The Newcomer

Submitted into Contest #87 in response to: Write about a mischievous pixie or trickster god.... view prompt

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Fiction

Whether people approved or disapproved of Luke Welsh, and there were strong opinions both ways, as well as those who affected to be unconcerned, there was a general consensus, spoken or unspoken, that he wasn’t the kind of person who generally came to live on Monterrey Terrace. There were various theories as to why it was called Monterrey Terrace, none of them especially plausible. Some unkindly or self-mockingly said that Mortuary Terrace might be nearer the truth.

But let’s not give the wrong impression. There was nothing sordid or scary about Monterrey Terrace. It was in one of the nicer parts of town, with houses that were old enough to suit those who liked a house with a bit of history that hadn’t just been flung up two minutes ago, but new enough not to have the problems that tended to be associated with old houses. There were bay windows, and gardens that were generally neatly tended, and paint and brickwork that were in good order.

There was a kind of joke that periodically did the rounds amongst those who didn’t live on Monterrey Terrace, a kind of reputation it had for being the place where people went to live only if they were of pensionable age or couldn’t wait to get there.

That wasn’t entirely justified. There were some middle aged professional people (though they tended to be the bank clerk rather than the bank manager, the school teacher, rather than the head teacher) and even a couple of young families, and none of them seemed to be in a desperate hurry to time travel to their retirement and to grandchildren replacing children. But you still knew, or thought you did, that there was a kind of person who wouldn’t come to live on Monterrey Terrace, and Luke Welsh was a pretty good embodiment of that.

It was hard to put an age on him. Most people would have said thirties, but there were times when he seemed more like a teenager and times when he had a world-weariness that made some of the active and positive pensioners of Monterrey Terrace shake their heads. And he didn’t appear to go to work. Well, no didn’t appear about it. He didn’t, and that was that. But one of those middle aged professionals, Pamela Pearson, worked for the Benefit Agency, and decided it wasn’t a breach of privacy to confirm, just between you and me to several people, that Luke Welsh most definitely didn’t claim benefit. Well, perhaps he worked for himself, or worked from home. After all, a lot of people did, even now you didn’t have to. Or perhaps he had what some still termed private means.

“I don’t really think it’s any of our business,” Sylvia Maxwell, a retired domestic science teacher, informed her friend Anna Lowe, who was proud to have brought up her children and been a good wife and mother.

“But you’re as curious as anyone else and you might as well admit it. So just unpurse your mouth!” Anna was the kind of good-hearted woman who could get away with saying things like that.

“That still doesn’t mean it’s our business,” Sylvia said, but couldn’t deny the truth of her friend’s words.

The private means theory was given credence when Pamela reported that when she had been visiting her cousin in a nearby seaside town, she had seen Luke in a boat. And no, she didn’t mean one of those rowing boats or even motorboats you hired on the boating lake, but a proper speedboat, and he had gone out to sea in it. Some thought that was impressive, and some thought it was rather flash. Come to think of it, his car was a bit flash, too. Oh, not one of those in your face muscle cars, it was classy in its way, a maroon E-type Jag, but it did rather stand out among the sensible saloons and four by fours of Monterrey Terrace.

People had to admit that he had good manners. Whether he was in one of his boyish moods or one of his morose ones, he was always polite, didn’t act as if he hadn’t heard anyone who spoke to him, and seemed to take an interest and not mind one being taken in him, even if he didn’t always yield much actual information.

But what finally won over the hearts of the denizens of Monterrey Terrace was when he rescued Pipkin. Pipkin, the tabby kitten who was the new pet of one of the young couples, Martin and Julia Sullivan and their two daughters, five year old Sabrina and four year old Katrina. There were those who thought that particular combination of names was a bit silly, but they were pleasant, nicely-behaved little girls, and everyone agreed they were a lovely family all ways round, so that opinion generally remained unspoken.

Pipkin was an adventurous little soul, but the plaintive meow that seemed to echo heart-rendingly around Monterrey Terrace made it plain that he had come to the frightening conclusion that he couldn’t get down the tree he had got up.

Sabrina and Katrina set up a howling just as plaintive as Pipkin’s, and the adults present began to wonder if in real life people actually did call the fire brigade to rescue kittens up trees or if that would be considered a waste of their time. A couple of the tougher residents assured Martin and Julia that Pipkin would come down in his all good time, cats did.

Well, cats might, but what about kittens? It was time to think about getting a ladder. But Luke said, quietly, “I think I can rescue the poor little thing.”

And within a few minutes he had shimmied up the tree, reached out his arm, and neatly scooped up Pipkin, who displayed a most unusual feline gratitude, and instead of scratching and snarling, nestled up to Luke with a contented and relieved purr. All within a minute he was back in the bosom of his family and apparently none the worse for the ordeal.

So a happy ending all round. Pipkin borne away to kitten treats and fussing, and Luke hailed as something of a local hero. It was quite hard to work out his expression. He wasn’t ungrateful for the praise, and not exactly embarrassed by it, but couldn’t quite make out what all the fuss was about.

As is generally the case, when there has been some kind of miniature drama, even those who witnessed it more or less immediately started disagreeing about what they saw. An agile and plucky young(ish) man climbing a suburban tree to rescue a stranded kitten was embellished, and turned into someone who was up the tree like greased lightning (not that anyone had ever heard of lightning being greased, and it probably wasn’t even possible in the laws of physics) with almost superhuman speed, and stretching out an arm that almost seemed to have some kind of unnatural strength and length and superpower divested in it, whilst holding the kitten’s gaze in his own as some kind of strange chemistry went on.

But what was a little unusual was that sometimes, in some instances, that happened in reverse. The more unlikely version was the one people were first to remember and swore they had seen, before they decided that the prosaic and easily explicable must have been the right one after all.

Pipkin certainly seemed to know who had rescued him, and his devotion to Luke was only equalled by that of his young mistresses. They showed their gratitude by inviting him to the birthday party next week. Their birthdays, though in different years, were only two days apart, and hitherto they had been quite happy to celebrate on the same day. Indeed, as their parents said, they insisted on it, though they supposed that might change as they grew older. The day between was party day, so neither one nor the other was favoured.

It was quite a modest affair, but still the kind of party children liked going to. Julia herself made the cake, and as she said, her little girls had already started to agree with her that cake tasted nicer than icing, and they both loved strawberry shortbread cake. There were a couple of party games like pass the parcel and a little back garden treasure hunt, but Katrina and Sabrina and all the children were looking forward to the entertainer. Oh, he wasn’t a professional one, he was only Jack Pollard from the Home Hardware Stores, but he could do some conjuring tricks, and make things with balloons, and he had quite a way with the children, even if they sometimes saw through the tricks and sometimes whispered that really the balloons only looked like balloons, and not like dachshunds or Mickey Mouse or whatever else they were supposed to look like. But then disaster struck. The phone rang, and it was Jack’s wife Toni, sounding, and with good reason, in a bit of a state herself. Her husband had just fallen off a chair when he was changing a light bulb, and she was worried he might have broken his ankle, he could hardly hobble. Well, of course Julia said not to worry and to give Jack her best wishes, but she could wish he hadn’t chosen to break that Health and Safety Rule (that she always broke herself) on the same day as the girls’ party.

“What is it?” Luke asked quietly – he had plainly caught her expression. She told him, and he said, “Well, if I’m not pushing myself forward, I can do a few tricks myself.”

“Can you really?” she asked, her face brightening. Was there no end to his skills?

“Maybe not quite the same ones as Jack, but I know a few that might amuse them.”

Normally, the children would have least pretended to be sorry that Jack wasn’t coming, but when they heard that the Cat Rescuer was going to entertain them, any disappointment turned into eager anticipation.

“Do you need any – well, props?” Martin asked. “We could do our best.”

“No, it’s fine, thank you,” he said.

Martin made the announcement. “I’m sorry to tell you that Joker Jack,” (that was his stage name!) “can’t come, because he’s had an accident and hurt his leg, but he’s going to be fine, so don’t worry. But Luke has said he can take over.”

There was a mighty cheer and an air of rapt anticipation around the room.

Every street, even the most prosaic and respectable suburban one, can develop its own mythology, and Luke had already starred in one episode of it, and was now about to star in another.

Luke did not, indeed, need any props. Julia, who kept a non-smoking house, especially when there were children around, and was inclined to be nervous on matters of fire, if not on matters of standing on chairs, drew in a nervous little intake of breath when she thought Luke had taken out a lighter, but then she saw that he had not. He had just clicked his fingers and there was a beautiful blue and gold flame in the air. She also knew that though Luke did as he “ought” and told the children not to touch the flame, that they must never touch a flame, it would not harm them if they did. Not this flame. In an instant the flame separated into two flames, and the two flames transformed into two beautiful bunches of blue and golden flowers, and he handed one to Sabrina and one to Katrina. As he did, and there was even more vehement applause, little glowing flakes like radiant snow fell down from the ceiling. At least, people thought they fell down from the ceiling. Julia muttered to Martin, “It’ll be worth having to hoover them up!” But as soon as they appeared, they disappeared. Nobody had any time to be disappointed because Luke, who had been wearing ordinary every day clothes, transformed, just for a couple of seconds, but long enough for people to see, into some shining being in silver, some creature of steam and bright shadow, and yet wholly substantial. The couple of seconds ended, and he was in his jeans and his maroon sweatshirt again. “How do you do that, Luke?” asked Sabrina.

“How do I do what?” he queried, “Did I do anything out of the ordinary?” But he asked it in such a comical way that they all laughed and knew he wasn’t mocking them. Later on that evening, as they were whispering together in bed, tired after the day but wanting it to last, Sabrina asked Katrina, “Do you suppose Luke did something that only children can see? Mummy hasn’t said anything!”

The truth was that Julia and Martin, enjoying a much deserved bottle of wine after consuming more orange squash than any adult ever should, were both troubled and perplexed, not necessarily in a bad way, but with some sense this was more than just a talented adult with a sense of whimsy stepping into the breech to entertain children. “Yet –“ said Martin, “Though it was all very clever and very beautiful, too, in its way, I suppose there must have been some way to explain it. I mean, it’s not as if he sawed anyone in half – gave the impression that he did, I mean! Nor make buildings seem to disappear.”

“The flame and the flowers I get – well, I mean I don’t, but I’ve seen that sort of thing done before,” Julia mused. “And the flakes – okay, fair enough, though I still wonder just how he made them disappear – I looked, you know, and there wasn’t a single one, not even like those minuscule bits of tinsel you keep finding weeks after you’ve taken the Christmas decorations down. But – but the other ……”

And in good conscience, Martin couldn’t contradict her.

The two of them planned to go round to Luke’s house the next day with a nice bottle of whisky to thank him – hadn’t he admitted while swigging the orange squash that a drop of Scotch was more to his liking? But it turned out he wasn’t at home, and later that day, Pamela, who had been visiting her cousin, reported that she had seen him in his boat, which was something she was almost used to now, but even stranger, she had seen him walking a graceful greyhound along the quayside. “A beautiful dog,” she said, “And that’s from me who’s not keen on greyhounds, prefer something smaller with a bit more fur on it.” It wasn’t surprising that he was walking a dog, after all, he was plainly an animal lover and had a great rapport with them. But why had nobody seen him walking the dog on Monterrey Terrace? Still, unlike the – well, the business at Sabrina and Katrina’s party it was quite easy to find an explanation. He must just have been walking the dog for a friend. Or perhaps he was even house and dog sitting in the seaside town, as he didn’t come home that night, nor the next couple of days either. When it reached to a week, some started to be worried and wondered about calling the police, but the general consensus was that he was a grown man and he probably had mentioned that he was going away for a while, they’d just forgotten it. Sabrina and Katrina kept asking every day, “When’s Luke coming back?” and over a period of time, their parents’ answer changed from “soon” to “well, we don’t really know.” Pipkin missed him, too, and took to sitting at the base of the tree, with a meow almost as plaintive as when he’d been stuck up it – and yet every so often, he seemed to calm down, and an almost transfixed look came into his big expressive eyes.

It was two weeks before the package and the letter arrived at the Sullivans’ house. The note was a short one in a clear, silvery hand. “It was wonderful to spend a few weeks with you here on Monterrey Terrace. But I had to move on, because that’s the way I’m made, and believe me, if I had stayed among you all for any length of time it wouldn’t have worked out. It just wouldn’t. Give my love to Sabrina and Katrina and Pipkin. Your friend, Lugh.”

WHO? But then it dawned on them that they’d only ever heard his name spoken, not seen it written down, so they’d made the natural assumption that it was spelt the usual way. The package also contained a book – a paperback, but a richly illustrated one, The Heritage of Celtic Mythology. There was no bookmark in it, and no dog-eared page, but it fell open at the page where it was meant to fall open. The page where it told of Lugh the trickster God, known as Lugh the Long-Armed, with his faithful greyhound and his magical swift boat.  

March 29, 2021 08:24

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