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Authors: John Luxton

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BOOK: The Alembic Valise
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Chapter 6

Next morning and already on his third pot of coffee, Joel poured himself another mug, added cream and went outside onto the deck to get some fresh air. He had been up since five am but had skipped his regular run. The sky was a dirty grey shroud and rain was forecast however it was much milder than yesterday. Joel had been researching online and had discovered that bodies recovered from the waters of the Thames come under the jurisdiction of the Marine Support Unit. After a body is recovered from the water it is taken to the mortuary at Wapping Police Station in East London for identification. However if a body is on the foreshore it will usually come under the jurisdiction of the local police force.

Whilst carrying out his research part of his brain was constructing negative outcomes for himself. Newspaper headlines for instance. The worst he came up with was - ‘Local writer’s computer game provokes ritual slaying outside home’.

By nine AM he had had enough and so called his agent but could only get voicemail. He had been troubled all night by the possible implications of yesterday’s events. When his call eventually was returned he explained to Severin what had happened and suggested that they call Munroe Cleves. Munroe worked for a PR firm whose services they had often used.

“And when did this happen?” queried Severin.
“Yesterday morning,” said Joel.
“Well okay, but we need to move quickly just in case. Do you know if the police have released any information?”

“No, not yet,” said Joel. “The detective said they would keep me in the picture.” There was a silence for a moment and then Severin spoke.

“It occurs to me that if they cannot identify the body, then they may wish to publicise the tattoo in the press. Then all it would take is a savvy journalist to put two and two together and mention the proximity of the body to your boat. The wrong kind of publicity could be a real pain. Have you told anyone else?”

Joel hesitated and then told Severin about Mai. “It was only when I talked to her about it that I realised the implications,” he confessed.

“And lastly,” said Severin. “Have the police given any indications that they think you could be somehow involved with any of this? Sorry, but I have to ask.”

There was another silence on the phone and then Joel said, “No, none whatsoever.”

“Of course, excuse my crazy talk. I’ll phone you in an hour or so. Okay?”

The cabin felt stuffy, Joel slid open the door and crossed the deck. He stared across the water at the trees on the southern riverbank, their bare branches outlined against the leaden sky. The wind had kicked up and rain began to patter on the deck where he stood. Emptying his cold coffee over the side he hurried into the shelter of the galley and pulled the door shut.

Of course the main reason he had been unable to sleep was he could not stop thinking about Mai. When they had parted, she had said she would phone him when her rehearsal finished. So later that afternoon when the phone began to ring his heart began to pound, but it was of course Severin.

“Hi Joel, just got off the phone with Monroe and he thinks all we can do now is maybe have a press statement prepared.”

“Yes, I was thinking that too,” answered Joel. “This is a terrible thing really, someone died here. So I’m going to phone Detective Z and see what is happening with his investigation. After all I have nothing to hide.”

“Do prep press a statement just in case and email it to Munroe for his input, okay? And we do not license tattoo templates to anyone either but of course a decent tattoo artist can copy anything.”

“I’m going to phone the police right now and will let you know if I learn anything. And thanks. I know this stuff may not be in the brief of most literary agents, but believe me it is appreciated.”

“Only for you,” answered Severin.

Joel hung-up then took the card that Detective Z had given him out of his wallet and punched in the number. It rang five times and then an automated voice told him that his call was being redirected. While he waited he stood by the window watching the wind creating white horses on the river’s surface and the branches of the trees flailing around on the far shore. When heard the detective’s voice on the line he said.

“It’s Joel Barlow here.”

“Ah, Mr Barlow, one moment,” the detective’s voice faded out and then returned. “Sorry about the reception, must be this appalling weather. I have to tell you, Mr Barlow, my daughter Lorna was really over the moon with what you wrote about being guided through the silver forest, taken it to school with her to show her friends.”

“Glad to hear that,” answered Joel, “It’s the Cembali Silvae actually and it’s an anagram of Alembic Valise, it means harpsichord forest. It’s the title of my new book.”

The Detective’s voice was now clear on the line. “Ah yes, that must be privileged information Mr Barlow. But may I ask what can I do for you?”

“Well I wondered if there had been any developments since yesterday,” asked Joel.

“Okay, things have moved along in fact. We have an identity that has been confirmed and the next of kin are being informed, in fact that’s where I have just been. The mother is totally distraught of course.”

Just at that moment there was a clap of thunder, a very hard gust of wind that seemed to momentarily change the air pressure within the cabin, and simultaneously the buzz of the intercom that was linked to the gate on the shore end of the floating gangway that led down to Joel’s boat.

“I don’t know what to say, that really is terrible.” Was all Joel could think of to say, distracted as he was.

“Well there should be something in press at the end of the week, I see this stuff every day, you know, and it does make you philosophical.” The Detective was sounding friendlier by the minute.

“How so?” said Joel moving towards the intercom. He thought it had maybe been triggered by the thunderclap. But then it buzzed again.

“Well,” continued the detective. “To value my own life and the people in it for one thing. Look I have to go, I’ll be in touch.”
“Bye”, said Joel into the phone. Then he hit the intercom button.
“Yes?”
“It’s me”, said a voice. It was Mai.

Mai was soaked through and went to take a shower. She emerged from the bedroom wearing a fleece, some shorts and his carpet slippers. The storm was still raging and she was hungry so he made her toast and hot chocolate to drink. He turned up the stove to dry her clothes and made some coffee for himself. All the while chatting like an old married couple.

“So how was your rehearsal, dear?”

“It was fine, but afterwards I made the mistake of catching the bus, the 73. It was so slow. And I tried to call you but you were permanently engaged. I didn’t even know if you would be here. Then walking from the bus station the wind was unbelievable, it turned my umbrella inside out and I threw the thing away.”

Joel put down a plate of hot buttered toast in front of her and felt a glow of pleasure as she enthusiastically bit into the first slice. He fussed around making his coffee then joined her at the table.

“Welcome aboard,” he said raising his mug in a toast.

“So this is the Alembic Valise. What is that exactly?”

“It’s a bleedin enigma, love,” said Joel in a mockney accent. “And the least said about those the better. But I am so glad you came to visit.” They sat smiling at one another.

“Any more freaky-deaky stuff happening on your patch of the riverbank, ratty?” she asked with a concerned look. He told her about the conversation with Detective Z. just before her arrival.

“That is so sad, so sad,” she said shaking her head. Which caused the towel wrapped around her head to fall sideways, he reached to catch it and suddenly she was in his arms. He held her close. There were crumbs on her chin.

The writer Celine wrote that love is a poodle’s glimpse of eternity. Better to be a disappointed romantic than a cynic thought Joel. Better to regret the things you have done rather than the things you have not. Burn like a beacon and then we are gone; and only our acts of love remain. The river had somehow brought her to him. Now she was sleeping and the light was fading.

He dreamt that the houseboat had come loose from its moorings and had been spun by a powerful incoming tide into midstream and then many leagues inland. Under bridges, past silent wharfs, until they ran aground on a green island. But it was dark and the only light came from one distant star. All around was undergrowth, redolent with danger. Here was the place where he had to search for the turtle egg buried in the soft sand but first he had to cross the island. In the centre of the island he encountered an eight-lane motorway. He now knew that the drainage ditch running alongside was the place he sought. The very place where he had abandoned the precious egg then walked away from and forgotten about for years. But now the egg was no longer there. Only the fragments of the shell remained. He followed the ditch. Trucks and cars hurtled by only inches away. How could he have abandoned the thing he loved in such a place, amongst the garbage and rubble? He heard a rustling sound and stooped to find the hatched turtle. As he picked it up it cried out and shuddered in his grip.

He only slept for an hour then awoke remembering the dream clearly. He could hear the shower running in the bathroom. Suddenly starving hungry he headed for the galley threw some pasta into a pan and began to chop garlic. There were prawns in the fridge and he grabbed a cold bottle of beer, popped the top and took a long drink. Mai came in wearing his bathrobe to check if her clothes were dry then sat at the table making phone calls. The pan hissed loudly when he added white wine to the garlic and prawns. Mai had to take the tour bus from her hotel next morning so after eating they walked together up the gangway and onto dry land to find her a cab.

Later that evening Joel picked up the fleece that Mai had been wearing whilst her clothes were drying. A faint perfume persisted. He put it on and went onto the deck. The tide was out, the river level dropping a full seven meters so the deck of the boat was way below the flood wall, cutting him off from the sights and sounds of the city; except for the planes passing overhead and the car headlights nudging along Hammersmith Bridge in the distance. He closed his eyes and allowed the images and sensations of his recent dream to sweep back into his mind.

Of course, he thought: The turtle egg. It was his responsibility to bring life to the creature and then care for it. It was a metaphor of course, or an allegory, he could not remember the difference. After having created the twin turtles and turning them loose into the world, he neglected, lost them when he should have continued nurturing them. Had finding the baby turtle in the ditch somehow redeemed him? All too late for mud guy, he thought guiltily, opening his eyes. A pebble clattered off the deck next to him and a familiar voice called from above.

“Yo! Banana boy”

Joel looked up and saw a grinning face looking down from the floodwall. Then a shock of red hair appeared; it was Dave and Siobhan; they had come visiting.

Chapter 7

Each morning Sophie liked to check all the deliveries to the Gate herself. The two dozen Guinea Fowl were to be pot roasted for the midweek menu. Closing the door of the cold-room she could hear raised voices coming from the kitchen.

“Bag out you Tazzy loser.”

“You can’t say that, it’s racist.”

“It’s a state, mate, if I had said Aussie, then yes, but Tazzy is fully PC. And I like to practice inclusion throughout the insulting process. Does anyone here feel left out?”

“Are those ruddy monkfish prepped yet?”
“Did them half-hour ago.”
“Well slap my arse and call me Sally. That’s a first.”

Sophie checked the thermometer mounted on the wall and rolled her eyes listening to the banter coming from the kitchen, as her crew prepared for the lunchtime crowd to descend: The overall jist sounded positive, so she slipped away from the kitchen and climbed the creaky back-staircase to her quarters to go over her notes for the lecture.

Whilst living and working at the Gate over the last eighteen months she had developed an interest in local history. She had become fascinated by the remnants of an ancient causeway that ran from the draw dock adjacent to the restaurant; consisting of wooden pilings and stone sets it spanned the river leading to some steps on the far shore. In the Middle Ages the water level was lower so twice a day it was, supposedly, possible to cross the river on foot. She had put together a sequence of slides to show on an overhead projector and had also been working on drawings that showed how the structure would have appeared in medieval times. There was plenty of archaeological evidence of settlements on both sides of the river and she was sure that an inn would have stood on the site now occupied by the Gate. Stands to reason she thought, people waiting around for the tide to drop. Sell them pies, sell them ale, and give them a fire to sit by. It is a business plan any time. Not just in the Middle Ages.

Once in her office Sophie switched on her laptop to look at the notes she had prepared for the tomorrow evening’s talk. She stared at them absently for a few minutes but was unable to concentrate.

A few weeks ago Sophie had been walking along the alley towards the Gate, coming back from the bank, when a guy who looked slightly familiar struck up a conversation. He told her that he had walked down the draw dock slipway at low tide and seen what looked like a coin amongst the stones. It was a thin piece of metal with a face impressed into it. He left it with her so she could do some research. After some searching online it turned out to be a pilgrim’s badge from around the fifteenth century, made from early pewter, which has a high lead content thus protecting it from being corroded by the river water. The face impressed onto it could be Christ or a saint, the idea being to confer protection upon the traveller.

Next day he returned and she told him that he should probably take it to the Museum of London and technically anything found on the foreshore belongs to the Crown. He told her to keep it.

This is how she had met Jim; and since then she had been unable to stop thinking about him. Now as she sat at her desk looking at the pilgrims badge she allowed her thoughts to drift back down the years.

When Sophie was in her early teens, growing up in Bristol, the off-licence down the road was, for a while, owned by a mixed race family. The husband was Trinidadian and his wife was Irish and there were four daughters, each one more beautiful than the next. They all had freckles, reddish hair, almost golden complexions, terrific cheekbones and hypnotic green eyes. Except perhaps daughter number four who she clearly remembered been referred to by a Jamaican school friend, as a real bunga tuffy. So striking was Jim’s physical similarity to those hybrid honeys from Sophie’s schooldays she had wondered if they could be related to one another. She had also been filled with a deep and powerful urge to jump his bones; a thought that she had immediately expunged from her mind; too busy, too much to do, and the certainty that any kind of engagement was more likely to produce pain than the inverse. See here, she had told herself, you are older and wiser; do not board the crazy train.

She and Joel had split up a year ago after an abortive fling. The timing had been wrong, he was still in pointless grieving mode for his previous relationship and she had overwhelmed him with her intensity of need, or was that the other way round? Maybe so, she thought. After they split up she had begun watching his boat. She once followed him to the station. She had then thrown herself into her work and thus stepped back from the brink of obsession. Now she was obsessive and compulsive about other less emotionally critical areas of life.

Sophie closed the lid of the laptop, pushed back her chair, leaving the pilgrim’s badge and her notes on the desk and danced down the first few steps of the staircase. She was meeting Jim tonight having immediately agreed to a date when he called.

Jim gunned the engine of the Maserati, making the wheels spin in the gravel of the courtyard outside his flat, before nosing out into the evening traffic. Heading for a supper engagement at the house at Regents Park where his father lived with wife number three. But first he had to swing by the Gate and pick up Sophie.

A flashing blue light appeared in his mirrors, then with a truncated warble from its siren the car powered past him. Jim was especially attuned to police vehicles. If the cops inside them were between calls they had a tendency to pull him over. It was to be expected. There were not many six foot three, dread-locked brown men driving Maseratis in this or any other part of London. He usually just flashed the dental work and aired the cut glass accent and they sent him on his way with a patronising smile and a nod.

It was to be the first visit to his dad’s place with Sophie. He had thought of trying to prep her for the meeting but there was, he decided little point as his old man was a “character” and everybody liked him from the get-go. It seemed that only he knew what a cold-hearted bastard his father was, only him, the two ex wives and several business rivals that were no longer on this mortal coil.

Sophie was wearing a green linen trouser suit and a cream blouse. In her high heels she was almost as tall as Jim. As they drove towards Regents Park they were both quiet. The voice coming from the stereo opined that he was ‘out of reach, can’t take no more’.

“Blues singers,” she said. “Always complaining aren’t they?” Her date just smiled.

Because they were early they had decided to have a drink at a nearby pub. The place was crowded but nobody was taking any notice as Sophie ran some lipstick around her lips then pouted and stuck her tongue out at him. He leant forward and reaching out gripped her left earlobe, drew her forward and mashed his lips into hers. She tasted good.

“Hey. You’re smudging me,” She whispered.

Sophie’s bloody Mary was half way down the tall glass already but Jim’s glass was untouched; he took a long drink.

“Look Soph, you know I told you I grew up in Epsom, and that is kind of true, but before that I, I mean we, did live in St Pauls, in Bristol.” He looked into her eyes, which she narrowed in a cartoon manner. “My old man is bound to mention the old days. So I thought I had better come clean.” He looked for a reaction but there was none. Sophie continued to smile at him. “Basically I tracked you down,” he added.

“Sure you did. Shouldn’t we be going? Otherwise we are going to be late. This is all a lot to take in,” she said standing and reaching for her coat.

“I bought the bloody pilgrim’s badge on eBay.” Jim spoke the words quietly but emphatically. Sophie sat back down and rattled the icy residue in the bottom of her glass.

“You had better get me another drink and then you can tell me who the merry hell you are.”
She watched him standing by the bar waiting to be served, and wondered if his actions were romantic, or just plain creepy
“So?” said Sophie when he returned with their drinks.
“Welcome to real life,” he said. Putting her drink down carefully.
“Pardon.”
“I don’t know about you but for everyone else on this planet, moving towards what you desire is considered normal behaviour.”

She continued to look at him but the corners of her mouth began to turn up a little and her eyes softened. Encouraged by this Jim continued.

“When I was a kid my parents had the shop in Rudge Street where you and your friends used to buy cigarettes and cider.” Her eyebrows went up then down but she said nothing. “And at weekends my brother and I used to skateboard in the street outside. I remember you, even though it was years ago. The way you looked and moved. I just couldn’t forget you Sophie. I guess I had powerful adolescent yearnings. Then all these years later I saw a thing on the Internet for your talk about the causeway. It’s not exactly stalking, is it?”

“It’s called imprinting. You are supposed to get over that stuff,” said Sophie finally.

“I know,” said Jim.

“As soon as I saw you coming out of the underpass I remember thinking of the four sisters from the off license in Rudge Street; I remember them, but not you,” said Sophie. Jim nodded. “What happened to them, no don’t answer. And what is a bunga tuffy?” she asked screwing up her face.

“West Indian patois for a healthy or fat baby,” said Jim looking confused. “Why?”

“Never mind,” said Sophie, putting on her scarf. “Let’s go.”

She gained a further insight into Jim that night when she finally met “Stone Cold” Cuthbert Mcluhan, his father. The sobriquet was from his boxing days. As a young man he had been a skilled exponent and had been tempted into turning professional. However his career in the ring founded at an early stage. The managers of the other fighters on the circuit quickly realised the unpopularity of having their boys knocked out by a UK citizen with a black skin. It was bad enough that big punching American Negroes held all the titles, regularly turning up on these shores to dispense pain and humiliation: Leading to the popular wisdom of the time – never bet on the white boy. So Cuthbert turned away from the gentlemanly art and started to build a business empire instead.

They were only twenty minutes late but Cuth and Marna seemed dressed for bed. They all wrestled with lobster and drank Moet then Cuth showed Sophie his art collection while Jim helped Marna get her computer’s webcam to function.

Sophie felt Cuthbert’s eyes upon her as she was guided around the collection. In a soft and lilting voice he gave the background to his acquisitions. At no point during the evening did he refer to the ‘old days’ as Jim had predicted, erroneously it turned out. Once he touched her shoulder to indicate the way back to the sitting room. A touch so light she thought and yet he must have channelled destructive energy through those same hands in his boxing days.

“How did you love birds meet?” he asked her, nodding towards Jim who was hunched over the computer at the other side of the room. When she replied that they shared an interest in the past,” his grey eyebrows shot upwards.

“Bleedin hell! Your dad’s got a De Chirico,” she had said later when they were in Jim’s car.

“Yeah art is his passion and he can afford to indulge it. Not to put too finer point on it he made a mint from his dodgy connections in The Islands and Miami.”

“Please don’t tell me this.”

“Of course he is totally legitimate now.”

And what about you in all this? Was about to be her next question but suddenly they were back at the Gate so it would have to wait.

She had however discovered that Jim was a twin; there was a photograph that Cuthbert had pointed out to her on the wall behind his desk; two skinny boys in swimming trunks laughing, standing on the deck of a boat. They looked identical.

“They were best of friends back then.” Cuthbert had said.

“And now?” she had asked. But he had only shaken his head regretfully and led her back to the living room.

BOOK: The Alembic Valise
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