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“The Rothko Room”.
This was no Art Gallery; it was a Tourist Attraction. No purpose-built Temple of Athena but a converted power-station, an expedient, a compromise; post-fucking-modern. He could feel the bile beginning to scald his oesophagus as he negotiated the knots of people congealing around the entrance. He looked around, expecting to see some sort of reinforced glass ticket booth (no doubt employing some species of microphone and speaker arrangement via which he would tell the lobotomised twat within that he had no intention of donating a brass-farthing) and a queue snaking away from it. But to Arthur’s astonishment, no-one, tacitly or otherwise suggested, as he entered, that he donate. Why such a very small thing should have so profound an effect struck Arthur quite forcibly, as it crossed his mind that he may have been wrong.
As is often the case in such situations, one of the less ghastly memories of that first visit now presented itself. In spite of the trauma of his Rothko experience, Olafur Eliasson’s sun had amazed and overjoyed Arthur as he had entered the Turbine Hall, a fact that he had quite forgotten until now. The work was quite remarkable – unashamedly two dimensional (as all the best art should be) yet touching the viewer in a truly physical manner – photons bounced off him and were absorbed by him and he was delighted. The memory lightened his step as he made his way there.
He cursed his naiveté as he emerged into the vast space.
No sun. Oh no. Not even close. He’d thought that the squeals and shouts, which had grown louder as he’d approached, might have been part some sort of installation. They weren’t. They were part of children being happy. It took him some time to figure it all out. He wondered for a moment if he’d wandered into the place (he understood such things existed) where parents could leave their brats to play whilst they themselves went off to do something more interesting. He was wrong. This was art. But those things snaking away above him were exactly what they appeared to be.
Slides. Bloody children’s slides; complete with queues like some ghastly theme park. Not that he’d ever been to a theme park, of course. And now, even had he felt the urge, it was far too late. A middle aged man, alone? There would be C.C.T.V. and men with sunglasses following him every step of the way. But no matter! What, he asked himself in bewilderment, were these playground toys doing here? A helpful leaflet told him that the installation was the work of Carsten Holler and went on to contend that “a daily dose of sliding” could be beneficial in helping us perceive the world and asked whether slides might not become part of our “experiential and architectural vocabulary.” Arthur exasperated, said,
He forced himself to read on and then finally replacing the leaflet in the rack from whence he’d taken it, turned to find a heavily-set young man, small child in tow, peering menacingly at him. Arthur looked over his shoulder, just in case. Satisfied that he must indeed the object of the fellow’s attention, he turned to face him once more.
‘Erm…may I help you?’ Arthur asked.
‘My daughter says you just swore at her,’ said the man. Arthur, understanding at once, relaxed, smiled and said,
‘Oh no, you see, I wasn’t swearing at her, I was merely swearing near her, so to speak. That is, she must have been near me…when I swore. Well, technically, it wasn’t swearing at all; no names being taken in vain, you understand. It was more of a profanity.’
A profanity. An obscenity.’
‘You used obscenities near my daughter?’
‘Well, I suppose I did. But in the circumstances…’ Arthur gave a little laugh and gestured towards the slides.
‘People like you shouldn’t be allowed in places like this,’ said the man.
‘Oh?’ Arthur was nonplussed.
‘No; you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere where there are kids.’
‘Well, usually, I’m not.’ Immediately realising how the man was already interpreting the comment, Arthur hurriedly continued, ‘where there are kids, I mean… I mean, normally, I don’t go where there are children. I didn’t expect there to be any here, as a matter of fact but I suppose that’s what happens if you fill an art gallery with fucking slides.’
His training took over instantly and the man’s punch not only missed but the momentum of it caused him to pitch forwards into Arthur’s arms. A sharp, four-fingered jab to the sciatic nerve and the fellow was in spasm, unable to move, speak, or breathe properly. He stared at Arthur in blank astonishment.
‘Whoops-a-daisy!’ said Arthur, taking the man’s weight, as two or three faces turned towards him. ‘They keep these floors rather shiny, don’t they? Here, let me help you. Goodness, a chap could do himself a mischief here couldn’t he? Now, sit yourself down. Will you look after daddy? Good. I expect he’ll be fine in a minute or two.’
‘More like a day or two,’ mused Arthur, as he made for the lifts. He’d gone in a bit hard; a fact that he put down to his rather fragile condition – some sort of over-compensation thing, he imagined. ‘Ah well,’ he said to himself as the crowd swallowed him up.
Not the lucky day I was hopin’ for, but it’s a good day nonetheless.
I got permission to hunt in the Darker Woods. Even let me bring Mutt, Jock’s cross breed. He looks like a small horse mixed with a shaggy sheep, but looks can be deceivin’, he’s got the nose of a mole. That mutt could smell a hare from a mile away. Best investment of ten coins Jock ever made.
Day off an everythin’. Her Queenship musta liked the size of the pink gem. She don’t often grant days off. But I’m not complainin’ and neither are the others. Ginger kept rubbin’ his belly when I showed him the orders. He looked a might disappointed he couldn’t come along. He gets a bit bored workin’ in Gareth’s shop and bein’ bossed round all day. Not like he can say anythin’. Because he literally can’t say anythin’. Never said a word since the day we found him. He was only a wee one, wanderin’ alone fendin’ for himself in the woods to the South. Just so happened that Hound had taken a supply trip that day and came across him. He’s lived with us ever since.
Mutt nose to the ground comes meandering around me feet. I’ve stopped. We’ve reached the opening. I need to wait for the guard. Wonder what her Queenship would think if she knew he’d been slackin’ off and leavin’ her precious woods unguarded. Passed a Queen’s patrol a while back, they didn’t see me, so I didn’t get asked me business. Advantage number two, bein’ of the shorter variety.
I decide to call out. ‘Anyone there....’
Small I maybe but I have a booming voice. It echoes through the trees. A bracken fern shuffles then a skinny lout, stringing up his pants, appears. I avert me eyes for a moment in case sumit unseemly drops out.
‘Wotcha want? This here’s Queen’s property. Get orf,’ he yells marching over to the wooden gate where I’m standin’.
‘I have orders,’ I say.
‘Orders. What orders? I don’t know of no orders.’
I don’t argue. I hand him the piece of parchment with the castle symbol and the Queen’s signature.
‘How‘d you get these—little man?’ his lopsided grin and clueless eyes rile me. I clench me hands behind my back and cross me feet.
He seems to be takin’ pleasure in baitin’ me. But I’m not playin’.
‘I work in the mine. Got me a beauty. The queen was right pleased. So I’m allowed to hunt till dusk.’
‘Till dusk? I wouldn’t be staying in there till dusk,’ he says pointin’ toward the humungous trees loomin’ in the background. ‘Lotsa nasty creatures lurk at dusk. Little man like you wouldn’t stand a chance. What weapons ya got?”
Again with the, little man. I clench my hands tighter. ‘I have a cross bow and this here dagger.’ I look down at me trusty dagger attached to me belt.
He scratches the small patch of stubble on his sharp chin. ‘Well, I’d wish ya luck. But I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again. So … won’t bother.’
I nod and he lets me pass. Imbecile! He has no idea about me huntin’ skills. I bet I could ground him in one or two moves. Wouldn’t take much, his brain would only switch on after the first blow, and then it’d be too late. Still, I’m a peaceful soul, not interested in fightin’. Although, if he’d called me little man one more time I might just be tempted.
Mutt moves in front, his head shufflin’ from side to side as he picks up the scent of the forest.
I’ve only been here once. The last big diamond got me a couple of deer and three pheasant. Fed us for a month. Baker was most pleased. Tried every new herb and spice in the place to entertain our tastebuds. Hound, as always, indulged the lump. Some of his flowery poetry got a bit much, I mean what in heck does, violets on a summers day laid on a frosty breath of peppermint leaves, smell like? Just smelled like burnt venison to me.
The Darker Woods. Apt name. There’s barely a glint of sunlight passin’ through to the base of these big trees. The undergrowth so thick there’s no room to manoeuvre. But I know some parts are clear, and I head for these. I want to go deeper today, deeper than last time. That’s where the best game is.
Takes me a good hour but I’m in the thick of it. Mutt stays close. I hunker down next to a bramble hedge and tune it to the sounds buzzing around me. The wet mossy grounds soaks though the knees of me wool trousers, but I need to keep low to catch a goodun. I part the thorny hedge, the clearing greets me eyes. I’d say beautiful, but as ye know I’m not one for the mush. So its green, green as a new blade of grass, everywhere I look. I’m about to crawl through to a large flat rock hanging over the trickle of a stream….when I stop and grab Mutt by the fur on his rear end.
A figure stands loomin’ over a clump of purple daisies. It’s hard to make out who it is. Doesn’t look like no guard. The cloak is grey and the hands seem pale and youthful. Then they turn and look straight at me. Piercing sapphire eyes the brightest I’ve ever seen. Rose coloured cheeks the rosiest I’ve ever seen and lips, deep ruby red, the reddest I’ve ever seen. I freeze unblinkin’. Then she turns away and scurries off in the other direction.
There’s only one thing for it, I have to follow.
The banging on the door woke him. Dragged him kicking and screaming from a nightmare where fear was all he could recall. He fought the tangled sheets, wiped perspiration from his brow and struggled to his feet. It was still dark out, dawn at least an hour away.
The racket was relentless. He’d dropped the latch the night before, done up all the locks and chains. Now, he couldn’t co-ordinate. His senses confused, the noise, the back taste of fear and broken sleep, all interfering in an essentially straightforward task. He slammed a hand at the door in an effort to shut out the din. He tried to think. Four bolts, two locks- where was the damned key?
“Okay, Jeez, I’m coming,” he cursed. “Give me a goddamn minute!”
The banging stopped as suddenly as it had begun and in the subsequent eerie silence he became aware of a different sound. A muted sob- the whispered wail of someone so desperate, so bereft, that he felt his own throat constrict. His nightmare paled as his fear grew exponentially.
“No - no! I’m coming. I’m here, babe, hang on.”
When he finally wrenched the door open, she was crouched on the floor, hugging her knees, rocking on the balls of her feet. She looked up through a curtain of wet curls, her cheeks streaked with mascara, her eyes rubbed red. He pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms tight around her slender frame. She trembled beneath his hands.
“What’s happened? Where are the kids?” He leaned away from her, caught her face gently between his hands. “Honey, you’re scaring me. You’ve gotta tell me what’s wrong?”
She swung her gaze and he was stung by the accusation in her eyes.
“You promised me, we were safe.”
He felt it then, a churning, deep in his stomach. He dropped his hands, felt the room sway and steadied himself against what he knew was to come.
“What’s happened? Just tell me.”
“They came, after you left...” Her words fractured, forced between desperate gasps for air and normality. “They took the children...I tried to stop them. I pleaded with them.” She took a breath, seemed to draw strength from somewhere deep inside. “They said you’d gone too far and now it was time to pay.”
He stared at her, looked through her, past her, and the moment hung. The gulf between them widening in front of his eyes, as if he stood at the edge of a precipice of his own making and the only way forward was down. He re-focused and saw that her face was bruised, her lip swollen. When she raised her hand to shield the bruises from him, he saw angry finger marks on her pale wrist. She had fought to protect his son and a child she barely knew and had failed. Her despair was overwhelming. His nightmare returned with sudden clarity, the fear, the uncontrollable anger and regret. He could not lose any of them, this couldn’t be the end.
The lake was flat and calm with barely a ripple. Its dark waters glistened, reflecting the moonlight as though it were a mirror. A myriad of stars shone brightly in a cloudless sky, their shimmering light dancing across the surface of the water. Around the perimeter of the lake were tall conifer trees. Slender, and majestic, they grew, stretching high into the air, competing with each other for the available natural light. Surrounding the lake were sandy, gravely, banks of earth, which extended down to the waters edge. Beyond, the land gently rose up, the slope gradually growing steeper and steeper, climbing up high along the limestone face to the side of the mountain. In the moonlight the white limestone glowed eerily, contrasting with the blackness of the shadows of the trees.
* * *
A young man sat by the waters edge. He was in his middle twenties, tall, and slim, with light brown hair. Lying next to him was a discarded oxygen tank, and a diving mask. He sat contemplating the stillness of the lake. A stillness that was momentarily disturbed by a fish as it rose to the surface for air, or to catch an insect. There was no sound, other than the gentle rustle of the trees, and crickets chirping. Or perhaps the gentle lapping of the water as it met the shore. Nearby, a frog croaked, and splashed into the lake. Overhead an owl hooted and then settled down for the night.
The young man stared at the water, and thought of the series of dives that he and his friend had made that day. Over the past few days they had gradually worked their way across a section on the northern shore. Today they had been concentrating on a section to the northeast. The area consisted of a large clearing which gently sloped down to the edge of the water. It was reasonably accessible, and looked promising, and they had just started to investigate the area that day. They had achieved a depth of twenty metres, down to one of the shallower shelves that lined the perimeter of the lake. Even at that depth it was still quite dark. Visibility was made even more difficult by the swirling undercurrents stirring the sediment in the lake.
Fritz Marschall knew that neither he, nor his friend, should really have been there. They, like many others before them, had been attracted to the lake by the many rumours that had been circulating. They had been drawn to the area by tales of hidden treasure, and buried gold. They were only rumours, and there wasn’t an ounce of proof, or a shred of evidence to back it up. But still the rumours persisted, and the attraction was still irresistible.
The young man knew that the Austrian authorities frowned upon unauthorised exploration of Lake Toplitzsee, especially after the death of that young French diver just over a year previous. As much as possible was being done to discourage such activities, and put an end to the rumours. The authorities had instigated a number of measures including substantial fines if you were caught, together with random patrols of the area.
Yes he knew they shouldn’t be there. He knew that the last thing the authorities would want was some amateur explorers in the area. He also knew that if they were discovered their equipment would be confiscated, and that would be the end of their search.
* * *
It was late and already getting dark. There was an eerie stillness. A light drizzle had just began to fall, and a gentle breeze stirred the trees. Fritz sat at the edge of the lake, gazing at the reflection of the moonlight dancing on the surface of the water. The moon appeared large and full, and very bright. An Autumn Moon, that’s what they called it, he remembered. The water was so calm and peaceful. The moonlight breaking up into hundreds of shreds of light like diamonds scattered on to a table. It was all so beautiful.
He rubbed his eyes, then closed them for a moment, and became lost in his own thoughts. Thoughts of the endless stories there had been of treasures sunken in, or buried around, Toplitzsee. He recalled the stories of the lake being used to develop torpedoes and rockets during the war. He wondered how true those stories were. He could hardly believe that there had actually been a weapons testing site located on the lake. How could such a beautiful area be used for such a deadly pursuit?
Looking out across the lake, he wondered where the site had actually been located. How had it looked? He wondered what secrets were hidden beneath the surface. He looked deep into the water, staring, as though penetrating into the murky depths. Almost as though he could actually see what was hidden quite clearly.
What was hidden in there, he whispered. What treasures, if any, were lying just beneath him, just out of reach, waiting to be discovered? Over the years, there had been a number of searches made, mainly by amateur explorers. A number of items had been found, including counterfeit English and American money; some pieces of jewellery; documents relating to research activities that had been carried out on the lake; and several weapons.
With more and more finds, there was talk that the lake contained other treasures. The rumours began to grow and spread, rumours that the lake contained hidden Third Reich gold, gold that had been taken from the Holocaust victims. But so far, no gold had ever been discovered. Not a whisper of it. Not a sign of it. Not the slightest hint of its existence.
I sit propped against my favourite pillar of the temple. All around me lie the hills I love. Today they are as they were a thousand years ago, and would be for another thousand if only I had the power to stop the new mining developers. But today I have seen their invading vehicles advance towards the pristine slopes, and I know what will happen. Dust will fly. Precious stones will issue forth, oh yes they will. But the lambs will have nowhere to graze, the dew will have nowhere to glisten, and there will be no birds to sing. Unni, I tell myself, you must do something.
Slowly the night sucks the blue from the sky and the green from the hills, just as the developers will soon drain their beauty and their solitude. Behind me Rukmini’s pipes pierce the silence. I turn my head. I see her silhouetted against the darkening sky that like a dimming cyclorama still glows cerulean in the twilight.
Rukmini had seen the invaders too.
I run my hand down the stone of the pillar as though I were smoothing oil into the sleekness of her limbs. Around her neck the golden sapphires flash and glint, as do the stones encircling her arms. At the pinnacle of her headdress is the jewel in her crown. She is my queen.
I want to shout. I want to tell her I love her, but she is the music her pipes are giving to the hills before they disappear to dust. Apart from the lamb lying entranced beside her, she thinks she is alone, and I would not rob her of this soon-to-vanish joy. Silently I watch and listen. Her golden pink sari fades to grey. Her bare feet sink into the dew-laden grass. The silver pathway of the moon cuts through the indigo of the lake, but still her song of sadness fills the air.
All night I toss and turn. To live I must eat. Even Unni and Rukmini must eat to live. To eat I must work, so I too am indirectly guilty of raping the hills for the jewels that bedeck Rukmini and her friends. Not my own hills that every morning I tell myself how lucky I am to live beneath. But someone else’s, far away, that I cannot see but are no less loved.
I have always bought my rough stones from the dealer in the wooden shack in the village beyond the mountains, walking there early in the morning and returning late at night. If I did not buy the stones to grind and polish to perfection, the miners would not dig them from the ground. Rukmini would be just as beautiful if no jewels adorned her. I would love her just the same.
At daybreak I stand in the courtyard of the temple, fanned by palm leaves that bend when the lark alights for his melodic sojourn. I gaze at the crystals I have heaped around the fountain, offcuts from my labours, their rainbow colours illumined by the sun filtering through the filigree of bending branches.
I close my eyes. I hear the tinkling of water cascading on the stones, a music that is as constant as were the hills before their death sentence was proclaimed.
‘Unni,’ Rukmini says behind me, coming up so slowly in her bare feet that I do not even hear the rustle of her sari. ‘You have long suspected there were sapphires in our hills.’
‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘I have known. But they are the hills from whence all life began.’
‘What will you do?’ she asks.
I turn my head away.
‘Do not grieve,’ she says. ‘One day, when all the stones are gone, the grass will grow again, the dew will glisten, the birds will sing ─ and I will still have you.’
Night was approaching for Paul Winters, for him it was the best time of the day. Soaked, he charged through deep puddles created by the deluge. His mind concentrating, he clutched in his right hand his proceeds from begging. He shuddered as his body and mind cried out for that all important fix.
“Shit,” he screamed from cracked lips as he stumbled and fell headlong. Tears ran across his grime-covered face as he grovelled to retrieve every coin from the pavement and gutter. He started running again, more careful this time.
He checked left and right for the police before stopping outside a derelict factory. Out of breath, he entered, his eyes attempting to seek out his contact.
A shadowy figure detached himself from the gloom. "Who's there?"
Fifty metres away his dealer, dressed in a smart suit and wearing patent leather shoes, waited.
"It's Paul, Paul Winters. I'm a regular."
The blade of a knife flashed in the dim light. Recognising the boy, the thin-faced man returned it to the safety of its sheath and walked towards him with no worry in his eyes. "How much have you got?"
“Not enough. It’s thirty this week.”
"I don’t have it. Please," begged Paul
"Money up front. I’m not a charity worker.”
From his inside jacket pocket Paul pulled a rusty table knife.
The dealer stepped back in surprise. He attempted to stay calm but it didn’t come across. “You must be joking,” he said with a touch of panic in his voice.
Paul, his mind in chaos, leapt at the man. Out of control he plunged the blade repeatedly into the dealer’s chest. Blood flowed across his hands.
The dealer’s eyes stared vacantly, his heart destroyed before he dropped lifeless to the ground.
Paul mumbled, “Bastard.”
A search of the dead man produced a bundle of notes, small change, cigarettes with lighter and an assortment of packets. This he shoved into his pockets. Unconcerned, he made his way back to the squat.
Twenty minutes elapsed before he entered his room on the first floor at the rear of the abandoned house. Without hesitating, he shifted the urine-sodden mattress to one side. Wary, he inserted the blood-covered table knife between two wooden boards until one lifted to expose his valued possessions. These items he had for whatever reason kept since running away from the home.
He withdrew the hypodermic. His tremors increased as he prepared the mixture. In between two festering wounds on his left arm a small uninfected patch existed. The blunt needle entered his young skin and he collapsed.
Ignored by his acquaintances for days, a social worker doing his rounds found Paul’s corpse along with the wad of bank notes and unused drugs.
The post-mortem made known an overdose of heroin killed him.
Commander Jefferies read the list of twenty names, closed the folder and dumped it in his priority tray. “That’s the twentieth this month. Charlie, the boss wants the source of this poison behind bars. What’s the latest?”
“No one’s talking, Guv. I’ve a couple of leads but nothing much to go on.”
“Well you’d better get busy.”
High in a nameless grey building in Amsterdam, James Scott paced his office. He held a note in his right hand. Tall, middle-aged, he stood erect. His head bobbed in rhythmic jerks as he walked, keeping time with his feet.
He paused by the window, glanced towards the street where people, plain ordinary people, went about their business. Again, he read the unsigned letter, its few words sending a shiver through his body. You have forgotten the commandments. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. God will find you. James shrugged, went to his desk, ran a hand through his silver-grey hair and sat in his real leather executive chair, tossing the letter in the bin.
Early the next morning, James left his apartment carrying his luggage. He drove, listening to the weather report and a mile further turned onto the road to the airport. His first stop the office where he filed his flight plan and completed the necessary documentation. With his mechanic, he walked out across the tarmac to his Cessna. With the checklist in his hand, he went round the plane methodically checking flaps, elevators and other externals. Satisfied, he signed the acceptance form and handed it back to the mechanic. Pleased, he clambered on board, sat in the pilot’s seat and finished the checks. The engine started and he contacted the control tower. Their reply gave him permission to go ahead and he eased the craft to its waiting position. Three others waited on the tarmac in front of him. On the co-pilot’s seat lay his black briefcase and inside that, the dream.
Clearance came and he taxied the Cessna to the end of the runway, stopped and opened the throttle. The little craft raced along the concrete runway and lifted into the air. At one thousand metres, he levelled out and set a course for the north. Twenty minutes later, he contacted Amsterdam Air Traffic Control. “Mayday, Mayday, this is Alpha Charlie One Two Six en route Amsterdam to Aberdeen. My engine has stopped.” He repeated this twice and switched off the radio. James glanced at the grey sea beneath him as he lowered the flaps and began his descent. In a few minutes the craft skimmed across the surface at a height of twenty metres. His brow wrinkled as the concentration required heightened. Too low he would hit the water; gain height and the radar would find him.
His eyes scanned ahead for the hired fishing vessel drifting at their agreed position. He banked, surveyed the surrounding sea, and noted the boat’s position relative to the wind. Thankfully no other vessels were in the locale. Christine stood on the aft deck waving a red flag, their signal. His mind raced as he prepared to land in the sea. The wind remained light and the waves moderate. To land into the wind he considered the best choice. Spray covered the craft as it bounced across the waves, eventually coming to a stop. Calmly, he opened the door, pulled the small life raft from behind him and tossed it into the sea. It inflated automatically. With a firm grip on his briefcase, he slithered from the cockpit into the raft. With one hand, he pushed himself away, released the two paddles and started to row towards the small boat that remained a safe distance away. His plane, its tail pointing skyward, slipped beneath the surface.
The light wind made his rowing demanding and he cursed Christine for not bringing the boat closer. On drawing alongside, a young, attractive, black South African beamed a smile of welcome. He handed her the briefcase. “Whatever you do, don’t drop that, it’s our future.”
She looked on as he punctured the raft with a knife. “James, is this everything?”
The raft started to fold in on itself and sink as he placed both hands on the boat’s gunwale, ready to pull himself inboard. “Of course.”
In one swift movement she removed a black Browning nine-millimetre pistol from her jacket pocket.
“Bloody hell, Christine. Why?”
“Justice, you thieving bastard.” She squeezed the trigger twice.
With eyes filled with confusion, James sank.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL!
The ear bleeding clanging of bells in the dark and still of 3.15 am grabbed the attention of everyone. Whether sleeping, awake or inbetween, it jolted attentiveness to a hundred and ten percent and scared the crap out of even the most experienced hand because it was the last sound anyone wanted to hear.
The abandon rig alarm!
From the first strike of the clapper, the clock was ticking. Fifteen minutes to get to the lifeboat or you get left behind. Move your arse!!!
The fluorescent strip lights lining the corridors blinked on automatically, as did every spotlight, fog light and nightlight, illuminating the entire platform from derrick tip to waterline like a funfair ride.
To accompany the bell, red warning lights flashed and an automated recorded voice played out over the public address system. 'ATTENTION ALL HANDS! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! ATTENTION ALL HANDS, THIS IS NOT A DRILL!'
The constant ringing of the bell bored into everyone's brains, driving them into a kind of auto pilot. The only thing that mattered was getting to the lifeboat by whatever means possible. The alternative was a ducking in the North Sea, and out there, where time to death could be measured in minutes, it was not an alternative anyone relished taking.
They exploded from their rooms, some still fully dressed, Lummox in his underwear, and stampeded down the corridors towards the locker room.
All six of the crew arrived simultaneously and stumbled through the narrow doorway together, Cam and the Prof managing to wedge themselves comically, like something out of a cartoon. A quick shove and they separated and fell into the room to wrench open their lockers and take out their suits.
To the untrained eye, it was a scene of organised chaos, but the drill had been rehearsed so many times that each man was on automatic pilot as he zipped himself into his suit and checked his seals. Life jackets and boots followed. Nobody spoke. There was no need, they knew what to do and concentrated hard on the task in hand.
'Everyone got their passports and wallets on them?' cried Eddie, above the clamour.
Without interrupting the activity, a unified cry of; 'Yes sir,' rose.
'Where's Lydia!' Eddie yelled over the commotion. 'Has anyone seen Lydia?'
The men paused momentarily in their industry and looked at each other, and then at Eddie, making it obvious that none of them had.
'Shit!' He turned to his deputy to give him his orders, finding himself having to shout to make himself heard over the constant nerve jangling clatter of the bell.
The recording interrupted him by calling out its instruction once more.
'THIS IS NOT A DRILL!'
'Dipstick, get up to the control room and see what the hell the alarm is all about,' he yelled. 'It might be a glitch, but we can't take any chances. None of us set off the alarm, so it needs checking out. If it's genuine, take ten seconds to make sure the automated distress signal has been activated and then ten more to get on the radio to me. After that, get yourself to number one lifeboat pronto. Don't do anything else, got it?'
'I hope to God it is a fault, because I don't fancy launching in this weather. On your way, mate.'
When Shaw had gone on his way, Eddie turned to McAllister.
'Jock, you're in charge of the launch until I get there. Make sure everyone is strapped in, set the ADS and keep your hand on that lever ready to go. If I'm not there in ten minutes flat, you yank it and go without me.'
'I'll wait for you, don't worry,' McAllister replied.
'The fuck you will. Ten minutes, you go, that's an order. Got it?'
McAllister nodded reluctantly.
'What are you going to do?' he said.
'Find that bloody woman,' cursed Eddie, wriggling into his own survival suit as quickly as humanly possible. 'It's going to bugger up our safety record 'til Doomsday if we leave a woman behind.'
He ran along the corridor as fast as his heavy boots would carry him, each step taking him further from the lifeboat and safety. As he ran, he shrugged into the harness carrying his two way radio and slipped the earpiece over his ear, pulling the attached hair thin microphone stalk close to his mouth to pick up the sound of his voice over the racket. His finger felt for the on/off switch and slid it into place. A bright green LED glowed showing the device to be active.
Dipstick would be almost at the control room by now and he would hear from him soon, one way or the other. His imperative now was to find the errant medic and haul her sorry arse to the lifeboat, whether she wanted to go or not.
He reached sickbay and burst through the door calling her name. 'Lydia!' He could not see her in the main room. 'Lydia!' He headed for the office. 'Lydia! You in here?'
'Here I am,' she said, and stepped from behind the modesty screen, wearing nothing but plain white panties and matching bra.
I sensed them before I heard them. Their presence gave off a glow like a deep pink sunset across my eyes. The flash. Scudders. Too easy. Moving with soft footed motion, I wove between the reedy trees. The glow of moonlight guided the way but I could manoeuvre at night without its radiance. The group of Scudrows were four and they sniffed the air like red pointers.
I dreamed of Leda, long forgotten by the centuries.
Her open palms outstretched beneath her pleading eyes.
“Remember me - lost in the forest by the sparkling seas.
And shed a tear at my unfortunate demise.
I wander endless paths of cobbled stone from long ago,
And chase elusive visions from my troubled past,
Through lonely crumbling ruins of my belov’d ancestral home,
I long to be embraced by those I love at last.
Pray for me! Pray for me! Eternity is vast and grey,
My mind’s a pris’ner in these empty haunted halls,
Oh, how I long to fly away on wings of joy today.
My tortured soul would be unchained from these bleak prison walls.”
She began to fade back to the empty hollow tomb,
As I awoke at midnight to the moonlight in my room.
I shudder as I wake from that bombastic night terror, but the soft moonlight from my window comforts me as it caresses familiar surroundings and settles peacefully upon my sheets. Yet my heart drums blood and pounds in my ears. All the while, one single thought reverberates. Leda was real, as real as that branch undulating outside my window, waving at me, mocking my fear as if it were Leda’s arm taunting me. Amidst the fear, I am exhausted as I slump as if an old pillow mashed into place. I lie to myself. It was just a dream. However, the trickery does not work. Gaunt, pallid Leda was real, dressed in her Italian renaissance garb. There were bloodstains on the cloth and her hair was askance in mussed strings that hung below her waist. Still, she was vaguely pretty and young- perhaps fifteen or sixteen. I’m puzzled though. I don’t understand why she came for me, why she dragged me through a reenactment of her life those many centuries ago in a place I’ve never been, seen, or imagined. There were mountains and forests surrounding a cobblestone courtyard in front of a stone house that stood like a great grey ghost in the ether. Fog breathed in and around, shrouding the yard from the dim light of early morning. To the west, flickering lamps illuminated the entrance of the building where two massive doors yawned under a pair of dark hollow eye socket windows with wrought iron terraces. A young woman stood on one, almost blending into the darkness. It was Leda. Her frail fists clenched around the cold iron rail as she cried. Bitter tears mixed with drops of icy rain and trailed down her face as she watched the scene unfolding in the courtyard. She squinted straight down at black funeral carriages pulled by anxious steeds that paused near the front entrance. The black horses stamped in place and puffed pale clouds from their nostrils into cold air. The hearse was there to take the body of her beloved Grandfather away. The huge arms that hugged her, the gentle eyes that shone love to her, and the calm deep voice that soothed her worries away was leaving forever.
Men scrambled around the carriages in the yard, shouting instructions to one another, stopping to gesture and hurrying on. “Stay here!” An older man shouted to a boy as he waved him over to one of the horses. “Hold this one!” The horse tossed his head and lifted the boy off of his feet. Other horses neighed in nervous bursts as their hooves clattered on the wet cobblestone. Pallbearers painstakingly carried the wooden coffin from the house to the back of the hearse. The nervous horses lurched forward as they felt the movement behind them and the coffin appeared as if it might fall. Voices rose in distress. Leda watched in horror from her terrace. “Don’t drop him,” she whispered with a wavering voice. She leaned over the rail with ornamental spikes pressing into her bodice. The men doubled their efforts, pushing the coffin safely into place. Leda’s head dropped forward in relief as she sighed. She caught sight of Vitorre, Grandfather’s oldest friend in the group of men below. He stepped back and moaned sadly while wiping the rain from his face. Leda recognized his despair because it mirrored her own. He sensed her presence and looked up with hopeless eyes. His as hand pressed over his heart and cried, “Oh Leda, what shall we do?” He turned toward the hearse and looked at the coffin within, patted the glass with his hand. “There now, Cirro, we take care of you. We always take care of you, old friend.” He nodded and blew his nose on the wet handkerchief, before walking away.
Since her grandfather had collapsed on the stairs, every moment felt like a waking nightmare to Leda. Rain saturated loose tendrils of hair around her face and dripped onto her dress as she watched poor broken Vitorre shuffle away.
Only two days before, Grandfather’s booming laughter echoed throughout the great house as brilliant sunshine filled every room. Now, the silence was a sickening forecast of the future without him. Leda closed her eyes to her pain and inhaled the comforting familiar scent of rain before turning to go back into her room. Once in, she heard Grandmother’s clipped steps at the base of the stairs as she quipped in a shrill tone from the bottom of the stairwell, “Shall we leave without you?” The old woman’s voice was a sharp rasp that invoked unsettled murmurings deep within Leda’s soul. She was sure that her grandmother’s cold heart caused the death of the dear old man. Grandmother’s shoes pivoted on the stone floor with a scratching noise and stepped away toward the entry. Leda whirled toward the stairs when she heard a muffled voice address Grandmother as the heavy front doors creaked open. Leda lifted her floor length skirt and clasped the handrail at the top of the stairs with the other as she descended into her version of the depths of hell.