The Way We Lied

Once their rendezvous was agreed, Alex allowed herself time to decide just how she should dress. Every occasion demanded an appropriate style. This required restrained quality, studied casualness. She settled on expensive, well cut jeans which clung to her curves, a tight white shirt and cashmere sweater, with a suede coat over her shoulders. Her expensively highlighted hair was silky and her skin glowed from her most recent treatments. She pouted at her mirror, applying moist lip gloss and admiring her line free complexion. No need for botox just yet, she congratulated herself, this girl could still turn heads with totally natural assets.
Nick was waiting in his car when she arrived at Grayswell. “Didn’t want to start without my best girl,” he grinned, offering her his arm. “Shall we?”
They walked slowly along the gravel path from the parking area, admiring the clipped parterre and emerald topiary.
“Quite impressive, don’t you think?” Nick said. “Be a crying shame if they split it all up.”
“You don’t think anyone would want to do that, do you?”
He shrugged. “Country house market isn’t that strong. Lot of developers are weighing up the possibilities. Can be quite profitable, splitting houses up into apartments and some people prefer sharing the upkeep of the grounds.”
“Are you saying you could be interested in it then?”
“Nah, not in the present climate. There’s more money in new-build in my opinion. More straightforward too. I mean this has got to be Grade 2 at least. Comes with a lot of restrictions and too much red tape for my liking.”
The entrance was a panelled hallway where a suited representative of the auction house was passing catalogues to potential bidders. “You will find more of our people dotted around inside if you want any help,” he said with his most winning smile.
They agreed on a general tour of the house first, as the lots were all in situ in the various rooms. Then, after admiring grandiose bathrooms with marble basins, the library with enormous breakfront bookcases still lined with leather tooled volumes, they returned to the drawing room, where Nick had spotted several paintings.
“There’s not much of interest here, but I want to take a closer look at that Grozny portrait.”
“I can’t say I like it,” Alex grimaced, as they stood together, looking at the dark, grim picture. “I don’t think I’d want that disapproving face peering at me in my sitting room.”
“It may not be your cup of tea my sweet, but I happen to think it’s very interesting. Very interesting indeed.”
“I’m glad to hear that you appreciate it,” said a female voice behind them.
They both turned simultaneously. A tall woman with short dark hair looked at them with an air of some authority, rather as if they had wandered into the drawing room of her own home. Alex was startled. It was the woman she had been watching the night before.

to be continued March 3

The Way We Lied

Alex sipped her breakfast coffee and nibbled her crispbread. Charles had left very early this morning and Amelie was taking the twins to nursery school today. Thank God for a plain looking au pair. She tossed the newspaper to one side and picked up the programme from the previous evening’s concert. She had not read it properly last night and she had only just noticed that it included a translation of the motet’s title from the original mediaeval Latin. ‘Spem in alium nunquam habui praeter inte’, meaning ‘I have never put my hope in any other but you’.
Of course she knew that this was a reference to the only One, the One Above, but she read the translation aloud and then laughed. She would never put her trust in only one person. Alex had always relied on several people close to her to provide her with her needs at any one time. She could not ever imagine relying on one sole being. “Even if I did believe in God, I would still need human company. Who on earth puts all their faith in one person?”
But as she read this again and wondered about its meaning, she felt once more that unsettling tingle on her skin that she had experienced when the choral music captivated her last night. Only now it was not rapturous, it was fear or at least unease and she remembered that unknown figure, that female interloper who appeared to be challenging her, no taunting her with her arched brows and her satisfied smile. Alex knew that the two men closest to her, men whose desires she thought she understood and could accommodate, were drawn to this woman. They both seemed so deeply attracted to her, as if she had an invisible force, that Alex began to think that perhaps they were both fastening all their hopes and desires on this strange woman.
Coffee finished, she lit the first cigarette of the day and checked her diary. She planned to go to the auction house viewing at Grayswell Manor today. Perhaps she would give Nick a ring and see if he was thinking of going too. He often went to auctions and this was the first big country house sale in the area that she could remember.
Flicking through the illustrated auction catalogue, she saw quite a few paintings listed. She would rather like a large oil for the dining room; tones of plum and lilac perhaps. Although she rarely bought at auction, ( too unpredictable, darling) she loved the atmosphere, the combination of big money, phone bidding, wads of cash and the variety of personalities, from the smooth suited dealers to the rough leather jacketed traders.
Nick was not answering, but she left a message on his mobile. “Hi sweetie, just wondering if you’re going to the Grayswell viewing today. Might see you there and thought maybe we could grab some lunch after?”
Later, just as she was coming out of the bathroom, fresh from a tingling shower, her hair wrapped in a large towel, Nick returned her call. “Alex my love, got your message. I was going to pop over to Grayswell later this afternoon, but if it means seeing you I can drop everything and go earlier.”
“I wouldn’t want to drag you away from anything important Nick…”
“Important? What’s more important than seeing the best looking girl I know. Best dressed too…”
“Well I will be soon. I’ve only just got out of the shower.”
“Damp and steamy eh?” He made a mock groan. “Don’t Alex, stop there, don’t get me all excited! I’m in the office!”
She laughed, “I’m wrapped up in towels, silly, but I can be ready in an hour. Shall we do the sale first?”

to be continued February 29

Pax Romana?

Picts&Geordies SIt was a fresh spring morning when one of the sentries in the fort first noticed something glinting on a far hill to the north.

“Cave! Timere!”

“Barbarians!” He pointed frantically towards the northern horizon where over the whole hillside, several hillsides, arms and armour were glittering in the early sunlight. The centurion dashed towards the principia, shouting. NCOs emerged from their quarters and began shouting. The praefectus was shouting from the front doorway of his villa whilst he struggled into a cuirass that he had obviously outgrown.

“Where’s my gladius? Someone get me a gladius.”

The caligati, the army’s rankers or grunts, stumbled onto the parade ground in their underwear. They did not shout, but muttered amongst themselves.

“Stand to!” The vexillarius planted the regiment’s banner firmly alongside his commander. A cornicen began to blast out the strident Call to Arms, but there was an impossibly short space of time between the alarm being raised and the arrival of a crazed hoard of Picts and Geordies at the settlement, wielding an assortment of dangerously sharp-edged implements. It was a hectic time, a panic stricken scrabbling for war gear time, too short a time for the completion of defensive preparations. Battlements were manned by half ready troops, torsion ballistas loaded with iron tipped bolts, Palmyran archers crowded onto the roof of the gatehouse. Fire-buckets were filled and someone was dispatched to find Marcus, the nearest thing they had to a field surgeon. The doomed lad was pierced through with a broad, leaf-bladed Pictish spear before he had crossed the street, and was trampled under foot as a tightly packed mass of barbarians crashed, screaming into the vicus, firing the buildings and slaughtering all before them.

Terrifying, fair skinned, naked warriors, unstoppable in their blood-rage, led the assault on the fort. Ornate bronze helmets and gold torques flashed fire. Long iron swords slashed against soldiers’ scuta, gaudy lozenge shields, like outsize knuckle-dusters, battered into soft tissue. Roman blood spattered onto blue painted, barbarian flesh, and soaked darkly into their woollen plaid short capes and long trousers, stained the ground crimson. Individual screams melded into a homogeneous roar of pain, and greedy ravens gathered in expectation of the carnage.

By the time a relief column of the Cohors I Tungrorum arrived from Vercovicium fort the barbarians had moved on. The would-be rescuers found a butchers’ shambles. Large areas of charred earth and rubble stretched back from the roadsides. No identifiable building stood above ground except the burned out shell of the hostelry and the wreck of the principia. Tatters of clothing and flesh hung in the gorse, picked over by ominous black birds. Smoke rose still, from the smouldering peat.

First Tungrorum also had a medicus ordinaries, with the unlikely name of Anicius Ingenuus. He had accompanied the auxiliary column in the hopes of tending to the wounded, but there was no work for him. Nothing lived. If there had been survivors these too had long since dispersed.

The Way We Lied

He stood back and Alex saw his cheek quiver in that peculiar way manly actors employ to convey deep emotion in rite of passage films. She was about to make a joke about having converted him from politics to religion when she realised that there were tears in his eyes and he was struggling to control them.
“Drinks, darlings. Over there. You must be gasping.” She detached herself from his emotions by waving her friends across the refectory to another committee member who was smiling and holding up a bottle. As they moved through the throng, Alex reflected on the power of music. Or was it something else? Was it a heavenly or an earthly influence that had provoked such a powerful response in David? She had only ever seen him as a smoothly groomed career politician until now and had never suspected that a soft heart lay beneath his professionally polished surface.
And as she wondered about David’s reaction, she saw again that tall figure in the doorway, surveying the crowd. Her face was calm and imperious. She looked across the room and smiled, a slight, secretive Mona Lisa smile, then turned and left.
Alex watched her, transfixed, but then looked back at her guests, desperate to know who or what had made this strange woman smile. And she saw Charles gazing at the empty doorway, straining his neck as if to catch a last glimpse of this aloof enigma.
Alex frowned and bit her lip. She was an ungroomed woman in a drab old raincoat. Why should anyone possibly be interested in her?
“What’s the matter, darling?” Charles was by her side, surreptitiously fondling her curves again. “It went well didn’t it?”
“Everyone seems to think so, though that awful culture snob Richard Graham said it was much more effective when he heard it performed years ago at the Roundhouse. They put the audience in the middle of the singers apparently so the singing encircled them.”

“Well I think everyone here really appreciated what my little baby has organised,” he said reaching behind and giving her another slight squeeze.
“Charlie, be careful. People are watching.” Alex purred and pushed herself back against his hand. It was so reassuring, knowing that she could make Charles want her and that Nick was still available too.

to be continued February 25

The Way We Lied

The choral music resounded in the aisles, wave after wave of singing in the vast gothic space. Slowly, Alex found herself responding to this anthem to heaven. She sat still, attentive, upright. She could not say what it meant, but as the eight groups of singers echoed each other with chords of ethereal beauty, she felt the back of her neck shiver. Was this what it meant to have the hairs stand up on the back of your neck? Wasn’t that a sign of fright? Or was it meant to be someone walking over your grave ? But this was not fear, this was rapture, an indication that even a sybarite such as she could be transported and given a glimpse of the divine. She closed her eyes and tried to picture austerity and self denial, fed only by the richness of this sacred music.
Later, when the applause had finally died away, Alex and the other members of the committee greeted important guests and friends in the adjoining cathedral refectory, which was functioning as a wine bar for the evening. “Wasn’t it wonderful?” she quipped to everyone as she gave them the obligatory air kiss or warm handshake as appropriate.
“Alex, that was simply stunning,” pronounced Ann Biddell, the chairman of the village riding club. “ Well done you for putting on such a good show.”
“Oh it was a team effort, really it was,” smiled Alex, silently hoping Ann with her loud voice, her dated tweed suit and large, shiny husband would drift towards some of the local councillors gathering around the trays of wine.
“Jolly good,” said James Biddell, firmly shaking her hand and also lunging for her cheek, his moustache bristling against her skin. “Not really my cup of tea, but jolly, jolly good.”
Alex could not help a little smile as they turned away, heading, as predicted for the chairman of the parish council. She shouldn’t despise them, really she shouldn’t. Oh they were decent enough people of course. He was financial director of a large conglomerate and she bred horses on their substantial estate. But….but… Alex sighed, they were so unimaginative and so, so boring.
“You’re looking awfully pleased with yourself,” laughed Caroline, as she hugged her friend. “That was quite wonderful.”
“It was, wasn’t it,” beamed Alex, genuinely pleased to see a real friend and know that she had enjoyed the performance. “I’m so pleased you liked it. And what did you think, David,” she asked, holding out her hand to Caroline’s husband.
He held her hand in both of his, then leant forward and hugged her. He was silent for a moment and then spoke in a strange, slightly husky voice, unlike the strong tones he normally employed. “I was deeply moved, more than I can say. Superb. Utterly superb.”

to be continued February 22

Queenie

Marcus&Regina SOver time the community around the staging post grew, and despite changes to the garrison Marcus stayed on. He even managed to extend the range of his medical skills. He could not admit it to any of the Romanised military units, but he had picked up a few tips from the local, somewhat eccentric, wise woman and had a notebook full of plant drawings and descriptions of their efficacy.

Soon after yet another change of personnel at the fort Marcus entered the local alehouse. He preferred the tepid malt brew drunk by the sturdy natives to the fort’s cheap wine that had joggled all its way up the Great North Street from Portus Dubris, especially when the ale was fortified with a dram of the amber distillation that the locals knew as chwisgi.

“A pot of your finest brew, fair lass, and a chwisgi chaser if you would be so kind. The barmaid was new to him, slender with wild hair as had black as a raven’s chuff and haunting, sad eyes.

“Owt to eat with that, your ‘ighness? We got toast and dripping on the go.”

She was not local, drawing out her A’s and dropping her H’s.

“I can’t think of anything finer. Two thick slices please. You’re not from round here? I’m Marcus.”

She turned and shouted through to the back:

“Two mucky fats. Door stops, for this ‘ere gent.

“Nah, I come up with the army, part of some legion or other, from Londinium. Names Queenie.” She wiped a hand on the front of her skirts and held it out, “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.” She glanced down at his army issue tunic worn over woollen tartan trousers, “You that Medicus I been ‘earing about? Yer not really a Briton?”

Yes he was Marcus the Medicus and no he was not a native Briton. Though he had been in the army so long he could barely remember his homeland.

“Long story. I’ll be over by the fire when that toast is done.”

As the seasons passed and the monotonous routines of Army life behind the walls of the castra followed one on another, as ever plodding, unchanging through a mundane eternity an intimate relationship developed between Marcus and his barmaid in the cosy native alehouse. He moved his surgery into the Snug and from the pub’s doorway he could see straight through the gateway of the fort where soldiers on Sick Call would line up at six o’clock each morning and march across the street for his attention and a nifty pint. The couple set up home, first in a spare room in the attic, eventually in the landlord’s apartments. One winter the proprietor had contracted a terminal case of the ague and Queenie inherited the business. Now officially married they had a child, a girl, Priscilla Alastríona, indistinguishable from the other village urchins, except that her Latin was somewhat more fluent. Life, for Marcus and Queenie was proceeding along a surprisingly satisfactory path.

The Way We Lied

Alex nudged him then he pulled his eyes away. “Looks like you’re going to have a good turnout,” he said in a flat tone of voice.
Alex gave him a brilliant smile, knowing her smiles usually kindled a glint of fire in him. “Caroline says everyone who is anyone in Guildford is going to be here.”
Nick snorted. “Town hall officials and ten a penny councillors you mean.” He turned again to look over his shoulder.
Alex glanced back too and saw that the woman was changing seats, moving forward a couple of rows, nearer to them. “Who is that? Do you know her?”
“Some artist woman. Friend of Helen’s I think,” muttered Nick, turning away. “Mary something or other.”
Alex looked back once more and then, glancing at her friends in the row in front, noticed that David was also looking in that direction. His look was that of a pleading, hungry spaniel.
“What ever do you see in her?” hissed Alex. “Do you think she’s attractive?”
“What?” mumbled Nick, “Who’s attractive?”
“That woman. That woman back there, the one you can’t take your eyes off. God, what’s got into you all? She must be fifty at least, and just look how she’s dressed!”
At this, Nick laughed. He leant towards Alex and whispered in her ear. “Maybe dress isn’t important, my jealous little pussycat. Maybe she’s just got what it takes.”
Alex shoved him away with a sharp dig of her elbow, but he moved closer, his breath warm and damp on her ear. “I know how to recognise the woman beneath the exterior, my darling, don’t I? Mmmm, you smell divine….”
Alex giggled, satisfied that she still held him fast, then she felt a pat on the knee from her husband on the other side. “Stop flirting you two, it’s about to begin.” Charles tucked a possessive hand around her arm as they stood in honour of the arrival of the conductor and the dean who was to deliver the opening address.
“You can misbehave when I get you home,” he whispered, and he let his hand slip down her back to fondle her toned bottom in its tight pencil skirt in the shadow of the shielding pew. It worked. She inclined just ever so slightly towards him. He knew he could coax her, keep her contented, undemanding, but his eyes too slid towards that tall figure with the dark hair, her head held high.

to be continued February 18