My Brother Taran
Taran's mouth dried up and the blood drained from his cheeks. A man was aiming a revolver at him. This man's attitude was almost casual, as if he was accustomed to killing people. His brocaded dressing gown contrasted with Taran's battered leather jacket. Sixteen year old Taran looked over to his older brother, but Frank clearly didn't know what to do either.
"Who are you?" the gun's owner asked in a Spanish accent. He took one step down a staircase with an elaborate balustrade, then added "if you do not tell me, I will shoot you."
Taran had never been so frightened. He felt as if he might loose control of his bowels at any moment.
The 21st century
The moon was still visible but scraps of black cloud floated across her face. She might've been veiled like a Sultan's daughter in the northern night. Below her lay a wooded area where caterpillars munched on oak leaves and blue tits incubated their chicks. Here Amber settled down in a hide with her camera, hoping to take pictures of shy roe deer. A wolf-grey moth landed on her fleece-covered shoulder, then flew off again. Something felt wrong about tonight, but she couldn't put her finger on it. She would feel better if her photos were good. Her nose caught salt from nearby sea. Amber looked forward to tomorrow's barbaque, summer in a strong bite.
A movement in the undergrowth caught her eye. Yes, springy tendrils were waving in a bramble patch. Amber stiffened, sure that it wasn't any deer she knew. Large areas of the wood were in orca-black shadow, but moonlight penetrated in places. An early sycamore leaf dangled above her hide, like nature's protective hand.
Two men walked across her line of sight. They were some distance away but she was sure they had beards. Heavy jackets bulked them up. Heat rose up through Amber's skin and her pores freed sweat. Her heart began to pound. Those men bent down and she couldn't see what they were doing, but sounds of shuffling, then the rasp of a spade on soil, reached her eardrums. Time seemed to have stopped. She told herself that she knew this patch well enough to evade pursuirs, even at night, but couldn't stop the fear which rose in her mind. Amber braced herself, ready for a quick getaway.
The men reappeared. Each now carried a rucksack on his back. "Please let them go back the way they came," she pleaded silently. Instead they came walking towards her, fluid as leopards, over bare earth where summer leaves shaded out the undergrowth.
Then both figures halted. Amber could now see their faces better, and they were alarmed. They couldn't have stopped for long but to her it felt like eternity. Had they noticed her hide? Surely not in the dark. Next a male voice shouted "oi, you, get the Hell out of 'ere!" Amber nearly jumped through the tarpaulin roof. Those two men spun round and ran away from her, pounding through the night. She remained tense, unsure of whoever had yelled. Was it best to run or was the new arrival too close to outpace. She began to shiver, but also braced herself ready to lash out.
"Its all right, you can come out now," said whoever had shouted. Since he knew she was there, Amber emerged from her shelter. Two young men stood there in the moonlight. To be honest, one had a face like a constipated wolverine. His companion had more rounded features. There was a whiff of fish about them. It wasn't easy to see detail in shadows from the trees, but Amber thought there was something unusual about their clothes. They were a bit scruffy but retro.
"Hello," said wolverine face. "I'm Frank Morgan and this is my brother Taran."
"Amber Belfield. Thank you both of you. Who were those other men that you scared off?"
"Let's 'ave a look shall we?" Frank lead them over to where the intruders had been digging. They ducked where branches rose up, then dipped down to form a natural arch; whether triumphal or an entrance to something's lair depended on the viewer's mood. Frank bent over to look at the spot. Amber expected him to pull out a phone and use its light but he didn't so she did. The glow revealed a square hole with a boot print and a mound of earth beside it, near dark ash roots. Glancing up Amber caught sight of Taran, who stared at her phone as if he'd never seen one. She felt surprised and un-nerved, then photographed the hole and the print.
Frank shifted his position on uneven ground, causing his rear to waggle. Taran stepped back to avoid him.
"Careful broth," Taran said. "Who wants your bum in their face?"
"You're just jealous Taran. I can see it now, Frank Morgan's bum gets top billing at 'The Palace Theatre.'"
"Well... you've had enough practice at talkin' through your arse."
"Lady, I apologise for my brother - I should've taken him back to the stork and asked for a refund."
Amber wasn't offended, just wishing they would get on with it. She tuned into every sense she had, determined to escape as soon as possible.
"You were going to say about those other men," she reminded him.
"Yeah right," Frank replied. "I'd say they buried bomb makin' equipment in 'ere. I caught a glimpse of it just before they scarpered."
Amber would've asked for details but Taran said to her "do you want to go 'ome Amber? Its gettin' late an' you should tell the police about this."
"Yes, you're right," she said. "Let me get my camera, then we'll be leaving."
Amber re-entered her shelter to retreve some equipment. She overheard Frank and Taran.
"You know, we could've used this spot ourselves Taran."
"For what Frank? We decided to go straight, didn't we?"
"Sorry, we decided? I know you did."
"Frank, 'ow do you fancy a big yank?"
"Wow, 'ave you found a curvy secretary at the American base?"
"No broth, I had another sort of yank in mind."
Glancing through the hide's flap, Amber saw Taran grab Frank by the scruff and pull him out of sight.
Amber decided to scram. She had learned self-defence in case of any threat in a lonely spot, but would only use it as a last resort - especially when outnumbered. There was a path behind her. An ash sapling stood beside it, straight and slim like a little sentry. She turned and dropped to the ground, then crawled out of her hide and into an understory of willow herb, blackberry bushes and hazel. Fallen leaves stuck to her belly. She left her camera behind, hoping they wouldn't take it. Finding her way proved difficult, but she felt features like a rhododendron stump and posts on a rotting fence, smelt a fox's scent mark she recalled from earlier and got within sight of the beach.
The dry hard moon was now half-hidden by a long, narrow cloud. She might've been playing peek-a-boo with cool, damp Earth. Amber bent to avoid a branch that was green as a bunch of grapes. Amber saw shingle up ahead and heard waves caress it. A salty breeze cooled her forehead. She had reached the beach. So had those two boys; they emerged from dark woodland some distance away. Amber felt tempted to run, then decided to conceal herself more effectively and try to learn more about them. Her job often involved stealth and camuflague so she did this easily, helped by a lime sapling.
She couldn't see much detail but there was a timber structure up ahead with lobster pots outside. The prow of a boat stuck out from behind it. As the swish of breaking waves reached her, Amber pondered her companions. They looked young, younger than she, and yet two men who were probably criminals had fled when they appeared. Why? Then there was the puzzle of why they were dressed as they were; she had been too polite and to preoccupied to ask why.
"You sure she'll be all right?" Taran asked, looking towards the woods.
"Yeah, course she will be."
Amber was annoyed by Frank's attitude. How could he be so sure? She could've fallen and broken an ankle for all he knew. Not that she wanted to be found, and yet a bit more concern on his part would've been welcome. The woman fixed her gaze on Taran, somehow feeling more empathy with him.
"Don't worry broth,'" Frank continued. "She flattened that bloke at the demo, didn't she."
Amber felt alarmed but also baffled. How did Frank Morgan know about that? She had, the previous year, been on a peaceful protest against the ivory trade. Thugs looking for trouble had attempted to hijack the demonstration. To cut a long story short, Amber had been accosted by a lout and managed to knock him to the kerb stones.. Of course, these two must be members of rent-a-mob. That would explain much.
"She'll be all right Taran, I'm pretty sure about that."
"No matter what you do broth, you'll never be pretty."
Frank took a swipe at his sibling, who ducked and evaded it easily. They both laughed and relaxed. Amber fought an urge to laugh as she was reminded of her two younger brothers.
Had she judged the Morgans too harshly? She hadn't always behaved impeccably as a teenager.
She had been bullied on social media, just because she wasn't thin as a fashion model, and so felt the need to prove that she could be strong. This had lead to her taking it out on classmates who were smaller than herself, fighting them in the flesh. Worst of all it hadn't helped in the least. She had cried in her room, messed up simple tasks while under stress and so felt humiliated almost every day. Her fingers had shaken with rage - at herself. She felt as if a jaguar had bitten her soul.
Then a teacher, Mrs Ryan, had offered Amber a chance to help her with an unusual pet. Amber went home with her expecting a rare breed of dog or cat, only to find it was an emerald tree boa from South America. The girl had taken some persuading to stay, but, after a few visits, she had lifted and held the brightly coloured reptile. To her surprise it felt dry and warm; Mrs Ryan's heating maintained its body temperature. For the first time in years Amber felt confident, then strong and secure. It was then that she made up her mind to work with animals one way or another,
Back on the beach Taran said "'Ave you thought any more about gettin' out of 'ere, before the Diego comes for us?"
"No, perhaps you'd like to give it a try."
"I have but come on, you're the eldest and you got us into this mess Whose idea was it to earn some easy money? Who kept sayin' 'trust me' night after night? You're in charge Frank, and you're not getting any say in it."
"I've tried too but nothin's coming," Frank replied. "Maybe they've started rationing thoughts; from now on its two reports by the Labour Party an' one speech from Churchill each ."
"Isn't that two thoughts an' one earsplitting bellow apiece?" Taran approached what must, to Amber's shock and disbelief be their home, then added "its all right for you broth, you could just go to a museum, stand in a recreation of a Neanderthal family an' no one would find you."
Frank grabbed his brother and got him in a half-Nelson. They struggled for a few seconds, then accidently backed onto a lobster pot and fell over it. Amber wondered if they were doing apprenticeships in replacing Laurel and Hardy. How had she missed the crunch when they hit rounded pebbles? As they got up, Frank looked in Amber's direction; for some reason she was sure he knew where she was.
She scrambled to booted feet and ran, away from the hut. She turned to check she wasn't being followed, then rocked on her heels with shock. The hut wasn't there any more, nor were its occupants. The young woman spun round while peering into clear moonlight, but she was clearly alone on a deserted shore. She felt light-headed and sat down, afraid she might pass out. Her bottom just missed a stringing nettle, young and tree-boa green.. After a few moments Amber struggled to gortex clad feet and fled the scene, doubting her own sanity. Behind her, moonlight danced on lapping waters.
At the first possible opportunity Amber went to a local police station, told her story and showed the officers her photographs. This triggered a manhunt and a search of the woods, which in turn lead to two men being arrested on suspicion of terrorism. One officer found Amber's camera, where she had left it, and returned it to her.
She left Frank and Taran out of her account, lest the episode undermine her credibility.
Amber needed to relax, so she went to an exhibition of historic photographs from the 1940s at a nearby art gallery. On the way she recalled with pride a photo that she had taken. It showed a bison in Polish mist, like a rock painting raised to life, and it had been shortlisted for a prestigious award. She walked past whitewashed cottages, iron railings and hanging baskets with red, yellow and blue blossoms, climbed a hill and entered the gallery.
Inside was a desk piled high with leaflets, also bare floorboards and several movable screens. One corner held a raised-up stage with a small piano and stacked-up chairs. Walls and screens were covered in black and white photographs of solders, sailors, airmen, women working in factories and children playing in car free streets.
At first the young woman felt that she was getting out of herself and relaxing. World War II couldn't have been easy to live through, but she knew that Britain had won and so could keep a distance. Then a large photo on a tall screen caught her attention and her mood changed.
That picture showed two young men sitting on the beach repairing a fishing net. Their sleeves were rolled up and a leather jacket lay nearby. Both were intent on their task so neither looked directly at the camera. A timber shack stood behind them. Amber thought "I must be mistaken!" She looked closer, trying to convince herself that it couldn't be true. No question, the image was captioned '1943.'
"They were ugly beggars, weren't they," said a female voice from behind. Amber turned and saw a middle-aged woman, grey but strong like a harpy eagle. She wore a name badge that said 'Rebecca.'
"Are you all right?" this lady asked. "Can I get you a drink?"
"No, no, its that photo," Amber replied. "It reminds me of someone I knew years ago," she lied as visitor's shoes clattered on the floor.
"If it was up to me I wouldn't have it in the room," Rebecca began. "See those boys mending that net? A few weeks after the picture was taken, they were both arrested for sabotage."
Amber felt her stomach turn over but she tried to hide it. "Were they convicted?" she asked, dreading the answer.
"Oh yes, they went to prison with hard labour. They said a Spanish diplomat, who owned a house near here, coerced them into it but the jury didn't believe them."
"Where were their parents?" Amber asked, raising her voice a little as a motor bike whizzed past outside.
"The father was in the forces and their mother had died; I'm not sure how."
Rebecca moved to let a family walk past, through a gap between screens, then continued saying "even if it had been true about them being coerced, which I doubt, they were still dodgy characters."
"Why, did they do something else?"
"When they met that Spanish diplomat, it was when they tried to burgle his house one night. He woke up, caught them at it and... oh, I don't know what really happened next but according to them he threatened them with a gun." Both women looked back at the grey-toned photograph, then Rebecca said "those two ended up cutting telephone lines and starting fires at local factories. Nobody was hurt, but I didn't want their picture in this exhibition. I was outvoted on that one."
"Was there any doubt as to whether they were guilty? I mean did new evidence come to light years later?"
"To be fair we weren't sure at first who the younger boy was. He and his brother went gambolling illegally, and little brother used a false name, Terry I think. At first I wasn't sure if it was the same youth in our photo and who got locked up, but we did more research and now I'm sure of it. I don't know why the other one used his own name; perhaps he was just more cocky."
"Perhaps after all these years...."
"Its very well attended, don't you think."
"Yes it is Amber agreed while scenting coffee, Africa in a jar of glass.
Amber left the gallery and flopped down on a public bench. She felt as if she would never move again. As a gentle breeze lifted a strand of her black hair and gulls called above, her thoughts were in pieces. After some time the worst of her fatigue passed, but she was still confused and unsettled.
Slats on that bench started feeling hard on her flesh. The breeze cooled. Amber shifted her position and forced herself to get up. A couple with a black labrador walked past her seat. Their animal panted softly. The young woman returned to the small Victorian hotel where she was staying and locked herself in her room. Then she collapsed on her bed, staring up at the white ceiling, and shook from head to foot with the shock of her encounter. Amber tried with all her willpower to stop, but it was a long time before she could. When at last she was able to she rang her parents, explained that she felt ill and arranged for them to take her home.
How many stories were hidden in the past of this hotel? Quite apart from the guests,there would be plasterers who had decorated its dining room ceiling; kitchen maids sobbing in bed, away from home for the first time; smart young waiters thinking every woman in town wanted them and chefs bellowing at their staff. Who could say what else?
If something bad happened in some places, did it leave a lasting imprint? Had the Morgans left a mark like that? Did pebbles in the waves match the colours of their jumpers? Did the sea breezes carry salt from their sweat? Were stinging local nettles nourished by their bones?
The 21st century men who got arrested were put on trial, found guilty of planning a terrorist attack and sent to jail. Amber Belfield's testemony proved crucial in securing their conviction.
Soon after the trial Amber returned to the beach, this time in daylight but early on, before most visitors had arrived. Plastic litter made her scowl and she picked up what she could. While crunching on rounded pebbles she thought "Taran Morgan, did you come back to make amends for what you did in life? I think it was your idea, not Frank's." She got frustrated at not being sure he could hear, then reminded herself those present day criminals were in jail and so felt better. She felt cool sea breezes and zipped up her fleece. Amber reached that spot where their hut had been and paused, looking out over dolphin toned waves. All her unease from before had gone; this place felt like anywhere else on the coast. She could, with a little imagination, hear someone's name in beating waves: "Terry, Terry."
Amber shivered but not with cold. Then a smile rose on her lips. Her last doubt had gone - the brothers were now at peace.