He is one of them, but different. They gather like moths outside her door, fluttering ’round the porch light, drawn to her dance. They gaze intently, their desires watering like hard candy against their tongues as she flickers. Wordless they watch, eagerly they await this auction block of lust, a week’s wages ready to burn.
In high heeled shoes their desire shows and shuffles, so slowly turning, the glowing wick in her window their sole attraction. The young moth stands up fronting the glass, his attraction a balm for her burn. She recognizes him from last week, and the week before, pushing his way up close. She knows how it would be with him; quick and fumbling, but sweet. She knows his kind, and likes them. His sort never know what to say afterward, ashamed with what they had done, ashamed at where their salary had gone. Still, she hopes it will be him. At worst he would be gentle.
When the door opens she is drawn to the heat from the street. When Max speaks their eyes leave her en masse, drifting hopefully toward him, or nervously around. “Which lucky one will combust in her fire?”
“Four hundred for Madeline.” Max’s bored voice contrasts with their hopeful expressions. Our Girl senses disappointment from the young one, and within herself, though her shuffle never stops. “Oh well. It might have been nice.”
The young one’s eyes will not meet hers. A fat man pushes through the small throng, a familiar man with his wad of bills thrust high. Our Girl sighs. A new flame slips past her, and toward the window. Victoria begins to dance, the same shuffling and turning, her naked skin so sexy and smooth that Our Girl’s own hand aches to caress it, hot and buttery as molten metal. Outside the glass the boy lingers at the window, but his eyes have strayed. They are only for Victoria now; a new flame, a new desire, though still too hot for him to handle.
Unamused our girl turns to her fat man. He has been here before. He is not the worst. He likes her feet, likes her to press them against him, likes them to walk atop him, her weight in the strangest of places.
Our girl wonders to herself just how much money the boy had; how close he had come to feeding her flame? Snuffed, she clomps down the hallway in the ridiculously high heels. Funny, how dancing in them is easier than walking, but she leaves the on. The fat man will want to take the shoes off of her himself. Though strange, the fat man was far from the worst.
She resigned herself. Tomorrow would come… another day, another paycheck. Her moth would be back. He would regret it after, as something within him would be forever turned to ash, but he would be back. No moth yet could resist her flame.
The Desirous Heart
In the Sonoran Desert, there grows a Cactus that has small, perfect peach coloured flowers, and clusters of long, needle sharp spines. Also in the Sonoran Desert lives a small bird with brown mottled feathers. The Finch does not rely on the Cactus for its survival. Nor does the Cactus need the Finch. And yet, time and time again, the small bird with the brown mottled feathers will be seen to perch on the needle sharp spines and try to reach one of the peach coloured flowers with its beak. No one knows why the Finch would do this. Perhaps it is attracted to the colour of the flower. Or, perhaps, it is the sweet scent that compels the Finch. But the spines of the Cactus are often longer than the beak of the small, brown bird with the mottled feathers. And so the Finch will launch itself at the Cactus repeatedly. Each time more desperately. Until, at last, one of the long, needle sharp spines will pierce the beating heart of the tremulous Finch, killing it instantly. This is how it feels to love some-one who does not know they are loved. Always the small, perfect peach coloured flower of our desirous heart is there. And always there is the one long, sharp and piercing, inevitably fatal spine.
May 9, 2022 10:04PM
I asked if I can kiss you & you asked
oh my little heart skipped a tiny beat
as that query curved down & skipped
to the very end
of your dirt blonde hair
without pause I said "your cheeks"
like it was stupid to even think
I'd say your lips
but I wanted to,
the cliff just seemed
nowadays I forget we don't talk anymore
even in my head or in the shower
yes a flicker would burn silently at times
there behind clouds of sheep
yet that face halved by an amber lamp
blurs the same way as my first ever dream
maybe its the brain steering my sails
away from an ancient pain
able to tame a sun's shin
by shelfing you at some sacred place
where wool warms & dampens
your baritoned hymns
or maybe I've wrecked already
stranded beneath starving waters
whose fangs had soaked the tears
so all I'm left with
is the beauty of the sun from under here
how it doesn't hurt to stare anymore
The Flower Duet
The Calloways moved into our neighbourhood over a weekend in April. We sat on my front fence, watching them come and go, in and out, to and from the large green removalist van parked in their driveway. Mrs Calloway wore a floral apron. Mr Calloway was wearing a knitted cardigan and a bow tie. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case. They might as well have bought a house on the corner of Boring Close and Conservative Avenue. Their two boys were our age. Or near enough. Not that that mattered, really. New faces are always more interesting. All the other families in our street had younger children. The Calloways had just tipped the balance a little more in our favour.
“New fish,” I said.
“Big fish,” said my best friend, Peter.
“Is our little pond large enough?”
“The minnows will just have to make room.”
I asked him if he thought they might join in our games.
He shrugged and said, “There’s only one way to find out. Let’s go ask them.”
So, we did.
Their names were Luke and Liam. Luke was the older. Sensible haircut. Plaid shirt buttoned to the collar and tucked into iron-creased jeans. Sensible shoes. He looked genuinely disappointed when he shook his head and said, “Can’t come now. We have to help our parents unpack and - ”
“Tomorrow, then?” Asked Peter, hopefully.
“What? What?” Said their father from the hallway. “Making new friends already?”
Luke introduced us. “This is Peter. And - ”
Mr Calloway shook our hands, smiling. “The Kings of Narnia. Come out of the closet, have you?”
I know for certain I blushed. I think Peter might have, too.
“It’s Edmund, dear,” called an unseen Mrs Calloway from somewhere inside the deepest darkest heart of their California Bungalow.
“In the books. It’s Peter and Edmund. Not Edward.”
It was Liam who saved us from any further embarrassment by dropping a box of kitchen utensils on his foot. Hopping up and down and swearing under his breath.
“Tomorrow,” said Luke. “For sure.”
The week dragged on like a watched pot. Peter and I found comfort in the other’s familiar company, but I was twitching for a different kind of excitement, and told Peter so. We didn’t have to look far. There was a special needs school run by the church just a fifteen minute bike ride down the coast road. The kids there were a rag-tag bunch, most of them had trouble spelling their own names, but like the good book says: Brains and beauty are handed out on alternate days. The trick is to be there for both.
We straddled our bikes near a gap in the chain-link fence, keeping a weather eye out for any of the Brothers.
“Wolves in sheep's clothing,” said Peter.
He was right. We’d heard enough from the Kimble boys to know what a paedophile priest with a guilt complex was capable of. And it was sheer bloody-minded brutality.
“Someone should report them.”
“Greased palms have deaf ears.”
“There’s Miles,” I said, pointing him out on the other side of the playing fields.
One of the little-uns chased a ball close enough for us to get his attention.
“Pssst - Hey!”
As little-uns go, he had more sense then most, looking around to make sure no one was watching before coming any nearer.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Do you know a boy called Miles? He’d be in sixth form?”
“Always wears a red jacket,” said Peter.
The little-un’s face lit up. “Sure. I know him!”
“Can you give him a message for us? Tell him Peter and Edward are here?”
He nodded and ran off, taking his ball with him.
Squeezing through the gap in the fence, Miles followed us further into the roadside fringe of Oleanders.
“Sorright?” He saluted.
“Sorright.” We replied.
Peter handed over a packet of cigarettes.
Miles slipped them into a shirt pocket.
“Would you mind,” I asked, “if we double-bunked?”
“Maybe,” said Miles, suspiciously. “What do I have to do?”
“Peter on the bottom. You in the middle. Me on top.”
“So, I’m the bunk?”
Miles shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Sous le dome epais.”
“Ou le blanc jasmin.”
“A la rose s’assemble.”
“Sur la rive en fleurs!”
“What the fuck?” That was Miles.
“It’s opera,” I said. “I’m singing.”
“Yeah? Well, don’t.”
I heard Peter snigger.
“Under a dome of white jasmine.”
“With the roses entwined together.”
“On a river bank covered with flowers."
"Laughing in the morning.”
“Gently floating on it’s charming risings.”
“On the river’s current.”
“On the shining waves.”
“One hand reaches.”
“Reaches for..... ”
My fingers found Peter.
“Where the spring sleeps.”
“And the birds, the birds sing.”
“That’s not a bird.”
“A cock is a bird,” I quipped. “And cocks of a feather, flock together.”
TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW DATE 09 04 1974
DSS MERRYDEW R (D1)
DSC LATHAM M (D2)
WPC SRIKANTH A
EDWARD XAVIER WESTON (MINOR)
JAMES PULLER Q.C (REPRESENTING)
D1 / Where were you on the afternoon of Wednesday the 3rd of this month?
EW / At school. I was there in the morning as well.
D2 / Don’t treat us like a couple of _______ morons and we won’t treat you like the ______ little ____ you are.
D1 / After school.
EW / Peter and I rode our bikes to Kimble Grange. We have friends there.
D1 / Did you speak to anyone there?
EW / Our friend Miles.
D1 / Did Miles say anything to you about running away?
EW / Not that day. No.
D1 / But he has before?
EW / Wouldn’t you? It’s no better than a prison.
D1 / Yes or no, please, Edward.
EW / Yes.
D1 / And would you say he was serious? About leaving?
EW / I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t think he had anywhere else to go.
D1 / You see, Edward, the reason why we wanted to talk to you is because Miles has gone missing.
D2 / Are you a rent boy?
EW / What? No.
D2 / So, you give it away for free?
JP / That’s enough.
D1 / You were with Miles, weren’t you? That day. You and Peter. What did the three of you talk about?
EW / Just stuff.
D1 / You were seen engaging in a lewd act. Homosexuality is a criminal offense. Did you know that?
EW / I don’t find it offensive.
D1 / We want to find Miles. That’s our only concern. Safe and sound, yes? So, if there’s anything you can tell us. Anything at all.
EW / Did you know he was raped when he was 11 (eleven) years old? And that he’s been raped by those bastards every week since? Sometimes every night of the week?
D1 / Certain allegations have come to our attention.
EW / Bashed? Tortured?
D1 / Certain allegations have -
EW / Have come to your attention. I know! But what are you doing about it?
D1 / Did you ever see Miles being abused in any way?
EW / We saw the bruises. The welts. He told us how -
D1 / But you didn’t actually witness -
EW / Well, no. But -
D1 / Do you know Jonah Waitihi?
EW / What? Yes, but -
D2 / He says you touched him.
D1 / Did you, Edward?
EW / No!
D2 / Jonah says quote ‘He grabbed my bird and rubbed it up and down with his hand’.
D1 / This is a serious matter, Edward.
JP / I need to speak to my client.
D2 / You can whistle Dixie, mate!
JP / I really must insist.
EW / Please, James!
INTERVIEW TERMINATED 22:58
“No, James. I swear!”
“You need to be honest with me, Edward.”
“Why would he - ”
“I don’t know.”
“You can’t think of any reason at all?”
“Why would he lie about it?”
“I don’t - Because he - Please, James, you have to believe me!”
“I do, Edward. But I know you, too. I know what you think about that sort of thing.”
“That sort of thing?”
“You and Peter. Other boys. You’re clique.”
“Seriously? Fuck off!
“How many have there been, Edward? The Williams boy. The Connicks. The Marshalls. Who else?”
“Do you deny it?”
“No, but - ”
“You can’t - ”
“I know you, Edward. I know what you are.”
“Yes, and I know you! How old was Peter the first time? How old was I?"
“Are you threatening me?”
“Do I need to? Please, James, you have to help me!”
“Yes, and I will. If only for Peter’s sake. But you have to help me, too.”
“I don’t know what - ”
“Tell me the truth.”
“The truth? I wish I knew.”
“Did you touch that boy?”
“All right. It’s late. I’ll take you home.”
“Can’t I? I mean - Can’t I stay here? With you?”
“I’m not sure that’s - ”
“You got any fags?” He asked.
“Only the two at home.”
His laughter surprised me. I didn’t think someone in his situation, and with his history, still could. It was nice to know he hadn’t forgotten how.
I told him to look in the glove compartment.
“Found some. But it’s nearly a full pack.”
“That’s okay. Keep it. I’m trying to quit.”
“No shit? Thanks!” He lit one and inhaled. “Mr Puller? Can I ask you something?”
“Why’d you call your kid Peter?”
“My wife insisted. It was her father’s name. If I’d known what she was. That she’d pack her bags one day and walk out on us, on him, the way she did, I wouldn’t have given in to her so easily.”
“Bit rough, I reckon, getting stuck with a name like that.”
“Maybe. But you can’t say it doesn’t suit him.”
There was that laugh again.
It made what I was about to ask all the more difficult.
“You know Edward’s in trouble.”
“There’s a way to make it go away. But we need your help.”
“There are men. Powerful men. Men who can make this disappear. One man in particular. But he’s not going to do it out of the goodness of his heart, if you see what I mean. So we need to make it worthwhile for him. An incentive.”
“What do I have to do?”
“There’s a party. This weekend. You’d be required to entertain the guests. You won’t be the only one.”
“How do I get there? To this party?”
“A car will come and collect you.”
“Do the Brothers know?”
“You won’t just be helping us, Miles. You’ll be helping yourself. What would you say if I said I could get you out of Kimble Grange?”
The telephone rang. My mother had answered it before I could get there.
“It’s Peter,” she said, holding up a manicured hand with her thumb and fingers extended; meaning I only had five minutes. I didn’t exactly snatch the receiver from her, but I did grasp it firmly, in case she changed her mind.
“How’s life in solitary?” He asked.
“A living hell,” I replied. “But at least they’re feeding me.”
“Allowed out yet?”
“Still in lock-down. You?”
“I saw Mr Calloway this morning.”
“He shook his newspaper at me.”
“I felt like a puppy that had piddled on the carpet.”
“Was it loaded?”
“Only with the weekend lifestyle supplement.”
“So, he was armed and dangerous.”
“Any sign of Luke or Liam?”
“What their parents don’t know won’t hurt us”
“You’ve seen them?”
“When they can sneak out.”
“I’m meeting them tomorrow. At the log fort. Can you come?”
“I can try.”
EXCERPT FROM THE WAITANGI DAILY MAIL
Police confirmed yesterday that the body of a young male has been recovered from a dam near the town of Fataroa. The body is believed to be that of sixteen year old Miles Faulkner, who was reported as missing from the Kimble Grange Secondary College by the Brothers of St Pious. Investigating Officer, Detective Sergeant Ronald Merrydew, says the boy’s death is being treated as suspicious. A source close to the investigation has also revealed that there was evidence of sexual assault. Police are warning parents to be vigilant. There are no leads, as yet, to the identity of the killer or killers.
NAME OF DECEDENT Faulkner Miles
AGE 16 years
DATE AND TIME OF DEATH
btw 1 - 3 am (appx)
DATE AND TIME OF AUTOPSY
i: Aspirital Pneumonia
Fluid In Lungs (vomit)
1) Blood Alcohol Concentration 0.528 g/100ml
iii: Bruising (anal)
iv Evidence Of Penetration
2) Scarring Consistent With A History OF Repeated Assault/s
It is my considered opinion that the decedent choked to death on his own vomit due to the excessive amount of alcohol found in his system.
Louise Pettifer MB BS ScD FRCPath
He mowed lawns in our neighbourhood for money. I think he charged something like five dollars, front and back.
Edward called it slave wages.
I said if slaves were paid wages, they wouldn’t be slaves, they’d be servants. Edward called it a minor technicality. Neither here nor there.
He asked Declan if he wanted to double his money.
“More,” said Edward. “You could make ten times that much, with a lot less effort.”
“You know where Peter lives, right?”
“There’s a shed in the backyard. You can let yourself in through the side gate. If you go there now, Peter’s dad will be there. Don’t tell him we sent you. Just say you’re expanding your business. Ask him if he has any odd jobs he wants you to do.”
We watched from across the road. Ten minutes. Twenty. Declan doesn’t come out.
“What the hell are they doing in there?”
“What do you think, Peter?”
The next day we rode our bikes past Declan’s house. His dad was washing their car in the driveway. We stopped and said hi. Chatted for a bit. We made sure Declan saw us.
“What were you talking to my dad about?”
“Oh, nothing much,” said Edward. “Just stuff.”
“You uhm - You didn’t - ”
“We might have mentioned it.”
’Of course not.”
“Do you think we should?” I asked Edward.
“A good father would want to know.”
I’d always wondered what a deer in the headlights looked like. Now I knew.
“Please! You can’t!”
“Why?” Asked Edward, innocently. “You only pulled weeds, right?”
“Please don’t tell him. He’ll kill me!”
“Do you know the old rope-swing over the river?” I said.
“Yeah? Everybody does. So?”
“There’s a path,” said Edward. “Follow it. You’ll see a log fort. It’s ours. Be there tomorrow morning.”
“You guys built that? It’s cool.”
“It’s our club-house.” I said. “You really didn’t know?”
Declan shook his head. “Uh-uh. What do you do there?”
Edward flicked his lit cigarette at Declan’s feet. “We pull weeds.”
I’d been let off with a warning. No charges were laid against me. Partly because of my age. And partly because the Brothers had stood piously resolute in their saint-like determination to deflect any and all unwanted attention away from Kimble Grange. Away from Jonah. And especially away from what had happened to Miles.
“It isn’t what you know,” said Peter’s father, “but who you play golf with.”
“It’s not like you to brag,” I teased him.
“I think I prefer you without the prison pallor,” he sniped, surveying my milk-white skin with a grimace of disapproval.
“This is the first time I’ve been out of the house in eight weeks,” I said. “What do you expect?”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re a total, unmitigated prick?”
“Frequently. And you’re an ungrateful whelp.”
“Oh, James,” I simpered, falsetto. “You always say the nicest things.”
“Why is the window blocked out? If the paper wasn’t there, I could see my house.”
“Huh? Oh! You mean - "
“I can’t imagine either of your parents looking favourably on what we’re doing.”
“They’re so square.”
His underpants had red fire-engines on them. I thought they were cute, and said so. He smiled. Maybe they were his favourite pair.
I’m flying. Next thing I know someone has picked me up and carried me into their house. I’m bleeding all over the furniture. It looks expensive. There’s a whole wall full of books behind a desk. I’ve never seen so many ’cept in a library one time. The desk is like something I only ever saw in a movie. Some kind of dark wood. Solid. Heavy. Polished. There’s this dude. He’s old enough to be my dad. He looks normal. But smart. Shirt and tie smart. Suit trousers. Lace up black shoes. There’s a first-aid kit open on the floor next to him. He’s holding a towel to my head. I don’t think you’ll need stitches he says. How many fingers? I tell him two. And now? Three I say. He asks me what day it is and I say it’s Saturday. Can you tell me your name? There’s blood on the towel. Blood on his shirt. Matthew. My name is Matthew Kelly and I live at 47 Pine Drive. 07695503. He tells me he’s Richard and I want to say Dick but I know it’s wrong. Even if his bow tie makes him look like one. Then he says Does it hurt anywhere else? He’s looking at my crotch and when I look down I’m holding my plums and I didn’t even know it.
A little dude comes in. Richard asks him to help me with my shoes and pants. The kid says Is he ok Dad? I think so says Richard. It looks worse than it really is. Little dude tells me Luke put your bike in our garage and I say thanks. Richard turns his head and sort of nods at a framed photo on the wall of two boys. Richard says Luke is our oldest and this is Liam. I say Bro. We bump knuckles. I’m wondering where their mum is. I don’t want her to see me with my junk out. Richard checks me over like he knows what he’s doing. It’s weird but ok. He has kind eyes. Doesn’t touch me any more than he needs to. You have a nasty gash on your thigh he tells me. And a bruise on your ankle you’ll feel tomorrow. The cut here he says and points to his right temple is minor so a butterfly dressing should do. You’re lucky you were wearing a helmet or. Or what he doesn’t say. You might be concussed. I know what that is. I tell him I’m a hard nut to crack and he laughs. Never the less he says. Who even says that? Never the less he says I think it would be better if you stayed here. Where I can keep an eye on you. It hurts too much to argue so I say ok. I like Richard. He’s one of the white hats. I can tell.
Luke and Liam take me to the bathroom and watch me piss. Luke says they’re supposed to check to see if I have blood in my urine. I don’t. Liam goes to tell their dad Richard and Luke turns the shower on. Liam comes back and they help me out of my clothes. It’s no different than showering in front of other guys at school or after footy. Luke’s about my age. A bit of a dork but not a total dweeb. Little dude is cool as. We bump knuckles again. I say Preciate you looking out for me Bro and he says Sorright. I slip and hit my shoulder on the wall and next thing I know they’re there holding me up. Their clothes getting wet. Liam looks at Luke and says Fuck this. He strips off his wet things. They both do. I tell them it’s ok. That I can manage by myself. But Luke says We’re staying. He says their dad won’t be too happy if I fall and break my neck. Again it’s no different than the male nurse washing me when I was in hospital with my appendix in a little glass jar next to my bed. They soap me all over and rinse me off and even rub me dry with a couple of towels. Then Luke runs out and comes back with clean clothes for me to wear. He says he thinks his will fit me but his dad has some if they don’t. I tell him I don’t look good in a bow tie and Liam cracks up. I’m liking the little guy more and more.
My bike’s a mess. I’m not going anywhere on it soon. Richard say he can’t in good conscience take me home to an empty house. I’m not out of the woods yet. I tell him I’m ok and I can take care of myself. I don’t need my useless fat bitch of a mother to wipe my arse for me. He says I’m welcome to stay and the way he says it and the way he looks at me I know he means it. He cares what happens to me. Actually honestly genuinely cares. And for the first time in my life I feel like I matter. I want to hug him but I don’t. I want to say something but I can’t think of the right words. Anything I say will just sound. So anyway Susan comes in. Mrs Calloway. And she says she’s made up the bed in the spare room for me or there’s a trundle in the upstairs linen press if I’d rather bunk in with the boys. And I swear she doesn’t bat an eyelid. But she must know. She can’t not know. Richard thinks it’s an excellent idea. They’ve taken a shine to you he says. I’m thinking you ain’t whistling dixie brother. But all I say is I don’t want to be any trouble. It’s no trouble says Susan. The more the merrier. Is she serious?
What’s wrong with these people? Why are they so fucking nice?
I heard the door close quietly and looked up from the chair in my study to see Peter standing there, chewing his bottom lip, his hands clasping and unclasping at his sides. He wiped them on the legs of his denims.
“Are you mad at me, Dad?”
“Why would I be?”
He shrugged. Fidgeted. Avoided making eye contact.
“You have a voice, Peter. Use it.”
“I don’t know. I thought - ”
“All boys experiment,” I told him. “It’s a part of growing up.”
“So, it’s okay?”
“If your friends are okay with it.”
“What you do in the privacy of your bedroom is your business.”
The tension flowed visibly from his body as he slouched into the other chair.
I closed the book in my lap and reached for my cigarettes. “Smoke?”
“No, thank you.”
“It’s nearly the end term,” I said. “Do you and Edward have any plans for the holidays?”
“We thought we’d hang out here.”
“Under my feet?”
“Edward has a tent. We thought, maybe, we’d camp out in his backyard.”
“It’s not exactly roughing it, is it? Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Another shrug. It was a habit he’d picked up lately; from somewhere, or someone. I let it pass.
“What if we rent a beach house?” I said. “You can still sleep in the tent, but there’ll be beds. If you decide you’re not suited for the great outdoors.”
He pricked up his ears.
“Seriously? It won’t be a working holiday, will it? I mean, you’ll do stuff with us, won’t you?”
“I didn’t think you’d want your old dad spoiling your fun.”
He came around behind my chair and draped his arms over my shoulders, leaning in to kiss my cheek.
“You’re not old.”
The game had been Peter’s idea. His way of pushing the boundaries, I suppose. Seeing how relaxed I really was about his and Edward’s promiscuousness. In the twenty or so minutes of Q and A, I’d learned more about their ‘club’ than I ever would have imagined. But then, neither had it been a one way street. There were more than enough skeletons in my own closet to rattle sufficient bones.
“Truth,” I said.
“Have you ever fucked, or been fucked by, another guy?”
“Does your mother know you use such language?”
“My mother doesn’t know shit from shoe-polish. Answer the question.”
“No, we didn’t. But we did have an older cousin who - ”
“What was his name?”
“Is not in the rules,” I said.
“Screw the rules. Tell us.”
“Do I know him?” Asked Peter.
“His name is Jonathon. When he was younger, everyone called him Jonty. And, no, Peter. You haven’t had the pleasure.”
Edward wanted details.
“How much older?”
“Just older. Does it matter?”
Edward bought pizza and we shared it, tossing our crusts to the crowding, clamouring seagulls. The first thing that caught my eye was a bright orange bucket and spade. The second thing was his head of blonde curls. A scattering of freckles, like shells washed up on the shore. His dimples and gap-toothed smile when I asked him his name.
“Like the dog?” Edward asked.
Edward to me: “Do you think Benji would like a bone?”
We took a hand each and led him into the dunes.
When we brought him back to the beach, some hours later, the tide had come in and swept his bucket and spade away.
I was surprised when James telephoned me.
“Peter would like to meet you.”
“My son, Peter.”
“Hmm. An unfortunate name. What on earth were you thinking?”
“Only slightly more so than Jonathon.”
“Am I expected to pay for the pleasure?”
“The tickets have been paid for.”
“His friend Edward is coming with him.”
“What, exactly, am I being lumped with?”
“Peter is a lamb. Edward might need a tighter rein.”
“Have them phone the house from the airport when they arrive. I’ll arrange for a driver to pick them up.”
Edward’s jaw came unhinged.
Our driver chuckled. “That’s just the guests’ residence.”
He carried our bags inside, and I made sure he heard my, “Thank you.”
I’d seen smaller mountains.
“Call me Doop.”
“Du Plessis. But Doop will do.”
Edward ran to the floor to ceiling glass wall that overlooked the pool. “Fuck me! You need to see this, Peter!”
“Can we go swimming?” I asked our mountain.
“You’ll find everything you need in your rooms,” he said. “Ring the bell if you get hungry. The staff know you’re here.”
“We have staff?”
“Mister Jonathan will be home this evening. He’ll see you then.”
Sometimes we went to them. Mostly they came to us. We never saw any money change hands, Edward or I, but the bank accounts cousin Jonathan opened in our names kept growing and growing. I remember Edward remarking upon it.
“You’d think we were the only two living, breathing boys on the planet.”
“Cheap and cheerful,” I quipped. “That’s us.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m worth every penny.”
It was Du Plessis who told us to pack our bags. “You’re going home,” he said.
The world, it seemed, had tired of our youthful charms.
Kitchen. Table. Father. Coffee. Morning paper. It was definitely my house.
I think I might have groaned when I sat down. From behind the open Waitangi Daily Mail came, “Awake, are we?”
“I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
“Did you miss me?”
“No. Why? Have you been somewhere?”
“Funny. I’ll put it away in my pocket and laugh at it later.”
Dad folded the paper and looked at me. He was actually smiling. Maybe it wasn’t the right house after all.
“Yes,” I missed you,” he said. “Very much. I love you.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why do you love me?”
“You’re my son.”
“Isn’t a reason. Not by itself.”
“You remind me of your mother. I loved her, Peter. I still do.”
“That wasn’t her last night. That was me.”
“How was Durban?”
“Thought it might be. What do you think of apartheid?”
“It will if your cousin Jonathon has anything to do with it.”
I reached across the table for the paper. “Anything?”
“Another lad has gone missing from Kimble. It’s becoming a habit with them.”
“Really? Does it say who?”
There was a photograph. It was Jonah.
My Uncle David told me to sit down.
“I need you to be quiet and listen. I’ll answer any questions you have afterwards, if I can. And then Detective Senior Sergeant Merrydew will want to talk to you.”
“Your father has been charged with the abduction, rape, and murder of Jonah Waitihi. He has also been charged with procuring a person for the purposes of prostitution, one Miles Faulkner. And as an accessory in interfering with the body of a deceased person - Miles.”
"Other charges are expected to be laid. The police found camera equipment, negatives, and photographs of a number of boys. Including you, Peter.”
“Has your father ever told you about his childhood? Our cousin Jonathon? He has? Right. Well. When he was fourteen, your father skipped classes to go to the cinema. He met a man there who took him back to his apartment and kept him against his will for three days. On the fourth day your father turned up on our doorstep. Needless to say our parents were relieved to have him home and, to all appearances, relatively unharmed. He claimed to have no recollection of where he’d been, who he’d been with, what had happened over the period he’d been missing, or what had been done to him. Our parents didn’t push for fear of traumatizing him further. It was never discussed, but swept under the carpet, and as far as our parents were concerned, forgotten."
“He seemed to grow out of it. Or, at least, I thought so. He met your mother at university and they were married. She was good for him. He settled. Passed the bar and made a successful life for himself. He was devastated when your mother left him. I can’t imagine why she did. She must have had her reasons. In time your father adjusted. Life for the two of you moved on. You seemed happy. Normal. Brighter than average. Certainly not anxious or withdrawn. If I’d thought for one moment your father was - ”
I went to live with my Uncle David and Aunt Margaret.
Edward and I drifted apart.
I hardly ever saw Mrs Weston after Edward vanished. Mr Weston would speak to me sometimes. He wasn’t a young man even then, but the loss of his only son aged him by ten years in the long months of quiet desperation. The not knowing. The waiting.
Miles had died by ‘misadventure’. So the coroner ruled. The detectives investigating could only surmise that a person, or persons, unknown had moved Miles’ body some time after death, but without a witness, or witnesses, or any real evidence, the case was filed, boxed, and shelved as unsolved.
The man who’d asked my father to ‘arrange something suitable’ later retired from public office claiming ill health.
Kimble Grange is still open. There are rumours, there are always rumours, but that’s all they are, and all they’ll ever be, I guess.
My father couldn’t represent me in court, but my defense was able to successfully argue that Edward had coerced me into being an accessory, and that I was as much a victim as any of the other boys. I was given a slap on the wrist and placed on a good behaviour bond for six months.
The town of Fataroa is only a half-hour bike ride away. I go there sometimes just to sit on the edge of the dam and think. I always leave a flower.
One day, years later, I received a card in the mail. It wasn’t signed. There were no identifying postage marks. No stamp. It simply read: No pearl is perfect. They all have their flaws. Their faults. But that shouldn’t make them less precious.
I visit the Cs when I can but I don’t get a lot of leave. The army’s my family now. I’m being transferred to a Special Forces unit. Black Ops. Anti-terrorist. Everybody has something they’re good at. Everybody has a place. I found mine. Richard slams the paper down hard enough to rattle his cup of tea in its saucer and for him that’s really saying something. It’s true he says. What is asks Susan. Oh no she says. I reach across and read the article. Members of what is believed to be an international paedophile cult who call themselves the Eternal Brotherhood were arrested yesterday in dawn raids across the country by New Zealand police. There’s no mention of that bastard Puller but there wouldn’t be would there? He’s in it though. I know he is. Up to his bloody neck and no mistake. Ten years. Ten fucking years. The whole trial was a cock up from the start. The Calloways wouldn’t let Luke or Liam testify and fair enough ’cause nobody needs to go through that but when the Connicks pulled their kids out too. Flush! Down the bloody toilet. Total waste of time. Then the prosecution fuck up the murder case to boot and they might as well have said piss off mate you’re free to go. Ten fucking years for killing a kid. It’s a joke. A sick joke. They should’ve hung the bastard.
I meet my mate Benj down the pub and I say remember telling me what happened to you when you were a kid and he says what about it. I ask him if there’s anything he hasn’t told me. Like what he says. Did one of them talk like his shit didn’t stink? Now you mention it says Benj Yeah. A right tosser. They both were. I say somebody should do something about it and Benj says we’ve been through this. I’m not reporting it he says. It’s dead and buried far as I’m concerned and it’s gonna stay that way. I don’t mean the law I tell him. We could do it. Just you and me. I know he gets my meaning ’cause he looks at me over his beer and shakes his head. Not worth it he says. Not now. Just forget I ever said anything. I know who they are, I say. And I know how to find them.
The two boys who turned up unexpectedly on my doorstep could only have been Edward’s. The resemblance was uncanny. It was as if Edward had found a way to clone his teenage self - Twice.
“Are you our Uncle Peter?” Asked the Edward on the left.
“Course he is,” said the Edward on the right. “Don’t you remember the photo Pere Jonty showed us? It’s him. He’s just older.”
“A lot older!”
“Don’t be rude.”
“I’m not. I’m simply making an observation.”
The taxi parked across the street told me they hadn’t just magically appeared out of nowhere, or I might have thought I was delusional, dreaming.
The driver crossed the road with a nondescript, somewhat knocked about, suitcase in each hand and set them down on the front path. Both Edwards said thank you, and Edward on the left palmed him what looked like a hundred dollar note saying, “Keep the change.”
The driver looked from the note in his hand to the Edwards, to me, and back to his tip. “Yous takin’ the piss?”
“Isn’t it enough?” Asked Edward (Left).
“Oh, it’s enough, mate. Too bloody right it’s enough!”
He was positively beaming when he shook their hands.
“You got yourself a pair a good-uns,” he told me. “Polite. No trouble. Not like some.”
I smiled and nodded, and we all three waved as he drove away.
“I guess you’d better come in.”
There names were Nathaniel (Nate) and Zachariah (Zach), and despite what I’d thought originally, and in my defense understandably, they weren’t twins, Nate being a year older. Their father, they assured me, was still very much alive and living with their Cuban mother in Belize.
“And Pere Jonty?” I asked. “How is he?”
“He’s well,” replied Nate. “He retired to Juan-les-Pin.”
“It’s in France,” said Zach.
“Yes, I know. I’ve been there. It’s beautiful.”
“We’ve heard a lot about Bondi,” said Nate. “Can we see it?”
“Is that okay?”
I shrugged. There was no reason why not. “Sure. But let’s put your bags away first.”
“How on earth did you find me?” I asked.
“We gave the cab driver your address.”
“Well, yes.” I laughed. “But how did you know where I lived?”
“Pere Jonty,” said Zach.
He made it sound as if locating someone his Pere had lost touch with, more than a decade earlier, was as easy as throwing a dart at a map of the world and saying, “There.”
“Do you live with Jonty?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” said Nate.
“When we’re not with our parents,” said Zach. “Or at school.”
I showed the boys around and let them choose a bedroom each. Nate picked the one next to mine, and Zach took the one opposite because it had glass sliding doors that opened onto the pool deck. They weren’t overly impressed by Bondi. I suppose it paled in comparison to the French Riviera, or the tropical turquoise waters of Belize. I treated them to hamburgers, aussie style, with pineapple and beetroot - and the obligatory chocolate milkshakes - and they wolfed them down like any boys their age would.
“What does your father do?” I asked, getting raised eyebrows in reply. “For a living.”
“International trading,” Nate told me.
“Gold,” said Zach. “Diamonds. Pearls.”
The inference wasn’t lost on me. Somehow Edward’s involvement in human trafficking - young boys, I naturally assumed - didn’t shock me as much as perhaps it should have. Nor did the fact that, after the trial, he would have sought out the one person with whom his past wasn’t going to be an issue.
Back at the house, they wanted to swim in the pool. I’d always been told as a child not to go in the water after eating. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.
“Did you pack your togs?” I asked.
They both looked perplexed.
“What are togs?” Asked Zach.
“Your bathers,” I said. “Trunks. Swimsuits.”
“Do we need them?” Said Nate.
“Well, no. Nobody’s going to see you.”
They probably swam naked all the time, I realized. Especially when they were staying with Jonathon. Edward and I had, when we were in Durban. It was de rigueur.
“I’ll get you some towels,” I said.
It was Nate, standing beside my bed.
“Can we sleep with you tonight?”
“We?” I asked.
“Me and Zach. We were talking about it. I told him I wanted to ask you first.”
“Sure. Why not?” It was becoming my answer to everything. “Go and get your brother.”
“Can we use your shower?”
“You have your - Yes. Sure.”
They played around in there for almost an hour. I didn’t want to spoil their fun, so I read and waited. The shower was turned off, and I heard teeth being brushed, rinsing and spitting, then what I could have sworn were two horses pissing in the bowl at the same time, and the toilet being flushed. Finally the boys came out. They stood and looked at me until I put my book down on the bedside table.
Neither boy seem to mind that I was naked. Pere Jonty’s influence again, no doubt. I wondered what else they’d be comfortable with. Had he been intimate with them? Had Edward? Someone else? More than the one someone? Were they sexually active with each other? Friends? Schoolmates? They’d been in the shower, together, longer than soaping, rinsing, and towelling off would normally take. What had they they doing in there? I was imagining the possibilities when I fell asleep.
I opened my eyes to see a gun in my face. Zach and Nate were sitting up, huddled together, in my bed beside me, terrified. Muzzle flash. Where Nate’s head had been was a splatter of blood. Before Zach could open his mouth to scream I heard/saw another shot.
I started to say, “What the - ”
Jonah won’t stop crying.
I pick up a rock and hit him with it.
I don’t stop until.....
My doorbell rang. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I answered it.
“I’m Kip Marshall.”
“You know my dad. Knew my dad.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, “but you need to leave before - ”
The door was three-quarters closed when he said, “Please!”
“You have a pool?”
“It came with the house.”
He stood staring out of the window at it. What is it with boys and water?
“Christopher,” he said, still distracted by the sunlit, shimmering blue. “But nobody calls me that. Unless I’m in trouble.”
“You can’t tell anyone you’ve been here - With me.”
“Is it because - ”
“I need you to promise.”
“Cross my heart.”
I pointed to a chair. “Sit.”
I took the chair next to his. “When did you lose your father?”
“Almost a year ago,” he replied.
“Can I ask how?”
“It was cancer.”
“Why are you here?”
“He kept a journal. I found it."
“You’re in it.”
“When you say - ”
“You and the others.”
“But mostly you.”
“Call me James.”
“There is no - ”
“Can I go swimming?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
There is a man standing at the end of the bed. Seeing Kip stir, his mouth assumes the shape of a smile, but it never reaches his eyes. They remain as cold and lifeless as a shark’s.
“James!” Says Kip, shaking the sleeping man beside him.
James sits up, runs a hand through his thinning blonde hair, pinches the bridge of his nose, rubs the sleep from his eyes, and finally, quietly, regards the man standing at the end of the bed.
“Nice company you keep,” says the man.
“Why are you here?” Asks James.
“Can’t I visit an old friend?”
Outside - under a vine covered arbor - James and the man sit, poolside, at a wrought iron table. James is wearing a white towelling bathrobe. The man ashes his cigarette. His gaze drifts languidly over the pool and its surrounds, never pausing to focus, like ripples in the water. James smooths a fold in his robe. Kip stands behind James’ chair. The man ashes his cigarette. He turns his attention to Kip.
“And who is this?”
“This is Christopher,” replies James. “Kip - Stephen Marshall’s son.”
The man inspects the gold banded filter of his cigarette. He gives no indication of recognizing the name.
“Stephen passed away,” says James. “Cancer.”
The man exhales fragrant smoke from his nostrils. James reties the terry towelling belt of his robe. Kip shifts his weight to his other foot. The man ashes his cigarette.
James says, “Are you here for Matthew Kelly?”
The man closes his eyes, as if the morning sun filtering through the leaf shaded arbor is suddenly too bright.
“Having eyes only for their sufferings,” the man quotes, “not for their misdeeds.”
“Don Quixote,” says Kip, who has read Cervantes for an English assignment at school.
The man flicks the gold banded filter of his cigarette. “Brains and beauty.”
“Many were the offenses to be undone, the wrongs to be rectified, the grievances to be redressed, the abuses to be corrected, and the debts to be satisfied.” Kip has the man’s attention. He almost wishes he didn’t.
“There is no recollection which time does not put an end to,” the man says, “and no pain which death does not remove.”
James has curled an arm around Kip’s waist, a hand rests on the boy’s hip. Kip feels emboldened.
The man grinds his cigarette under a boot heel. Lights another. He flicks an eyebrow at Kip. “The most perceptive character in a play is the fool.”
James stiffens in his chair. “Unnecessary.”
For the first time the man actually looks at James as if he’s really there. But then the false smile returns. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“This,” says James, “is Edward Weston.”
James asks, "How?"
Edward looks at the boy and James motions for Kip to leave them.
"There are ways," Edward says. "But you know that."
"Have you heard from Jonathon?"
"Not since - "
"I thought my boys would be safe with Peter."
"After they were extradited we arranged a transfer to a different prison due to over population. Kelly and Miller and four guards in two cars. The guards were ours. Send the boy home. Check your e-mails."
Rising from his seat, Edward kisses James on the cheek, briefly waves to Kip who is sprawled on the living room sofa in front of the television, and leaves via a side gate.
It's a link to a site on the dark web. A video. Two men sit facing each other, secured to metal chairs that are bolted to a concrete floor. The two figures are lit by spotlights suspended directly above them. Both men are naked. On the floor between them is a mesh cage. Inside the cage is a writhing tumult of black fur. Cut to a close-up of Kelly's face. It's barely recognizable. Bruised and swollen. The ears, nose, and lips have been sliced off. The camera pans down to his genitals. The charred stump of what's left of his penis is nailed to the top of a long, narrow, rectangular wooden box. The box must have an opening at that end because it fits snugly over Kelly's scrotum. The camera follows the length of the rectangular box to where it's fixed to the cage. The cage is full of rats. The image blurs.
Focuses. Miller's bruised and mutilated face. There's no wooden box, but electrically wired alligator clips bite into the loose skin of his scrotum. Miller's face again. A black gloved hand forces a metal ring between his lipless teeth. An orange nylon strap tied to the metal ring travels up to an unlit and unseen ceiling or rafter, and then down, to where the other end of the strap is threaded and tied through a hole in a timber board that seals off the opposite end of the rectangular box. On the floor next to the bolted metal chair Miller is secured to is a car battery. An alligator clip is connected to one of the battery's two terminals. A black gloved hand holds the other clip. The camera pans back to a wide shot.
A hulking figure dressed completely in black, military style fatigues crouches over the car battery with his broad back to the camera. His face is hidden, but James would know that man mountain anywhere. It's Du Plessis.
Blue sparks. Miller's body jolts. He throws his unrestrained head back, pulling the orange strap tied to the metal ring clenched between his teeth taut. The board is raised. Movement inside the mesh cage. Nothing.
Several seconds of silence. Then.....
Kelly's screaming echoes inside the unlit and unseen building.
The video still has another twenty-three minutes of running time when James closes the browser. He's seen enough.
Hanging in the Stars
’The stars, like dust, encircle me
In living mists of light;
And all of space I seem to see
In one vast burst of sight’
(Isaac Asimov, The Stars, Like Dust)
His window on the world offered strictly limited opportunities for stargazing. It could have been worse. At least it didn’t point towards that patch of sky that was lit by unremitting regularity by Polaris, the pole star. Restricted though his view was, at least it offered him a regular change of scenery through the year. He was still limited by what he could see with the naked eye - in theory, stars of magnitude 6.5 or above - but the light pollution in his neighbourhood, plus the reduced perspicacity of his aging eyes, meant that this was a completely unachievable ideal. On many nights, dense clouds would thwart any hope he might have of seeing even one star; but on other nights it might be possible to see nebulae, star clusters, even very occasionally Mars or Venus in transit. And - once in a very rare while - a meteor. A shooting star.
But the time for wishing upon the stars was most assuredly past.
I: Trailing Trojans
‘Langrangian points. Who can give me a definition?’
Dr Joel Montague, head of science at Theodore Roosevelt High School, looked out across the class at his sophomore students, and sighed. It was the final period on Friday afternoon, at the end of the first week of the new academic year, and already most of his students looked as bored as he felt. After fifteen years teaching physics and astronomy in the same sleepy Iowa farm town, his lecturing style had stultified into a pedestrian, uninspiring routine of questions and answers, punctuated with the tedious litanies of facts and figures he had culled from ponderous textbooks. The sheer delight that had once been his at contemplating the wonders of the cosmos - Carl Sagan-style - had long since been buried beneath the weight of exam board meetings, the tedium of SAT score reviews, and the relentless slog of marking his students’ mostly unremarkable offerings.
A hand belonging to someone sitting in the back row of the class shot up. Joel squinted: he’d forgotten to collect his new spectacles the previous day, and was still struggling with his old pair with their out-of-date prescription. The hand belonged to a student he didn’t recognise: a slim girl with plaited red hair.
‘Yes? Miss, err– ?’
‘Weinbecker. The Langrangian points are the five equilibrium points, first posited by the French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange in 1772 as a solution to the three-body problem. Only two of the points are significant, at least in astronomical terms: L4 and L5, to give them their mathematical designations. These are the points where a third, smaller object, could settle into a stable orbit.’
Joel chuckled. ‘A textbook answer, Miss Weinbecker. I’m sorry, I don’t believe I’ve seen you in my class before. Are you new to the school?’
‘My family only moved into Verona a few days ago, Dr Montague. There was a last-minute hitch with the house purchase. Unfortunately, I missed the start of this trimester. Today’s my first day.’
‘Ah. I see.’ An uncomfortable silence settled, punctuated by a few giggles. ‘Could you come to the board and show us precisely where these two most important points are found?’ He gestured towards the class whiteboard, where he had drawn the orbit of a planet around its sun.
The new arrival came forward, and took the marker pen that he offered her, smiling as she did so. He stood back and watched her carefully as she marked two points on the board. Now that she was closer to him, he could see that she had a most pleasing and shapely figure. For an adolescent, she had surprisingly clear skin; and her hazel eyes were startling. Slightly embarrassed, he looked away from her pert breasts, but there was no avoiding the subtle perfume that clung to her body. Joel found the delicate odour strangely and unexpectedly arousing.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘Sixty degrees ahead of and sixty degrees behind the path of a secondary object around its primary. The Lagrangian points: sometimes called the Trojan points, after the asteroids that fill these locations in the orbit of Jupiter.’
‘Precisely, Miss Weinbecker. Well done. You may return to your seat.’ As the girl made her way back to her place, Joel was conscious all the while of the stares she was receiving, and the whispers that she had seemingly triggered. He glanced at the clock over the door. He was out of time. ‘Right, assignments for next Friday. 1,500 words, please, on any astronomical body within our Solar System. Your choice. But no tiresome jokes about Uranus, please.’ The class tittered, and the school bell sounded. ‘Class dismissed! Have a good weekend.’
She hung back for a few minutes, as he packed away his teaching aids, and wiped the whiteboard. Only once all the other students had left, did she step forward again.
‘That was very impressive. Where did your family move from?’
‘New Jersey. My father is a civil engineer. He builds bridges.’
‘Hmm. Not so many of those out here in Iowa as in New Jersey. Settling in?’ The girl shrugged her shoulders, but said nothing. ‘Well, welcome to “Teddy High”. I hope you quickly catch up with the work you’ve missed thus far, Miss Weinbecker. Though it’s only a few days worth, I suppose: something tells me you’ll cope with that easily enough. What’s your first name?’
Joel looked at her quizzically. Not Capulet? She’s radiant, for certain, with that flaming red hair of hers. And those unsettling eyes. Still…I wouldn’t quite describe her as “a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear”.
‘Julia.’ He liked the feel of that name upon his tongue. ‘A noble name. Well, I hope you’ll continue to contribute so impressively to my classes.’
She beamed at him. ‘Oh, I will!’
He was filled with a sudden impulse: to grab the young girl and pull her into his embrace. Shocked at himself, he looked away, and gazed out of the classroom window, across the playing fields, as if contemplating some distant point. ‘Yes, well. See you next Tuesday. I look forward to reading your first assignment for me in due course, Miss Weinbecker.’ He didn’t dare look towards where she had been standing until several minutes had passed, the trail left by her perfume had fully dissipated, and he was quite sure she was gone.
II: Eye of Jupiter
’Soft breathes the air
Mild, and meadowy, as we mount further
Where rippled radiance rolls about us
Moved with music–measureless the waves’
Joy and jubilee. It is JOVE’S orbit,
Filled and festal, faster turning
With arc ampler. From the Isles of Tin
Tyrian traders, in trouble steering
Come with his cargoes; the Cornish treasure
That his ray ripens. Of wrath ended
And woes mended, of winter passed
And guilt forgiven, and good fortune
Jove is master.’
Julia stopped speaking, and lowered her paper. She had barely glanced at it.
Throughout her delivery, she had been directing her attention towards the grey-haired, fifty-three-year-old man, in the tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows, who had been sitting, perched on his desk, at the front of the classroom. Dr Joel Montague had been quietly tapping a pencil on his knee throughout all the time she had been talking, seemingly staring fixedly into the far corner of the classroom as he did so. Only when she had finished did he lay the pencil aside, and turn his gaze towards her. He smiled encouragingly.
‘A magnificent poetic flourish with which to end your assignment, Miss Weinbecker. Your own composition?’
She shook her head. ‘No, Dr Montague. It was written by C. S. Lewis: a part of his poem The Planets.’
‘Lewis?’ he frowned. ‘The English children’s story writer?’
‘Irish, actually, Sir. But yes - he’s most famous for his Narnia fantasy stories. But it’s his Space Trilogy, starting with Out of the Silent Planet, that I particularly admire.’
‘Interesting.’ More interesting, he thought, was the way she had looked at him as she had spoken of mounting further - he had been carefully watching her out of the corner of his eye, despite the appearance that he had given of looking elsewhere. There had been something about the way she had spoken those particular words that made him feel…uneasy. And yet, at the same time, curious. There was something fascinating about this teenage girl. Girl. Yes, remember that, Montague, he said to himself sternly. She was just fifteen. He’d checked with the school office. Her sixteenth birthday was a month away. Even then, she’d still be very much a minor. A high school sophomore. A girl. Not a woman.
He’d been drifting. Scrabbling desperately for something to say, Joel’s mind alighted on a point the girl had made towards the beginning of her presentation. ‘I’m intrigued by your comment about the Great Red Spot - your assertion that it might not be a permanent feature. Where did you get that idea from?’
‘It was in a journal published last year,’ replied Julia. ‘Actually, it’s been speculated for a long time that the Red Spot might not be permanent - but there have been quite a few recent observations, suggesting that it’s shrinking in size. One astronomer thinks it may disappear altogether in about forty year’s time.’
Well, I’ll probably be dead by then. ‘A little alarmist, surely?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘It’s too early to say. But in any case, we’ve only got three and a half centuries worth of observations to go on.’
‘Not even that,’ Joel countered. ‘There were no observations between 1713 and 1831, so we can’t be one hundred percent certain that the storm first observed in 1665 actually is the same phenomenon as the one we’ve had under view from the nineteenth century.’ He paused. ‘Nothing lasts forever, of course.’
She nodded in agreement. ‘Not even the Eye of Jupiter.’
Joel was startled. He was vaguely aware of someone sniggering - Sal Bischoff, predictably - but he ignored it. ‘I’ve not heard it called that before,’ he said, slowly.
Julia smiled, as if at some private joke. ‘Jupiter is commonly identified with Zeus - the head of the pantheon of Olympus - yes? But he’s also sometimes equated with Odin, the chief Norse god. One-eyed Odin, the Wanderer. He sacrificed his other eye in exchange for prophetic wisdom. So, in that case - wouldn’t it make sense if the Great Red Spot was seen to be the Eye of Jupiter?’
‘It would indeed. Thank you, once again, for a refreshingly original assignment, Miss Weinbecker. Who’s next?’ He looked across the room, then fastened his gaze upon the fidgeting figure in the furthest corner. ‘Mr Bischoff. What do you have to offer us this afternoon?’
Sal Bischoff smirked. ‘I chose the seventh planet, Sir.’ Joel groaned inwardly: he should have known better. All despite his strict admonitions the previous week…
Must I really listen to Sal Bischoff’s take on Uranus?
III: Conjunction - Mars and Venus
The bell had sounded, and once again, at the end of another Friday afternoon, Joel found himself alone with his new star student.
It was time.
‘There’s a conjunction of Mars and Venus this weekend - tomorrow night, actually. A particularly close one. They’ll be just a quarter of a degree apart at their nearest.’ He tried to sound nonchalant, but his heart was beating faster.
She nodded. ‘Yes, I know. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.’
He looked away from her. Damn, why was she making this so difficult? He shuffled his papers together. The next thing he was about to say…
Just do it.
‘I happen to have a secluded cabin in the woods, about five miles out of town. I’ve converted it into an observatory. Nothing fancy, but I have a twelve inch reflector there.’
‘Twelve inches? Impressive.’
Joel winced. The smutty innuendo was clear, even if it was shocking from the lips of a fifteen-year-old girl. He decided to ignore it. ‘Well, it’s half an inch smaller than Sir Patrick Moore’s instrument at Selsey - but it’s pretty good. You’ve heard of Patrick Moore?’
‘Of course. England’s eccentric grandfather of amateur astronomy. Supposedly, the only person to have met Orville Wright, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. Something of a misogynist, though.’
‘Yes. Well. Anyway, I was wondering - would you care to join me for the conjunction? The weather forecast for tomorrow evening is pretty good; a clear sky all night, actually. There’s not much light pollution near the cabin, and the moon will be a day past new, so it should be ideal. It would just be for a little while: I could get you back home by half past nine. But, if you think it’s not a good idea, then– ?’
He paused. Had he completely misread the signs? But Julia was looking back at him, holding her textbooks in a tight embrace, and smiling.
‘Sure. Why not? But I don’t think picking me up from home is a good idea. How about meeting at Morton Cross, by the gas station?’
‘Would seven o’clock be okay?’
The next night, at ten minutes to seven, he was parked up outside the gas station, waiting for her. He was nervous as hell. He’d not been with anyone for the last three years, not since Barbara had walked out on him on his fiftieth birthday, let alone…
He gulped, and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. This was madness - what was he thinking? He needed something to calm himself down. Fumbling in the glove compartment, he found a bottle of bourbon, and took a swig. Better.
The sun was just setting. A glorious claret-red sky. It was magnificent.
‘Been waiting long?’
There she was, looking as radiant as the heavens, in a colourful low-cut paisley pattern dress. Her hair looked freshly-styled, and was no longer tied up in her customary school girl plaits; somehow, it made her look several years older. She was wearing mascara, bright red lipstick, and hooped earrings, each bearing what appeared to be contrasting astronomical symbols upon them. He raised a quizzical eyebrow. Were they– ?
Julia looked at his perplexed face, and tittered. ‘Yes, Dr Montague. Venus in my left earlobe, and Mars in the right. I found them in a market this morning. Aren’t they delightful?’ Without waiting for a reply, she slipped into the passenger seat next to him, leaned across, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. ‘Shall we go?’
‘Of course.’ His nervousness returning, he fumbled with the stick-shift, grinding the gears as he did so, and cursing under his breath as a customer at the gas station looked across from where he was filling the tank of his vintage Oldsmobile. It was Damian Donahue, the flamboyant head of history at Teddy High. Shit. Has he seen us?
‘It’s okay,’ whispered Julia. ‘He’s banging one of the football jocks from the 12th grade. Charlotte Faber told me. He won’t say anything, even if he’s seen us.’
‘Nonsense. He’s married.’ And every member of staff knows not to trust anything Charlotte Faber says.
‘So? Mom thinks I’m on a sleepover, by the way. Mind if I take a sip of that bourbon?’
‘We’d best be going.’ Before Damian Donahue wanders over, and wonders what I’m doing in a car with a fifteen-year-old student on a Saturday night.
Four hours later, after they had made love for a second time, she asked him: ‘Am I the first girl you’ve brought to your observatory in the woods?’
‘Yes. Do I look like the kind of person who habitually seduces his students?’
Julia smiled. ‘No, Dr Montague. You don’t.’ She reached up her hand, to take off the spectacles he’d insisted on wearing throughout, but he grabbed her wrist.
‘No. I prefer to keep them on - I’m very short-sighted. And please, don’t call me Dr Montague - it reminds me that we shouldn’t be doing this. Call me Joel.’
She laughed. ‘Joel? Really? And there was me wondering if it would be Romeo, after all.’
‘What, with your name being Julia? And both of us finding ourselves living in a town called Verona? That would have been far too much in the way of coincidence, surely?’
‘Coincidence - or fate?’
He snorted. ‘You’re being ridiculous. You’ll be wanting to know my star-sign next.’
For a moment, she said nothing. He wondered if he’d offended her. He was about to apologise, when she opened her mouth, and said, slowly: ‘Joel. You don’t look much like an Old Testament prophet.’
‘My mother always hoped, I think, I’d become a preacher. She never understood my interest in science. Even when I got my doctorate, I was something of a disappointment to her.’
‘And your father?’
‘I never knew him,’ Joel replied. He pushed himself upright on the sofa-bed, and ran his fingers through his rumpled hair. It was something he often did when troubled in thought. ‘My mother, for all her pious pretensions, wasn’t exactly virtuous. She had a number of relationships in her youth. None of them lasted more than a few years. I ended up in care for a time. Anyway, she’s been dead for ten years now. Cancer.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Julia said. ‘My mother’s pretty religious too - she’s from Georgia. Goes with the territory - or, rather, the state - I guess. She never liked it in New Jersey. I think she wants to go back down South someday - Dad has promised that they will, eventually. Iowa was a compromise, of sorts.’
‘Is your father religious?’
‘God, no!’ she laughed. ‘He’s got no time for all that. Not now. He used to be - but he lost his faith when my elder brother died. He was five. He drowned in the neighbour’s swimming pool. We were still in Georgia then. I was only three. I don’t really remember Freddy. All I can remember is the howling. Not my mother - she was very calm. Stoical. It was my father: his crying - he was inconsolable. It was just about my first memory. He’s tried his best to love me, but I learnt at an early age that I’d never quite be good enough. I would never replace what he had lost. He tries not to show it, but…’ she shrugged. ‘Soon after that we moved to New Jersey.’
‘I’m surprised,’ said Joel carefully, ‘Given what happened with your brother - they’re not more…protective? This story you’ve concocted - of sleeping over tonight with your friend, Veronica Dawes - you’re sure they won’t question it?’
‘She’s not really a friend. It’s a double-cover, actually. She’s with a boy tonight, and has told her parents she’s over at my place. And no, I doubt they’ll question it. I’m nearly sixteen, after all. Dad’s out of town for a few days - some conference or other - he’s often away from home. Mom is very trusting. I’ve done it before - not here, but in New Jersey. You’re not the first.’ He must have looked shocked. ‘Sorry, Joel. I mean - this has been great - but…well, I like older men. Proper men. And they like me.’ She leaned over, and kissed him. ‘Shall we have a look through that telescope again?’
‘If you want. We’re well past the closest point of the conjunction now, though. Or perhaps you want to look at something else?’
But, much to his disappointment (and contrary to the weather forecast), most of the sky was now obscured by clouds. He tutted and sighed; but then felt her hand upon his. He turned away from the eyepiece, and looked into her startling hazel eyes.
‘I’m sorry, but–’
She kissed him fully on his lips, then murmured. ‘It’s okay, darling. The heavens can wait. Mars and Venus will be hanging in the stars long after we’re gone. Let’s try for another conjunction of our own, shall we?’
IV: Pillars of Creation
At the moment of his climax, he cried out:
For what seemed like an age, they lay together, in silence. When perhaps five minutes had passed, she looked at him.
‘Why did you say that?’
‘Why did you say that?’ she repeated.
‘Oh.’ He met her questioning gaze. ‘An image. It came to me, as I– ’ He paused, embarrassed.
‘As you came.’ She giggled, and gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘It’s okay, Joel. My mouth is filthy enough for the two of us. What image?’
‘Do you know the Eagle Nebula? Also known as the Star Queen Nebula? M16?’
‘I think so. In the constellation Serpens, right?’
‘Yes. There’s a wonderful photographic image that Hubble took back in 1995, I think. The Pillars of Creation. This amazing formation of gas and dust, all in the process of creating new stars. There’s a famous preacher, called Charles Spurgeon. Heard of him?’ She shook her head. ‘Remarkable. There are some gaps in your knowledge after all, it seems.’
‘Stop teasing. What about this preacher?’
‘My mother - I told you, she wanted me to be a preacher - she was the one who first introduced me to Spurgeon. Anyway, he once delivered a very famous sermon on the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. My mother made me learn it - well, parts of it. Let me see.’ He closed his eyes, concentrating. ‘I think - yes - it went something like this– ’
‘And now wonder, ye angels; the Infinite has become an infant; he, upon whose shoulders the universe doth hang, hangs at his mother's breast; He who created all things, and bears up the pillars of creation, hath now become so weak, that He must be carried by a woman!’
‘That’s rather beautiful,’ opined Julia.
‘Whoever thought to apply that phrase to the stellar birthing pool in the Eagle Nebula clearly thought so too. It’s probably my favourite Hubble photograph. As I said, it just,’ - he chuckled - ‘came to me.’
‘Do you want to see what else will come to you, if we try that again?’ she quipped.
‘In a moment. God, you’re insatiable.’
‘Only our second weekend together, and already I’m proving too much for your pillar of creation, it seems.’
‘Ha!’ Joel threw a pillow at her. ‘We’ll soon see about that.’
V: Leading Trojans
‘They made a mistake with the nomenclature, you know,’ said Joel. ‘When they made the first discoveries.’
‘Oh? What do you mean?’
They were back in the cabin in the woods again, their third successive Saturday night together. Another bout of fierce love-making had been concluded. Now they were drinking wine together; and talking once again about the Jovian Lagrange points.
‘Max Wolf from Heidelberg University. Back in 1906 he discovered the first Trojan asteroid in the L4 Lagrangian point of the Sun–Jupiter System. He named it Achilles. 83 miles in diameter. Not the largest, but still in the top ten of Trojans.’
Julia took a sip of her Chablis. She didn’t particularly care for it - far too dry for her taste - but she didn’t want to offend Joel, who had clearly impressed on her earlier what a particularly good vintage this particular wine was. She was already getting the impression that he was something of a wine snob. ‘What was the mistake?’
The second one to be found was discovered by Wolf’s colleague, August Kopff, eight months later. He spotted it in Jupiter’s L5 point, the trailing Lagrangian point. It was named Patroclus, after Achilles’ friend and lover.’
‘I still don’t understand what the mistake was.’
‘Patience, dear. The mistake only became evident with the naming of each newly discovered asteroid. You see, the decision was taken to name the leading Trojans after members of the Greek camp - so as well as Achilles, we have Nestor, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, and so on. Whereas the trailing Trojans were named for members of the Trojan camp proper - Priamus, Äneas, Troilus, etcetera, etcetera. Perfectly logical, yes?’
‘I guess so.’ She frowned. ‘But in that case, why– ?’
‘Why was Patroclus in the Trojan camp? Precisely. The International Astronomical Union hadn’t been founded when the first Trojans were discovered, and therefore hadn’t devised their elegant division of Jovian asteroids into Greek and Trojan camps, depending upon which Lagrangian point they were in. So poor Patroclus ends up separated from his lover Achilles. Even worse, guess where they placed Hektor, Achilles’ great rival and opposite number - the man who was responsible for Patroclus’ death?’
‘From your tone it’s pretty obvious,’ replied Julia. ‘In the Greek camp at the L4 point, I presume?’
‘Yes. Hektor turned out to be the largest of all the Trojan asteroids, and only the third to be discovered. And it’s found in the Greek camp. Both camps have their spies and interlopers, it would seem.’
‘And thus Priam is separated from his beloved eldest son, forever unable to carry out the funeral rites required by the gods,’ Julia mused. ‘How tragic!’ There was no trace of irony in her voice.
Joel grimaced. ‘They’re just chunks of rock and ice. It’s a curious quirk of naming - nothing more. I thought you’d find it interesting - but there’s no need to get all misty-eyed about it.’
‘I’m not!’ she exclaimed. ‘You can be an insufferable, self-righteous prick sometimes, Joel Montague. Have you ever actually read the Iliad?’
‘No. I’ve told you before - I’m not that well-versed in classical literature. Except for Shakespeare: I am fond of the Bard. And I’m sorry - I didn’t mean to offend you. You can be so’ - he paused, searching for the right word - ‘Fiery. You know, I really should know better. But I can’t help myself.’ I’m like the moth, drawn to a bright, naked flame, he reflected. And if I’m not careful…
She kissed him lightly. ‘Afraid you’ll get burnt? It’s okay. I will “handle with care”. I promise.’
Hmm. A mind reader, too, then? Perhaps the Trojan figure she resembles most is Cassandra. A name which hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, been allocated to any Trojan asteroid, as yet. ‘Well, just so long we’re not in different camps.’ Joel glanced at his watch. ‘Are you sure you can’t stay tonight?’
She shook her head. ‘Can’t. The sleepover ploy won’t work every time. Anyway, Dad’s home for the long weekend - it’s Columbus Day on Monday, remember? I was lucky to be able to escape for a few hours tonight. Maybe next week.’ Sensing his disappointment, she put down her glass. ‘We can bring our Trojans together one more time before you run me home, though. Who is going to lead this time - and who’ll trail?’
VI: Pluto & Eris
‘How many planets do you reckon there are in the Solar System?’
Joel chuckled. ‘Given the IAU’s decision two months ago, that’s a rather controversial question, isn’t it?’ He shivered momentarily: the nights were definitely getting colder now. He’d have to bring his kerosene heater from home to the cabin next time they met up there. He slipped on the dressing gown that was hanging from a hook on the back of the cabin door, and tightened its belt. ‘Do you want a coffee?’ He’d sensed the previous Saturday that Julia wasn’t a fan of wine. Perhaps he’d be on firmer ground with coffee. ‘I’ve got a decent grinder in the kitchenette. I can rustle up a decent cup for you in five minutes.’
Julia yawned. ‘I don’t drink coffee. Or anything with caffeine, actually.’
‘Oh.’ He frowned. ‘What, um, do you like, in the way of drinks?’
Julia tittered. ‘Milkshakes. And bourbon. Though not together. Not very sophisticated, I guess. It’s cold. Mind if I slip on your sweater, darling?’ He shook his head, and she pulled his thick dark blue jersey over her head. ‘That’s better.’ She looked up at him. ‘But you still haven’t answered my question.’
Joel bent down, and rummaged around in the bottom draw of a filing cabinet. He drew out a bottle of Jim Beam, and two glasses. ‘I can’t offer you a milkshake. Will this do?’ She smiled, and nodded her acceptance. He poured two decent-sized measures, and gave one to Julia. ‘A toast, then,’ he said, raising his glass. ‘To the late lamented ninth planet of the Solar System. To Pluto!’ They drank together solemnly. Then Julia giggled again.
‘I was going to tell you, what got me interesting in astronomy, remember?’ He nodded. ‘Well, it was Pluto. I can remember asking Dad why there was a planet named after a dog. I honestly thought it was named after the Disney character. I must have been - what - six years old? My father bought me my first telescope the following Christmas. A 40mm refractor.’
‘Bah. Not even two inches.’ They both laughed. ‘But size isn’t everything. Unless you're a dwarf planet. Poor Pluto. But the writing was on the wall - or in the stars, anyhow - as soon as Eris was discovered last year. A trans-Neptunian object with a greater mass than Pluto, and a highly eccentric orbit? The IAU had no choice, really.’
‘They could have just declared Eris to be the tenth planet,’ mused Julia.
‘That was the original proposal,’ said Joel. ‘And it was even suggested that they uplift Ceres to the status of planet too. Can you imagine? Utter nonsense. All because they were afraid of the public reaction to reducing the sacred number back down to eight. And actually, that turned out to be a not-entirely-unjustified fear. The guy who discovered Eris received death threats. So your six-year-old self was right. It was Uncle Walt’s fault after all.’
Julia smirked, and poured herself another glass of bourbon. ‘Eris. The Greek goddess of strife and discord. Considering all the controversy she’s caused, that’s quite an appropriate name. I wonder how many dwarf planets are out there, in the Kuiper belt?’
‘Who knows? We’ve found a number of smaller candidates already, just these past few years. The idea of just designating Eris as the tenth planet was always going to be far too neat. And actually, I disagree with you. I don’t like the name at all. If there was to have been a tenth planet - it should have been named Persephone. That was what Arthur C. Clarke suggested, in several of his novels. A much more appropriate choice.’
‘Ah, the wife of Pluto - the original Pluto, not the Disney dog.’
Joel nodded. ‘Yes. I might not know as much about classical literature as you, my bright young thing - but I am aware of the story of Pluto, lord of the underworld, and Persephone, the embodiment of spring and agriculture. And the pact that she agreed to; to spend six months of the year in the underworld as Pluto’s consort, during the winter months; followed by six months above ground, overseeing the seasons of agricultural growth and abundance.’ He paused. Should I tell her? Perhaps I should. ‘I was once married.’
‘Oh?’ Julia eyed him carefully, with her bright hazel eyes. ‘What happened?’
He shrugged. ‘Nothing much. We got divorced. Three years ago. No children. Just a trail of unhappy memories. Barbara’s nickname for me was Pluto. Naturally, I retaliated in kind. She was my Persephone. God, how we hated each other by the end.’ He drained his glass. ‘Give me that bottle. You’re sure I’m not driving you home tonight?’
‘Not unless you want me to go. Poor Joel. Am I your first in three years?’
‘Trust you to reduce it down to sex. Yes, as a matter of fact.’ And longer than three years, he thought ruefully. There hadn’t been much going on in Montague marital bed for a fair few years before the divorce. Not that it’s anyone’s business.
‘I’m not reducing it down to sex. But if it’ll make you feel better…’ She took the bottle out of his grasp. ‘Drink up. We’ve both had enough whiskey tonight. But I wouldn’t say no to another milkshake. Come on, darling. I’m sure you can manage.’ She kissed him, and as she did so, she reached down with her hand. She giggled, and looked at him coquettishly. ‘Pluto or not - that doesn’t feel like what I’d expect from a dwarf.’
‘You cheeky little…’ Her lips stopped him from completing the sentence, whilst her fingers fumbled with the belt of his dressing gown. There goes my Kuiper Belt. Ah well. Welcome Eris - goddess of discord. May you be a better companion for me than Persephone.
‘Did you hear about what Lydia Fortescue saw on Saturday night?’
‘Was it Benny Hoffman’s dick?’
‘Noooo! Where HAVE you been? She dumped him two weeks ago! She’s dating Scott Pettier now. Thinks she’s better than us all, now she’s netted herself a Senior from the football team. Anyway, they were on their way to the Oakland County Drive-in, and Scott pulled into the gas station on Morton Cross. And guess who they saw picking up that new girl, Julia Weinbecker?’
‘Yes way! She swore to me - on the life of her dear grandmother - that she wasn’t making it up. Lydia may be a bitch, but you know how doe-eyed she gets whenever anyone mentions her demented ol’ grandma.’
‘Well I’ll be damned! Have you told Hallie and Jennifer yet?’
‘Of course not. I wanted to tell you first. You know you’re my bestie.’
‘Aww, you’re so sweet! But - back to Lydia - how DID her date with Scott Pettier go? Because I’ve heard a thing or two about him, and his best friend Hugo, from Charlotte Faber. Like that time when…’
The Messenger of the gods speeds his way through the heavens.
VIII: Argo Navis
‘Okay, class. We’ve reached the end of the chapter, with five minutes to spare. So, quick fire questions. Favourite constellations: what and why. Just one sentence. Eighty-eight to choose from. No repeats. Who’s first up?’
Immediately, a forest of hands. They’re more engaged these days - especially on Tuesdays. But then, so am I.
‘Yes, Mr Jefferson.’
‘The Great Bear. The Big Dipper. It was the first constellation my Dad taught me to find in the night sky.’
‘Ursa Major. A good choice. Thank you, Mr Jefferson. Miss Greenwalt. Don’t be shy.’
Jennifer Greenwalt giggled nervously. She always did whenever called upon to speak. ‘Cassiopeia, Dr Montague. The butterfly of the heavens.’
‘Well, the mythological Cassiopeia may have been a beauty, but her vanity nearly spelled ruin for her people. But yes - an easy star grouping to find in the sky because of its similarity to a butterfly. Next– ’ Joel groaned inwardly, but he had put his hand up, after all. Let’s get it over with. ‘Mister Bisschoff,’ he enunciated, with heavy emphasis upon the ‘mister’ - as if to impress upon the class joker that a more serious attitude would be welcome.
‘Andromeda, Sir. Home to M31, the Andromeda Nebula, the largest galaxy in our Local Group of galaxies. It’s two and half million light years away. Named after the daughter of Cassiopeia.’
Joel blinked with surprise. ‘Thank you, Sal. An interesting, and informative choice.’ Wonders never cease. When even Sal Bisschoff is paying attention in class…
Joel worked his way quickly through the raised hands. Pegasus. Leo. The Pleiades (‘Not strictly a constellation, Miss Jennings. The Seven Sisters are part of Taurus. But thank you, nevertheless’). Canis Major. Crux - the Southern Cross (‘Ah, Mr MacQueen - you used to live in Australia, didn’t you? Sadly, we never get to see Crux in the Iowan skies.’). Orion. Ursa Minor. Cygnus. Most of the students had put their hands up - most had volunteered a constellation. But Julia had just sat there, staring out of the class window, listless and disengaged. She’d been unusually quiet all through the lesson. Joel glanced at the class clock. A minute to go to the lunchtime bell.
‘Miss Weinbecker. Nothing to volunteer?’
Joel was displeased. What was wrong with her? ‘Not a valid choice, Miss Weinbecker. You know full well that Argo Navis was declared defunct– ’
‘By the IAU in 1930, and broken up - like some vast vessel sent to a ship breaking yard - into the modern-day constellations of Carina, Puppis and Vela: the keel, the poop deck and the sails. Too unwieldy, too impractical, they said. But they had no imagination, no romance, no sense of adventure. Jason and his Argo, the voyage in search of the golden fleece, all consigned to oblivion. It was a fucked-up decision, Sir.’ She glared defiantly at him, as if daring him to come back at her.
A shocked silence fell across the classroom. The effervescent excitement of a few minutes before had completely dissipated. Joel didn’t know what to say.
‘Miss Weinbecker– ’
The bell sounded. ‘Class dismissed. Stay a moment, if you please, Miss Weinbecker.’
The students filed out, many of them glancing over their shoulders, murmuring as they went. When they were alone, Joel crossed the room to the classroom door, and closed it firmly. He turned towards Julia. She hadn’t moved an inch.
‘We’re going to end up like Argo Navis, aren’t we? Broken up. Defunct.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing lasts forever. You said it yourself.’
‘Yes. The Great Red Spot. The dying Eye of Jupiter. It’s all just so much…’ She paused, then started sobbing. ‘Shit.’
Joel felt cold. He glanced towards the door of the classroom, checking that it was indeed securely closed. ‘Julia, this isn’t the time or place. You’re overwrought. And you know that’s not true.’
Julia was dabbing at his eyes with a tissue, ‘Isn’t it? It’s alright, darling - I’m just not feeling myself today - but I’ll be fine in a moment or two. I’m sorry. You were having a good lesson today, weren’t you? Now I’ve gone and spoiled it.’
‘Listen, Julia,’ he said earnestly. ‘I’ve something special planned for this coming Saturday.’
‘Anything to do with the Orionids?’ She smiled, despite herself.
‘Well, yes. They reach their peak this weekend. I thought we could watch them. Together.’
She sniffled, and blew her nose with her tissue. ‘I’d love to, but I can’t. Not this weekend. It’s my birthday on Saturday. Mom and Dad are throwing a party for me.’
‘Ah.’ Drat, he’d forgotten. ‘That’s a shame. By the following weekend, they’ll be almost over. We should still see a few, but…’ He shook his head. ‘Never mind. It was just an idea. Come here.’
She came. He placed a hand on her chin, raised her face towards his, and studied it. Her mascara had run. Girls weren’t supposed to wear it to school, but most did. He smiled.
‘Well, you do look a mess, Miss Weinbecker. I think you’ll need to pay a visit to the restroom. It really doesn’t matter about this Saturday. There’ll be other meteor showers. The Leonids next month, for starters. You only turn sixteen once, after all. You’ll have a great birthday.’ He bent down towards her. If anyone were to walk in now… He kissed her, twice, first on the brow of her forehead, and then on her lips. ‘Don’t worry, Julia. The IAU might be an unromantic lot. But the Argo is sailing forever in our hearts, hmm?’
‘How many days does it take for the Moon to orbit the Earth?’
After the events of last Tuesday, Joel was pleased to see that Julia was participating in his class, in regular fashion. From the whispered conversations going on across the room, it was clear that the other students hadn’t forgotten Julia’s outburst - but she herself seemed determined to put it behind her, thankfully.
Nevertheless, although Julia’s hand was shooting up with its customary regularity once more, Joel was careful to avoid choosing her to answer his questions too frequently this time. In fact, only once did he find himself calling out Yes, Miss Weinbecker? this afternoon.
As usual, the answer given was always far more detailed than he would expect from any of his other students.
‘It depends whether you’re referring to its sidereal period or its synodic period.’
‘Correct. Could you explain the difference for the benefit of the rest of the class?’
She did. At some considerable length.
They were alone once again. It struck Joel, it must by now look rather obvious to the other students that Julia would always be hanging back at the end of his lessons after they had gone.
‘We should probably stop talking like this. Perhaps we should just text each other, as necessary, from now on.’
She shrugged her shoulders. He found her frequent habit of doing that somewhat disagreeable. ‘Fair enough. You ignored my hand most of the time this afternoon.’
‘The one time I didn’t, you gave an answer that took up the best part of ten minutes.’
‘Only because you made me repeat it, with diagrams, several times over, such that even Sal Bischoff could understand.’
‘That’s rather unkind. Sal has come on in leaps and bounds lately. His scatalogical obsessions are waning too.’ She smiled. Seizing upon this glimmer of good humour, Joel continued: ‘I’ve got something for you. A birthday present. I hope I’ve got the size right.’ He drew out a package from underneath his desk. ‘I’m just sorry you won’t be able to wear it to the party. That would raise too many questions, alas. Perhaps next time you stay over at the cabin?’
Her eyes shining, Julia took the package from him. ‘Oh, thank you!’ She went to hug him, but checked herself as he frowned and put out his hands as a barrier between them. She understood. There could be no repeat of last Tuesday’s intimate embrace - the risks were too great.
‘It’s my pleasure. Actually,’ he continued, ‘perhaps wearing it in two weekends would be better. That’s near enough the full moon. It will look particularly stunning on you then, I guarantee.’
Julia looked crestfallen. ‘The phases of the moon run like clockwork, don’t they? Twenty-nine and a half days, almost exactly. No variation, from one month to the next. Perfectly dependable. Never early, never late.’ She bit her lip. ‘If only humans were the same,’ she whispered, looking down at her feet.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Joel, anxiously. Something’s troubling her again.
She shook her head. ‘It’s nothing.’
There was a knock on the door. Joel looked across the room. Standing in the doorway was Damian Donahue.
‘Oh, sorry, Joel. I hadn’t realised you’d be with–’. He stopped.
Now what, thought Joel. He looks like he’s seen a ghost. Wait - did he see her in my car that weekend of the Conjunction, after all? Act normal.
‘Hello, Damian. What can I do for you?’
But the head of history was already retreating back into the corridor. ‘It doesn’t matter. Nothing important. I’ll give you a ring sometime. Bye, Joel.’ Then, he was gone.
They looked at each other. ‘That was odd,’ said Joel. Then, together, they burst out laughing, Julia’s moodiness of a few moments before forgotten.
‘Perhaps he got lost, and mistook your classroom for the football locker room,’ said Julia. Joel looked at her, shocked - and then found himself roaring with laughter. Now what if someone happened to pass by the open doorway…
‘Fie! Fie! Over the moon, and away with thee!’ he cried, wiping a tear from his eye. ‘Don’t forget that parcel. Have a good party, and look out for the Orionids, if you can. Off you go, Miss Weinbecker.’
‘Blow out the candles, and make a wish, dear,’ urged Marjorie Weinbecker. She smiled, pensively, and glanced around the room. Were they all enjoying themselves? Oh, she so hoped they were all enjoying themselves!
‘It’s okay, mother,’ said Julia. ‘I have done this before, you know.’ She looked at the cake, and grimaced. She had told them she didn’t want anything with an astronomical theme this year. She knew that most of her new ‘acquaintances’ in Verona - she didn’t really have ‘friends’ - were already well aware of her passion for astronomy. She also had the feeling one or two or them had noticed her passion for Joel Montague too. She could do without anything that drew attention, in any way, to either of those things. Yet here it was - a birthday cake covered in stars, and topped with an intricately-crafted model in sugar icing of a radio telescope. It was impressive, to be sure, and it was certainly better than the ponies and unicorns that still graced the birthday cakes of many of her contemporaries. But still…out of the corner of her eye, she could see Jennifer Greenwalt and Hallie Summers whispering, pointing at the cake, and giving each other knowing looks.
‘Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad. Here goes.’ She closed her eyes, and blew.
’Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are…’
‘Julia, it’s bedtime. You should be going to sleep.’
Thomas Weinbecker stood in the doorway of his seven-year-old daughter’s bedroom. She was sitting up in bed, singing to herself, whilst turning over the pages of a picture-book that was filled with colourful illustrations of the planets, stars and other objects from the night skies.
‘Daddy, did you know the Sun is made up of lots of different gases, hydragin, and helium, and other stuff? And it’s really really hot - like 10,000 degrees hot - at the surface, and even hotter inside?’
Thomas smiled, amused at his daughter’s enthusiasm. She would be so delighted with what he had bought her for Christmas: her very own telescope. ‘Yes, I did know that. And it’s hydrogen, sweetpea.’
Julia looked puzzled. ‘That’s what I said.’
‘Well, just remember - what must we never do when it comes to the Sun?’ Important to drum this home, again and again, before Christmas comes.
‘Look at directly - and never ever ever with binoculars or a telescope. I know Daddy. The Sun is very pretty, and we all need it, but it’s dangerous too. Like poor Icarus found out, with his wings of wax. He didn’t listen to his Daddy, did he?’
‘No, he didn’t.’ Thomas stopped smiling. Mention of the fateful journey of father and son, Daedalus and Icarus, reminded him of his own gaping loss. Freddy. A son who, like Icarus, had plunged into the waters, and breathed his last. ‘Lights off, Julia. Now.’
The change in his tone was sharp. Without knowing why, Julia sensed she’d somehow offended him. It was best to obey, without question, in such moments. She reached over and turned off her bedside lamp. ‘Goodnight, Daddy,’ she said. But he didn’t acknowledge her. Instead he shut her bedroom door, abruptly leaving her in the dark.
But she wasn’t afraid of the dark. The stars would always comfort her. Even when her father wouldn’t.
She’d opened all her other birthday cards and gifts, and now there was just her present from her parents. Thomas Weinbecker held out an envelope, and glanced across at his wife anxiously. Hope we’ve got this right, said the look.
‘It’s only a small thing, honey. But we hope you like it. Happy Birthday.’
Julia opened the envelope. Inside, a card bearing a rocket-ship on the cover; and a pair of tickets to an astronomy convention in Texas, in November, on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The guest of honour was…
Julia gasped. ‘No really? Buzz Aldrin? The Buzz Aldrin?’
Thomas chuckled. ‘Yup. The one and only. Sorry it’s not Neil - the second Man on the Moon will have to do, sweetpea.’
‘That’s okay, Dad. Everyone knows Neil Armstrong’s pretty much a recluse these days. This is awesome.’ She looked again at the tickets. ‘Two tickets, Dad? Who’s the second one for?’
‘Whoever you want, Julia. It’s your birthday treat. One of your friends, perhaps?’
Thomas looked around the gathering of girls - with a few boys - whom Julia had invited to her party. They’d only been in Verona for a few weeks. It was impossible to tell which, if any, of these kids she was close to. Thomas wasn’t too sure it was any of them, really.
‘Can I ask Phoebe?’ I really should call Phoebe, she thought. She might know what I should do about…No, I’m not thinking about that now. Not tonight.
Involuntarily, Julia’s father winced. Phoebe was her best friend from New Jersey. Her corrosive influence (in his view) upon Julia was one of the reasons for them moving to Iowa. Drugs, unsuitable boyfriends, trouble with the cops - he looked at Marjorie, and saw her shake her head decisively. Yes, best to avoid all that again.
‘Perhaps not Phoebe,’ he said gingerly. ‘But we’ll talk about that later. Do you like the present?’
Julia was frowning. ‘Why not– ?’ She stopped. Another thought had come to her. ‘Yes, Dad. Of course I like it. I LOVE it. Thanks Dad, thanks Mom.’ She threw her arms around him, and smiled over his shoulders at her mother. In a lower voice, she said to her father: ‘Can I go into the garden? I want to do a bit of star-gazing. The Orionids are at peak tonight. The light pollution sucks here, but I should be able to spot some meteors.’
‘What about your guests? Isn’t that a bit rude?’
‘Phooey. Everyone’s chatting, look. No-one’ll be left out. Just for twenty minutes. Please, Dad?’
Thomas sighed. ‘Okay. Ten minutes, no more. Anyway, I want to have a word with Bernie.’ He nodded in the direction of a middle-aged man with a goatee beard wearing a particularly lurid Hawaiian shirt, strumming a guitar in the corner of the room. ‘He’s recently come back from the Love Parade in Berlin. Full of enthusiasm for some new-fangled microblogging service that was launched there that he claims is going to be the next big thing. Twitter, I think he said it’s called.’
Julia rolled her eyes. ‘Whatever. Honestly, Dad, this is meant to be my party, not a chance for you to reconnect with all your old college chums.’
He grinned. ‘Bernie and Max? Two chums is hardly all. And you’ve always been fond of Uncle Bernie and Uncle Max. At least your mother didn’t insist on inviting any of her nutty religious relatives - we were both spared that. Ten minutes. Then you can come back in here and try to be a little more sociable yourself.’
The hourly rate of the Orionid peak this year was particularly impressive, thought Joel. He was pretty certain he’d observed 53 meteors in the past hour - close to one a minute. What a shame Julia couldn’t join him.
He was sitting outside his cabin in the back garden, wearing a fleece, scarf, and fingerless mittens, with his reflector telescope to the left: but he wasn’t using his instrument to track the meteor storm - meteors moved far too fast to make that possible. To his right was a small round table, on which rested his notebook, his mobile phone and a bottle of Merlot. It was only October, after all. Come the winter it would be a thermos flask of hot chocolate that would be required, not wine.
The screen on his BlackBerry lit up, catching his attention. Someone had texted him. For a moment he considered ignoring it - afraid he’d miss a meteor. But then, sighing, he picked up the phone.
CAN I RING YOU? J
Joel smiled. He’d thought it might be her. He texted back:
A few moments later, the phone rang. His ringtone consisted of a few bars from the first movement from Pelléas et Mélisande, ’At the Castle Gate' by Sibelius - the theme music for the famous long running BBC astronomy programme The Sky at Night. Such was his liking for this music that he always let the phone ring for a few seconds longer than he ought. Far too many missed calls was the result. This time was no different.
When he felt ready, he answered. Holding the phone to his ear, he continued to look upward all the while, scouring the sky above for fresh shooting stars.
‘Are you searching the skies?’
‘You took your time answering.’ She sounded irritated. ‘But, yes, I am.’
‘Sorry, but I love Sibelius.’
‘Never mind. How is your birthday going?’
‘Pretty dull, to be honest. Mom and Dad insisted that I invite my friends from school. I said to them: What friends? Apart from Charlotte Faber, and Veronica Dawes, I don’t really have any friends, and even those two…’ Silence down the line. ‘I’d much rather just be there with you.’
‘Well, I did offer. Oh gosh, did you see that? Three, in very rapid succession: BOOM BOOM BOOM.’
‘Yes, I did. Listen - I’ve got some exciting news. My birthday present from my parents, you’ll never guess!’
‘A fourteen inch reflector?’ he teased.
‘No, silly. A pair of tickets to an astronomy convention in Texas. And the guest speaker is Buzz Aldrin. Do you want to be my plus one?’
‘Congratulations. You can’t be serious.’
‘Why not? They’ve said I can take anyone. Why shouldn’t it be you? And I could wear the dress you bought for me. It’s wonderful, Joel. And it fits perfectly. Thank you!’
You really want me to tell you why a dirty weekend in Texas is a bad idea? he thought. ‘I’m glad you like it. But you should get back to your party.’
‘Yeah. Dad said I could come outside to look at the Orionids - but only for a short time. I am missing you, darling.’
‘And I you. But you know, it’s very hard to concentrate on sky-watching and talking to you at the same time. I’m sure to have missed a meteor or two.’
‘Serve you right if you get a stiff neck.’ He could imagine her poking her tongue out down the phone at him.
‘The bane of all astronomers. Put your tongue away, Miss Weinbecker.’
‘How did you…?’ There was a pause, followed by the sound of a very loud raspberry being blown. ‘Joel Montague, you’re a rotter, and a scoundrel, and I really shouldn’t love you - but I do. I must go, before Dad comes. See you at school. Kisses.’ Squelching noises came down the phone line.
‘Happy birthday, once again. Wish upon a falling star. Bye, Julia.’
The line went dead, and Joel carefully placed the phone back on the table. Keeping his gaze upwards all the while, he fumbled along until he found his glass of wine. Good. He raised it to his lips. That’s the first time she’s actually said ‘I love you’ to me. Perhaps I’m the one who needs to make a wish, with the next meteor I see. What does the Blue Fairy say? ‘If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.’ Somehow, I don’t think Uncle Walt had in mind a fifty-three-year-old guy with the hots for a sixteen-year-old girl. But perhaps I can at least wish that…There. It’s done. Silly. A flash of light in the sky, and a flash of desire in the mind. Happy birthday, Julia. I can, at least, drink to that.
Joel wasn’t due to start teaching until 10.00am on Monday morning. Normally he’d spend the first part of the morning in the staff room in leisurely fashion, reading science journals and enjoying coffee brewed from the rather superior machine he’d been instrumental in securing for the staff room three years ago.
But this Monday was different. This Monday he had made his way to the office of the Principal’s Secretary, Mrs Freeman, by 8.50am. She smiled at him as he entered.
‘Ah, Dr Montague. Principal Delaney is expecting you this morning, yes?’
He nodded. ‘I received an email from him yesterday.’ A damn perplexing email at that.
‘He asked if I could meet with him today. At 9.01am.’
‘Well, we all know how precise the Principal is with his diary. Would you like a coffee while you wait? There’s time. Though I can’t offer you one as good as the one you could make for yourself in the staff room, mind.’
‘Thank you, but no. I’ll just wait here until he’s ready for me.’
The next few minutes passed in near-silence, broken only by the tap-tap of Mrs Freeman’s computer keyboard. Then, at 9.00am precisely, the overlapping noise of several different clock chimes could be heard emanating from the Principal’s office next door. At last count, Joel believed, there were eleven different timepieces to be found in Delaney’s inner sanctum. He wasn’t nicknamed ‘Old Father Time’ for nothing.
Joel’s BlackBerry vibrated in his pocket. He fished the phone out and looked at the screen in irritation. Damian Donahue. What does he want?
The intercom buzzer on Mrs Freeman’s desk sounded.
‘Yes, Principal Delaney?’
‘Is Dr Montague there?’
‘He is, Principal Delaney.’
‘Send him through.’
Joel slipped his phone back into his pocket, the test message unread. Donahue could wait.
Joel settled himself on the long sofa facing the Principal’s desk. He looked around the meticulously-ordered, neatly arrayed room. Yes, the eleven clocks he remembered from his last visit all seemed to be there - wait - there was a new addition. A rather grand one, at that…
‘Observant of you, Montague. A nineteenth century French ormolu timepiece, with the figures of Jupiter on one side of the clock face, and Saturn on the other. Charming, wouldn’t you say? And like all my clocks, I’m pleased to say it keeps good time.’
Principal Augustus R. Delaney looked like a relic from the nineteenth century himself, with his slightly baggy three-piece suit, cravat, pocket watch and chain, sideburns and whiskers. All he really needs to complete the effect is a box of snuff and a monocle, thought Joel.
‘It’s exquisite craftsmanship, Sir.’
‘Hmm. Well, I haven’t asked you here to talk about clocks. I received a report of a very disturbing nature late last Friday afternoon, Montague. Very disturbing indeed.’
The grip of Joel’s left hand on the arm of the sofa tightened. He had a sudden impulse to run the fingers of his right hand through his hair, but he resisted it. ‘Oh?’ he said, with the merest quiver in his voice. ‘What news?’
‘It concerns an allegation of illicit relationship between one of the school staff and a member of the student body.’
‘Sir, I think– ’ began Joel, desperately.
‘Quiet, Montague,’ growled the Principal. ‘Let me finish. The reason I’m taking you into my confidence at this point is because this particular member of staff is well-known to you. In fact, if memory serves, I believe it was you who first recommended him to the appointments panel. Understand, I don’t hold that against you. You had worked together previously. I’m referring, of course, to our head of history.’
‘Damian Donahue?’ Relief. It’s not me he’s after, after all.
Delaney pursed his lips. ‘Yes. Damian Donahue. It’s all rather - distasteful.’ He paused, as if reluctant to go into further details. Then: ‘It seems he’s been buggering the Senior football team’s star quarterback. Hugo Deakins. The board of governors is meeting later this morning. Donahue will be summoned. If the truth of this allegation is confirmed - and I have no doubt it will be - then he will be dismissed before the end of the day. The boy’s parents have already been contacted: there’ll be no difficulty there. I’m convening a meeting of the school staff at 4.05pm. You will, of course, be in attendance. I shall expect your full support. This will be a testing time for the school. An extremely testing time. Hold fast, Montague, hold fast. You’ve been with us a long time.’
‘Of course, Sir.’
‘There’s a further matter. We had been thinking of inviting Donahue to join the senior management team. He’s not been here as long as you, of course, but in that relatively-short time he had proved himself very capable. Now, I’m not saying that you’re not, but…’ Yes you are, you pompous, sanctimonious prig. ‘Well, anyway. I’ve had a very positive report recently from the Vice-Principal. She popped into one of your lessons, a couple of weeks ago, you may recall.’
Joel nodded. He remembered. Thankfully, not the one where Julia lost her shit about Argo Navis.
‘She was impressed by how much - how shall I put this - more much more engaging your rapport with the students seems to be at present. Rather more so, perhaps, than has been evident for a while. We’ve both come to the conclusion that you’ve been passed over in the past, perhaps unfairly so. We’re going to recommend to the board that you be appointed to fill the senior management vacancy. Fortunately - very fortunately - we hadn’t yet announced that Donahue was going to take on that role. Narrow escape, that. Anyway - what do you say?’
‘I don’t know what to say,’ said Joel slowly.
Delaney scowled, his craggy features becoming even more evident than usual. ‘You could start by saying “Thank you”. The remuneration you’ll receive for the extra responsibilities should be more than adequate.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m just a little stunned. It’s not what I was expecting this morning. Thank you, Sir. I’m more than happy to accept.’
‘One last thing. Should Damian Donahue make any attempt to contact you today, you are to say nothing whatsoever to him. Is that clear?’
Joel thought about the text he had received just minutes before, and the agitated appearance of his former colleague the previous Friday. It all made sense now. ‘Yes, Principal Delaney.’
The old man sniffed, pulled out his pocket watch, and looked at the time. A ridiculous action considering he could have obtained the same result from looking at any one of the eleven - no, twelve - timepieces scattered around the room. He looked up at Joel, and gave him a thin, wintry smile.
‘9.09. I’ve another meeting due in precisely two minutes. Thank you for your understanding, Joel.’ For the first time that he ever could recall, Old Father Time had used his first name. ‘That will be all.’
XII: Uranus & Neptune
What a day, thought Joel, exhausted. The rain hasn’t let up all day either. How appropriate. He finished lowering the blinds, and sat down again, whiskey in hand. He picked up the remote control of his DVD player and resumed play. The clamour of rainfall from without was immediately hidden by the relentless crescendo of noise that now filled his sitting room. He was listening to The Planet Suite. Holst’s orchestral suite was his ‘go to’ piece of music whenever he felt stressed. He’d been playing it a lot lately.
For the second day in succession, he’d come home late. Yesterday, the school day had concluded with that difficult staff meeting, at which Old Father Time had broken the news of Damian Donahue’s dismissal to the stunned teaching staff. Joel closed his eyes. Despite the din emanating from the speakers of his sound system, he could recall Delaney’s stentorian tones instantly. Yes, the parents of the boy concerned are deeply distressed. No, they have decided not to press charges. Yes, the boy has been removed from the school for his own safety, and everything possible will be done to ensure his character is not besmirched in any way. No blame is to be attached to him. Yes, Coach Wilkerson, I do appreciate that losing our star quarterback like this is “an unfortunate blow”, to say the least. No, the board of governors will not be commenting on the details of any financial settlement that might, or might not, have been reached with the boy’s parents. What was that about the press? All press inquiries are to be referred to the board of governors. Concerned parents? Same for them - the governors will deal with all that. All the staff have to do now is to rally around. Remember the school motto: Cum una operamur, praevalemus - ‘When we work as one, we prevail’.
And then, he’d had to get through today. The heavy silence in the staff room, punctuated only by the noises emanating from the coffee machine. The clusters of students huddled in corridors and hallways, falling silent as any member of staff approached. The sullen, halfhearted responses they had given in his lectures. And above all, the fraught three-hours-long joint meeting of the board of governors with the senior staff of the school, at which he had barely spoken; weighed down not so much by the burden of his new school responsibilities as by the hidden knowledge that he had had a narrow escape. Donahue’s fate could have been his. It could still be his - unless he ended it now. Quickly.
He’d dreaded his Grade 10 physics and astronomy class that morning. But Julia hadn’t been there. He had passed by the school office at the end of the day - just before the three hour marathon had begun - and enquired, as nonchalantly as possible, if Miss Weinbecker had been in school that day. ‘No, Dr Montague. Her mother called in sick on her behalf yesterday. She’s not been in for the past two days.’
The relentless ostinato of Mars had culminated in its dreadful discordant climax. Now - in the words of Imogen, Gustav Holst’s daughter - Venus ‘has to try and bring the right answer to Mars’. Can she bring a little peace to my troubled mind too? Wait–what’s that?
His BlackBerry was buzzing. He wouldn’t have heard it a minute earlier, whilst Mars was playing, but now…It was another text. Probably Donahue again. Four times yesterday, twice already today. Couldn’t the man take a hint?
But when Joel examined the screen, he saw that it wasn’t the erstwhile head of history at Teddy High who was messaging him.
WE NEED TO TALK. CAN YOU PICK ME UP AT THE USUAL PLACE? HALF EIGHT.
Joel was tired, and hungry. He really couldn’t face seeing Julia tonight. He needed a bit more time to think. He texted back:
NO. I’M WHACKED. CAN’T IT WAIT TILL TOMORROW?
The reply was insistent.
A moment later, the phone started ringing. It was her.
‘What’s the urgency?’
‘Can you be at the gas station? In thirty minutes?’
‘No, Julia. Look, err– ’
‘I’ve GOT to see you.’
Joel thought, quickly. ‘Very well. But not Morton Cross. I don’t think it’s safe meeting you there any more.’
‘Outside the drug store at the junction between Fourth Avenue and Dawson then. Eight thirty.’ She rang off, before he could say anything else.
The storm rumbled on overhead. So much for the Bringer of Peace.
She was there, waiting for him, standing beneath the neon light of the drug store, shivering in a yellow raincoat. He wound down the window, and shouted across at her.
‘Get in. You’re drenched.’ He looked at her. ‘It’s too late to go out to the cabin. There’s a diner I know, a few minutes drive from here. The food’s awful - no one ever goes there. And it always has the most appalling music blaring out. Which means no one would overhear us, anyhow. Will that do?’ She nodded her assent.
Fifteen minutes later, they were sitting inside a dismal diner with the unfortunate name Joyboy’s. A more joyless environment was hard to imagine. There were no other customers, only a bored attendant in a soiled apron who was slouched at a corner table. She’d taken their orders - one flat white, one milkshake - without any display of interest, and was now puffing away at a cigarette, reading a lifestyle magazine.
Considering the urgency of her request to meet, she hasn’t said anything since we got here, thought Joel. Perhaps I should start. God, this thrash metal music really is fucking dreadful!
‘You’ve not been in school the past couple of days. Are you unwell?’
She shook her head. ‘Nothing serious. Have I missed much?’
‘Hmm.’ She’s not heard, then. ‘My lecture this morning, most importantly. Let’s see if I can enlighten you.’ He stared thoughtfully at the streaks of rain cascading down the window, then began quoting from his lecture notes. ‘Sometimes, we think something is true, even when it’s not. Sometimes we have a working hypothesis that seems to fit all the available data - even though we don’t understand why. We think we’ve gleaned a little bit more understanding of the vast, unfathomable universe. And then something comes along that completely wrecks our assumptions.’
She smiled. ‘A planet-sized wrecking ball, perhaps. Like Neptune.’
‘Precisely. Bode’s Law.’
‘You mean the Titius–Bode Law. I thought you believed in precision.’
He chucked, despite himself. ‘Fair enough. I do indeed mean the Titius–Bode law. Bode himself was always quick to insist that he hadn’t originated the Law, but was merely refining it.’
‘It was still bogus. A misguided attempt to come up with a mathematical formula explaining the position of each planet around the Sun.’
‘Yet it worked, for a while. The gap between Mars and Jupiter was a puzzle. Bode insisted that the Law predicted something had to be there. Then, on New Year’s Day 1801 the new century began with Giuseppe Piazzi’s discovery of Ceres. A new planet, exactly where Bode had said it would be. Eureka! Except it turned out to be too small. Instead, it was the first of many to be found in that cosmic trash heap we call the asteroid belt.’
‘But for a long time they believed the asteroid belt consisted of the remnants of a broken-up planet. One that had drifted too close to Jupiter perhaps, only to be torn apart by gravitational forces. What did they call it?’ Julia stared at her milkshake. She hadn’t touched it. ‘I ought to know.’
Joel stirred his coffee. He hadn’t touched his drink either. ‘It’s not like you to forget a mythological tale. Phaeton was the name Bode proposed for this hypothetical planet. After the son of the sun god Helios– ’
‘Whose chariot he stole for a day, with disastrous results. Zeus was displeased, and struck him down with a lightning bolt. Damn it. I did know.’
‘And it all makes sense, doesn’t it? Except there never was a planet Phaeton. Bode was grasping at straws - or asteroids, rather.’
‘Uranus’ discovery by Herschel in 1781 had fitted the theory, though. Bode was happy enough about that, wasn’t he?’ Julia started sipping her milkshake, then pulled a face.
Joel didn’t notice. He was staring down at his flat white, still stirring it. ‘But he never lived to see the discovery of Neptune, in the wrong orbit, the cosmic wrecking ball that debunked his “Law” once and for all. What Bode had theorised wasn’t, in the end, compatible with reality.’ Joel stopped stirring. He looked up at Julia. ‘Just like us. That’s what you wanted to say, isn’t it?’
She looked at him, incredulous. ‘No! That’s not what I– ’ She stopped speaking, and clutched at her stomach. She stood up, and raced for the door.
‘Julia?’ She’d run outside; but through the window, obscured though the view was by the rain, Joel could see her, doubled-up, retching, spewing the contents of her stomach onto the ground. He wanted to go out to her - but he couldn’t. A terrifying, nagging thought had entered his head.
She came back inside, wiping her mouth. He caught a whiff of her vomit.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘The milkshake was a bad idea. I started feeling sick on Sunday morning. I thought it was something from the birthday party the night before. Mom had prepared a salmon mousse.’ She smiled weakly. ‘Isn’t that meant to be social death - poisoning at a party?’
‘In Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, it really was the salmon mousse that did it. I don’t suppose you’ve seen it.’
The thought was worming away incessantly now. He had to know.
‘Julia,’ he said, hesitantly. ‘Are you– ?’
‘Pregnant? Yes. I took the test this morning.’
‘But - but how?’
She laughed, bitterly. ‘How? How d’you think, science teacher?’ Silence. ‘Okay. Facts and figures. You like those, Joel. I was on the pill, just as I’d said. At least - I thought I was. I have a friend, Phoebe, in New Jersey. She was the one who first introduced me to men - but that’s by-the-by. She used to supply me with pills too. Except the last batch - they were fakes. They contained a drug called sulfamethoxazole.’
‘That’s an antibiotic.’
‘Yeah. Phoebe swears she didn’t know. Anyway - counting back the weeks - your Pillars of Creation moment. That was the night I conceived. And then two weeks later - I missed my period. It’s sometimes a couple of days late. I didn’t worry, at first. But then– ’
‘You said: “The phases of the moon run like clockwork. No variation, from one month to the next. Perfectly dependable. Never early, never late. If only humans were the same.” You knew then, didn’t you?’
‘That I’d missed my period, yes. But I was still in denial. I’d been using protection. I tried phoning Phoebe, late last Saturday, once the party was over. She was out of it, stoned, as high as a kite. Then on Sunday morning, I threw up. Felt dreadful yesterday. Really couldn’t face school. Finally got some sense out of Phoebe, and found out about the pills. Then this morning, I sneaked out of the house, got myself a test kit, took the test. Bingo.’ She looked up at him. ‘So what happens next?’
Joel just stared back. He was still struggling to process all she had said. A baby. The very word was unfamiliar to him. He and Barbara had never wanted kids. Absolutely never. It was about the only thing they had ever agreed upon.
‘That’s up to you, isn’t it?’ he found himself saying. Instantly, he knew he’d said the wrong thing.
‘Up to me?’ she hissed, incredulously. ‘What about your part in this? And what was all that crap earlier, about Bode’s Law being incompatible with reality? What were you trying to say? That we were finished? “Nothing lasts forever”, once again?’
‘I don’t think this can work - that we can make it work,’ pleaded Joel. He ran his hand through his hair. ‘Just hear me out. It’s like Neptune and Triton. Triton’s retrograde orbit, going in the opposite direction to Neptune’s rotation. It’s all mixed up.’
‘Yet it works,’ said Julia.
‘But it can’t for us. I’m fifty-three, you’re sixteen. Christ, haven’t you heard what’s happened to Damian Donahue? Seems Charlotte Faber was right, for once. He’s been fired. But in his case the lad was a Senior. He was eighteen. Bad enough. Whereas you…’ he trailed off. And Damian Donahue hadn’t knocked up Hugo Deakins either.
‘Then what do you want me to do?’
He looked away. He couldn’t bear to look at her any more. ‘That’s obvious. You get rid of it. I’ll pay for what’s needed. But you get rid of it. And then you get out of my life. It’s over.’
The music had stopped. The only two sounds that could be heard was the snoring of the waitress, who was slumped at her corner table, fast asleep; and the patter of rain on the tin roof of the diner. Julia stood up. She walked to the door, and opened it.
She looked back at Joel, her hazel eyes burning bright, and said with as much venom as she could muster:
‘Sal Bischoff had it right all along, didn’t he? Uranus. You are an arsehole.’
He never saw her again.
An eidetic memory could be both blessing and curse.
In some Christian traditions, devotees were encouraged to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day.
Three times a day, Joel Montague spoke his mantra. Out loud, wherever possible. In the silence of his heart otherwise. On Sunday’s, in chapel, whilst his fellows ritualistically intoned the Lord’s Prayer, he inwardly recited the contents of that last letter.
It had been addressed to him. The first time he had heard it was as it was read to him during his first interview, the evening after his arrest.
‘Miss Weinbecker’s parents found this letter on their daughter’s bedside table, shortly after they discovered the body, at approximately 7.20am this morning, Thursday October the 26th. The letter itself is undated, but we believe it was written shortly before Miss Weinbecker took her own life. It’s addressed to “Joel”. That would be you, I would imagine Dr Montague, yes?’
He nodded. Once again, he tried - and failed - to blot the image out of his eyes, of Julia hanging from the beam of her bedroom. Wearing - as he’d been shown in the forensic photographs - the dress of shimmering black silk, its cross-stitch bodice studded with sparkling faceted pearls, that had been his birthday gift to her.
‘Once again, Dr Montague, for the record, may I remind you we need a verbal response. Should I ask the question again?’
‘No, that won’t be necessary. Yes, the letter was addressed to me.’
‘Do you have any idea as to its contents, Dr Montague?’
‘No, I don’t. I’ve never seen it before.’
‘Then let me enlighten you.’
When we first spoke to each other, it was about Lagrangian Points. It seems like a long time ago now. Was it really less than seven weeks ago? On a cosmic scale, not even the blink of a pulsar.
I imagine it was Jupiter’s Lagrangian Points we had in mind, mostly, then and since.
They’re the famous ones, after all. The interesting ones. Most of those points in the orbits of the other planets are empty. Including Earth’s.
But you know, of course, that this probably wasn’t always so. I read a really interesting paper recently about the Theia hypothesis. A Mars-sized planet orbiting the Sun, located in one of the proto-Earth’s Lagrangian points. It gets perturbed away from that relationship, probably by the gravitational influence of Venus, or Jupiter, spirals towards the Earth, and collides with it. Most of Theia ends up swallowed by the Earth, but a disc of material from both Theia and the proto-Earth, thrown out by the impact, eventually accretes together, forming the Moon. The offspring of both Earth and Theia. Which is why the composition of the Moon is so similar to that of the Earth. Earth’s the big Daddy. But Mom is no more. Theia is destroyed. Earth survives, and eventually hosts life. The Moon - their joint legacy - remains, tidally-locked, one side forever facing the Earth. A perpetual reminder of a cataclysmic cosmic event, billions of years before. Utterly devoid of life, the Moon remains, its scarred surface a stark contrast to that of the Blue Planet.
I loved you, Joel. I really did. I thought - maybe - we could have a life together - that maybe you’d accept what had happened. A child. A family. But that isn’t to be, is it?
I feel trapped. You want me to kill our child - and then carry on as if nothing had happened. As if we never happened. All you can think of is your reputation - not ending up like Damian Donahue. And if I carry on with the pregnancy - and you refuse to help - Mom and Dad won’t support me, I’m sure. They’d throw me out. And don’t think you’d escape, even then - Dad would find out about you. They’re probably all going to find out, anyway. There have been rumours in school for weeks now about us. You might not have heard them, but I have. Now that Donahue’s been exposed - how long do you think your precious reputation is going to stay intact?
It doesn’t matter. None of it matters anyway. You’ve broken my heart. And it was always going to end this way. I know that now. ‘My mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars,’ said Romeo Montague. But you couldn’t see it, could you? Till it was too late. All that talk of Achilles and Patrolus, eternally separated. Neptune and Triton, spinning in opposite directions. But we’re not the only casualties, are we? And now you’re the one who’ll be left behind to live with the consequences. Theia gone, and a dead Moon. Ponder that, every time, Earth-bound, you look to the stars.
I hate you.
He had wished upon a star - the night Julia had told him that she loved him - that that love would never become hate. That she would never become Persephone to his Pluto, as had happened with Barbara. Even as he had made the wish - somehow, he’d known it would be in vain.
The letter had been read out many times in his hearing since that first time. It was read out at the inquest into Julia’s death. It was read out at his trial, charged with sexual relations with a minor. He’d received the stiffest sentence permitted under the Iowan criminal statutes - and the judge, in his sentencing, had left Joel Montague in no doubt whatsoever that he wished he could have been tried and sentenced for homicide.
Three times a day, he called to mind the letter. He would repeat her final words to him, again and again. It was his penance. One day, perhaps - if he didn’t die whilst still incarcerated (he was hardly young, after all) he would walk free. He would look up into the heavens, and each night - save for when the Moon was new, or mercifully hidden - he would be reminded of the child he had rejected, the girl whose love he had betrayed, and the possibility of a future happiness for all three of them, however unlikely, that he had allowed to slip away.
But perhaps he might also permit himself to remember - from time to time - another conversation. Words they had spoken to one another on their second weekend together, in that now-demolished cabin in the woods. The same evening they had made love, and he had spoken to her immediately after about the Pillars of Creation.
The senior landing officer on the prison wing had called ‘lights out’. Joel allowed the comforting darkness to envelop him. In the distance, he could hear someone sobbing - each night, there was always some distressed soul, crying out in pain, in grief or in remorse. He’d learnt how to blank out the mournful orisons of others, their mea culpas and misereres. In time, they, like him, would realise that it was far too late now to Shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh.
He closed his eyes. In a little while, he would get, wander over to the barred window of his prison cell, and commence his regular ritual of studying the night sky - or the very small part of it he could ever hope to see on any given night. But not just yet. For now, once again, he was lying with her, in the woodland sanctuary where they could observe the universe, and know a few fleeting moments of happiness.
‘How did you get into astronomy?’
‘Oh, that was down to Uncle Walt.’
‘Oh? Your father’s brother? Or your mother’s?’
Was he being serious? She looked at him, and saw the twinkle in his eye. ‘You are silly. Just for that - I’ll explain another time. How about you?’
‘Hmm. Well you can blame Carl Sagan. The abiding proof that scientists could also be poets.’
‘Can you offer an example?’
‘Okay. Give me a moment.’ He paused. Then–
‘The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. Our bodies are made of star-stuff. There are pieces of star within us all. We are a way for the universe to know itself.’
‘Wow indeed. Enough questions for one night. Go to sleep now, Julia. Class dismissed.’
To my sister, pregnant at sixteen thanks to a Uranus almost as great as Joel Montague. Thankfully, she made the right choice. I’m proud of her and all three of her daughters.
The events of this tale take place over the course of seven weeks in the Fall of 2006. All the astronomical events alluded to take place more or less as described (e.g. the various historical scientific discoveries mentioned; the Hubble photograph of the Pillars of Creation in 1995; the discovery of Eris in 2005, soon followed by the IAU General Assembly in August 2006 that downgraded the status of Pluto; the Theia hypothesis; the Orionid meteor shower; even the phases of the moon, as mentioned in the story). Only the particular Mars-Venus conjunction that is referenced is invented.
As usual, I’ve quoted from or alluded to a number of authors, including Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet), Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke (two of the 20th century giants of science fiction), C.S. Lewis, and Carl Sagan, one of the greatest science communicators and champions of modern times. About the only thing I couldn’t work into the narrative that I wanted to was the ‘fact’ that Captain James T. Kirk (of Star Trek fame) will one day, allegedly, be born in Iowa! Ah, well - you can’t have everything.
As a British writer, I have made no attempt to use American spelling conventions, and readily confess to any shortcomings because of my unfamiliarity with American idioms, conventions and cultural peculiarities (including my limited knowledge of the American high school system). My faults lie in the stars.
Hardly ever see it coming
It sneaks up on you
It rocks you like a realization
Like a monumentous
Your eyes open
Your heart stops
Skips a beat that last
eternity In a moment
on your brain and heart
Like an odd
Not some tattoo
A parlor can
It scars deeply
Bemusing your Imagination
The Curse of Horax
His fur, as he ran was tinged white with moonlight, and I didn’t feel the slippery stones as I paced beside him down the creek behind our lair. Our fates were intertwined, our lives a cosmic comedy.
At the moment, the moon grew full, he turned into his animal twin. The wolf beside me stood shoulder high, terrifying in his glorious strength. My hand rested lightly on his shoulder as I scrambled along the wet path, we chose this night. Grasping a handful of his coarse outer fur, I launched myself up and vaulted onto his back. We continued, hunting for the meat we would need to sustain us through the moon phases. The deer we searched for couldn’t be far ahead, we’d startled the buck with the blue eyes as he drank at his favorite pool.
Perhaps this time, we’d catch him. The king of the forest, his elegant rack of antlers declaring his royal lineage. I hoped we’d find food as well, but King Horax was our true prey. His curse ruled our lives.
My mate, who holds my heart in his jaws, slowed, sniffing. His nose wrinkling as he slipped up the steep slope. My eyes as sharp in my human form as those of the hawk I lived with as my own twin, saw the tracks. Boar. Piglets in fact. If we were lucky, we’d have half a dozen of them for our meat supply for the next weeks, until the next full moon.
There beside a moonlit spring, I saw both prey and food. Slipping my sling from my wrist I fished round stones from my pouch. Swift motions, efficient and deadly sent missiles one after another dropping four larger piglets. I’d have to braid a rope to tie them together and sling them over Roark’s shoulders. He’d carry them home to our nest.
The king watched impassively. He’d observed our hunts often, always with in striking distance until I tried with my sling to hit his forehead. He’d sense my movements every time, month after month. I’d never connected. Never brought him down. This time, I looked at my reflection, lithe curvaceous runner, in the still moon lit pool and swore we’d get him. I crouched, my long red mane, dragging in the water. I was only the bait this time.
Roark was the hunter. His sin, the reason for the curse? The king, his brother wanted me for his own. The moment the moon waned, I returned to being a hawk once more, and he became my mate. No longer wolf, he would be then man I loved. Neither of us able to touch or love as humans who crave each other. This time he’d catch his brother and force the end of the curse.
Roark sprang from the bush, taking his brother’s throat. I stood, flinging stone after stone from my sling, peppering his forehead with thudding precision. This time we’d win our freedom to love. Or will we?
Smoke and Ash
I never got to tell her
How much I really cared.
Then when she left,
When she returned
I was gone.
That is when I saw,
That she loved me more than I did her.
I was ghost
She was living.
She had to see the downfall
I had to experience it.
She had to keep breathing in smoke.
I had to lie in it.
fire and water
they were like water and fire. he was the passion that ran through his veins. and her. she was the calm after the storm. although, they cherished one another with out a doubt, they were only allowed to co exist in the different corners. he was the boy her mother warned her about and him the girl she knew he needed.
Rising From the Ashes
Death knows no obstacle, no boundary, as love rises from the ashes like a phoenix and soars to distant horizons.
In the late day of each afternoon, Tessa walked the high cliffs of Cornwall, looking out upon the vast ocean as she anxiously awaited the return of her beloved sea captain, Seton. The nearby Trevose Head Lighthouse stood at the ready, able to provide guidance to any incoming ship out on the seas. It had been more than a year since she had seen The Sappho draw near the shoreline, but she held steadfast to hope as she waited. Daily, she walked amidst the flower-encrusted cliffs high above the lapping ocean’s waves, ever ready to see a blinking lantern from the ship that signaled her true love's long-awaited return.
Seton had been gone for such a very long time, presumably sailing upon the endless seas, that sometimes Tessa wondered if she could still recall the face of the man that she so loved. She longed to wrap her hands around his broad shoulders and feel the rasp of whiskers against his handsome jaw as she kissed him with welcoming abandon. Would he not ever return? She knew that many in the village secretly whispered that he and his ship had been lost at sea, perhaps devastated by a storm, but Tessa refused to relinquish hope. Seton would return, no matter how long it took him to do so, and of this, she had no doubt.
This August day, Tessa sat amidst the oxeye daisies and English stonecrops, sipping a flask of wine while nibbling on a heel of bread and a bit of cheese as she looked out on the far horizon. The cliffs were lovely during the summer months, and if Seton was ever to return, it would be now as the seas were like glass; calm and steady for any ship’s sailing. Tessa watched the billowy white clouds drift slowly across the bright blue skies, and her heart filled with renewed hope. The seagulls mewed as they circled above, seeming to signal their agreement.
She and Seton had planned to marry after he returned from his latest trip to the Indies. He had assured her that he would hang up his sails and play the husband, staying home to raise a family with her. After all, he owned the shipping company, and it would make perfect sense for him to run things from the inland while allowing others to handle the sailing for the goods. Their whole future loomed unchartered before them, and it filled Tessa with joy to think of creating a happy home with her love.
In anticipation, Tessa had finished her wedding dress many months prior. It was a lovely, simple, blue muslin gown with an intricate embroidery of spring flowers all about its length. It was beautiful, especially so because of the care her loving hands had taken while making it. The blue dress created a stunning backdrop for her red curls and blue eyes, and she could not wait to wear it with the love of her life standing beside her. The dress hung undisturbed in her room as each day, she waited anxiously for Seton’s return so that they could be married.
Today had been no different, and not spying a ship sailing upon the distant horizon today, Tessa sighed, packed her things and then slowly headed home along the winding path. It was growing more difficult each day to cling to the hope that Seton would return, and her chest ached with longing. She would try, however, to stay steadfast and keep a brave face while keeping busy with daily activities. She would return each day to the cliffs where hope would grow anew within her breast as she longingly glanced out upon the calming waters in search of The Sappho.
After picking a few daisies to place in the antique ivory vase beside her bed, Tessa arrived home just prior to twilight, her hair windswept and a rosy blush upon her creamy complexion. Her mother welcomed her with a kiss upon her sun-kissed cheek.
“Tessa, dear. Is there no news today?” her mother asked hesitantly even though she knew that there had been no sight of Seton’s ship.
“No. There was no sight of The Sappho today, but mayhap tomorrow,” Tessa said with hope.
“Dearest Tessa, have you not wondered….” Her mother’s voice trailed off in fear of laying substance to a deeply rooted fear and having it manifest into a reality.
Tessa turned abruptly to eye her mother, surprise evident in her blue eyes. “Seton will return for me. He may not return today, but he will return. I feel it and know it within the depths of my being,” Tessa stated emphatically, thereby silencing her mother from further comment.
The following weeks passed and quickly turned into months and then another year. Tessa’s family became increasingly concerned for her wellbeing, as she was insistent still that Seton would return. She focused solely on the return of The Sappho with Seton at the helm, and nothing could dissuade her from anything to the contrary. She began to hum and sing in a somewhat delusional world of her own making, disregarding much of reality and the heartfelt concern from those around her. Try as anyone might to steer her in another direction, her thoughts remained steadfast on Seton, his return from the Indies, and their impending nuptials.
Many months traipsed by and turned into long years, and still, Seton did not return despite Tessa's insistence that he would. Tessa’s mind repeatedly wrestled between truths and untruths. Her sister, Isabelle, continued to care for her due to the frail state of being that had become Tessa’s reality as both parents and many other loved ones passed on. Still, Tessa waited every day that she could upon the haunting and beautiful cliffs of Cornwall looking out at the horizon. She waited not just for any ship, but she waited for Seton’s ship, The Sappho.
Loved ones and friends alike watched in silence as many times she donned her beautiful, blue wedding gown and walked the cliffs. In warmer weather, she would wander down to stroll by the lapping waves, the blue of her gown trailing in the sandy water’s edge as she peered steadfastly out across the waters and into the sun’s fading glimmer. She seemed nearly ethereal as she did so, moving with the surge of the water and lingering just enough within its depth to give the appearance that she was gliding across its glassy smoothness. All would whisper amongst themselves that it was such a pitiful thing that Tessa had lost her grasp on reality when Seton had not returned. There had been so much unfulfilled promise of youth and life, but alas, it had seemed to drown metaphorically just as poor Seton and his crew had done so long ago with The Sappho.
Years passed in the small fishing community of Cornwall where Tessa lived, and grey had begun to streak the russet curls that fell in loose disarray about her shoulders as she continued to walk the cliffs in search of Seton and The Sappho. She remained with her sister, although life as she knew it was unlike the bustling every day existence known to others her age. With no family of her own beyond her sibling, she helped to cook, clean, and care for the nieces and nephews, but the focus of her heart, mind, and intent was to wait upon the cliffs for her true love’s return.
It was a cold night in early April. The snow and ice had only just begun to thaw throughout the area, but there was still a distinct chill in the air, especially after sunset. After dinner, the fire roared in the cottage’s stone fireplace while Tessa sat next to her sister, patiently sewing. After an hour, Isabelle eventually yawned, rubbed her tired eyes, and sat her embroidery down upon the chair beside her.
“Tessa, love, it’s late, and I must be to bed for tomorrow comes far too soon,” she said, laying a reassuring and loving hand upon her sister’s forearm. “Will you not go to bed as well?”
“Nay, Isabelle, I must finish this piece before I retire. I promise I am not far behind you,” Tessa smiled as she shook her head, indicating she was not yet ready to relinquish her embroidery and seek the comfort of her bed.
“Yes, dearest, but promise me that you won’t tarry long.” Isabelle stooped and lovingly kissed her sister’s head before heading to the narrow staircase that led to her bed and husband.
Tessa continued sewing a while longer, her brows scrunched in concentration until she was sure she had made each flower as beautiful as she desired. Pushing at stray, grey-streaked curls falling about her oval face, she rose with the intention of taking the candle and heading to bed. However, as she passed the window, she paused to look out into the penetrating darkness. She could see that in the far distance, a dim light flickered, and Tessa’s heart skipped a beat as she realized that it glimmered off the distant waters. It could mean only one thing: Seton had finally returned! Quickly, without pausing long enough to don a shawl or cape, she flew out of the cottage and toward the coastline, her grey-streaked russet curls swirling all about her face and shoulders as the strong winds swept through them.
As she moved toward the shore with one purpose in mind, Tessa did not feel the cold that enveloped her fragile body though it easily penetrated the thinness of her gown. Delicate slippers adorned her feet that did not successfully combat the wetness or the cold that drenched them with each step she took. The only thought that permeated her being was to move toward the shoreline and the flickering light. As she reached the water’s edge, she spied a ship on the distant horizon, the moon glinting off its white sails. With fascination, she watched as the flickering light drew ever nearer though still seemingly quite distant. Her heart quickened with anticipation, and she could not quell the excitement that reverberated within her breast. Seton has come home, she thought with pure, unadulterated joy.
For nearly an hour, Tessa stood thus upon the shoreline, the waves hungrily lapping at her dainty feet as they threatened to consume her while she waited, the faint light growing stronger and closer to the water’s edge. Finally, she could make out the silhouette of a small boat with a single passenger approaching. Seton! Happiness infused her being and grew with each movement of the oar, flicker of a light, and surge of a wave.
Before the small boat reached land, the passenger jumped from it and ran as fast as possible through the shallow waters until finally reaching Tessa. With outstretched arms and an open heart, Tessa fell into Seton’s strong embrace, and the two kissed in tearful greeting, the ocean’s waves lapping all about their ankles.
Tessa lovingly looked up into Seton’s green eyes and touched his rugged, bearded face. “My love,” she whispered with the sheen of tears in her blue eyes. “You have come back to me.”
“Aye, I’ve come home, my sweet. I have come to take you with me, Tessa. We shall be together forevermore, never to part again. I promised that I would return for you, and thus, I have fulfilled my promise.” Seton’s hands caressed her face tenderly as he spoke. “You are my only and my truest love, sweet Tessa.”
Tessa’s blue eyes filled with tears, relief and joy encompassing her frail body. She had waited so long for this moment and now Seton was here, and he would never leave again. Happiness and love were hers, and she would hold them firmly within her grasp for all eternity. With arms that drew each other closely to the other, the two lovers walked toward the lighthouse, aware of nothing but the love they felt for one another.
It was a bitter cold morning when they found, her lifeless body strewn across the rugged rocks that lined the shoreline by the lighthouse. An eerie peace seemed to fill her countenance though she lay motionless, and even more strangely, there was the glimmer of a smile curved upon the softness of her lips posed in the ancient dance of death. Many would tell tales for long years about sweet, poor Tessa who waited so patiently and so steadfastly for her only love, Seton, to return. They would whisper that they had seen the two lovers, arms about each other as they strolled along the water’s edge in the early morning light of dawn. It seemed that love had finally chose to smile upon the two lovers, gracing them with the ultimate gift. In defying death, eternal love prevailed, allowing the lovers to be together once again and for an eternity.