Saturday, February 20, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 6


 There was no name on the gates and they were still locked. I loitered purposefully for some time, hoping someone might come out and tell me to stop. When they didn’t, I went back to the car and waited. Shortly after ten am , a group came out of the house, conferred on the pavement, then a huge man in his mid-twenties, came my way, and three teenaged girls went the other. I got out of the car and the man halted in front of me, looking confused. It seemed to be the wheelchair that had thrown him. He gazed at the wheels and then at my face with large and very clear eyes.

“Morning,” I said easily. “I was looking for Lucy? Lucy Jameson?”

“She’s working,” the man said in a thick local accent.

“I know a friend of hers? Sam?”

“Sam has returned to the devil.”

It was proclaimed without change of expression, as if he were commenting on the weather. I choked on it slightly and resisted the urge to comment.

Right. Fine. And where would I find the devil at this time of day?

“Lucy is still pure,” the giant informed me calmly. “She was tainted, but we prayed with her and she was purified. But to protect herself, she does not leave the house.”

I started to argue with that, having seen her with Sam, but the giant interrupted me firmly.
“What do you want? The Kiwis are leading three wickets to two, you know.”

Yep. A definite ninepence to the shilling.

It was wonderful how such a prepossessing man with this deep, resonant voice, could be spouting such gibberish. I could easily imagine him in a pulpit, bewitching a congregation with confused biblical text and the cricket scores.

“I need to speak with Lucy-“

“You are not of our House.”

“This is important. I need to ask her about Sam.”

That helped. I had no idea why, but he paused and looked more closely at me.

“You are Gawain. Aren’t you?”



It seemed like a safe answer. The man bowed his head.

“You may enter. You mustn’t annoy the cleaner though ‘cos she gets cross.”

“I won’t.”

He unlocked the gates.

“How many of you live here?” I asked cautiously. He spread his arms to encompass what must have once been a Victorian town house.

“There are nine of the House. A simple order, but we are patient that there will be more come the Day.”

The resurrection or the Lords’ test match? I didn’t ask him. He opened the door and put his finger to his lips.

“There are those at prayer. Can you assail the steps?”

“No, probably not, but Lucy can-“

He bent and incredibly carefully, he lifted me, chair and all, up the steps and into the hallway of the house. I still had my mouth open when he put me down, gently touched my head and then bellowed like a nine-year-old up the stairs,


“What?” someone shouted from above. Pop music shut off. The giant once more put his finger to his lips and drifted away towards a back room. A girl in her late teens ran downstairs far enough to have a look at me, then paused and came down more slowly, her face gathering caution.

“You’re from St. Giles, aren’t you?”


“Is Sam all right?”

“As far as I know. Why shouldn’t he be?”

“I can’t think why else you’d be here.”

“No,” I agreed. “Not being of the House.”

She smiled, losing some of the wariness, and looked after the giant with affection.

“He’s quite harmless.”

“I need to talk to you. Is there somewhere-“

“Safe,” she said succinctly. And led me into a room off the hallway. She shut the door after her, but said almost at once, “It’s all right, most of the others are out. Only Hamish and I stay here all day.”


It seemed the most ridiculous name possible for that huge lunatic. Lucy smiled, but sat down on the windowsill and folded her arms. “Hamish doesn’t work and I-“

“You’re in trouble with the rest of the household?” I guessed. She flushed a little.

“Let’s say they don’t have modern ideas about sex before marriage. They threw Sam out.”

“And you stayed?”

“It’s a roof. What can I do for you? The police said I didn’t know anything useful, and I’d rather no one here knew I still see Sam. They can get a bit funny.”

“How funny?” I asked. Her face didn’t react.

“Was that what you came here to ask? About the house beliefs? I can get you a pamphlet.”

“No.” I fixed her with a look, trying to prepare myself to see a change in her face.
“What’s this about Mel Keen being Craig’s partner? Is that true?”

“Not in so many words,” Lucy said calmly. “They hung around together sometimes.”

“Mel was at Rainbows for the last two months,”

“Craig used to meet her there,” Lucy interrupted. “So don’t think she was all innocent. I saw her plenty of times up at Rivo’s when she’d bunked off. She hated that hostel.”

“Did she or Craig know anything about this Elite?”

The girl’s eyes hardened. Then she got off the windowsill.

“I think that’s for CID .”

“I know you didn’t tell them,” I warned. “And I know from Sam that you were in on this group, whoever they are, who were passing Elite.”

“I’m not going to talk to you about it,” Lucy said shortly. “You’d better go before the others get back.”

“I can have Adair here as well if you like?” I offered. “I doubt he’ll care whether or not the rest of the household gets to know about this.”

“Why do you want to know?” she said angrily. “You’re not police; what’s it to you?”

“Steven, Melanie and Craig are all dead. That’s what it is to me.”

She lowered her head and glared at the carpet.

“I reckon Mel was a warning to Craig,” she said at last. “He’d crossed the group pretty badly.”

“Was he dealing?”

She sighed, shortly. “Steven nicked some at Rivo’s - not much- a day or two before he died. I was there and so was Craig. I heard them talking about it and Steve passed some on to him. They were looking for the money, nothing else- planning to get rid of it all that weekend in the clubs and no one any the wiser. Then someone saw Steve with it.”

“How do you know?”

“I was with some of that group the night Steve was killed. A rumour came back that someone had seen it on him. They worked out how much was missing and they knew Steve and Craig were mates- they reasoned if Steve had it, Craig probably knew something about it.”

“Steven was killed by a driver for a supermarket chain.”

“It was proved that Steve was killed by an HGV,” Lucy said sharply. “How do you know who was driving?”

“Why wasn’t the stuff lifted from him then?” I asked. “It was in his pockets.”

“Maybe they were disturbed. I don’t know. I know Craig was threatened. They gave Mel a message for him on Thursday night.”

“Who is this group? How many of them?”

“A lot,” Lucy said darkly. “I only know a handful, and they’re hangers-on, not the real thing. I only hear the rumours. But if they wanted the stuff back, and Craig had it, believe me they were the ones who stopped him. This stuff’s worth a fortune on the street.”

“Does anyone else know about this?”

Lucy shook her head. “Only Sam. Bits of it. But you warned us to stay away and we did. I’m not getting in the way of that lot. Is that all?”

“More or less.” I took a couple of deep breaths. “Was there anyone else in this group? Craig and Steve were friends, Mel was a friend of Craig’s, I presume it was Steve you knew?”

“I knew them both more or less. Sam knew Steve quite well, they were in a hostel together at some point.”

“Is there anyone else who knew them all, or who spent a lot of time with them recently?”

“Not that I know of. If it is this group, then it’s over now, isn’t it? The police have the stray Elite, and I bet the dealers would rather the police had it than it was on sale.”

She was probably right. Hamish appeared as soon as the front door was opened, and once more took me and my chair down the steps with a gentleness amazing in such a huge man. Lucy stood in the window of the downstairs room, arms folded. As I started the car up, I saw Hamish through the window, watching me with his arms wrapped around Lucy. She barely came up to his chest.

“Hamish?” Ryan smiled, sitting back in his chair. “My God, how did he fall in with that crew? I had him on my caseload for a few months before you joined us. I got him a job in a workshop somewhere. Diagnosis of schizophrenia but I always thought it was more complicated than that. Drugged to the eyeballs courtesy of the National Health. He’s very gentle, just nutty as a fruitcake. How did you meet him?”

Jenny was out and the office was quiet. I shut the door and confided what I knew of the Elite, Steve and Craig. Ryan listened in silence, twisting a pen between his hands. I’d had numerous job interviews when I left university, all of which had fallen down, one after the other before I ended up in front of Ryan. I was twenty-one, fresh from university with a sociology degree and no practical experience whatsoever. I was also getting used by then to the fact that most employers took one look at the chair and panicked. Ryan talked exclusively about the job, then asked me bluntly, if I was able to do it. When I said yes, he offered me the post. He’s never assumed I won’t be able to do anything that comes up- just that if I had a problem, I’d tell him.

“How well do you know this girl?” he said at last when I finished. I shrugged.

“Only through Sam. Hardly at all.”

“You’ve warned Sam to stay clear?”


Ryan frowned, thinking it over. “I don’t see there’s much we can do,” he said eventually. “It’s all hearsay. Guesswork on her part. I don’t know much about that sect she’s in, but if Hamish represents the population, I wouldn’t put much on their collective sanity. I’d guess the CID know what’s going on and they’ll move in the next few days. If they don’t, then think about having a word with them.”

He was right. I didn’t want to hear it, but he was right.

“You said she was nervous?” Ryan asked as I was on my way out.

“Yes.” I paused in the doorway. “I don’t know if because of the household, or because of this gang.  She said she was only on the outskirts of it all.”

“Is it worth talking to Sam about the sect?”

“Why? Do you think they’re involved?”

I recognised the familiar flash of concern across Ryan’s face. “I just wonder if she’s safe in there now.”



Kerry sat back and surveyed me, hands on his knees. “I’m going to do some joint range measurements and then we’re going to have to make some serious plans to keep this hip mobile. This is tighter now than a week ago.”

Great. I lay back and swore quietly. Kerry waited. “Are you doing the exercises?”

“Yes. More or less daily.”

“Do you still swim regularly?”

“No,” I admitted. “When I can. I don’t have that much time at the moment.”

“You’re going to have to make time. And stand regularly.”

“I haven’t stood in years.”

“Then you’re going to have to remember how to do it,” Kerry said curtly. “This is what you pay me to know about. There’s an unopposed pull on that extensor, it’s getting steadily tighter because not enough is being done to keep it flexible, and it’s going to pull your leg out of position until eventually your hip dislocates. Your consultant would probably release it for you-“

“You mean cut it.”

“Yes. And pin the hip. Or possibly remove part of your hip; you’d need to talk to him about it. Or there are things I can do with you to slow it down.”

“Just slow it?” I asked reluctantly. This was about the first time I’d been faced with this sort of decision. I was used to my father knowing the language, the surgical procedures and the surgeon, and telling me what we did next.

Kerry shrugged. “Well. It depends. You didn’t tighten up like this overnight, and it won’t get to the point of dislocation by next week even if you do nothing about it. The best thing you can do is keep the tendon as long as we can manage, and you do that by exercising and by standing. It’s your choice.”

I’d jacked in standing for several, very good reasons. Kerry patted my shoulder.

“Have you got callipers here? Don’t pull faces, just tell me. Let me see if they’re a decent fit and what your balance is like.”

“The hall cupboard.”

He rolled to his feet and I heard the clatter of metal in the hall. He brought them back, going rapidly over them for rough edges and loose straps. “When were these fitted?”

“About two years ago.”

“Not worn much.”

“I only took them to keep the consultant quiet. I used to stand everyday at school, everyone did.”

“You were growing. Most important time.” Kerry opened up the straps and buckled them on, ankles, knees, hips, up to the waistband. “When did you last try standing?”

“When these were fitted,” I confessed. “My father got me to do a bit at home from time to time, but once I moved out-“

And the blasted things hadn’t got any lighter in the last two years.

“Not a bad fit,” Kerry said eventually, checking the straps again. “Want to try standing?”


“Come on, you know by now I’m not going to let you fall. Just try. If you really can’t face it, I can probably sort out a standing frame and you can use that for half an hour a day, but these are a little bit more mobile.”

“Have you ever tried these on?” I demanded.

He smiled but leaned down and linked his hands behind my waist. I held onto his shoulders and let him lift me up with him. It feels like floating- balanced three feet in the air above the point I can feel anything.

“Easy,” Kerry said soothingly, “I won’t let go.”

I deliberately stopped myself crushing his shoulders. Hugh appeared through the front door and stopped, bewildered. It was about the first time we’d stood face to face.

“You’re a horrible colour.”

“It’s okay,” Kerry said soothingly, “Your heart isn’t used to working this hard, you’re just out of practise.”

I clutched him for balance. Gradually Kerry moved back until he was holding my hands.

“Can you handle the crutches?”

Hugh looked even less keen than I was. Kerry steadied me for several minutes while I tried to remember the balance and the manoeuvres. I still hated it. I was shaking when
Kerry took the crutches and manhandled me down onto the sofa.

“Can you handle that? Ten minutes a day, build it up to half an hour.”

“I’ll probably break the bloody hip and fix it that way.” It took me awhile to get my breath and stop feeling dizzy. “I hate it, I always bloody hated it; it isn’t safe! Why the hell should I do things that scare the hell out of me!”

“I’m not suggesting you use them for walking,” Kerry said gently. “That’s your decision and for what my opinion’s worth, I think you’re right. You’re far more disabled on those than you’ll ever be in your chair. If you wanted to walk that would be up to you, but all I'm saying is, weight-bearing through that hip joint will strengthen it and stop that pull out of position. I can sort out a standing frame if you want. You wouldn’t be able to fall in that.”

“Or move.”

“What’s a standing frame?” Hugh said quietly. I glanced at him, remembering he was listening to all this. Kerry unbuckled the callipers.

“A stationary, upright frame with straps and knee blocks to hold his legs in the right position to take weight. It would take his full weight, but I’m not at all sure you’d be able to get in and out of it on your own.” He added to me, “I don’t think your balance is good enough.”

I resisted the despicable urge to telephone my father.

“I’ll try with the callipers,” I said eventually.

“Ten minutes.” Kerry folded the straps and put the hardware on the floor. “Keep Hugh or me in grabbing distance for a couple of weeks, you could do without a broken leg. And I want to show Hugh how to stretch that hip for you. I know how you feel-“

“Yes,” I said shortly.

“But this is important and you can’t do it on your own.”

“I can, I’ve done it for two years.”

Kerry sat back and looked at me.

“This is a long-term thing,” I said bluntly. “Day in, day out.”

“I watched you struggle like hell when you first moved in here alone,” Kerry told me. “I’ll admit, I thought you wouldn’t manage, but you did. You managed very well. But I don’t see why you have to keep working this hard when you don’t need to.”

“What happens if one day Hugh isn’t there?” I suggested. Kerry snorted.

“So you’ll just forget how to do things for yourself?”

“You know how easy it is to lose strength if you don’t use it.”

“You probably do a far more physical day than I do.”

“It’s up to me.”

Hugh pushed his hair out of his eyes. He looked hassled which was unusual for him, and he sounded tired. “Yes it is, and I agree with you. But this isn’t physical care; this is a one off for a specific problem. We’ve been sharing a house for long enough now, I don’t think you need worry about me taking over.”

“I never did, I don’t want you looking after me.”

“I really think you need someone doing this for you on a regular basis,” Kerry warned.

“I can do what needs doing.”

Kerry looked at Hugh who shook his head. “It’s not my body, don’t ask me.”

“All right, it’s your decision,” Kerry said eventually. “Do what you can. And try to swim a couple of times a week.”

“I’m working a lot of overtime.”

“Try,” Kerry said shortly. “Get out of that chair all you can and stretch out before you set in a chair shape. I’m going to come again this week and do some more work with you, I don’t want you contracting any more.” He paused in the doorway. “It might be worth re-thinking what you’re doing at the moment. You’re tense as hell, and if you want my opinion your working hours are too long. There ARE physical limits to what you can handle.”

There was a long silence when he’d gone. Eventually Hugh reached for and touched my face, making me look at him.



I took a deep breath, trying to pull myself together.

“Don’t take it personally. I told you from the start, I need to do things for myself.”

“I know.” He ran his fingers through my fringe, pushing it back.

“Its not easy living with someone,” I said slowly, “When you know, no matter how angry you are with him, no matter whether you’re barely on speaking terms, he’s still the one who’s going to have to lift you out of the bath and get you dressed. When I was at University I was shattered all the time. The only way I managed was because Dad got up half an hour earlier and started helping me dress, helping me with transfers and baths, little things I could do but that saved energy.  I can’t explain-“

“Feeling grateful at the same time as wanting to tell him to piss off. I’ve seen you do it.”

Hugh looked at me, tipping his head back against the sofa. “Love and hate simultaneously. Even the way he touches you, I can see in his face how protective he gets over you- mind you, I suppose I couldn’t lift and handle a kid of mine without it being a gesture of love.”

I thought about it, trying to find the words.  “A teacher at school told me once- it’s the same instincts adults have for babies- to feed, to dress, bathe, protect- so long as you have those physical demands, if you don't move, if you're physically dependent- those instincts and feelings don't fade like they do with able-bodied kids. Emotionally they still respond to you and feel about you as if you WERE still-" I trailed off. I'd never like that thought. Although I knew my parents saw me just in that light. Loved, but sexless. Dependent. Safe. I took a deep breath.

"My parents went through years of standing frames, braces, surgery, endless nagging about which positions I was supposed to be in and which were banned. When I was little the physios at school had a nervous breakdown because I wasn’t developing upper body strength as I was supposed to, and Dad started making me get myself up and down stairs instead of carrying me. It took hours every night and I hated his guts for it but if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t have developed the muscle I need to move. They’ve been through a hell of a lot.”

“That wasn’t your fault.”

“It wasn’t theirs either.”

“And you don’t want us to get into the same pattern. I do understand.”

He looked awful. I touched his face and he pushed against my hand in a way that told me he had a headache.

“Bad day?”

“It’s official. The company's going into the hands of the receivers, they’re issuing redundancy notices.”

It wasn’t unexpected, but it was still a blow. I stroked his hair, untangling what are actually curls when not combed down, finding comfort in concentrating on him.

“Will they do anything to find you places?”

“Not places I want.” Hugh bent his head and kissed me. “It’ll be okay, I’ll find something. I might jack it in now and take the time to look properly. They’ll pay me out until the last day anyway.”

That wasn’t all of it. I waited, not sure what to say. He began to strip off his overalls, peeling them off jeans and a t-shirt underneath.

“I had a call from the estate agent. About the flat. We probably ought to put it on hold for a while. If I’m going to be unemployed, this isn’t a good time to be thinking about a mortgage.”

Lucifer rubbed round his knees. Hugh picked him up with one arm and picked his overalls up with the other. Lucifer flopped on his back down Hugh’s shoulder, cross-eyed with pleasure.

“That’s okay,” I said lightly. “It’ll cheer my father up no end.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why? There’ll always be flats for sale.”

I trailed him to the shower, where he put Lucifer down and stripped. He has one of the several classic Celt builds. He’s of the slight ones, lean and thinly muscled but with joints just a little too large for the frame at shoulders and hips. Long arms, long legs and the true Celt white skin. I admired him while he showered. He glanced down at me and smiled, not closing the door.

“What sort of a day did you have?”

“This and that.”

“You’re getting secretive,” he observed. “What are you up to? Seducing that CID officer?”

“Not likely.”

“Has he propositioned you yet?”

“Once or twice.”

Hugh laughed. I ran a hand down his leg, which was about what I could reach of him. He looked at me for a minute, eyes – dancing? Glinting? They move and brighten but there’s no word for it. Then he held out his arms, asking with a tilt of his head and an invitation in his eyes.

I’ve never let him lift me.

Not that I don't trust him, it was more a decision of - well. Pride, maybe was the closest.

It was then it dawned on me that with the callipers or with a standing frame, the time was on the horizon where I might have to.

I shook my head and moved out of his reach. He didn’t argue. Just sluiced off the last of the soap and stepped out of the cubicle, collecting the towel off the rail.

“So what did you say to Adair? Did you take him up on it?”

“That’s something you’d want to encourage?”

He glanced back at me, calm, towelling off his arms. “Not necessarily.”

“But you wouldn’t mind?” I said, startled. It had been a weak sort of joke.

He hesitated over the sink. “No,” he said eventually.

“So I can have an affair then, can I?” I demanded, “With your full blessing and without any curiosity whatsoever-“

“It wouldn’t be an affair, would it? Just sex.” Hugh took his razor out of the cabinet, shook it off and began to shave, naked in front of the mirror. “You might fancy the man; I know you don’t like him. I don’t for that matter, but if you want to-”

“And you’re quite happy about that?”

He smiled without looking round from the buzzing razor. “It doesn’t threaten us. Does it?”

“I’d go berserk if you told me you wanted to sleep with someone else.”

“I know. You’d be very hurt, which is why I wouldn’t do it. But I’m not you.”

I waited. He shook his hands off and finally faced me, propping his hips against the sink. Angular, lean, tousled from the shower, he was gorgeous and I couldn’t imagine Adair in that position.

“It’s hard to explain without sounding patronising,” Hugh said mildly. “I was working my way through half the boys in the town by the time I was seventeen. No one gave a damn if I was out all night, and no one asked where I’d been either. How could you go off and do what you wanted at that age? Look. I’ve met plenty of couples who agree a set of ground rules on who else they get involved with and how. It isn’t something I’d want to do, but it’s up to you if you want to try it.”

“And the ground rules?”

He grinned. “For Adair? As a one off?”

“You’re presuming this is a one off.” I said bitterly. “For all you know this happens on a regular basis.”

“Then why come and tell me about it?” Hugh said placidly. “Do what you want, Joss; it’s okay.”

“And that’s all you’ve got to say?”

“What do you want me to say?” For the first time he looked at me with concern. “Don’t you dare? Do you want me to stop it? If he’s pushing you-“

“He isn’t.”

Hugh watched me for a few seconds longer. I held his gaze, and he turned back to his shaving. “Then just be sensible.”

“I should have that inscribed somewhere,” I said under my breath. “Tattooed. Joshua James Milliner. Be sensible.”

We were mostly asleep, some hours later, when I remembered something.
“Who was Gawain?” I said aloud. Hugh murmured.

“Legend. Arthurian. One of the knights of the round table.”

“Do you know the story?”

“There’s several.” He rolled over onto his stomach where he could see my face. “You want to talk to my father, he loves that kind of thing.”

“Do you know any of them?”

He considered, eyes closing. “You need someone who knows the legends properly, they get tangled up. There’s one about him meeting the Green knight or the Green man – the Robin Hood or the Herne character? A lot of mysticism tied up in him. They had an agreement: a duel. It was supposed to be a test of Gawain’s courage. And purity if I remember. The Green Knight’s wife tried to seduce him.”

“Who won?”

“Neither, Gawain passed the test. He was one of the young knights.”

“My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure,” I quoted, a fragment surfacing from an English lesson years ago. Hugh grunted. “That was Galahad. Gawain wasn’t innocent, just young.”

I bet he had both hips in working order.

Hugh jogged to work when the weather was half way decent, which meant he left early. Having been involved in an early breakfast, I took the chance to go into the office and catch up on paperwork before work began. The carpark was empty and there was the quietness of early morning in the gated grounds. I nodded to the security guard who was going round, unlocking the doors, and parked in the shelter of the St Giles office wall. It wasn’t often I got in early enough to park within reach of the building. I took my time unfolding the chair and transferring, enjoying the first early morning sunshine. The season was just about to change; this was the first warm morning so far this year. I locked the car and hovered at the boot, choosing which files I took out and which I left, vaguely planning what visits I’d make that day. I didn’t see or hear anything. The last thing I remember is reading the names of the files.

Continue on to Part 7 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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