“Well, you know what they say, don’t you pet? What don’t kill you, will make you stronger.”
Jessica felt her teeth dig into her tongue 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?”
Jessica 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. But then 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 then 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 Jessica’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. 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 upbraid 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’.
Jessica 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.’ “
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 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 pearls shaped in ridged spirals.”
In the dream she had seen something glowing under her uniform blouse, shining 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.”
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 make this all 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. The 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 had been so stunned that she had frozen, her whole body stiff, paralysed. Just as it had been when she woke up to find herself in hospital. So she had not said 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.
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