What the Thunder Said
by Fanny Adams
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak no loud or long.
There was only the water.
Water, and a keening wail -- banshee cry from the very soul that forced Cowley, a man inured to human misery, to cover his ears against the sound. Rain-lashed, wind-driven, he huddled in the shelter of the red rock and watched without thought as the steel grey waves rose and fell, watched as Doyle clung to the rocks' edge weeping hopelessly, praying for the death he could not give himself. Caught in the iron grip of life he could not willingly discard that for which Bodie's life had been spent -- the coin was too dear. And Cowley wept too, for a friend, and, perhaps, for a son. The current ran cold and strong.
"Doyle... lad? Humantouch. Hand on his shoulder. As he struggled up into consciousness, Doyle was aware of an ache in a place which had no name. Something missing.
Panic took him; he'd lost a limb! Tearing back the covers he took inventory and as he found each part of himself in the proper place, the dull sickness gave way to a sort of weary relief. Bruised he was, but whole. And yet...
"You're back with us," Cowley observed rather unnecessarily. Ray looked around the sterile white room. Something missing... "You were out for so long, I was afraid." His voice was unusually gentle.
"Doyle gave a little laugh. "I'm too mean to kill," he said. Something missing... "Where's Bodie?"
The gaping emptiness opened up again like a wound that would never heal. "Ohmygod," he whispered. I remember, those are pearls that were his eyes... He struggled blindly to free himself from the hands that gripped him, holding him bodily to this life. "Don't don't!"
"He saved you, Doyle. It was the last thing he did." Inexorable, unyielding as the sea. "Don't be too quick to throw away his life."
Doyle relaxed suddenly, sagging against the pillows. He tugged at the thin blanked with numb fingers, wrapping it around himself, shivering. So cold. His mind refused to accept what his body already knew. Bodie was gone from him. So now there would be an eternity of waiting, of patience. Of sleep.
Ray? Ray, can you hear me?
Dammit, Bodie, this is not a joke. Where are you?
No joke. I love you.
I had to tell you. Next time it'll be easier.
You and me? Easier? Oh sure... Touch me again...
Don't know if... ah, yes. Good. I wanted this once more.
You know I can't,
Let me come to you, then.
It's not time, but...
When it is, don't be afraid. I'll be near.
Cross my heart and hope to die.
Next time, I'll propose to you straight off.
Don't go... I love you, Bodie.
"He's better," Mitchell offered as if to soften the inevitable judgement. "A little more time..."
Cowley shook his head. How much time did Doyle have? But soften his judgement, he did. "Give him a fortnight and try again."
Later, as he waited for Doyle in his office, he found himself remembering all the people he had delivered up to Death in his long career. So many, I had not thought death had undone so many. Few passings he had felt so keenly as Bodie's.
Doyle entered. Though fit, he was too thin, and he looked tired. A fortnight? A lifetime.
"I've lost my edge," Doyle said, accepting the drink with a nod of thanks.
"Mitchell thinks that you need more time."
"Anything's possible, of course, but I don't think it's likely to make a difference." He tapped his chest. "It's gone from here. I'm a different man. Staying on would be a mistake."
"In another capacity, perhaps."
"No, it's over, Doyle said with a kind of tired resignation clear in his voice. "Let it go."
Both of them gone from him in a moment. "Have you plans?"
"I've found a place in Cornwall. Thought perhaps I could do some painting... some thinking."
So much hung unsaid between them.
"Would you be happy doing that?" Cowley asked. It was an effort to remain detached.
"Content, perhaps. It's all I hope for now."
The air was violet when he left Cowley for the last time. He moved through congested streets, through flowing crowds rushing home to... what? Did they hurry to cheerful homes and families, to a warm golden light and the smells of domesticity -- cakes for tea and lemon oil on Mum's old table? Or did they simply hurry on to meet the kind of emptiness that waited for him? Did they all turn a key in a door that opened on an echoing nothingness? Chicken and chips from the takeaway, and a lager or two with the telly for company. Then bed.
Did they pretend, as he had the night before -- and so many night before that -- that they were not alone in those hopeful wide beds made with clean linen 'just in case'? Did their hands echo others, remembered or never felt? Did they weep...
He stopped outside The Green Man. The light was spilling onto the pavement, warm and welcoming, the sounds were cheerful. He went in.
"You look sad, love. Yes, sad."
"Tired, I guess."
"Yeh, well, long week, eh? Have another." She drew off a pint. "I don't see your mate in 'ere anymore. What's it... two months?"
"Three, end of the year."
"He died." Even now, with months of practice, the words stuck. The girl moved away quickly to serve a jolly bunch at the other end of the bar. Doyle found a seat in a corner and watched life play itself out around him while he sipped his beer. Here a flicker, there a blaze, and himself like embers -- banked. The squad didn't need another Tommy McKay.
He shut his eyes. There was smoke and beer and warm perfume, and in the darkness behind his eyelids. the image of Bodie drifted, tossed by the waves... eaten by fish. The image of Bodie. Ray's face was wet.
Later, that hopeful, wide bed received Doyle and a nameless woman with mute reproach. She was gone quickly, her perfume clinging to the sheets, like flowers crushed under joined bodies. It banished forever the last faint scent of Bodie on the linen. Oh Lord, thou pluckest me out...
He stripped the bed while the sun struggled into the December morning. Christmas soon, he thought, and God is dead. Merry Christmas. All the gods are dead. Bodie is dead. There was a bitter taste in his mouth that he recognized as truth.
He remade the bed and lay down, clutching an old sweater of Bodie's. How long, he wondered as he pressed the garment to his damp cheek, does a dead man's scent linger? Oh Lord, thou pluckest... Burning.
Cowley visited once when Doyle was settled. It was high summer and the garden of the little cottage was filled with sad, weedy plants, trying to look cheerful. Surely even these could not be the work of the grey man who brewed the tea with automatic movements, eyes flat as the windows of an abandoned house. He who was living is now dead. We who are living are now dying with a little patience. The day had turned hazy and hot.
"Content?" Doyle echoed his question as though he barely understood it. He clutched the chipped cup with white-knuckled intensity -- the gesture of a man just hanging on. "I suppose you might say that."
I would not, Cowley said to himself. But he did not press the point, rather turning the conversation to other, safer topics. He searched for a key, confirming the prison into which Doyle had been cast.
"If only it would rain," Doyle sighed into the heavy, still air.
Later that evening, as Cowley rode the train back to London, he thought to himself, with something akin to relief, that he would not see Doyle again.
The thunder rumbled incessantly over the water, adding its low growl to the rushing of the rain in the heavy air. There was a faint tang of salt in the scent. Doyle liked living near the sea. He rolled over and from where he lay, he could see the faraway lightning fork through the sooty clouds that rolled over the ocean.
Cowley's visit had unsettled him, reminding him of things dead and very nearly buried. A rushing of wind... the grass is singing over the tumbled graves...
The room, so bare and cheerless was lit suddenly by the lightning -- so suddenly that before a light-dazzled Doyle could register his presence, he was plunged back into darkness. He waited, tense and fearful.
Then the thunder spoke.
What have I done to you?
I hate you, Bodie. You left me alone in prison.
All flesh is a prison, and a place of joy. Who knew that so well as we?
Never forget why I spent my life to give you yours.
There was the sound of the first few, tentative drops of rain striking the thirsty ground, of rain spattering leaves and sad, drooping flowers, of the singing of the dry grass in what was suddenly a downpour. Doyle watched motionless, holding his breath.
He woke. Sometime during the worst of the storm, while the rain battered the little cottage, and the wind whipped the trees into a mad dance, while the thunder roared overhead and the room was bright with almost constant lightning, Doyle had dropped off to sleep. It was quiet now. He heard the singing of tiny frogs and the steady drip of water from the eaves. It was over.
The room was wrong somehow, he realized as he looked around in the darkness. At first he thought that his eyes weren't focusing properly, but then he realized that it was something in the room -- for or haze or just a fracturing of the air around him -- and a presence. There was someone in the room with him and, inexplicably, he was afraid. He squeezed his eyes shut against what he might see.
Those are pearls that were his eyes...
"Bodie?" He opened his eyes. Nothing moved, though he sensed movement. The light seemed to ripple. "I'll stay," he promised, and the restlessness seemed to resolve itself into a great peace that healed the fracture, so that the room was flooded with the light from the full moon. Then Ray was alone again with the fleeting memory of cool lips pressed to his flawed cheek.
Sometime in the night, Cowley woke with an ache in his leg and the image of Bodie in his mind. He was about to get out of bed to fetch a wee drop for medicinal purposes, when the ache faded as suddenly as it had come on him, and a heaviness lifted off his heart. "Have ye found peace, then, laddie?" he asked quietly as he lay back in the darkness.
He had, despite all of Cowley's fears to the contrary, hung on for these many years. Doyle was tough, Cowley thought as he walked along the flagged path that led down to the sea. In the late spring sunshine, between the stones where he walked, sweet herbs flourished -- thyme and rosemary and graceful, lemony melissa. Spikes of speedwell and dark purple lavender lined the path, and as Cowley's uneven gait carried him slowly down towards the water, the scents followed him. Bees droned heavily amongst the rosebuds.
Doyle was there, at the end of the path, perched on a large rock, sketching a sailboat as it slipped effortless through calm seas. He's no longer young, was Cowley's instinctive assessment; and hard on the heels of that judgement came another, oddly, less disturbing one -- no more am I.
Beside Doyle, a golden-haired girl child of eight or nine years, sat painting the same scene. She caught sight of Cowley and ran to greet him.
"Do you like it?" she demanded, thrusting the watercolour in front of him.
"It's quite good, Toni, she said, after due consideration. "You are turning into a first-rate artist." He did not flatter the child.
"Ray's a good teacher. Come and sit." She took his hand and led him to a wind and water-carved seat amongst the rocks. "Ray says I'll be a great artist someday, but I just like to paint. It makes me happy."
At that moment, her mother's voice drifted down from the top of the path.
"I have to go now," she said, gathering up her paintbox and pad. "Tomorrow?" She asked Ray who had not yet spoken.
"I'll be here."
She kissed his flawed cheek fleetingly and was gone.
"Lovely child," Cowley observed, arranging stiff limbs in the warm sun. Doyle hadn't changed that much after all, he realized with something like envy. The heavy curls were shot with silver, but the face was unlined. Why had he thought Doyle looked old from a distance?
Doyle looked like a man who carried some great burden, and was a little bent beneath it. But he carried it.
"She's good company," Doyle said, meaning Toni. "She sings me songs and talks to me while we work." His hand moved with assurance over the rough paper, blending and softening. He smiled wryly. "She is advanced, too -- asked me to marry her the other day -- when she grows up, of course. She reckons it'll be a couple of years yet."
I told her I'd wait," Ray added, his voice a mix of surprise and irony and something indefinable. "You asked once if I was content," he said as he worked. The sailboat swung around for the return journey, "I can say honestly that I am now."
"I'm glad to hear that."
Then they were quiet together. Cowley dozed in the sun.
When he woke, he was alone. He looked down towards the shore where Ray's boat was moored, and up the path towards the cottage. The sun in his eyes made him look away for a moment, but in a glance he had seen Doyle at the top of the path, with a dark-clad figure. Cowley shaded his eyes and, squinting, looked back to where he had first seen them. There was only Doyle, hand outstretched to cup a rose just beginning to bloom. He bent to catch its fragrance.
There is always another one walking beside you.
"Use the boat much?"
"I'm learning. Toni's father helped me build it last summer. This summer he's teaching me how to handle it." He shook his head. "So much to learn. She's a good boat though."
Cowley climbed the path beside him, their feet crushing the herbs. Doyle picked a few for the salad. He noted with a gardener's eye that the foxglove and larkspur threatened to encroach on the path. He'd have to see to that, he decided, smiling at himself. Who would have seen Ray Doyle as the proper English gardener ten years before?
Ten years, each of them without Bodie beside him at work or at rest. Ten years through which he carried the memory of a kiss... and a promise.
"Would you like to stay for a while, sir?" Cowley looked surprised at the invitation. "This place has a lot to offer."
Has it now? Sailing... I think I'd like that," he muttered. "Scenery, precocious children..."
"Gardening," Doyle added. These fragments I have shored against my ruins. "Consider it."
They went in and Doyle fell to preparing supper as Cowley lit the lamps. Shantih In the warm golden light they ate a meal of boiled shrimp and buttered toast, and a salad of tomatoes and herbs.
"You've developed a green thumb, Doyle," Cowley observed, tasting the deep red flesh.
"Zen and the art of growing tomatoes? Those are from the potted plants. Wait until you taste the ones from the garden." Shantih
"It's a peaceful occupation," Cowley agreed. "I'd like to stay and taste them." Doyle smiled as Cowley claimed the last slice of toast.
"I'll take you out on the boat tomorrow," he promised. Shantih.
-- THE END --
What have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and only this, have we existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
AUTHOR'S NOTE: All underlined passages are quotes from Eliot's poem, 'the Wasteland', my understanding of and love for which, prompted this story. I can't say with any degree of certainty that a reading of the poem will enhance the story in any way, but any reader not familiar with 'the Wasteland' ought to give it a try. It is the poem of the twentieth century.