Refugees – Part IV
The white rabbits make a re-appearance in the fourth – and final – section of Chapter Two…
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.
The man by the cairn has his knees drawn almost to his chest, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He’s staring out to sea and looks deep in thought. Padraig thinks about taking a detour but wants to reach the summit. He’d also like someone to talk to. He’s feeling a touch unsettled; he was always told there were some odd sorts on Black Island: and he’s now had first-hand experience.
Padraig stops half a dozen yards short of the cairn. He turns and looks at the view. It is magnificent. To the west the Atlantic Ocean stretches away to a horizon that’s only slightly hazy. Back, behind him lies the line of triple peaks known as Tryhuder or the Three Wizards. The interior of the island is to his left, with Black Mountain itself away in the distance. King’s Port is directly south but out of sight, hidden in a valley. Beyond, Padraig can see the island’s fifth mountain: the great lump of land known as the Guragh that juts out to the southwest.
Early writers dismissed Black Island as a ‘remote and barren fastness’, an ‘inconvenient parcel of land’ and ‘a forsaken lair of pirates and primitives’. Among sailors it’s also long been known as ‘the drowning giant’. That’s because the island rises from the wild waters of the open Atlantic like an enormous hand clutching at the air. The Guragh — meaning witch or hag in the old language of the island — is the thumb, a great blunt slab of a hill nearly nine hundred feet tall. Black Mountain forms the index finger, jabbing up just over a thousand feet, while the pinnacles of the Three Wizards form the other three fingers. The interior, a rolling landscape of bogs and moors is the palm; several small rivers form the lines that would allow a fortune teller flying overhead to read the island’s future.
Padraig isn’t sure what that makes Beacon Hill; it’s barely five hundred feet tall but still quite sizeable: a large callus or a mutant sixth finger?
Up here on the summit, the ground is covered with a mixture of heather, cropped grass and bracken: kept short by a combination of the wind and grazing animals. A scattering of dried out rabbit droppings lies in a shallow scrape. Padraig scuffs them with his foot and frowns.
Then, resuming his usual jaunty air, he approaches the cairn. The man sat at its foot is a good size: six foot tall and built like a wrestler, with brown curly hair. Next to him is some kind of parcel wrapped in white blankets. Apart from being lost in his own world, the man looks normal enough and some company and conversation are what Padraig is after.
‘Well, good afternoon,’ he says as he strolls up. ‘It surely is a beautiful day to be up here on the top of the world.’
The man looks sideways. ‘Huh?’ His gaze is distant: he looks as if he’s having trouble coping with both his thoughts and someone speaking to him at the same time.
‘It’s a fine beautiful day. A rare treat to be up here in the sunshine with everything laid out around us.’
‘Oh. I suppose so.’
‘You don’t sound convinced.’
The seated man gives a hollow laugh and shakes his head. ‘Can’t say I’d really noticed the view.’
Padraig’s eyebrows rise. ‘Hmm. Well there’s a funny thing. Myself, I’d have said it was hard to miss.’ He lowers himself down onto a chunk of stone next to the man and extends a hand. ‘My name’s Padraig, Padraig Le Picard.’
The man looks at the proffered hand blankly for a moment and then takes it with a firm grip. ‘Arthur. Arthur Judd.’
‘Well it’s a pleasure to meet you Arthur Judd.’ Padraig smiles. ‘In fact it’s a relief.’
‘Oh, it is. I had the strangest experience a little while ago. You see: I’d gone for a bit of a walk over to the north there. I was told there was a way over the hills to a place called the Cauldron.’
‘The Cauldron? Oh yeah. You need to go between the Wizards. It’s an easy enough walk.’
‘That’s what I was told and I think I was going the right way. But the track I was on went up past what looked like an old mine. There were old piles of stones and a few little tunnels.’
Arthur nods. ‘That’d be right. Old copper mine I think it was. Nothing there now.’
‘Ah but there is.’
‘Yes indeed. White rabbits. Dozens of them: they’re all over the place. I could hardly believe my eyes. At first I thought it was a very cute little scene. But then this most bizarre fella came out of one of the tunnels. Looked like some ancient prophet he did, all long hair and huge bushy beard. He wasn’t wearing much more than rags, either. Started ranting and raving and waving this big stick. Next thing I knew he was chasing me back down the track. I don’t rightly know if he was dangerous or not but I didn’t intend staying to find out.’
Arthur shakes his head. ‘Ah. That’ll be Ned Hawkins.’
‘Is he dangerous?’
‘Dangerous? Don’t think so. Not really… Well, not unless you bother his rabbits.’
‘Right… Well if I go that way again I’ll remember to take an offering of carrots with me. Gave me quite a fright he did. I was quite glad to put a mile or two between us. And so when I saw yourself sitting here I was mighty relieved to see you look like a relatively normal fella.’
Arthur gives a grunt in reply and the two men sit in silence for a moment until a soft cry comes from the bundle of blankets. Padraig’s eyes widen. ‘Is that a child you have there?’
‘Seems that way.’ Arthur reaches over and gently lifts the blankets. Padraig sees two small arms stretching up.
‘Come on then, little ‘un,’ says Arthur. He picks the child up and lifts it into his embrace. One small arm snakes around his neck. The other sends a thumb mouth-wards. Two eyes, the darkest Padraig has seen in a long time, stare out at him from under a mop of curly brown hair.
‘Hello there, my beautiful.’ Padraig waves a hand gently. ‘I’m Padraig. And what’s your name?’
‘Ting Song,’ says Arthur quietly.
‘Ting Song. It’s Chinese. Like her mother.’
‘Ah.’ Now that Padraig looks more carefully at the child’s face he can see the resemblance to Arthur is pretty much limited to the hair on her head. ‘So, you being the good fella and looking after her for the day are you.’
Arthur laughs dryly.
Padraig leans forward and wiggles his fingers at the child, who continues to regard him with suspicion. ‘So where’s your mummy then? She at home making your dinner?’
‘Mummy’s had to go away,’ says Arthur.
‘Oh that’s a shame. For work is it?’
Arthur turns and give Padraig a hard stare, making him wonder if he’s prying a bit too much. Trouble is, it’s in his nature. He’s never been good at keeping out of other people’s business.
‘No,’ says Arthur eventually. ‘Mummy’s gone off to get married.’
‘I’m sorry, my friend. I shouldn’t ask so many questions. The last thing I wanted to do was to give any offence.’
‘Oh well.’ Arthur pulls a face. ‘Doesn’t matter. It’s not a secret: just a bit of a shock. Yesterday I was a single man. Today I’m a single parent… with an eighteen-month-old little girl called Ting Song to look after.’ He gives a slightly manic grin. ‘Not quite what I was expecting.’
‘No. I can see that… So, Ting Song?’
‘That’s right. Not quite what I’d have chosen but there again I didn’t even know I had a daughter until yesterday afternoon.’
‘Hmm. So does it mean anything?’
‘Graceful Pine Tree… something like that.’
‘Hmm. Graceful? Grace? Gracie?’
Arthur nods slowly. ‘Yeah. I guess Gracie might work better.’
Padraig smiles and pats him on the shoulder. ‘Well, I tell you what, Arthur. It sounds like we’ve both had some strange experiences: me with your white rabbit fella, you suddenly gaining a daughter. I reckon the pair of us could do with a drink. What do you say to that?’
‘I’ve heard worse ideas.’
* * *
Keziah picks up the pack of cards and shuffles. Her hands are a bit too stiff for this to be easy but the shuffle is an important part of the build up. Graham is sitting opposite. He watches with a slight smirk on his face. If he were really a good poker player then he’d know to keep that superior expression of his hidden. Keziah knows he expects to win and she’s not going to disappoint him straight away. Not immediately anyway.
The first hand goes according to plan. Keziah deals herself three queens but loses to Graham’s flush. He deals the second hand and wins that too after Keziah discards the ace that would have allowed her to win. Soon she’s two hundred pounds down and Graham is looking inordinately smug.
Keziah takes the pack back and gives an ostentatious shuffle. Then she sets the cards down. ‘I know what’s wrong.’
‘What’s that, Aunty Kez?’
Her hands twitch briefly but she keeps her face calm and smiles. ‘Haven’t got my lucky ring on, have I.’
‘Oh well, if you think that’ll help you, I’d better be a good sport. Give you the chance to try and win your money back.’
‘Hmm. Go and have a look on the dresser over there will you. There’s a jewellery box. Bring it over.’
‘Okay. Will do, old girl.’ Graham turns around and gets up. He strolls over to the big dressing table. He makes a pretence of not knowing what he’s after then holds up a large antique Victorian box made of walnut with brass mountings and a porcelain plaque showing four fat cherubs. ‘This the thing?’
‘That’s it. Bring it here.’
There’s a smarmy smile on Graham’s face. She wonders if he’s at all worried about her looking in the box but keeps her expression neutral as she takes it from him.
Keziah fumbles with arthritic fingers before getting the lid open. She looks at what’s inside, rummaging in a tangle of costume jewellery. Then from underneath a twist of necklaces she plucks out a silver bangle. It’s quite distinctive, a Tiffany creation set with floral designs and lapis lazuli inserts. ‘Ah, my old bracelet. Well, well. Thought I’d lost that.’
She picks it up and clicks it around her wrist. As she glances at Graham, she notes he’s gone quite pale. He stares at the bracelet as she picks up the cards and starts dealing. With his attention fixed on the bracelet, he doesn’t comment on the fact she isn’t shuffling. The distraction is intentional: this isn’t the pack they were playing with previously but one Keziah slipped from her pocket while he was at the dressing table.
She deals the next hand carefully, ignoring Graham’s slightly stunned expression. The bangle had vanished from her room about six months ago, the latest in a string of thefts. Its disappearance had left Keziah briefly heartbroken: the bracelet was one of the few items she had inherited from her mother. She never reported its disappearance to anyone else at Tower House, instead putting other inquiries in train. Luckily the bracelet’s rarity made its trail easy to follow. A month ago Padraig bought the heirloom back from the same mainland antique dealer who’d purchased the stolen item.
Now, seeing the bracelet back on Keziah’s wrist has made Graham very confused. He takes a moment to react as she pushes his cards towards him. However, the colour quickly returns to his face as he sees what he’s been dealt. He’s not really that bright and simply tells himself Keziah must have had a pair of the bracelets. The new cards consume his attention. It’s a hand that would usually be a real winner. Unfortunately, Keziah’s is better.
Twenty minutes later, Graham is nine hundred pounds down. Keziah has switched packs a second time and rescued a hidden king from her pocket along the way. The cheating wasn’t really necessary. Keziah’s mainly done it for the fun of getting away with it. She could have won most of the hands simply thanks to being a better poker player.
Now she smiles: knowing her opponent can’t really afford to lose one hundred pounds let alone nine hundred. ‘So, Graham Drake. Want to cut and run or do you fancy a chance to win your money back?’
Graham’s face is a picture. Greed and fear make his features squirm as they fight it out. ‘Uh… I’m not… oh, go on, damn it! How?’
Keziah takes a deep breath and frowns. ‘Well. Let’s see. If you win, I’ll give you back your nine hundred.’
‘But if I win… I want…’ She pauses, taking her time as if she’s thinking about it. ‘What have you got?’
‘Pah! Not much.’
‘No paintings or fast cars?’
‘No money, no valuables?’
‘I’ve got my stamp collection.’
‘Really? Got any rarities?’
‘I’ve got a Penny Black!’
Keziah shakes her head. ‘That’s not rare. Worth a few hundred if you’re lucky. Besides, I got three of my own.’
Graham looks flustered. ‘I can’t think of anything else you’d want.’
‘How about some of your company shares?’
‘One hundred Black Company shares. They’re not worth much.’
‘They’re worth more than nine hundred!’
‘Oh, I suppose they are.’ Keziah reaches into her pocket and pulls out a bundle of bank notes. ‘Okay then. How about this? That brings my stake up to five thousand.’
Graham’s eyes bulge. He swallows. ‘Five thousand?’
‘Told you I had a bit of luck on the horses.’
Keziah watches him. She knows Graham’s in debt: seriously in debt. Five thousand pounds would make a significant chunk of his problems disappear. She settles back into her chair. She’s quite enjoying this afternoon and has a feeling it’s going to be a profitable day.
Graham owns five hundred shares in the family company and Keziah wants those shares. Added to those she already owns they would bring her stake to twenty four percent: still some way off control but another step along the way.
And if she can’t win Graham’s shares at poker there’s always the ring. The one he stole from her room a couple of weeks ago. It’s in a pocket, ready to slip on her finger. She could even show him the photographs, the ones Padraig took of Graham selling the ring in the same antique shop. One way or another, Graham’s going to pay for thinking he could solve his debt problems by stealing from a dotty old relative.
To be continued…
Chapter Three starts tomorrow with a nasty shock for the island’s bishop.