Guest Writers

Portrait: John Humphries

By: John Humphries

He cycled along a boringly straight road enveloped by cloud as dark as his mood. Agitation fueled his pedaling, the steady pounding of his feet matching the racing of his heartbeat. Grayness was the color of the day and it was entrenched in everything. He pushed himself onwards into the deepening dank-dark gloom and then it started: first a downy drizzle cooled him, then a downpour dampened him, before soaking him through. The road ahead disappeared into a shimmering wall of pewter precipitation. Not that he took much notice. He seldom looked forward; by keeping his eyes on the wet surface rolling beneath his front wheel he protected them from the stinging slaps of hail, but the constant drip from his hair half blinded him. His sodden shoes frequently slipped from the pedals forcing him to continually search for a rhythm, but he did not slow in his efforts. A speeding truck dashed by and then another, each sucking him towards its vortex and soaking him all the more. One can wonder if the drivers gave a momentary thought to their solitary fellow traveler. Perhaps they pitied him, even considered granting him refuge, before looking to their upholstery and driving on. He paid no heed to traffic or indeed to the weather. Having other things on his mind he delved deep within it, leaving all else to instinct.

There were opportunities for shelter along the way, a dilapidated barn, a leaf heavy copse, the signal of warmth billowing from the chimney of a tiny pub, but he hardly noticed these familiar refuges and continued onwards. Mile followed mile, the road narrowed, funneled between gaunt grizzled rock but soon he left it for a little lane. Nervously he leaned into the turn, scarcely slowing as his wheels skidded on rain-slicked gravel. His route took him over a little humpbacked bridge, the rushing dirt brown waters of the stream licking and lashing at its limestone foundations, but the trout awaiting a worm-fest in the deep pool below it were safe from his hook that day. The rain eased.
He rose from the saddle, preparing to pound pedal in anticipation of a steep incline, the winding path rising skyward making him breath heavily. He gazed at a shard of azure peeking through the forgiving light laced clouds and as it slowly blossomed into a glaring firmament he seemed to aim the bicycle towards it. Now his spirits lifted a little with each revolution of the wheels and a brisk breeze dried him as his destination neared.

Finally ancient gates loomed before him and he dismounted to hide his bicycle within the hollow shell of a former gatehouse. Its lifeless, naked windows had once overseen the valley through which he had ridden. Blind now, guardians no more to the great house, their rough weathered stone was death cold to his touch. He paused momentarily to rest his head against it, hoping that the chill would calm his feverish mind. The drying foliage began to echo with sound and all around him nature's orchestra filled the air with a mighty symphony. A gurgling bubbling rivulet, gorged with storm run off pounded out a rhythmic bass, while the ether filled with a chorus of birds and bugs, a charming, calming cacophony of vibrancy, a gift to those who would listen, but he was deaf to it all. He did not tarry. Slipping over the ruined back wall he avoided the driveway, preferring to parallel it through the undergrowth, rather than follow the gravel strewn, light dappled path shaded by a huddle of hoary elms, their branches intertwined, the breeze rustling through their leaves, whispering disapprovingly, like ancient dowagers, old and bent and echoing a forlorn forgotten grandeur. He came upon the house suddenly. Although he had been here many times, this looming edifice always took him by surprise. The imposing visage untarnished by years of neglect still awed him, and made him feel fearfully out of place.

Avoiding the front of the house he skirted around the tennis court, initially positioning himself in the usual spot beneath a fruit heavy tree within the old orchard. Then, thinking better of it, he moved back to a copse of bushes around an old oak. Unseen, concealed in foliage, he waited. The minutes seemed like hours as time gave him the opportunity to consider the situation. He imagined that he could hear his heart beat faster, the blood coursing through his temples, a tremor in the very pit of his soul. His expectation and anxiety grew, a dark lined cloud cloaked the sun and drops of rain peppered his forehead. Immobility made him feel the damp chill in his bones and he began to wonder why he had not worn a jacket? Why had he been so impulsive? What was he doing there? In a moment of trepidation he was about to slip away and just go home, but then he saw her and all thought of escape was forgotten. He watched her approach, delighting in her fiery red rain flecked hair, in her deceptively cherubic face and appreciating the lithe body supporting it, but his happiness was short lived. He felt her anger as she silently grabbed his arm and pulled him further from the house. She dragged him away from the orchard, away from all things human, and into the wildness of the wood. She stormed onwards, the undergrowth scratching and caressing her bare legs with a sensual familiarity and he mutely followed her. Soon they were in a clearing, in the lee of little hillock, out of sight of prying eyes and it was there that she stopped.

She had little time for niceties, but launched into a bitter cruel assault on his behavior, an angry inquisition. "What's your problem? You really are trying to get me into trouble, aren't you! Stop calling me! We are done! Finished! It's over! Can't you just cherish some happy memories? There is nothing else, there never could have been. It was fun for a while, but now let it go. How many other ways must I tell you to leave me alone? I just can't handle it. I can't handle you! You are just too messed up. Your jealousy is insane. You are a social embarrassment and I can't deal with it anymore! Oh and what happened to your promise of discretion? That was the arrangement, wasn't it?"

He tried to explain his need, his desire, but it was of no avail. She would not let him finish his first sentence before cutting him off, "go home will you and do it now!"
As she turned abruptly moving towards the house, a stunned finality washed over him, while fast approaching thunder echoed around them. An agonizing lifetime of seconds passed and a frantic panic grew within him. Begging her to stay, "just for a minute", he stretched to take her arm and felt the sodden leaf strewn grass slipping from under him.

His bulk slammed into her, knocking her off her feet and sending both of them sliding, crashing, plummeting down the uneven incline. Finally they rose to a kneeling position. Leaves, mud, twigs stuck to them, camouflaging them in the colors of the forest and for the briefest moment he hoped, indeed expected that she would see the humor in their fall. He awaited her laugh, but he was sadly disappointed. She rode on a hurricane of anger, lashing him with insults, abusing his friends, his family and everything that he held dear, trying to hurt him in every way possible and succeeding more than she could have imagined. It was then that he hit her.

Frozen in horror, they could only stare at each other, neither stunned nor shocked by the weak blow, a symbolic slap, but by the insidious violence that it implied. She rose slowly, nervously, her eyes never leaving his and then suddenly she bolted. Instinctively, with a thoughtless lunge he grabbed her again, pulling her downwards and towards him.

In complete panic he held her tight, crushing her cheek with his. He cried for her forgiveness, begging her for another chance, pleading without reason, but with each petition her fear subsided a little more and her rage returned. Again barbs of vitriol pierced him deeply.

Cruelly she mocked his pitiful state. "Look at you, you are pathetic. For Christ's sake be a man and stop sniveling. Why would I be interested in a weak, cringing idiot like you? You know you could have had it all, if only you had the balls." Pushing her small breasts forward, displaying a bounty that she was now sure that he would never touch, "See these, you have stared at them for months and never even brushed against them. I waited and waited, but no. You came close once or twice you could never bring yourself to do it, now could you? How can a woman have a relationship with a man too afraid to satisfy his own urges, not to mind hers?"

He held her, flinching with each verbal blow, but still savoring every second close to her, and she, while pushing and pressing to disentangle herself from his strong grip, was powerless to resist the urge to damage him more, to see him die in a thousand ways.

She spat a tale at him, telling him of those that she fancied, of those who desired her, of past trysts, some with men she knew that he hated and feared. She reminded him of the chances that she had given him and how he had squirmed before her and squandered them all. He cried and held her, saying nothing. Slowly her anger subsided and she gently chided him, begging him to release her. "I'm sorry," she said and she really meant it, feeling remorse for having hurt him so. "I was angry and frustrated. You do that to me you know. It's a bad time and you shouldn't have come here today. It's over and you must accept it. We can meet for a coffee next week and discuss things. Now please stop this silliness and let me go." He did not answer, but with every effort to break his hold, she felt the pressure on her neck grow firmer. So she lay there, pliant, unafraid now, trusting in his inherent gentleness, waiting for release, as a soft rain diluted their tears and washed them gently away, and a gentle breeze fluttered through the overhanging foliage.

A long moment of calm overcame them both, a silence broken only by the intrusive sound of an errant crow, the buzz of a lone damp bee, the patter of now gentle rain and his deep agonizing sobs mellowing into soft hollow breaths. There they lay, like lovers in an intimate embrace, both lost in divergent thoughts, both solitary, she patient and perhaps understanding, he detached, falling deep within himself, everything becoming mechanical. A horrible sensation grasped her, bringing her back to a monstrous reality and momentarily freezing her. Trapped, she wiggled and squirmed, she pleaded, she threatened. She pulled at his hair, begging his forgiveness, his pity, all the while pummeling at his body without effect. His weight pushed her deeper into the wet soft ground, his cheek again pressed against her cheek, his dazed, unseeing eyes never meeting hers. Thunder blasted above and a heavy blanket of rain covered them both.

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