Picture an English garden. Level lawn freshly cut. A shiver of autumn shaking the fronds of oaks and elms, their emerald leaves tinged with russet and rust. The dead heads of roses and chrysanthemums uncut, awaiting execution. The first gatherings of dry leaves scuttling like rodents across the grey terrace and clustering in dead bundles beneath the grey stone steps or floating on the ornamental pond like abandoned ships and castaways.
Come with me now. Stand with me beneath the branch of the oak tree. Turn your head. See the glittering ocean at Eastcombe, its waves unravelling in curling and curving sea surges. Catch the sound of its shingle clatter and the sucking, shrinking, shifting of grinding gravel, sea stones and debris of splintered wood. On that beach at Eastcombe is a block of oak, bigger than your bed, its sea-scoured surface bears the cuts of axe head and sword. Its voice is ancient. Listen.
See the ruined Dream Factory, its seaward wall bears the shattered fireplace, the hearth where children sat and dreamt and felt safe and held each other in a crucible of hope. The stones that composed its wall are scattered, like the heads of martyrs, on the tussocky bank of Eastcombe brook, or lay blankly staring upward from the bounding stream’s rushing bed.
Turn now. The wind shudders the patient woodland and dry leaves swirl, their desiccated slivers spinning to the forest floor. Look back to the house of granite and stout medieval timbers. There is Peter Young, sitting on a thin wooden chair; his elbows on the table, a chessboard between him and the battle-scarred village cat.
Monty stared back across the table. For Peter, to look at Monty was to feel a bond of faith and knowledge that he could not explain. There still, the yellow eyes, probing stare, and tiger stripes. What wordless message was this creature imparting to Peter on the eve of his journey to find his parents? Peter concentrated hard. Was he imbibing through mere eye-contact some wisdom, some feline intuition, a set of truths defining his course of action? He did not know, but the longer he looked, the deeper his well of certainty.
Peter had found a dog-eared essay written by his father; Peter had read Annica: a Study slowly, negotiating his way through scrawled handwriting, coffee rings, smudges of cigarette ash and, he suspected, beer stains. He had finished reading and had arrived at the shores of reason. He sat back, watching a hawk carving brilliant lines and arcs in the bright sky.
“Everything is in a constant state of change, nothing is permanent,” he murmured to the autumn air. This made sense. He stared at Monty again, the yellow eyes and peculiar peppered nose.
“We do not matter, Monty,” he said. Monty blinked. “The chessboard is order. To move the pieces is to create suffering.” I could stay here, he thought. He felt the train ticket in his pocket. But I have to go. A vision of playing chess with his father rose before his eyes.
“You can’t take the king, Peter. You must not kill the king.” His father had smiled.
“But I have won.” Peter had said.
His father tipped the black king on its side. “I am leaving the field, Peter. You have won. Don’t kill the king. There is no need to.” Peter saw the gentle enquiring eyes of his father; he had placed his spectacles on the table and smiled.
“No need to kill the idea.” The vision shivered and departed. Peter shivered too, a stab of pain at the memory of his lost parents; he could feel a smouldering intent and anger at war with his suffering.
“Monty. I have to put the king and queen back on their spaces.” Monty gazed. “I have to.”
Peter had found other treasures of student life in John and Esther’s study. Love letters from ‘Victoria’, a crude birthday card from ‘Roger’ showing a sketch of male genitalia sporting a pair of purple sunglasses, a photo of John and Esther at a student party, dressed as Jarvis Cocker and Ginger Spice. John sported oversize, chunky plastic glasses, a Cool Britannia t-shirt and the green Goth jacket that he had given to Peter. Esther’s red wig flared and sprang, startled, her Union Jack dress not quite concealing her patriotic knickers. There were other discoveries: a ticket for a Parrotheads gig, a purple wallet of battered CDs (Automatic for The People, Different Class), a newspaper cutting about Esther winning a prize for Physics (on the back, something about a dead princess), crumbling marijuana in a round Ogden’s tin, an Einstein doll with wild hair and staring eyes. Peter had carefully arranged these curiosities – the chess pieces of his parents’ life – on his father’s desk. Jarvis Cocker and Ginger Spice had pride of place, colourfully occupying the thrones of power. Peter smiled down at these eclectic memorabilia. Was this what being at university was like? Buddhism and Cool Britannia, the Astra Prize for Physics and Union Jack pants. Now in his garden, the early evening sun descending – a blinding red orb above Eastcombe, a symphony of blood-crimson, peach and burnt umber – Strange. Peter’s eyes turned to Om, the intel-unit Esther had designed. A shimmer of purple light flowed over Om’s elliptical surface.
“Om, I want you to take a really good picture of Monty.”
“What do you mean really good? Of Monty? That’s not possible.”
“No. A picture of him. See what I see.”
“Well, if the Master of All He Surveys will deign to keep still.” Om projected a vertical point of light. It was the length of your forearm. At its tip, a concentrated beam rotated ninety degrees and faced Monty. In a blink it was done, and Monty’s image – not entirely free of vanity – flooded Om’s surface.
“Any good?” said Om.
“Got it,” said Peter. “That is him. That is who he is.”
“What he is.”
“No, who he is. Who, Om. Remember that. I might need him.”
“On your journey? You might,” agreed Om. “You are meeting Navinda at midday. Don’t forget.”
“At the Old Bailey cafe.
Peter placed Om in his pocket and walked through the silent dusk into his home. He stood in the hall. He smiled at the old cardboard suit of armour guarding the stairs; he and Dad had made it for the village pantomime. The soft contours of the house, its oak bookshelves lined with volumes – jackets of old leather and gaudy paperbacks, and big picture-books; Peter’s school exercise books and those of his parents jostled for space in a creaking mahogany bookcase by the stairs. As he ascended, he gazed at the vivid photographs John and Esther had accumulated on their travels, framed romantically with knotty driftwood studded with coloured glass and seashells. The garish kitsch of the Venice Beach Blues Bar – their favourite haunt; the supernatural steaming chasms of Rotorua and the sacred waters at Lake Rotokakahi; at Cape Farewell, Mum and Dad had said, you could feel a sense of departure from this planet just by sitting on the strange, vast seashell spit, curving like a divine arc of light to enclose the ethereal calm of Golden Bay. Peter pictured himself swimming with Navinda, with the seals and dolphins in the warm waters, the burning sun hung in a cobalt sky. They would then sit on the beach of shells and talk, the light glancing off her storm of black hair. He closed his eyes to hold on to the dream a moment longer. One day. “One day,” he murmured.
Peter studied his image in the bathroom mirror; the tousled hair, ragged green jacket and restless eyes.
He walked across to his bed and placed Om on the bedside table. So, what should he do? What was right? He sat up in bed with a glass of milk, flicking through the pages of Dad’s essay while Om glowed. Monty had slipped into the bedroom and settled comfortably on Peter’s jacket that he had hurled onto a chair.
Once again, he recalled his parents’ violent abduction with a shudder. Monty and Om were Peter’s only companions since the police left. True, Gideon was always at The Whodhavethoughtit pub. Gideon had helped Peter restore pride and beauty to his parents’ garden; they had spent a joyful afternoon together plundering the beds of choking knotweed, blood-red clover and ragged groundsel. Gideon was a true friend. There was Thomas, the vicar, and Olivia, busy with their new family. And Yvonne. Peter’s heart warmed at the thought of his big sister – but where was she? Gone away. Police business. Peter finished his milk.
“Have I shown you my latest trick?” Om glowed a soft purple.
“Go on. Impress me.” Peter eased himself upright in his bed.
Om projected the beam of light once more. At its peak it fanned out and pointed towards the silent bedroom door. A shifting spectral image formed slowly in the soft light. Peter concentrated hard. Magically, he was looking at Navinda. The black jacket. The blue jeans. Her dark hair. He had met her on a school trip. Navinda had smiled shyly, melting Peter’s heart, when he took her photograph. Om was using the picture.
Peter gasped. “
“No, not yet. But meet Navinda’s friend.” Om shimmered, and a myriad of colours projected into the dark space. Peter saw himself emerge from his bedroom door and stand, the green Goth jacket, bird’s nest of hair, black scruffy jeans and carelessly laced boots. The image turned to Navinda and smiled.
“I like to please,” said Om.
“Ah, ‘except’! Now for the criticism.”
“No, Om, it’s brilliant.” Peter gazed at the images, marvellously detailed, firm, strong – not shifting or floating. “Incredible.”
“But?” said Om.
“The scar on my forehead. My bike accident.” He stifled a yawn.
“A mere detail,” said Om. “And your own stupid fault. Cycling down Eastcombe cliff!”
“No brakes. No hands.”
“I said alright.”
“Screaming like a banshee.”
“Enough! I am going to switch you off!” Peter seized Om.
“If I was your father, I would have…”
. He placed Om back on the table and gasped as the holograms dissipated into the darkness. He shivered and looked pleadingly at Om.
“Get some sleep,” said Om. “You have a long journey tomorrow. If that dim-witted alarm clock doesn’t wake you up, I will.”
Peter lay his head on the pillow. “It’s just that…”
“I know,” said Om. “Remember. I am here to look after you. Don’t forget that.”
Peter thought of the shattered Dream Factory, the family’s stone cottage on Eastcombe beach, where, until now, he had spent every day. And when he was not there, he had dreamt of being there. He sighed.
“It’s not so bad without Mum and Dad.”
Om glowed blue. A single beam of light travelled across the walls and illuminated some of Peter’s hastily dabbed landscapes.
“I like that one,” said Om.
“Eastcombe. From the sea. I used one of Dad’s photographs.” The light drifted on and came to rest, a gentle pool enveloping Peter’s face.
“Why is it not so bad?” said Om.
Peter considered the matter, staring into the gentle centre of the light. “I know them so much better now.”
"Brilliant descriptions of characters and places enrich a twisty plot that kept me guessing right to the end. John Simes is a master story teller."James Stevenson, Author