… she’d possessed something miraculous,
and now she was deprived of its use…
Whitley Bay, winter - Wikipedia commons
No longer would she know his nearness, feel his tender mind, experience his gentle banter, and share the magic. What they had dreaded most had finally happened: he was dead and she a 28-year-old spinster.
Dabbing her eyes, she turned away and stumbled towards the creaking churchyard gate.
Alone. So terribly alone. Not like normal people. This was different, more profound: her very soul had been deprived. There was no-one else. She was a freak, a sport, like him, like her father. 'Alone' is such a telling word.
Fumbling at the lych gate, she was startled by a man's voice.
'Please accept my commiserations, Miss Driscoll.'
Charis had to look up at him, a good six inches taller than her, with a rather weather-beaten complexion. Wisps of sandy hair blew about his eyes, crinkled-up because of the wind. His wide mouth opened in a sympathetic wan smile, teeth the white of a non-smoker. Stubbornly, he restricted the flapping of his raincoat about his knees with one hand while the other clamped doggedly onto his brown trilby. 'My name's Paul Napier,' he said.
Tying a black scarf beneath her chin, she replied, 'Are you one of Lach - one of father's associates, Mr Napier?' Her brow creased, though not with curiosity: the headaches were back, with renewed force. Her father's only legacy.
'Oh, no, Miss Driscoll!' He laughed nervously. 'I'm from The Courier.'
Furious that her moments of mourning were not private, her pallor abruptly changed to crimson. 'You've filled your obituary columns, Mr Napier!'
He stepped back, stung. 'It was my editor's idea!' he called to her. But she only half-heard, swerving away from him into the deserted street.
Since she had been old enough to speak, he had insisted she called him Lachlan. He often admonished her when she thought of him as Daddy. Yet they shared so much more than daughter and father; there was no incest between them, though many, if they knew, would regard this deep relationship as incestuous, mentally if not physically.
When she first realized he could walk in her mind, she backed off, terrified. Yet, once he had invited her to explore his mind with her own, she was not slow to accept the genetic gift. Within a short time they had prepared codes of conduct: in effect, each would knock and await an invitation. Of course, the exquisite temptation was always there, particularly strong at times of high emotion. Fortuitously, their talent was accompanied by an unusually strong will. So, as she passed puberty and had a few brief sexual encounters, Lachlan never pried. And she reciprocated, respecting her parents' privacy. Over the ensuing years, try as they would, neither could look into anyone else's mind; the knowledge was quite daunting but they gradually resigned themselves to being the only possessors of the talent. But now even that had altered irrevocably.
She had been by herself for five days; the funeral was merely the culmination, the final image-set to haunt her. And she would hold those images for all time: his corpse, embalmed and serene, but now only a husk, without feeling, without love pulsing through, without life. Why do people revere the husk so much. Is it merely a graven image of a loved one? She mourned the loss of his mind, not his body. After all these days, as if finally sank in that he wouldn't be coming home from his Seaside Show, beaming at the audience's adulation, she felt at her lowest ebb and found, strangely, there were no more tears left to shed.
The telephone shrilled.
For a second her heart stopped, as she thought absurdly that it was all a mistake and Lachlan was ringing to tell her so. He had merely performed the greatest prestidigitation ever, escaping from the Spirit World, a feat that even the great Houdini could not achieve... Chiding herself, she lifted the receiver.
Before she could crash the phone down, the reporter said in a breathless rush, 'I'd like to apologize for this morning, Miss Driscoll. My editor shouldn't have asked me to interview you at such an unhappy time. I felt a terrible heel after you left...'
'Thank you for ringing, Mr Napier,' she replied calmly. He seemed so anxious to make amends, to be friendly, and she could do with some companionship, even desultory - no, she was being unkind. But no-one could take away her feeling of abandonment, of isolation. No-one. 'And thank you for the thought. I do understand. I shouldn't have snapped. You have a job to do...'
'Will you let me atone for it by asking you out for lunch?' Perhaps he detected her hesitation, for he added hastily, 'Nothing too grand - if it's not too sudden and you haven't already eaten, and - but perhaps you'd rather be left alone?'
Utterance of that word decided her. She said, 'How about the Sea View on the front?'
'Y-yes...' He sounded nonplussed, the initiative snatched from him.
'In thirty minutes. I don't live far - oh, but you'll know that, won't you, Mr Napier?'
'Er, yes. Fine, I'll see you then - and I promise not to ply you with too many questions.'
''Bye for now, Mr Napier.' Replacing the phone, she wondered why she had arranged to meet this man, a reporter of all people.
Then the idea struck her. He could help her locate any of Lachlan's relations: a kind of gene-trace. Newspapermen had access to places and documents she and Lachlan hadn't, she supposed. Their search had been compounded by the fact that he did not appear on the Register of Adopted Children; in fact, the details of his adoption were decidedly cloudy. If only he had been promiscuous! Then other progeny might share the psychic gift. But he'd always been the devoted husband; even after her mother died, he remained faithful to her memory. And yet he had known that one day this terrible emptiness would engulf her mind. If she married it was possible that her child would inherit the talent and be of one mind with her. If... But her few boyfriends had always shied away when they perceived the father-daughter bond - the sexual attachment was no match for something they couldn't comprehend. She was no prude and enjoyed her infrequent affairs, but her family's influence was too strong: she would not - could not - conceive except when in love.
And such an intense feeling had eluded her. She hadn’t met any man with whom she would want to create a new life within her. Now, despite an all-pervading loneliness, she found herself stubbornly clinging to these same principles. Perhaps Lachlan was to blame but she was being selfish, she told herself. He’d suffered years of loneliness before she was born. She tried to imagine how he must have felt, discovering the gift they shared: for until that moment his talent had lain buried. There was a difference, though: she’d possessed something miraculous, and now she was deprived of its use; what he never experienced in those thirty years, he never missed.
Charis spotted Paul Napier sitting at a corner-table; the others were vacant: the tail-end of summer. On seeing her enter, he stood up. Well-mannered, at least.
'Hello, Miss Driscoll.'
His eyes were brown all right, possessing a sad lack-lustre as he talked. He wasn't as overpoweringly tall as she had first thought. She wondered if today's faux pas attributed to his brown study.
Sherry half-filled his glass. 'You haven't been waiting long, I hope?'
'No. You're dead on time.' Freudian slip - ignored.
Outside, gulls reeled and screeched above the deserted promenade. Dull grey clouds had risen and darkened.
Having removed her black Ottoman weave coat, Paul brought two Sherries over, which he managed to spill in carrying.
'You seem nervous, Mr Napier,' Charis said, warming her observation with a smile. 'Shouldn't it be me who's on edge?'
'Possibly...' Contemplatively, his finger caressed the lip of the glass and the smile abandoned his face.
'Well, you are going to ask me questions, aren't you?'
He nodded, apologetically.
She leaned forward. 'Before you start, will you do me a favour, please?'
'Not to ask questions?'
Charis released a brief throaty laugh - the first since when? 'No, I'm not that ungracious, you know, despite my outburst earlier. After I've told you all I know about Daddy, will you investigate the circumstances surrounding his adoption?'
A flash of surprise in his face revealed that her exposal of Lachlan's adoption was news to Paul Napier. He considered his reply, alert eyes penetrating hers. 'When was he born, Miss Driscoll?'
'Sixty-two. That's no age to die... And he was adopted soon after his birth?'
'Yes, so he tells - so he told me.'
He sighed, rested his elbows on the small table-mat. 'It's a tall order, Miss Driscoll.' That wan smile again. 'But yes I'll help.'
She sat back, relaxed for the first time in a week; the dull pounding in her head receded - thank God. 'We might as well stop all this formality. Paul - call me Charis, will you?' He nodded, seemingly amused. 'What can I tell you about The Great Lachlan that the Sunday supplements haven't already covered?'
Paul smiled thinly. 'I'll leave out the remarkable news about his being adopted, Charis. What about the man behind the magician? Our town would like to know about him. We've few enough celebrities to boast of, so naturally we're interested.'
As she talked about her father she so wanted to reveal their well-kept secret. No, she was not keen on meeting men in white coats carrying a straitjacket... The Great Lachlan began to emerge as an honest cheerful family man involved in charity work and sensational escapologist tricks. Charis had even appeared for a full season as his ostrich-plumed assistant and learned many of his highly original tricks. (Strange, she thought, how they never capitalized on their shared talent: he never touched upon mind-reading in his act).
Paul touched her hand. 'You seemed distant just then. Do you want to go on?'
Eyes lowered, she watched her fingers tremble on the table-top. 'Yes, it's past history now. Lovely memories. Oddly, I feel detached from everything.' She raised her head, looked about her, seeing only Lachlan. 'I don't think I can be hurt any deeper, if that's what you mean.' Just a lingering horrible emptiness: are all lonely people this desolate? And her eyes stung, tearless.
'Yes. No tourists!' His laughter seemed forced, but well-intentioned.
Miserably she gazed out across the curving mile-wide bay and the empty sea beyond. The stench of wrack startled and pleased her, momentarily clearing the shadows from her mind. 'Gran used to talk of being brought down here, being rolled in seaweed to cure her sleeping-sickness,' she mused, but he didn't hear. Damp leaves clustered against the sea-wall, life-tokens discarded.
They began to walk along the beach.
'I'm sorry it's bad news, Charis,' he said, and stopped to pick up a smooth oval pebble.
She shrugged, casting the thought of disappointment aside. 'Dad - Lachlan and I tried, too, to no avail. I only thought you'd have more luck, with contacts and so on...'
Paul threw the stone low and it bounced three times then plopped out of sight. 'The Great Lachlan book's coming along, you know,' he said, attempting to change the mood of their conversation. 'Thanks to you.'
Silence fell between them, yet it differed from the previous times. It was almost companionable... 'What were you thinking then - skimming that stone?' If only she didn't need to ask!
'A bit trite, I'm afraid.' He lifted his shoulders. 'Oh, how little romance is left, I suppose... Now, in your father's day...'
Sadness was still in his gaze. She probed tentatively: nothing, a complete blank. Instead, she guessed: 'You've lost your girlfriend?'
He nodded. 'Fiancée, actually...'
All thought of her father and the now-unused talent atrophying scurried away as she looked into his eyes. No self-pity there, unlike herself. Resignation, perhaps, as if being jilted had become too frequent an occurrence for him, the loser.
'The article went well, didn't it?' she offered to lighten his burden.
'There's always another time, Paul, another girl...'
'So they say.'
She kicked sand, some pebbles skittered. 'Other pebbles, Paul, to use a cliché again.'
'No.' He shook his head. 'It's no good saying that next time, next girl, would be different. I've said it before, Charis. Too often.' A half-choked sigh. 'I get too wrapped up in my writing, my research - the book on your father's a case in point...'
'There's plenty of romance around, Paul. You've just got to look harder and not give in, ever.'
'How strange for you to say that,' he murmured softly.
Charis froze, only a moment. She, who had no-one, whose life revolved around a talent she could no longer use and enjoy, who indulged in a selfish quest...
He added, 'I only wish I could find some clues to his parentage, family. Doing my research, I often picture him closeted with a large, happy family, by the hearth, watching his father do party-tricks...'
'You're a hopeless romantic.'
He smiled. 'Two of a kind.'
Not quite, she thought. I'm one of a kind... 'Paul, have you tried tracking down all possible blood-relations?' She could not voice the hidden implication.
Paul stopped. Sand scrunched. 'You never mentioned the possibility...'
'No,' she said, a little peeved, 'but I have now.'
'That might put a different slant on the investigation, Charis.' He seemed to hold himself back, undecided. 'I can't say more right now.'
The walk across the wet sand tended to take on a dreamlike quality: in their wake a trail of sodden footprints quietly shrinking into themselves. Crossing onto dry sand he led her up stone steps that were gritty underfoot.
'I'm sorry, Charis. I'd rather not have told you - but you insisted.'
She leaned against the front door frame. 'Go on, Paul. Please.' Her voice was barely above a whisper.
'It's as if my idol had toppled...'
'Please, Paul - I need to know!' Hands reached up to her temple but couldn't assuage the insistent ache, the pounding.
'Her name's Lena Beaumont. She's fifty-two now, was his assistant before you were born.'
Charis listened to his every word and memorized the woman's address. It was still a slender hope. 'I'm going to see her.'
'But - ?'
'I have to.' Even now she could not bring herself to explain the purpose of her quest. Fond of Paul as she now was, she doubted if he'd believe her. Especially as at present there was no proof.
'You're a very stubborn woman.'
She met his unashamedly admiring gaze. 'Another of Lachlan's traits, probably,' she said cryptically.
'Do you want me to go with you?'
'No, thank you. This must be done alone. I still find it incredible to think that -'
'Mrs Beaumont assured me he knew nothing of the child's existence.' He hesitated, then began, 'About her boy, Charis...'
Gently she shoved him out of the doorway. 'You'd better be getting back. I'll come and see you - afterwards - and reveal all!'
A two-up two-down red-brick building, with dilapidated wooden fencing, the garden unkempt, the front door and each window-frame flaking through years of neglect. She was a peroxide blonde, wearing too much make-up, thick-set and shorter than Charis. 'Mrs Beaumont?'
'Yes. You'll be the lady the reporter was on about, I suppose?'
'Yes, I'm The Great Lachlan's daughter.'
'That's what he said...' Squinting, she mused, 'There is a resemblance, now I look...' Her eyes were sad, so sad: withdrawn. 'Sorry, you'd better come in, love.' She stepped aside. The shadowy hall was cluttered with toy soldiers. 'Excuse the mess, won't you, my Michael's not very tidy.'
Charis stepped across the threshold. Wood-panelled wallpaper seemed to suffer from worms, for small bits were pocked, baring pink plaster.
'It's good of you to see me, Mrs Beaumont. Really. May I see the boy - I believe he still stays with you?'
Mrs Beaumont nodded, led her into the lounge. Here, on the walls were framed posters advertising The Great Lachlan and Lena. Then, Lena had possessed an attractive shape and eye.
'Michael!' Mrs Beaumont called and the first glimmerings of foreboding began burning at the edges of Charis's mind. 'Michael, come on, now, there's a lady to see you!' She pulled a face, smiled. 'He's awfully slow, I'm afraid...'
Two people entered. A man and a woman.
'We've a friend visiting, haven't we, Michael?' In an aside, she added, 'They go to the same school, you see.'
Charis stared, though one look was enough. There was no mistaking their features - snub noses, high cheekbones, unusually flattened faces, Mongolian eyelids and dark childlike trusting eyes. Disconcertingly, they were as tall as her. She stepped forward, said, 'Hello, Michael. My name is Charis. Who is this with you?'
His large tongue lolling momentarily, he smiled with heart-rending affection. 'Barbra,' he managed. 'My friend.'
Such dark eyes, as though their souls peered through a long tunnel.
'They've both got mental ages of 5-year-olds,' Mrs Beaumont's voice reached her but dimly as Charis held Michael's broad, soft hand and probed. 'He's thirty-four next week...' Charis grasped incredibly articulate expressions that conveyed frustration and puzzlement, as though a dormant part of his mind was slowly awakening, trying to counteract the devastating effects of an extra chromosome. But there was sadness, too, an indefinable awareness that time was running out. 'He's living on borrowed time now,' came his mother's whisper. 'The doctors all say they don't live much beyond thirty...' Yet death held no terror to his mind; this existence ceased and happiness was elevated to another plane, that was all. Barbra thought so too.
As though slapped, Charis stepped back, stunned.
'No,' Charis whispered, 'I'm all right. Please, Mrs Beaumont, leave me with them for a few more minutes, will you?'
'Well, if you're sure. You look so pale... Well, all right, then. I'll put the kettle on, love.'
'Thank you.' She watched Mrs Beaumont slip out.
There was no error. She had snatched thoughts from Barbra.
Tentatively, as sweat budded on her brow and made her spine cold, her moist palms gently pressed their foreheads. With the utmost care, she drew Michael's mind out of himself, shepherded him into her own. Once assured that he was at ease, she lifted Barbra's mind free too.
Before this momentous act of liberation, she had believed her quest had ended in failure, that she was doomed to loneliness, unable to walk into another mind. Yet now she could commune with Michael and someone else totally unrelated. Give them spiritual uplift, enable them to communicate without the damning constraints of mutation. They could experience her feelings and each other's whilst in her and of her, and even vicariously experience travel and entertainment from her memories. These minds that were a part of hers were quite unlike her father's for they lacked his humour, his culture, his literary anecdotes and the magic. But they were far from barren. The sheer joy at being thus freed was almost overpowering. There was an enchanting humbling sense of wonder in both of them, and this was transmitted to Charis most forcefully. Concern for her own psychic loneliness paled beside the spiritual desolation Michael and Barbra endured. And despite their entrapped minds being unable - until now! - to attain freedom, they were nearly always smiling and, as the text-books said, were very affectionate.
Any residue of elitism crumbled away. For the first time in all these years, she could put her talent to some worthwhile use. Outward-looking, instead of inward. To use her talent on minds trapped within bodies. As she tenderly guided them back, she promised, 'I will return soon.'
'Don't worry, we're no longer so alone,' they replied in unison, without speaking.
Mrs Beaumont came in with a tray of coffee.
Afterwards, she had no idea where she was running to.
A solitary figure stood on the shoreline, gazing out to the horizon.
Paul needed her too.
Now, she realized, she was not unlike other people, experiencing a normal human feeling. Even if she had a child - yes, perhaps Paul's - whose genetic make-up endowed the gift, she would not emulate Lachlan: that belonged to the past, was fantasy, a selfish dream. Her gift now belonged to the Michaels and Barbras of this world.
Previously published in Auguries magazine #1, 1983.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2015
If you enjoyed this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
Or you could try my co-authored fantasy novel Wings of the Overlord (by Morton Faulkner) currently available in hardback (5 good glowing reviews):