Refugees – Part III

The next instalment of Church of the White Rabbits

Arthur walks slowly up the road. Four days have gone by since Sally caught him with the joint in his hand and he still hasn’t managed to speak to her. His sister-in-law isn’t having anything to do with him at the moment. It would be funny under normal circumstances. But he’d really wanted to get her advice before this moment: or at the least have someone to confide in.

It’s too late now though. He’s made the trip to the mainland as ordered. It’s the first time he’s left Black Island since coming home and he’s surprised just how busy and hectic the streets seem over here. The place is a village in relation with Vancouver but compared to King’s Port it’s a hectic metropolis.

Ignoring the surrounding shoppers, Arthur continues resolutely. Just ahead, he can see the Royal Hotel. Inside, Shuchun is waiting. It’s the day of reckoning.

As he enters the lobby, an overweight woman in a tight uniform is trying to rearrange a vase of dried flowers so it covers up a stain on a tablecloth. Arthur nods curtly in her direction but doesn’t say anything and marches through briskly. He’s a man on a mission and needs to keep focused and alert if he’s to survive whatever’s coming.

The lounge stretches along the front of the hotel. A gloomy bar runs along the left-hand side of the room and heavy drapes hang either side of the windows on the right. Two electric chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, both unlit.

He sees Shuchun straight away. She’s sitting in a bay window, facing away from him, apparently gazing out at the view. Arthur knows she probably watched him coming up the street but she’s not giving anything away. And although he’s aware it’s all a pose, the scene works nonetheless. She looks elegant and serene: sitting straight-backed and motionless, bathed in soft morning light that’s coming through the net curtains behind her. She’s wearing white and the sunshine glints on her immaculate head of glossy raven-black hair. The combination of light and pose is striking: Shuchun looks illuminated, almost ethereal, and the rest of the room dingy and dull.

Arthur feels a fluttering and a stirring down below that could be his stomach or his loins. His nails bite into his palms as he clenches his fists and walks over, trying to look calm.

As he draws closer to the table she’s still looking towards the window. He can’t see her eyes but he’s sure she knows he’s there. Arthur hesitates, uncertain. He wants to say something loud and cheery but feels unaccountably nervous.
Arthur’s debating whether to cough politely to get her attention when he suddenly sees the tiny smile on her face. That’s when he realises she’s been watching his reflection from the moment he entered the room.

‘Hello, Arthur.’  Finally she turns to face him and he feels his knees go slightly weak. Her face is calm, no emotion showing. But those dark eyes still have the same power to hypnotise. It’s been almost two years to the day since he last saw her. That day remains clear in his mind. Him running down the road in his underpants: her father chasing close behind waving a large kitchen knife.

‘Shuchun.’

They look at each other for a while. He’s not certain if he should shake her hand, kiss her politely or bend over and give her a big hug. It’s always been that way. For Arthur she’s the original inscrutable oriental. He’s never been able to work out what’s going on behind that perfect mask. It was the same even when they were together. One minute she’d be treating him with disdain and apparent contempt, the next she’d be pulling his clothes off. The uncertainty always made him putty in her hands, which he suspects was at least part of his attraction.

She finally puts him out of his misery by standing and gracefully offering him a cheek to kiss. He’s tempted to put his hand on the back of her head and turn it around for a full-on snog but doesn’t quite dare. Even though he can’t help wondering if that would impress her more.

Instead he merely brushes her skin with his lips and takes a seat opposite.

Arthur’s about to speak but then a waiter appears at the table. The man’s old and grey, wearing a uniform that’s been washed and pressed too many times. He rubs his hands together obsequiously. ‘May I get you anything, madam? Sir?’
Shuchun has turned away again and Arthur’s about to decline but then she lifts one hand slightly. ‘I will have tea: jasmine tea with lemon. Arthur will have black coffee.’

The waiter hesitates. ‘I’m very sorry, madam. I’m not sure if we have any jasmine tea.’

Shuchun gives the faintest sigh. ‘Earl Grey?’

‘Of course, madam.’

‘Thank you. That will be all.’

Arthur smiles to himself. He wishes he could manage to dismiss people with such ease but he’s never had the gift.

They’re silent while Arthur shuffles uneasily on his seat. Eventually he leans forward. ‘How did you find me?’

‘That’s hardly important. But it wasn’t difficult.’

‘Okay.’

Arthur studies her profile. Her skin looks as flawless as he remembers it. No make-up: or none he can spot. She’s twelve years younger than him but that’s never counted for anything. She’s the one in control and she’s obviously not intending to offer anything for free. Her gaze is steady and her mouth doesn’t move: she could be a mannequin apart from the tiny rise and fall of her chest. ‘So, are you planning on coming over to the island?’

She gives a brief, cold laugh. ‘No.’

‘You staying here?’

‘Here? No. I have to catch a flight back to Canada tomorrow morning.’

‘Okay. So, what… you want me to come with you?’

‘You think so?’

‘Well, I dunno… I thought you’d come to find me.’

‘I have found you.’

‘But… if you’re not staying, what do you want me to do?’

‘I don’t want you to do anything.’

‘Fine!’ Arthur starts to rise. ‘Well, have a good trip back.’

‘Sit down.’

He slumps back, his show of resistance over the instant she gives a command. Arthur thinks back to when they first met. He’d been working as a driver and went to a party with friends. They’d only been there minutes when the slender Chinese girl caught his eye. She was in the middle of a group of other young women: the calm focus of a whirl of exaggerated gaiety, like an elegant flower surrounded by showy butterflies. Arthur and his friends moved in on the group and he tried to edge towards its centre. But before he got close enough to say a single word his target slipped away.

Arthur was disappointed. She hadn’t been exactly beautiful but there was definitely something about her. Over the next couple of hours he kept drifting around the party hoping to spot her again. Eventually, he assumed he’d missed his chance. Nipping out into the garden for a quick smoke, he was standing by the pool when she materialised at his side. Wordlessly, she took him by the hand and led him to the cars parked outside. The first words she spoke to him were an instruction to take her home: to his house.

He shakes his head. She had made the running from then on. They were together for about six months after that. But never exactly a couple. It was not a relationship of equals. She wanted him for her own purposes and always at her convenience. The one time he tried to take charge she walked out on him and he didn’t see her again for another three, painfully long, weeks.

Now? He doesn’t know what she’s doing on Black Island or what she wants from him. ‘So… Shuchun?’

‘So, Arthur.’

‘Why are you here? Why did you want to see me?’

She smiles. ‘I didn’t want to see you.’ There’s no inflection, it’s just delivered flat: a statement of fact. Which is what makes it hurt even more.

Arthur exhales slowly. ‘Okay. So, why? Why are you here?’

‘I’m getting married.’

He blinks. Confused. ‘Who to?’

‘That’s not relevant.’

‘No?’

‘Not to you.’

‘It’s not relevant to me?’

‘Maybe but that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know who I’m marrying.’

‘No?’

‘No.’

Arthur shakes his head. ‘Okay, well… congratulations and all that. But, why come here to tell me?’

‘I didn’t come here to tell you that?’

Arthur resists the temptation to lean across and throttle her. ‘All right. So, Shuchun: why are you here?’

She smiles. ‘I came to bring you your daughter.’

‘My daughter!’

‘Don’t shout, Arthur.’ Shuchun pulls the tablecloth back and reveals the carrycot lying underneath. Inside a soft white shawl lies a small child with Asian features and typical Judd curly hair. ‘You’ll wake her up if you make too much noise.’

* * *

Keziah reaches forwards and grabs the pot of mustard from the middle of the lunch table. As she does, a loud fart echoes around the room. ‘Ah, those pies. Give me chronic gas they do.’

On the other side of the table Cynthia Drake makes a sound of disgust and turns her head.

‘Don’t they make you fart?’

Cynthia ignores the old woman, wishing yet again the revolting crone would either keep to her rooms or get on and die. She’s sure Keziah gets cruder and more irritating with every year that goes by. Unfortunately, although it was her seventieth birthday this year, the last of the Blacks looks as fit as ever. If only there was a home they could send her to: somewhere she could be with people her own age. Anything that meant they wouldn’t have to eat at the same table.

Keziah grins and slathers another coating of mustard on her pie. She takes a large bite and chews vigorously, mouth open. There’s a big spot of mustard on her upper lip. She can feel it there but makes no attempt to wipe it away: knowing its presence will only aggravate Cynthia more.

A couple more minutes pass and Cynthia wipes her lips with a napkin and leaves the table. The only two left in the room now are Keziah and Graham Drake.

Graham watches as his cousin leaves the room and gives a sigh of contentment. ‘There are times when I think you dislike her as much as I do, Aunt Keziah.’

‘I like pies. Particularly the mutton ones.’

‘Yes, but your gas doesn’t agree with Cynthia.’

‘Gas is natural.’

‘Hmm. Possibly. But not at your rate of production, old girl.’

Keziah stares at him. She’s never liked Graham Drake much: and the way he addresses her doesn’t advance his cause. ‘Old girl’ might be half-accurate but she’s certainly not his aunt. Technically they’re second cousins twice removed but she’s not going to even try to explain that one.

She wipes the mustard off her lip: it’s done its job. ‘You know how to play poker, Graham?’

He looks around in surprise. ‘Poker?’

‘Card game. You bet on it. For money.’

‘Money?’

‘Unless you prefer strip poker.’

A momentary look of horror crosses Graham’s face but he masks it quickly and smiles. ‘Er… that’s okay. You want to play poker with me?’

‘Why not? Scared I’ll beat you?’

He laughs. Being invited to play cards with Keziah threw him for a moment: she doesn’t normally have any more to do with Graham Drake than any of the others who live in Tower House. But poker is his favourite game. He thinks he’s good at it; although he’s had an unlucky streak recently. He grins patronisingly as he looks at Keziah with the overconfidence of a man who has no idea what’s in store. ‘Sure. I’ll give you a game of poker. Did you want to play now?’

Keziah shakes her head. Her phone was vibrating during lunch and she wants to go and see who was calling. ‘Not now. Got to have my afternoon sleep. Later. How about five o’clock?’

‘Okay.’ Graham still looks a bit uncertain but the lure of a game of poker is tempting. ‘Where’re we going to play?’

‘My rooms. Don’t want Cynthia or Margaret watching over us and getting all disapproving do we?’

‘No.’ Graham smiles. ‘You want me to find some coppers to play for?’

‘Coppers?’ Keziah shakes her head. ‘No. I had a bit of luck on the horses last week so I’ve got a bit of extra money to play with. Why not make it more interesting? Shall we say a minimum stake of fifty pounds?’

Graham’s eyes widen and Keziah can almost see the calculations going on in his head: working out how much he might be able to take off the old woman.

* * *

Padraig strolls along the ridge, following it towards the summit of Beacon Hill. There’s a cairn of stones at the top and as he gets nearer he notices someone sitting in its lee.

To be continued…

Tomorrow, Arthur tries to come to terms with having a daughter and Keziah takes some revenge.

Refugees – Part II

The second part of Chapter Two. Boys will be boys…

Arthur knocks cautiously. George should be down at the harbour: his boat’s in dock having its hull scraped. Still, Arthur feels nervous. There’s no reason he should be but he always feels a bit guilty where Sally’s concerned. Plus he wonders what goes through his brother’s head when he sees the two of them together.

There’s no answer and Arthur tries the door. It’s open but he can’t hear anything from inside.

He wonders for a moment about turning away but knows he’s only putting off the inevitable. He needs to talk to Sally. Normally he manages to avoid situations where the two of them are alone together: partly because of George but also because he still hasn’t worked out how things stand with Sally. He keeps thinking he should say something about it. Trouble is, he has no idea what to say. Today, though, things are different. He desperately needs advice and there’s no one else he can turn to with this present situation.

Arthur draws a deep breath and enters the house. He closes the door quietly and takes a moment. When the others are around there’s no chance to stop and take it in. He might have thought he was already a man when he walked out of the house and fled Black Island. All those years seem to dissolve, though, when he’s in the old family home on Goat Street. There’s something about the place that makes him feel he’s still a little boy.

He smiles to himself. Perhaps it’s the ghost of the old man: waiting behind the door to belt him one for not doing his homework, his chores or some job on the boat. Or it could be the cooking smells reminding him of his mum: the security of her big warm embrace, burying his face in her apron when he’s in trouble again.

Arthur pauses. He sniffs. Hmm. There’s definitely a smell in the air but it’s certainly not his mother’s cooking. He doubts it’s anything Sally’s baked either.

Moving quietly, he steps around the old sofa in the front room and approaches the door into the hall. The smell is definitely stronger and he lets his nose lead him through the house. As he gets closer to the back door he hears giggles. It sounds like two boys: almost hysterical with laughter.

Arthur slowly pushes the door until he can see out. The back yard isn’t big but for a moment he doesn’t spot the boys. Then he blinks. Young Nathan from down the road is on his hands and knees in the rabbit pen. His head is under a pile of hay and several carrots are sticking out of his mouth. Davey is sprawled in the wheelbarrow with a flowerpot on his head. In his hand is the fattest joint Arthur’s seen in a long time.

Arthur watches for a moment, grinning. He thinks about leaving them to it. Then he shakes his head. The boys are only twelve.  He opens the door and gives a stage cough.

Davey’s eyes slowly widen. He stares in blank amazement at his uncle. After some delay the message finally reaches his brain and he tries to stand up, hide the joint and take the flowerpot off his head: all at the same time. He doesn’t do well at any of the tasks. Instead, as his legs and arms flail impotently, the wheelbarrow topples over and Arthur’s nephew falls in an ungainly heap, the terracotta pot landing next to him with a loud crack and splitting in two.

His friend Nathan makes a strange noise that sounds more guinea pig than human. Crawling forwards, he sticks his head in the rabbit hutch. Arthur watches in bemusement. He’s not sure if Nathan’s trying to hide but the boy’s head is the only part of him that fits inside the hutch.

With a shake of his head, Arthur strides over. He plucks the joint out of Davey’s trembling fingers. He gives it a quick glance: it’s impressive, built with at least half a dozen cigarette papers and as fat as a big cigar. Judging by the glaze on Davey’s eyes, he guesses it’s not the first the boys have smoked either.

Davey’s still having trouble co-ordinating his limbs. Arthur bends over and picks the boy up by his collar. ‘Well then Davey. What’s this?’

Davey looks up with wide, bloodshot eyes. His bottom lip trembles and then he sniggers. ‘Huh. ’s a Cabelwell carrot, Uncle Arfur.’

‘A what?’

Davey pulls himself upright. He looks proudly at the joint in his uncle’s hand. ‘It is a Cabelwell carrot.’ The boy sways. ‘My very first Cabelwell carrot. Bloody good ‘un too. Used twelve skins like you’re s’posed to.’

‘What… why…’ Arthur shakes his head. ‘Okay, carrot: I get that. What the hell is it a ‘Cabelwell’ carrot?’

‘Whufn’ll.’ The strange squeak of response comes from the direction of the rabbit hutch.

‘Yay,’ said Davey. ‘Tha’s righ’. Amazin’ fillum.’

‘What are you two talking about?’

Davey takes a deep breath. Steadies himself. Looks his uncle in the eye. Giggles and then reaches out for Arthur’s arm. ‘You know! Withnail And I. That film where they… smoke a Cabelwell carrot.’

Arthur gave a short laugh. ‘A ‘Camberwell’ carrot.’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘You made it with twelve papers?’

‘Had to. Not a Cabelwell carrot if you don’t use twelve skins.’

Arthur blinks and looks at what’s in his hand. If Davey has used a dozen cigarette papers to make the joint then it’s little surprise how stoned the two boys are. Particularly not considering what his brother’s home-grown is like. ‘And you’ve watched Withnail And I have you?’

‘Yay-up.’ Davey nods enthusiastically. ‘Dad’s got it on thingy.’

‘Does he know you’ve watched it?’

Davey exhales noisily and looks sideways. Hesitates a moment. ‘Never said we couldn’t.’

Arthur rolls his eyes. ‘And what about this?’ He holds up the joint. ‘Does he know you smoke this?’

Davey purses his lips and tips his head from side to side, considering the question. ‘Well… not egzackerly… but he’s the one what grows it!’

There’s a rustling sound from the hutch and Nathan stands up. He’s smaller than Davey and normally still looks an innocent little boy. Today though, with his wild eyes, a pile of hay draped across his head and a carrot in each hand he looks more like a deranged pixie. Nathan gives a wide-eyed, goofy smile. ‘The rabbits like it. Doesn’t do them no harm.’

Arthur blinks. ‘You feed it to the rabbits.’

‘Nah.’ Davey shakes his head. ‘But they escapes sometimes and they’re always trying to sneak into the greenhouse and eat Dad’s weed. Don’t think they’ve tried smokin’ it though.’

The boys erupt into giggles and Arthur tries not to join them. ‘Yeah,’ he says as sternly as he can manage. ‘That’s all well and good but I don’t think you should be smoking your dad’s weed.’

‘Well you do.’

‘What!’ Arthur blinks. ‘When have you ever seen me smoking joints?’

‘In the summer: after that barbecue we all had. We’d gone up to bed and you and dad were sitting out here smoking and smoking. You was laughing and laughing.’

Arthur shakes his head, trying hard not to smile. ‘Oh that was just roll-ups. Tobacco.’

‘You liar!’

Arthur keeps shaking his head but knows he is sussed.

‘Our window was open and you was sitting right under it. All the smoke was coming in and you weren’t smokin’ roll ups!’

‘Yeah. Well maybe. But you’re way too young to be smoking anything.’

‘How old was you when you started then?’

‘Not that young.’

‘How old then? Eighteen? Sixteen? Younger?’

Arthur gives Davey a glare but his heart has gone out of it. He’s tried being the responsible adult but somehow it’s backfiring spectacularly. He’s supposed to be the one doing the telling off and now here’s his nephew giving him the third degree. Arthur sighs and is about to say something when he suddenly hears footsteps in the corridor. He turns as his sister-in-law appears in the doorway.

‘Hello, boys. Are you cleaning out those rabbits…’ Sally’s voice dies away. For a moment Arthur thinks she is just surprised to see him and then he realises her eyes are focussed on his hand. She gives a deep sniff. Her expression turns hard and angry.

‘Oh, shit.’ Arthur closes his eyes.

‘Arthur! You do not smoke that stuff in front of my boys.’ Before he can even react, Sally strides across the yard. She snatches the joint, throws it to the floor and grinds it under her foot. ‘You get out of here right now.’ She grabs his arm and starts to tow him away. ‘I’m ashamed of you, Arthur! They’re still children.’

He hears a stifled giggle from behind him and opens his mouth, trying to think of something convincing to say. But nothing coherent comes out of his mouth and, taking his inability to speak as evidence of his guilt, Sally isn’t stopping to hear any of it.

Before Arthur can do much more than splutter in disbelief he is being propelled out of the house. ‘I’ll deal with you later,’ she says as the door closes in his face.

* * *

Padraig looks around as they make their way back towards the side door. It’s the first time he’s been to the island and he’d got a shock when Keziah named the prison for their rendezvous. Black Island has an ambivalent place in his family history and the prison represents a lot of what’s bad.

Keziah gives him a glance. ‘So. Pleased to see the family home?’

He blinks. Had she been reading his mind or are his feelings that obvious? There’s definitely something witch-like about the old woman but he’d thought that was just to do with the way she looked.

‘Home?’ he asks. ‘Do you mean the island or this little place?’

They stand and look around. The walls are massive and grim. It’s foreboding enough in its current state of abandonment; it’s easy to imagine how soul-crushing it would have been for those incarcerated here.

Keziah gives an amused snort. ‘Well. I didn’t mean the prison but I suppose it’s… part of it all.’

‘Yes.’ Padraig feels cold at the thought of living within these walls. ‘A cruel-looking place is it not?’

‘Not to me.’

‘No?’

She shakes her head. ‘I’ve got the keys.’

Padraig laughs. ‘Ah well that is a big relief, Miss Black. A very big relief indeed.’

He chuckles again but his humour is only fleeting. The prison isn’t something his family talked about. Back home in Ireland, he’d grown up on stories of Black Island. Sat around the fire of an evening, the old ones — grandparents, uncles and aunts — would tell stories about life on the island; they talked about the quarries, the town, fights with the fishermen and about the Blacks. But not about the prison. Being a convict wasn’t really something civilised people liked to boast about.

The truth is, though, this place plays a significant role in the story of the Le Picard family. And now here he is: crossing the courtyard next to the main prison yard.  Padraig stops. It occurs to him that he’s on the wrong side. Once, his family would have been the ones on the other side of the railings. The guards would have been this side: men with sticks and clubs to beat anyone stepping out of line. His ancestors were the prisoners, the ones who worked the quarries and lived a dozen to a cell. He shivers again. ‘Would you mind terribly if I was the first of us to leave, Miss Black?’

Keziah watches Padraig leave. She’s not met him in person before, although they’ve communicated by letter for a few years now. His family may be exiles but they still maintain a link with the island and Padraig Le Picard makes an ideal agent for certain of her mainland dealings.

Once his slim figure has disappeared down the track towards Quarry Town, she pulls the door closed again. She could sense Padraig’s unease as they crossed the yard. It suited her to let him make his escape first; now she gets to enjoy the comfort of its big walls and empty spaces for a bit longer.

Keziah finds a kind of poetic irony in the fact her family spent more than two centuries imprisoning people in this building but now she uses it as a place to escape. She’s read about the prison in the family archives. Prisoners were sent to Black Island as early as the 1500s. Various monarchs found it a conveniently remote place to dispose of embarrassments: such as troublemakers they couldn’t execute outright but wanted removed from circulation.

The first convicts sent here lived a miserable and generally short existence, housed in crude huts and caves in the surrounding hills. It was the island’s first official governor, Lord Augustus Black, who put them to work building a proper prison. Not out of consideration for their well-being but because prisoners who were worked until they dropped were less likely to have the time and energy on developing inconvenient escape schemes.

Most of those sent to Black Island weren’t really expected to return and with no shortage of labour or raw materials, Augustus Black set about making sure his prison was both strong and secure. The prison walls are ten-foot thick, which is probably why it’s stayed so dry in here. Even after decades of being abandoned, the prison remains weathertight: ideal for roosting pigeons and reclusive spinsters who need a place for secret assignations.

* * *

Arthur walks slowly up the road. Four days have gone by since Sally caught him with the joint in his hand and he still hasn’t managed to speak to her. His sister-in-law isn’t having anything to do with him at the moment. It would be funny under normal circumstances. But he’d really wanted to get her advice before this moment: or at the least have someone to confide in.

To be continued…

I hope that chunk wasn’t too long. Tomorrow, Arthur gets a big surprise and Keziah shows what she’s like at poker.

Refugees – Part I

The second chapter of Church of the White Rabbits starts below…

2. Refugees

In which a man’s past catches up with him and a secret assignation takes place. We also witness some youthful debauchery and an alternative punishment for taking advantage of an innocent old lady.

It’s October 1999. Arthur Judd curses as the hail beats down. Thirty seconds ago the sky was blue. Now a solid wall of blackness towers up out of the west and frozen rain is whipping down off the hills. All of it pushed along by a vicious cold wind.

Arthur glances back. Not a tree to be seen. No shelter ahead either: just bleak moorland and an empty valley under a sky getting lower by the second. With the sun shining, Black Island’s interior can be beautiful. At moments like this, though, it can seem a god-forsaken spot.

Pulling up his collar, he tugs it tighter around his neck. It’s scant protection from the ice pinging off his head and he wishes he had a hat. The hail hurts but at least it’s not making him particularly wet.

‘Bloody place!’ Arthur thinks briefly about going back but there’s not much point. He’s a good four or five miles from town. Turning round would also mean walking into the squall’s teeth. He gives a grunt of resignation and hunches his shoulders, settling into a steady trudge as he tries to ignore the weather.

‘Ow!’ A salvo of particularly sharp hail smacks into the back of his head. He glares at a granite boulder lying next to the track. ‘What the hell am I doing here?’

It’s been over a year since he returned to Black Island. He left in 1983, never wanting to come back. For fourteen years he hardly thought of the remote community where he grew up; there were times when he had the odd longing and the occasional pang over some of the people left behind but that was as far as his regrets went.

He found a job and a new life in Vancouver. He’d thought it was home. But then things went crazy. A simple life suddenly turned complicated; all the result of a chance meeting with a girl called Liang Shuchun. He’d thought he could cope with the turmoil. But a single escapade resulted in everything spiralling out of control and Arthur being told to flee for his life. So he had jumped ship and sailed off into the sunset.

After that, he kept moving for nearly a year, ending up in all sorts of places he’d never been before. But none had felt right and he just continued travelling.  Until last summer: when he found himself back home.

He hadn’t originally even thought of coming to Black Island, let alone staying. But when he got here it seemed to make sense. He couldn’t run from life forever. He needed to stop and think and, after a few days back on Black Island, was surprised by how much being here seemed to calm his tired brain.

For the first few weeks he really had been happy to see the place again. With his father safely in the ground, it felt good to spend time with the other members of his family. There were some he’d never met previously: nephews and nieces who were just names until then. There was George too. The pair of them had been close growing up. Arthur was the big brother: two years older and always leading the way, whether with school, trouble, chasing girls or working on the boat with their father.

He frowns. Things are very different now. A lot of years have passed with little contact between them. George has grown up and no longer needs a big brother to set an example or help him make up his mind. Sally is a complication too. Not a real problem, not in public. Although when Arthur’s alone he still wonders occasionally why things turned out the way they have.

The other thing he can’t get his head around is the island itself. His father was the catalyst but the old man wasn’t the only reason, aged nineteen, he’d wanted to leave. Black Island is a strange place. It’s big enough. There are miles and miles of it. But it’s small too. And gets under his skin in ways hard to explain to people like George who’ve never known anywhere different. Arthur loves the island but it makes him twitchy.

He misses things from his old life too: a gym, cappuccinos, snow-capped mountains and being able to chat up strange women without worrying about what the gossip will be.

‘Bloody woman!’ Arthur gives a deep and heartfelt sigh. The letter from Shuchun turned up two days ago. How she’s tracked him down he doesn’t know but it looks like another part of his past is about to catch up with him. He stares at the rain-shrouded hills. ‘Why couldn’t she have let me be?’

Arthur’s not sure what’s in store but he can’t just sit in King’s Port waiting. He needs to get out and do something. And while the hills on Black Island might not be on the same scale as in Canada, at least he can get out and lose himself for a bit. Just a shame the weather’s not a bit more amenable.

* * *

Keziah moves slowly. Her right hip is giving her an increasing amount of trouble every day. There’s a bottle of heavy-duty painkillers in her pocket but even they seem to do little more than turn agony into a dull ache.

She leans on her stick as she shuts the rusting steel door behind her then limps across the courtyard. Beyond the high railings lies the main prison yard. The place is abandoned now. It belongs to the Black Company but, apart from a brief flurry of activity during the Second World War, hasn’t been used for almost a century. Not for its original purpose anyway. Now the only inhabitants are its resident colonies of seabirds and pigeons; and for them the prison’s foreboding walls are protection not confinement.

Most people assume the place is sealed up. The huge entrance gates still stand firm: nailed shut with large notices warning all and sundry to keep out on pain of prosecution. But the advantage of being a Black is that Keziah can get access to places others can’t. For years the prison keys were in her father’s rooms, lying untouched at the bottom of a cabinet. There’s probably another set in the company offices but, as far as she knows, Clarence Wherry has never even set foot up here. That’s one good thing about Clarence: he’s a creature of habit and lacks the imagination to go anywhere unless someone gives him a reason.

But while the main entrance remains sealed, there’s a side door Keziah has been using for several years. These days she knows the prison almost as well as Tower House. She likes the place. It’s solid: with lots of calm, empty spaces and just the birds for company. The prison is a world that exists in isolation of whatever’s outside.

Keziah goes through another doorway and whistles tunelessly as she limps along an echoing corridor. For many years she felt on edge and uncomfortable outside her rooms. Leaving the house seemed wrong. She’d been locked up so long that freedom, when it came, felt dangerous. Gradually though, she’s expanded her range. Now the outside world doesn’t disturb her so much. She avoids places with too many people; going down into the town is something she only does out of necessity. But up here in the prison she feels secure. Probably because she knows this is one place where she’s in control and no one is watching.

A pigeon flaps around overhead and a feather drifts down. Keziah watches as it turns lazily in the air.

As she does so, a shadow moves at the other end of the corridor. Keziah gives a nod. ‘Ah. I was wondering where you’d be.’

‘At your service, of course, Miss Black. I found the key you’d left.’

The dark shape comes forward; entering the light it becomes the figure of a slender man dressed in drab outdoor gear. He smiles and strides briskly towards Keziah. As he gets nearer, she gives him an appraising glance, taking in the waxed cotton coat, muddy galoshes and boots, binoculars, deerstalker hat and waterproof pack. ‘You look… different.’

Padraig Le Picard gives a slight bow. ‘Well now, I didn’t want to be conspicuous. I thought a birder might be appropriate.’

‘True enough.’ Keziah nods.

‘Besides.’ The slim little man shrugs. ‘You have a few of the more uncommon species of birds out here on your island. I don’t get to see such sights when I’m stuck in the big bad city. So, as I’m here I thought I’d take the opportunity to do a little birding, try to get a few more ticks on my list.’

‘So you’re one of them… bird witchers?’

‘Twitchers, they call us.’

‘Right. Got plenty of pigeons in here.’

Padraig’s face creases and his grey eyes give a lively twinkle. ‘Ah, pigeons we have at home. I was more interested in some of the pelagics you get out here.’

‘Pela… what?’

‘Pelagics: sea birds that live most of their lives out at sea. Wandering creatures like I’d love to be.’

‘Oh. Right.’ Keziah gives a dismissive wave. ‘Well we’ve got lots of gulls live on our roof if that’s what you’re after.’

‘Gulls. Hmm, I’ve seen those fellas before. Some shearwaters or petrels is what would suit me.’

‘Hmm. Well, each to their own. I like steak and kidney, myself.’

They both fall silent for a while. It’s gloomy where they are and Keziah starts walking further along the corridor. Padraig falls in behind, hands thrust into his pockets, strolling along jauntily as if historic prisons are where he conducts most of his business.

Just past where he had been waiting, the passage turns onto a wide landing. This part of the prison was only ever accessible to the warders and there’s a large window that looks out over King’s Port. Most of its glass remains but a few panes have been smashed: possibly blown out in past storms, or broken by bored young islanders with a strong arm and a good aim.

Keziah peers out. A steady drizzle is falling but she can make out much of King’s Port. The prison is perched high on a ridge, on one side lies the town and on the other the quarries where the prisoners used to work. From the window, Keziah can see the roofs of the part of King’s Port known as Higher Town, with Tower House off to the right. To the left, the brooding mass of the Old Fort is lost in the clouds, while the harbour and cathedral are just obscured shapes in the distance.

After a while she gives a sniff and turns to Padraig, who’s waiting patiently, eyes focussed on something off in the distance only he can see. ‘So?’

‘So.’

‘Have you got it?’

‘Have I ever disappointed you?’

‘Not yet.’

‘And I haven’t this time either, you can be sure of that.’ Padraig reaches into an inside pocket. He pulls out a fat package that he hands to Keziah. ‘There you go. Everything’s in there. There’s pictures and other things too that should do the trick with your cousin.’

* * *

Arthur knocks cautiously. George should be down at the harbour: his boat’s in dock having its hull scraped. Still, Arthur feels nervous. There’s no reason he should be but he always feels a bit guilty where Sally’s concerned. Plus he wonders what goes through his brother’s head when he sees the two of them together.

To be continued…

Hope you enjoyed this. If you missed any of the first chapter then the preceding six posts contain all the instalments.

Tomorrow, Arthur catches two young boys re-enacting a infamous scene from a film and a bit more of Keziah’s story is revealed.

 

White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part VI

The final part of Chapter One…

George Judd hesitates. They’ve just left his back yard. His older brother is with him, in a hurry to get to the pub. They should have been there an hour ago but got delayed trying to deal with Ned Hawkins.

The Wherrys’ clerk is still in the Judds’ yard, lying in the ruins of the hutch. He doesn’t seem injured but refuses to be moved. Instead, he keeps babbling about angels and white rabbits talking to him.

George and Arthur had wanted to carry Ned home but the suggestion sent him into floods of tears. In the end, Sally Judd told them to leave him where he was. She’d thrown a couple of blankets over Ned and promised to keep an eye on him.

Now, George glances at his brother. ‘Let’s go round the harbour way.’

‘You daft? That’s miles further.’

‘Well… we’re already late. Bit more won’t matter. I fancy a bit of a stroll. Get the smell of rabbits out my nose.’

‘Beer would do the job.’

‘It’s a nice evening though.’

‘It’s raining!’

‘Only a bit. You gone soft or something.’

‘No! I want a beer. Come on!’

George shuffles from side to side. ‘It’s just… I don’t go Ash Hill way anymore.’

Arthur’s eyes narrow. He senses there’s more to this than just his brother being awkward. ‘Why not?’

‘Got my reasons.’

‘Like what? Come on: you can tell me.’

‘Well… promise not to laugh?’

‘Get on. Out with it.’

‘There’s a ghost.’

‘What! Where?’

‘Up on the corner. You remember where the lane goes past the post box? Just below Tower House?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s where I saw it. The ghost.’

Arthur tips his head to one side. His brother has never been one for stories. He’s a solid man, same as all the Judds. Built like an island fishing boat: stumpy and broad of beam: made for weathering anything the Atlantic throws at them. George is no nonsense and practical. He’s steady. Talk of ghosts doesn’t fit.  ‘So. What did you see?’

Arthur starts walking. George is glad he’s admitted his fear. That’s the hardest part. He hurries to fall into step with his older brother, relieved Arthur is taking him seriously. ‘A woman. A white woman.’

‘A woman in white?’

‘No. A white woman. Skin that glowed.’

‘What, naked?’

‘Not a stitch.’

‘Pretty?’

‘Not at all.’

It’s raining more heavily now. The brothers dip their heads into their collars, heads tilted forward. They walk briskly up the dark street, water running down the cobbles beneath them.

‘So. Tell the story.’

‘It was a couple of years ago. I was on the way to the pub. It was a dark night. Stormy. And I was just stomping along, head down, thinking about nothing more than a pint.’

George takes a deep breath. ‘Then suddenly… there it was. This… creature standing in front of me. All shining white and naked it was. I stood there with my mouth open like a fish on the quay. Didn’t know what to do.’ He shuddered at the memory. ‘And then she screamed. Horrible it was. Turned my blood to ice it did.’

‘So where were you?’

‘Right next to the postbox.’

‘What, this postbox?’

George’s eyes pop open as he realises what Arthur has done. ‘You bastard!’

Without another look, George sets off at a run. Arthur laughs like a drain. Then looks around, realises he’s alone. He glances at the post box and then turns his head slowly, examining the shadows to either side. His smile fades. ‘Hold on!’

First in a gentle jog then a lumbering canter, Arthur follows his brother up the hill, heading for the safety of the Marlinspike Inn. And its beer.

* * *

Keziah watches the rain coursing down the window. Her rooms are in the northern wing: a part of the house added back when James II was on the throne. It’s cold and draughty but she’s lived here long enough she rarely notices any discomfort. Besides, the advantages of her isolation within Tower House more than outweigh any inconvenience as far as she’s concerned.

When first shut up in her rooms as a young woman of seventeen Keziah had ranted and raved, railing at the injustice. During those first few years she tried anything to escape her imprisonment: from throwing herself out of windows and climbing chimneys to attempting to suborn the servants with bribery, blackmail and naked threats.

But her captors were too implacable and her guardians too resolute. Besides which, on those few short occasions she did escape the family home, she realised there was nowhere on Black Island for her to go and no simple way off the island. As time passed, she began to accept her fate. Unable to look outwards, she started to look inwards. And, after the first decade, being confined to her rooms came to seem natural. She realised one day that the life of a recluse agreed with her; it freed her from all normal convention and expectation.

In the fifty years following that revelation, Keziah’s taste for isolation has grown rather than diminished. People are bearable in short bursts but she finds the incessant and inconsequential chatter that pours out of most highly irritating. Where once she plotted how to make her escape, now she schemes so as to minimise her contact with the world outside her private quarters.

It’s not that she’s cut off or disturbed. She knows most people regard her as a little deranged at best. More often the phrase is stark, staring mad. It’s a reputation she cultivates with aplomb. She’s become expert at unnerving people. It’s remarkable the effect an unblinking stare and graphic observations of a personal nature can have on someone who thinks they should come and talk to her. A little drool always helps with those who don’t immediately get the message.

But that’s just because Keziah doesn’t want to talk to anyone on Black Island. They were the ones who turned away, the ones who closed their eyes when her family locked her up. Her family! The thought sends a twitch of anger down the left side of Keziah’s face. Black Islanders in general may be beneath her contempt but her family are something else. Never mind the fact those directly responsible are all dead. Someone has to pay and, now, her revenge is finally under way.

She smiles. Clarence Wherry thinks he’s so clever. He plots and plans but can’t escape the underlying fact that he’s a natural incompetent. The Wherry family have never been anything but upstart toadies, clingers-on and parasites. Just because one of them married her aunt, they all thought they were gentry. Her father’s biggest mistake ever was leaving the family business in their care. Under the stewardship of Clarence and his oily father before him, the Black Island Company is slowly sinking into a mire of mismanagement.

There were times at today’s board meeting when Keziah found it hard to resist a smirk. Not that it would have mattered. They all think she’s crazy anyway and none of them would have had the remotest idea why she was smiling.
It was highly amusing though. She’d known Clarence was desperately worried as soon as she saw him. The letter hadn’t arrived.

As intended.

Keziah had timed it perfectly. She made sure the reply from her broker wouldn’t arrive until the morning of the meeting. It was worth it just to see the anguish on Clarence’s face, although the inane expression when his reprieve arrived did make her feel a little nauseous.

But, thanks to the injection of extra cash confirmed in the broker’s letter, Clarence was able to present a version of the accounts that made it appear the company was still solvent.

Keziah smiles as she gazes out into the night. What the other board members don’t know is that he only managed it by selling off part of the company. Something he has no right to do. Each board member has some shares but the majority, the ones for which Clarence is responsible, are all held in trust. They belong to the rightful heir to the family business. But with both her brothers dead, Joseph in the war and the little one, Luke, in childhood, there is no heir. No male one, anyway. Which is how Clarence has been able to continue in his cuckoo role, claiming control of the company as the family steward. Although that still doesn’t allow him to sell the family shares.

Not that Keziah minds. Not in the least. It has taken some careful manoeuvring and delicate negotiations. But the first part of her plan has come to fruition. The money she’s made over the years and the various identities her broker has created for her have enabled her to buy the shares. No one else on the island knows it but Keziah Black now owns a significantly larger part of the Black Island Company than she did before. Not majority control but a step along the way. And, while Clarence has got some fresh funds to play with, they won’t last. He doesn’t have the skill to manage the company properly. With the help of some judicious outside interference, Keziah will make sure that — sooner or later — he’ll need more outside money to balance the books.

Second time round it’ll be easier too. He’ll try to sell off another small parcel of shares. Discreetly. But Keziah and her agents will be watching. Ready to pounce and ready to buy.

A movement outside distracts her and Keziah looks down into the streets. Two men go by. Islanders. Fishermen by the look of them. Off to drink their profits away, no doubt.

She watches them go. At least she doesn’t have to risk chance meetings with their like any more. Things are much easier now, although it’s been a long process. To begin with communicating with the world outside Black Island was so much harder. She used to have to contact her agent by letter and that was always tricky.

Mad Keziah Black can’t be seen walking down to the post office like any normal person. Nor can she hand any mail to other members of the family or the servants: none of them is to be trusted. She has a couple of allies on the island but only a couple. For many years, getting letters in and out has necessitated considerable subterfuge.

Seeing the two fishermen go past reminds Keziah of a night a few years ago. She’d suddenly needed to send a letter to her broker. There’d been no way of getting in touch with one of her usual agents in time. The only thing for it was to use the postbox in the street below. It had been pouring with rain and she hadn’t wanted to get her clothes wet in case questions were asked about her whereabouts.

So Keziah, using an old, half-forgotten side entrance, slipped out into the street naked. It was a dark, wet night and she only needed to go about ten yards. She’d put her letter in the box and was just dashing back to safety when she came face-to-face with an islander walking up the street. It gave her the fright of her life and she’d screamed in shock.

Still. At least she doesn’t have to worry about things like that anymore. Now she’s got a brand-new Nokia 5110 phone. It arrived just a week ago, smuggled into the house inside several hanks of knitting wool. The little mobile phone is bright red and Keziah loves it. She keeps it hidden away inside her knickers where it’ll be safe. It’s also set on vibrate so no one will ever hear it ring.

Keziah turns away from the window and makes her way to her knitting chair. Mountains of brightly coloured wool and bundles of knitting patterns surround the ancient armchair. The patterns on top are mostly Keziah’s own: badly-drawn sketches for garments so ugly and shapeless no-one’s ever likely to be interested in borrowing the pattern or examining it any further. Tucked lower down are other papers: the ones that matter.

Now, lowering herself into the chair, Keziah isn’t there to see as another man goes running up the street. This one would be even more familiar to her. It’s Clarence Wherry’s slightly odd clerk, Ned Hawkins. But he’s not acting his normal servile self. This Ned Hawkins has wild, staring eyes and he’s wrapping his arms around his coat, cradling four small rabbits.

They’re white rabbits and Ned Hawkins is their guardian angel. He’s rescued them from captivity and now he’s taking them to freedom. Up into the hills: that’s where they’re going. Off to a place where man and white rabbits can live free.

To be continued…

That’s the end of the first chapter of Church of the White Rabbits.

Chapter Two explains more of what’s brought Arthur Judd back to Black Island and how Keziah takes revenge on someone who makes the mistake of thinking she’s just a batty old lady.

White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part V

The books are cooked at the family board meeting and Ned descends from the heavens…

Clarence smiles and relaxes. Mad Keziah announced a few minutes ago that she needed to go and pee. The fuss the old lady made as she rushed for the door gave him the perfect opportunity to spread out a couple of ledgers and use them as cover while he hastily opened the letter.

Now he’s happy. He’s got the answer he wanted. His plan has worked. He has cash to work with and no one any the wiser. Much relieved, he slips one set of accounts back into his bag and starts to pass the alternative version down the table. ‘Here we are, ladies and gentleman. My report to the board.’

He glances around the room. The implied insult has no impact. Graham Drake assumes he’s the gentleman referred to and the Bishop’s Secretary looks as if he’s asleep. Howard McAllister still hasn’t appeared but that’s no loss to anyone except his mother.

Clarence sits back, fingers steepled in front of him. He smiles. ‘I would, of course, be delighted to answer any questions. Alternatively, if anyone wants to propose a motion to accept the report then you can get on and sign it. After which, you’ll have performed your duties and can all resume whatever other, more important business you have to attend to.’

* * *

The snapping sounds and almighty crash that come from the back yard instantly silence the gathering of Judds.
Arthur jerks around in astonishment. Sally and one of the girls shriek, while Davey and his young friend Nathan both do impressions of drowning goldfish, their mouths opening and shutting in silent wonder.

‘What on earth?’ George is the first to move. He turns to the kitchen door and throws it open. Bursting through, he makes it several feet into the yard and then stops, confused. While he tries to make sense of what he’s seeing, other members of the Judd family pile up against him from behind.

‘Dad! What is it?’

George frowns. The back of the yard is where the rabbit pens should be. There’s no sign of them though. In their place, all he can see is a pile of broken branches. Sticking out of the top of the mess is what looks like a pair of human legs in ragged trousers.

A loud groan comes from the mound of foliage. There’s a twanging sound and the legs slide out of sight.

‘Dad!’

‘Hold on, Davey.’

‘Dad!’

‘What?’

‘Where the bleeding hell are my rabbits?’

George and Arthur pull some of the branches out of the way. Beneath them, they find Ned Hawkins lying prostrate.

‘Is he dead?’ Davey jumps around behind them, his friend Nathan peering over more warily.

‘Dunno.’ Arthur looks up. Above them, a hole torn through the overhanging tree shows the origin of the broken branches. What looks like a section of iron railings is hanging from one of the snapped-off limbs.

It’s hard to believe where Ned Hawkins came from. The backyards of Goat Street are dug into the side of a steep hill. The only thing directly above them is the rambling mansion the Black Family calls home. Tower House stands on a spur of higher ground and looms over the huddled terraces where common folk live. There are no ground floor windows or doors on this side of the building. So, unless Ned jumped from the roof itself, the narrow balcony on the first floor is the only other option Arthur can see.

He squints as he tries to calculate the height. The old ash tree that leans above the rabbit pens is probably thirty feet tall. The distance between the top of the tree and the balcony is at least half as far again. It must be getting on for fifty feet.

‘Jesus!’ Arthur breathes the word out with soft reverence. However Ned came to fall, it was a long way down.

Ned’s eyes open slowly. He hurts in all sorts of places but his head’s in such a whirl the pain hasn’t filtered through. He’s completely disorientated. All he’s really aware of is the little, fur-covered face beneath him. The one that’s staring up at him with wonder and what looks like love.

‘Jesus.’ The word is soft. Ned isn’t sure where it comes from. The only thing he can see is the little white rabbit.

‘He came from the sky.’

‘How?’

‘Did he fly?’

‘Look up there.’

‘Holy f…’

Smack!

‘Ow!’

‘Is he alive?’

‘Has he come from heaven?’

‘Maybe he’s an angel.’

‘Has he come to save us?’

Ned is only vaguely aware of the conversation going on above him between the younger Judds and their friends. Some of the children’s words seep in though and rattle around the inside of his bruised and befuddled brain.
His mind is still trying to make sense of the different messages it’s receiving when the young rabbit beneath him wrinkles its nose.

As if in response to the signal, three other white rabbits appear in his vision. They hop forward from wherever they’ve been hiding. Now, all four are looking up at him and Ned realises who it is that’s talking about him. It’s the rabbits. They’re saying he’s their angel. He can’t quite remember how it happened but he must have been sent from heaven to save the white rabbits.

* * *

Margaret’s hand lifts slowly and Keziah resists the temptation to slap it down. She doesn’t want interruptions or questions, just to get the papers signed and the meeting over.

Clarence Wherry tries to pretend the raised hand isn’t there but, much as he’d like to, he can’t really ignore it. He slowly turns his head. ‘You have a question, Mrs McAllister, or one of your observations?’

‘Well… I thought… that is…’

Cynthia Drake sniffs loudly from the opposite side of the table while her cousin Graham makes a lacklustre attempt to cover a yawn. Margaret grinds to a halt for a moment then gathers herself.

‘I thought we should, you know, discuss the state of the company. I mean; there doesn’t seem to be much profit shown.’

‘But there is profit and that’s what matters.’

‘Yes… but our dividend, well, it’s tiny.’

Clarence shakes his head. ‘Oh, Mrs McAllister. You know, if there was money to be thrown around, I’d be delighted to drown you in it. But, we have to be realistic. We’ve had some ups and downs in the past year. Black Island is a wonderful place but sadly our prosperity does depend on the outside world. I try to keep the company in as healthy a financial state as possible but even I can’t do anything about financial crises in places like Japan and Russia.’

‘No, but…’

‘We are all affected, Mrs McAllister. Like it or not, the Black Island Company does get a bit of a buffeting from these economic storms. The state of world markets does affect prices and that means our profits aren’t always as high as I’d like. But, as I say, we are in profit. Not by a huge amount but we are in profit.’

‘Yes, but I don’t understand how.’

‘I’m sure you don’t, Mrs McAllister.’

Graham laughs openly and Margaret blushes a deep red. For a moment, Keziah thinks Clarence has succeeded in shutting her up and the old lady bites her lip as she silently prepares for the vote.

‘No! I don’t.’ They all turn towards Margaret in surprise. For once, she sounds almost forceful and Keziah realises her cousin’s daughter is determined to have her say.

‘I don’t understand how we’re in profit because most of the figures for the company appear quite bad.’

‘Well, they’re obviously not all bad.’

‘No. But they nearly all are. I mean: I know I’m not an accountant and I do have trouble following your report, Mr Wherry.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. Now, obviously I don’t mean that as a personal criticism of you or your handling of the company.’

‘Heaven forbid, Mrs McAllister.’

‘But the thing is, from the bits I can understand it appears to me the company should be making a loss. If you examine them carefully, nearly all sections of the report show things really aren’t going very well. We seem to have spent money on things that haven’t returned a profit. The costs are very high.’

‘Investments.’

‘In fact, if it wasn’t for this one payment shown at the bottom of page twelve, I don’t think we’d be in profit at all.’ Margaret sits back in her chair: apparently exhausted and overwhelmed at the effort it has taken to get her point out. ‘And what I just don’t understand is where the money has come from.’

Clarence’s smile seems very thin at this point but Keziah is impressed to see it never actually falters.

‘The payment shown there is from… an investment, Mrs McAllister. We make many over the years and sometimes it looks like we’re pouring good money after bad but then, you see, that’s what makes a prudent manager. Knowing when to invest and when to stop. I know the accounts can seem a little baffling to one not familiar with all the nitty-gritty of the company’s business but let me assure you the fundamentals are all there. And, the important thing is… the Black Company is… in the black.’

Graham Drake smacks his fist on the table. ‘Well, that’s good enough for me. I can’t see any point in prolonging things further. Basic thing is, we’re in profit. There’s a bit of a dividend coming our way and I trust Mr Wherry to look after our interests.’

‘You would.’ Cynthia raises an eyebrow. ‘Saves you getting off your backside and having to do anything to help run the company.’

‘That’s rich! You’ve never worked a day in your life.’

‘I work hard every day, Graham. You wouldn’t understand the hours that go into running all the organisations in which I’m involved.’

‘What? Oh, which one of your many important social commitments do you mean: the Ladies Cake Eating Committee? Or are you talking about your Flower Arrangers Who Do Lunch Club?’

‘Please!’ Clarence puts on his slimiest peacemaker’s smile and holds up both hands before the two cousins descend further into their usual state of acrimony. ‘Perhaps we could just deal with the report.’

‘Oh, god.’ Cynthia lifts a single finger in a world-weary fashion. ‘I move we accept the damn report, sign the thing and get out of here.’

‘Seconded.’ Keziah gets in before Margaret can speak.

‘Thank you, ladies.’ Clarence starts to relax. ‘Now… all those in favour?’

* * *

George Judd hesitates. They’ve just left his back yard. His older brother is with him, in a hurry to get to the pub.

To be continued…

I missed yesterday’s instalment because of the holiday but this one’s a bit longer. Tomorrow, George tells his brother a chilling tale.

 

White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part IV

Things take a nasty turn for Ned…

Margaret looks at the water coursing down the window. The unpleasant brown stain has disappeared. She can also see the first glimmer of brightness breaking through the clouds.  ‘Look, Keziah. I do believe it’s going to clear again.’

‘Humph.’

‘Yes, I have a feeling the sun will be back with us soon.’

‘Wonderful.’

‘I think a walk by the fort might be called for later. One does so enjoy the invigoration of the fresh air after the rain has passed. I always find it very bracing, a tonic for the lungs and the soul.’

‘Hmm.’

Margaret looks around. She always finds it very hard making conversation with her second cousin. Keziah is never exactly rude but her responses are invariably abrupt.

She smiles vaguely at the others gathered around the table. The three other members of the board have now arrived: the Drake cousins and Reverend Presley, the rather plump Bishop’s Secretary. The cousins are arguing yet again over some old disagreement. The overweight churchman is staring silently into space, probably dreaming of pies.
Margaret looks at her watch. It’s now almost ten past twelve. She glances sideways. ‘Do you think we should start? Howard is on his way but he won’t mind if we start without him.’

Keziah looks blank for a moment. Then Margaret sees the old spinster’s eyes twitch towards Clarence Wherry. At the far end of the table, the family steward lifts a pile of papers. He appears more distracted than usual. He was so involved with his work earlier that he didn’t even notice when Margaret came into the room.

‘Oh…’ says Keziah. ‘There’s no rush.’

‘It’s alright. Howard won’t mind. I can speak for my son as well as myself if there are any decisions to make.’

At the other end of the table, Clarence laughs. ‘That’s not exactly a problem, Mrs McAllister. The boy doesn’t have any shares. Which means he doesn’t have a vote.’

‘Well… no. But he’s part of the family, isn’t he. Everyone in the Black Family is entitled to speak.’

‘I thought he was a McAllister.’

‘Well, yes. But… his grandmother was a Black.’

‘His great-grandmother.’

‘Well, if you must quibble.’

Clarence gives one of his humourless smiles. ‘It’s part of my job, Mrs McAllister. I have to question everything. On behalf of the company, you understand… And, since you’re not allowed to sell your own shares, I presume your son still doesn’t have any.’

Margaret feels herself going red. She is feeling flustered and hates herself for it. She knows she isn’t stupid but she does get in awkward tangles while trying to express herself. And Clarence Wherry always seems to make it worse. She could almost imagine he does it on purpose.

‘No. No, he doesn’t,’ she says, trying her best to sound decisive. ‘Either way, we don’t need to wait for Howard do we? So we can get on with the meeting.’

Clarence opens his mouth to say something but to Margaret’s surprise Keziah gets there first. ‘Are you going for your walk before or after lunch?’

‘Oh… I don’t know.’ Margaret wasn’t even sure if she was going for a walk. She’d only said it as a way of trying to find something to say to Keziah. ‘I… er… I haven’t quite decided.’

‘You should eat before going. Otherwise you might get hungry. Then… you might have to come back before you were ready. Or get faint and fall over.’

‘Well… yes, I suppose so.’

‘You could take some food with you. Get the cook to make you a sandwich. Or take a pie. Pies are good. I like mutton ones. With lots of mustard. Although they do make me fart.’

‘Oh!’ Margaret gives a little gasp. A horrible snorting laugh comes from the other side of the table but she ignores it.

‘Maybe a sandwich is better. Not so messy to eat.’

‘No… I suppose not.’

‘But what if it rains again? You could come to my room instead. Play cards or… have tea.’

‘Really?’ Margaret is astonished. She’s only seen the inside of Keziah’s rooms once before. That was years ago when her cousin had caught a particularly nasty virus and was bed-bound and delirious with fever for a week. Invitations from Keziah herself are unheard of.

She’s about to reply when Clarence’s nephew Douglas enters the room. He glides in his usual boneless walk to his uncle’s end of the table. There’s a letter in the boy’s pale hand and he passes it over. Clarence almost snatches the envelope. Then looks around when he realises he’s being watched. He bares his teeth in what’s meant to be a smile.

* * *

Ned Hawkins slowly lowers his hands and takes a deep breath. His eyes have been closed since seconds after the downpour started. Like a crucified rag and bone man, he’s spent the last twenty minutes standing stock still on the balcony. Face pressed against the solid reassurance of the granite wall as torrents of rainwater bucketed down.
Now, his clothes are clinging to him and he can feel water slopping around inside his boots. But there’s a faint bit of heat on the back of his neck. Warily, he opens his eyes a fraction.

His drenching is finally over. The rain has stopped and the glass to his side glistens as sunshine lances through a break in the clouds. The window is only a couple of feet distant. It looks like the seagull splatter has washed off. After taking a deep breath, Ned tilts his head back. He can see most of the glass but the pane is nearly eight feet across and the angle isn’t enough to be certain.

Ned bites his lip as he shuffles his feet an inch from the wall and leans away from the granite, just a little. It’s only a small movement but enough to trigger Ned’s vertigo. His head swims and his vision blurs. He gasps and his arms flail for something to hold. One hand connects with the railing behind him. Instinctively, he grabs it, seizing the rusted metal as his knees go limp.

Ned sags and his weight, though not great, comes down on the old wrought iron: metal that’s been eroded by years of exposure to salt water and Atlantic gales. It resists only a moment. Then snaps.

Gravity takes hold.

Ned continues to clutch the railing but it’s no longer attached to the building. Together, man and metal topple, spinning as they plummet into thin air.

* * *

Clarence smiles and relaxes. Mad Keziah announced a few minutes ago that she needed to go and pee. The fuss the old lady made as she rushed for the door gave him the perfect opportunity to spread out a couple of ledgers and use them as cover while he hastily opened the letter.

To be continued…

Tomorrow, Ned meets the white rabbits.

White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part III

And here’s the third instalment of the story…

Arthur Judd ducks his head as he enters the little terraced house in Goat Street. The old family home stands in a line of hunched up cottages in the lower part of King’s Port. Until now, Arthur’s not been back to Black Island since he ran away fifteen years earlier. Inside, the house is even smaller than he remembers. It looks gloomy and a slightly shabby too.

He smiles at his younger brother. ‘Nice to see you taking care of the old place.’

‘Really?’

‘Course.’

‘Remember you were keen enough to leave.’

‘Hmm. True.’

Arthur grins. He had stuck it out on Black Island until he was nineteen. The night he left, Arthur threw their father in the harbour. The water was out at the time. A bucket of fish guts followed. Before storming away, Arthur swore he’d sooner swim to Australia than be forced to spend another hour working in the same boat or living in the same house as his old man.

Arthur never made it as far as Australia but he did get to Canada. He also stayed true to his word. He never laid eyes on his father again. It isn’t choice that brings him back to Black Island now: more a matter of need.

‘Anyway…’ Arthur straightens up and looks around. He has grown tall for a Black Islander: almost six foot. Which leaves the top of his head pressing uncomfortably against the ceiling of the house he never really expected to see again. ‘So where’s… the wife?’

‘Out back probably.’

‘Oh yeah. Keep Sally in the yard do you?’

George shakes his head. He still isn’t quite sure what to make of his brother. Arthur had arrived on the boat barely half an hour ago. They recognised each other straightaway but, greetings over, neither is quite sure how to deal with the other. There is a lot of history here: too much to gloss over in a few polite exchanges.

George turns away. He opens the parlour door and leads the way through into the narrow hall that connects with the kitchen and the back yard. ‘She’s probably with the lads. They’ve got some rabbits out back. Mad about them they are.’

‘Oh yeah. How many you got.’

‘About a dozen.’

‘What!’

‘Give or take.’

Arthur is confused. He gives his brother a quizzical stare. ‘How long you been married?’

‘Oh… fourteen years.’

‘And you’ve got a dozen kids?’

‘What? No. I got three. Told you before.’

‘You just said you had a dozen.’

George shakes his head. ‘That’s the rabbits, Arthur. That’s the rabbits.’ He’s still chuckling as the back door bursts open and five children burst through, followed by Sally Judd. She gives a start as she sees the two men and then her eyes widen as she sees Arthur Judd. The sight startles her memory and a brief flush colours her cheeks.
Arthur spots it and turns smoothly to look at the children who are shaking the rain off like excited pups and haven’t taken any notice of the two men.

‘Hold on. Thought you said you had three young ‘uns.’

‘I can count.’

Arthur makes a show of counting. ‘One, two, three, four…’

‘Not all mine, Arthur. Not all mine.’

George grabs a curly headed eleven-year-old who’s tussling with another, slightly smaller lad.

The boy wriggles and looks up. ‘Hey, dad. Me and Nathan been cleaning out the rabbits. The girls just been sitting there cuddling them. And we fixed the fence. Three of them had got out. They were eating your plants. The special ones.’

‘Were they?’

‘Yeah. Think they liked them though. They were all happy… like you get.’

George scowls. He wraps his fingers around the stocky lad’s shirt collar. Without any obvious effort, he lifts the boy up with one arm and turns him towards Arthur. ‘This is my eldest. Davey: meet your Uncle Arthur.’

* * *

Margaret looks at the water coursing down the window. The unpleasant brown stain has disappeared. She can also see the first glimmer of brightness breaking through the clouds. ‘Look, Keziah. I do believe it’s going to clear again.’

‘Humph.’

‘Yes, I have a feeling the sun will be back with us soon.’

To be continued…

Tomorrow we return to the boardroom – and to the unfortunate Ned Hawkins.

White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part II

Continuing on from yesterday…

Ned Hawkins shuffles a step to his left, getting another couple of inches closer to the window. His face is pressed against the granite wall and his breathing comes in jagged bursts. He closes his eyes, focussing on just how much he hates Clarence Wherry.

Ned has worked for the Wherrys all his life. First father, now son: both as bad as each other: arrogant, pompous and downright unpleasant to all those they think beneath them. Which is anyone except the Wherrys and the Black Family.

Another herring gull screeches overhead and Ned curses. Why he has to wipe the window he does not understand. This is Black Island. It’s a big rock stuck way out in the Atlantic Ocean. There are seabirds everywhere and they shit on everything. To Ned’s mind there’s about as much point to cleaning windows as polishing coal.

A damp spot hits Ned on the back of the neck. For a moment, he thinks it’s the gull back to add to his torment. Then another wet spot falls on his ear and another on his left hand. Soon a regular pitter-patter is smacking on Ned’s head and shoulders.

That’s another thing about living on a rock in the Atlantic. It rains a lot. Most days it rains at least two or three times. And that’s the summer. Winter can be different: sometimes it rains continuously for months. This is the fourth or fifth shower of the day and it’s a heavy one. Which is another reason Ned doesn’t see the point in wiping bird shit off windows.

For five minutes, Ned stands there, pressed to the wall with water pouring down on him. At first it’s just cold drops stinging where they hit bare skin. But the rain rapidly soaks through the back of his jacket and trousers. As it gets heavier, he also becomes aware that water is running down the wall and over his hands, which are still pressed against the granite. Moments later, it’s flowing along his fingers and on down into his sleeves. Soon, Ned’s clothes are saturated, clinging to his bony limbs in a clammy embrace that just makes him feel even more depressed with life and his thankless existence.

* * *

It’s still a little before midday when the first board member arrives. Clarence watches the old lady glance around suspiciously as she makes her entrance. Keziah Black is Joseph’s younger sister. Now almost seventy, she still seems spry but Clarence has long harboured doubts about her sanity. As a young woman, she was incarcerated in the family home for nearly twenty years. That must have had some effect on her mental state. Although judging by the scandal that led to her being locked up, Clarence thinks she can’t have been the most intelligent of women in the first place.

He smiles to himself as he looks at her now. It’s hard to imagine this wrinkly creature with the staring eyes and the mass of white hair piled on top of her head ever inspiring men to acts of devotion.

Unfortunately, he does not mask his thoughts quickly enough and Keziah spots his expression. ‘Pah! What’s happened to you, Clarence Wherry? Not often anything makes you smile.’

‘Just pleased to see you, Miss Black.’

‘I doubt that.’

But thankfully she doesn’t say anything else and a couple of minutes later the next one arrives: Margaret McAllister, granddaughter of one of Jeremiah’s sisters and the biggest thorn in Clarence’s side. He’s never liked Margaret and over the years has come to loathe her. Partly for her sanctimonious manner. More particularly, though, for the impertinent way she tries to grill him about his plans for the company: as if she knew something about how to run a business.

Margaret is the same age as Clarence, both of them born in 1951. But her starchy manner and frilly, old lady collars make her seem at least ten years his senior. ‘Hello, Keziah. Good morning, Mr Wherry.’

Keziah grunts in response and, although Margaret looks in Clarence’s direction, he turns away before meeting her eye. Shuffling his papers, he makes them rustle and pretends not to hear. Margaret gives a little sniff but nothing more. Clarence smiles to himself and looks forward to when the meeting is over and the surviving members of the Black Family out of his hair for another six months.

He’s also in no mood to make meaningless conversation today. Clarence is waiting: praying for his reprieve. He knows today’s boat has arrived; any post will be ashore. What he doesn’t know is whether the letter he’s been waiting for will have come. Or, if it’ll contain the reply he so desperately needs. Or whether it’ll get to Tower House before he has to give the wrong set of accounts to the board.

* * *

Arthur Judd ducks his head as he enters the little terraced house in Goat Street. The old family home stands in a line of hunched up cottages in the lower part of King’s Port. Until now, Arthur’s not been back to Black Island since he ran away fifteen years earlier. Inside, the house is even smaller than he remembers. It looks gloomy and a slightly shabby too.

He smiles at his younger brother. ‘Nice to see you taking care of the old place.’

To be continued…

As yesterday, I really hope you enjoyed the above. This is the second part of the opening chapter of my new novel, Church of the White Rabbits.

Next section due tomorrow – comments, questions and thoughts welcome.

To read Part 1, click here.

White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part I

white rabbit

 One: White Rabbits And A Haunted Postbox

In which an unfortunate retainer’s brush with death leads to an unlikely revelation and a routine meeting hints at various shenanigans. We also hear of a ghostly apparition and witness a bid for freedom.

It’s summer. To be precise: August, 1998. White wings flash as a seabird climbs into the sky. Sunlight glints off rooftops still wet from the most recent shower. Down in the harbour, a loose sail flaps and cracks in the wind.
The gull turns, a jarring cry coming from its beak. It drops towards the town then swoops up again, heading for the crenellated façade of the big house that looms over King’s Port.

Splat!

As the gull vanishes from view, a beige explosion obliterates a large portion of the view from the first floor of Tower House.

‘Hawkins. Clean that window.’

‘Right away, sir.’ Scurrying towards the window, Ned Hawkins pulls a cloth from his pocket and starts wiping at the glass.

‘Not this side, you fool. Clean the outside.’

‘But…’

‘Just wipe that muck off.’

‘But…’

‘Just do it, man.’

‘Yes, sir.’ Fumbling awkwardly, Ned opens the low door set into the wall next to the window. He looks through timidly. The narrow balcony outside is barely two foot wide: the waist-high railings almost eaten away by decades of rust.

‘Sir?’

‘Close the door after you, Hawkins. You’re letting in a cold breeze.’

‘Right, sir. Yes, sir.’

As Ned reluctantly exits, Clarence Wherry turns away. He dismisses his unfortunate assistant from his mind. Instead, he directs his attention to the matter at hand. His agitation shows in a small tic in the corner of his left eye. The problem is the accounts. The details are as muddled and unhelpful as possible but he can’t fake them completely. Certain information still has to be there: such as a profit and loss summary for the whole company.

Clarence knows the accounts are accurate; he prepared them. Which is why he’s worried. It’s not the future of the company that concerns him. More disturbing is the jeopardy facing his own position. If help doesn’t arrive, it’s hard to see how he can prevent the whole house of cards from tumbling.

After arranging his papers, Clarence sits down. His joint roles as company general manager and family steward mean there’s no one to challenge him for the seat at the head of the table. It’s a large table too. A solid chunk of age-blackened oak that could comfortably seat twenty people: even though it’s rare to see more than seven or eight around it these days.

The table is the largest piece of furniture. But it’s the portraits that dominate the boardroom. Six generations of the Black Family stare down their oil-painted noses at anyone with the temerity to come before their gaze.

In pride of place, behind the head of the table, hangs Lord Augustus Black: slaver, part-time pirate, prison governor and founder of the dynasty that has controlled the island for almost three centuries. To either side, various descendants represent the generations that followed.

Against the left-hand wall stands the imposing figure of General Sir Jeremiah Black, painted in full military regalia. By the age of twenty-eight, he was already a full colonel, a veteran of both the Boer and First World Wars. Promoted at the outbreak of the Second World War, the general died rather ingloriously in 1942. Back in London following the British retreat from Burma, Sir Jeremiah was enjoying a spot of leave when he crashed his staff car. Gossip said he’d been driving himself to a striptease show at the Windmill Theatre. The official report also made no mention of the empty brandy bottle found between his legs.

Next to Sir Jeremiah’s painting is that of his son: the last of the line. Captain Joseph Black’s portrait looks semi-opaque. It’s appropriate; he was killed barely two years after inheriting the Black family fortunes and the painting never finished.

Clarence pays no attention to the pictures. They’ve been there all his life and the dead members of the Black Family no longer intimidate him. He likes them in their place: as paintings on the wall and names on ledgers and letterheads. The rigmarole of company meetings still irks him. It’s bad enough having to present the members with his report; having to inform them of his actions and seek approval seems almost demeaning.

To be continued…

I hope you enjoyed the above. This is the opening of my new novel, Church of the White Rabbits.

I’m going to serialise the book by posting it in short(ish) sections. I’ll aim for daily posts but there might be odd gaps depending on whether other events that conspire against me… like paid work, holidays, or absent mindedness!

Comments and observations are welcome. I hope to publish the full novel later in the spring.

Read Carefully – Scam Warning

This has nothing to do with writing in general but is a warning to any fellow writers – and other self-employed people – who deal with their own tax affairs, particularly UK residents.

I just had an email purporting to come from HM Revenue & Customs to tell me I was owed a tax rebate of nearly £400.

Great! Just what I like to hear…

The email also looked authentic. It was VERY, VERY good. The message appeared to have come from an HMRC government address.

Except – ignoring my momentary enthusiasm for the Government giving me some money back – a couple of alarm bells began to ring.

Firstly, I was pretty sure I wasn’t owed any money! (I only recently completed a tax return and I haven’t paid enough tax to get that kind of rebate.)

Secondly, it was asking me to download a web form so I could claim my money back. (Why wasn’t it directing me to the HMRC website where I submit my tax return?)

Thirdly – and crucially – there were two minor but telling spelling mistakes that made me realise the email hadn’t been written by a native English speaker! (And, whatever you may think of the Government, their spelling is normally spot on.)

I won’t reveal what the spelling mistakes were as I don’t want to help these people. But there’s a clear message here – beware Greeks bearing gifts, always looks a gift horse in the mouth… and read everything carefully – particularly offers that sound too good to be true.

Have a good weekend and may it stop raining soon!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 381 other followers