A Fresh Start

Angela P.

Peter Alcott walked slowly back through the Tunnels to his exit. He had always enjoyed his visits Below, especially the pleasant and intelligent conversations that often lasted for hours in the company of Father and Vincent. Though they lived an apparently secluded, almost monastic life, they would question Peter avidly and with surprising insight on current events in the world Above. Their comments frequently surprised him, revealing as they did just how broad-minded and quick-witted they could be.

For the last two years, however, it had been a very different matter, and an element of uncertainty had crept into their meetings. Father was still welcoming and ready to enjoy a lively discussion, but Vincent was often withdrawn and argumentative and it was not unheard of for him to sit morosely, apparently taking no interest in the conversation, then suddenly stand up and depart without explanation or apology.

His appearance, too, had changed subtly. Some of his golden glow had dimmed and his movements were often less graceful than they once had been. His clothes were frequently mismatched, even shabby, and his hair was often uncombed. He gave the impression of being a man who no longer cared. His beloved possessions, too, suffered from his neglect. Books were dusty and carelessly piled, and where once he would have repaired broken spines and torn pages with infinite patience, now he simply discarded them.

This visit had been one of the more awkward ones, as long as Vincent was in the room with them. True to form, in the middle of a discussion that he was showing no great interest in, he simply stood up abruptly, swung his way up the short flight of steps that led out of Father’s study, and stalked off without a word or a glance.

‘Was it something I said?’ Peter had asked with a touch of irony underlying the humour.

Father shook his head in exasperation. ‘No, Peter – you know what he can be like. Who knows if we shall ever again see the old Vincent? It’s been two years – more, even – since Catherine disappeared. I don’t think he will ever get over it.’

Peter nodded and a few moments later, bade farewell to Jacob and set out for the long and increasingly tiring walk home.

*****

They all had their own ideas about what might have happened to Catherine. Some of them pessimistic, some defiantly optimistic. Peter, Father, Catherine’s friends and colleagues Above, the Tunnel dwellers – all had an opinion and were not above sharing it with the others. Only Vincent remained walled within silence, discouraging all speculation or well-meant enquiry.

Almost three years had passed since Vincent had descended into his own personal hell of physical and emotional turmoil. The arrival of Catherine in his life had not been an unconditional blessing. Hurled into a maelstrom of emotions by the power of this passionate love, something that had so far played no part in his life, and which he believed was to be forever beyond his reach, Vincent had found himself at war with himself, forced to confront his greatest fears and his most terrifying doubts. He spiraled down into a complete breakdown, into madness that threatened to destroy everything and everyone in his world, including him.

At his worst moment, when he was about to slip away into the oblivion of death, Catherine had risked everything to save him, following her impulses as she often did, regardless of the consequences.

Afterwards, once their lives had resumed something that approximated normality, Vincent had given no sign of remembering anything about what had happened between them. It had never been mentioned, even in their most private moments, and nothing he did or said allowed Catherine to feel able to initiate such an intimate conversation.

Vincent changed, and became a polite, distant stranger. He treated her with a gentle affection that was no more and no less than what he showed to the other members of his Tunnel family.

Along with the cherished memories that had been temporarily erased was the painful reality that he had forgotten her name. That hurt so much. He remembered enough to tell her that she was the woman he loved, but he was unable to say it with passion or deep feeling.

One day he finally said her name again, in that inimitable, slightly lisping way, his lips and tongue seeming to caress the syllables. He dipped his head shyly as he said ‘Catherine’ and his streaming hair hid the unutterable sadness in his eyes, the sadness that would have betrayed him had she seen it. He had made his decision. She must continue to believe that their connection was gone forever. Their Bond was indeed ruptured for the time being, and Vincent truly believed that it was for the best. He was setting her free, to live the life he believed she wanted, to follow the destiny that he no longer thought himself entitled to play a part in.

*****

Catherine’s visits became less frequent – the anguish of seeing the man who had given meaning to her life, whom she loved and would love forever, behaving as if her presence or absence was of no real concern to him, was more than she could bear. Nor could she bear the sad and sympathetic expressions on the faces of those who had known what it was like when Vincent clearly lived only for Catherine. There was something she needed to tell Vincent, but she held back, fearing for the stability of his recovery, concerned by the obvious fragility of his emotional state.

The fact that she was carrying their child.

Those brief moments in the cave, her desperate but ultimately successful attempt to bring him back from death, had resulted in something quite unforeseen. The conception of a child. Their child.

Catherine had found out entirely by accident. Joe had been involved in a bomb blast and as a result needed blood. Without hesitation, Catherine gave of her own, but as she was leaving the hospital a nurse hurried after her and scolded her for giving blood, saying that she should have known better, being pregnant. Catherine felt both shock and elation.

What should have been the most wonderful discovery, however, was overshadowed by sadness. How could she tell Vincent that he was to be a father when he had no memory of what had taken place between them, when, moreover, he apparently had no desire to continue with their relationship?

Up to a point, she realized, his behaviour could have been explained by the mental trauma he had endured, but she was not entirely sure whether he understood what he was doing. His memory seemed to be returning slowly, but did he truly remember all that they had been to each other, or was he burying those memories, trying to hold the demons at bay?

*****

On one of her now rare visits to the world Below, Catherine made a reckless attempt to break through the steely reserve that Vincent had erected around himself like a shield. She tried to provoke him into behaving towards her as he once did. Entering his chamber, sadly recalling that not so long ago he would have been at the Tunnel entrance to meet her, knowing she was on her way, rather than her being able to take him unawares, she flung herself into his arms with her previous spontaneity. He had stiffened in surprise, had recoiled from her, stepping back and smiling politely. Catherine would have preferred it if he had struck at her with unsheathed claws. Better his rage than his disdain. There was no offer of tea, no asking how she was, no shy smile. With a certain diffident embarrassment he had suggested that it might be better if she left, and that, in future, it might be preferable if she came to visit only upon being invited.

‘We can never have the kind of relationship that you need, Catherine. I can never allow myself to give you everything that you want. Not for your sake, and not for mine. We are destined to destroy each other if we stay together. I – I cannot allow –‘

‘You!’ she screamed, provoked beyond the bounds of her control. ‘You cannot allow! You – you are a coward, Vincent, admit it! You, of all people, are afraid of –what? Commitment? No, that is too human a concept for you.’

The bitter, irrevocable words had been said. The implication, that he was not quite human, could not be taken back. The blue eyes that had always regarded her with love, darkened in shock, pain, and ultimately fury. He clutched his chest and moaned in anguish, and then turning away, he looked upon her one last time and whispered ‘Go Catherine, please.

Unable to return his gaze, Catherine left.

In the days that followed, every attempt to find her, on the part of Father, Peter, Joe Maxwell and her other friends, failed. No one knew, or wanted to admit that they knew, where she had gone. Even Devin returned for a while and conducted his own investigation, but to no avail.

*****

Just as Peter Alcott strolled along the Tunnels, making his way home, lost in his thoughts, so Father allowed the memories that Peter’s visits always awakened to infiltrate his own mind once again.

Jacob Wells had been less than enthusiastic about Catherine’s entry into his beloved Vincent’s life, indeed he had been downright hostile and had done all in his power to discourage her and disillusion his son. He had, however, finally come to the realization that Catherine truly cared for Vincent, while Vincent’s own love and devotion was unquestionable. Father had begun to believe that a full and loving relationship could be possible for them, but Vincent’s illness changed everything.

Father knew that Vincent’s attempt at setting Catherine free had misfired. Vincent had intended a gentle release for her, but emotions ran too high and were further confused by Vincent’s fear; fear that he might again enter that self-destructive state from which he could not expect to return another time. No-one but Vincent himself could know fully the horrors of the condition which he had once referred to as ‘losing himself’. Was it fair to blame him for trying to avoid anything that might trigger such a relapse? Moreover, he simply could not see that he was indeed worthy of Catherine’s love, and that her love might be his salvation.

Father was also aware that much of Vincent’s apparently unending misery was caused by the fact that once he would have known, through that mystical, magical Bond, that Catherine was alive and well, wherever she was, whether she was thinking of him or not.

The Bond was gone, and Vincent was adrift in guilt and uncertainty. There had been moments, he told Father, during the past two years, when he had sensed something, enough to make him think he might be on the verge of some deep, tenuous knowledge, but it always faded and eluded him, never quite strong enough to pinpoint.

*****

As Father reminisced alone in his study, Peter Alcott was leaving the Tunnels and re-entering his own comfortable New York life. He wished for the thousandth time that he knew what had happened to Catherine, wished that he could somehow bring about closure for all those affected , assure Vincent that she was, at least, happy somewhere, living her life to the full, with no regrets.

Home meant a shower and a change into something less formal than his suit. A whisky drunk from one of his favourite Irish crystal tumblers, would help him to focus on the daily chore of sorting through the mail. The pharmaceutical industry seemed to have nothing better to do than bombard hardworking doctors with advertising letters thinly disguised as bulletins and newsletters.

With one eye on a TV news channel, he was relaxed and completely unprepared for what he found in one of the envelopes that he had brought from the desk to lie scattered beside him on the couch. Opening an envelope that bore slightly familiar handwriting rather than an address label, he unfolded the two sheets of paper it contained. Startled, he stared at the writing that had now become unmistakably recognizable. A photo fluttered out on to his lap and he picked it up, his eyes immediately blurring with tears.

It was of Catherine. Hardly changed at all, and with a child on her lap. She looked at the camera defiantly but proudly, her body language quite unmistakably that of a mother. Peter knew there would be an explanation in the letter, but somehow he also knew it would only confirm what he could see for himself. The little boy had to be just over two years of age. The red-gold curls and the fearless blue eyes were as much those of his father as his heart-shaped face and beautiful mouth were those of his mother. For the first time in many years, Peter Alcott wept.

*****

In her letter, Catherine asked to meet Peter.

I am back,’ she wrote. ‘I owe you, at least, an explanation, and I need your advice. Can we meet? I don’t have to say, do I, that this is between the two of us.’

It was late, and Peter was a man of old fashioned propriety. Somehow, with great difficulty, he contained his impatience and waited until the next morning to call the number Catherine had written in her letter. Catherine was living in Connecticut, she said, and had been on the other side of the world for a couple of years. She suggested that perhaps Peter might like to come to the old Connecticut cabin for the weekend.

She was waiting for him when he pulled up to the cabin. He had called to say he was almost there and she was standing on the porch, her son balanced on her hip in that universally maternal way.

‘I suppose he ought to be in bed by now,’ she said by way of greeting, ‘but I had to show him to you first.’

Vincent’s son stared for a moment at Peter, and then smiled – a wide smile that showed his perfectly normal, if slightly large, teeth. Peter and Catherine exchanged a glance, and an unspoken question hung between them.

‘Yes,’ Peter replied to the unasked question,’ he is beautiful, and he looks like both of you. What is his name?’

‘Jacob,’ she answered, and once again Peter’s tears welled up.

‘His grandfather will be so proud.’

‘Yes, well, we have to discuss that don’t we?’

‘Catherine! What is there to discuss?’

They talked while Catherine bathed the little boy and put him to bed, and they continued to talk through dinner and over wine and long into the night. There was a lot of catching up to do. Peter wanted to know where Catherine had been during her absence; she asked after Peter’s family and some of the Tunnel inhabitants. The subject of Vincent seemed to be off limits, but Peter hoped that this was temporary. In view of the circumstances, it could hardly be otherwise.

There was, however, one question that Peter had to get out of the way as soon as possible. His natural reserve warring with his doctor’s practicality at first, he overcame his inhibition and asked it.

‘When, Cathy? I don’t think I need to ask how, but when -?’

She looked down at her hands for a moment, allowing herself to remember.

*****

Alone, and in that dark and fetid cave where the sound of his raving still seemed to echo, she had made love to Vincent.

There was nothing beautiful or romantic in that brief coupling. It had been carried out with urgency and desperation and the only satisfaction it truly gave was the knowledge that somehow it had brought Vincent back from a lonely and terrible place. Whether Vincent was conscious of anything that was happening at the time was moot – though for one moment Catherine had been sure she felt him respond to her with awareness rather than the silently reflexive reactions that, if nothing else, gave her the satisfaction of knowing he was alive.

*****

‘It was in the cave, Peter. I felt him going – leaving me – dying. I was desperate – it was all I could think of. Perhaps, if I – well, it worked. In more ways than I knew of then, in more ways than I could have imagined. I made love – a kind of love – to him. It was almost entirely one-sided except for a moment when I felt him – reach out to me, in a not entirely physical way. More spiritual. But the result was, as you can see, perfectly, wonderfully natural. It devastated me that, afterwards, even when he got his memory back, he never mentioned it. Had he forgotten, Peter? Or didn’t he want to remember? Or – was it something else? Had he never, even for an instant, known what happened?’

She stood up and paced for a while, unconsciously, in the same manner that Vincent had so often employed when he wanted to think something through.

‘There has never been a day in the last two years, that I haven’t gone over it all again in my mind. Why did he send me away Peter? Was it fear, confusion or what? Did he do it for my sake or his own? Because if he did it for my sake, then he never truly knew me, did he?’

‘Catherine- ‘said Peter soothingly. ‘What does it matter now? You can’t change anything, you can only move on. You could have stayed away, but you have returned. Why? What do you intend to do now? ‘

She stared back at him resolutely. ‘Vincent has to know that he has a son. I could never deprive him of that knowledge. I can’t look any further ahead than that.’

Peter nodded. ‘And you want me to tell him? Why does the thought of my doing that make me nervous?’

‘Why Peter? All I’m asking is that you tell a man that the result of a fumbled coupling he doesn’t remember is a child, the child he never thought he could have. Is that too much to ask?’

Dismayed, Peter looked at her long and hard before he realized that she was teasing him. ‘Cathy – we have to plan this very, very carefully.’ And for the two days that is precisely what they did.

*****

Father was surprised to receive a visit from Peter so soon after the last, less than successful, one. ‘Sit, sit Peter, Shall we have tea? Shall I send for Vincent? What news do you have for us this time or shall we play a game of chess perhaps?’

‘Whoa old friend! One thing at a time. No, no tea, but a drop of your fine old Scotch would be welcome.’

‘That’s not like you Peter. It’s not a special occasion is it?’

‘It might be, at that. Jacob – don’t send for Vincent. I have something to tell you and it must be between the two of us for now.’

Father subjected Peter to one of his long, piercing stares, scrutinizing him carefully with wrinkled brows. He got up and limped to the stairs, climbing them painfully but steadily. When he reached the top of the steps he pulled the old, thick velvet curtains across the doorway as a signal to anyone approaching that he wished not to be disturbed.

‘You sound very serious, my friend,’ he said. ‘What is it?’

‘I have seen Catherine, Jacob.’

There was no point in beating about the bush. The reaction was no less than he expected. Father was deeply shocked, but he remained calm and in control of himself.

‘And -?’ he prompted.

Peter pulled the photograph of Catherine and her son out of the envelope that had been sitting in his pocket, almost like a time bomb. He slid it across the table and waited.

Father’s reaction was immediate. With a sob, he pressed his hands to his eyes and broke down. When he pulled himself together, he looked back at Peter with a face that was radiant with joy.

‘Vincent’s son?’ he asked, knowing there could only be one answer. It was as if he were looking at a photo of Vincent himself as a baby, just before the differences became obvious.

‘My grandson,’ he added with wonder.

Peter kept the explanations to a minimum, knowing Jacob’s powers of acceptance and understanding. Father nodded slowly.

‘I think I suspected as much – at least as far as the – hm – actual event was concerned. I never even considered that there might be repercussions of this kind, though. If it had been anyone else, well, of course, but Vincent – I had convinced myself that such a thing could – should – never be possible for him.’ Father looked down, shame evident in the hunch of his shoulders and the involuntary wringing of his hands. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t have presumed to know best.’

‘Too late for looking back, Jacob,’ urged Peter. ‘Time to look forward and see what can be saved from this situation.’

The matter, however, was taken out of their hands by the sudden appearance of Vincent himself, bursting through the curtains without respect for the implications of their unusual closure.

‘Father!’ he exclaimed with more animation than he had displayed for a very long time. ‘I don’t know what is happening to me but I am feeling something strange, something – I feel as if my Bond with Catherine has opened again! I know she is not dead! I can feel her- and yet –‘

His eyes lit on the photograph that lay on the table between the two men. He was suddenly still, focused entirely on it. His body moving with the old, fluid grace, he seemed to glide down the stairs and across to the table, his hand outstretched. There was a sensation of electricity in the air that palpably crackled about their heads.

Vincent picked up the photograph and stared at it briefly. Then he flung it back on the table, turned his back and slammed his fist on the stair-rail with a force that threatened to shatter it.

‘So!’ His voice was a malevolent hiss, with none of the beautiful timbre that was usually present. ‘She took my advice. She found someone else, she has a child, and that’s the end of it.’

He started up the stairs again but Father rose and called him back with a voice stronger and harsher than Peter had ever before heard him use.

‘Vincent! Come back here!’

Though he did not turn around, or come back to the table, Vincent stood still and waited.

‘Come-back-here,’ repeated Father, slowly and firmly.

Vincent turned, his head bent, his thick hair a veil for the emotions that must have been ripping through him already and must otherwise have been visible on his proud face.

‘Look at the photo again,’ insisted Father. Vincent made a gesture of protest but Father was adamant. ‘Look at it again,’ he repeated.

With obvious reluctance, Vincent picked up the picture, the coloured scrap of paper so fragile in his grasp.

‘Now be still, and look, really look.’

Unable to disobey the man he called Father, even though he had long outgrown him in size and power, Vincent did as he was told.

He saw the child, saw the glint of red and gold in the baby curls, and touched his own hair reflexively. He saw the blue of the sky and sea and of mountain gentians in the little boy’s eyes and blinked his own eyes in wonder. He smiled at the perfection of the baby’s lips, the pertness of the infant’s nose, and the latent strength of the small fist that curled about the crystal worn at his mother’s throat.

There was silence in the room. Vincent sank to his knees, still staring at the photograph, until a sob rose in his throat and he flung his head back in that familiar way and allowed an eloquent roar to escape his lips.

‘How?’ he whispered. ‘When –‘but with frightening swiftness he rose to his feet and began to pull madly at his hair. ‘The cave! In the cave! Something – happened! I could not remember – I … oh Catherine, my own Catherine, what have I done?’

He was pacing and muttering, he hit his forehead again and again in anguish and the two men watching him were reminded fearfully of other occasions they had hoped to forget. But this time Vincent pulled himself together quickly.

‘Where is she? I must see her – I must see them!’

In hope and optimism, Peter and Catherine had discussed this possible and longed-for outcome of Vincent’s discovery of the truth. There had been no question whatsoever in Catherine’s mind that father and son should meet. What happened after that was between Vincent and Catherine.

They had made their plans, and if those plans required Vincent to abandon the habits of a lifetime, to put his own and Father’s fears behind him for the last time, then so be it. This was to be the beginning of something, not the end. Vincent would realize an old dream and live a new one. He would make that once-planned, never-achieved journey to the lake in Connecticut, and there, alone with the woman he loved and his child, he would finally lay the ghosts of his fears.

The black SUV with the tinted windows was comfortable enough, but it might as well have been a cage, so confined and uneasy did Vincent feel during the journey north. Peter had assured him it was only anxiety and the fact that he was unused to car travel, but Vincent himself knew that it was another manifestation of his unique instincts. Once they were on forest-lined roads, he began to pick up all kinds of sounds and scents, but instead of feeling set apart he felt only the joy afforded by these exhilarating sensations, tempered by pity for those who were not equipped to experience them.

What of his son, he wondered. Would he have inherited any of his father’s wondrous attributes? Of one thing he was sure. There was a Bond between them; a fledgling, still evolving Bond on the boy’s part, a deeper but damaged one on the father’s.

Peter turned off on to a dirt track. Beneath the canopy of trees, it was already dark, but as the vehicle pulled up beside the old stone and timber cabin, the setting sun was turning the lake to liquid gold.

There was no need for words. Vincent embraced Peter briefly but warmly, then Peter drove away and Vincent turned to face the small house.

Catherine stood on the porch, a small, sleepy child in her arms. She whispered into his ear as Vincent approached, and the boy lifted his head and looked at his father. The last of the sun merely added a coppery lustre to the gold of his curls. He wriggled out of his mother’s arms and ran without hesitation towards Vincent. Lifting his arms up to the cloaked figure, he smiled, a smile of pure wonder and recognition, and said: ’Daddy!’

Without hesitation, as if it were the thousandth time and not the first, Vincent swung his son up into his arms. Small fingers clutched at the thick mane of golden hair, stroked the downy cheeks, poked into the cleft of his lips, without fear. The child patted his father’s nose and laughed.

Catherine sensed the question rather than heard it; ‘Jacob,’ she said, ‘his name is Jacob.’

The tears flowed and mingled as the three of them embraced.

There was no more need for words – yet.

*****

Vincent watched in awe as Catherine prepared his son for bed. When the ritual was done, he turned his attention to the woman he had thought never to see again, the woman he had sent away, with the best of intentions and yet – with a certain selfishness.

At first it was awkward. They had joined in the most intimate way and that joining had resulted in the creation of their child, but he remembered nothing of it and after all those interminable months of separation he did not know how to behave towards her now. He was at a loss. But Catherine pulled him down to sit beside her on the huge couch in front of the fireplace.

‘It’s going to take us time, Vincent,’ she murmured. ‘But that doesn’t matter – as long as we both want it to work. We turned our backs on each other for a time. Now it’s time to face each other again, to face what we are, and what we can be, together. No – no –‘she interrupted him as he began to speak, stroking his exotic mouth with a gentle fingertip.

‘Don’t say anything. Do you realize we have never even kissed? Surely you can’t have any reservations about that now – just one tiny little kiss, just for a start.’

He had forgotten what it was like to have her tease him and it was wonderful. He bent his head and placed a gentle, hesitant kiss on her mouth. Her lips were as soft and yielding as he had always imagined them to be, offering him a welcome, a promise, that he was not quite ready to explore.

‘Will that do, for a start, Catherine?’

She smiled. ‘Oh I think we can do better than that, don’t you?’

She slipped the cloak from his shoulders, her hands lingering on the breadth and strength of them, reminding herself that there was no hurry now. Kissing would do very well – for a start.

Later, they talked. For hours. Vincent had to put into words the unbelievable feelings that he had experienced when his little son ran into his arms and called him Daddy.

‘How – how did he know, Catherine?’

She smiled enigmatically. ‘Oh, I’ve told him about you since before he was born. I used to tell him stories about his beautiful father when he was still in my womb. I played him tapes of Schubert and Beethoven and Chopin, and I read him ‘Great Expectations’ and Shakespeare’s sonnets. He had an early classical education, Vincent. I owed him that – I owed you that too. But in the end, he knew you because he is your son, and has a connection with you, just as we –‘

She was going to say ‘had’, but the man she had never ceased to love touched a long, claw-tipped finger to her lips and whispered ‘have’, leaning close for another, more confident kiss.

Later still, Catherine took his hand and pulled him up with the strength that never ceased to amaze him. Such a small woman, such a strong one, in every way.

‘Come to bed, Vincent. Since you can’t remember anything about how we made Jacob, let’s start all over again. Let me try to remind you.’

In the middle of the night, a great, triumphant roar resounded through the silent forest.

‘I remember!’ shouted Vincent in exultation.

There was a giggle and a shushing sound, and then two very serious, very intense voices said:

‘I love you - forever - Catherine.’

‘And I love you - forever - Vincent.’

********