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.

 

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