“Well, you know what they say, don’t you pet? What don’t kill you, will make you stronger.”
Jess felt her teeth clench together with the effort of not snapping back. It was one of those glib sayings people trotted out every time they realised there was harm done they couldn’t heal. She wanted to snarl that what didn’t kill you could just as easily leave you broken and bloody, weakened and vulnerable and much less strong than you were before. It could also leave you changed as well as damaged, struggling to know who this stranger was that you had become – the one who jumped at shadows and whose heart started racing when a car engine started up.
It was not a good look for a woman who had once been decorated for valour.
She forced a smile and did not cringe at the hand pat that went with the words of wisdom, delivered from the place of someone whose worst nightmares were about being caught on Scarborough seafront without her make-up on.
“Your aunt means well, Jess.”
The voice came from the door of the lounge, which was being pushed open. There was a smell of fresh coffee as Uncle David carried in a tray with a samovar and tiny cups.
“Oh don’t be so daft, Dave. She knows I mean well, don’t you pet?”
Jess nodded and managed a half-smile, then busied herself moving the newspaper, and a couple of magazines about horoscopes and tarot cards, from the table in front of the paisley-patterned settee. Her uncle set the tray down with care then served the coffee as he always did – strong, black and sweet.
His eyes were not patronising when he looked at her, then she knew he had fought at Goose Green and brought home his own ghosts to roost in the rafters of the perfect life his wife devised for them both. No children of their own, but they had Jess.
“So are you off to Whitby again to see that young man?” Aunt Susan peered over both the top of her cup and her bifocals.
For a moment, just hearing someone naming the place sent a shiver through Jess’s spine, and her imagination bridged the miles to place her on top of the cliffs, screaming gulls wheeling overhead, the wind that never slept and Roald, the image of a modern-day Viking, hair blowing over his face, shoulders half-hunched in a fleece, face animated, telling her the history of the ruined abbey as if he had been there at the time.
“It was all started by a woman – Hild. They made her a saint, but that was later. She was an amazing woman and not one you would want to cross. A princess of sorts. And for all she was an abbess eventually, she didn’t decide to become a nun until she was in her thirties and she’d done one heck of a lot of living by then.” He paused and made a really broad gesture with one arm as if including the ruins and all the headland where they stood. “She loved this place. Would stand up on the cliffs, by the beacon that was here then and look out over the sea, and unbraid her hair so the wind could play with it. And, you know, when she established that first abbey it was nothing like you would think of a monastery today. It was more like a community – both men and women.”
It was easy to picture Hilda in her Saxon dress, facing out over the waves. Jessica thought of that actress she’d seen playing Rowena in ‘Ivanhoe’.
“No,” Roald sounded almost angry, “Hild was of Anglic blood – not Saxon. The ones Pope Gregory famously spoke about when he saw some being sold as slaves: ‘Non Angli, sed angeli’.
Jess looked at him her mouth very slightly agape. He did that a lot. It was very unsettling.
“Non angerlee – what?”
Roald grinned and gave an exaggerated mock wince as if her pronunciation caused him pain.
“Non Angli, sed angeli – ‘These are not Angles, they are angels.’ You must understand back then there was no idea of ‘Anglo-Saxon’, they were different peoples, different cultures.”
She had still been on crutches then and he had helped her back to the car park soon after then they had found a small pub in Robin Hood Bay, where they could look out of the window over the tumble of cottages and tourist shops. Picture postcard stuff, except the sky had been an obstinate slate-grey all afternoon.
“So what has this history lesson to do with anything?” she asked at last when the small talk dried up over their beer.
“Your dream,” he said, “the one you keep having about a glowing necklace of strange pearls.”
Jess nodded, she had told him of it when he asked her if she ever remembered her dreams.
“I’m not sure they were pearls, just the kind of odd light they gave off made them seem like it. They were like pearls, but shaped in ridged spirals.”
In the dream she had seen something glowing under her uniform blouse, shining through it and everyone staring until she had run away and been standing on a cliff edge, then ripping open her blouse to see the strange necklace lying there on her naked breasts. The image came into her mind clear as a photograph and she heard Roald draw a small, sharp breath, which brought her back to the pub.
“Uh, yeah,” he said, his expression slipping into an odd smile, “that’s the one. They were shaped like ammonites. When they made Hild a saint that was her symbol, you see.”
For some reason, she felt uncomfortable and looked out of the window to escape the moment.
“It’s only been since the – the accident. I’ve never had that kind of dream before.”
Standing naked on the cliff-edge, her hair so long it ran the full length of her back and blew out around her, sparking with energy, and feeling so whole, so complete – so powerful.
The way he said it, made her blush. She started pulling herself to her feet, leaning on the crutches.
“I need to get back – I promised I’d take my aunt to the talk on astrology. She loves all that kind of stuff.”
Roald rose too.
“And you don’t?”
“I never used to,” she admitted, as he helped her ease back into her coat.
She tried to shrug, but it was not so easy with the crutches.
“Maybe believing in fate helps makes what happened to me seem less meaningless. Maybe it helps make sense of the senseless. Even if all I’m doing is seeing patterns in the stars by joining the dots with random lines.”
He stopped on the way back up the hill to the car. Asking her to wait as he dived into a tourist shop, full of costlier craft items. She studied the window but could not see what had caught his eye. When he came out, he pushed a small flat box into her hand.
“Just something to remember today by,” he said. Then leaned forward to kiss her, lightly, one hand running up over the curve of her breast, lingering as he whispered: “You look beautiful naked.”
She was so stunned that she had frozen, her whole body stiff, paralysed. Just as it had been when she had woken up to find herself in hospital. So she didn’t say a word as he turned his broad back away and strode off into the crowds of tourists, lost to sight the moment he did so.
Sitting drinking coffee poured from her aunt’s ceramic samovar, it seemed a lifetime ago.
“You know the young man I mean, don’t you pet? He came to one of my rune workshops? You went out with him a couple of months ago – he seemed such a nice young man.”
“I don’t think they got along, Susan,” her uncle said, frowning.
“No. We didn’t have much in common,” Jess said quickly.
“Oh, that’s such a shame.” Her aunt sounded almost as if she really meant it. “He was at the workshop again yesterday, I told him he should be the one teaching it, he’s very good. I invited him over for dinner.”
Jess felt her hands lose all their strength and the tiny coffee cup slipped through her fingers to shatter on the polished wood of the floor. It was suddenly hard to breathe as if something was stifling her. Then her uncle was there, helping her up, helping her to escape to the sanctuary of her own room, knowing what she needed, so leaving her alone after a brief hug.
“Don’t fuss over the girl so much, Dave. She’s not a piece of china. And get something to clear that up, good thing it was mostly empty. I’d never get the stains out of the curtains…”
Her aunt’s voice receded as the door to the lounge closed.
She sat there for a moment, on the edge of her bed, resisting the temptation to bury under the duvet, to hide. Then she started to pack.
From ‘Maybe’ by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago. To receive your free copy, either subscribe to the blog by email or request a copy by leaving your email in our Contact Box. That also signs you up to receive any newsletters we might get around to putting out one-day too!