We were both out of our minds, electrified by the ghostly vision we’d just seen, and for several minutes we clung to each other on the floor, struggling to find our heads. Dimity shook it off faster than I did. Soon she was grabbing me firmly by the face, pooching my lips out, looking me hard in the eyes.
“Get a grip, Bo. We’re good. See? We’re alright.”
Refocusing, catching my breath, and pressing down my shirt front I said, “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
We bolted up and allowed our eyes to adjust to the dark interior. Foolishly I was hoping that Ringo had already beaten us here, that we would find him awaiting us with a cozy fireplace and terry cloth robes and hot tea from some Tibetan monastery. Fat chance.
Looking around, we surveyed the room: an array of fussy sofas and prim chairs, the kind I hate with hard wooden ornamentation framing hard-packed Italian velour. An antique square piano was against the left wall, a wet bar on the right, and across the room a wide black fireplace that had obviously been cold for at least a year. Charred remains of logs leaned on the andirons; an old-fashioned bellows lay on the hearth. A cloudy, gold-rimmed mirror hung over a baroque sideboard, while other walls had some tapestries and portraits of unfamiliar faces.
Mitts walked over to the piano and started playing Chopin’s first nocturne, high-ranking for the most melancholy of all tunes of all time, and for all the world, the worst music for this moment.
“For the love of Pete, Mitts. Can’t you play something more cheerful?” So she played about three bars too many of Stars and Stripes Forever to express her impatience with my musical philistinism. I made eyes at her and she gave me a wry, head-tilted smile.
There were other doors; one leading outside in the direction of the creek, another leading deeper into the interior of the house.
While I was checking out the bar, Dimity wandered over to the fireplace and looked at it, then looked at me with puppy dog eyes. I nodded wearily. There was only one moldy log sitting on the hearth; the rest I would have to gather from outside. A side exit seemed the safest egress.
Outside was a charming flagstone patio with wicker seats and table, teacups, and saucers muddy with rainwater, unkempt potted plants. There was a marvelous stone path lined with white Corinthian columns. It led down a slight hill to a landing by the water’s edge. A wooden dock undulated above the bubbling creek. To every Greek column was attached a sconce with a cold, dark lantern. Irrationally, I longed to light the lanterns just to see the pathway come to life, to drink hot cocoa and sit here on a spring morning. The house had begun to capture my imagination.
In better days, the place must have been almost magical. I could see Ringo and one of his inamoratas strolling down the lantern-lit path to a medieval longboat, him holding the tender hand of the Lady of Shallot as she descends into a jolly boat decked with pillows and quilts and candles, or perhaps he would stand there and cast his bread on the water. The more I looked, the more the whole place belonged in an Arthurian legend.
But we weren’t there yet. In the ongoing gloom of the day and the lingering jolts of anxiety from our ghoulish encounter at the front door, the dock only augured some waterborne freebooter from upstream appearing, pressing his nose at the side door seeking God knows what. I quickly gathered an armload of jagged tree limbs and bracken and bolted the side door as securely as possible.
I won’t describe the difficulty I had lighting the sodden wood. It is a tale of two hours of frustration. But finally the wood was burning, a sofa was dragged up in front of it, and we plopped down together warming up and chasing away the gloom with cheerful yellow flames. From the satchel of groceries and personal items from Cougar Bob’s Dimity took out a new pack of spearmint chewing gum, unwrapped it, and folded a piece into her mouth. She offered me one and I took it. The flames cracked and our chewing gum smacked as it became soft and gummy.
Now, to me the situation looked like a perfect opportunity to make out—boyfriend and girlfriend, no parents for miles around, a cozy fireplace, our breath newly freshened. Couldn’t we? Of course we could! That much was certain. What else have we got to do while we wait for Ringo to show up, probably later today?
It seemed obvious and, if this were the movies, the actors on the screen would have gone right into it with violins swelling. But I was fourteen, and it was 1955, and I just wasn’t raised in a way that made steering things into a big make-out session intuitive for me. I feared the rejection of a beautiful, golden-maned, very confident and even a little intimidating girl lightyears out of my league. I feared my mother’s tears at my being led astray by a woman of folly. I feared God and all the angels of heaven watching every move I made with a scowl of divine disapproval.
We sat there in silence looking at the fire, me sighing in indecision, my heart as if being consumed moment by moment in those flames. And then, in an instant, she was in my face, her octopus arms wrapping around my neck, pressing me into the cushions and crossing that invisible boundary where saliva is no longer gross.
And just as suddenly, she came up for air with a smile and pointed her finger into my chest. “You know what this calls for?” She turned to her canvas bag and withdrew a bottle of 30-year tawny port.
“Find us a glass.”
We took turns sipping the heady wine. I couldn’t believe myself—my debauch was complete. With every sip I felt tongues of hellfire licking my feet as I was dragged by cachinnating demons into Satan’s maw.
“How did you get this?”
“Oh…you know. Feminine wiles.”
“Yeah, wiles. You know the word? I unbuttoned a couple of buttons—like this—and pulled open my blouse as I walked in the shop—like this. Then I gave Cougar Bob a look…like this—”
“…holy mother of God…”
“—and he didn’t ask any more questions. That, and my dad pretty much told him to fix me up with anything I wanted.”
“I don’t understand. Does Cougar Bob know your dad or something?”
She shrugged and said nothing.
“What. Come on. Am I missing something?”
“Oh yeah, plenty.”
“Are you going to tell me?”
“Yes, no, maybe. I dunno.”
“You’re just going to toy with me. Evil minx.”
“Hah, you know me.”
She poured more port into the glass and drank a big slug. Then she gave it to me.
“I haven’t had port this good since we lived in Freemantle.”
“Do kids drink down there?”
“Some do. Some every meal. That was my house. My dad wanted me to know what a good wine tasted like and how to handle myself. And not to make such a big deal about it like you yanks do. Bloody hell, youse can get so uptight about the oldest drink in the world.”
“What does your dad do?”
“Yeah, your dad.”
“Yeah, what does he do?”
“What does he do?”
“Yeah, what does he…sell cars? Businessman? Lawyer? Doctor?”
“My dad takes care of his family.”
I was starting to feel the port go to my head. Despite all of her training under her dad’s tutelage, she was getting tipsy too.
“Well, yeah! Sure! Of course, every dad takes care of his family, that’s what dads do. But what does your dad doooo? For a living? How do you buy groceries? How did you afford your Mary Jane shoes and those diamond studs?”
“He’s a businessman.”
“Okay, for what company?”
“It’s our…our family business.”
“Great, we’re finally getting somewhere. So what does his business do?”
“I don’t really know.”
“You don’t know.”
“He doesn’t really tell me. Jobs. You know, jobs and—. Just jobs and stuff.”
“Got it. Whoo, thanks. It’s all clear now. Jobs, well. That’s great.”
At that moment, there was a jarring, explosive knock at the door. Someone very angry was practically beating down the door. We looked at each other and she gave a long, low exhale. I was peeing my pants, she was cool as a cucumber.
“Go open the door.”
“What?? Are you crazy?” I whispered.
The knock persisted and a voice shouted.
“Ouvre la porte! Ringo, he send uz! Ringo nous a envoyés pour vous aider!”
It was the Beaux Voyous.
“There’s no way! There’s just no way! How could they find this place?” I whisper-shouted.
“Bo. Open the door.
“Nous voulons rencontrer votre petite amie! Haha! Elle est très chic! N’est-ce pas vrai, mes amis?”
“No! N. O. Don’t be crazy! They mean to kill us! You’re a girl! Don’t you know what that means? God, if only Ringo would show up right now!”
She gave another heavy exhale through her teeth while I was tiptoeing, furtively-slinkily ape-walking over and around everything, pulling my hair out. I considered running out the back door and hiding in a gully somewhere in the woods.
Then she turned to her satchel, reached inside, and withdrew the largest handgun I’d ever seen, the only one I’d seen outside the movies. If I was antsy before, now I completely fell apart. Fortunately, I was speechless. She walked silently to the door as the pounding and French expletives continued. The noise fell silent as they heard the bolt sliding open. Then she stood a couple of steps back.
The heavy door was shoved open and four thugs lunged in. As they did, I watched as my sweet Dimity put four bullets in the four foreheads of the men, and they fell down on the doorstep in a mass of human carnage.