinct eyebrows imparted an impulsively youthful appearance to his face.

To the right of the church a wrought-iron gate gave way to a small inner courtyard festooned with vines rising up from serried ranks of terracotta pots. Father Antonio pushed aside the unlocked gate and entered within. A black-and-white cat with a somewhat torn ear glided up to him and stroked his face against the priest's cassock.

"Good evening, dear Barnabas, and has the maid given you your supper yet?"

The purring of the cat intimated to him that this was, indeed, the case. To the side of the courtyard a narrow flight of stairs led to an upper room. Up the flights went the chaplain, opened a creaky oak door and retired into his study. Bare-walled, except for a picture of the Virgin and Child, the room was as monastic a cell as one could find. A low bed took up one side of its minuscule dimensions. An inordinately ornate sacristy cupboard largely filled the other side with little angelic putti attempting to fly from its corners. The Father opened the cupboard's large door, which disclosed shelves upon shelves of large flat-laid folios. From the top shelf he took out an unfinished manuscript and read out the opening bars of a score penned in a cursive but neat hand.

Softly he sang the opening syllables of his new motet: Salve Regina, mater misericordiae, Hail Holy Queen Mother of mercy. The notes, written with the time signature alla breve, gave away their origin in the archaic melodies of plainchant. However, on the four lower staves, which were assigned to the stringed instruments, the busy quaver figurations full of rushing arpeggiandos and crescendos showed that this composer was fully aware of le style galant and the spreading influence of the Neapolitan school. Salve Regina Hail Queen.

Antonio sharpened his goose quill. "One more section and then it will be finished", he thought.

The pen etched its notes on the paper. To the words O clemens Father Antonio added sound, harmony to make the words fly even higher, to fill his congregation with the intimations of a higher life, more perfect and purer than anything one could ever hope to experience on this earth.

The cat came in the open door. He found a goose quill on the floor and started to play with it, toying with his claws and tossing it hither and thither: the smell of a featured creature was too strong for its instinct.

Engrossed in the activity the cat did not even wink at the motionless presence of the Father leaned over the half-written sheet of manuscript.

***

In an Edwardian inner-London suburb the May wind rustled through the plane trees bordering the row of red-bricked villas. John placed his record of eighteenth century motets on the turntable. It was one of his favourites from his large collection of vinyl and was the crowning achievement of his pet project.

He cast his mind back to its genesis. It was during a holiday in Italy. He was seeking shade in the empty porticoes of a white-hot and deserted northern Italian city. Was it Turin or Bologna? He couldn't quite remember. Anyway, taking a side turning he found a shop with its shutters still unfolded. He though it strange that, with all the other blinds down for the couple of hours the whole town fell asleep exhausted from the searing heat of the summer afternoon, this place should still be open.

It was a second-hand shop. Entering into its crepuscular gloom from the blinding light outside he almost crashed into a large piece of church furniture. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light he noticed its ornate carvings with angels on the corners. An elderly gentleman shuffled towards him.

"May I help you", he asked.

"What an extraordinary cupboard," replied John.

"Yes, it is rather nice," he replied, as he opened one of the doors.

A whiff of mildewed parchment hit John's nostrils as he did so. Inside, on one of the shelves he could discern an untidy pile of what appeared to be large folio manuscripts, music manuscripts as they turned out to be. At the top of one sheet was written in a shaky but neat hand Padre Antonio incipit. In the hand of Father Antonio.

Back in London John, a lecturer in the history of music, presented news of his find to the Music library of the British Museum. They agreed to take the manuscripts for conservation and storage. One of them had particularly attracted John, It was a motet, unfinished, to the words of the Antiphon Salve Regina. What drew him to it was the enticing mixture of plainchant and intermezzo style. The flattened Neapolitan seconds and sevenths gave to the piece the seductive quality of a dark southern beauty calling to him like the evening waters on the shore of a mythological sea town. Later, with a band of amateur singers recruited from his church choir, he had made a private recording of a selection of these manuscripts.

Although unfinished, because of its great beauty John decided to also include the Salve Regina. He took the record and placed on his turntable.

An E minor chord intoned by the choir started the Marian antiphon. Vita Dulcedo et spes nostra salve. Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.

Hope, yes hope indeed. And the sweetness, the recollection of those Arcadian days of youth and high expectations flourishing among the grassy banks and tender kisses of his loved one. How their bodies had quivered to the touch of each others fingers, her tongue in his exploring each other like an hidden sea grotto whose entrance was only uncovered when the tides went down.

Ad Te clamamus. To thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve. Yes cry. He had done that many times. Internally too. It was no longer necessary to waste visible tears on this. Gementes and flentes, mourning and weeping. Mourning and weeping for my lost love for her radiant body, so confident so proud, her nipples erect on her perfect breasts. O to be one of her babies and suckle on her teats. What a mother she would be! In hac lacrimarum valle. In this vale of tears. Stroking the cat he felt her hair between his fingers: her raven hair thick and flourishing cascading over his skin. Turn then, thine eyes of mercy...eja ergo.

I though it unfinished. But it plays to the end.

The O clemens O pia..o merciful o loving..o dulcis Virgo Maria! O sweet Virgin Mary. A rainbow of iridescent colours seemed to flow swirling round his eyes. A golden light appeared to penetrate his brain. A delicious feeling spread through his body. Bliss, bliss o this was too much, too much to bear.

Sarah came into the room. Across the sofa she found his lifeless body draped down one side of the sofa. A cat was licking John's face and nuzzling into his neck.

 


 

THE SUMMER HOUSE

 

The house stood at one end of the crescent sweep of thickly daisied lawn, framed by two immense cedars. At the other end of the dense sward, a semi-circle of hedgerows was punctuated by a group of solemn busts intervalled on plinths. Roman noses and drapery dressed their marbled forms, verdigrised by years of damp English summers, as they gazed impassively on the lengthening vista.

It was a vaporous day. A thunderstorm had been threatening during most of the afternoon and in the distant fringes of the sky, dark clouds presaged its arrival. Far-off echoes of rumbles were heard. However, not a drop of rain had yet fallen and the day had become even closer in its unfulfilled warning.

James had been here before, a long time before. As a child an aunt had given him a book on Palladian villas and he had been enthralled to find that there had been so many in this area, a once luscious and pastoral river valley, now largely swallowed up by the ravenous housing and arterial roads of a bloated city. Taking to his bicycle he had come to these sylvan glades, gazed upon the Corinthian columns which acted as the villa's front porch, wandered through the cool cellars, once stacked with wine barrels, and shyly entered into the richly decorated apartments above, arranged like so many jewels around the solemn neck of the great octagon where he had imagined polished conversations on the classical poets and virtues taking place among a coterie of cognoscenti and dilettanti.

Following a line of drooping young poplars James walked dreamily towards the Villa's great portico. The afternoon weighed heavy and sultry and the air thickened with immobility. Turning a corner, he suddenly chanced upon a small summerhouse on his left, almost hidden by a dark shrubbery.

Clearly built to resemble a Hellenistic temple, the honeyed stones of the summerhouse glowed in the late afternoon sun. Above its mignon pediment the figure of Psyche was carved awakening Cupid was carved in. The door of the summerhouse was open.

Strange, thought James, in view of the endemic vandalism these garden ornaments were now prone to in the city’s parks. Inside the little shrine, four dark, windowless cool stone-laid walls formed a gloom in which James could only after some seconds of readjustment discern a marble table positioned in the centre of the room.

Oriental griffins grew out of each of its four legs, festoons of carved fruit hung before its front and a kaleidoscope of semi-precious rocks set in a weird geometry composed the table's top.

James, however, soon turned from examining more deeply the various beauties of this item of garden furniture for his eyes were drawn to a piece of paper placed aslant on the tabletop. At first, he took the paper for some piece of litter, waste paper thrown by an energetic wind onto the table. Then seeing some writing on it, he imagined it to have been absent-mindedly left by a previous visitor to this spot.

James could not at first read what was written on the paper, which felt thick and coarse to the touch as if it had been hand-made. As his eyes gradually accustomed themselves to the light, he began to read the words:

I have endured such unendurable hours in the expectation of seeing you again my love after so, so many years. Yet, I knew you would come back again to this place so dear to me and where I have often though of our night of great happiness together. Do not presume too much on my actions since we last enjoyed each other. Suffice it to say my life since then has only induced in me the certainty that we are made for each other and that we can only be completely happy in each other's arms. Your ever constant S.

James was perplexed. He re-read the note but this did not take away his puzzlement. One part of him felt as if he were intruding into another's private conversation in which he had no part. Yet another, deeper part felt that he had known these moments of ecstasy in these places before and that he had known, kissed, embraced and loved the hand that had written these lines. It came into his mind that he had, indeed, known someone called S all those years ago, who had meant so much to him.

He was half-in-doubt as to whether to leave the note on its place on the table and to walk out into the diminishing but still strong sunlight when he felt a silk-like caress on his hand and a warm feminine perfume caressed his entire being. He turned around to see her: the seraphic face, unmistakably hers, in its lineaments of purest desire, in its freshness of attraction, its grace and fineness of feeling.

Yes, she whom he had forgotten in his active life all these years but whose presentiments had always been with him in his half-awaking subconscious, whose presence had always haunted him from the corner of his eye to the end of his finger-tips.

But how could she have known that he would be here at his moment? Did anything lead him to come here in the first place? These thoughts were brushed aside as, taking hand in hand, they walked together towards the portico of the great house while around them vieille and flute players gathered for the fete champetre before the villa's garnered staircase serenaded ladies in long silk dresses and gentlemen dressed as Harlequins and Pulcinellas.

As the ladies curtsied and the gentlemen bowed James and Sarah realised they had recaptured time, their time. Turning their lips towards each other, they knew they were home at last.

"Action," cried the director while the mirrored lights ignited in defiance of the congregating dusk.

 


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