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An Ill Wind
by Nora Holder

John Tensing was unaware just how bad this afternoon was going to get. His wife, doing up his tie, knew nothing. He'd made the appointment with the bank himself--determined to get in there first, have a chat--sort it all out. God knew it hadn't been through lack of hard work that he'd ended up in this mess. He'd just tried a bit too hard to make things that little bit better for them all. As he combed the thin hair over his encroaching bald spot and heard the children squabbling about the toothpaste, he didn't have an inkling of what was going to occur. How could he?

Claire Twine, on the other hand, was having an unexpectedly pleasant day. Although it was only late spring, the weather was more that of late summer. In the gold-imbued, green evening the sun lay low now, playing hide-and-seek with the long shadows that sneaked off behind the serene, newly-leaved trees. The stillness verged on the unsettling. Calling the children round her she placed a finger to her mouth and said: "Shhh. . . . " And dutifully two little upturned faces with mouths clamped shut looked eagerly into hers.

As smooth, expectant brows began to furrow in puzzlement, she whispered: "No, really listen . . . you are in the middle of one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world and all you can hear is birdsong. How cool is that?"

"Well, I can hear cars," the ever-pedantic, seven-year-old Suzanne wasn't having it.

"No, you can't. You can hear a distant, very faint, thrum of traffic. Nowadays unless you're in the middle of the Kalahari Desert you can hear a distant thrum of traffic."

"Whatever," the seriously under-whelmed Suzanne rolled her eyes and, arms outstretched, whirling and dipping, she whizzed off, pursued by her little sister. There wasn't a breath of wind. Looking around she could only count five other people: one far-away couple rambling hand-in-hand, two independent dog-walkers, and a solitary jogger who disappeared from the scene as she watched . . . and then there were four.

They were coming up to Watt's statue "Physical Energy"--a great stallion rearing up in the centre where four paths converged. Now she saw at neck-level, collected in hollows on the surface of the metal plinth under the magnificent beast, that there were small pools of water, none more than an inch deep by five or six wide, and she remembered that there'd been a fine drizzle starting to fall earlier as they had entered the museum. Looking back at the pavement where the evening shadows ran, she could just make out the residual dampness from this ineffectual shower creeping back into the grassy borders, ashamed now at its feeble attempt to spoil a perfect day. But the rain had failed and she was disposed to magnanimity in victory: Hey, I'm not annoyed. You've done me a favour. Some light rain was what we needed.

"Look! Girls! Girls! Look what I've found." Once more they have gathered round. Little girls. Eager faces upturned. Once more, always, little faces upturned.

"Here. Let me help you. Put your foot here. That's it. Hold on. There, yes. Well done. Now . . . Little One. Here. No . . . I can lift you. There! Look, fresh rainwater to wash off the stickiness."

Oh, yes. They liked this. They crawl around under the great animal. Splish, splash: "Bye-bye, mint-choc ice cream. Bye-bye apple pie. All clean. That's better." And she helped them down and off they ran: refreshed, renewed, revitalized.

Sighing deep and long, she felt the well-being bestowed by the fine evening seeping through her, right down to her fingers. These she wiggled as she sauntered along, smiling indulgently at the daft antics of the kids. So alike and so different. The big girl, strong and dark with big, round, sensitive, nut-brown eyes; the little one, slight and fair with confident mischief in her grass-green eyes. Confident because she has her big sister to fight her battles for her.

"Mum, let's go see the fountains. Please!"

She's grinning. "OK . . . but first I want to see the doctor and have a little rest. OK?"

The girls looked at each other uncomprehendingly, then simultaneously they shrugged and were off, running. The big one was already showing off her prowess at fence climbing and then, jumping down, was in. Their mother hurried out into the light to catch up with them and, shrugging off her rucksack, lowered it over and dropped it beside a curly, metal-backed bench sitting against the fence. Then, turning, she picked up four year-old Annie and, swinging her over the waist-high wooden fence, deposited her safely beside the bag. Next--herself. She climbed over with not a little difficulty and even less dignity, hindered by her long skirt and her self-consciousness.

"More water! Proper water! I love fountains! Mum, do you love fountains? One, two, three, four . . . there are four fountains. No--look! Five . . . oh! This ones so cute . . . look Annie. A waterfall! Listen! The water's going ‘plutter-plutter-plutter.'"

"Yes, these are the ‘Italian Fountains,'" she straightened her skirt and pushed her disobedient hair back behind her ears, a little breathless from her exertion. "Oh, Girls, do be careful. Donut climb on the sides . . . and stay nearby."

She looked around and saw a young student-type taking photos. On a tripod, his camera was pointed into the exuberantly frothy, white, cascading water of one of the fountains. Apart from another man coming in--through the gate that they'd missed, not yards to the left of where they'd climbed in --they were alone.

After living all her adult life in the male gaze it was at first a shock, then a relief, to live with its loss during pregnancy and now in motherhood. However, it had been replaced as the children grew older by another awareness, that of another kind of predatory male. Just as in the farmyard the old mother hen will cluck a warning to her offspring, as in the jungle the lioness will look up from their fun and games and quickly gather her young by their scruffs at the first hint of danger, so too the universal urban mother is ever alert and, bringing her children near, she surreptitiously checked out the newcomer to "their" space. Whilst on one knee explaining the plan, she watched over Suzanne's right shoulder as he also surveyed the scene.

Coming through the gate he was struck by the brightness of the white marble fountains and the furious gushing water. To his right a young photographer was engrossed in his work whilst directly in front of him in the space between the four fountains, a mother was kneeling on one knee fixing a slide in her daughter's hair, talking all the while but watching too. She glanced towards a rucksack lying at the far end of a bench on his right. She was fortyish, a big woman, not fat; big boned, handsome, with a very pale, round, open, smiling face and silver-blonde hair that didn't hang, rather sprang out from her head, in a style that would probably be described as a bob if it didn't look so resistant to being any style. It looked as hair should look on a windy day--not a day like this: the way the upper layers let the light through, ruffled but not quite unkempt, more unruly, a bit naughty.

She was wearing a long denim skirt and a matching thigh-length jacket, the top couple of buttons undone to reveal a T-shirt underneath, that echoed the white of her plain deck shoes. The carnival colours of the tie-dyed swirls of the children's matching dresses had a dazzling effect on him. The bigger child, the dark-haired one, was telling the little blonde one something and, putting her arm round her neck pointed at something behind their mother: was it the statue or maybe the playground on the other side of the fence, a bit further up the hill? Then, the mother straightened up and, turning, they strolled ahead to the statue of Jenner.

Dr. John. The woman stood in the middle, with one arm loosely round each child's shoulders, talking, looking up at old Jenner. She's probably telling them the inspiring tale of his perseverance as a simple country doctor against the bigwig city academics in his experimentation with the cowpox vaccine that was eventually to lead to the complete eradication of that most devastating of diseases, smallpox. While she was talking she occasionally glanced over her right shoulder at the rucksack by the bench. He thought: "She looks interesting."

When he chose a bench to sit on, it was less than a minute before she joined him, albeit on the farthest end, the one by the rucksack. Opening it, she undid the string at the top and removed a lurid pink lunchbox from which she took a couple of jam sandwiches, their corners turning downwards in apologetic smiles. These she handed to the two laughing girls who grabbed the food, barely stopping their aeroplane swoops in and out among the fountains as they ate.

She had taken stock of her neighbour earlier. She'd noticed first his distinctive trousers, for they were indeed crying out to be noticed. They were blue, not dark enough to be navy, not light enough to be royal, with white vertical stripes. These were worn under a white T-shirt and a light, sky-blue raincoat and over some white leather, pointy-toed shoes. He'd had a slight hunch across the top of his shoulders, just enough to make his coat swing as he walked, giving him a kind of cool swagger. Now, seated beside him on the bench as she glanced sidelong, she was astonished to see that he was much older than she'd first imagined. His tightly-curled, short hair was dark without a fleck of grey, but she could see now that his clean-shaven face was lined, with those deep-hewn lines that she remembered had appeared almost overnight on her father's face on the last time she'd seen him before his death.

His coffee brown hands were joined, fingers loosely interlaced, resting on his lap, peaceful as he watched the children play. She was deliberating saying something, making some small talk, when Annie appeared, hand held out, something small and bright yellow in the upturned palm: "Mum! Your Nazi badge! You must have dropped it by the statue."

She glanced first at her lapel and then, with an amused grin at her neighbour, she reaffixed the anti-Nazi League pin. While she rooted through the rucksack, now between them on the bench, he laughed and said: "You don't look no Nazi I ever imagined!" And the ice was broken. She smiled at him as she passed a bottle of water to the child, who grabbed it and, once more, ran off.

First they began with the inevitable--the weather. Then the gardens. He'd been coming here for years; she hadn't been here since her eldest was born. They admired the tranquillity of the fountains and they spoke of Jenner. She told him how her father had instilled in her a respect for scientific advancement, how she'd studied biology and worked for a time in the pharmaceutical industry but how motherhood had been a revelation to her. Like a calling almost, that she'd tried hard to ignore but now could not for the life of her understand how she could have been so blind--deliberately or otherwise. And she told him how she was financially hard up and had, only yesterday, sold her most prized possession, her twenty-five year old Gibson guitar. It hadn't hurt nearly as much as she'd expected, probably because she was consoled that some of the money would go towards Suzanne's longed-for violin lessons. That anyway, she no longer had time to play . . .

He told her his name was Zechariah, that he'd moved north of The River last year after the death of his beloved Ida, whom he'd followed here from Trinidad and Tobago way back in 1955. She could smell something warm and sweet--Rum, she thought--from his breath, and realised that his bright clothes were actually a bit shabby, good quality but maybe just a bit unloved. She thought how gentle his face was and felt his pain when he told her of the death of his only son in an unprovoked attack as he walked along a rain-soaked street one night in Stockwell, not three months before Ida had finally given in to the heart condition that she'd suffered from since before the boy's birth and which had precluded other children.

Paul had been the ideal son, had worked hard at school and got a good job at the bank and had made their lives complete. When he said ". . .but, it was too late, our boy was gone" and she saw the rapid blinking away of his tears, Claire had to check an impulse to reach out and take his hand in hers, to offer an unacceptable level of comfort to someone she had not known twenty minutes ago. Nearby, to their right, the children were now sitting on the ground playing with some tiny stones. Her children loved stones.

Before Paul, as young newlyweds, Zechariah and Ida had strolled nearly every weekend by the Serpentine and all those years later Zechariah had scattered her ashes there one dark evening when a storm blew and the water ran heavy and brown, bloated with floodwater. Now he was alone. Claire was lulled by his singsong accent. She asked him if he had any family back home. He hadn't. He told her he used to play in a swing band. She told him she'd played in an awful college rock band. They discovered their mutual love of Fats Waller, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington who, Zechariah maintained, had founded his famous Orchestra on their shared interest in drinking; that Ellington was later to recall that at the time, during prohibition in America, they would drink anything they could find, including fermented apple-juice, bathtub gin and even kerosene.

There were times in their conversation when they'd fall silent but there was nothing awkward in this. It was, already, companionable. The girls suddenly decided they'd had enough and came to beg to go to the playground. She managed to persuade them that it was too late, that they could come back another day.

"OK, Mum, but will you come and help us feed this little squirrel with some of my sandwich . . . please?" Suzanne was scared of the squirrel but not willing to admit this to her younger sibling, so asking for help was a face-saving technique.

"All right, Darling . . . excuse me Zechariah, I won't be a minute."

Once out of earshot Suzanne admonished her mother: "Mum you're always telling us we're not allowed to talk to strangers. I'm telling Daddy."

"Suzanne, dearest child, it's different for adults. And anyway Zechariah is not really a stranger . . . he's just a friend I hadn't yet met."

"They can give a nasty bite you know, children. You're quite sensible to let your mother help," Zechariah had joined them. Claire felt her ears grow hot. How much had he heard?

"Well, I'm afraid I must be off. It really was a joy to meet you all. Which one of you is Annie? I once had a sister called Annie, but she's in heaven now. Claire, I've brought your bag over. You really oughtn't leave it unattended you know," his eyes twinkled, "It's such a lovely evening for it--I shall go to be with Ida now, I think. I bid you all farewell," and with an elaborate bow that delighted the children he moved off with that jaunty swagger, his coat swinging behind him, to the gate and once through, walked off towards the winding river.

"What a funny man! Weren't his trousers and shoes ever so strange, Mum?"

"Mmm . . . did you think so?" her eyes followed him, distracted. And then, to their amazement, their mother suddenly dropped her bag and took off running after the man with the funny trousers, and when she caught up with him they saw him reach out, take their mother's hand and kiss it. And then she came right back.

"Come on kids, time to go home and have supper and a nice bath."

Suddenly, from nowhere a gush of ice-cold wind almost blew them off their feet. She was reminded that it is after all, still April. And late.

For once they didn't argue and were shortly out of the park and crossing the Bayswater Road. To their delight the bus came almost immediately and, even better, was empty. The kids bounded to the back seats, followed by their mother. She felt chilled now. The sudden change in the weather had unsettled her. She could feel through her clothes the comparative warmth of the velour-covered seat beneath her.

The girls wanted to draw in their new notepads, purchased from the museum shop. She gave in but it was only a matter of minutes before Annie's had become a pile of separate leaves, which brought tears. She took the child onto her lap, one little hand still clutching the papers, the other the pencil, and nuzzled the back of her child's warm head, inhaling the comforting, bready smell.

The traffic on Oxford Street was unusually light and in no time at all the kids were squabbling over who's going to ring the bell. She settled the dispute by quite firmly insisting that she would ring it while they packed away their things, but not before getting their cardigans from the very bottom of the rucksack. This proved a mistake, since she was only halfway through the task when the bus stopped and she had to hurriedly grab cardigans, kids, and bag while all the time attempting to stay upright and get off the bus.

"Whew" she blew upwards from her bottom lip making her hair flutter out from her forehead as they arrived safely on the other side of the road. The girls were putting on their cardigans and she was leaning down to do up the rucksack when another almighty gust of wind whipped her hair back across her face; as she raised her hand to push the hair back, the pile of Annie's loose papers escaped from near the top of the bag and flew in a wild dervish around their heads. Instantly the peace was shattered. Annie was hysterical: "My pictures! My pictures! Oh no . . . my lovely dog for Daddy . . . "

The pages from the child's pad were out of reach, scattered over the road and down over the banks of the nearby canal. Claire quickly took control. Crossing the bridge, she held Annie in her arms as she swung the rucksack up onto one shoulder, then pulled Suzy along by the hand, all the time reassuring the little one that she will let her do another, bigger, nicer picture just as soon as they get home.

At that moment, under the bridge, John Tensing had just removed his shoes and socks though he didn't quite know why. His only concern now was that he didn't want to be buried in that god-awful depressing graveyard in his home village in Ayrshire. He should have left a message. He should have said "Sorry" . . . and "Please don't bury me here." And then the blizzard began. At first he didn't realise that it was paper. He thought "It's snow, birds . . ." and "I'll write a note." He picked up a piece at his feet while all around the rest billowed and then he realised that it had already been written on. As he read it, his heart swelled to the size of a football--a wrecking ball, swinging wildly within his chest, threatening to knock him over.

Under the address and date in a neat longhand, spidery scrawl the words remained steady, crystal clear, as he read:

To whom it may concern, I have passed this letter to you because of the kindness you have shown me in talking and listening. I am off now to be with my family. I'm contented. I'm happy that you, kind stranger, can benefit from my loss, as I cannot. I will die happy in the knowledge that you can take this letter to my solicitor, named below, and that he will follow my instructions that you are to be given the sum of two hundred and seventy thousand pounds: the price of my loved ones' lives. I go in peace and may you now also go this way.

I am,
Your friend,
Zechariah Baptiste.

The wild scrawl of the witness's signature was in marked contrast to that of the neat handwriting of Zechariah. Tensing noticed that he would have to take a cab in the morning since the solicitor's offices were south of the River. As he tied his shoelaces, he thought he'd stop off at the off-licence. A nice Rioja would help take the edge off his lateness.

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