VanGogh darted toward the cypress fence and when close enough started to bark.
“Good dog!” said a feminine voice, “You recognised me?” It was Julienne, she was about the same age as Bob and lived in the old vicarage not far from Bob’s house. “I was tending to my raspberry trees and I thought I could bring you some of the offshoots”, she said showing her pink plastic bag. “Hi Clara, I didn’t know you were there,” she added as if she should have.
Clara looked at Bob. Not a word, he said with his lips.
Reddening, Bob stammered, “Yeah, yes, uh, yeah. Um…”
Clara squeezed her grandfathers arm reassuringly. “We’re looking for my friend Nora.” she interrupted, to give him time to compose himself. Poor dear was easily flustered these days. Turning to Will, “She was hiking over to visit us and should have arrived yesterday and she’d have passed right by here, but her phone seems to be dead.”
Will had to think quickly. If he could keep them both here with Nora long enough to get the box ~ or better yet, replace the contents with something else. Yes, that was it! He could take a sack of random stuff to put in the box, and they’d never suspect a thing. He was going to hide the contents in a statue anyway, so he didn’t even need the box.
Spreading his arms wide in welcome and smiling broadly, he said “This is your lucky day! Come inside and I’ll put the kettle on, Nora’s gone up to take some photos of the old ruin, she’ll be back soon.”
Bob and Clara relaxed and returned the smile and allowed themselves to be ushered into the kitchen and seated at the table.
Will lit the gas flame under the soup before filling the kettle with water. They’d be too polite to refuse, if he put a bowl in front of them, and if they didn’t drink it, well then he’d have to resort to plan B. He put a little pinch of powder from a tiny jar into each cup of tea; it wouldn’t hurt and would likely make them more biddable. Then the soup would do the trick.
Will steered the conversation to pleasant banter about the wildflowers on the way up to the ruins that he’d said Nora was visiting, and the birds that were migrating at this time of year, keeping the topics off anything potentially agitating. The tea was starting to take effect and Clara and Bob relaxed and enjoyed the conversation. They sipped the soup without protest, although Bob did grimace a bit at the thought of eating on an agitated stomach. He’d have indigestion for days, but didn’t want to be rude and refuse. He was enjoying the respite from all the vexation, though, and was quite happy for the moment just to let the man prattle on while he ate the damn soup.
“Oh, I think Nora must be back! I just heard her voice!” exclaimed Clara.
Will had heard it too, but he said, “That wasn’t Nora, that was the parrot! It’s a fast leaner, and Nora’s been training it to say things….I tell you what, you stay here and finish your soup, and I’ll go and fetch the parrot.”
“Parrot? What parrot?” Clara and Bob said in unison. They both found it inordinately funny and by the time Will had exited the kitchen, locking the door from the outside, they were hooting and wiping the tears of laughter from their cheeks.
“What the hell was in that tea!” Clara joked, finishing her soup.
What was Nora doing awake already? Will didn’t have to keep her quiet for long, but he needed to keep her quiet now, just until the soup took effect on the others.
Either that or find a parrot.
Will didn’t like unexpected visitors. What kind of people turned up unannounced nowadays? He was tempted to ignore the knocking but then it is the not knowing that’s the killer. And what if someone gets it in their head to nose around the property?
“Yep?” he said opening the door. The pair of them were starting off down the front steps as though they meant to go exploring. He’d been right to answer.
“Oh, you are here!” said the girl, turning towards him with a bright smile. “Sorry to just turn up like this …”
Will gave her a curt nod and she faltered a little.
“Uh, my name is Clara and this is my grandfather, Bob, and we are hoping you can help us … “
The old fellow with her, Bob, was staring hard at Will. He looked familiar but Will couldn’t quite place him … he wasn’t local. And he certainly didn’t recognise the girl—very pretty; he would definitely have remembered her.
“Have we met somewhere, Bob?” Will asked.
Clara had an uneasy feeling which, try as she might, she could not shake it off. She attempted to distract herself by making a sandwich for lunch, but the feeling wouldn’t go away. She went outside to look for Bob, eventually finding him chatting away to himself out in the orchard. It sounded like he was arguing with someone.
Bob jumped. “Didn’t see you there, Clara!” He laughed shakily. “What are you doing sneaking up on me like that? It’s not good for me old heart.”
“Grandpa, I need to go and find Nora. I’ve got a bad feeling, like she’s in some sort of trouble.”
“Go and find her? Do you know where she is then? Has she been in touch?”
“I need to go to the Village. Where the statue man lives.”
“Well you’re not going by yourself. Not with all these strange goings ons and the numerous bits of paper and maps and whatnot which keep turning up all over the place.”
Nora commented favourably on the view, relieved to have been given a clue about what she was supposed to have noticed. It was a splendid panorama, and Will seemed pleased with her response. She asked if it was possible to see the old smugglers path from their vantage point, and he pointed to a dirt road in the valley below that disappeared from view behind a stand of eucalyptus trees. Will indicated a tiny white speck of an old farm ruin, and said the smugglers path went over the hill behind it.
Shading her eyes from the sun, Nora peered into the distance beyond the hill, wondering how far it was to Clara’s grandfathers house. Of course she knew it was 25 kilometers or so, but wasn’t sure how many hills behind that one, or if the path veered off at some point in another direction.
Wondering where Clara was reminded Nora that her friend would be waiting for her, and quite possibly worrying that she hadn’t yet arrived. She sighed, making her mind up to leave first thing the next morning. She didn’t mention this to Will though, and wondered briefly why she hesitated. Something about the violent sweep of his arm when she asked about her phone had made her uneasy, such a contrast to his usual easy going grins.
Then she reminded herself that she had only just met him, and barely knew anything about him at all, despite all the stories they’d shared. When she thought about it, none of the stories had given her any information ~ they had mostly been anecdotes that had a similarity to her own, and although pleasant, were inconsequential. And she kept forgetting to ask him about all the statues at his place.
Wishing she could at least send a text message to Clara, Nora remembered the remote viewing practice they’d done together over the years, and realized she could at least attempt a telepathic communication. Then later, if Clara gave her a hard time about not staying in contact, she could always act surprised and say, Why, didn’t you get the message?
She found a flat stone to sit on, and focused on the smugglers path below. Then she closed her eyes and said clearly in her mind, “I’ll be there tomorrow evening, Clara. All is well. I am safe.”
She opened her eyes and saw that Will had started to head back down the path. “Come on!” he called, “Time for lunch!”
“Grandpa, I can’t get hold of Nora. I keep getting her answer phone.” Clara flicked back through her texts. “Last time she messaged me was to ask if I knew anyone in the Village she could stay with. And I never got back with the details like I was supposed to … I got distracted by Van Gogh going missing and everything … ” She screwed up her face. “Also I couldn’t recall the man’s name.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” said Bob soothingly, reaching out to pat Clara’s hand. “She always were a bit unreliable that one, weren’t she?”
Clara looked like she was about to burst into tears. “Grandpa, I’m such an idiot! What if something bad has happened to her?
“”Sorry, I’m only just telling you this about the note now, lovie. Your Grandma’s been on at me to tell you. Just in my thoughts I mean!” he added quickly.
Jane smirked and tapped her forehead. “Careful, Old Man. She’ll think you’ve completely lost it!”
Clara stared at him, a small frown creasing her brow. “So, the note said you were to call him?”
Bob nodded uneasily. Clara had that look on her face. The one that means she aren’t happy with the way things are proceeding.
“And then what?” asked Clara slowly.
“I dunno.” Bob shrugged. “Guess they’d bury it again? They was pretty clear they didn’t want it found. Now, how about I put the kettle on?” Bob stood quickly and began to busy himself filling the jug with water from the tap.
Clara shook her head firmly. “No.”
“No to a cup of tea?”
“No we can’t call this man.”
“I don’t know Clara. It’s getting odd it is. Strangers leaving maps in collars and whatnot. It’s not right.”
“Well, I agree it needs further investigation. But we can’t call him … not without knowing why and what’s in it.” She tapped her fingers on the table. “I’ll try and get hold of Nora again.”
Clara breathed a sigh of relief when she saw VanGogh running towards her; in the moonlight he looked like a pale ghost.
“Where’ve you been eh?” she asked as he nuzzled her excitedly. She crouched down to pat him. “And what’s this?” A piece of paper folded into quarters had been tucked into VanGogh’s collar. Clara stood upright and looked uneasily around the garden; a small wind made the leaves rustle and the deep shadows stirred. Clara shivered.
“Clara?” called Bob from the door.
“It’s okay Grandpa, I found him. We’re coming in now.”
In the warm light of the kitchen, Clara showed Bob the piece of paper. “It’s a map, but I don’t know those place names.”
“And it was stuffed into his collar you say?” Bob frowned. “That’s very strange indeed. Who’d of done that?”
Clara shook her head. “It wasn’t Mr Willets because I saw him drive off. But why didn’t VanGogh bark? He always barks when someone comes on the property.”
“You really should tell her about the note,” said Jane. She was perched on the kitchen bench. VanGogh pricked his ears up and wagged his tail as he looked towards her. Bob couldn’t figure out if the dog could see Jane or just somehow sensed her there. He nodded.
“What?” asked Clara.
“There’s something I should tell you, Clara. It’s about that box you found.”
Nora was relieved when the man with the donkey knew her name and was expecting her. She assumed that Clara had made contact with him, but when she mentioned her friend, he shook his head with a puzzled frown. I don’t know anyone called Clara, he said. Here, get yourself up on Manolete, it’ll be easier if you ride. We’ll be home in half an hour.
The gentle rhythmic rocking astride the donkey soothed her as she relaxed and observed her surroundings. The woods had opened out into a wide path beside an orchard. Nora felt the innocuous hospitability of the orchard in comparison to the unpredictability of the woods, although she felt that idea would require further consideration at a later date. One never knew how much influence films and stories and the like had on one’s ideas, likely substantial, Nora thought ~ another consideration not lost on Nora was the feeling of safety she had now that she wasn’t alone, and that she was with someone who clearly knew where he was going.
Notwithstanding simultaneous time, Nora wondered which came first ~ the orchard, the man with the donkey, or the feeling of safety and hospitability itself?
It was me, said the man leading the donkey, turning round with a smile. I came first. Remember?
“Box?” said Bob placing a hand on his chest. “Not the … ”
“Not box, Grandpa. Crops.” Clara spoke loudly. Poor old Grandpa must be going a bit deaf as well—he’d gone downhill since Grandma died. “His dogs got into your garden and dug up the crops. He says he’ll come by in the morning and fix up the damage. ”
“No, need to shout, Clara. I swear you said box. I thought you meant the box in the garage.”
“Oh, no that would be awful!” Clara shuddered at the thought of anything happening to her precious treasure. “Maybe we should bring the box inside, Grandpa? Make sure it’s safe.”
Bob sighed. Last thing he wanted was the damn box inside the house. But Clara had that look on her face, the one that means she’s made up her mind. He glanced around, wondering where they could put it so it was out of the way.
“Hey!” exclaimed Clara. “Where’s VanGogh gone? Did he sneak outside when Mr Willets came.” She went to the door and peered out into the darkness. “VanGogh! Here, Boy!” she shouted. “VanGogh!”
“Grandpa,” Clara said, partly to distract him ~ poor dear was looking a little anxious ~ and partly because she was starting to get twangs of gilt about Nora, “Grandpa, do you remember that guy who used to make sculptures? I can’t recall his name and need his phone number. Do you remember, used to see him driving around with gargoyles in the back of his truck. You look awfully pale, are you alright?”
“No idea,” Bob replied weakly.
Tell her! said Jane.
“No!” Bob exclaimed, feeling vexed. He wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want to rush into anything. Why was Clara asking about the man whose phone number was on the note? What did she know about all this? What did he, Bob, know for that matter!
“I only asked!” replied Clara, then seeing his face, patted his arm gently and said “It’s ok, Grandpa.”
For the love of god will you just tell her!
“Tell who what?” asked Clara.
“What! What did you say?” Bob wondered where this was going and if it would ever end. It began to feel surreal.
They were both relieved when the door bell rang, shattering the unaccustomed tension between them.
“Who can that be?” they asked in unison, as Clara rose from the table.
Bob waited expectantly, pushing his plate away. It would take days to settle his digestive system down after all this upset at a meal time.
“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost, Clara! Who was it?” Bob said as Clara returned from the front door. “Not the water board again to cut us off I hope!”
“It’s the neighbour, Mr Willets, he says he’s ever so sorry but his dogs, they got loose and got into some kind of a box on your property. He said…”
“Knock, knock! Dinner’s ready!” Clara popped her head around the door to Bob’s room. “What are you doing?” she asked as Bob started and hurriedly put his hand over a small piece of paper.
“Er, nothing, just …” His words trailed off. He smiled brightly at her. “Dinner eh. Smells good. I’ll be right with you.”
Clara’s gaze travelled from Bob’s face to the cardboard box on the bed. “Are you okay? You look strange. What’s in that box?”
“Odds and ends. Just doing a bit of sorting.” He put the piece of paper in the box and placed the lid back on. “Nothing that won’t keep till after dinner.”
“If there are any old photos in the box I’d love to see them.”
“Tell her,” said Jane. There she was, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed near the box. “Go on, tell her about the number.”
Bob shook his head vigorously and Clara regarded him strangely. “Not to worry about photos then,” she said
“You were wishing I was here and now here I am and you aren’t even going to listen to me?” Now Jane was whispering into his ear and he imagined he could almost feel her breath like a feather tickling his cheek—it was all he could do not to laugh. “Tell her or I will.”EricKeymaster
VanGogh was sniffing frantically on the patio outside the house, a usual indication that he’d found the perfect spot for a healthy stool, but this time, as soon as Clara had looked the other way to take care of the sautéed mushrooms on the stove, he darted for the shed where the odd big toy had been unearthed and stored out of sight.
His tail wagged frantically as he pushed the door open, and slid underneath the tarpaulin behind the sleeping lawn-eater.
He started to scratch the box, the way he usually tried to open the puzzle ball Clara would fill with some kibble. It didn’t roll like the ball-that-dispensed-kibble. In frustration, VanGogh started to push his paws on the sleek smooth surface, near the curious indentations.
Something clicked open.
“VanGogh! Where are you boy?! Come!”
Suddenly distracted from this puzzling quest, he rushed to the kitchen for dinner.
When Clara remembered who it was she knew in that little village, she realized she didn’t know how to contact him. She didn’t even know his name; he made gargoyles and stone heads and statues, that was all she knew, and all the strange rumours and stories surrounding some of those statues, quite a local legend in a way. But what was his name? He had a white donkey….
Clara assured Nora that her friend was expecting her, keeping her fingers crossed that she would be able to find out who it was, contact him and ask for his assistance, before Nora arrived there. It was a long shot, admittedly.
By nightfall, Clara had not made contact, and was forced to rely on a miracle; or even to wash her hands of the whole thing: it was Noras’s trip after all.
The message was scrawled in pencil on a roughly torn off piece of note paper. Bob had to squint to make out some of the words.
Hopefully you won’t need this but put this somewhere safe, just in case. The man i introduced you to today will know what to do.
And then there was a phone number. Bob wondered if the man would still be there. It was nearly 15 years ago and Bob’s memory was sketchy. He frowned, trying to remember. When the receptacle had been unearthed in the bad flooding of that year, he had contacted someone … how he got onto him he can no longer recall … some number from the archeological thingamajigs maybe. The person he spoke to came round, him and another fellow, said he shouldn’t tell anyone about the receptacle. Said it should be put back in the ground. Said it was important. The other fellow, the one he is supposed to call, made sculptures—Bob remembered that because there had been some sitting on the back of his truck.
Bob sat on the side of the bed and rubbed his head. He couldn’t really be bothered with all this carry on. It all seemed a bit crazy now, having to keep the damn thing buried. What’s all that about? And Clara was so excited, contacting her archeological friend and whatnot. Strange girl though, that Nora. He wished Jane were still here. She’d know what to do.
Bob sighed loudly as he rummaged through the odds and ends drawer: old menus from the takeaways in town, pens, rubber bands, a button, reading glasses, newspaper clippings. He’d never expected to need the phone number; now he did and what do you know? He can’t find the damn thing.
“What a shameful mess that drawer is in,” said Jane. She was seated at the kitchen table, arms folded, shaking her head at him. She looked about twenty today with her dark hair cascading prettily over a lacy pink mini dress.
Bob frowned at her though his heart did a leap. The way it always did when he saw her. “You were the one who kept it clean and you jumped ship. And I’ve said, can’t you look your age?”
“Don’t I look pretty?” She pouted and fluttered long eyelashes at him.
“Makes me feel old. And I don’t recognise you like that.”
“You are old,” she said as her hair turned white. “And bad-tempered as ever. What are you hunting for?”
“The phone number. You know the one he said to call if the box was ever unearthed. Can’t find it anywhere.”
“You’d lose your head …” said Jane as her head lifted off her body.
Bob jumped. “Darn it, Jane. I’ve said don’t do that! Why do you always do that and go giving me the heebie jeebies?”
“Cos I can, love.” She grinned mischievously before settling her head back on her shoulders. “Just a bit of fun. Now think hard, where else might you have put it? The shoe-box under our bed? The safe in the pantry?”
Bob flung a hand to his head. “The shoe-box! That’s where it will be!”
Jane grinned. “Well, get a move-along, old man. Before our Clara gets in more deep than what’s good for her. She won’t let it go now she’s found it. Stubborn as a mule my grandchild,” she added proudly.
Bob reached a hand to her. “Come with me while I look? I miss you, Jane. You never stay long enough.”
“Oh stop with all the sweet talk!” She poked her tongue out at him. “Anyway I’ve told you before, it takes too much energy.” She was fading and Bob felt his chest tighten. “Don’t worry, I’m keeping an eye on you, old man.” She was vibrating air now, sparkly and pink.
Clara couldn’t sleep. Alienor’s message asking if she knew anyone in the little village was playing on her mind. She knew she knew someone there, but couldn’t remember who it was. The more she tried to remember, the more frustrated she became. It wasn’t that her mind was blank: it was a tense conglomeration of out of focus wisps, if a wisp could be described as tense.
Clara glanced at the time ~ almost half past three. Grandpa would be up in a few hours. She climbed out of bed and padded over to her suitcase, half unpacked on the floor under the window, and extracted the book from the jumble of garments.
A stranger had handed her a book in the petrol station forecourt, a woman in a stylish black hat and a long coat. Wait! What is it? Clara called, but the woman was already inside the back seat of a long sleek car, soundlessly closing the door. Obliged to attend to her transaction, the car slipped away behind Clara’s back. Thank you, she whispered into the distance of the dark night in the direction the woman had gone. When she opened her car door, the interior light shone on the book and the word Albina caught her eye. She put the book on the passenger seat and started the car. Her thoughts returned to her journey, and she thought no more about it.
Returning to her bed and propping her pillows up behind her head, Clara started to read.
This Chrysoprase was a real gargoyle; he even did not need to be described. I just could not understand how he moved if he was made of stone, not to mention how he was able to speak. He was like the Stone Guest from the story Don Juan, though the Stone Guest was a giant statue, and Chrysoprase was only about a meter tall.
Chrysoprase said: But we want to pay you honor and Gerard is very hungry.
“Most important is wine, don’t forget wine!” – Gerard jumped up.
“I’ll call the kitchen” – here the creature named Chrysoprase gets from the depth of his pocket an Iphone and calls.
I was absolutely shocked. The Iphone! The latest model! It was not just the latest model, it was a model of the future, which was in the hands of this creature. I said that he was made of stone, no, now he was made of flesh and he was already dressed in wide striped trousers. What is going on? Is it a dream? Only in dreams such metamorphosis can happen.
He was made of stone, now he is made of flesh. He was in his natural form, that is, he was not dressed, and now he is wearing designer’s trousers. A phrase came to my mind: “Everything was in confusion in the Oblonsky house.”
Contrary to Clara’s expectations ~ reading in bed invariably sent her to sleep after a few paragraphs ~ she found she was wide awake and sitting bolt upright.
Of course! Now she remembered who lived in that little village!
Damn these municipal restrictions! Frustrated, Nora looked again at the photo of the inscriptions on the mysterious pear shaped box that Clara had found. She picked up a pen and copied the symbols onto a piece of paper. Glancing back over the message her friend had sent, her face softened at Clara’s pet name for her, Alienor. Clara had started called her that years ago, when she found out about the ouija board incident and the aliens Nora had been talking to. Was it really an alien, or….? Clara had asked, and Nora had laughed and said Of course it was an alien or! and the name had stuck.
Nora’s mood had changed with the reminiscence, and she had an idea. She was working from home, but all that really meant was that she had to have internet access. Nobody would have to know which home she was working from, if she could just make it past the town barriers. But she didn’t have to go by road: the barriers were only on the roads. There was nothing stopping her walking cross country.
Putting aside the paper with the symbols on, she perused a map. She had to cross three town boundaries, and by road it was quite a distance. But as the crow flies, not that far. And if she took the old smugglers track, it was surprisingly direct. Nora calculated the distance: forty nine kilometers. Frowning, she wondered if she could walk that distance in a single day and thought it unlikely. Three days more like, but maybe she could do it in two, at a push. That would mean one overnight stay somewhere. What a pity it was so cold! It would mean carrying a warm sleeping bag, and she hated carrying things.
Nora looked at the map again, and found the halfway point: it was a tiny hamlet. A perfect place to spend the night. If only she knew someone who lived there, somebody who wouldn’t object to her breaking the restrictions.
Nora yawned. It was late. She would finalize the plan tomorrow, but first she sent a message to Clara, asking her if she knew anyone in the little village.
Clara wiggled her wooly fair isle toes in front of the log fire. She was glad she’d brought her thick socks ~ the temperature had dropped and snow was forecast. Good job we got that box out before the ground froze, she said to her grandfather. He made an indecipherable harumphing noise by way of reply and asked her if she’d found out anything yet about the inscriptions.
“No,” Clara sighed, “Not a thing. I’ll probably find it when I stop looking.”
Bob raised an eyebrow and said nothing. She’d always had a funny way of looking at things. Years ago he’d come to the conclusion that he’d never really fathom how her mind worked, and he’d accepted it. Now, though, he felt a little uneasy.
“Oh look, Grandpa! How fitting! It’s the daily random quote from The Daily Wail. Listen to this: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift; that’s why it’s called The Present.” What a perfect sync!”
“Oh aye, it’s a grand sink, glad you like it! It was about time I had a new one. It was a wrench to part with the old one, after seeing your grandma standing over it for all those years, but it was half price in the sale, and I thought, why not Bob, be a devil. One last new sink before I kick the bucket. I was fed up with that bucket under the old sink, I can tell you!”
Clara blinked, and then smiled at the old man, leaning over to squeeze his arm. “It’s a great sink, Grandpa.”
“That horsetail has such long roots, otherwise I never would have dug so deep,” mused Clara. “Are you okay holding that end? Not too heavy for you?”
Grandpa Bob grunted. The box was heavy—in more ways than one—but he wasn’t about to let Clara know he wasn’t up to it.
“Let’s put it down there behind the lawn mower,” said Clara. “Do you think it will be safe there? We could cover it?” She ran her hand appreciatively over the shiny exterior of the box; her fingers paused inquisitively at one end and she peered closely at the spot. “I think there is something here … an inscription or something!”
“Probably just some old scratches,” muttered Grandpa Bob. He straightened up with a moan and rubbed his back.
“No, look!” Clara was shining her phone torch at the area. “Look, it’s definitely letters of some sort. I’ll take a photo for Alienor!”
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