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Compound

by Rosanne Dingli 11 months ago in extended family

Philip Blagden Cardinal's new life

COMPOUND

When the choir finished the last chant, and all singers descended from the stalls under the great organ, Philip closed his music folio, climbed down backwards from his high seat, and came around the screen. One singer was left. He could see the others as they opened the sacristy door and disappeared, one after the other, chatting and laughing although they were tired … and probably hoarse. He had played hard that day, and the choir master pushed them all relentlessly. Now they were gone; all except this woman whose face he could not remember.

‘Are you …? Have I …?’ He wiped his glasses on his sweater and tried to peer into her face. Who was she?

‘I’m not with the choir.’ Her voice was strong, although so hushed it would not be heard even as far as the door the singers left by. ‘I’m not a singer. I can’t sing.’ Her smile was mysterious, like ones Philip had seen on medieval portraits by unknown artists.

He looked at her pale skin. She was a ripe peach. ‘All you need is an ermine to hold, or a mountain scene behind you, or perhaps a string of seed pearls and a sheer veil.’ The words escaped Philip’s mouth in a mumble; ashamed now his thoughts broke his self-conscious barrier and found voice.

She understood. ‘Thank you, but I have no delusions about my looks. Do you know why I’m here? Can you …’

‘Can I guess? No! I’ve been playing the organ for hours, and as you might know, it’s an instrument …’

‘That’s played with the entire body. Yes.’

Did she know everything? ‘It’s almost as if you can read my thoughts.’ His whisper echoed around them through the sacristy and up the dull organ pipes that reached to the steep vaulted roof of the space where they stood.

‘It’s not like you had to live through Hymn of the Cherubim,’ she said.

‘Hah – no! That piece is longer than an hour, especially if the choir master makes corrections and insists on repetitions.’

‘Tchaikovsky is difficult even for those who love him.’

‘Excuse me, madam, but I …’

Miss – Miss Cardinal. Artemis Cardinal.’

Art ... It can’t be.’

Her smile filled the space, like a dented moon rising and bathing everything with gold. ‘But it is. I am here.’ Her hands fluttered up and down to indicate her form. ‘Here I am.’

Her clothes, her red velvet coat, seemed more fitted to 1920 than the twenty-first century. Philip squinted in the rarified light. ‘If you need anything from me, I’m afraid …’

‘You don’t have much. Your mother lost everything in the oil crisis. And you …’

‘How do you know? And how in heaven’s name do you have my dead aunt’s name?’

Artemis Cardinal took a step back. ‘Great-aunt, I think. It’s not quite her name. It is mine.’

‘Are you some kind of relative? I had no idea there was anyone left.’

‘Hm. Wars. The wars took them all, didn’t they?’

She seemed to him to have wandered off, thinking of the dead. Philip looked at his shoes, at the hems of his old trousers, at the marble on the floor beneath his feet; it was time he went home. He had not eaten since lunch, and it would get icy cold on the way to his threadbare one-room apartment.

‘All I want is time.’ Her voice was so soft and slow it was hardly audible. It was like listening for a breath.

Despite hunger and cold, Philip was polite. ‘I have time.’

‘It’s all any of us have, in the end.’ Her eyes had wide deep lids, and eyelashes of pale brown swept down to hide irises he could have sworn were light green. Aunt Artemis, his great-aunt, vaguely remembered as his grandmother’s unmarried sister, who had sailed away and never come back, had green eyes. The whole family spoke of her search for a foreign husband, and of the color of her eyes. Fabulous Artemis; the family legend.

‘If you have time for me,’ her eyelashes rose a fraction, ‘then I shall leave something with you.’

‘For whom? I’ll gladly pass on whatever you like, if you missed one of the singers.’

For an instant, a magical instant, their eyes met.

‘Philip – do you really not believe I might have anything for you? Specifically for you?’ She seemed to be charmed by his shy character; his lack of confidence. Not mocking. No – just delighted.

‘I don’t know what to say.’

‘I know. And just because of that, I am even happier to leave with you what I have come to deliver. To be frank, the temptation to leave it on your seat was quite strong.’

‘Leave what?’ He was too scared to look into those eyes once more.

‘Leave what, Artemis? Use my name. It is so rare to hear anyone use my name.’

He stammered. Tried again. ‘Leave what, Artemis?’

She reached into a pocket of that red velvet coat and pulled out something creamy in color; something that looked old and soft. ‘This is for you. It’s not being left with you to give to someone else. It’s not a message or a gift you must pass on. It’s a message and a gift for you.’

‘But I’ve never …’

‘You have. But you have. Do you not think I see what you feel? That you have done nothing deserving? Huh! You play that organ like an angel – for hardly any money at all. You look after your poor neighbor, who is practically bedbound. You walk four dogs for three pensioners.’

Philip nodded.

‘Say it. Say I have, I have.’

‘I have.’ He looked up.

Her green eyes were blinding. ‘You have done something deserving. Lots of somethings.’ Her smile was kind and soft, her voice barely audible. The soft creamy thing was placed into both his hands.

‘I like people who extend both hands to receive something. Just one can be somehow offhanded, don’t you think?’ She laughed and stood back, and looked at what she had put in his hands; an ancient suede bag whose hem and drawstring were all but worn-out. ‘I don’t even need to make you promise you will read it all, because I know you will, Philip.’

‘I will,’ he said, without knowing what it was exactly he was promising to read.

‘You are trusting, too. A generous gentleman.’

His eyes were wide. ‘I don’t know how you can think these things of me.’

‘Oh but I can, I can.’ Her smile was fading. She looked pale, exhausted. ‘I cannot stay longer. But there’s one more thing. Very soon, you will be rewarded in another way. Outside that big door – not today, but someday soon – outside that big door someone will wait, and it will be, if possible, an even greater gift than what I have just given you. And it will be all your doing, Philip, not mine. Goodbye.’

Before he could utter a response, she was gone; wafted away like some otherworldly spirit. The merest thump from the great wooden door announced her departure, and a chill breeze from the walkway outside foretold of his cold walk home. Home, where no one waited, and no one existed to care whether he was fifteen minutes late after the rehearsal, or whether he never came back at all.

Could Philip forget such a visitation? No indeed, because what he found in the creamy suede bag was a little black book, whose contents were so absorbing and engaging he could not put it down. Five days he read; five days on and off, eating and drinking and pacing the freezing walk to his beloved organ at the hall, and quickly back again. He could hardly bear to be away from that book. His pensioners waited for their dogs to be walked, and he did walk them. His neighbor waited for groceries, which he bought and brought, his head full of the words in that book. Because you see, they were all about him.

Philip Blagden Cardinal read about his namesake, Artemis Cardinal’s father, and found similarities and differences that were not only easy to believe, but which he felt he might always have known, if his poor darling mother had not lost everything and suffered a fatal heart attack. He might have been told that the house on North Wind Crescent originally belonged to a Welsh forebear, a famous collector of coins and medals. He could have listened to stories of his grandmother Gwen, who also played the organ, and of his great-aunt Artemis, who won a silver trophy – the famous Pontypridd and District Canine Society Silver Bowl – three years in a row. Why was he not surprised any more about the things he loved in life and how he was inexplicably drawn to dogs and music? Why his mother had not told him about the family was understandable in a way; the run of bad luck dated from the Wall Street crash in 1929 to this present day.

He reached the last page of the little black book, which was folded over in half vertically, on the day of the last rehearsal before the great performance. He could not wait until the last singer left the hall, so he could pull out the suede bag, open the book, unfold the last page, and read what had happened to Philip Blagden Cardinal. But the last singer came back into the hall.

‘There’s someone out there asking for you,’ she said.

‘That would be Miss Cardinal.’

‘No, no – it’s a man. I think it’s that Mr. Agnor from the High Street.’

Who? Philip did not know a Mr. Agnor. But he minded his manners. ‘Tell him I’ll be out directly. And go home, miss. It’s freezing and you must be exhausted.’ He saw now she was one of the sopranos at the end of the front row.

‘I’ll wait for you, sir. You can … um – would you walk me to the corner, please?’

‘Of course.’ They walked together.

Mr. Agnor was apparently too impatient to wait. The walkway was empty and freezing. ‘Did you say where he was from? I can’t remember, miss.’

‘Please call me Sarah – and thank you for walking me home. Mr. Agnor’s at the bank – you must have seen him a hundred times. Behind the counter at the bank.’

At last, he read – at the end of his family’s story; unremarkable and yet rivetingly interesting – what lay inside the vertically folded page. And it was the same as what Mr. Agnor at the bank said the following day.

Twenty thousand dollars? Are you sure?’

The elderly bank teller looked at Philip over his glasses. ‘It was twenty thousand. When it was deposited, years ago. Yes, twenty thousand, yes, Mr. Cardinal.’

‘Thank you Mr. Agnor.’

‘Wait – there’s more. A lot more. Your great-aunt was in here a couple of days ago to check, to make sure you were made aware of the money. It’s held in your name, Mr. Cardinal, it’s yours. It’s all legal and everything.’

‘My great-aunt has been dead a long time.’

‘Whatever … please sign here. And here. Good. It was twenty thousand, years ago. But now …’

‘But now?’ Philip held his breath.

‘Much more now, see? Compound interest is a wonderful thing, Mr. Cardinal. Philip – a wonderful thing. And sign here … thank you. All yours.’

He staggered out into the sunlight, where Sarah stood, waiting. ‘All right, Philip?’

‘Oh, my dear Sarah.’

‘Philip.’ Her smile was genuine, warm and loving.

‘Very all right, Sarah.’

OooOOooO

extended family

Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli has authored more than 20 books of fiction, including 6 volumes of short stories. She lives and writes in Western Australia.

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