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Authors: John Luxton

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BOOK: The Alembic Valise
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“Hey girl, you come to check out the moves of our crew?” a youth with long hair covering his face called out.

“Can I get out through here onto the embankment?” She asked warily.

“Well if you pay the toll we can show you the way,” he answered and they all laughed. They began to close in on her. As they came closer she saw that they were probably younger than her and looked like middleclass kids pretending to be ‘street’. She gave a weak smile and dropped her shoulders in a compliant manner and then suddenly spun around, kicking the skateboard out of the nearest boy’s hands, sending it skidding across the floor. She had moved quickly and now assumed a defensive posture that she had once seen in a movie.

They all backed off, the tallest one saying, “whoa there, sister!” She saw now the way out and walked towards it.

“I’d like to stay and swap Chuck Norris jokes but time is short and my work here is done,” she called back. And with that she ducked out of the car park. At that moment her phone began to ring. Taking the device from her pocket she saw the text on the blue screen identified the caller as Deacon McClure.

Two levels of re-enforced concrete above where Lorna stood, Joel was wondering, if he told the two detectives about everything except Lorna’s involvement; would he be doing her a favour or a disservice? Detective Z was speaking and he forced himself to listen, even though his brain was stuck in a loop – to lie to or tell the truth or just prevaricate… it went on. And where was Lorna anyway?

“Really we should take you in for questioning about all this,” the frowning detective was saying. “But I am aware that this is your lady love’s big night.” DC Sharma looked at him sharply but said nothing. “So I am not going to do that. Instead I want you to tell DC Sharma here everything, whilst I go to find Lorna.”

They sat in the now quiet foyer and Joel told her about their visit to Brixton. “I’m sure Deacon had nothing to do with the attack on Dave,”

“How do you know that? Has Trulock said anything to you?” She asked just as Detective Z rejoined them.

“No, he remembers nothing so far.” He saw Lorna approaching with downcast eyes. “Look here comes Lorna, she must have got lost, or something,” he said lamely. The detective looked round, then and got to his feet.

“Where have you been? Never mind, look we have to go. Mr Barlow here will take you home after the concert. I hope they let you back in.” And with that the two detectives stood up and walked towards the exit.

Lorna slumped down in the chair next to Joel, turned to him and whispered. “We have to go too. Deacon is in trouble.”

Lorna counted off the bridges: Westminster, Lambeth, Vauxhall, Chelsea, Albert, Battersea. Then she knew there would be an eternity before Wandsworth Bridge appeared. The rescue boat (identical to the one that she and Joel had seen in the morning, scattering the rowers) skimmed onwards over the smooth water, its brace of searchlights on the bar above her head cutting through the gloom that lay ahead. Her father and Joel sat directly in front and beyond them the two officers from the marine rescue unit who had scrambled their craft from Westminster Pier in response to her father’s call. She was sitting in the rear of the boat alongside DC Sharma and in her heart she feared that this evening would end badly.

Earlier, in the foyer of the Festival Hall, she had confessed to her father that Deacon had called her. It was the only way to guarantee her inclusion on this mercy mission to Hammersmith Bridge where Deacon was poised above the icy water, contemplating an exit from his own life.

Finally they approached Putney Bridge; the river here seemed much wider, the shores more distant. The orange amphibious missile shot beneath the concrete arch, the roar of the engines suddenly doubling in intensity. Then it was open water and ahead covered in thousands of tiny lights was their destination. Detective Z had the MRO slow the boat right down. An unmarked police car had already cruised along the bridge but there was no sighting of Deacon. Joel tapped the detective on the shoulder and pointed to a network of scaffolding and a maintenance cradle suspended beneath the bridge. Could Deacon have somehow climbed down onto the swaying platform?

Rather than approach too close, too soon it was decided that the boat would drop Detective Z, DC Sharma, Lorna and Joel at the slipway on the South shore. There were a dozen steps up onto the towpath. Lorna was ordered to remain with DC Sharma whilst Det Z and Joel walked quickly towards the centre of the bridge.

Ah, thought Joel as he saw the green benches, this is where all this began. He knelt down and peered through the aperture but all he could see was light reflected from the rippling water below. He stood up and turned to lay on his left side to look in the other direction. There was a dark shape in the cradle.

“Deacon, it’s me Joel. How did you get down there?” he called out.

“I just kind of ended up here. Not one big decision, just a series of minor ones. Not good though is it? I was trying to find somewhere to think and this seemed like the spot.”

“You are not going to top yourself or anything are you, man? Because whatever has happened it’s not the answer.” Joel received no reply to his question. “Come on, there are people who care about you.” Again receiving no reply Joel decided to change tack. “So where is Seraphim now, I thought you and he were going to the police to sort everything out.”

“What for, I know I didn’t do anything. I was with Lorna when the attack on Dave happened. And Sera had quit and was on his raki bender in Brixton.” Came back Deacons reply, eventually.

Oh shit, thought Joel, aware that Lorna’s father was at his side. That’s more explaining for Lorna to do. I hope Detective Z is an understanding dad. Putting this thought aside he pressed on. “Well that puts you and Sera in the clear and the police will have to look elsewhere.”

“I don’t know, I just don’t know anymore, about anything.” There was a desolate quality to the words that Deacon spoke.

“Listen man, you are not alone, I’m here, Lorna’s here too.”

Again there was no reply from beneath the bridge. Joel racked his brain for something that might turn the situation around, the magic bullet that would allow his troubled friend to see the point in affirming his life instead of negating it. Then he remembered something that he had realised many years ago. An idea that had become his lodestone when he began writing Alembic Valise: That there were moments in life when the past, the present and the future became a continuum, a crossroads, a mirrored infinity of resonant meaning. And the glowing thread that linked these elements was the narrative of our own personal story, seen through our illuminated selves. Joel knew what he had to say.

“Hey Deacon, did you know that almost a hundred years ago, on a cold winter’s night, a man was passing by close by here. It was late, around midnight and he was walking along the embankment when he heard calls of distress coming from the river. Running up onto the bridge, he saw a woman drowning. She was caught in the strong current of the incoming tide. He did not hesitate from diving into the river to rescue her.”

Joel paused, as a plane was passing overhead. Then he continued speaking into the dark void beneath the bench.

“He saved her life, but also severely injured his head, and he later died from this injury in hospital. Today the only reminder of his story is a small brass plaque on a handrail, which marks the spot on the bridge from where he dived into the Thames, risking his life to save a complete stranger.” Joel stopped speaking. He had almost reached the end of his story.

“That plaque is on the handrail just above you.”
There was silence. Joel could feel the bridge slightly swaying and flexing beneath him.
“What about the dead turtle tattoo guy, there was no one to save him was there?” came Deacon’s response finally.

Joel could not think of a reply. He was getting cramp from lying under the bench so he rolled onto his back to gain some relief. Detective Z was still at his side. The police must have closed the bridge off because no cars had passed for a while. There were rain clouds above and Joel felt a few cold drops on his face.

“It’s time to go home, Deacon. Can you climb back or do you need help? You must be freezing cold.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Joel was uncertain which part of his question was been answered. Then there was a shout and splash.

Lorna could not understand why the rescue launch had not moved from its position fifty yards downstream. She looked at DC Sharma and then they both began running. The currents were carrying Deacon towards the vortex. This was something she had looked at and puzzled over numerous times as she crossed the bridge to and from school. Where the southern tower divided the flow of the river, the incoming tide produced an area of roiling and churning water. When the tide was low, a large disc of mud was exposed with debris embedded in it, tree trunks, a supermarket trolley, and wooden pallets.

Up ahead she saw Joel was tearing off his coat and shoes. Her father had run to the other side of the bridge to attract the attention of the unresponsive rescue boat. DC Sharma overtook Lorna and in what seemed like one fluid movement, pulled off her coat, kicked off her sling-backs, leapt onto the handrail, stood for a heartbeat in her silk Miyake dress, then dived gracefully into the water below. Detective Z grabbed Joel and hoiked him backwards. In a flash of anger Joel shouted, “the fuck yer doin.” He then got to his feet to watch as DC Sharma reached a floundering Deacon and guided him and herself to the now present rescue boat.

“1998 Southern Area eight hundred meters women’s freestyle champion,” said the detective, nodding towards the scene below.
Lorna had gathered up the coat and shoes that DC Sharma had cast off so elegantly and now took her father’s arm.
“I’m so cold,” she said. “But they must be colder.”

By the time the boat reached the floating jetty a small crowd had formed. Neither Deacon nor DC Sharma had been in the water for more than a minute but they needed to be taken to Hammersmith hospital to be checked over. Deacon was shivering uncontrollably as he was helped ashore and wrapped in a thermal blanket by a medic.

Someone came forward and supported him as he climbed over the floodwall; it was his twin brother Jim.

Detective Z was co-ordinating everything but found time to suggest to Joel that he should ride back to Westminster Pier with the Marine Rescue Officers. And that he might just catch the end of the concert. Joel looked at his watch it was only nine-thirty, Mai would probably be coming off stage right now, he thought, unless there is an encore.

“It was good what you did back there, Joel,” said the detective. “I assume he slipped, it didn’t sound like he was going to do anything silly. Then being prepared to dive in like that, took some guts. Luckily my DC has a varied skill-set.” He paused, “I assume you are a strong swimmer?”

“Er no, a bit rubbish actually,” said Joel. They both began to laugh.

Lorna was feeling sidelined after seeing Deacon pulled from the river and then reunited with his twin and what’s more her father’s presence held her back. But as Deacon passed by her on the way to the ambulance he turned and gave her the strangest sweetest smile she had ever seen. Then he was gone.

During the journey to the hospital Lorna sensed that her father was not angry with her at all. In fact he seemed in an almost cheerful mood. But as they waited in the corridor together he turned to her and said. “You really shouldn’t hide things from me like that, flower.”

“I knew that Deacon was innocent. I just wanted to help him.”
“I know, I know. But look how it ended up. He jumped in the rudy river.”
“No he didn’t, he fell. You said that yourself.”
“You have to admit the lad is emotionally fragile and it could have ended very badly indeed. You have to let me do my job.”
“Sorry Dad.”
“Well he endangered himself and he endangered others. There will have to be a psychiatric report.”
“He was just looking for some answers.”

“Aren’t we all? He chose a strange place to search for them. This is not one of Joel’s stories, you know. It’s the real world where there are consequences.” Lorna remained silent. “Stay here I’ve just got to talk to a couple of people. Promise you won’t wander off.” Lorna nodded her assent. Twenty minutes later Detective Z returned to find his daughter, exactly where he had left her. “He is in room 211,” he said.

That night Deacon dreamt he was wandering through orchards. It was late summer and light rain was falling. Through rows of cherry trees at first, then he crossed a track and came into an apple orchard where the trees were heavy with fruit. Groups of men and women were harvesting, some called out to him as he passed by. The rain had stopped and the summer sun began to transform the scene.

He was aware that his right arm although covered with tattoos of birds and flowers was disabled. He was unable to help the harvesters in their work. He kept on walking until a woman blocked his path and stared into his eyes. She led him to the plantation nursery where an old man was digging in the ground. There were dozens of saplings, their roots protected by grey sackcloth, leaning against a fence waiting to be planted. The woman left and the old man spoke to Deacon and told him it was time to heal his withered arm. He opened a gate and together they entered a meadow, in the shade of a Laurel tree were two large beehives. The old man explained that the bees knew how to distil the energy of the sun and had created an ordered world within the hives where this process flourished to everyone’s benefit.

Still the old man led him onwards. Here the ground became bare and rocky and no plants grew. He listened as the old man told him that there was an inverse world to that of the sunshine, the bees and the meadow. He pointed at a crack in the dry earth and Deacon saw that it was alive with hornets - it was a subterranean nest. The old man told him to lie down and put his right arm into the ground.

BOOK: The Alembic Valise
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