“Arabic numerals, that’s their proper name.”
Emily sat at the heavy wooden table in front of the fire, school book open, pencil poised. “Why?”
“Oh, I suppose they were invented in the Middle East or North Africa. Countries that have Arabs in them!”
Emily wore her blue school blouse still. It matched her eyes, the colour of robins’ eggs. Her hair was shoulder length, blonde as straw. “What was before that?”
“Well, we had Roman numerals, you know, like on the grandfather clock on the landing. Come on, finish your homework.”
Fiona Mathews went to the door, watching as her daughter filled in a school mathematics quiz. She was a bright one, like her dad, she thought. She felt a lump in her throat. Don’t go there.
The farmhouse kitchen was large, high ceilinged, and the walls were whitewashed. The floor was grey stone flags covered with a worn red rug. There was a large Aga kitchen range, in a faded, scratched and dented royal blue, which, when both ovens were occasionally in use together, made the room almost unbearably hot, despite its size.
Along two walls were work surfaces in natural wood, ancient and scored, and below them, cupboards painted olive green. Not a colour to Fiona’s taste. She intended to repaint them with cream. One day … when she had time. She sighed. Better check the readings. “Back in a while sweetheart. Be good.”
Emily didn’t look up. Fiona went out into the yard, closing the heavy wooden door behind her. Outside it was cold, starting to get dark. Crossing the yard, she could smell the pungent odour of cows in the cowshed. She recoiled at a chilly wind on her face. She passed her dull maroon Vauxhall Victor estate, then walked along a path to a small building. Opening the door, she snapped on the lights, marvelling at the new-fangled fluorescent tubes that lit up the laboratory with garish white. Only a generation ago, the only illumination in the farmhouse had been the flickering orange-white flames of wax candles, and the quiet hiss of the occasional gas lamp.
Presently she clicked a radio on to dull the solitude. It was a song she liked. Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles, that week’s number one.
“Hey man, how much further?” A young man huddled in a greatcoat, unshaven, with long black hair flopping over a Romanesque face, lay across the rear seat of a battered Bedford van. The headlights traced the track between high dry stone walls, suddenly illuminating a sign, ‘Swarfdale farm 3 miles.’
The driver, a tall, thin man in his twenties, laughed. He had the long, misshapen face of a gravedigger and black hair combed across his forehead. “Three miles. Hey, break out the whisky, Sid, … or were you thinking of acid?!”
The man in the passenger seat turned round to face the back seat. He was good-looking, his face thin-lipped and framed by curly brown hair to his collar. “Hey, Sid, leave off the fucking acid!”
“I never brought no fucking acid!”
“Like we believe you,” laughed the driver.
The headlights lit up the old grey stone of a farmhouse. “Hey, we’re here.” The driver stopped the engine and looked behind Sid to the back of the van, piled high with guitar cases, keyboards, amplifiers, drums, and box after box of equipment and cables. “Let’s unload in the morning. I’m knackered. It’ll be OK out here.”
Fiona opened the laboratory door to leave and flicked the lights off. Her job was to monitor radiation levels in the milk of farms within a fifty-mile radius. She felt satisfaction. All tests had been carried out successfully and isotope levels were normal.
Across the valley, she saw distant headlights and heard the sound of a sliding van door crashing open, and men laughing. That was odd, she thought. The farm was unoccupied at present. She stood and watched. The headlights went out, then three dark shapes crossed the farmyard. Shortly afterwards, lights came on within the building. Hmm. They must be visitors staying at the farm. She’d heard the owners were letting the farm out whilst they were out of the country. She shivered. Up above, deep purple clouds scudded erratically across a moonlit sky. It was September, but here in the Derbyshire Dales, the seasons changed quickly. Better check Emily had finished her homework, then she could serve out their evening meal. She looked out again over the valley to the distant farmhouse lights and wondered.
“One, two, FREE, FOUR!” There was a crash of cymbals, a jab of organ and a thundering bass riff. The drums settled into a repetitive rhythm, interspersed with figures played on the drum rims, giving a clicking, clacking sound, whilst the bass pounded out a different metre, producing a beguiling, hypnotic polyrhythm.
The man at the organ bent forward, long brown hair covering his lean, handsome face, as his fingers noodled over the twin keyboards, producing tantalising fragments of otherworldly melody, interspersed with jarring chords.
On the floor sat Sid, holding a black electric guitar covered with small round mirrors, a design of his own creation. In his left hand he held a cigarette lighter which, from time to time, he slid up and down the strings close to the bridge, whilst pounding with a plectrum, producing a high-pitched swooping, wailing sound.
After several minutes, the bassist, the tall man with the long gravedigger’s face, signalled with his head. There was a drum fill, a riff was repeated in unison four times, and then the music ended abruptly. Sid jumped up. “That was fucking great!”
“It was OK,” said the drummer, a man with a moustache and long dark hair. He’d arrived that morning to join his bandmates. “Those ‘mandies’ are scrambling your brain. Let’s do it again. With the tape rolling this time.”
Fiona looked up from her test tubes. What on earth was that noise? She went to the door of the laboratory and looked out across the valley. A blue van stood there, in the distance, along with a Mini Cooper, parked outside Swarfdale farm. She hadn’t noticed the car last night, she realised. She guessed they must be musicians, but that noise sounded like the soundtrack to a nightmare.
Fiona looked at her watch and noticed it was time to pick Emily up from school. She’d been listening longer than she’d realised.
When her Vauxhall Victor estate pulled back into the farmyard, she noticed a young man at the back door. She got out of the car. “Hi, can I help?”
“Yes, I’m from over the valley. I’m here with some friends. Musicians. We’re staying for a week. Can I come in?”
She noticed the face beneath the long curly black hair was very handsome. And his eyes were extremely dark, the pupils wide open. Like black holes in the sky, she thought. She felt her body reacting to his presence. It had been so long since …. “Yes, come in, please do.”
They all went into the kitchen and she put the kettle on. “I’m Fiona. This is Emily.”
Emily stared, then found her voice, “Hello.”
“My name’s Sid. I just came to say, I hope we’re not disturbing you. We’re working on some tracks for an album.” He laughed. “I don’t think it’ll make us a fortune.”
“Oh, no, no. It’s not very loud over here and it sounds … er, very interesting.” Fiona realised she was blushing furiously.
He seemed not to notice. “What’s that you’ve got there?” He asked Emily. She held a small cage where a white mouse ran in a wheel.
“He’s my pet mouse. I let him out sometimes, but you have to be careful he doesn’t run and hide.”
“What’s his name?”
“Oh, I call him Gerald, after my friend’s brother.”
“This is nice!” He took down an empty china vase from the mantlepiece, noticing Fiona’s concerned face. “Don’t worry, I won’t break it!” He reached out for a pad of paper and a couple of Emily’s crayons.
Fiona watched with astonishment as Sid’s fingers deftly sketched the vase, his wide black eyes darting between the sketch pad and the vessel, whilst he chewed his lip. “There, for you!” He gave the sketch to Emily and replaced the vase on the mantlepiece with exaggerated care.
Fiona laughed and poured out thick fragrant tea from a huge brown pot with a cracked glaze. “Help yourself to milk and sugar.” Then, “Emily, take your mouse into the lounge, you can let him out in the corner.” She turned to Sid. “You should see Emily play with Gerald. She’s so funny. She lets him run up her arms and legs!”
Sid sipped his tea. “Look, I have to go soon. We’ve two more songs to work on. Perhaps …?”
Fiona’s jade-green eyes met his black holes. “You could come tomorrow. Tell me about your music. Say one o’clock.”
“One o’clock it shall be.” Sid stood, bowed, gave a charming smile, winked, and was gone.
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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