The conversation with Martha hadn’t gone well. Alan knew he couldn’t duck his responsibility, he could soften the blow by obfuscating his worst suspicions, explain that Sam had opted to stay behind on his own, not telling them his plans, ignoring orders.
They had brought a young child out, the injured Georgy back, persuaded a new doctor to come with them. But she had seen it in his eyes, the way they wouldn’t hold hers when she asked for reasons, explanations. He related his suspicions about the way Narin’s history had affected him, given him a reason to hate perhaps; she had sat bolt upright when he had said that, as if her worst fears were being confirmed. He had left for St Joseph’s, leaving Martha and Iltud in their kitchen, Iltud comforting her, looking helpless as Martha cried a flood of silent tears.
Later she spoke to Sally. “What do we tell the girl, him not coming back with the others?”
“Tell her he’s staying behind because he’s got more to do, but he will be back at some point, there are others like her to rescue, like that little child they brought back. Not the rest, she might blame herself.”
“Or be pleased.”
“You don’t know that, and could you really blame her if she was?”
Martha shook her head. “That’s the worst thing about it, I couldn’t, or him really.”
“Then I’ll tell her, one refugee to another. Besides, perhaps some time apart may help… diffuse things between them, make it easier for them when they work out how to get her home.”
Later, when she had tried to tell Narin, the girl’s face had remained a mask, impassive, but not from a lack of understanding, she got that well enough. Tears were around her eyes though when she said, through gestures and broken vocabulary that she was staying here until he returned, would help, would try to speak better English for him when he did.
Of course, absence could have the opposite effect.
And then the summons for Sally to meet the Council on Monday arrived, from the High Steward himself, to discuss her role going forward. Decisions would be required in advance of the imminently expected arrival of a Byzantine embassy. She could travel with Iltud and would be paid a stipend if she accepted. Iltud would not elaborate, saying only that she was being highly honoured, and it was her duty to co-operate; the annual Byzantine embassy was one of the most important events of the year.
Jonesy had come and gone, arriving late the previous night from Yorkshire, quick supper with her before setting off to see him in hospital and then back directly to his home. He was a spry little man, career military, finished as an RSM, and now doing people’s gardens in the Dales to supplement his pension. She could understand how they became good friends despite the yawning differences in their lives, probably cemented by that one catalytic day in Bosnia. Jonesy hadn’t wanted to talk about it, him either really, hadn’t seemed comfortable with her, here; it must be a world away from his experience. He’d left first thing, shortly before the stick was delivered, and then they had arrived; father and daughter who left soon after lunch, pronouncing themselves disappointed. Two of the three codes were the same, only the third different and not up too much in their opinion. So, we’ve now two new decrypted sticks in the safe along with the two he had kept in his overnight bag, the others left untouched, and two more smashed pc’s in the dining room.
I’ll have to go to the bank and get more cash and order more gold coins in, as well; it’s proving to be a very expensive few weeks. I can’t keep this up too much longer, but no regrets, no, just one, his injuries, the scouring fear they had injected, the terror of mortality, being left alone, rudderless in a world that was increasingly alien. How has he become such a focal point for my life, an anchor, such that mine is lost? But he needs me more than ever, of that I’m certain, is even closer than before, needs protecting more than previously, and, she sniffs, I’m not without resource.
The plan: spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening with him, as long as he can manage, see how it had gone with Jonesy, update him on the stick.
He’ll say, “You’re all in royal blue again” and she’ll smile: it was becoming instinctive when meeting him. Her phone rings as she gets into the taxi, a strange number, I never recognise the ones they use. It’s Sam.
“Hello Miss, it’s Sam. I’ve just got to London. How is he?”
“He’s bouncing back, should be coming out in a week or two, thanks for asking. He‘ll be back in the saddle then I’m sure. What’re you doing here, I thought you’d all gone back home? Are you alright? Where are you staying? Was it you who sent the stick?”
“Yes Miss. I don’t know where I’m staying yet. We can’t just stop now, it’s not right.”
“Are you in trouble Sam? Come and see me tonight, let me see if I can help?”
Helena could see he was perking up already, sitting up in his own room, the lady now taken to Stoke Mandeville for specialist treatment. Security was tight, but lower key, more comfortable; they also had privacy, although a camera on the wall meant only a little. Get on the front foot from the off, don’t let him throw you this time.
“So how is the worst patient in London?”
They both knew it was a white lie, his smile and manner had long since charmed the nurses into compliance, just so typical she thought.
“Behaving himself. How is the blue bombshell?”
She blushed. “Full of worries and news,” she sat in the chair beside him, handed over more fruit, “which do you want first?”
His head leaned towards her for confidence, she responded, they were inches apart, it was intoxicating.
“They decrypted it, it was quite easy apparently. Are you okay if I look through it, see if anything stands out as urgent?” He nodded. “They’ve all gone back home safely it seems, other than Sam, he’s in London. I don’t know why, I’m seeing him later to find out. I think something’s happened.”
“Find out, but please, be careful. It could be useful to have him around; he’s the one who’s most suitable for working alone here. There’s not much on the news, he might be able to fill in more of the detail.”
“How did you get on with Jonesy?”
“He’s fine, but it could take weeks, recruitment is just about the trickiest thing, even of a good friend you trust. It’s not like what you’re used to at all I’m afraid.”
She let that pass. Another time, how many had she helped bring in, Lena just being the latest?
“Any more on when they will let you out of here, what you will need at my place?”
He smiled, “Can’t wait until you get me into your power eh?”
He stopped short, that had hurt her, he could see the stricken expression on her face.
“I’m sorry, that was thoughtless and unkind after all you’ve done.”
He was only inches away, her attempt at self-control slowly being lost. He put his good right arm around her, he knows, pulls her close; she was shaking, her tears against his neck. “I’m sorry, so sorry, all I’ve put you through these years, and still I hurt you. I don’t know what to say… do.”
She pulled herself together, just enough, but didn’t move away, couldn’t.
“It’s not what you said, I know you were joking, it’s just… You almost being killed… What would I do, what would any of us do? I’m tired of it all, worrying about you, doing my job, London… It sounds ever more appealing there, simple, but not on my own.”
“There’s nothing I can say, you know that. I can’t lie to you, but if you ever want to go, just tell me but I’m not ready yet, you understand that better than anyone. I just don’t want you wasting yourself on me; you could do so much better.”
She pulled back and looked him in the eyes, hard, earnest, without playfulness.
“Never say that again, please. I know what I want. You know it. We’re both grown-ups, understand the rules, have bigger things to do, just promise me we’ll do as many of them together as we can, no secrets. You must trust me by now?”
“More than I do myself.”
His temple was resting against hers again, they were drawing ever closer, not just here, over the months and years; it was just too easy…
“I promise and, one day, when we’re ready, I’ll take you there myself, if you still want to go.”
She was leaning into him again, calmer now, even closer.
“Thanks. I don’t want to put you under any more pressure, please understand?”
His smile returned, she could feel the inflexion as it rippled across his skin against her face.
“Stop talking, some things just can’t be adequately said.”
After some minutes, during which he didn’t make the usual effort to extricate himself, “Why do you really do this, the real, inner reason, the thing that recharges you when you’re out of strength, you’ve never really told me?”
He paused, a small sigh escaping his lips.
“A moment of singularity, there, standing in the main Basilica at pre-dawn, before I was due to cross to the Abbey on the morning of Easter Day; the Abbot had let me stay there all night. I was completely stripped down by then, by her, her leaving, the lack of anything to follow, blind despair you could call it, and then I stumbled on them, I was just walking to nowhere. They found me, nothing unusual in that, they took pity on me, the Abbot especially, but that night what was left peeled away in the dark, leaving me with just a sort of new baby skin, so sensitive as if I could feel, could hear, properly for the first time. I can’t describe it, explain it at all, don’t really understand it now, but everything became suddenly so singular, so simple and later that day, as they told me more, it became clear. I know I’m not making any sense; it probably sounds like mystical twaddle to you, but I was there, felt it inside my mind. It’s never really left since that day, it just gets overlooked in the noisy busyness, but it’s always there when I need it, that’s all.”
“You really are the most amazing man, I don’t understand at all, but I can feel its echo in you sometimes, that’s why I asked. Thanks… And where does all this end?”
“I’ve no idea, but I had to try to do something, even if the ending is unclear. There they think it’s just a holding action, buying time, doing what we can because we have a responsibility. They’re right in some ways, but we are making openings, working our way in, disrupting things, saving lives, learning things. One of the things I found reference to in the first sticks was those they call ‘allies’, people over here, they seem to be in the establishment… I think we can guess the type, but it’s the first evidence of active collusion. They’ve nothing in common other than hatred of the things we value, a desire to overthrow them. In some ways, I think these “allies” are the greater threat. They’re like AIDS, attacking the body’s own immune defences, inhibiting the fight against the invading virus, attempting to take over even if the attacking virus kills the host in the process. We’ve got to expose them, start cutting them out, and shift our focus in some ways from the other, more obvious threat, at least for now. Have you heard any more from your cousin?”
“No, other than daily questions about your health; all these older women worrying about you, our little boy lost; how do you do it?”
That smile, it’s back, that’s how, well, the start at least…
© 1642again 2018