That morning, Elena virtually pushed Michael out of the door. Today wouldn’t be about astrology per se. It would be about research. But first, she felt the need to confide with her great friend and neighbour, Mary Allen. Luckily, she was free, which she normally was after her recent retirement. Around thirty years her senior, Mary shared Elena’s passion for history and she knew a fair bit about astrology as well.
“I can’t sleep anymore, Elena. Nearly forty years of teaching has burned me out.” Mary began to bite at another chocolate digestive, she said it was making her coffee ‘less wet’. There were crumbs all over the kitchen table.
Elena was staring thoughtfully out onto the cold, dormant garden. “Well, thank God I was never a teacher.”
“Quite,” Mary brushed back her grey hair, “so what’s troubling you? I can tell these things. There’s another man, isn’t there?”
“Hm.” Elena looked directly at her friend. “You may joke, but you’re right, that’s why I’ve asked you round.”
“Cripes! Thank Heaven I never married. Come on then, spit it out, girl.”
“Mary, it’s not a real man.”
Mary Allen sat bolt upright, her chewing temporarily paused mid bite. “A woman?”
“No, no. Michael and I are fine.”
“Not a real man, you say.” Mary’s eyes narrowed, quizzically. “I came across plenty of those at school. Some of those heads were absolute demons, you know.”
“I’ve met him twice in a dream, the past two nights in fact. I’m in this dark church and, well, he’s there.”
“A dream. A vicar!”
“He’s no vicar.” Elena put down her coffee mug. “He knows my name and he likes to kiss me, on the lips.”
“Ew! Now that does sound gross. Not tongues as well?”
Elena felt herself beginning to smirk. “No, I think he might be quite a gentleman at heart.”
Mary took a deep breath. “No gentleman would scare the living daylights out of you in a dark church, Dear Elena.”
“I’m not scared, Mary, that’s the thing. But last night, as soon it began to get light, he went back out like a shot.”
Mary was nodding. “Mn, typical male, misogynist, leaving the poor woman alone in a cold dark church. They’re all the same, aren’t they?”
“So I began to follow him but it got lighter and lighter as I got to the door – then I woke up.”
Mary reached for another biscuit. “Do you know what this reminds me of?”
“I haven’t got a clue. Surprise me.”
“Hamlet’s ghost, that poor old soul having to disappear at soon as the cock crowed at the dawn.”
Elena watched Mary dunk the biscuit in her coffee. “The ghost of Hamlet’s father having to return to purgatory, you mean?”
“Because he was murdered without his sins being forgiven, all those ‘imperfections on his head’, so to speak.” Mary stared thoughtfully at what remained of her biscuit, its edges still dampened by the previous dunk and bite. “But we don’t believe in purgatory, do we Dear?”
Elena looked at her. “I’m not sure what I believe, Mary, not anymore. You could say it’s just a dream but when you’re in a dream it’s the only reality you know. Your consciousness can only be in one place.”
“Yes, and it does feel real, doesn’t it? This sounds very Neptunian, don’t you think? The transpersonal world contacting you.”
Elena had to agree. “Transiting Neptune is right on my ascendant now, funnily enough. I do have a strange sense of dissolution, confusion right now. And the experiences of the past two nights have left me feeling quite faint at times.”
Mary was pointing directly at Elena. “I’ve never believed in coincidences. Never.”
It was dark, no sign of an open book this time, though there was a faint trace of incense in the cool air. She heard a door creak behind her. There was a figure blocking what meagre light was coming through it. She knew it was him, that silhouette was so distinctive, the broad shoulders and the wild hair. Elena wasn’t scared, maybe it was a lucid dream, the kind you leave immediately once you realise what it is.
Was that him whispering? Or was she merely wishing it to happen?
The heavy door shut gently behind him, he began to walk slowly towards her. She remained in the middle of the small nave, not sure if she was able to move or not. She didn’t really want to try. She was able to perceive more as he got near. He was indeed just a fraction taller, his clothes as dark as the surroundings. As he got close, she could make out some odd looking line pattern on his shirt, like gold faintly shining. The buttons were shiny too. Was it a shirt? Then she began to feel cold, as if in the presence of a ghost. Elena was looking at him, his eyes. He was within a few feet of her now.
His voice was a little louder, mid range like a young man, reverberating around the cold, dark stone. He came to a stop just in front of her.
“Who… are you?” she said, falteringly. Was that her real heart racing, or some fantasy within this temporary sheath in which she found herself?
He reached out with his right hand. His eyes were kind, sensitive, yet with an odd kind of derring-do about them that she liked. The hair was almost shoulder length, groomed but very full, a wavy dark brown. Still she didn’t move. She watched his lips, they were quite full. They met hers just as they did the previous night. He tasted sweet, though there was no attempt to probe her mouth. Was she disappointed? There was an outdated sensibility about him, which spoke of a much older, more chivalrous age.
As their lips parted, she became aware of more light coming through the windows. Dawn, or its equivalent, must have been breaking in this strange other world. He let her go, turning quickly round, walking away far more briskly than he had arrived.
“What’s wrong? Who are you?” she asked, but he was gone. The heavy wooden door clattered shut.
So she began to walk after him. It got lighter and lighter the nearer she got to that door. As she was about to open it, she felt herself return instantly to bed, lying on her back. Michael was snoring beside her. She eyed the clock. Five thirty, Monday morning. That was two nights in a row. She had to find out what was going on. Just how real was all this? And who was the fellow playing this strange kissing game with her? She had a feeling that she should know who he was. Then she began to feel strange, almost queasy again. It seems her nightly escapades were draining her of physical and emotional energy.
Elena switched on the bedside light and began to write it all down in her notebook.
Elena Trimble was a young astrologer. It was an unusual career but she loved it. While studying psychology at university, she had done a brief course on the ancient art of astrology – and was hooked. She did individual birth charts, a kind of modern psychological astrology, you might say. She didn’t believe in the mumbo jumbo prediction aspect of it, that the future can be clearly seen.
“So what’s this about today’s date, then?” Michael was speaking around a rather large piece of toast he was chewing.
“I’m pretty sure it’s to do with the dream. Dreams can speak to us in symbols and allegory.”
Elena had written down everything she could remember. The dark place she had found herself with this man could have been a church, or perhaps a chapel. Dreams were ruled by the Moon and perhaps the planet Neptune, she figured, hence the allegories, signs and symbols. She was trying to get a clearer view, not only of whom this person was, but what he was trying to say. And why did he kiss her?
She sipped her morning cup of tea, looking out onto perfectly still day, the sunlit grass, the frost slowly dissipating. “Let’s say we were in the chancel end of a church. There was a window ahead of us, though it wasn’t letting in much light, like it was nearly dark outside. There was a book open.”
“A bible, perhaps?”
She shook her head. “It was more like some kind of…parish record?”
“Yes, very likely a register. I felt sure he was directing me toward this book, as if to an entry in it. I remember the number twenty three quite distinctly, you see. I didn’t see it in the book, it just popped into my head out of nowhere.”
“Hm. Maybe he whispered it into your ear after kissing you.”
“Funny, ha ha.”
Elena began to surmise that twenty three could have been either a christening, a birthdate, or a burial. The fact that today was February 23 might be meaningful. There didn’t seem to be much else to go on. There was his general appearance, she supposed, slightly taller than her five feet four inches. It was the eyes she remembered, large, chocolate brown and loving. She didn’t recall being at all scared by him.
“Elena, you need more to go on than just a number.” Michael was placing the breakfast dishes in the sink.
She joined him with her own dishes. “I know, that’s why I’m making sure I take my notebook and pen to bed again tonight.”
Michael looked at her, seriously. “You’re expecting him again, are you?”
“I don’t know, but I’d better be prepared, hadn’t I? I get the feeling he’s got more to say, that’s all. I’ve never had a dream of this clarity.”
Michael had that pretentious little boy lost look in his eyes. “So should I be worried?”
“Hm.” Elena took his hand and kissed it. “Worried? About a figure in my dreams, maybe only figment of my imagination?”
“Nevertheless,” he said, examining her hand, “he evidently makes a good impression.”
A copse can be an intimate
friend. Most days he roamed there, always
finding something to love, a life of
Late winter was a favourite time; tree tops
took on reddish hues and
there were further signs other
and blue tits’ brighter songs, of the
Today was different. Large boots
had been this way,
their wearer, like
a stump line of grey, stood
barely seen by an old fence, through straight
saplings in sunlight.
He approached the figure, which seemed
to dissipate like mist in the sun, something
he’d mistaken for form
But it was more than
a notion that had led him there. The fence
overlooked a rolling field, familiar lumps
and bumps of pasture unchanged
where lords in their demesnes might
still rule for all he knew.
He leant on the fence, it
gave way in his hand. A piece of torn
grey cloth freed from a nail, flopped to
the damp ground.
He held it,
felt its old thick weave— like a uniform
He pondered the scene in front
of him, gave space to wartime tales,
the remembered lumps and
bumps which might easily hide a
To this day I don’t know for sure
who you were.
You sounded American
and dressed like a Californian,
or that’s how it seemed
to my parochial mind.
I wasn’t used to your friendliness,
being spoken to so kindly
by a complete stranger,
but then, that was the thing —
I felt I knew you.
Why didn’t I ask your name?
The event had brought us together.
Now we waited for the train
to take us back through Cumbria’s
rounded hills, always threatened by rain.
And true to form, despite it being July,
we found ourselves sheltering
in a little cafe, sipping bad coffee
made more palatable with cream.
That’s where I saw you surfing
in my mind’s eye,
feeling that smelting sun sink
beyond an ocean of glass.
We had just enough time
to assess our few days
in the company of a Buddha.
At least that’s what we said, if I recall,
and that we, too, might be Bodhisattvas!
And who’s to say we weren’t right?
Even now, when I play that album,
I keep looking at the picture
of the kind-looking man, all smiles,
with the sweet and beaten guitar.
He still looks an awful lot like you
It looks as if exciting times are ahead judging by all of the events being lined up. What a pity that we have to wait for an event such as the Olympics to get such a cultural treat. Don’t we deserve a bit of culture every year?
*The characters portrayed in this story are not based upon anyone living or dead, they are wholly imaginary.
**WARNING! SOME READERS MAY FIND SOME OF THE GRAPHIC IMAGERY CONTAINED HERE UNSETTLING.
The twentieth century was only a few months old but Captain Robert Charlesworth had already seen enough of it. Like most of those aboard ship, he was glad to see green Blighty once more.
The hill of Spion Kop had deprived him of several friends, a cousin and the forefinger and second finger of his right hand. His days firing the much vaunted Lee Enfield Rifle were truly over. Perhaps he could learn to shoot left-handed. He had also suffered a much more substantial, though less obvious wound in the same incident, leaving a rather nasty hole where his right nipple used to be. He had known, barring infection in the extreme heat, that he would come through it. Nevertheless, every time he looked at the short stub of his forefinger and the wholly vacant second, he cursed the way his hand had got in the way of that piece of shrapnel, even though more than one doctor had stated that those two fingers may have saved his life.
Only minutes before, his friend Lieutenant Hawtrey, had bought it right next to him, pieces of his friend’s head spattering him and his comrades as they fell to the ground on the pitted slope. Try as he might, he could not get rid of that image in his mind, lying on the scorched, bone-dry earth, Hawtrey, his head with a grievous wound, a head that he had heard shouting behind him only seconds earlier. He had heard of such things, assuming such tales had gathered goriness in the repeated telling. But nothing in his training or experience had prepared him for such utter confusion, such heat, such unimaginable horror.
And like most of the men, he’d had nightmares ever since.
“Paddy! Watch out!!” A foot to the left or to the right and he and Lieutenant Hawtrey might still be sharing a joke together. A foot to the left or to the right – and the shrapnel might well have taken him out instead of Hawtrey. As it stood, it was fortunate that more of them hadn’t been ripped to shreds along with Hawtrey in that same instant. Shrapnel had a way of doing that.
Whatever might have been, the resulting nightmare was the same every time, his friend staggering about without a head, arms out for balance, belligerent Boer bullets tearing into his chest, but failing to bring him down. Each time he awoke, disturbed and sweating, it was as if Hawtrey was unable to rest, just like all those who had been there. His diary entry for January 24 1900, written several days later with an awkward scrawl of his left hand, repeated the same sentence, over and over: “Lieutenant Patrick James Hawtrey, Lancashire Fusiliers, age 22. MAY YOU REST IN PEACE. May I find peace, too.”
There was to be no peace for Captain Robert Charlesworth, at least not that spring. A telegram awaited him ashore: “Wife gravely ill. Fever. Come urgently…”
The whistles had gone. Doors slammed shut. He felt the carriage shudder gently forward, almost mournfully slow. Liverpool Street Station passed before him; the madness that was London. They called in ‘The Smoke’, and with good reason. He felt strangely removed from those men in the engine way ahead, fitfully working in the noise, the steam and the sweat.
He pulled out his wife’s last letter from his pocket as the carriage emerged into the sunlight. She had always known that he would return home safely, despite the injuries he had described to her. He had apologised to her for not writing in his own hand. Captain Inglis had kindly acted as secretary. She had said previously that at least the ring finger of his left hand was still intact, the finger onto which she had pushed his wedding band two years ago. The Boers could not destroy that. She believed in destiny, she knew they would be married on the first day they met. The vicarage tea party, the beautiful garden, that wonderful summer’s day in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year.
In those days the English, or their ruling elite, were at their apogee. The Queen would seemingly reign forever, the empire would expand to cover the entire globe, removing the need for any other colour than pink in school atlases. A Pax Anglicana – that could never be. How much longer could the queen live? Now, the whole world seemed to have changed. Germany and America, growing in industrial and military strength for several decades, were beginning to snap at the bulldog’s heels.
The England he had left behind at the end of the last century was no more; the government had fallen, the battle for the hill of Spion Kop in the searing South African summer, during the first month of the new century had seen to that, a hill that would have been insignificant, irrelevant among the Pennine hills from where sprung his wife’s family, the Reveleys. Mary was made of strong stuff. The Reveley’s were Yorkshire grit! Their line reached back to beyond the Conquest, hardened by the northern climate. She might live in East Anglia now but you couldn’t wipe out the strength of generations. She would pull through.
But maybe this was wishful thinking. In reality, Mary had not inherited the strong Reveley strain at all. She had always been weak, hyper-sensitive, hopelessly romantic. It seemed the same physical susceptibilities which led her to catching every illness going, also cajoled her to join every good liberal cause.
Her mother had introduced her into the temperance movement. Mary was often out and about with her ladies helping the local working class, particularly trying to help them to stop drinking. Most especially, she was keen to stop young men from starting to rely on the demon drink. She believed in prevention rather than cure.
Mary was also an active member of the Liberal Party, much to the annoyance of Robert’s father who was a fervent Tory.
“The girl’s weak in the mind as well as the body,” he once told Robert while he was writing a sermon in his study. “I simply find it disturbing that she and her mother spend so much time helping the undeserving. What is more, she also advocates the policies of the Liberal Party, which are, in my opinion, threatening the very fabric of this country, those strong, steadfast values which have forged the empire.”
Robert knew better than to argue with his father. He said nothing, staring coldly out of the window of the study which overlooked the garden. The words did not injure him inside anymore. He often wondered what benefit a lifetime of faith had given his father’s cold heart.
Outside of the carriage it was starting to rain. Occasional wafts of smoke flew by and beyond, the rolling landscape was showing signs of turning green.
Robert realised from the beginning that he had been attracted to Mary purely because she was so different to anyone else he had known. He was spellbound by her flaxen-haired fragility, those deep blue eyes and full lips, so unlike the thin-lipped primness of his own mother. Mary, he assumed, had been drawn to his sheer physical presence, the dark moustache, his fierce, yet kindly hazel eyes and that emphatic red lieutenant’s tunic which he wore on that first meeting, in the bright sunlight not so long ago. Everyone said they looked good together – everyone, that is, except his mother and father.
“Robert, my dear, she is too weak to bear children, of that I am quite sure,” his mother told him quietly the day their engagement was announced.
“Forgive me, mother,” he said, trying to channel his anger, “but if there is any reason why you disapprove of our engagement, I do so wish that you would be more forthcoming.”
There was no argument. The Charlesworths never argued. His mother never mentioned the subject again. The criticism all came from his cloth-wearing father.
They had been married nearly two years ago and Mary had still not conceived. Robert had been away for most of that time. He calculated that they had spent roughly nine of those twenty three months together. Mary had busied herself in her temperance and political activities. Robert wondered how his parents had tolerated her presence under the same roof when he was away. They were patient and Mary was saintly. Despite their barely concealed distaste for her activities, which included playing the cello, they acknowledged her aristocratic pedigree, a pedigree which far outstripped anything in the Charlesworth family. Perhaps, he wondered, this was the source of his father’s venom. How could someone of such a lineage possess a bleeding heart? Surely it should be stone-cold, like his? Her family represented the very background of England, like the Pennines, where they had lived for centuries.
At first Robert had been alone in the carriage, for which he was glad. Then what looked like a young family entered at one stop; father, mother and a young son about four years old, he assumed, all well-turned out, clearly upper middle class which was his own station in life. Within a minute or two he detected the young boy’s incessant stare from the corner of his eye. He ignored it to begin with, assuming the boy hadn’t seen too many soldiers in uniform. Robert could have worn civilian clothes but he insisted on his uniform. He wanted to wear it with pride.
Then it occurred to him that the true nature of the boy’s inquisitiveness was nothing to do with the uniform. He looked down and saw that all the time his right hand had been exposed in all its ugliness. He glared back at the boy who sniffed, laying his head on his mother’s arm as she read The Times.
“Arthur, no!” she snapped, forcing him upright. “Your mother wouldn’t want you slouching.” The boy coughed in acceptance, looking up at the luggage rack opposite. Charlesworth had only been away nine months but already he couldn’t recognise a nanny when he saw one. Appearances were truly deceiving.
Outside the station, the gaunt Ridgeley was formally waiting for him. The middle-aged man removed his hat and greeted him dutifully, saying nothing more. The door of the carriage swung open. Robert climbed in, feeling a twinge in his right side as he sat down. A small price to pay, he thought. At least he wasn’t dead, like Hawtrey. The railway station was about a three minute carriage ride from the vicarage.
His father, uncharacteristically, was waiting by the open front door wringing his hands. Robert removed his cap, extending his left hand. His father took it, firmly.
“Robert,” said his father, with a firm nod of his head, “I am afraid that Mary’s been taken already.”
He looked into his father’s eyes. “I see.”
An hour later, Robert was sitting in their bedroom where, he was told, she had lain for a time. He heard the front door shut. He peered down from above. It was Ridgeley, suitcase in hand. He had been summarily dismissed for failing to get the final telegram to Southampton on time. Robert thought this was harsh. He had a feeling she had gone, that there was nothing more he could do. Providence, if it could be called that, had seen to it.
The room had been left as it was, except for the linen which had been washed. There were no letters, no messages. She had been too ill. Lying on the bed was the old parian doll which she had been so fond of, a keepsake from her childhood. The doll was another item which aroused his father’s disdain on account of it being made in Germany.
“Mark my words,” he’d said, seeing it for the first time, “very soon we will all be violently anti-German. They are simply too full of themselves. And they make too many things.”
Robert, on the other hand, was rather fond of it. He picked it up and stroked the face. It was unglazed, a pleasing, if unusual texture for porcelain. Some people called it bisque. The face, though child-like, was not unlike Mary. The blond curls, white skin, with a ready blush and the blue, blue eyes. The dress was a rusty brown, in a style not seen worn by ladies since the 1880s. He would keep it, hidden from his father’s gaze.
“The funeral,” his father said later, fork dangling a fatty piece of ham, “will be at St. Paul’s, next Thursday. Eleven o’clock.”
He recognised his father’s attempt at a question, which always sounded like a plain statement. Robert looked at his mother who had barely eaten anything. “Yes. Of course,” Robert said finally. “That would be fine. Thank you, Father.” He was struggling to cut the meat with only one good hand. He refused any help. “And I meant to say, Father…”
“Yes? What is it?”
“Mr and Mrs Reveley. Are they…”
“A letter came this morning. They are grateful to us and ‘thank God that her final hours were so peaceful’. They are arriving on Wednesday morning.”
Robert wiped his mouth with a serviette. “Yes, thank you, Father.”
All was in order, fully organised. The slow ticking of the grandfather clock punctuated the grey silence.
His mother gave a gentle cough. “Robert, you really ought to make and effort – to see her.” His father nodded but remained silent, too interested in clearing his plate.
“I appreciate your concern, Mother.”
He would not see her, not like that. He had seen enough death this year to last him a lifetime. It was bad enough to have that image of Hawtrey ingrained in his mind. Try as he might he struggled to recall those few short years of friendship, the drinking, the jokes, the scrapes. They were like images from a different lifetime. No, Mary would remain unblemished in his mind forever. The doll would remind him of her.
THE SECOND AND FINAL PART WILL POSTED WITHIN A COUPLE OF DAYS.