Story by Tom Austin Written Tom Austin Revised by Meg Sorick
Cassette 1 Entry 2
“I’m dictating this as I drive to Norland. I want to learn about the people in Norland, and Coboconk. I want to find some of the characters my aunt told me about. Eric the Pirate is the primary person to find. Men talk to their mechanic like they talk to their bartender. I also need to find a place where I can get my hair done. I’m going to park outside the A & P store.”
As I walked in, a gigantic rack of picture postcards caught my eye and I had to stop to look. Some of them showed Norland the way it was fifty years ago. It was fascinating to see how little the town had changed. I purchased one copy of every postcard. As I shuffled through the pile, I stopped at one with a photograph of the town sign, reading ‘Norland, Population 200’ and nothing else. But I didn’t recall seeing this sign when I drove through the town the previous day.
An old man approached the counter and stole a glance at the card in my hand. “Yep, that sign was up for almost fifty years. People could never understand why the population never changed. They always thought it stayed at two hundred. Someone actually started a rumor that Norland was inhabited by witches and warlocks, and whenever the population got over two hundred, we held sacrifices to keep the number in check!” He chuckled. “Excuse me, where are my manners. The names Mervin Lemay. Say, you look kinda familiar. You one of those TV types?”
“Guilty as charged. My name is Cassandra Carter, I’m a reporter for CKMT.”
“Is that so? What brings you to Norland?”
“I’m the new owner of Blue Cottage on Shadow Lake. My aunt left me the cottage in her will.”
“You mean you’re related to Heather Carter?”
“Again, guilty as charged. I haven’t been up here in twenty years. Do you think you could tell me about a bit about the town, my neighbors, that sort of thing? It would help me get a feel for the place. You see, I’m trying to decide if I should move up here permanently.”
After wiping his hands on his apron, Mr. Lemay came out from behind the counter. “Now where did I put those blasted reading glasses of mine?” he grumbled while patting himself down in a futile search.
I stifled a smile. Obviously, Mr. Lemay was a bit forgetful —he was wearing his glasses. I tried to think of a polite way to tell him, but diplomacy has never been my strong suit so I just blurted, “You’re wearing them, Mr. Lemay.”
Reaching up to feel the frames grasping his head, he started to blush. “Well, what d’ya know.” He waved a hand and continued, “Let’s start your education by taking a look at some those postcards.”
I handed him my pile. He tapped a finger on the first one. “This shows the store and gas station next door as it appeared fifty years ago. As you can, see not much has changed.” He shuffled through the cards telling a little story of each scene. When he had finished, he handed the pile back to me.
“Now, your neighbors. You have P.G. Webb on the one side and Peter James Christopher on the other, but you probably knew that. Mr. Webb and his wife started off as weekenders. But then Mr. Webb decided to move here shortly after Mrs. Webb passed away. Such a shame… Anyway, Mr. Christopher is another story. He and his wife moved up here not long before your aunt died. Mrs. Christopher didn’t care for this lifestyle and the two split up.” He leaned in close, “Between you and me, she was a nasty piece of work. Never satisfied and always expected things to happen at the snap of her fingers. Now, him— he’s a completely different breed of cat. Keeps to himself. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve seen him in almost two years. He even has his food delivered to the cottage. The orders come in through email, can you believe it? Must be some kind of recluse or something. A writer, I think. And a pretty good one from what I gather.”
Now that had to be the understatement of the year. If this was the Peter James Christopher, then he was the author of three books of fiction, two of them wildly popular. His most recent book didn’t do as well as the first two. Critics all agreed that something was missing. It just didn’t have that Peter James Christopher feel to it, that special something that made you want to buy the book, then devour every word. What had happened? Had he lost his touch? Mr. Lemay interrupted my thoughts.
“Now, your late Aunt Heather. She was my definition of a lady. Old fashioned manners and what not. She always said please and thank you. Let the fellows open and close the door for her.” He held up a finger. “But I should add that she was a bit of a free spirit too. Wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and if the moment called for it, she would say damn. Though I can’t say I ever heard her use those other four letter words that are so popular these days—”
“Oh, she used them,” I cut in. “Very rarely, but she had her own special collection of colorful words. Damn was her favorite. Once, when I was ten, I watched her change the oil in her car. She’d say “futz” instead of the other F-word a lot, most likely because I was there. If she only knew… By then, my vocabulary of swear words was already pretty well established. I even knew a few she never used.”
Mr. Lemay studied me for a few seconds, then took off his glasses and proceeded to clean them with the hem of his apron. “I can’t imagine you swearing like a sailor Miss Carter,” he said.
I blushed a tiny bit because he was clearly flirting with me.
“I try not to but I do have my moments.” Then, to change the subject, I asked, “Is there anything else you can tell me about the reclusive Mr. Christopher?”
“That’s pretty well it. Since you’re one those journalistic types why don’t you simply interview the guy, or whatever it is you do?”
The man had a point. A very good one. I might be a journalist without standing at present, but I could still conduct an interview. With that, I thanked Mr. Lemay for his time and the information and headed back to the cottage. Only this time the trip would be more memorable. As I drove along highway 45, I spotted a family of raccoon’s crossing the highway. Apparently, Mama raccoon was teaching her brood a hard lesson. It appeared that Papa raccoon had been leading the pack when he got clipped by a car. As Mama approached his lifeless body, she slowed, clearly mourning him, and turned to the little ones as if to say, ‘you see what can happen?’ before hurrying them across the road. I slowed down to allow the parade of nocturnal bandits to pass. Despite their recent tragedy, they weren’t terribly intimidated by my car. I guess I don’t blame them. A cute little chipmunk eyed my car as I drove into town yesterday and I swear he was laughing at it. Okay. It’s not a great, nasty muscle car that gets four miles to the gallon and belches out fumes like there’s no tomorrow, but it gets me where I want to go.
As I turned onto Buller Road, I began to dread another run-in with the bull. Looking around, I didn’t see him, but it was clear he had been there recently. His left his calling card was smack in the middle of the road. Great. A load of bull crap under my tires. Literally. I managed to drive around it, but couldn’t help but think he had done this on purpose just to screw up my day. Once again, I tested the limits of my suspension on the way back to Blue Cottage, but made it there without incident. After stowing my few parcels, I set out for the cottage next door.
I knocked on the screen door. Nothing. I could hear the faint sounds of the radio playing. As I opened the screen door, I realized my hands were shaking. I was as jittery as I was on my very first job interview. I curled the fingers of my right hand and knocked. Still nothing. I was about to knock again when the completely unexpected happened— a knock from inside. Then the ‘thunk’ of a bolt lock moving and the ‘scrape’ of a tiny chain lock sliding open. I held my breath. A gravelly, almost unintelligible voice rasped, “Hold your flippin’ horses. I’m coming!” And, an angry, “if this is a survey I think I’ll spit nails,” probably not meant for me to hear.
The door opened to reveal a man in his forties wearing dark jeans and a blue shirt. His brown hair complimented his hazel eyes. When he saw me, he held up one finger as if to say “just one moment” and handed me a card that said:
“Squamous cell carcinoma – throat cancer”
The delay gave me a chance to take a good look at my new neighbor. His skin was the color of ash, and his gaunt figure made the blue shirt hang on him. He had obviously lost a significant amount of weight. Nevertheless, I tried to put a positive note in my voice.
“I’m Cassie Carter, your new neighbor. I own Blue Cottage.” I extended my hand. He shook it but the handshake was pretty weak.
Mr. Christopher stepped back to let me enter, then put his hands in his pockets and looked me up and down. I felt very uneasy —like a piece of meat might feel being sized up by a butcher.
“Turn around, please,” he growled. At least that’s what I thought he said. And for some reason, I did turn.
“Good. No recording devices. Sorry, but I had to check. I know exactly who and what you are Miss Carter. Even though CKMT has yet to announce it, I suspect they either let you go or put you on some sort of leave. I have nothing against you or your profession. I’m just not terribly fond of some other journalists.”
Most of my instincts told me to leave but the journalist in me told me to stay. I stayed.
Mr. Christopher tried to speak, but it seemed that he had very little control over the pitch in his voice. With obvious frustration, he tried again. Words with two or more syllables were the hardest. When he said my last name ‘Carter,’ the ‘car’ sound came out high in pitch while the ‘ter’ sound came out very low in pitch. It conjured an image in my mind of a barrel-chested operatic tenor on helium. I started to snicker. He politely ignored it.
“Coffee, Miss Carter?” he asked slowly and gesturing towards the coffee jar.
“Yes, please,” I said, with relief. And to break the tension, I went on, “That bull at the top of the road seems to think he’s king of the world. And I think he has it in for my car.”
The author busied himself in the kitchen, making the coffee. While the coffee maker gurgled, huffed and chuffed, he typed on an iPad. When the coffee was ready, he prepared a tray with cups, cream and sugar. He brought it over while handing me the iPad. It read: “please have a seat.” I sat on the sofa. He set the tray on the table in front of me and made a strange sound.
“How do you make that sound with throat cancer?” I asked meekly. I added cream to my coffee to avoid meeting his eyes.
He picked up the Ipad. His hands just flew over the built-in keyboard. After he finished typing he handed the Ipad to me.
“That damn bull may think he’s king of the world, but he’s also a damn big coward. If you get a whistle he’ll get out your way really fast. As for that sound you heard me make it’s my version of saying “Hey you”. I simply push my tongue against the skin of my lower jaw. You have to push the skin on the inside of your mouth outwards at the front of your lower jaw.”
“That’s really good to know. I’ll get a whistle when I’m in Coboconk. That bull has messed with me for the last time.” I sipped my coffee. It was good. Then mustering up my courage, I asked, “Since you know I’m a journalist, would you mind if I interviewed you?”
He leaned forward, took the Ipad from me, and typed his answer.
“I don’t want to be interviewed by a journalist, but I wouldn’t mind chatting with a neighbor. Feel free to ask me anything.”
He had put me on the spot and I positively hate when that happens. Not this time, though.
“Peter, you just put me on the spot. I’m not sure about being your neighbor. Yet. I haven’t decided if I’m going to keep Blue Cottage or sell it.” I paused to sip again, then blurted, “I’ve been suspended, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
He got out of his chair, crossed the room, and sat down beside me on the couch. He tried saying something, cursed and put his hand on my knee. Again the Ipad came into play. Again his hands flew over the keyboard. Then he handed it to me.
“Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. I’ll give you an interview where you can ask me anything you like. In return, you agree to stay in Blue Cottage one week. I may need a favor. I’ll know in less than one week. Does that sound fair to you?”
I couldn’t believe my luck. I found one of the most reclusive men on the planet and he’s offering to be interviewed by me!
“Can I let my editor know about the interview?” I asked. After pausing for a few seconds he nodded his head slowly. He pointed at the iPad and I handed it to him. When he handed it back I read:
“I’ll consent to your editor knowing about the interview as long as it is published in full. And any mention about my divorce will be limited to “we realized we made a mistake and divorced.”
“I better call for his consent.” I almost ripped my pants getting the phone out. When I dialed his number, it rang for a long time —he must have been screening his calls.
When he finally answered, he said, “I figured you’d call. Look, when I said indefinite suspension I meant—”
“Listen! I’ve got Peter James Christopher in front of me right now. And he’s willing to be interviewed. All you have to do is agree to publish it in full. The deal’s on the table for the next thirty seconds.”
There was nothing but aching silence from on the phone. I glanced over at Peter. His face was a mask of pain. His throat was really beginning to smart. Peter pointed at his watch and held up ten fingers.
I whispered,“What does that mean …ten seconds left?”
Finally, there was an answer. “OK, you got me. But put him on the line. I want to hear him.”
“He wants to talk to you.” I handed my phone to Peter, who looked like he going to be violently ill. Buddha started talking.
“I just wanted to say that this isn’t the way we normally conduct business. We have standards and—”
Peter cut him off. “I have throat cancer you big baboon. This could be my last interview. Do you really want it to go a competitor?”
As the ramifications finally hit Buddha, he asked Peter to hand the phone back to me. Peter held it out and croaked out the word “talk”. He winced in pain and got up to take some yellow medication. Morphine.
“We’ll honor the deal,” Buddha said, realizing he’d almost made a colossal mistake. “How bad is he Cassie?”
I turned my back on Peter and whispered into the phone, “Look chuckles. The guy’s in rough shape. He has to take Morphine. You know the phrase: “he’s a shadow of his former self”? Well, there’s so little of this guy left he’s barely got a shadow. Listen, I’ve got to go.”
Peter tapped me on the shoulder and handed me the iPad. “I’m going to bed. Morphine always makes me sleepy.” I nodded in understanding. Five minutes later, I heard his soft snoring coming from the bedroom.
Peter probably expected me to leave, but I felt responsible for his pain. I couldn’t leave him like this. I lit a fire and selected one of the many books he had on the shelves. The cozy fire and the warm blanket combined to make me sleepy and despite my best efforts to stay awake, I fell asleep on the couch.
……..and more to come!