I was fuming. Hadn't she created enough disruption and upheaval already? 'What do you want?' I said.
'Please? Is Arthur here? I've been driving all night.'
She was out of breath, her crimson evening dress badly crumpled and her hair coming loose from its fastenings and flapping wildly down her back. Her eyes blinked furiously in the starlight, reflecting its brilliant intensity into mine, and her aura swirled in spirals of blue flame around her head. She was obviously very anxious and disturbed and so I took a deep breath and put my anger to one side.
'No, he's not. Why do you ask?'
'He came to me again. I was at a reception in Caerdydd and…. He was there. He told me to come straight away… and then he vanished.' She stared at the canal. 'I got here as quickly as I could. What's going on? What's happening?'
I told Miss Moon about the coming of the light to my window. 'I've been sitting here waiting. Or not waiting. It doesn't seem to matter what I do. But something's going to happen, I think, whether I do something, or nothing. See, the light is growing brighter and brighter…' My voice died away. 'Shush! Listen!'
For there had been a subtle change in the silence - a change that had insinuated itself into the space between Miss Moon's words and mine. Now it contained its own character, colouring it with a tonal quality, just as black and white - those supposedly absolute shades - are capable of infinite variation. Try to imagine you've moved from an open space to a closed one and consider how the quality of the atmosphere around you alters correspondingly, changing its pressure on your ears. That was what it was like. The silence now contained a musical note which, as time slowly passed, expanded though the spectrum, growing in depth and vibrancy. The note grew, expanded into two parts, then into a tri-tone chord, then a bass rumble added itself. More chords sprang into being, harmonizing with the steady drone of the lower notes, rotating around a steady sequence, expanding to the upper limits of hearing.
The stars were singing to us.
Sonya Moon and I stood open-mouthed and drank in the sound. At the same time the light around continued to rise at an ever-increasing rate, so that I began to fear for the safety of my eyesight. I wondered whether people in London to the south and Brummagem to the north could see this supernal radiance, or whether it was somehow confined to the area around the cottage. I turned to Miss Moon to ask her if she had seen the light on her way here but before I could speak she pointed up the canal and said, 'Look!'
The brilliance of the starlight was reaching its peak a hundred yards to the north and at its heart there was something new. It was a dark shape - a shape which was moving towards us at a rate of two or three miles per hour. I could hear a new sound too; one which contrasted with the steady rhythm of the star-song. It was a clattering, chugging, puffing, splashing sound; one with which I was utterly familiar - the sound of a steam-powered craft making its way along the canal.
'Arthur!' Sonya cried out in delight, and before I could move she had hitched her skirts and scampered up the towpath in the direction of the approaching boat. Her pale legs flashed in the starlight.
I had no doubt that she was right, but I let her go and resumed my seat on the balance beam. It was only right that she should see him first; for had he not sought her out, not me? Soon I saw her walking by the side of the boat and heard her voice chattering happily with its crew. Only a few minutes later the boat reached the lock's upper landing stage. It would have to tie up there while the empty lock was filled with water. I could see Miss Moon talking to Arthur (Oh! It was wonderful to see him again!) and a man I didn't know. He was short, middle-aged, fair-haired and stout, holding a windlass. Good. There was something I could do, a way I could help.
'I'll shut the gates,' I called out to him, and he nodded.
Some lazy boatmen use the pressure in a filling lock to push the bottom gates shut, but that's bad practice because the crash as the water drives them together can cause damage. So while the fair-haired man opened the sluice-paddles I closed both gates by first pulling on their balance beams and then leaning my back against them. I had to cross the bridge twice to close the far gate and return and by the time I returned both top sluices were wide open and water was gushing into the lock chamber. There would be nothing else for me to do until the lock was full, so I approached the man with the windlass and offered him my hand.
'How do you do. I'm Chris Johns, and this is Jemima,'
'Pleased to meet you,' the man replied. 'I'm Peter Joyce.' He spoke with an Oxford town accent. We shook hands, and as his fingers touched mine I felt an extraordinary tingling in my fingers. I looked down and saw that his hand, which I had thought to be of common flesh and bone, was instead made of aura-stuff, flashing particles of amber light, glinting with constant motion. It was Dust. He was made all of Dust.
'Come along with me,' he said.' There are some people I would like you to meet.' We walked the few steps to the landing stage. Sonya Moon was standing in the cockpit, talking animatedly to Arthur, but I felt suddenly shy and reluctant to interrupt their conversation so I merely lifted my hand to him in greeting. We stepped on board and Peter Joyce led me into the boat's cabin, which had the strange property of seeming to be much bigger inside than outside. A number of people were in there, sitting in wickerwork chairs or standing by the stove. 'Look, everybody,' he said. 'This is a friend of Arthur's.'
He took me around the cabin. I shook hands with a slender woman with dark blonde hair who had once been a Professor at Jordan College in Oxford. I noticed that her eyes followed Mister Joyce around the cabin. There was a young woman - younger than me - in old-fashioned street clothes, who spoke in a prickly Cockney accent.
At some point Arthur and Miss Moon must have opened the top gates, cast us off from the landing-stage and worked us into the lock chamber, but I didn't see or hear it happen. I was busy shaking hands with a boatman called Harold, an old woman in black whose title was Mistress James, a short dark-haired woman, a middle-aged man wearing pince-nez and a man with Latin features and dark curly hair from a place by the curious name of Cheegahtzay. They were all made of Dust, just as Mister Joyce was.
There was someone else; a tall, elderly man sitting in a chair in the corner of the cabin. He rose slowly to his feet as we approached. 'How d'ye do,' he said. I knew his face immediately and started to fall to one knee, as I knew I ought, but he stopped me with a smile. 'No,' he said,' we don't bother about that kind of thing here. Not any more.' I shook the hand of Alfred, quondam King of Brytain, my head swimming with the wonder of it all, while Peter Joyce stood by and smiled.
All the time, the stars sang both outside and inside the boat while the canal water surged through the bottom sluices, emptying the lock once more. Miss Moon and Arthur piloted the boat out of the lock and moored up at the lower stage. I realised that I would have to leave soon, unless… perhaps…
'No,' said Arthur, suddenly at my elbow. 'No, this journey isn't for Sunny or for you. Not yet. Not for a great many years, we hope.'
'Are you…?' I asked. We were standing on the side of the canal, though I had no idea how we had got here.
'Dead? I should hope so! Safely dead at last. And I'm not coming back. Not this time!' Arthur laughed. 'Yes, Chris, this is my last trip down the cut. I'm going to the River, and then I'm setting out to sea…'
'Will this boat take you on the sea? Won't it roll over and sink?' I knew that canal boats, with their shallow draft and high sides, were not normally considered seaworthy.
'It'll take me wherever I want to go. My crew and me; we can go anywhere we like!'
'Then this is that last time I'll see you.' I'd known that all along really, but knowing it didn't make it any better. Not at all. Not in my heart. This was it - the last time I would ever see this crotchety old man who had rescued Jemima and me.
'Oh, Arthur…' I flung my arms around him. 'Please let me come with you!' But Arthur shook his head. I stood back. My disappointment must have shown in my face.
'What, and you with Finals next month? Don't be so soft!' Arthur rested his hands on my shoulders and looked up into my eyes.
'You mustn't be sad,' he said. 'You've grown, young Chris. You've grown tall and strong. Tall enough and strong enough for the life you're going to lead and the work you have to do.'
'The work I have to do? What do you mean? I don't understand…'
'You will. When it's time, you'll know; sooner rather than later, I think. Do you remember what I told you once, about gifts?'
'They're for giving, not keeping, you said. But…'
'You must use your gift. You must be ready to give from it, when it's needed. You must give it unsparingly, especially to Sunny...'
'Why did you go to her? Why not me?'
'Because,' and Arthur put his hand on my arm, 'I knew you'd be here when I needed you. Sunny… well, she's a gadabout. Very hard to track down, you know. All over the place.'
I smiled. Yes, I supposed Miss Moon could go wherever she pleased. Arthur went on:
'Listen; she needs your help, if anyone does. She's been though some hard times and she's still suffering their effects. She's haunted, you see. So please help her, for my sake. And don't forget what I told you; you mustn't ever calculate how much it costs to give from your talent. It doesn't work that way. It's not kept in the bank, you know.' Arthur chuckled. 'Right. Time to go. Cheerio, Chris.'
'So soon?' I said.
'We is afraid so. There's an ebb-tide for us to catch and new waters to navigate. Goodbye, Chris.'
'Goodbye, Arthur,' I said, wondering in the back of my mind what hard times the daughter of the Right Honourable Admiral Sir Ronald Moon, RN (Retd) could possibly have suffered from; and then I was alone on the bank and Peter Joyce had cast off and jumped aboard with the mooring rope in his hand, and the boat was receding into the distance taking Arthur and the starlight and the celestial music with it, leaving me behind.
'Goodbye,' I called out again, trying to stop my voice catching in my throat, and an echoed 'Goodbye,' came from the boat's cockpit. Arthur waved for the last time and then turned his face to the bow of his vessel, letting his right hand rest along the tiller as a proper boatman should. I pressed my knuckles into my eyes and turned away, shaking with grief. After a moment I heard a quiet voice say, 'Ahem.' I opened my eyes again. Sonya Moon was standing there, with a handkerchief held up to her face.
'Soppy, that's me,' she said. 'Everyone knows that. I'm famous for it. Come on, let's go inside.' She led the way to the cottage, whose simple plain solidity was suddenly exactly what we both needed. That, and a cup of tea.
- 0 -
For the first time Sonya introduced her daemon Alpharintus to me, and I reciprocated with Jemima. We both felt better for that; on good terms at last. Naturally we wanted to talk about Arthur and the boat and the Dust-people who made up its crew. 'Those were all his friends, then, were they?' I said. 'I didn't know any of them, except for the King, of course. They were dead, weren't they, all of them?'
'Yes they were. Oh, Chris, you've no idea how wonderful it was to see Peter Joyce again, after all these years. Arthur too, of course. We had such adventures together and it was so sad at the end…'
'Yes - look, I don't want to talk about that now. It was horrible, the fire falling and the roof crashing down on all those innocent people and… No, I'm sorry. Some other time, maybe.'
'Will you come and see me again, then?'
'What do you think?' said Miss Sonya Moon. 'Of course I will! We're Arthur's friends, aren't we? We'll sit here and talk as much as we like. The cottage is looking so nice now, and… gosh.' Her face fell. 'I have been a bit of a silly-billy, haven't I?'
'Oh, I wouldn't say that,' I replied with a grin.
'Yes I have. Doing all this,' she waved her hand around the kitchen, 'so the house'd be ready for Arthur, when that wasn't what he wanted at all.'
I shrugged my shoulders. 'It was hard to stop you.'
'I'm pretty unstoppable, once I get going.' Sonya laughed and I joined in. So did Jemima and Alpharintus. 'But it was stupid of me, all the same. He didn't want a new house…'
'…he only wanted you…'
'And you, Chris.' She rested her hand on mine. 'You were very precious to him. He told me so. He said that you and he have something very important in common.'
'Yes, I know. We do. He told me about you, too.'
Sonya blushed. 'Not everything, I hope.'
'No, not everything. He didn't have to. I can see it pretty clearly by myself.' I told her about my ability to see people's Dust-auras. 'That's the something in common Arthur meant. He understood you completely, just by looking at you. I think I understand you a little bit now, and that's how I know why you took this cottage over and restored it.'
'I was showing off. I was using my money to get my way.'
'Yes, you were a bit. I can't deny it. But - you were doing it for Arthur.'
'And I got it wrong! This wasn't what he wanted.'
'No it wasn't.' I took her hands in mine and looked deep into her crystalline hazel eyes. Something was beginning to dawn on me. Something Arthur had said. 'Listen to me, Sonya. I know what work it is that you're trying to do. The diplomacy, the travel. I can guess how tired you get sometimes.'
'I suppose so. How do you know? From reading my aura?'
'No - from reading the Chronicle. Oh, and Gossip magazine.' Sonya Moon smiled ruefully.
'The price of fame, they call it.'
'Yep. But - let's talk about your work in the Diplomatic Corps. Would you call it difficult?'
'Yes, it is.'
'Yes, rather. The most important thing there could possibly be. It's something I absolutely have to do.'
'Cleaning up after the War? Mending fences? Bringing people together who don't want to be brought together? Getting them to talk to one another? Knowing that one careless misplaced word can undo months of painstaking work?'
'Yes. All that. But especially making sure nothing like it ever happens again. That would be ghastly - a terrible waste.'
I thought for a few seconds. 'What's the worst thing about it?'
Sonya replied instantly. 'Betrayal. When you think you can trust someone and then it turns out they've been lying to you all along.'
'I thought so. Tell me; do you think it'll take a long time to finish your work?'
'What a funny question! Yes, of course it will.'
'All your life?'
I nodded. 'You're right. It'll take all your life. And it'll be hard and difficult and frustrating as hell and every time you take a tiny step forward someone else will push you back again.'
I smiled. 'And so, when you saw the opportunity to do something positive and straightforward, something that had an immediate tangible benefit, you grabbed it. A quick fix, we applied theologians call it. No complications, except for an inconvenient occupant who could easily be pushed to one side…'
Sonya shook her head. 'I'm sorry.'
'That's all right.'
'I might have guessed you'd understand - you and Arthur really do have an awful lot in common. I'm sorry. I really am. Do you forgive me?'
'Do you need to ask?'
Sonya leaned across the kitchen table and kissed me lightly on the lips. 'Thank you, Chris.' I felt a momentary wave of dizziness overwhelm me and I shook my head to clear it. Her aura was shining bright and fierce and brilliant and strong.
'You needed a holiday,' I said, 'and this was it. Don't reproach yourself. You were acting in good faith, with a good heart. And look! We both said our goodbyes to Arthur and we met the King and it's all turned out well in the end. I even got a nice new house out of it. I think there's something I can do in return and I'm sure that Arthur meant for us to meet each other. But there is one other small matter…'
'One little forfeit I think you should pay to remind you never to be so daft again.'
'What is it?'
'You'll find out tomorrow morning. Now - let's get some sleep. There's a bed made up in the back room. Brand-new sheets, brand-new blankets and fully-lined curtains in an attractive floral print. Good night, Sonya!'
- 0 -
But we didn't go to bed; not right away. Instead, I made some more tea and we talked, mostly about our memories of Arthur. They were nearly all happy ones, and it lifted our hearts to be able to swap them between ourselves.
It's funny, but I didn't wonder at the time how it was that were able to put aside our grief at Arthur's death so quickly. Perhaps it was that Sonya and I had discovered that we were friends who had need of one another. I think that was his final gift to us.
- 0 -
It was six o'clock the following morning. We toasted the last of the bread and I put the empty milk bottle outside the door with a note cancelling all deliveries for the next eight weeks. I dropped my holdall on the step, locked the front door and made a last round of the doors and windows, checking that they were closed tightly.
The Merlyn was standing on the roadway outside. Even though it was still and its engine cold and silent it seemed to vibrate with power and speed. 'Would you like a lift to the station?' Sonya asked.
'Thank you, yes… but there's a condition attached. The forfeit I mentioned.' I smiled and held out my hand.
'And that is…?' Sonya was smiling too. She had guessed my meaning. Opening her handbag, she offered me a small silver key. I took it from her.
'Thank you.' I helped her into the car and closed the door behind her. Then I eased myself into the driver's seat and turned the key in the ignition. The engine roared into life immediately and I could feel its power throbbing through my body as I revved it up. Its song was a wild effervescence in my veins. I turned to Sonya. She was looking somewhat apprehensive - but she was still smiling - and her Alpharintus was covering his face with his paws.
I grinned back at them. 'Now hold on tight - we're going for a little drive!'
- 0 -
"And in the end their work will all be done, and Arthur and Harry will set sail in a different boat, and make their landing on another, farther shore."
A Gift of Love