Friday, 11 January 2013

Mamelon - Chapter 1

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This is a work of fiction. Names,, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


MAMELON

[BOOK 1: THE DYING PLANET]

By
Roger N. Taber

CHAPTER ONE


Somewhere in Kent, called the Garden of England, a blackbird was singing sweetly. In the kitchen of a rambling detached house overlooking a large and very pretty garden, an argument was in progress. 
      “Oh, mum, must I?” wailed a leather jacketed youth.  His full lips and mop of blond curls might have implied a degree of femininity but for the thrust of a stubborn jaw and steely blue eyes. Mick Wright regarded the sandy haired woman, much smaller than himself, with undisguised dismay.
      Gail Wright accosted her eldest son with an accusing look. “You know I can’t leave Peter on his own, and I don’t want to take him with me because he has a headache. It isn’t asking much, surely, for you to look after your own brother while I go shopping?”  A scowl on the handsome face amused her although she was careful not to let it show. “Or…,” she added firmly, “I‘ll make a list and you can go to the supermarket instead.”
      “Hey, no way…!” But even as further protest erupted, Mick knew that he must choose the lesser of the two evils quickly or else his mother would lose patience. Not that she would shout or raise a hand to him. Worse, she would fling him a pained look, adopt a martyred air and make him feel as guilty as hell. Feeling acutely hard done by, Mick pursed his lips and muttered a token surrender. “Okay. But I’m not babysitting him. He can come to the woods with Beth and me so long as he promises not to be a nuisance or, so help me, I’ll…”
      “A walk the fresh air will do him the world of good,” Gail Wright nodded approvingly, only too well aware that her youngest, Peter, could be a handful when he liked. She grimaced ruefully. The same could be said of both her sons.  Peter was thirteen and Michael would be eighteen in a few weeks. Fraternal affection was inclined to express itself by their constantly arguing if only for the sake of it. The more heated the argument, the more likelihood of scoring points. At the same time, hostilities were invariably tempered with a dry if often warped humour of the kind unique to brothers. Sniping remarks at mealtimes, for example, would be exchanged with all the thrust and parry of serious banter. A fight could end in laugher or tears, often both, each giving as good as he got while privately adoring the other for it. Certainly, Gail had reservations, but no real qualms about leaving the pair together. Besides, she did not doubt for a minute that Bethany would keep them in order.
      Gail pursed her lips thoughtfully. At first, she had worried that Bethany might distract Michael from his A-levels. But she needn’t have worried. Beth was a good influence and had every intention of going to university herself.  A smile flickered on Gail Wright’s lips. Bethany Martin was a nice girl.
      The Martins had only moved into the house next door a few months ago. As Gail absently re-arranged some fruit in a crystal bowl, she reflected how Michael had been something of a tearaway in recent years. Now, here he was, looking forward to a walk in the woods with a girl as pretty as she was clever. Her lips twitched again. She heartily approved of her son’s growing friendship with Beth.
The doorbell rang. “That will be Beth,” said Mick, “I’ll get it.” 
      Gail only vaguely heard him flounce out of the room. The crystal bowl seemed to have acquired an unusual pinkie glow. “Oh, no, not again!” she groaned inwardly as it began to tug at memories long since put aside. It had happened several times lately. It was probably the reflection of half a dozen rosy apples, she told herself hastily. Even so, she was feeling more than a shade uneasy as she summoned a welcoming smile and turned to greet their visitor. Before she could say a word, however, a pounding of feet on the stairs and a cheeky grin announced the arrival of her youngest.
“Hi Beth!” exclaimed a red haired boy, brandishing a pop magazine. 
“How’s your headache dear?” asked his mother suspiciously.
Instantly subdued by the directness of the question, Pete right put a hand to his forehead and uttered a stoic sigh. “A bit better,” he admitted, but without enthusiasm. “Not a lot though,” he added. “It sort of comes and goes…” His voice trailed off with a groan that convinced no one but achieved the desired effect. His mother was won over, he could tell. Mick, on the other hand, was no such pushover.
      “I bet! Can’t you see he’s taking you for a mug, mum?” Mick protested. But his mother was plainly having none of it and his dour expression only softened when Beth could no longer keep a straight face.
      “It’s a happy threesome for Birches Wood then,” Beth chuckled. She spoke directly to Gail Wright. Beth liked Mick’s petite, attractive mother. A warm, sandy haired woman with a fresh complexion and ready smile, Gail had a gift for making people feel completely at ease. Beth’s own mother was dead and she had no brothers or sisters. She was in seventh heaven living next door to the Wrights. Tim Wright was a solicitor and local councillor. He was no stuffed shirt, though, and had a great sense of fun. They were a delightful family and she was fond of them all, especially Mick.
“Are you sure you don’t mind, Bethany?” Gail Wright was apologetic.
“Oh, I think we can live with it. What do you say, Mick?” She chuckled again. 
      Although Mick did not quite trust himself to reply, his mother was relieved as well as amused to see that her eldest was looking much less surly already.
      “Maybe you can, but what about me?” piped up the subject of Mick’s simmering resentment. “Maybe I don’t want to go to any rotten ole woods!” declared Pete Wright.
“Tough,” growled Mick.
“Hear, hear,” agreed their mother.
      “It looks like you’re outvoted, Pete!” Beth smiled and the boy grinned impishly back at her. Then she poked out a pink tongue at Mick. “You can cheer up, too, or Pete and I will go on our own.”
      “You bet!” whooped Pete, punching the air with his fist. He liked Beth. She was okay, for a girl.
      “We’d better get a move on then,” grumbled Mick and kissed his mother on the cheek rather than meet Beth’s teasing gaze or his brother’s mocking one.
      Pleased by this public show of affection, Gail was also curiously saddened by it.  It was probably down to the indisputable fact that Michael was growing up so fast, she told herself. Yet, she could not resist giving him a big hug.  Sensing his embarrassment, she quickly released him and turned her attention elsewhere. “Go and put a jacket on, Peter,” she said more sharply than she intended.
     “Oh, mum!” Pete grumbled but knew better than to argue just when things were going his way. Playing gooseberry might be a bore but it had to be better than going to the supermarket.
     A few minutes later, Gail Wright waved them off at the front door. She smiled, although a trifle uneasily, at the sight of a wiry mongrel with pointed ears that appeared out of nowhere and trotted alongside them as if it had every right to do so. It has taken a fancy to Peter at the start of the school holidays. It had the look of an Alsatian about it, almost wolfish. Gail was wary but Pete adored it from the start. All attempts to trace its owner had drawn a blank. “He’s ace” was Pete’s verdict and the dog had answered to the name, Ace, ever since.
      Gail closed the door. On impulse, she went to the crystal fruit bowl on the sideboard and studied it. The pink flushes in the crystal has deepened to almost red and displayed a faint, luminous aspect. One by one, she removed the apples and some bananas. She took hold of the bowl in both hands. Its warmth sent a rush of blood coursing through her veins. Fighting off a mounting desire to close her eyes, Gail focused instead on a flare of willpower that rose like tongues of flame from the object in her grasp. I must control it, she thought without quite knowing why or how she could be so sure. Control it, a voice in her head repeated. Sure enough, as soon as she began to concentrate, both light and heat subsided. A gentle breeze crept into the room through a half-open window. One tiny flame flickered then steadied, as if there was no breeze at all.
      Sensing that she had control, Gail closed her eyes. 
      At first she saw nothing much at all. Everything was a pink blankness. Blurred shapes and images began to appear. Slowly, they became clearer. But there was no real continuity. It was rather like watching a film whose frames were all mixed up. Strange places and faces loomed into view, only to recede again. At the same time, they were not so strange. Now there were jerking movements, now stillness.  All the while, a low humming in the ears sounded vaguely familiar.  Suddenly, she placed it. Her grip on the bowl tightened. The crystal pricked her skin and she almost cried out in pain as the Okay Song continued to lap at her eardrums like waves on a far, distant shore.  In her mind’s eye she even glimpsed a stretch of shoreline, haunted by twin moons in a bracken coloured sky.
      When they were much younger, both her sons had been afraid of the dark. Even now, Peter insisted on a bed light on the grounds that he wanted to read awhile before going to sleep – but never did. As a toddler, Michael had often crept into bed with herself and Tim. She would always carry him back to his own room and sing him to sleep. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she would reassure the frightened child, everything will be okay.” Then she would sing, softly, a lullaby that her own mother had crooned long ago. It had become something of a family in-joke. Whenever troubled loomed in the form of a row or suchlike, it only took someone to hum as few bars and everyone would burst out laughing.  Consequently, impending crises were invariably nipped in the bud. Now they were older, the boys would never admit to having a fondness for the song. Sometimes one would catch the other off guard, humming or whistling it. Neither would hesitate to heap scorn on what the whole family called the Okay Song:

Moons in the sky,
Shadows by and by,
Suns every day
Chasing them away;
See the grass grow
Come what may

Keep love’s true light 
Come darkest night,
See truth prevail
All wrongs assail,
Dark forces at work
To no avail

To faith and blood
Be light restored;
Though its toll
On heart and soul
Its glory ever takes,
See right rule
      Gail smiled. See right rule always became See Wrights Rule whenever the boys sang along.
      She began to feel sleepy. Thoughts about her own long-ago childhood began to drift across her mind’s rapidly changing landscape like shades of light and dark. The crystal bowl no longer hurt to hold. She opened her eyes. It was glowing crimson.  As if through a curtain of blood she saw the image of a youth, not much older than Michael. He had dirty blond hair, not unlike Michael’s and was being attacked. She could not see by whom. Although he put up a brave fight, someone struck him a blow on the head from behind. He dropped like a stone.
      Suddenly, the scene changed. A new face appeared. It was that of another young man. A man, she could tell, no youth. This one had dark, untidy hair and wore a surly expression. He was eating at a campfire with a group of people who were plainly friends.
      A flash of insight caused Gail Wright’s heart to thump and her pulse race. Her fingers flew from the bowl. Yet this simple act of letting go drained her utterly. “The children!” she moaned softly before collapsing on the floor in a dead faint.
……………………………….

      Spring in Birches Wood took pride in providing its young visitors with a feast of striking colours, not to mention a near deafening descant of birdsong.  There were carpets of bluebells, daffodils and primroses just about everywhere. Leaves, all shades of green, copper and silver burst across an azure sky to form an enchanting canopy while the sun hung from this patchwork like a party balloon. It was, thought Beth, too beautiful for words. Yet she could not quite shrug off a sense of sadness  as if it were all, like time itself, slipping through her fingers...  
      The dog, Ace, was having the time of his life scampering after birds, rabbits, anything that moved.   None seemed overly impressed by either his running in circles or excited yapping.   Headache forgotten and laughing gleefully, Pete chased after the incorrigible little mongrel. 
      Mick and Beth strolled after them, pausing now and then to admire their surroundings. A trifle self-consciously, he slipped a hand into hers and took the greatest pleasure of all in the squeeze she gave his fingers. He had never met anyone like her and could hardly believe his luck. Oh, he’d had girlfriends and plenty of them. But he’d always felt under an obligation of sorts to act the way they seemed to expect. He could never relax and be himself.  At school, they compared him to Brad Pitt. He had saved up his paper round earnings and tips for the deposit on a motorbike and milked the rebel image for all it was worth.  He part-loved, part-loathed the macho adulation it earned him from just about everyone.  Except Mum, he had to admit, and grinned. None of that machismo stuff cut any ice with her. Nor did it seem to impress Beth much either. The first time he asked her out, she had coolly turned him down with a light but firm. . “Sorry, I already have a boyfriend.”
“So?” he had laughed.     
      “So I’m not interested,” she had retorted, hazel eyes flashing warning signals not dissimilar to his mother’s when she got angry.
      “Your loss,” he muttered ungraciously and had roared off on his motorbike in a rare sulk.  Try as he might, though, he hadn’t been able to get her out of his mind. Living next door did not help.  One afternoon he watched her father, Ray, struggling with a lawnmower that had seen better days.  Ray was deaf but you’d never guess. He could lipread expertly while he and Beth communicated by sign language and she would interpret for him.  Mick offered to help with the lawn and not only made a good job of it but also trimmed the edges with a pair of blunt shears. His reward was a radiant smile from Beth who had later served cans of beer and a plate of cheesy biscuits to her dad and him in their conservatory. After that, they got on well. It was weeks, however, before he discovered that she did not have a regular boyfriend. “You lied to me!” he was furious.
      “So?” she said mockingly, “Sometimes people deserve a lie more than they deserve the truth.”
“Which is?”
      “I fancy you like mad,” she laughed whereupon Mick felt a blush rise from the nape of his neck to the roots of his blond hair. Beth laughed again, this time coaxing a chuckle out of him. He would have been furious with anyone else. Instead, his skin tingled with pleasure.  
      The pair had edged closer in recent weeks. Even so, Beth was uneasy. When he kissed her, she wanted it to go on forever. At the same time, a feeling that she could not begin to put into words invariably dragged on her emotions. A sensible girl, she was inclined to dismiss as pure fantasy a nagging suspicion that Fate was playing tricks on them both. Certainly, she was no prude. They had discussed sex. To her surprise, he had coolly produced a packet of condoms from a zip pocket in his leather jacket. “Why not, I thought you wanted to?” He was genuinely puzzled.
“I do, but…not yet, okay? I’m just not ready.” She tried to sound nonchalant.
“Is it me then?  Do I come on too strong, or what?”
      He’d looked so crestfallen, she had almost laughed aloud. “No, it’s me,” she said lightly, but was embarrassed. “When I am, you’ll be the first to know, okay?” He cheered up then and kissed her lingeringly on the lips as if to prove there were no hard feelings. She’d had no reservations about returning the kiss with all the wanton enthusiasm of someone in love.
      Here, now, in Birches Wood, Beth longed for Mick to kiss her again. More than anything, she wanted to feel his arms around her, his mouth on hers, his tongue sliding between her lips.  She could easily take the initiative, of course. Certainly, she was tempted. No doubt Pete would scoff but she wasn’t the sort to be intimidated by Mick’s kid brother.  Whatever it was, exactly, that kept her from giving in to her feelings remained mystery. They had reached a pretty spot where Ace and Pete were already sprawled, panting, on the grass. A dragonfly hovered above the dog’s nose. Ace watched its every move, tongue lolling, but stayed put.
      Mick took a rug from his backpack and spread it under a beech tree. They sat down and Pete soon joined them on the rug since the grass was damp. Beth produced a large bottle of mineral water and some fruit from her own pack. Pete cupped some water in his hands and let the dog drink from them. Mick watched and felt a surge of warmth for his younger brother, this in spite of the fact that Pete could be a real pain when he liked.  Beth caught his eye. She was smiling as if reading his thoughts. Mick smiled back.
A heat mist descended suddenly, unusual for the time of year. Mick thought he heard a distant, vaguely familiar humming noise. It was the queerest thing. He began to feel uneasy. A growl rumbled in the dog’s throat. The haze vanished as quickly as it had arrived and the humming stopped. Mick wanted to ask the others if they had heard it too. But his lips stubbornly refused to frame the question.  It had to be a trick of the wind, surely? Even so, it had been an unnerving experience.
      Ace was the first to spot the stranger who had stepped out of the trees, as if from the very mist itself. He neither said nor did anything for what seemed ages but simply observed them, head cocked on one side like the dog’s, an enigmatic smile on a jaundiced face.
      “Who the hell are you?” Mick was the first to find his voice. The stranger merely gave an airy wave and approached with an exaggerated caution that infuriated him.  He and the others should be the ones to feel wary.  This oddball was the intruder, after all.
      “Greetings from Riccolo,” the stranger introduced himself as he approached, “but do call me Ricci, everyone does. Funny, isn’t it, about names? We always seem to fit the ones we are born with although no one can know how we will turn out. We grow into them, I dare say, just as we grow into our clothes.”  Piercing eyes that seemed to almost glow in their sockets like a cat’s treated Mick’s leather jacket, tee shirt and jeans to a frank, disparaging appraisal. After a cursory glance at the others, with varying degrees of disapproval, he offered Mick an elegantly manicured hand.
      Mick was surprised by the stranger’s strong firm grip. Some of his misgivings fell away. His dad always said that you could always trust a man with a good handshake.
      Beth was hard pressed to keep from giggling. Ricci was a sight for sore eyes and no mistake. He was dressed all in yellow. Baggy trousers, loose silk shirt and a beret planted, French fashion, on a cone-shaped head. Even his complexion was yellowy. The odd fellow’s eyes, though, were something else.  They glowed like twin sunsets and might easily have belonged to some alien from another planet. Yet she neither sensed any hostility in him nor felt any herself. On the contrary, she liked him at once even though she found it hard to take him seriously.  “I’m Beth,” she volunteered and offered her hand.  The newcomer seemed pleased.
      “And I’m Pete. This is Ace,” Pete jerked his head at the little dog trotting alongside.  The animal went right up to the stranger, wagging his tail, and rubbed its head against a silk trouser leg. When long, slim fingers stroked behind one ear, the mongrel all but purred. Pete experienced a stab of jealousy. “He likes you,” he muttered grudgingly.
      “Yes, well, hmm,” came the cryptic reply. It struck Beth as odd, to say the least, that the stranger seemed surprised, even put out, to see the red haired boy. It was as if he hadn’t expected to find him there. Did that mean he had been looking for her and Mick - surely, not?   It puzzled her even more that she did not feel in the least alarmed, just curious.  Ricci, for his part, regarded each in turn, quizzically, as if engaged in an internal debate of sorts. Whatever, it plainly concerned them all. 
      Mick decided that the man in yellow gave him the creeps. “Come on you two,” he said gruffly, “We’re taking a walk aren’t we? So let’s walk.”
 “By all means,” agreed Ricci, “But not that way.”
 “Oh? And why not?” demanded Mick.   
 “Because it’s that way...” Ricci jerked a thumb over his shoulder. 
 “What is?” Mick was nonplussed.
      “Why, where we’re going of course,” said Ricci matter-of-factly. Mick’s hackles, already up, leapt several notches higher. “We’re not going anywhere with you,” he spluttered. “We don’t even know you!”
      “True,” Ricci agreed. “You will though, and when you do, you’ll find that I’m really quite a nice person. Now, come along all of you and no dawdling.” He turned and walked away.
      To Mick’s amazement and consternation, the others did as they were told and began to follow. The dog bounded along next to his new friend, Pete having to run to keep up.  Mick caught Beth’s arm. “Beth, this is stupid!” He hardly recognized the glazed look she returned. It was as if she were in a trance – or under a spell. The absurd notion had scarcely darted into his mind when he dismissed it out of hand.
      “Not stupid, necessary,” Ricci scolded without turning his head. “Now, we must make haste or it will be gone. See, it’s fading already! Run, all of you!”  Beckoning for them to follow, he promptly increased his stride and the others did the same. There was a note of urgency, a passion even, in the little man’s voice that brooked no argument. 
      It was a moment before Mick realised that he, too, was not only running in the same direction but at a breakneck pace. It took all his willpower to make himself stop. Exhausted and not a little peeved, he sank to the ground only to jump up again. The seat of his jeans was soaking wet. He looked down. Where there had been green grass was a carpet of mossy slime. What the…? Then something else struck home. It was dark.
      Mick looked up. A pattern of stars, like fine lacework, stretched into infinity. Nor did he recognize a single one. Where the hell are we?  He shook his head, thinking at first that he had double vision. But, no, it was true. Two full moons, reddish in colour, winked at him
    . Where were the others? He looked around frantically. “Beth, Pete!” he called out. No one answered.
For the first time in his young life, Mick was really scared.  Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the darkness. It came as a huge relief to make out the discernible outline of his brother nearby, then Beth’s.  Slowly, his vision began to clear. So, too, did theirs. As one, they homed in on each other for a reassuring hug.  Seconds later, three heads flung an accusing look at the man in yellow as he stepped out of the shadows to greet them.
“Welcome to Mamelon,” said Ricci gravely and gave a little bow.      

To be continued on Monday