The Turk was almost ecstatic, after all the set-backs, the doubts, only nine-eleven put this in the shade, and this was somehow more personal, more intimate, a stab at the heart of a major western institution. Yes, London had ended more quickly than he’d hoped, but Manchester was still going strong, better than expected. His one regret was what they could have accomplished if they hadn’t lost two thirds of their organisation in the weeks before. His backers’ doubts would be eased; more volunteers would come forward, more money, on to the next stage, bigger and better next time. He turned off the sound on the news channel, time to phone his key backer, arrange to meet.
Her cousin was slightly early, anxious, almost femininely dressed for her. She went through the hall as quickly as she could without being rude, straight in to see him, embraced him, sat beside him, almost passionately concerned. Helena smiled to herself, secure now with him, well, at least as much as I can be, the effect he sometimes had on others, and yet he thought so little of himself, believed she herself, the others, were far more exceptional.
The door buzzer rang again, dinner’s here; you’re getting lazy, mollycoddled by wealth. While she waited for it to be brought up images were screening in her mind: a simple life with him, primitive cottage, working with her hands, cold water and rooms, dark nights, physical exertion from doing the everyday things she hardly ever had to do.
Is that what you really want, all of that, just for him?
I don’t know, maybe there’s more than just that, I’d need to see.
If you do, it’s not what you think with him.
That’s not true, shut up.
Dinner wasn’t quite what she had expected. The food was fine, although she knew he would rather have had something simple, made by her. He kept glancing at her. Sam said little, slightly overawed, but his thoughts were turning homeward she could see, the fear of exile dissolving in the aftermath of that letter in the Abbot’s own hand, and his promise to write. Occasionally he would laugh, reveal something of himself in his relief, but his internality, the hard-learnt habits of his early life, would quickly reassert themselves. She knew that only Martha, whom she’d never met, had ever got really close to him, but maybe one other now could.
Sheena was conversationally dominant, sparkling, vibrant like she had never seen her before, something long buried by years of regret and subterfuge breaking through to bask in the sun for just a little while, speaking of her progress, those identified, the scale and nature of what they were uncovering, her horror at the killings, his injuries, her new greater resolve, her relief. What she didn’t say, didn’t need to, it was manifest, was her admiration, devotion, and a deep unsuspected faith.
He simply sat there, smiling that smile, talking when needed, disclosing very little, tut-tutting at their unauthorised activities, trying to extract a promise similar to that she had herself sworn, which Sheena adamantly refused to give, telling him straight that he wasn’t invariably right, he needed to share the responsibility more. Yes, her cousin was on good form, even he retreated before her, promising to explain, consult more, bring others in.
He was looking harassed, looking to her in an appeal for assistance. No chance, she was enjoying the spectacle, smiling faintly at him, encouraging her cousin. His evasions got nowhere, Sheena was amusingly remorseless, pinning him down in a clinical way she could never manage herself; she could see he didn’t know what to do. He started to concede, a little at first, throwing a bone to the cornering pack, but it wasn’t satisfied, demanded the entire carcass, then more promises, to disclose more, consult more.
He was squirming now, Sheena triumphant, then suddenly something touched her leg lightly, must be his good foot. He was looking at her directly, beseeching; she ignored it. Then his foot was more insistent, stroking her, pleading for assistance, distracting, her pulse rate rising. Enjoy it; he’s begging you now, pleading for mercy. His foot fell away, his final surrender, an exultant Sheena, the last demand conceded. That smile was back on his lips again, eyes skating over her, amused.
“Sam, remind me not to go unprepared to dinner with these two cousins again. I would rather have gone into that building with you than face them in this mood; they’re utterly merciless to a poor wounded veteran.”
Later Sheena left, taking Sam and all his gear to her flat in her car, promising to stow him there all day and then drive him to the West Country the following evening so he could walk the final few miles to the farm, before crossing the barrier when another party was ready, with his letter in his jacket pocket. He was bashful, embarrassed by the fuss she made of him; Helena musing to herself how her cousin would get on with him for the next twenty-four hours.
She had helped him get to bed. He had hated that, the loss of independence to her; had insisted she not help him get changed into his night things. It had taken him ages, so stubborn; she had left him to it, trying not to laugh. Later, after midnight, when the nightmare returned, stronger and larger than before, his form weaker, the other man not present, she had cried out, once, more times.
He couldn’t sleep, the cramp from lack of movement, had hobbled out of his room using a frame to make a drink, had heard her cry, an incoherent low pleading. What to do? Nightmares were to be expected, normal after what she had seen and done, part of the encoded morality deep with the human persona, natural law the Scholastics had called it, hence the increasingly favourable modern reappraisal of their insights sparked by the developing understanding of the workings of the human genome. But she shouldn’t have to face them alone, not like he and so many others; who else could she turn to other than him?
Another cry, more despairing, moaning sounds.
He hobbled to her door, knocked, no answer, what to do? Another cry, he turned the handle, it was unlocked, swung back the door silently, dark but for the odd shard of artificial light from outside slashing through gaps in the curtains; he never slept well in the city because of that. She turned over, restless, perhaps not, wait until the morning. He tried to back out, over-balanced, sliding remorselessly down the adjacent wall, gasping with the pain from his rib cage and leg, slumping prostrate and helpless. You idiot, now what? You can’t move. Get your breath back.
She was standing over him, grey silk dressing gown, eyes grave.
“Are you alright? What’re you doing here?”
“I heard you cry out, wanted to check you’re ok.” He laughed bitterly, “Some help I am, I can’t even get myself up.”
She got down on her knees, helped him sit upright against the wall. He tried not to look; she was distracting, consuming, glistening in that artificial quarter light reflecting off her dressing gown, hair and moist eyes, her skin almost unearthly radiant. She told him of her dreams, asked his help, advice. He looked at her.
“You’re not alone you know.”
Her tears were coming now.
“I am, even here, with you so nearby.”
“What do you really want of me?”
“I promised never to ask. I know you can’t.”
She found herself pulled to him with surprising force, her head cradled against his shoulder.
“I’m sorry; I always seem to come up short for you. Are you really sure you want me here?”
“More than anything.”
He closed his eyes, regain your self-control, it’s like Zeno’s Paradox, the distance between them kept closing, but would always enough remain to prevent them truly joining, no matter how fine the gap became?
“Then help me up to bed, stay and talk. It’s much harder to beat these things alone.”
She sat beside him in the bed, legs warm under the covers, just warm from his presence, his arm around her, talking about her dreams, their meaning.
“Who was the other man you mentioned, not just the broken down me?”
“I don’t know, but something tells me I met him one Sunday.”
That was all she could say; the realisation, her intuitive suspicion, held her back.
Later, as she fell asleep against him, content, breathing slowly, he lay awake, watchful. She had carried both his outer and inner defences now, only the citadel remained, and its gate was reeling under her blows. How long? Hopefully long enough, so much more to do.
© 1642again 2018