Ripple [Part 1]

While I am away and  doing internet cold turkey for a couple of weeks I’ve left you a brand new two-part story. Is Oliver delusional? Or is there really something sinister happening on his computer?


             It is there again, rippling the surface; an outline surfacing and receding against the background. Oliver rubs his eyes and peers again at the blue screen. Now there is nothing under the desktop shortcuts. He makes a mental note to take the laptop into town.
He stretches, rises and walks to the tall wall of glass where he gazes out over the cityscape. It is an arresting view, even for one who lives such a large part of his life in front of a screen. The city stretches away, a pleasing mix of old and new dotted with ancient steepled churches and elegant, high rise skyscrapers and further away the sweep of the harbour with a variety of shipping docking and embarking day and night. Immediately below his block the silver snake of the canal winds its way around the parks and estates on its way out to port. But Oliver does not glance down, ever. He prefers to see further into the distance and away.
His phone buzzes, breaking into his thoughts.
“Are you ok?”
Melanie. She has assumed responsibility for his wellbeing despite his protests that he is fine.
“Yes. I’m alright. You don’t need to keep ringing.”
Mel laughs. “You’re such a charmer, Olly! I’m only looking out for you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“Have you been out today? You should get out. It isn’t good to sit at home brooding.”
“I’m not brooding. I’m working. And I do have to go out because my laptop’s playing up. I may need to get a new one.”
His sister sighs. “Is that the only reason to go out? You could just walk! How about meeting for lunch somewhere? Or come here to eat this evening?”
Oliver shudders. He’d have to sit around the table with noisy, prattling kids, make small talk, Mel and Charlie tiptoeing around his feelings like bomb disposal experts.
He grabs a jacket, stuffs the errant laptop and lead into its bag, grabs his keys and steps out of the apartment to summon the lift. In the lobby he grunts a peremptory reply to the doorman’s greeting before exiting through the revolving glass door and down the steps to the street. Pulling his collar together tight against the blustery wind he turns left and left again rather than continuing along to Canal Street, which would be the shortest route into town. Oliver has not walked along the towpath for eight months and has no intention of going there again, ever.
Nerina haunts his thoughts as always, day and night. As he walks he tries to picture her but succeeds only in conjuring parts of his wife- her smooth, white throat as she laughed, the black curls that fell down her back, the velvet soft touch of her and her husky voice as she spoke in her accented English. How she’d mocked him, her sly, sideways look as she posed in front of their mirror before telling him she had to go out. The way she dressed, a sensuous smile as she pulled on a sheer stocking or applied glossy, red lipstick.
At the store counter he unpacks the laptop, explaining the issue with its screen. The assistant, Paula according to her badge, turns the screen to the side for him to show her the fault. But there is nothing; no vestige of the movement he’d been witnessing. Oliver frowns, feeling a heat rise to his face. Paula smiles an open, sympathetic grin.
“Don’t be embarrassed! It’s common for devices’ faults to disappear like magic as soon as customers step through the doors with them. It’s almost as if the threat of repair is enough to make them behave!” She laughs; a deep, throaty bellow that forces Oliver to stare up into her face. It is a broad, guileless face, not pretty but honest; a face accustomed to laughter. For a moment he feels his shoulders relaxing, feels the tension draining down towards his feet. He nods at Paula, stows the errant laptop in the bag and thanks her.
“Bring it back if it starts playing up again” she advises him, before turning to another customer.
Oliver feels lighter as he exits the store and heads for home. He’ll try and eat something then get on with the figures he is supposed to be producing for a company report.
In his kitchen he can think of nothing he wants to eat and opts instead for a couple of the prescription tablets, standing at the sink, pressing the tiny, white capsules from their foil wrapping and swilling them down with a mouthful of water.
At his desk he opens the laptop lid and switches on, waiting for his password prompt and taking the deep breaths he’s been coached to employ if he feels a sense of panic. As he taps in the password his palms grow damp and he wipes them on his jeans as he waits for everything to load. The desktop shortcuts appear, nothing else. He exhales and thinks of Paula’s kind, friendly face as he clicks on his work folder and scans the files for his current spreadsheet. The white screen underneath the figures is flat and stable. Oliver breathes, closing his eyes to relish the relief.
He begins to work, clicking on each cell, highlighting, deleting and replacing. Needing to refer to some previous notes he rifles through some papers in a cardboard folder beside the laptop. Sheet in hand he turns back to the screen. It is heart-stopping. Oliver feels his pulse thumping as he takes short, shallow breaths, the blood draining from his face. He stares. The outline has reappeared, more defined now, undulating but clear. It is a face; a face he knows; the pronounced cheek bones, almond-shaped eyes and full lips. Nerina. He starts as her eyes flash open, the paper dropping to the floor. Her sensual lips part in the shape of a word as the image floats on the screen. She smiles, continues to mouth the word.
Oliver has dreamed of hearing Nerina’s husky voice; has lain awake at night bathed in perspiration, longing for her but now he dreads to turn on the volume switch, fearful of listening, although he knows what it is she is saying. He should switch off. He should shut down, power off, pull the plug. He shudders, transfixed by her rippling features, strands of her curls drifting in a rectangular pool…

      Check in to Anecdotage next week for Part 2 of ‘Ripple’.


A Neighbourly Manor [Part 2]

In Part 2 of ‘A Neighbourly Manor’ Lena discovers some surprising facts about Imogen and is confused when she encounters another member of Jackson Agnew’s entourage. If Imogen is Jackson’s partner then who on Earth is Kristina?

A Neighbourly Manor [continued]

                ……….Her voice was soft and low and her neat features dominated by intense, deep blue eyes that held mine; her short, glossy cap of black hair a stark contrast with the near translucent pallor of her skin. She took my proffered shortbread, murmuring ‘how kind’ before placing the plastic box on the bar.
While Richard’s responses are never obvious I noticed from the widening of his eyes and a slight flare of his nostrils when she took his hand that he was impressed.
We swung towards the master of the estate. He had a look of Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp mustering his numerous children as he addressed us.
‘Shall I take you for a tour before we have tea?’
I nodded before catching my husband’s expression, which was set into ‘I don’t want to be here much longer’ mode. He glanced at his watch.
‘Perhaps just a short tour’ I suggested, and we followed Jackson through the connecting doors at the end of the bar into the adjoining drawing room; another vast, empty space with tall windows facing on to the grounds and adorned with only a huge, stone fireplace.
As we wandered through the network of rooms I hung back to allow Richard and Jackson to get beyond earshot and Imogen to draw level with me as I pretended to examine a carved mantel.
‘It’s all so big,’ I began, gesturing at the room. ‘Whatever will you do with it all? Do you have a large family to fill it up?’
‘Oh no,’ she shrugged. ‘I have one son and Jackson has a stepdaughter. But he loves large rooms and he wants a project now that he is semi retired.’
‘And how about you?’ I asked her.
‘I won’t be retiring any time soon.’ She gave that enigmatic half smile, yet I was undeterred.
‘And do you work in the same field, in art dealing?’
She smiled a little wider then, as if enjoying a private joke. ‘Oh no, no-nothing so glamorous; I am a nurse.’ Though my surprise must have registered on my face she was disinclined to elaborate. I pressed on. ‘It will be difficult for you to spend so much time here then.’
She began to walk in the direction of the men’s voices, speaking swiftly, clandestine-voiced, over her shoulder.
‘We don’t live together, Jackson and I. He lives in Kensington and I am not so far from here, in Dorchester. We meet at weekends.’
I caught her up, wanting to know more but she was intent on reuniting our group.
Jackson was explaining his plans to Richard, his long arms waving about and his cultured vowels bouncing around the bare walls. When we approached my husband gave me a meaningful stare, which I chose to disregard.
‘We thought we’d make this our kitchen as it’s so sunny. Imo would like to turn it into a monument to Monet-all yellow walls and blue tiles, but I like a bit of sexy steel and glass myself.’ He beamed at us, ruffling Imogen’s glossy hair and she closed her eyes, liquefying under his touch. Throughout the remainder of the tour she stayed close to her man as if every moment without him was wasted.
All attempts to engage Richard in feedback regarding the visit were quashed, his only remark being ‘bought himself a trophy wife.’ I knew better than to argue, but it was obvious to me that beautiful Imogen was infatuated with her distinguished, older lover, wealthy or not.

We saw nothing of our new neighbours in the ensuing two weeks, but before we’d left that afternoon I’d elicited permission from Jackson to walk our dog, Molly in the grounds of the manor and for Richard and me to continue to walk across them as a short cut to the pub.
‘Do as you like, my dear!’ he’d roared, throwing a gangly arm around my shoulders, ‘It’s Liberty Hall!’
And so it was the next weekend, while walking with Molly down the driveway, pausing to admire the view of the house with infinite swathes of daffodils surrounding it that I spotted a figure striding along ahead of me, dressed in a voluminous raincoat, wellington boots and a sou’wester hat; a vigorous, purposeful gait, head erect, hands in pockets.
‘Not Jackson Agnew’, I surmised, since he was taller and I’d the distinct impression that it was a woman; yet the figure lacked Imogen’s neat style, from the rear at least.
Our gregarious Jack Russell terrier had rushed ahead to greet the walker, who stopped and bent to the little dog. I could see from the profile it was indeed female and not Imogen. As I drew close the woman grinned as she made a fuss of Molly.
‘Good Morning! Friendly dog! I am Kristina and I guess you must be our neighbour-Lena, perhaps?’
I may have looked as confused as I felt, for she waited for my response, continuing to grin in an abstract, good natured way. Since she appeared older than Imogen I assumed she must be a relative, perhaps a sister of Jackson’s, except that she spoke in a heavy enough accent to demonstrate that she was not of British origin, perhaps Scandinavian. She had a flamboyant, Bohemian look; red curls escaping from the sou’wester, bare legs between the Mac and the boots.
We strolled on together. A scud of spring rain began to sprinkle us. ‘Are you here for long?’ I asked her. She tilted her head to the sky, allowing drops of rain to fall on to her face and into her open mouth.
‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ she laughed. ‘I love English weather! We are just here for the weekend. My daughter must not be left alone for too long. She is supposed to study for her exams but without supervision, well I guess you know what teenagers are like. But these builders, they must also be supervised.’
We were almost at the house, which was encased in the cage of scaffolding that had arrived and been erected during the week in readiness for the replacement of the roof, a renovation that had prompted Richard to describe Jackson Agnew as having money to burn.
I remained silent, absorbing the ‘we’. Imogen had also used ‘we’. Was she here at the manor too? Who was Kristina? She was surely too old to be the stepdaughter Imogen had mentioned.
We parted company with a ‘see you again’ from Kristina as I made my way around to the rear of the manor, where Jackson’s BMW was parked, though not Imogen’s Fiesta. ‘She could be out’, I thought, ‘she could be shopping or running an errand’ but I felt this couldn’t be true. The most likely thing was that she was working.
Richard, when I described the events of my walk declared that he was neither surprised nor interested in ‘that man’s affairs’, but I was disappointed not to have seen Imogen, who I’d hoped to involve in village life. I’d saved some literature for her about parish activities and was hoping to have a conversation with her about the village History Society. I couldn’t help wondering if she knew Kristina was there, or even if she knew of the other woman’s existence.

A Four Part Story-Part 1 of ‘A Neighbourly Manor’

The remainder of fiction month consists of a longer short story, ‘A Neighbourly Manor’, in which Lena and Richard encounter a complex and not entirely conventional household.

A Neighbourly Manor

‘I wonder what she sees in him?’ I kept saying.
‘Leave it alone, can’t you?’ Richard grumbled, or he would shake out a new page of his newspaper in a crackling signal of finality. But one month on the events following that afternoon dogged me as I weeded the border or strolled along the lane to the farm for eggs.
After we’d received the invitation I’d been full of excited zeal, wanting to make a reciprocal gesture before we’d even taken a step along the wide sweep of their driveway, but Richard had curbed my ambitions by frowning,
‘Let’s wait and see how it goes. We haven’t met them yet. We are only neighbours, nothing more. By all accounts they are society people so I don’t suppose we will be of any interest to them except as a kind of ‘country bumpkin’ story for their London friends.’
Despite my husband’s dashing of cold water I continued to harbour fanciful thoughts of what might transpire. I knew that the manor house next door received a constant flow of visitors despite the seedy state of its accommodation. Some were well known figures in publishing, the media or the arts, invoking thrilling fantasies of meeting someone famous. Who knew what might transpire? This could be the beginning of a series of gatherings to which we were part. I began to run a mental inventory of the contents of my wardrobe and concluded it was lacking in some areas.
The previous occupant’s attempt to run Chiddlehampton Manor as a hotel had failed in a gurgling whirlpool of bankruptcy, depression and alcohol dependency. Villagers who had worked there told of stained carpets and mouldy en suites in the twenty three bedrooms, slimy, brown grease covering kitchen surfaces, dwindling bottles in the wine cellar, failed initiatives such as ‘poker breaks’ or ‘murder mystery weekends’ attracting a desultory handful of revellers and resulting in increasing event cancellations.
The parlous nature of the building lent even more urgency to my desire to see it and to meet the latest occupants, who wanted it for a country retreat, no less. A country retreat! Twenty three bedrooms and bathrooms, a ballroom, eight acres of grounds containing stables and seven cottages for staff plus a vast, walled garden with endless greenhouses-all now fallen into disrepair; disintegrating into the chalky, Dorset soil from which it had risen.
There was a blustery March wind gusting across the fields as we walked through the open gate into the driveway; gaps in the two rows of elegant beeches that bordered the sweeping drive, and fallen branches. Weeds punctuated the centre of the crumbling tarmac as it curled around to reveal the yellow stone manor house nestling in a dip below.
I stopped for a moment to admire it, tucking the box of homemade shortbread under my arm. Richard had scoffed.
‘They won’t want that. Their sort is used to posh nosh; Fortnum and Mason, Harrods, all that sort of thing’. I’d ignored him of course, as only one who is shackled to a curmudgeon for thirty two years can.
Even in a decadent state the manor is beautiful, a graceful old house whose romantic symmetry complements the rustic setting of rolling Dorset countryside. As we approached the columns of the grand portico I shivered, hanging back as Richard strode up to the vast, oak door and pressed the bell in his no-nonsense way.
In the ensuing hiatus my misgivings expanded. ‘Do you think they’ve forgotten?’
Richard snorted. ‘Let’s hope so! Then we can go home and have a cup of tea.’ But steps could be heard echoing inside.

I’d heard plenty about him from villagers, in the pub or at the community shop but I was still unprepared for the experience of meeting Jackson Agnew. That he was ‘upper class’, ‘stinking rich’and ‘ponsy’ was circulating the public bar of The Cuckoo, with ‘a bleeding, towny nob’ thrown in by Noah Barnes, Bendick Farm’s cowman, who was not known for holding back on his opinions. Little had been expressed about Dr Agnew’s companion; whether she was partner or wife or daughter no one knew, only that she was ‘posh totty’ [Noah Barnes again] and thought by some to be a model or an actress.
The door was not so much opened as flung wide and filled with him; with Jackson Agnew. His frame crammed the doorway, everything broad, everything extended, from his lengthy arm and thin fingers reaching out to shake Richard’s to his gaping grin and booming ‘Hello hello-Welcome to my humble abode!’
Once I’d followed my husband into the hallway my own hand was enveloped and squeezed. ‘We meet at last!’ he said and his voice was like a deep, mellow gong echoing around the cavern of a hall with its bare walls and floorboards. After I’d glanced around the barren space I noticed he was scrutinising our faces, hungry for our reactions.
‘I expect you’ve been in here hundreds of times, haven’t you?’
Richard was peering up at the ceiling, eager for a sign of damp, death watch or woodworm. He avoided Jackson’s gaze as he replied.
‘We haven’t lived in the village all that long ourselves; retired here from Bristol eighteen months ago. We had no cause to come to the hotel. If we want a drink we go to the pub.’
‘We met the Judds, of course, out and about, you know, when walking the dog,’ I added.
Jackson grinned. ‘Yes. Pour souls. What a state they got into. Shall we move into the lounge and we can rustle up a cup of tea, or something stronger if you like?’ He looked beyond us to an open doorway, calling, ‘Darling, our neighbours are here.’
We walked through into what had been the hotel bar but was now being used as a makeshift kitchen and dining room. Here, overhead the ceiling was adorned in an ornate series of murals decorated in gold leaf portraying rotund cherubs cavorting with plump maidens in diaphanous robes. Jackson caught me scrutinising it and barked in noisy mirth.
‘What do you think of that? Someone went to town, didn’t they? Are you familiar with the Baroque style at all? Ah, there she is! Darling! These are our nearest neighbours, Richard and er…’
I broke in. ‘Lena’
‘Lena, of course. Richard and Lena.’
She was standing behind the bar, motionless, an almost smile on her lips; eyes that had been fixed upon him moving in a slow turn towards Richard and myself. In that moment I understood why all of the descriptions of her had been correct and at the same time wrong, because while she was young and undeniably beautiful there was no element of Hollywood style; no trappings that could be considered cosmetic enhancement. And one thing was clear. She could not in any way be mistaken for his daughter, since no daughter in the world would ever look at her father like that.
She moved around to join us, extending a hand, first to me.