Chloe heaved a sigh, and stared into the mist across the lake.
It was early morning, and the starlings trilled. A swan’s nest, half in the water, bobbed back and forth on the mossy banks, empty, like an upturned larger version of her own straw boater. Somebody, had to leave in haste.. The cygnet was long gone, but Chloe was there, each day, to see it nurtured, spread its wings, and take to water with its parents. The rocks sat, where she sat, still, as a sticky bun, refusing to be budged, by the persistent soft lapping at the water‟s edge, created by her paddling feet.
This very place is where life began and ended for her.
The air was thick with moisture. Dew clung, for dear life to the bull-rushes, like the sweat upon Cuban cigars. A pampas swayed gently, as if to acknowledge her usual presence. The mist unfurled, with a wisp of encouragement from a light breeze. Bream and perch kissed the surface, making a plipping sound. Like a ghostly blanket, the vapor, sat, levitating, upon its own stage, like natures very own special effects. It was the opening scene of a fine play indeed, a serene, yet dazzling backdrop. A wonderful performance, that only God can choreograph.
The rotting oak that sat with her, creaked, with fatigue, and filled her nostrils with its curiously wet, sweet and moldy musk. The morning sun struggled through the dank air.
She never took this special place, for granted. It was put there, to start her day. It was where, she saw the seasons come and go. This is where the dragonflies dance. Maybe, even, guest appearances, of kingfisher or woodpecker. Autumnal riots of color, followed coats of frost like a dusting of icing sugar of this natural cake of wonder. She had been nearly every day for 2 years before and never tired of its beauty. She always chose a pebble, and and kept in her pocket for good luck. Gave it back the next day, and chose another, to ward of evil spirits. You can take the girl out of the lake but not the lake out of the girl. She was her own lady of the lake.
Today was special. She saw an otter, looking straight at her, and swimming on its back, like a tycoon relaxing, in his very own swimming pool.
It was her secret refuge, to escape the black face of reality. A haven, to stop the voices coming. How else, could she face her day? What else made sense?
From lakelife, to pondlife.
The first day back, was always a bit like walking the plank, with a whole crew of teachers prodding a saber in her back. She could only hope for mutiny. Or, be keelhauled, or thrown below deck, to sink into oblivion. She was marooned and set adrift, with not breath in her sails, in a featureless becalmed sea of agonizing monotony. School, was like a stormy, uncomfortable voyage, leaving her mostly dashed, on the rocks of despair. The whole day, and no land in sight, for another six hours. At least, her cabin at home was stocked with rum rations and tobacco. A half bottle of Smirnoff was tucked in her satchel for enough grog, to see her through the shitstorm and a half pack of Rothmans to brave the elements and any rogue wave.
She flicked her dog end into the drink, twisting her wet toes into tennis shoes, and made her way to class.
The feet of other girls, click clacking their heels, and the scuffling of boys, rag tailing down the glossy corridor floors, lifted a familiar, lanolin smell. Like termites on a mound, each creature found an entrance to their lair, and slowly, but surely, the bustling bodies siphoned off into the labyrinth of halls. Echoes of laughter, dwindled, and seeped quietly, into the roof rafters.
Chloe was late, and wrestled with her locker, eventually, vomiting its contents onto the floor, the inside of which looked like the Devil had had an auction.
“Shit , bum and assholes!” She cussed, as she scraped her belongings together and stuffed them back, impatiently.
“Hey, Butcher, get your ass into your class!” The voice boomed, inches from her ear. Chloe momentarily shut her eyes, and pulled a face like a firecracker had been set off. Fuming, she whirled around to face Rose Sinclair, who stuck her chin out provocatively.
“Hey there, you mad witch.” She tweaked, Chloe‟s nipple.
“Owwww, you little slapper.” Chloe winced, clutching her left breast and stifled a squeal of pain.
A pause, and sharp intake of breath, turned to jollity. Both gaping, they embraced, laughing. Rose, looked at Chloe’s firm bosom, more closely.
“Mmmm…I see my tits, are still bigger than yours. I don‟t expect you used your own homemade growth hormone, over the school holiday then? Can’t you mash up some bogroot of potash, or, cowshit with chamomile and smear it over those poor tiny boobies, to replace the Kleenex in that pathetic little bra of yours?” Rose pointed.
Chloe, looked down towards her chest and cupped her hands and jiggled her petite stature, of thereabouts, in the vain hope, the small nests would find another way to catch and meet, or outgrow her friend’s ample attributes instantaneously.
The taunt was harmless enough, and an apparently an ongoing theme between them. Rose, of course, referred with playful ridicule, to Chloe’s meager, pert bosom, and her best friends herbal obsession. She had been a regular visitor to her weekend „clinic‟ over the break. Rose, secretly met her for massage therapy, for her unpredictable panic attacks that dogged her daily.
The up and coming quack, was hitting the spot for her, especially, after the death of her Father.
He died after, a lingering, mysterious and debilitating illness. A dark episode in her life. She loved and missed her Dad. He left her Mother for a man. A very much younger man. Tobias, was his driver. But, he had lost his drivers licence through another love. Alcohol. Soon, he and whole town knew of his lustful weakness for young boys. After a drinking bout with sailors at a local dockside pub, one lone barman, caught his eye.
The young, lithe, sandy haired, Tobias, was bored with the attentions of drunken serviceman all night. A graduate of Bioschemistry, and rugby college captain at Corpus Christi at Cambridge, left him a bachelor and Master with distinction. Then, Daniel, a fashion expert, over twice his age, came in to his life, one rainy April night, and asked for a treble vodka and some pork scratchings.
Something just clicked. Tobias loved his playful irony, and the way his eyes twinkled , hoping he would understand the wordplay. Which, he didn’t mostly, but he was a cool talker with lots of worldly wisdom and an answer for evertyhting. Daniel loved to watch the care Tobias used in pouring his drink and always giving the correct change. How, he swept his hair back with his hand with a small pout, and an affectionate squeeze of his hand.
The pub was called The Skinners Arms. A haunt for the covert gay scene, near his factory, in Portsmouth. Quayside prostitution, was not just common. It was an industry. Sailors were boarding in the morning and they were looking to weigh anchor one more time to snag a ‘crabcatchers’. These were usually young migrant lads or stowaways waiting for the next ship. Waifs and strays who beg to sell their unwashed bodies for a pound sterling towards their needed passage. They were starving wretches. Teenagers who had lost their way and their innocence so early in life. Some sailors would smuggle them aboard to share their hammock, and risk being put in the brig, taking pity on them and giving them cigarettes and alcohol with dry civvy clothes. The crabcatchers often disappeared. They would be found, washed up on the shores, or floating on the incoming tide. Once, a fishboat found one in it’s catch. The Captain reported it to the Police. They did nothing. The boys were anonymous. They had no identity, and if they did, who would identify them?
The Skinners Arms, was where Daniel and Tobias met secretly, for the next three weeks, until their lives were turned upside down. One dark foggy night, Daniel, drove them to a well known spot, for men to meet, in a nearby Woolworth carpark. They were disturbed by Police in the parked VW fastback, when Daniel panicked, and ramming the throttle to the floor, sped off in the other direction. The squad car gave chase, until Daniel lost control of the car, with the vehicle coming to grief, killing three of a herd of sheep on a blind bend. The farmer was for using a public highway to transport his herd at 3am during poor visibility.
Daniel was arrested for drink-driving, resisting arrest, dangerous driving and the aggravated death of livestock, and driving without due care and attention. They were also, both charged, for performing lude acts in a public place.
Daniel Butcher, son of John Butcher Esq; Esteemed Tailor & Outfitter of Swansea (retired), hired Tobias, to be his chauffeur, so he could carry on running his Fathers successful company.
Then, when Tobias threatened to work in a another pub, several hundred yards away, he forced Daniel’s hand.
A late bedside, admission to his wife, of his raving homosexuality, after 15 years of a loveless union, seemed to turn out the light in his wife’s head even. Her black eyes blazed, and spittle collected at the corner of her mouth, in the deepest rage. On learning this, awoken by his creeping upstairs to bed and smelling of the street, she lashed out, to her cowering husband, breaking his nose, with 3 lbs of frozen minced beef.
“Good riddance, you stinking pervert. You disgust me…I hope you get what you deserve, you bastard…!” She screamed after him, through the bedroom window, as he stumbled to a taxi waiting. He looked up at her distraught expression, and saw her tearing hair curlers with tufts of her hair from her scalp, and squawking with a stream of abuse, and threats of retribution.
He left his sobbing wife, with that which he stood in, and nursing a bloody nose. Bloody hell.
Chloe, always knew her dad was different. The way he liked to borrow her hair products. She even caught him dressing in her underwear once, and he told her, he liked the way the fabric felt against his ‘little soldier’. From an early age, her father‟s awareness of his feminine side, was a positive thing in her view. Dad, understood, how girls like her, thought and felt inside. When it was her ‘time of the month’ (which was always a battle with the forces of the cosmos for up to two weeks straight), he would be so supportive. Making her tea, filling a hot water bottle, and burning ‘the curse’ in the grate for her. He wasn’t a man’s man. Instead of football and fishing, he preferred to try out cake recipes and listen to opera. Her Dad liked, art galleries and expensive champagne and was exact about the right cologne. He drank Earl Grey tea and wore cravats. He had a cigarette holder and smoked menthol. He enjoyed construction and would take his binoculars and watch bricklayers build walls. He played the piano and took up croquet, and paid particular attention to his appearance. He liked long walks to the pub at night and would come home with grass stains on his knees, where, he excused that by saying he fell into a ditch on occasions, while in his cups. Chloe knew that from an early age, it was more likely her father was meeting men at those times. None of this domestic sexual revelation surprised her a bit. Dad had grace and poise. He was witty and charming. He had tried heterosexuality, and had been disappointed. After being married to a cold fish for thirteen years, he didn’t need waste his great looks and creative mind, on a person who never gave him the accolade, he so much wanted.
They once adored each other, so, what turned their marriage, so bitter? Chloe needed to know. She could see the hurt and the pain they were inflicting on eachother. The sorrow in her parents eyes. Like, they were somehow roped and tied, to misery, itself.
She knew her father was gay. She loved him more, because of that. He was sensitive. He cared, so deeply about her. Her Mother was self obsessed, surly and deeply unhappy about, well, everything it seemed, blaming the whole world for her own lack.
Chloe ,was far more liberal minded, than her mother, who, six months after her marital upheaval, became depressed and demented.
Nelly Butcher, started to self-mutilate, and was diagnosed, as insane, and sectioned under the Mental Health Act. She was incarcerated, in a secure unit at “Radcliffe Asylum” in a neighboring town, called Horsend Girling.
It was a featureless building with a tall walled garden and terraces. The building itself stood formidably grey, with giant sash windows that were screwed shut, and kept in place by steel bars. In the grounds, a mausoleum, stood in the middle of a maze, like a sentry. A tall silver birch for company, swept up one side of this monument, like it was held at its side, like a rifle ready to shoot unwanted intruders.
Chloe, was a natural. Her skills, uncannily sharp, in what was very much, state of the art, ‘voodoo’, to a postwar community. Frowned upon, by many as ‘hocus pocus’. However, this young professional, had a host of secret customers, with various symptoms, from morning sickness to vague psychoses. Erectile dysfunction, or ‘brewers droop’ was to her credit, almost successfully resolved, in every case.
Chloe, was also a sexual predator and only interested in the attentions of older men. They reminded her of her father. She was also bi-sexual, but without making too much of another lifestyle choice to stun her neighbors, disguised it well.
Rose, seemed to benefit from her best friends, crackpot potions, and soothing tinctures. The flashbacks were easing, with Chloe’s sessions. Lavender on the temples, and a foot scrub, would slowly expel her demons, and they were far less likely, to darken her doorstep these days.
She never knew what took her Father’s life. She missed his dressmaking skills . She missed him, calling her ‘Bumble’. Oh, and the wild parties with his seafaring friends.
The autopsy failed to throw light on the manner of his death, with only a coroner‟s verdict of ‘death by misadventure’. Doctors were baffled. But she was going to find out what he died of, so he could rest in peace, and she could get on with her life.
At least she had Rose. A rock to cling to who seemed so in control. Excatly what Rose thought of her. Sadly, the reverse was true in both cases, but masked with bravado, hilarity and daredevil antics. If, either got cut, the other bled.