DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
TEL. mobile 07982 032974
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‘They’ve gone away!’
‘They’ve gone away, as I’ve just said’.
‘Who’s gone away?’
‘Our parents! They left quite urgently this morning!’
‘How should I know? I’ve just got back home and found a note. Jessica’s here from next door. She’s a bit upset’.
Annie sighed deeply, and held her mobile phone away from her ear for a moment.
‘Are you at home, Simon?’
‘Yes, I’m in the kitchen with Jessica’.
‘Ok. I’m on the bus coming back. I’ll be there in a few minutes’.
‘Fine. I’ll see you shortly’.
Annie finished the call, and looked out of the bus window at the shoppers in London Road, buying food for the weekend. It was late Friday afternoon, and she had stayed on at school to play netball. The Brighton Festival was due to start tomorrow. Just what we need, she thought. Why on earth had her parents chosen to leave today? Simon had said they had left a note. Best to see what excuse they had used this time, considering they always seemed to be away in London. She didn’t trust her parents any more. There was something strange going on.
Ten minutes later she walked into the kitchen and dumped her bag on the floor. Simon was sitting at the table with Jessica, their next door neighbour. She was a thin, dark-haired woman in her early thirties, married to Bill, an interior decorator. They were a friendly and cheerful couple, but this time Jessica seemed agitated, twisting her fingers around her coffee cup on the table.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Annie, sitting down with a cup of tea.
‘The car!’ exclaimed Annie. ‘They normally go up to London by train!’
‘As I said, they were putting stuff in the car. Then they came out with their coats on, and locked the front door. I was being a bit nosy, I’m afraid, but the reason for that is because they both looked so…so frightened’.
‘I think so. Anyway, your Mum came over to me, and asked if I wouldn’t mind just keeping an eye on you, just for a couple of days. I thought it was odd, especially when I noticed that she’d been crying. Your Dad looked really pale and worried, too. But your Mum seemed a little bit….’ She searched for the right word, ‘distraught, I think. Anyway, I said of course, and asked her when they’d be back’. She paused. ‘Your Mum said hopefully in a couple of days, but she wasn’t very clear, if you know what I mean. She said she’d left everything you needed, but just to keep an eye on you, and she’d left you a note. That’s about it, really. They just drove off after that’.
Simon and Annie stared at each other.
‘They’ve never done that before’. said Annie, thoughtfully.
‘I thought it was strange too’, admitted Jessica. ‘But, in any case, you can always come round to us, if you want. You’re very welcome’.
‘Thank you Jessica, that’s really good of you. But I think we’ll be all right’.
At the front door, Jessica stopped. She looked hesitant. ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but, are your parents in any trouble?’
‘Only with us’. smiled Annie. ‘Thanks a lot, Jessica’.
As she shut the front door, her smile froze. ‘Did you say that they’d left a note, Simon?’
‘On the kitchen table’.
‘Have you looked at it yet?’
‘No. We need to look at it together’.
They sat down and Annie opened the envelope. They looked at the message.
“Dear Annie and Simon,
We have very urgent business to attend to, which will not wait. We are so sorry to leave you. We hope to be back shortly. Please enjoy the festival.
All our greatest love,
Mum and Dad”.
‘That doesn’t tell us much, does it?’ commented Simon.
Annie was reading and re-reading the short note. ‘It’s written in a hurry, as if Mum was leaving it behind at the last minute. But what is this urgent business? And when exactly will they be back?’
Simon looked over her shoulder. What is this “All our greatest love”? That sounds a bit final’. He went over to the refrigerator, opened the door and gasped. It was full of all kinds of food, including a roast chicken. He shut the door again.
‘It looks as though they don’t know when they might be coming back. We certainly won’t starve. In fact I can practise my culinary skills on you’.
Annie paid no attention. She was looking out of the window, deep in her own thoughts.
Annie roused herself. ‘Simon, I think we had better find some advice’. She smiled. ‘Let’s call the cops’.
Morag was bored. She had been sitting in the unmarked car for hours, waiting for the same petty burglar to find his way back to his battered ex-council house. Same with his wife, she thought. Then her mobile rang. She picked it up.
She jerked upright. ‘Annie! I’m sorry, I’m on a case!’ But she listened to what Annie had to say. ‘OK. I’m closing this now. I’ll be right over. Ten minutes’. Thank goodness. Something more interesting.
In fact, she was there in eight. She sat and listened at the kitchen table. ‘They just can’t leave you and go off like that!’ she cried. ‘You’re still minors, for a start!’
‘In our world, yes. Not in others. You know that’. said Annie quietly.
Morag bit her lip. She wasn’t in a position to argue. ‘Look’. She said reasonably. ‘I can get a patrol car to pass by every now and again to keep an eye on the place. You can also ring me any time it’s necessary, on my mobile, if anything comes up’.
‘Oh, we don’t need any patrol cars’, replied Simon airily. We’re both solid, honest, upright citizens, aren’t we Annie?’
‘Without a doubt’. replied Annie, virtuously.
‘Hmmm. I suppose you’ll be having wild parties, raiding your dad’s liquor, getting hopelessly drunk, and causing all sorts of havoc and mayhem into the early hours of the morning’.
‘Of course we won’t!’ cried Annie indignantly.
‘Pity’. mused Morag, ‘because I would’. She giggled.
After she had gone, Annie went straight to the telephone. ‘I’m going to call a meeting of the Brotherhood tomorrow morning. I want to find out if they know anything’.
‘They might not be available’.
‘They will be if I say so’.
She came back a few minutes later. ‘Ten o’clock tomorrow morning. On the beach. But it’s funny though’.
‘Yes. Index Finger seemed a bit agitated when I told him our parents had gone absent. He sounded very worried. He wasn’t at all keen to have a meeting. Quite reluctant, in fact. Which reminds me. Shall I call up Chris and see if he’s found out anything more about Mr Cuttle’s library?’
‘Do you think there might be a connection? Between our parents’ sudden disappearance, and something he might have found in the library?
‘I honestly don’t know, It’s just an instinct’.
She came back again. ‘Fine. Half past nine on Sunday morning’.
‘So much for our wild parties. Our weekend’s filling up already’.
As Annie lay in bed that night, she could feel the absence of their parents. The house just seemed too big, too large for just the two of them. A sudden thrust of loneliness struck her. She turned her head to look at the talisman, lying on her bedside table. I wonder if you know anything about this, she thought, as she gradually began to fall into a troubled sleep.
Festival Day – a meeting, of sorts
Neither of them wanted to admit it, but Simon and Annie had had a disturbed night. They had got up early and had breakfast in an uneasy silence. They missed their parents. As they walked down to the beach where they were due to met the Four Fingers of the Brotherhood of the Hand, they were secretly relieved to have something to do. Annie always looked forward to the opening of Brighton Festival, with the Children’s’ Parade, and all the costumes, but at this moment she felt unhappy and insecure. As she glimpsed the Four Fingers at their usual table, her uneasiness increased.
The Four Fingers, grey and elderly, in their matching suits, stood up to greet them. But this morning, they seemed furtive and anxious. Adrian the seagull, was perched on the end of the table, and gave them just a perfunctory nod. Sniffer, the tracker dog, raised his head, (which was just as well, since no-one would have known otherwise which end it was on) and grunted from somewhere beneath his tousled, matted fur.
Annie could see that something was wrong. All Four Fingers seemed evasive, looking away when she tried to catch their eyes. There was an ominous silence.
Annie took a deep breath. ‘Do you know what’s happened to our parents? They’ve gone away, apparently for no reason’.
Middle Finger, the tallest, looked out towards the sea. He was clearly uncomfortable.
‘We are not at liberty to tell you’.
‘WHAT!’ shouted Annie furiously.
Simon got up, and stood with his hands outstretched on the table, leaning towards the Four Fingers menacingly. His voice was very quiet, but clear.
‘What do you mean, you are not at liberty to tell us?’
It was Little Finger that spoke, the shortest and plumpest of the four.
‘We mean, we can’t’.
‘WHY?’ said Annie with suppressed fury.
‘We are bound by an oath of secrecy’.
‘What secrecy? By whom?’
‘We are not at liberty to say’.
Simon looked warningly at his sister. He could see that she was on the verge of a terrible rage. He switched his attention to Adrian.
‘You, beak-face. Have you got anything to say?’
Adrian would normally have risen to the bait with an indignant squawk. Instead, he shuffled his webbed feet, and muttered ‘Nuthin’’
‘What about you, Sniffer?’
Sniffer raised his head again. ‘I can’t tell you owt’. Simon noticed with a shock that Sniffer’s eyes were moist. That alarmed him more than anything.
But he was, nevertheless, on the verge of losing his temper.
‘So I take it that you can’t tell us anything about anything. Does that mean our lives are in danger from something?’
Index Finger fidgeted with his hands nervously.
‘If we could tell you, we would’.
‘Are our lives in danger?’
Index Finger looked around at his fellow Fingers. ‘Possibly’. He admitted.
‘We are not at liberty to say’.
It was the moment Simon had feared. He could almost feel the heat of his sister’s fury, next to him, and now it erupted.
‘You stupid old men! After all we’ve been through, and you can’t tell us anything about what’s happened to our parents, and what might happen to us! You lot of miserable grey old fools! You filthy, dirty old hearthrug, and you, you pathetic apology for a seagull! I’m never going to trust you again! You can stick your useless Brotherhood up your rear ends! I’ve had enough of the lot of you!’
Annie got up and stormed away along the beach. Simon got up, too.
‘So much for trust. Don’t call us, we won’t call you’. He set off after Annie’s disappearing figure.
‘Simon!’ called Little Finger, imploringly.
Simon ignored him.
The last thing Simon saw were the bowed heads of the Four Fingers, their hands clasping and unclasping.
He finally caught up with Annie, sitting on the beach near to the derelict skeleton of the West Pier. She was throwing pebbles into the sea, still in a rage. He sat down quietly beside her, watching her hurl stones, one after the other, into the water.
‘Don’t say anything, don’t say anything at all’.
Simon stayed and watched, as her pebbles splashed into the ripples. Then he finally said ‘Why don’t we go and have some lunch?’
Annie continued to throw pebbles into the water. Then she stopped.
‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. It’s just that I, well, we, don’t seem to be in control any longer. There are just too many things that we don’t know about, and should do. I really do feel very unhappy. There’s something out there that we can’t understand, and I can’t make myself believe that people are keeping secrets from us. Why?’
Simon shrugged. ‘It’s beyond me, too. I think it might be a good idea if we go and see the Children’s’ Parade. That might cheer you up’.
‘That’s good. It might make up for our lost innocence. Maybe’.
They walked down to Madeira Drive just below the seafront, where there were already crowds of people. The children’s’ procession came flooding in, strange costumes and painted faces everywhere. A steady rhythm of salsa drums filled the air. Huge, brightly coloured mythological creatures,, mermaids, dragons and flowers, suspended above the procession, swayed and shifted in time to the music. Annie suddenly felt happier, remembering when she was once amongst them, from primary school, in a fairy dress that her mum had made for her. For once, she forgot everything, apart from the joy and exuberance around her.
Simon, as usual, was looking around for the nearest place to buy something to eat. He turned around to ask Annie if she wanted anything, and then froze in horror!
Annie was standing, transfixed, her face pale. She was looking at something in the crowd. Simon followed her gaze. He suddenly felt cold, as if a chill had suddenly fell upon him.
In the middle of the chattering laughing, gaily-coloured children, two grey shapes stood out. The crowd surged around and past them as if they didn’t exist. The two figures, only slightly taller than the children surrounding them, were motionless. They were swathed from head to foot in grey shrouds that entirely covered their heads and bodies, down to where their feet should have been. It was not just their death-like appearance that struck, icy-cold, into Simon and Annie’s hearts. It was as if they were ghosts from the grave, surrounded by unheeding, lively, cheerful humanity, almost obscenely out of place and time.. For some reason Annie thought of a strange rhyme from her childhood that she had never really understood until now. “In the midst of life, walks death’.
Annie forced herself to look back at the crowd. The ghosts had disappeared, as if they had never been there at all. But Annie’s eyes still retained the awful image of those, those things…looking at her!
They were both panting for breath, droplets of cold sweat on their faces, despite the sunshine. Simon grabbed Annie by the hand and pulled her away through the teeming crowds, up the steps and onto the promenade above, where they leaned on the rail, looking down to see if the ghosts had followed them But there was no sign of those awful shapes.
Annie dropped her head into her hands. ‘What on earth were they!’
‘That’s just it. I don’t even think they were of this earth. They were so evil!They seemed, what’s the word…..supernatural!’
‘Do you think they were ghosts?’
Yes, I do, but what of? Us?’
‘You mean, messengers of some sort? No. No, no, NO!’ I’m just not going to believe that!’
Simon heard a slight note of hysteria in her voice. He was still shaking, too.
‘Let’s go and have a cold drink somewhere, then go straight home. I could certainly do with it’.
Fifteen minutes later, they were sitting outside the Basketmakers’ Arms, a well-known pub in the North Laines, drinking lemonade with ice. They knew the landlord, who was always kind to them, and their parents had taken them there many times for lunch. It was, somewhat coincidentally, close to Gloucester Passage, where previously, the mysterious glove had attacked them, to try to take the talisman. But for now, they were beginning to recover from their shock.
‘I hope those things don’t materialise again’. Simon said, his mouth full of salt and vinegar crisps, which made his voice rather indistinct.
‘Don’t say that, Simon, please!’
Simon subsided into silence, except for the sound of crunching.
‘I want to go back through that passage again’.
Simon paused. ‘Why?’
‘Because this is my city, and I live here. I want to go where I like, without being frightened of anything’.
‘All right, so long as I don’t get bashed on the nose again by some evil glove’.
They finished eating, got up and walked towards the dark passage feeling the warm sunlight on their backs.
‘You see, nothing to it’. Simon remarked. Then Annie screamed.
Halfway down the passage stood the two shrouded figures, silent and motionless. Unseen hands under the shrouds moved up and lifted the coverings from their faces. Simon slid down the wall in unspeakable horror. They were looking at their own dead faces, white, bloodless, their empty vacuous eyes fastened on him. The two figures cast aside their robes to reveal their bodies. Simon heard Annie scream ‘NOOOOO!’, and fall against him. He too, fell, and lay on the cold brick ground, not knowing which world he was in.
Annie scrambled up through the darkness towards the light. Her vision was blurred, and then cleared. She saw the landlord’s face, Blue, looking down at her, anxious and concerned.
‘You all right, Annie?’ he asked. ‘We heard you scream, and thought you were in trouble. We just picked you up and got you back to the pub. Your mate from the police is here, by the way’.
Morag’s face appeared. ‘Are you OK, Annie?’
Annie shifted herself, awkwardly. ‘I think so. Where am I?’ she looked around as she spoke, and realised she was sitting in a chair outside the pub again. She began to panic.
‘Simon! Where’s Simon?’
‘Right here, babe’. She suddenly realised that Simon was sitting right next to her. He leant over and gave her a hug. She responded fiercely, feeling the cold of his face, still trembling slightly.
‘Right, I’m going to take you both home. It’s all right’, she reassured the landlord, I don’t think we need an ambulance or anything. I’ll keep an eye on them’.
Morag was worried. Simon seemed fine, though he had clearly had a shock. But Annie looked dazed and deeply upset. She gently pushed them into her car, and drove off.
Back home, Morag decided to do a little gentle questioning, partly to try to satisfy herself, but also because she was genuinely deeply upset and concerned about these two. She knew their reputation for courage and determination. It must have been something really bad to have so frightened them both, she reasoned to herself. Let’s see.
‘Annie, Simon, would you mind if you went through it with me, from the beginning? Believe me, I want to do this as a friend. There may be something that might explain all this. Just stop me if you’ve had enough’.
Simon and Annie looked at each other. ‘Fine’. Simon said at last. So they told Morag everything that had happened that afternoon, up to the point where they had entered the passage.
Annie shivered, then began to talk. ‘Morag, when they took off their shrouds, and we saw their faces……Morag, they were US! But they were dead faces! As if we were looking at our own corpses! They just stared at us! Their eyes were just empty! There was no life in them at all!’
Simon quietly took over. ‘The worst, the really worst part, Morag, was when they opened up their shrouds completely’.
‘What! They exposed themselves to you?’
‘Not in the way you think. They didn’t have bodies! They were just skeletons! No flesh, just bones!’ Simon gulped. ‘That was when we both really freaked out. That, on top of what had gone before. It was like, well, looking at ourselves as if we had just risen from the grave, after a long time underground!’
Morag gasped inwardly. If it was me, she thought, I’d be terrified too.
‘Are you absolutely sure you saw this? It was quite dark in that passage’.
‘No, Morag’, We were not imagining it, or having hallucinations. We were not on any funny drugs, or anything. That is exactly what we saw! You know our past. You know we don’t frighten easily. But this, this was something like a vision! At least up to now, we’ve always made a choice about what we do. But this was different. It was horrible!’
Morag sat and thought for a few moments.
Annie was staring at her very intently. ‘It’s really important to us that you should believe us. We saw this. What the explanation is, I don’t know. But we saw those things!’ she said with terrible sincerity.
Simon grinned for the first time but somewhat wryly. ‘We can do battles, bombs and assassinations. We can cope with those. But as for the undead, we don’t have any field experience. Any ideas, Morag?’
Morag leant back in her chair, her hands behind her head, and expelled her breath softly. Then she leant forward again, with her hands on the kitchen table.
‘All this is off the record, and please bear with me. This is the copper part of me speaking. I think someone, who knows you, or thinks they do, is playing terrible tricks on you. How they’ve done it, I don’t know. But they’re playing on your fears, and your own doubts, and they’ve taken advantage of your parents suddenly going away, and all the worries that you both have about that. It’s calculated and cruel, but that’s what I think. These are tricks, not ghosts or magic, though whoever it is wants you to think that’.
‘What about your faerie side?’ asked Annie, quietly.
Morag hesitated. ‘That tells me that they’re trying to undermine you, trying to make you lose confidence in yourselves. As I said, they’re doing it at, a point in your lives, when you feel most vulnerable, when you’re more susceptible to all the secret things that we all hide away, and never let out if we can help it. They’re trying to make you live a nightmare. You’ve got to be stronger now, than you have ever been’.
She was delighted to see that her words had some effect on them. She continued.
‘I admit, I can’t understand why nobody else could see them. They must have found some sort of hidden dimension to get to you, and you only. Perhaps, even, through the talisman’. They looked at the talisman on Annie’s right hand, glowing gently. Morag put hers out, close to Annie’s. Both talismans glowed more brightly.
‘Perhaps the talismans are both our strength and our weakness’. suggested Simon.
‘I don’t know. Did you say you were going to meet your friend Chris, tomorrow?’ They nodded.
‘He might have some of the answers we need. I’m going to come with you. You need company. And I’m staying tonight. I’m not leaving you on your own’.
‘Bang goes your Saturday night, Morag. I’m really sorry’.
‘No problems, Simon. All in the line of duty. Just call me the dutiful faery’.
Later that evening, as they were all preparing to go to bed, Morag took Simon gently but firmly by the arm. They watched Annie as she ascended the stairs to her bedroom.
‘What is this? The policeman’s handshake?’ Simon was grinning.
Morag whispered softly in his ear. ‘ This is still my faery side talking, Simon. I have serious fears for you both’.
She looked Simon earnestly in the face. ‘Look after your sister, Simon. She’s had to cope with more than any of us’.
Simon, whose smile had gone, nodded, and whispered back quietly, ‘You don’t need to tell me. You know I will’.
Morag watched him go up. She felt desperately afraid for them, and for Annie in particular. Her policewoman’s instincts had told her that Annie was very close to the edge.
‘That’s what they were! Your undead!’
‘But what are they?’
Chris grinned sweetly, spreading his hands on the table. They were in Chris’s conservatory, drinking mugs of coffee, which they badly needed. They had just told Chris about the events of the last day. Morag had been greeted with great pleasure by Chris, and now she was looking around in admiration at the prints and posters on the walls, and at the small but lovely garden just outside the large glass doors.
‘The term “homunculus” is Latin, meaning an artificial being, made in a likeness of somebody, and means “little human”. They could also be “doppelgangers” a German term for the ghostly double of a living person, who, rather unfortunately, tends to be your evil alter-ego. But you said that these things were smaller than you?’
‘Well, they were’, admitted Simon. ‘Perhaps about three feet high’.
‘In that case, they’re certainly homunculi. Someone must have made them to look something like you’. Chris added. ‘What else?’
‘The…skeletons’. Annie said falteringly.
‘But were they? Were they white, or dark?’
‘I suppose’, Simon said slowly, ‘they were darker than they should be, and seemed to shine a bit’.
‘I think so, yes’.
‘Metal structures or skeletons to hold up a figure, rather like shop-dummies, or mannequins, with a frame inside to make them stand up. I think that’s what your skeletons were, but without anything to cover them up’.
‘Oh’, Annie said. She felt rather small and foolish.
Chris saw her expression. ‘I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to insult your intelligence. If it was done properly, it would have frightened anyone. If they moved, they probably had animatronic devices in them, worked by someone with a remote control. I think that your lovely policewoman, Morag, here, was right, in that someone was playing very nasty and realistic tricks. But I must confess, I don’t understand how no-one else saw them, apart from you’.
Simon and Annie remained silent. It would have been too complicated to explain. Chris looked at them and understood. ‘You know better that I about that’. he said softly. ‘Don’t bother to tell me. I think I can already guess’.
Annie smiled at him gratefully. He knew they were already going through a bad time. ‘Thank you, Chris, for all your work on Mr Cuttle’s library. Did you find any interesting things?’
‘Absolutely. Your Mr Cuttle was quite a remarkable man, with a great deal of interests. Do you want me to take you through it?’
‘Please, Chris! That would be really useful!’
He led them through the garden, through the small door of the garage at the end of the garden, and switched on the light. They looked around in amazement at the rows of books on the shelves around them, and at the wooden table, that was covered with large cardboard boxes. The books themselves filled the end of the garage. Beyond, as they looked down the room, were still more shelves, all lined with books of every shape and size.
Morag gasped. ‘Is this…is all this Mr Cuttle’s collection?’
‘No. Only this bit you’re standing in now’. replied Chris cheerily. ‘The rest are my own’.
Morag gasped again. She turned to Annie. ‘Did he leave you all this collection? What happened to him?’
Annie looked away. ‘He was killed in our battle against the daemons’.
Morag bit her lip. She should not have asked.
But Chris was sitting down at the table, expectantly. They all sat down around the cardboard boxes. Annie had the feeling that something momentous might happen.
‘Your Mr Cuttle seemed to like bringing all kinds of different things together. Detective novels for instance. He had a whole collection of classic detective fiction, particularly American – Dashiel Hammett, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler, for example. I don’t know whether he was trying to make connections between them, and other things. He certainly had a fascination for the tougher and darker side of human life. But he also collected a lot of illustrations and engravings as well, mainly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most of them connected with alchemy’.
‘Isn’t alchemy to do with turning base metals into gold?’
‘Yes, but’s that really a metaphor for something much more. Alchemists helped to found what we now know as modern chemistry, and did a great deal of research into the qualities and properties of chemical elements and compounds. It was also closely linked with astrology and medicine. But its true purpose was to find ways of transmuting the earthly soul into something more immortal, to find the way to eternal life through change and transformation, drawing on the elements of earth, air fire and water, and the substances that represented the various aspects of human existence. This ideal was sometimes called the “Elixir of Life”’.
Chris could see that they were all still puzzled.
‘Here. Have a look at some of these’. He began to open the cardboard boxes on the table.
As he pulled the contents out, they could see that they were copies, in black and white, of strange images, that followed one from another. They showed strange pictures of humans, creatures and planets. As she looked at them, Annie felt suddenly excited. These were mysterious and she didn’t really understand them, but she loved the symbols. They were magical, yes, but not frightening. There was no hint of black magic, or sorcery or witchcraft about them. She counted some of the symbols to herself – sun, moon, a blossoming tree, birds, lions, dragons, stars and eyes.
She looked more closely at one particular image. It depicted a figure, but with two heads, one male and the other female, but on one body. Their faces looked benevolent. For some reason, they reminded her of her parents. Chris saw her staring at it.
‘That’s an androgynous figure, of man and woman joined together in union. The male and female characteristics are still all there, but in harmony with each other. It represents part of the alchemical process of separating and then combining, on their journey towards a mystical union. There are lots of those kinds of images, sometimes as sun and moon figures as well’.
‘They look so kind, so benevolent’. murmured Annie almost to herself.
‘But what has all this alchemy got to do with us?’ asked Morag.
Chris shook his head. ‘I don’t know. But it was clearly important to Mr Cuttle. He must have been quite an amateur scholar. Perhaps there may be more clues if I introduce you to some of the alchemists that he was so interested in’.
Judging by his enthusiasm Chris was clearly in his element.
‘Definitely’, Simon replied excitedly. They were all eager now.
‘The engraving that Annie was looking at is from a series that Johann Daniel Mylius published as part of the “Rosarium Philosophicum”, literally “The Rosary of the Philosophers”, which was originally published in 1550. It describes the mystical alchemical process. Mylius himself was a player of the lute, a very lovely and early stringed instrument, for which he composed music’. He was also an alchemist, in the early seventeenth century’.
They all stared in fascination at the little engraving.
‘But the main figure is Phillipus Paracelsus, who lived in the early sixteenth century, born in Switzerland. He died in 1541, but he was many things – a physician, a botanist, an astrologer, and, of course, an alchemist. He was the first to define disease and illness as an attack on the body, from outside. But his cure was to re-establish the natural balance and harmony of the body, by careful doses of chemical medicine. His belief was that the use of medical elements could restore the natural harmony between body and soul, human and nature, an equilibrium, a position of stability’.
‘What was he like, himself?’ asked Simon.
‘Fat and arrogant, with a speaking manner that was described as “bombastic”, an old term to mean ”cotton wadding”.
‘I know a few people like that in the police force’. Morag muttered.
They burst out laughing.
‘There, that’s lightened the mood. But there is just one other person I should mention, because there’s a real mystery about him, which I know will appeal to you’.
He paused for dramatic effect. They were all listening intently.
‘His name was Nicolas Flamel, who lived in the fourteenth century. He was a manuscript-seller, but he is best remembered as, theoretically at least, the alchemist who actually made the Philosophers’ Stone, and achieved immortality’.
‘Sorry’. interrupted Morag, ‘but what actually is the Philosopher’s stone?’
‘Its plural. It’s actually the Philosophers’ Stone. It’s a legendary alchemical substance or ingredient, probably not a stone at all. Alchemists were searching for it. It’s a kind of mystical key, that would help them to unlock the secrets of the universe. It symbolises perfection and enlightenment – look, I’ll show you’. He rummaged among one of the boxes, and pulled out another small engraving.
It was a mathematical symbol, held up by a man and a woman, standing on the sun and moon. Another sun and moon shone down upon them. A double ring of stars surrounded both figures and symbol.
‘You see? A circle, enclosed by a square, enclosed by a triangle, enclosed by another circle, which represents the earth. Everything in order and equilibrium. Mind you, there’s no real proof that Flamel ever existed. All we’ve got is a nineteenth-century print of what he was supposed to look like’.
He pulled out another picture, and spread it on the table. Annie and Simon sat bolt upright, the colour draining from their faces.
‘DOCTOR WRIST!’ they both cried!
Annie said nothing on the way home. Simon remained silent too, partly because he was uncertain of what was going through Annie’s mind, and also because he was seriously disturbed by what Chris had told them. Even if only parts of it were true, then they were plunged into a flood of things that were much, much bigger and far more mysterious than they had ever imagined. What part they played in this swirling torrent of history and magic was completely unknown, at least to him. For the first time, he felt afraid. He could almost imagine himself as one of the little paper boats, he used to sail on the pond as a small child, helpless, pulled about by wind and water. What must it be like for Annie, as a bearer of a talisman? There was also the question of Doctor Wrist.
They sat quietly around the kitchen table, holding mugs of tea.
‘Do you think it’s him?’ Annie finally asked, quietly.
‘You mean this Nicolas Flamel? Is he really Doctor Wrist? I don’t honestly know’.
‘He could be’.
‘Do you remember what else Chris said about him? That he and his wife, Perenelle, who also shared his secrets, eventually lived in Paris as kind and generous citizens? And when they opened his tomb, it was empty?’
‘And also’, interrupted Annie, that there have been sightings of him since, and people still think he’s still around? His house still exists, even though it’s now a restaurant. But nobody seems to know for certain whether he actually existed’.
‘What if, Doctor Wrist was Nicolas Flamel, or Nicolas Flamel really Doctor Wrist? Or they might not be even connected at all. It might be that Doctor Wrist is pretending to be someone like Nicolas Flamel, and that picture of him, as Chris said, is only an artist’s impression, and might not be accurate. Don’t forget, we’ve only seen glimpses of Doctor Wrist ourselves. But I must admit, there did seem to be a resemblance’.
There was a sudden ring at the doorbell. Simon looked at Annie, who was looking down at her hands clasped on the table, the talisman gleaming quietly on her right hand.
‘I’ll get it’. Simon got up and went out to the front door. Annie could hear his voice, and someone else’s.
‘That’s great. Thanks very much. No, we’re all right. See you tomorrow’.
He came back in, holding a small white envelope.
‘That was Jessica. She said someone must have delivered it to her by mistake. There’s no postmark, but it’s addressed to us’.
Annie looked at the envelope. ‘That’s Dad’s handwriting’. she said. ‘You’d better open it’.
Simon slit open the envelope. Inside was a small piece of notepaper. He spread it out on the table. There was only a brief message.
“Meet us at the brotherhood headquarters tonight. We can tell you something. It has been decided”.
Annie stood up slowly and walked over to the kitchen window, and leant on it, looking out.
‘It’s in our Dad’s handwriting again. But why meet there? Why haven’t they signed it? What has been decided?’
Simon glanced over at Annie, and then put the letter down. He knew there was something wrong, terribly wrong. In that moment, that immediate split-second of time, he realised. His chair slid back with a squeal of legs, and he went over and put his arm around Annie’s thin shoulders.
‘Tell me what it is, Annie’.
Annie let out a deep sigh. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to cry. I’ve gone past that now’.
She paused, then continued in a low monotone voice that Simon had never heard before.
‘I’ve had enough, Simon. I don’t know how or why, but everything good, enjoyable, has just drained out of me. I’m frightened to look over my shoulder. I’m frightened to go to sleep. We seem to be caught up in all these forces that are whirling around us, with no control over them. I just feel, I don’t know, adrift, lost. I don’t know where I’m going, or what to do. I’ve reached my limit, Simon, and I don’t want to look over the edge, and find even worse things waiting. I’ve lost my courage, Simon, and I’ve lost faith in myself. I can’t go on any longer. It’s too much’.
Simon remained quiet. He had nothing to say.
‘I feel like a swimmer that’s gone out of her depth. No ground underneath, no land around and nothing on the horizon. Nearly everything that I care about has just gone away. I can’t bear this loneliness. And I can’t bear this! She pulled the talisman violently from her finger and threw it on the floor.
‘I don’t care any more! It’s like a weight on my hand!’
Simon bent down and picked up the talisman carefully. It glowed dimly, and then faded.
There were no words of comfort he could think of. He clasped the talisman in his hand.
‘Are we going to this….meeting….tonight?’
Annie shrugged her shoulders. Simon walked quietly out of the kitchen door, still holding the talisman, not knowing what to do or say.
Later that evening,they walked down towards the seafront. Neither had nothing to say to each other. Simon wanted to say some words of comfort, but it was no use. He couldn’t find the words. They came at last to the narrow passage where the headquarters were. The only light was from a far streetlight at the other end. It was dark, and the brick pavement, under their feet, glistened in the reflected illumination.
Simon heard Annie gasp beside him. He looked up. There were two shrouded figures standing in the passageway, next to the doorway. The veiled figures stood silently for a few moments. Their robes were luminous in the dim reflected light of the passage. They were somehow different. Then Simon began to walk slowly towards them. He heard Annie’s footsteps behind. The two shrouds seemed to be bigger and more tangible than before. They silently vanished into the open doorway of the Brotherhood’s headquarters. Everything was equally quiet. No sound of cars or people talking. They walked up the stairs that they now knew well, and stopped at the door at the end of the landing.
They hesitated, then Simon pushed the door open. Behind the long table, the two veiled figures were seated, lit only by candles, set each side of them. Two chairs were placed in front of the table. Simon sat down heavily in one of them. After a moment, Annie sat down in the other chair. They both stared at the strange figures. Then the two figures pulled back their veils.
They were their mother and father.
None of the four figures spoke for some seconds. Their mother sat absolutely still, her only movement the twisting and untwisting of her hand in her long dark hair. Her eyes were moist and red-rimmed. Their father sat, looking at the table, with his face set in an expression of sorrow and sadness. Then he looked up.
‘Doctor Wrist is not Nicolas Flamel. Nor is Nicolas Flamel Doctor Wrist. They are two entirely separate people. But Doctor Wrist has an interest in associating himself with the figure of a great mysterious alchemist, for his own purposes. The real Nicolas Flamel is still in this world, and deeply concerned about the existence of the Doctor’.
‘How, how do you know all this?’ Simon stammered.
‘Because your mother and I met Nicolas Flamel, and his wife, Perenelle, some months ago, in London. He told me how troubled he was about the activities of the Wrist family in the past, and charged us to keep watch over his actions. Both he and his wife are good and benign, and he was deeply apprehensive about the possible intentions of Doctor Wrist. He was, and is, anxious about the potential effects of his malign work upon the many structures and mechanisms that make up our universe. We have been charged to observe and monitor what he does, or has done, and the potential damage that he might create, or has created already’.
‘The family of Wrist has brought much destruction and evil into the world, not just in this generation, but over many generations before’ Their mother spoke, in a low, soft voice. ‘His work condemns him. He is acting in his own interests, not in that of the universe. He, and his family, are enemies of yours, as you have already found’.
‘Wait a moment’. Simon answered, his head whirling in confusion. ‘Where does that place us? What part do we play in this….cosmic game?’
Their mother and father looked at each other. It was his father who replied.
‘ I’m afraid that it is more serious than that. You are two new agents of change in this…game, as you put it. Only it is not a game. You have entered a wider world, which has, by your own actions and efforts, been affected, for the better. We do not know how this will progress, but you have changed many things. You have helped to create alliances, and, whether you know it or not, have been instrumental in developing forces that will combat the malignance that is already present. Your mother and I are both proud of you. We both want you to know that’.
Simon opened his mouth to speak, but it was Annie who said, in a sharp level voice,
‘Who are you really?’
Her father sighed, and took off his small rimless spectacles.
‘We are Watchers’. he said simply. ‘Your mother and I are members of the Council of the Watchers. Our task is to observe and evaluate things and events that might be harmful to the working of our worlds, and to report back to the Council. Doctor Wrist is an example. He desperately wishes to be a Magi – a great magician, and be a member of the Brotherhood of the Magus, to whom we also report’.
‘Are we included in these things and events, that you have to report on?’ asked Annie, still with a level voice.
Her father looked down. ‘Yes’. he said, almost inaudibly.
Her mother broke in, her voice tinged with emotion. ‘Annie, please understand! This has been one of the most terrible burdens that we have had to endure! To see our own children, in danger, over and over again, and not be able to do anything about it! We have had to live with this all our lives! In whatever way we could, we tried to help you, to support you, but we didn’t dare do more, in case it created something that was even worse! We had to let you fight your battles, to find your way to becoming a force for good! Please don’t judge us! We did our very best for you, our children!’
‘No, I don’t understand!’ Annie’s voice was now as hard as ice. ‘You turned your backs on us! You “observed”! You “evaluated” us! Simon, me, your own son and daughter, your own flesh and blood! As if we were objects in this stupid great game of yours! You used us, didn’t you? Just to see what we’d do next! What if we had turned out to be a problem? What would you do then? Order us to give up? Eliminate us? You arrogant hypocrites!’
‘Annie’, her father tried to interject, ‘you have every right to be angry….’
‘You don’t even realise how angry I am! You betrayed us! You ignored us! You left us to fend for ourselves, knowing all the things that we’ve had to face! I really hate you! You don’t even remotely know what you’ve done to me! As far as I’m concerned, you’re not my mother and father any more!’
She stood up and picked up her backpack. ‘What do you want to do, Simon?’
Simon sat, stunned by what had just happened. He tried to force himself to think, despite all the welter of emotions inside him. He looked at his mother and father. His mother was sobbing, her face cradled in her hands. His father was comforting her, his hands around her shoulders. He looked up at Annie’s taut face, her lips compressed together. He ached to put his arms around her, too.
‘There’s, there’s so much I don’t understand. We need to stay and talk to find out more’.
Even as he said it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. Annie stepped back, as if he had just slapped her across the face. She stood for a moment, staring at him as if she had never seen him before in her life.
‘You, too, Simon’.
She tugged violently on the strap of her bag.
‘ I suggest you stay and talk with your parents. They certainly aren’t mine’.
She walked across to the door.
‘Annie! Where are you going?’
Annie paused, her hand on the door-knob.
‘Home. If there is one’.
She closed the door quietly behind her.
Simon stood up abruptly, his chair falling backwards with a crash, staring at the closed door. Then he turned back towards the bowed figures of his parents.
‘Why?’ he cried in anguish. ‘WHY!’
Annie sits in the bus, her head leaning against the window. It reflects a mirror image of her face, pale and tight-lipped. She hears the conversation around her, but barely notices it. Her eyes do not register the streets and buildings outside. A fat lady with shopping bags sits next to Annie, glancing doubtfully at her from time to time. She looks as if she is about to speak, then thinks better of it. At the next stop, she rises and makes her way out of the bus.
The front door opens and Annie steps in. She closes it quietly behind her, and takes off her coat. She hangs it up on the coat-hooks in the hallway. She puts down her bag on the floor, and then begins to walk up the stairs. She does not bother to switch on any lights. She walks into her room and shuts the door. Again, she does not switch on any lights, nor does she draw the curtains shut. Instead, she sits down on the edge of the bed, and clasps her hands in her lap. She stares out of the window at the light of the moon.
The invisible camera tracks around the side of the bed, and stops, on a shot of Annie’s head in profile, the contours of her face lit by the dim moonlight. The rest of her head is in shadow. The camera pauses, then, moves slowly around until it is facing Annie, focussed on her head throughout. Then it quietly moves forward until Annie’s face, now lit with a ghostly paleness, is in close-up. The furniture, and the room behind, are in darkness.
The camera remains still, intent on the pointed oval of Annie’s face, lit only by the moonlight. Outside, a dog barks. There is no other sound.
Annie’s eyes remain open, focussed on the moon behind the invisible camera. Two small gleams of light appear at the edge of each eye, nearest her nose. They form into drops, glistening in the light. Both trickle downwards, each side, and towards her lips. More gather, across the rims of her lower eyelids, and begin to drip down her cheeks, leaving a wet stream behind them. Both her eyes are now glistening with tears, picked up by the moonlight through the window.
The invisible camera remains steady and impassive, charting on the map of her face, the passage of the teardrops. Annie’s lips tremble, and open, revealing her small white teeth. Two of the teardrops have now reached the apex of her chin, holding there for a moment, before splashing onto her hands. Annie does not seem to notice.
From Annie’s mouth comes a loud guttural sob, and then another, and another. Her body heaves slightly. Now the sobs are louder and more frequent. Her face begins to sag and crumple, as if under a weight. Drops emerge from her nostrils, but she takes no notice.
There is another noise.
Cut instantly to a second invisible camera behind the mobile phone lying on the dressing-table. It seems enormous. It is framed by two small porcelain figures of Harlequin and his maid, frozen in a timeless pirouette. Annie can be seen in soft-focus, in the background, She seems very small and far away, behind the phone and the two dancing figures. Her sobbing has stopped.
The phone is playing a tune. It is an old melody, “Greensleeves”. The two figures seem to be dancing to it. Cut to brief image of the maid, her painted face happy, her red lips open with excitement. Then the music stops. All is quiet.
The tune begins again. Cut to image of Harlequin’s face, gleaming in delight, beneath his small black mask. The tune repeats itself as before. Once, twice, and then, again. Then it stops. Out of focus, in the background, Annie’s head turns slowly towards the sound of the phone. As she does so, the tune begins again. The dancers seem to move once more, in their eternal dance.
Annie will never know who is calling her, unless….unless she picks it up.
The tune continues.
Frank Jackson (04/05/10) Word count - 8614