A “Captain Scarlet” Short Story for Christmas
By Caroline Smith
Richard Fraser, Spectrum codename Captain Ochre, was furious. He hobbled into the Control Room with a dark look upon his normally good-humoured features and stormed up to Colonel White at the control console. He raged at his superior without even saluting or acknowledging him first.
“What’s this I hear about you going to send Magenta or Blue out to South Dakota for Lieutenant Jade’s funeral? I can’t believe you’re going to do this!”
White heard Lieutenant Green’s audible intake of breath at Ochre’s outburst and when he flicked his eyes over to the young black man, he saw him hastily pretend to be very occupied with a panel to his left.
“Lieutenant Green, I think I’ll have that coffee you said you’d get me earlier.”
Green was surprised; the colonel could have used his private office to speak to Ochre, but maybe…
“Now would be a good time…” White looked at him with that stare.
“Yes sir, of course, right away.” He got up from his chair and exited the room, almost guiltily disappointed that he wouldn’t be privy to their conversation, He had never seen Ochre so mad, normally he was so laid back as to be horizontal.
White was well used to Ochre’s somewhat unorthodox ways relating to discipline and military etiquette but he was still taken aback by his officer’s almost violent display of emotion.
“Captain Ochre, I was merely thinking about your injuries, Dr Fawn thinks you should still be confined to quarters for a few more days yet.”
“I don’t give a damn about my injuries. I’ve got to be the one to be there. It’s the least I owe Lieutenant Jade. Otherwise it just looks like I’m a damn coward!” The American’s eyes were blazing and White tried to recall the last time he had seen him quite so agitated before.
“I hardly think that, Captain,” White said tersely. “I think you’ve proved quite the opposite in your career before and with Spectrum.” He frowned to himself. What had got into the man? he thought. Perhaps this last operation and the last few months had finally taken its toll on him, just as it had with many of the younger officers and personnel.
“Captain, please sit down,” he said, trying to placate him. “Very well, against my better judgement I’ll allow you to go. But I insist on Captain Magenta accompanying you. After all you can hardly drive there in your current state.”
Ochre looked at the floor, and was obviously trying to marshal some inner state of composure. When he spoke again it was in a calmer voice. “Thank you sir, I appreciate it. And I’m sorry for barging in here like that.”
“It’s all right, Captain,” White said in an equally calm tone. “I understand the events of the past week or so haven’t been easy for you. I’ll speak with Doctor Fawn and clear you to go.”
Ochre saluted. “Thank you, sir.”
After Ochre had departed, thankfully rather more placidly than he came in, Colonel White looked thoughtfully out of the observation window in the Control Room. Christmas was almost upon them, not a good time for funerals. Spectrum had fought yet another year of relentless battles with the merciless and intangible foe known to them only as the Mysterons. And the last few months had been some of the hardest they had known since encountering the strange race. Everyone had been working around the clock and doubling, sometimes trebling, up on duty shifts to combat the threats that seemed to come one after the other. Most of the Cloudbase personnel were exhausted and most especially the senior staff.
Throughout it all the members of Spectrum had miraculously led charmed lives. Apart from Captain Scarlet, who most fortunately possessed the mysterious power of retrometabolism, no-one had been killed. That is, up to now. Captain Ochre had been the field commander on the last mission and paired with Lieutenant Jade, a young Oglala Sioux. The Mysterons had threatened to destroy a massive dam and irrigation project located in South America that supplied water to several key maize and wheat producing regions. Destruction would have caused devastating crop failures for the following year. Although they succeeded in averting destruction of the dam there had been a price to pay. Ochre and several ground agents were badly wounded and Lieutenant Jade was killed.
Of course there was a formal investigation. It was Spectrum standard procedure whenever agents were killed in the field. At Colonel White’s request it was held at Cloudbase rather than Spectrum Intelligence HQ in London as Ochre’s presence was required at the investigation and he was still too injured to travel.
Ochre was exonerated of all blame for the death of Lieutenant Jade and the verdict on her demise for the records was stated as death by misadventure in the line of duty.
Ochre and Magenta made their way to South Dakota. They picked up a Spectrum saloon car at the airport and made their way to the reservation where the burial of the young Lieutenant was to take place.
Magenta noted sourly that his partner remained tight-lipped as they drove along the winding road. Ochre hadn’t uttered more than a couple of grunted sentences in the SPJ either. They were both wearing their dress uniforms for the funeral and for once Ochre didn’t complain about it. That in itself was unusual, thought Magenta. He shook his head as he concentrated on the road and the stark beauty of the landscape. He had never been out this way before. It seemed a million miles away from the buzz of New York.
Ochre, too, regarded the surroundings as the car sped along. He remembered that Lieutenant Jade, whose name was Wenonah Red Wind, had called it the Paha Sapa, the Sioux nation’s name for the Black Hills. She had spoken wistfully of her home, saying that despite the problems her people still faced on the reservation, their sacred land still held its magnetic beauty. He had smiled at her descriptions of the place, of the multicoloured pillars and rocks of the Badlands to the pristine forests, rivers and lakes of the Black Hills. He had made up his mind that he would have to visit one day and see it for himself. He never imagined he would be here under such tragic circumstances. He clenched his eyes shut for a brief second, trying to shut out the memory of her face. The official verdict had done little to assuage Ochre’s feelings of guilt at her death. It was starting to eat away at him, and he was experiencing black moods on an almost daily basis and finding sleep difficult as he kept replaying the awful memory of the mission in his head.
“You’re so quiet it’s worrying me,” Magenta’s voice broke into his thoughts. He didn’t like the look of Ochre. He seemed brittle and tired, and it wasn’t just due to his injuries either, he suspected.
Ochre stared ahead, his face drawn. “She was twenty-one years old, for God’s sake. She had her whole life ahead of her, and I blew it.”
Magenta had never heard such bitterness in Ochre’s voice. “From what I heard, officially you weren’t to blame.”
His partner laughed to match the tone in his voice. “Officially, yeah that’s good. That makes it all okay.”
“Are you going to be all right with this?”
Ochre turned and said harshly, “Just don’t start, I’ve already made it clear I want to be here. But let’s not talk about it any more.”
Magenta shrugged, shut up and kept on driving.
They arrived at the reservation almost as the burial ceremony was about to commence. Many of the Oglala Sioux present were wearing ceremonial dress and presented a colourful if solemn sight. Magenta presented both of them as the representatives of Spectrum.
“Please, you are expected. Come this way,” said a young member of the family and he showed them to their places near the graveside. “We are pleased that you’ve come to honour our kinswoman.”
They both thanked him and waited with the other mourners for the ceremony to begin. As it progressed a raw wind blew up out of nowhere. Its icy chill seemed to penetrate more than just Ochre’s regulation overcoat.
He cast his mind back to when he first met her as a cadet at Koala Base. He was running a series of training lectures on Spectrum tactical operations. She was only eighteen at the time; far too young and vibrant to be prepared to go into war he had thought. But over the five days of the course she had thoroughly impressed him with her knowledge and enthusiasm and he grudgingly admitted to himself that she would make fine officer material. He had followed her career and was delighted when she had achieved the rank of lieutenant in a fraction of the time it usually took.
And now she was dead.
As he watched Wenonah’s body being laid to rest, accompanied by the chant of the lone singer and the hypnotic beat of the traditional drum, he felt a cold chill seep through his body. He could sense Magenta’s eyes on him but he stared straight ahead. He just hoped he could keep it together until it was over.
After the ceremony was concluded, they offered their condolences to Wenonah’s family. Her father, a silver haired man in his fifties, nodded to them in acknowledgement. “We are glad that Spectrum sent their good men to honour her. Wenonah made us very proud. And we know that she died doing what she did best. She was a true warrior and she will now take her place with the Great Spirit, and for that we must all feel rejoicing, not sadness.”
Magenta quickly realised that Ochre’s normally tanned face had turned ashen and he was having difficulty saying anything in reply, he spoke for the two of them.
“Thank you too, sir, for making us feel so welcome. Wenonah was indeed a fine officer and we in Spectrum will miss her, not only for her courage and abilities as an agent, but for her personal attributes. She was a credit to you and to her people. We are saddened by her loss, as you are.”
The man gave them a tired smile. “Thank you for those kind words. May the Great Spirit go with you in your fight against the evil ones.”
Ochre mentally thanked Magenta for his speech, it was far better than he could have managed. They took leave of the family to make their way back to Cloudbase.
When they returned to the base Magenta was due on a duty shift. But he was concerned for Ochre, who had still been silent and gloomy throughout the return journey. Magenta didn’t try to force him to talk again, but he hoped that the funeral would provide closure for his friend. “I’m due in the radar room in thirty minutes. Are you going to be okay?”
Ochre shrugged. “Sure, I’ll maybe get something to eat.”
He wandered along to the canteen. It was fairly quiet at this time in the evening just after the main supper rush. He scanned the self-service units and idly threw a few things onto his tray and went to sit down on one of the far corners of the room. He pulled open the wrappings, suddenly not feeling that hungry.
“Do you mind if I join you?” He turned at the cultured voice.
“Dianne.” She was the last person he wanted to see. “I’m not really in the mood for chatting.”
She frowned imperceptibly. “Well, I’ll just sit here anyway, you know I hate being on my own, and there’s no one else around, at least that I want to talk to.”
He didn’t reply to her but kept his eyes down and stuck his fork into the salad. Food seemed to have lost its pleasure, along with so many other things recently. Rhapsody said nothing but watched him, her eyes flooding with concern at his manner.
“Rick, are you all right? Have I done anything to offend you?”
“I’m fine,” he answered brusquely still not looking at her. “I did say I wasn’t in the mood to talk.”
Rhapsody fell silent, hurt at his tone.
Why don’t you go away, woman. Don’t you realise you’re part of the problem?
That you chose Paul instead of me.
Ochre was an expert in reading the minutiae of people’s body language and expressions and he was pretty certain that Rhapsody and Captain Scarlet had become involved with one another in the past couple of months. He had never really forgotten his feelings for the copper-haired Angel, just buried them deep and hoped that one day they might revisit their brief but passionate affair and make it more permanent, when she was ready. But now, he had missed the boat somehow…he was sure of it.
He sat there, trying to ignore her and hating the way he felt. Everything just seemed to be falling apart. Dianne, the mission, Wenonah. He didn’t feel any better after the funeral. If anything he felt worse. He stood up abruptly, banging into the table and almost knocking his glass over Rhapsody. She jumped back in her chair to avoid the liquid spilling on her lap.
“Sorry, I need to go.” He waved his hand to stop her getting up. Slightly shaken, she lowered herself back down in her seat and watched him leave, biting her lip in frustration.
Ochre made his way along the corridor, waved his badge at the elevator to take him to the next level, and collided with Destiny who was just coming out as the door slid open.
“Why don’t you watch where you’re going, woman!” he snapped at her as he brushed past her to get into the elevator.
“Vraiment!” snapped back an equally shocked and annoyed Frenchwoman. “Where are your manners, Monsieur Fraser?”
But she received no reply as the doors shut and she was left shaking her head. She had never seen him act so rudely before in all the time she had known him.
Ochre sat by his usual table in the Officers’ Lounge, the one nearest the air-conditioning vent. The other captains insisted that if he was going to make his models in their airspace he had to park himself where it would have the least effect on them. At the moment he sat staring sullenly at his partially completed model. He had several pieces on the table and it was a particularly tricky section he was dealing with.
Grey was reading and Magenta was tapping away on his palm-pc, but they were suddenly interrupted from their activities when they heard an explosive “Damn!” and Ochre then threw some of the pieces angrily onto the table.
“What’s up, Rick?” Grey looked around, a little surprised at the unusually gloomy look on Ochre’s face.
“I just can’t concentrate.” Then he suddenly slapped his hand down and smashed the model into the table. “Forget it,” he snapped almost to no one in particular. Then he got up without another word and limped out of the lounge, leaving an astonished Grey and Magenta to stare after him.
“What was that I just saw?” Grey said.
“You saw,” replied Magenta with a deep frown on his face, “someone who is just not dealing too well with life at the moment.”
“Maybe someone should follow him and see what he’s up to.”
“Yeah, that’ll be me,” said Magenta. He clapped a hand on Grey’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll sort him out.”
Magenta tried Ochre’s quarters first. He hit the panel on the wall to activate the chime.
“Go away,” came his partner’s disgruntled voice.
“Rick, it’s Pat. Let me in, buddy, we need to talk.”
“I haven’t got anything to say.”
“Like hell you haven’t. What was that little tantrum in the lounge back there?”
“Hey, it’s my model, I’ll do what I damn well like with it.”
“Come on,” Magenta insisted. “You can’t go on like this, you’ll go nuts.” Then he put his head back, screwing his eyes up, Well, that was a dumb thing to say. He leant his forehead on the door and spoke in a tone he hadn’t used for a long while.
“I won’t go away, so you might as well just let me in.”
A few seconds later the door slid open and he glanced to the side of the room and saw Ochre sprawled on his bed, arms crossed. As Magenta walked towards him and sat down, Ochre glanced at him. His brown eyes, so normally full of mischief, seemed dulled and his whole posture was slumped and dejected, as if the life force had drained out of him.
“What’s wrong, Rick, surely you can tell me?”
“My concentration’s gone AWOL, and I feel I just can’t hack it any more.”
“That’s crap, Rick, and you know it.” Then he saw the look on Ochre’s face and regretted the harshness in his tone. “Look, you’ve been through a lot these last few weeks, hell, we all have, but you’ve also been through tough times before. What’s so different about now?”
“I don’t know, and that’s the problem.”
“Rick, life has to go on, death’s an inevitable part of our jobs.” He paused, not sure if he should go on with what he was about to say. “You heard her father at the funeral, she died as a warrior doing her duty. If it’s enough for them, why isn’t it enough for you?”
Ochre turned angry eyes to Magenta. “You didn’t see the agony on her face when she died. And she died because I made a stupid mistake. And then, God help me, she was Mysteronised! And then I had to kill her again. How would her family have felt if they knew about that?”
Magenta looked sombre. “Rick, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
Ochre put his face in his hands. “God! I don’t know how Blue lived with himself when he shot Scarlet. I just can’t seem to forget it; I keep replaying it over and over, trying to figure out how I could have done things differently. It’s eating me up inside, Pat. I’m not sleeping properly; I’ve lost my appetite, I’m treating everyone like dirt and I don’t seem to care. And Christmas is coming up, everyone’s going to try and be happy and jolly and it’s the last thing I need.”
There was silence between them after that. Magenta didn’t know what to say, only that he had never heard his partner talk like this and he wasn’t sure he was the one to pull him out of it. “You must have lost people under your command before, in the Police Corps?”
“Yeah, I have, thanks for reminding me, but not like this,” Ochre said.
Magenta cursed inwardly to himself. He really wasn’t making a good job of this. This sort of thing wasn’t really his forte, he thought. He was more used to getting people to do his bidding by the psychology of fear. Well, that was in the old days. He glanced at his watch.
“Blast, I’ve got a meeting with Seymour in ten minutes.” He looked at Ochre. “You’re not gonna do something stupid, buddy?”
Ochre shook his head slowly and flopped back down on his bed. Magenta decided he would have a word with Doctor Fawn at the earliest opportunity.
As Magenta left his quarters Ochre did wonder why he was having such difficulty dealing with the fallout of the mission.
Maybe I’m just starting to feel my age, and my mortality he mused. When you’re young you feel like nothing can touch you, or anyone else. Then he gave a short bitter laugh as he thought of Colonel White. What his chief must have gone through the last few months and he wasn’t falling to bits, just keeping that stiff upper British lip of his intact as usual, for the rest of them. He felt a wave of self-loathing wash over him. But wish as he might, it didn’t remove the angel of despair that had visited him and seemed unwilling to depart.
Colonel White looked up as he saw Doctor Fawn come into the Control Room.
“Can I have a word in private, Colonel?”
White knew that Fawn and his team were as exhausted as the rest of the members of Cloudbase. They had certainly seen their fair share of injured officers pass through the base. Even White, who normally had seemingly endless reserves of energy, and behaved more like a man in his thirties rather than his fifties, was feeling the strain of endless command decisions.
Once they were inside White’s private office and they were both seated, Fawn spoke first.
“I’m worried about Captain Ochre.”
White frowned. “I thought his injuries were healing fine and he was practically on the mend.”
The Australian ran his hands through his dark hair in a weary gesture.
“It’s not his physical injuries I’m worried about.”
“Go on,” White said.
“I had him in for a check up this morning. He was very cagey about answering my questions, and he only answered when I spoke to him. Now I think we both know that’s not the Captain Ochre we both know. Normally you can’t get a word in edgeways for his wisecracks. And this afternoon I’ve had a visit from Magenta, he told me of the chat they had in his quarters. Based on my examination and discussions with him and from the other anecdotal evidence I’m beginning to suspect he’s showing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It may well have been triggered by the mission and the death of Lieutenant Jade.”
White shook his head. He recalled the incident in the Control Room. “Hmm, it does sound unlike him. But, I find it hard to believe any of our senior officers would suffer anything like that. All of them, including the Angels, were subjected to numerous tests to identify their ability to cope with major stress and pressure situations before they were hired into Spectrum.”
“Unfortunately, coping with the Mysterons wasn’t included in the job description when we signed up,” Fawn said ironically. “Perhaps there’s something about that eerie lack of humanity in this foe we’re trying to fight that saps our energy after so much time.”
He looked up to see White staring at him, with slightly narrowed eyes. “Sorry, Colonel, just rambling on a bit.” He looked rather sheepish.
“Forget it, Doctor. What do you suggest we do with respect to Captain Ochre’s condition?”
“Well, I’m loath to suggest medication just yet. It would be better if he could deal with it through counselling, via family or friends. I also think it would be a good idea if he got off the base, to try and forget about work for a short spell.”
“Well, family is out of the question, we both know he has none, at least none that we’re aware of.”
“I might hold a briefing with Magenta, Scarlet and Rhapsody Angel, they are probably closest to him. They may be able to suggest something.”
“Well, I hope we get to the bottom of this. Ochre drives me to distraction sometimes, but he’s a fine officer and Spectrum – I – can’t afford to lose him,” White finished.
Ochre’s unusual demeanour happened also to be a subject of discussion in the Amber Room. The Angels were attempting to inject a little cheerfulness into the place by hanging up some Christmas decorations and Rhapsody was poised with one foot on a chair attempting to suspend a long swathe of tinsel across the wall.
“Tell me, ladies, is it just me, or has anyone else noticed Rick’s odd behaviour since he returned from that last mission?”
Destiny was standing beside her, holding the other end of the tinsel and ready to catch Rhapsody in case she overbalanced. She nodded in agreement. “Mais oui, he has been so curt, so cold, it is really not like him. Why, only yesterday he crashed into me without even a word of apology.”
Harmony placed a silver bauble on a branch of the Christmas tree and looked solemnly at her colleagues. “I think he is taking the death of the young lieutenant very hard. ”
Melody was rummaging in the storage crate where they had put all the decorations from last year. She was trying to find the mistletoe; they all needed cheering up this Christmas after all they had been through, and what better way than for everyone to exchange a few hugs and kisses under the green stuff.
She had noted her fellow Angel’s remarks and said dryly, “What that boy needs is a good woman to give him some lovin’ and take his mind off whatever’s going on in that head of his.”
Destiny couldn’t help but look amused. “Perhaps you are willing to take up the challenge, eh, mon amie?”
Melody looked suddenly taken aback at the suggestion. “Hey, I wasn’t suggesting ME. You wouldn’t catch me getting involved with any of the guys on this base. Bad idea.” She happened to catch Rhapsody’s eyes. “Am I right?”
The English girl was caught off guard by her question and found herself stuttering, “Er, yes, absolutely,” and she hoped that she sounded more convincing than she felt she did.
Destiny handed another garland to Rhapsody and tapped her nose. “Well, ma cherie Magnolia, perhaps you were joking a little, but your idea is sound. He does need something to break him out of this unhealthy state of mind.”
There was an interdenominational faith centre on level one, close to the technicians’ quarters. Ochre had never really felt the need to visit it, not being of a particularly religious or spiritual nature. Something moved him to visit there now. As if perhaps by being in a place of faith he could somehow figure out what was going on in his head.
He entered the small room, which was thankfully empty of other people. He sat down on one of the benches, and stared ahead for a few minutes into the muted light, wondering what he expected to experience. A sudden flash of blinding insight perhaps? It didn’t happen. He began to feel a little foolish, he wasn’t someone who felt he needed a higher power to get him through his life, and he had managed just fine on his own steam up to now. But these dark feelings of self-pity and depression were alien to him, and he didn’t know how to escape them, even thought he wanted to, very much. He felt he had to try something so he closed his eyes and said a silent prayer.
Fawn contacted Rhapsody, Magenta and Scarlet and asked if they could meet in sickbay for a short while to discuss Ochre’s situation.
When they arrived, he thanked them for coming. “I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of Captain Ochre’s uncharacteristic behaviour in the last few days. I believe he might be experiencing symptoms of depression. It’s difficult to know what to do in situations like this, but the subject often needs to have a focus outside him or herself in order to distract them away from the central issue. Removal from the everyday surroundings linked with the particular event also helps. I wanted to ask you folks if you could come up with any ideas that might help.”
Rhapsody immediately thought of something. But she was almost loath to suggest it. It might mean that she and Scarlet wouldn’t be spending their precious time together alone. She could hardly believe her luck when she found out their furloughs coincided for a few days before Christmas. But then she felt a stab of remorse. She realised she hadn’t consciously thought about her old feelings for Rick for a long time, so deliriously happy had she been with her love for Paul Metcalfe. But Rick was a friend, and he was obviously in some trouble. If there was something she and Paul could do to help him, however small, she was prepared to sacrifice her own self-interest, although she wasn’t sure how Scarlet would feel about it. Still she felt she had to speak up.
“My mother is president of a charity that supports children’s orphanages in England. There’s one particular place just outside the town of Bath, which I visited myself in December of last year. I was planning to go along again this year and as Captain Scarlet has some time off he kindly offered to accompany me. Perhaps spending some time with children who are in a tough situation might provide the external focus that you suggested. And it means he’s away from Cloudbase, which might also help.”
Fawn scratched his chin. “Hmm, not a bad idea.” He looked at Magenta. “Do you have any thoughts, Captain?”
Magenta shook his head. “I think what Rhapsody suggests is better than anything I can come up with.”
“Well, I think the sooner we do something, the better. If this is okay by the two of you, I suggest you approach Captain Ochre and see if he agrees to go along with you. Of course, in his present mood he might need a bit of persuading - think you can manage it by yourselves?”
Rhapsody nodded. “I’m sure we can.”
After they left sickbay Rhapsody made a signal to Scarlet to wait behind. She wasn’t able to read his expression when she made the suggestion to Fawn and although he hadn’t objected at the time she didn’t want to go back on her duty shift without knowing his feelings about the matter.
“Are you all right with this, Paul? I know we planned to spend the time together, and it’s Christmas, but I felt I couldn’t stay silent on this. Rick needs our help.”
He kept a suitable distance from her, just in case anyone happened to pass by, but he smiled warmly at her. “The same idea was going through my head, and I was just as hesitant, for the same reasons as you, I might add. But you’re right. We can’t just stand by and leave him to deal with this by himself, I’m sure he would do the same for us if the situations were reversed.”
“Oh, I’m so glad you feel that way. I would have hated you to be mad at me.”
He touched her face in a brief gesture of tenderness. “How could I get mad at you? Don’t worry, Angel, we’ll have other times.”
They decided to pose the suggestion to Ochre straight away as he was still in his quarters. It took them a few minutes to persuade him to let them in however.
“Look Rick, Paul and I are planning to go to England for furlough, I’m sort of doing my mother a favour and handing out some Christmas cheer to the children in a local orphanage. We both thought that maybe, if you haven’t got anything planned that you might want to come along with us. We know you’re not feeling too happy at the moment and we’d like to help.”
He shrugged, trying not to meet her eyes. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll just get in the way.”
Rhapsody thought, what does he mean by that? Does he suspect something about Paul and me? She pushed the thought to the back of her mind. That wasn’t the most important thing right now.
“Nonsense. We thought that you might like a few days away from the base, to take your mind off things. It’s in a good cause.”
“Trying your amateur psychology on me, Dianne? Nice try, but I really don’t need it, thanks.”
She looked at Scarlet. Well, Fawn did say this wouldn’t be easy. However she decided that she should be honest with Ochre. “Look, I know you might think we’re prying into your affairs, but we’re concerned for you. By we, I mean everyone. All the Angels, all the captains, Dr Fawn and the colonel. You don’t have to deal with this all alone you know. We care about you, for God’s sake.”
“I didn’t realise I was such a source of endless fascination for everyone,” he said ironically.
“I’m not worth caring about, after what happened.”
She stood staring at him, hands on her hips. He glanced up and suspected he was in for a bit of a lecture. “Richard Fraser, just stop feeling so sorry for yourself for just one minute and listen to what I’m saying. You are coming with us and I am not taking no for an answer.”
And so, bulldozed by the pair of them, Ochre found himself on his way to an orphanage in the west of England. As they drove through the pleasant countryside, Ochre’s dejected mood put a damper on any chitchat so they all stayed mostly silent as the miles clocked up. Scarlet was driving and Rhapsody sat with him up front so he gazed out of the back seat window at the landscape. The low weak sun painted the hills and valleys with subtle washes of pale greens, yellows and browns. As he watched the gentle undulating vistas flow by, in spite of his mood he felt an almost soothing tranquillity drifting over him like a soft comforting blanket.
Finally they arrived at the orphanage. It was an imposing building, one of those Victorian piles that seemed to defy the years, obstinately standing firm against time and the elements despite its crumbling exterior. When they alighted from the car, the air was cold and crisp and they saw their breath condense like fairy mist.
They walked up to the large door and Rhapsody rang the bell. They could hear it echoing through the interior of the house. A few minutes later, a woman in her late forties opened it and gave a wide smile when she saw Rhapsody standing there.
“Lady Dianne, it’s a pleasure to see you again. Your mother telephoned to say you would be coming here this afternoon. I do hope she is well.”
“Yes thanks, Mrs Atwell, she’s very well. Trying to get ready for Christmas, of course. Always fun with a family as large as mine.”
“Of course. And who are these handsome young men?” She beamed at Scarlet and Ochre.
“This is Paul Metcalfe and Rick Fraser, both good friends of mine, I hope you don’t mind them coming with me to visit?”
She laughed gaily. “Certainly not, I’m sure the children will be delighted to see all these new faces.”
Scarlet gave a genuine smile to the orphanage supervisor. She was a homely, charming woman. Rhapsody was sure she could see a ghost of one play around Ochre’s lips too and she felt that was a good start.
As they walked into the warm hallway, they could hear the strains of Christmas carols filtering through from the rooms. Mrs Atwell chattered away to them as they followed her.
“Of course, this time of the year is the worst for them, poor dears, having no family at Christmas, it’s possibly the saddest thing I can think of.”
“How many children do you have in the orphanage?” Scarlet asked her.
“Oh there’s about thirty in total here. We’ll be meeting the mid-age children, as I call them, from five to ten. Then we have another group for the eleven to sixteen year olds. Each group have their own sleeping and living areas, although they are free to congregate and mingle at certain times, it’s just easier to keep everything under control if we have some sort of demarcation line. If you remember, Lady Dianne, we were going to visit the five to ten year olds. I hope that’s all right with you?”
“Yes, of course it is,” replied Rhapsody for all of them. “I imagine they are the ones who are still fascinated by the idea of Christmas?”
Mrs Atwell smiled. “Yes indeed, you’re right. Children of that age need a little myth and fantasy in their lives, before it’s taken away by the sometimes harsh reality of puberty and adulthood.”
As they entered the living room about twelve young faces turned away from what they were doing, watching television, reading, painting and other activities. It wasn’t often they received visitors and it was obviously quite a novelty.
Several of the children recognised Rhapsody from her previous visit and rushed up to her. “Lady Dianne!” they exclaimed, with a happy sound in their young voices.
As the children saw the two men behind Rhapsody, it seemed to trigger a general stampede and in a few seconds a maelstrom of young bodies surrounded them.
“Now, now, children!” said Mrs Atwell, flapping her arms and trying to get them to behave and settle down. “Our guests don’t want to be smothered by you!”
“Oh, it’s quite all right,” said Rhapsody, looking across at Scarlet who had a big grin on his face. Ochre’s expression suggested he wasn’t quite sure what to make of this at all.
One of the boys had noticed the large packages the three guests had brought in with them and said in an excited voice, “Have you brought these for us?”
Rhapsody smiled. “ Well, Santa actually asked us if we would drop them off for him as he was going to be terribly busy.”
Some if the older boys looked as if they were about to scoff at the suggestion that Santa even existed when Rhapsody smiled at them and put her finger to her lips in a shushing motion as if to say, don’t spoil it for the younger ones!
Ochre looked around the room. Despite the faded, slightly run-down appearance of the place, it somehow resonated with an aura of warmth and love. It was obvious that Mrs Atwell cared deeply for her young charges. Let’s face it, he thought grimly, it might be more than some kids received from their own flesh and blood in some cases. There were Christmas decorations everywhere, large swathes of tinsel and greenery hung across the walls and from the ceiling. A chubby illuminated Father Christmas stood in one corner, and a huge fir tree in another, covered in shimmering lights and sparkling glass baubles.
Then he noticed a young girl sitting by herself, in the corner of the room away from the others He figured she was probably about nine or ten years old although it was hard to tell. She was slightly built and she hunched slightly as she sat on the chair. The reason he noticed her was because of her eyes. They were a dazzling green, just like Wenonah’s eyes, he remembered absently, and then regretted thinking about that. But those eyes were staring at him, quite intently, as if he was the only person in the room. He thought it rather strange. He suddenly had an inexplicable impulse to go and talk to her.
He asked quietly to Mrs Atwell, “Who’s the young girl over there?”
“Oh, Mr Fraser, it’s most odd. We found her wandering through the entrance to the grounds a few days ago. We couldn’t get a lot of sense out of her. Only her name, it happens to be Rachel. At first we thought she might have been in a car crash. However, she had no injuries that we could see, and Mr Fox the caretaker checked all the roads around the house, but we couldn’t see anything that resembled an accident. We informed the local police to see if they would be able to trace her family. So far we haven’t had any luck.”
“Wasn’t she carrying anything that might identify who she was?” asked Ochre
“No, nothing I’m afraid. It’s possible she’s suffering from amnesia. She insists that she doesn’t have any parents. I contacted the police but since she can’t give us any information they said there’s not very much they can do at the moment. They’ve issued a missing persons photo to display in the local businesses and I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see. I had to take the poor wee soul in, it’s nearly Christmas after all.”
“That’s very kind of you,” Ochre said. He looked at the girl, feeling a pang of sympathy for her, when she suddenly got up suddenly got up and wandered over to him.
“Hello, I’m Rachel,” she said.
He was caught off guard, “Oh, hello, I’m Rick. Why are you sitting there all on your own?”
“Oh, I won’t be now, you’ll come and sit with me, won’t you?” and she took his hand as if to drag him off to her chair by the corner.
Ochre frowned to himself and suddenly felt out of his depth. What was he supposed to talk to a ten-year-old girl about, especially one with supposed amnesia? He cast a look at Rhapsody, hoping fervently that she would look up and catch his eye.
As if she read his mind, she did. Help! said the expression on his face.
She silently mouthed back, You’re fine, just talk to her.
He did the same back to her. Some help you are.
He turned back to the girl and he found she was looking at him with amusement in her eyes She had obviously followed the silent interchange between the two adults. He almost forgot to feel sorry for her.
“Well young lady, it seems you have my undivided attention, but I still think we would have more fun if we joined the others. Lady Dianne over there is much more interesting than I am.”
“But she doesn’t look sad, you do.”
“I do?” What an odd thing for her to say, he thought. Then he felt self-conscious. Did he really look so depressed that a kid could pick up on it?
She nodded. “That’s why I need to help you.”
“Help me, what do you mean, exactly?” he said slowly.
“Well, I’m an angel.”
He blinked, not sure that he heard correctly. “Excuse me, what did you just say?”
She squinted at him. “Well, surely you must have heard of angels?”
“Well, yes,” he started hesitantly. Unfortunately Rhapsody’s face was the first image that popped into his head, followed by a picture of the archangel Gabriel in full flight. He shook his head slightly as if to clear the screen. This conversation had taken a rather bizarre turn and he wasn’t sure quite what to say next.
“So, when you’re in trouble they come and help you out,” she said, as if waiting for his reply.
“Well, I’ve been in trouble before and no one came to help me out then,” he replied with the first thing that came into his head.
She frowned, which made the bottom of her nose turn up. “Well, if you’re going to be like that about it, maybe I won’t bother.”
He looked down at her, aware that he had been part of this conversation but totally unsure what to make of it. He wondered if the poor kid had sustained a bang on the head despite what they said about her having no injuries.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Rachel, you haven’t hurt your head or anything like that?”
“No, I’m perfectly fine. And I think you’re making fun of me now.”
He held up his hands. “I swear, I wouldn’t do that.”
“Well, maybe it wasn’t a good idea, that I told you, but I do think you look sad and need some help, do you want to talk to me about it?”
He shook his head. “It’s not the sort of thing to discuss with someone your age, sorry.”
She made a rude noise. “I’m quite old enough, I just look young for my age.”
He couldn’t help smiling. “And you’re plenty feisty for your age, that’s for sure.”
She grinned brightly. “I like it when you smile, it’s much better than that gloomy old face you came in with. In fact I’d say you were almost handsome.”
He almost laughed. This strange child was beginning to have an effect on him and he unexpectedly found himself enjoying her company despite their odd exchange.
“Well, you can’t stand and talk to me all day, you’ll have to sit down,” she said loftily and pointed him in the direction of a chair. He shrugged in defeat and pulled a chair over and sat beside her.
He grew serious again. Surely she must remember something about herself?
“Aren’t you in the least worried about yourself? What about your parents, they must be worried sick at any rate?”
“I told everyone, there’s nothing to worry about. I don’t have any parents, ‘cos I’m an angel.”
He sighed, perhaps pushing it wasn’t a good idea. Maybe he would have a word with Dianne when he got a chance and see what she thought about it.
“Well, if you’re not going to tell me what’s making you so sad, you’ll just have to tell me about yourself.” She peered intently at him again.
He tried to keep the serious look on his face. “But if you’re an angel, surely you know all about me already?”
She slapped his knee, gently. “Oh, you think you’re quite funny, don’t you?”
“Well, some people used to think so. But maybe not so funny recently.” He frowned at the thought and saddened that his descent into self-pity had alienated him from his colleagues in Spectrum.
“What are you going to do for Christmas? Don’t you have any family?” she said, changing direction.
“No, my parents are….” He wasn’t sure what to say, she was only a kid.
“Dead, you can say it, I understand that people die, I told you I’m old for my age.”
Then she touched his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t be. It was a long time ago.” He experienced a sudden sharp feeling of loss. They should have been around for far longer. But they couldn’t keep away from the mountains any more than he could keep away from flying his airplanes.
“Well, I’m sorry I brought it up, I’m supposed to be making you feel better, not worse.”
He smiled, wanting to put her at ease. “What about you? Are you going to wait up for Santa on Christmas Eve?”
She scoffed. “Hah, I’m a bit old for that! Anyway, it’s not getting presents that makes you feel good, it’s giving them.”
“You’re a very wise young lady.” And just a bit unnerving too, he thought to himself. He had the ridiculous notion as he chatted to her that she was the adult and he the child.
“So why did you come to the orphanage?” she asked with one of her ninety-degree turns of questioning.
“Well, I’ve been feeling a bit depressed lately, and my friends thought that coming here might cheer me up.”
“And has it?”
“To be honest, yes it has.”
“Well, then they are good friends, aren’t they?”
He was about to reply when he heard a voice beside him. “Well, you two seem to be getting along famously.”
He hated it when Rhapsody sneaked upon him like that. Her damn training was always too good for him. He looked around to see her standing looking at them both with a wide grin on her face.
“Mrs Atwell suggests we all join the children for tea in the dining room, then we can all adjourn back here for present giving, if they can last out that long!”
Ochre glanced at his watch. “Heavens, is that the time?” He couldn’t believe how quickly it seemed to have flown by.
“I’ll see you in a minute, Rachel,” Ochre said, wanting to have a quick word with Rhapsody. The girl smiled and went off with the others.
“See, I told you it would be fine,” Rhapsody said.
“Yeah, she’s a lovely kid, but I’m a bit concerned about her.” He lowered his voice almost to a whisper and said in her ear, “She says she’s an angel and wants to help me.”
Rhapsody looked at him and then laughed.
“It’s not funny, Dianne,” he glowered at her.
“Oh, Rick, I’m sorry, and I’m not sure how to say this, but girls that age tend to have huge imaginations.” She remembered back to what she was like at Rachel’s age. “I think she’s spotted very quickly that you need looking after. It must have been that lost puppy dog expression you came in with.”
He said gloomily, “She said something along those lines herself.”
“Don’t make fun of her though, little girls that age also get very upset if you do.” She gave him a knowing look. “Imagine me at ten years old.”
He rolled his eyes.
She smiled. “The best thing is to humour her. Anyway, we’d better get along or we’ll lose the others.”
Everyone trooped through to the big dining room. Scarlet remarked that all the tables, with their gaily-patterned easy-wipe cloths, were all round shaped. “It stops the children squabbling over who gets to sit at the head,” Mrs Atwell answered to his question.
“A bit like King Arthur’s Camelot, that’s a pretty good idea,” he replied
The three adults joined Mrs Atwell at one table and the children all scurried around the others, eagerly grabbing the sandwiches and the deliciously smelling scones and tarts for their own plates.
Mrs Atwell shook her head. “We do try to teach them good manners, but sometimes…well, you know.”
“Children will be children, especially when there’s food on the go,” Scarlet remarked dryly.
“And that comes from someone who knows!” laughed Rhapsody. Scarlet’s appetite was legendary on Cloudbase.
“Have another scone, Mr Metcalfe,” said Mrs Atwell, waving the plate of strawberry jam and clotted cream filled delights in front of him.
“Good God, no, I’ve already had three, they are absolutely delicious,” he said somewhat sheepishly.
“Yes, we’re lucky to have a wonderful baker in the town. He sends us a batch every Saturday for a special cream tea treat.”
Ochre picked another up. When he had started eating he suddenly realised he was actually enjoying the food after so many days of just picking. Rhapsody glanced at Scarlet and Ochre happened to intercept the gesture between the two of them.
“What?” he asked almost in mid-bite.
Scarlet grinned. “I didn’t say a thing.”
“So I’m hungry?” Ochre grumbled. “What’s the matter with that?”
“We’re just glad to see you have your appetite back,” Rhapsody said earnestly.
“Yeah, so am I,” he said and then bit into the scone.
After tea they all adjourned back to the sitting room to hand out the presents. Ochre felt like Scrooge since he hadn’t really given it a thought before he arrived, but Scarlet assured him that he didn’t have a hand in this either.
“She seems to have it all sorted out,” he said to Ochre, indicating Rhapsody who was rummaging in the huge bags for the presents.
“It must have cost her a fortune,” Ochre replied.
The Angel turned, hearing his comment. “Oh, not really. Anyway, it’s only money, no point in having it if you can’t do something useful with it.”
Ochre watched her hand out the presents to the eager young faces with a lump in his throat. She was so good with those kids. A smile here, a touch of the hand there, a few words as she handed out a brightly wrapped parcel, she must have spent ages doing all that in her spare time. She carried herself so lightly, always thinking of others. He realised he had been so curt and rude with her recently and she didn’t deserve that. He surprised himself with his next thought. You’re a damn lucky guy, Scarlet, you’d better treat her right or you’ll have me to answer to.
Rhapsody said apologetically to Rachel, “I’m really sorry, my dear, I didn’t know you would be here and I’ve only brought enough presents for the numbers Mrs Atwell told me about.”
Rachel smiled with no trace of sadness or envy. “Oh that’s quite all right, I don’t need anything.”
Ochre felt a pang of sadness for her. She seemed such a good kid, if a little crazy. He fervently hoped that they found her parents very soon so she could be home for Christmas.
Rhapsody collected all the empty bags and started folding them up. “Well, Mrs Atwell, I suppose we should be going and let you get on with the children’s bedtimes.” There was a chorus of disappointed voices as they got up to leave. Ochre felt a gentle pull on his sleeve and he saw it was Rachel.
“Would you come back to see me tomorrow? I really liked talking to you, and I think you liked talking to me, you don’t look quite so sad now.”
Ochre thought about it. They were only supposed to be here for the day and then spend the next two in London before heading back to Cloudbase for Christmas Eve. He looked at her pleading eyes and realised that he couldn’t turn her down. Also, the more he thought about it, he really didn’t want to act as chaperone to Scarlet and Rhapsody, despite all their best intentions for his welfare. Maybe this way they could all win.
“Sure, I’d like to come back and see you, as long as I can clear it with Mrs Atwell and my friends.”
So he went up to Mrs Atwell. “Would it be a problem if I wanted to come back tomorrow and see Rachel?”
She looked at touch surprised and he suddenly flushed. Oh God I hope she doesn’t think…
He tried to explain, “It’s just, that I’ve been feeling a bit depressed lately, and somehow, just talking with her today really made me feel better. If it’s a problem….Well, actually she asked me to come back and see her,” he finished by way of an explanation.
She smiled. “Of course, I understand. I was just a bit surprised, but the two of you certainly seemed to get along together, we have to be so careful you know, at that age.”
Ochre looked horrified at her implication. “Oh my God, you didn’t think, oh maybe it’s not such a good idea after all,” he stammered, at a loss for words.
Mrs Atwell took pity on him. After all Lady Dianne vouched for him, and the poor man did look quite troubled when he had arrived. She wondered what trauma he had suffered recently. Still, that wasn’t any of her business, but she could swear that he actually looked happier since he had talked with Rachel. What a strange thing, she thought.
“Please, I think it’s very sweet of you, Mr Fraser, and since Rachel asked you….”
“Of course, we’ll stay here in the sitting room, you can keep an eye on us if you want.”
She smiled. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary, what time shall we expect you?”
“Is midday okay?”
“That’s fine, you can join us for lunch.”
He actually found that he was looking forward to tomorrow.
After they stepped outside into the freezing air again Rhapsody said, “What do you say that we all head back to London tonight and get tickets for the latest musical tomorrow?”
Ochre shifted onto one foot, then the other. “Uh, you guys don’t have to stick around with me, I’m not really into that stuff anyway, and I’m hardly effervescent company right now.”
Scarlet frowned. “At the risk of sounding like Big Brother, we were asked to keep an eye on you.” Ochre looked him sharply and Scarlet almost felt embarrassed. “ Doctor Fawn’s orders, I’m afraid.”
“Big brother, eh?” Ochre gave a slight smile. “I think I’ve got the drop on you as far as age goes.” Then he looked serious again. “I guess Fawn thinks I’m going to slit my wrists or something equally dramatic as soon as I’m left on my own.”
Rhapsody looked stricken. “Rick, don’t say things like that!” Then she suddenly realised that his eyes had crinkled at the corners. Was he teasing her? She suddenly hoped fervently that the old Rick was returning.
“To be honest, I’d like to stay here and visit Rachel again. I don’t know why, but I feel she needs someone to talk to. Actually, I need someone to talk to, someone that I don’t know too well. Sorry, that didn’t come out too good, I didn’t mean to suggest you guys weren’t helping, I really appreciate you asking me along and everything. Hell, it’s Christmas for crying out loud. It’s supposed to be a time of giving and all that crap. She asked me to come and see her again, and I don’t know who’s helping who out here, but for the first time in a while I actually feel okay, and I want to hang onto that.”
“You’re doing just fine, Rick,” said Scarlet trying to read the expression on Ochre’s face. Although he wasn’t too happy about it, he had a gut feeling that nothing bad would come of leaving his friend alone.
“If that’s what you want to do, it’s fine with us. Where are you going to stay the night?”
“You guys know the area better than I do, where do you suggest?”
“Bath,” Rhapsody said. “It’s close by, and it’s a beautiful town; lovely architecture, lots of shops. You might even find a present for Rachel.” She looked at him with a smile.
“Good idea, Dianne.” She had read his mind, as the very same idea had entered his head.
Scarlet, threw him the electronic key card. “You keep the car, we can catch the intercity express to London and we don’t need it in the city anyway.”
Ochre nodded. “Okay, I’ll meet you at the airport and we’ll fly back together to Cloudbase as planned.”
After Ochre dropped them off at the transit station Rhapsody turned to Scarlet and put her arms around his neck, not really caring who saw them.
“I feel terrible for thinking this, but I have been wanting to do this for ages.” She kissed him on the lips. He gripped her tight and returned the kiss with restrained passion.
“Hey, Angel, any more of this and I might just have to whisk you off to that hotel right now, and never mind supper.”
She laughed, enjoying the look of love on his handsome face and also being able to display her own feelings freely without worrying that anyone they knew might be watching them.
“That young girl seems to have worked a little magic on Rick,” she said as they walked to the platform, arm in arm.
“It certainly seems to be that way. I hope they find her parents soon, poor thing.”
“I just hope we’re doing the right thing, leaving him here on his own.”
“He’s an adult, sweetheart, he has to find his own way to deal with this.”
Ochre found he was unable to drive to the centre of town. Non-residents were banned from taking vehicles into the old centre in order to try to preserve the glorious architecture. He parked the car in one of the big underground bays on the outskirts, and took the rapid shuttle link to the centre. Rhapsody had suggested staying in a hotel near the famous Abbey and Roman Baths and he was luckily enough to find one with available rooms via a search on the car’s on-board computer. A quick phone call and he had a bed for the night.
As he wandered around the streets he marvelled how British towns and cities, except perhaps for London, seemed to maintain their ancient core. He could hardly believe that some of the buildings were the age they claimed, but the numerous plaques adorning them suggested that they were indeed that old. In the US they were usually tearing old buildings down to replace them with something tall, transparent and metallic.
He wandered through the small lanes, packed with all manner of interesting shops decked out in Christmas finery, their windows glittering with tinsel and shiny, colourful ornaments, in celebration of the season. Overhead, necklaces of tiny white lights cross-crossed from one building to another and lit up the darkening sky. Tiny firs, embellished with coloured lights, grew slanting out of the stonework above his head.
He was still trying to figure out what to get for Rachel when, wandering down one of the arcades, he chanced upon a small model shop. It was sandwiched between a juice bar and an upscale women’s boutique. He couldn’t resist taking a look. In the window were all manner of model kits for aircraft, vintage and current, tall ships, and ocean liners. Ochre almost always bought his kits via the electronic market place; they most likely came directly from warehouses in some far distant corner of Idaho or New Jersey. This was different, this little place looked as if it belonged in a Dickens novel, he had to peer in the cramped window with its small frosted panes to see all of the constructed reproductions hanging there and vying for his attention.
This was like…Wonderland.
He stepped inside the shop and an elderly gentleman popped up from behind the counter area on hearing the doorbell chime.
“Good evening sir, “ he smiled pleasantly. “And what might I help you with today?”
Ochre couldn’t help returning the smile. “I was just passing, never expected to find a place like this here.”
“Ah, you’re an American, this isn’t usually the place the tourists come to first.”
“Yes I am, and I love your shop.” As he looked around an idea dawned on him. He wanted to give Rachel something special, what better than to create it with his own hands and his own time. That would be so much more satisfying than just buying something off a shelf.
“I want to get something to give as a present, for a little kid, a girl, she’s probably about nine or ten.”
The owner scratched his beard, thinking. He turned around and scanned the shelves behind the counter. He looked towards the floor and came out with a large box.
“What about this, after all, it is Christmas, sort of fits the season, don’t you think?”
Ochre looked at the picture on the box with surprise. It was a model of an angel, but like a fairy angel, with beautiful gauzy wings and streaming gold hair. It would be lovely; he hoped she would like it. He had never made a model like this before, but he supposed he could manage it. Somehow, this seemed very appropriate.
“Yeah, I’ll take it, thanks, and I’ll need some adhesive as well.”
A few minutes later he had his purchases tucked under his arm and went back to the hotel. He ordered a sandwich and coffee from room service and sat for the next few hours working on the angel. He was so engrossed in his efforts he didn’t realise how far into the night it was. Suddenly his eyes blurred and he realised he was so exhausted he would have to go to bed. He pushed back from the desk, walked over to the bed, and before realising it, flopped down on it and was asleep in seconds, still fully clothed.
When he awoke he was a bit confused at his surroundings. Then he looked up and saw the almost finished angel peering at him from the desk. He shook his head groggily and slowly sat up on the bed. He become conscious that last night was the first in many that he hadn’t fallen into a fitful sleep with his angst-ridden thoughts. Inexplicably, he felt elated and guilty at the same time. He glanced at the digital console and saw the time was nine-thirty. Boy, he needed to get a move on if he wanted to finish the model to get it to her.
He arrived just after midday and Mr Fox the janitor answered the door.
“Rick Fraser, I’ve come to see Rachel, Mrs Atwell’s expecting me.”
“Oh yes, come on in, they’re just about to have lunch, I’ll take you through to the dining room.”
When he went in Rachel came sauntering up to him. “I knew you’d come, the other girls said you wouldn’t.”
He saw her stick her tongue out at a couple of them, grinning. They grinned back. Ochre felt as if he was caught in a war zone.
“Well, maybe I should go if you’re all going to fight over me, I don’t think I can handle it,” he said, laughing.
For an answer she pulled him into a seat at one of the tables.
After lunch she suggested a walk outside, “It’s a lovely day, much nicer than staying in here, it’s too hot and stuffy.”
Well, couldn’t do any harm, he supposed. “Okay. Good thing I brought my coat, hope you’ve got something warm to wear.”
“Oh yes, dear old Mrs Atwell gave me a nice coat with a fur collar. I’ll go get it.”
She dashed out of the room and he heard her thundering up the wooden stairwell. He shook his head. Rachel’s personality acted like a balm on his fractured nerves. She somehow seemed to exude an aura of calm and harmony. He didn’t really understand it but he let himself be carried along by the feeling.
She came back into the room five minutes later and grabbed his hand. “Let’s go,” she demanded.
They strolled around the gardens. It was still very frosty, and they pulled their collars up to keep their faces warm. As they walked he felt oddly comforted by the feel of her small hand in his.
“Oh look, here’s a bench, we can sit here for a little bit,” she said, pointing to one which looked out over an ornamental pond.
They sat for a few minutes, and then Rachel said out of the blue, “Do you have a someone that you’re fond of?”
Ochre tried not to smile. She asked the most personal questions, but said them in such a most interested way that he couldn’t help not being offended.
“No, not at the moment.”
“It’s just that I noticed you looking sometimes at the pretty red-haired lady yesterday, she is a REAL lady, isn’t she?” she interrupted herself.
Ochre couldn’t believe he was so transparent. He hadn’t even realised that he had been glancing at Dianne at the time.
“Yeah, she’s got a title, her dad’s a Lord. And he’s a pretty good guy. But more than that, the reason she’s a real lady is because she cares about people.”
Rachel looked at him and her eyes seemed to convey to him sympathy far beyond her years.
“You like her, don’t you, but you’re sad because you can’t be with her.”
He had to smile. She was even more observant than he was. “Maybe you should be a detective, honey. And yes, I like her, very much. But she’s not the one for me.”
“Do you love her?”
“But she must love you, if she wanted to help you.”
He thought about that for a while. Then said, almost to himself, “You know, I guess she does, in a way. What do you know?” He realised what Rhapsody had really done for him. She had asked him here despite the fact she could have spent the time alone with Scarlet. If that didn’t show she cared, what did? Okay, it wasn’t the sort of love he wanted from her, but he had to face the fact that he could have made more of an effort to embark on a relationship with her and he hadn’t. But he was still a lucky guy to have friends who cared for him. The thought made him feel warm inside.
Then Rachel took his hand in hers. “Don’t be sad, I know that someday you’ll find someone that’s right for you too. Everyone does, you know.”
She had a most convinced expression on her face. “You seem more certain about it than me, honey,” he laughed.
“Oh I am, you’re far too nice and handsome to be all alone for ever.”
He gently squeezed her hand. “Rachel, you just seem to know the right things to say to cheer a guy up. How come you’re so wise for such a little ‘un?”
“I told you…”
“You’re/I’m an angel” they said simultaneously. They looked at each other and both collapsed laughing on the seat.
When they stopped Rachel gave him a serious look that he found disconcerting. “Are you still depressed, like you said you were yesterday?”
“Well, when I talk with you I find I’m okay, I’m not thinking about…it”
She thought about what he said. “I won’t be here for you all the time, you’ll have to go away, and then you’ll be depressed again. ”
“I just don’t think this is the sort of thing I should be discussing with you.”
She snorted. “What do you mean? I’m plenty old enough to understand.”
“Rachel, I don’t mean to be rude, but how can you seem to understand what’s going on in my mind when you can’t even remember who you are?”
“I’m only trying to help! How can I help you if you won’t tell me what’s wrong!”
He suddenly lost his temper. “Look, someone died, someone under my command, and they shouldn’t have, and it’s my fault!”
He was immediately sorry for his outburst and he looked at the ground, clasping his hands together, and clenching his eyes. “I should never have said that, it’s not fair on you, you’re only a child.”
Rachel looked exasperated. “Oh, perhaps this was a bad idea, they did say it was a bad idea, but I didn’t listen to them. I should have been an adult, then you would talk to me about it.”
Ochre lifted his head sideways to look at her. She wasn’t making any sense and seemed to be talking to the air. “Rachel, are you all right?”
She looked him squarely in the eyes. “You hurt so bad, don’t you?”
He nodded, caught by her intense gaze, and suddenly he couldn’t breathe. The images came back to him again; with such force that tears sprung unbidden to his eyes. He tried to blink them away, ashamed at his weakness in front of this young girl.
She gently touched the corner of his eye to brush a tear and said solemnly, “It’s all right, you know, everyone says boys and men can’t cry, but that’s not true, we all have to cry, if we don’t all the poison just stays locked up inside, making us ill and unhappy. You have to let it go, it’s the only way you can get better.”
He looked into her bright green eyes. They seemed to be filled with a wisdom and maturity that almost scared him. On an impulse he hugged her tight and with that simple gesture he felt the barriers to his feelings burst away. He allowed the tears to run hot down his face and he gave vent to his emotions. As he held her tight and cried for everything that he seemed to have lost, he felt the feelings of pain and self-pity wash away slowly with his tears. After a while he felt the emotions ebb, like a slow swelling tide and he raised his eyes to look at Rachel and gazed at her as if she was some sort of miracle. He couldn’t even begin to put into words what had just happened, and he decided he wasn’t even going to try.
“Maybe we should go inside, it’s getting cold,” she said brightly, as if nothing had happened.
He smiled at her, somewhat bemused. He felt as if he had experienced a catharsis. He rubbed away the remaining moisture on his face, which was turning icy.
“I almost forgot,” he said, “I’ve got a present for you. Wait here, I left it in the car.”
Her eyes lit up as she saw him return with the gift-wrapped package.
Ochre watched with amusement as she fumbled with the ribbons and paper, and he waited expectantly for her reaction. He really wanted her to be pleased and he realised how good it felt to be thinking about someone else for a change. He mentally thanked Rhapsody and Scarlet for making him come here. It had all turned out very odd but somehow wonderful as well.
Rachel’s eyes were glowing as she pulled out the beautiful model of the Angel. Every detail of the delightful creature was present, captured in beautifully rendered tones of paint with small pieces of gauze and tissue to add texture and light. Ochre had worked like crazy to get it ready, eating his breakfast in his hotel room. He just hoped that the fumes he left behind didn’t asphyxiate the housekeeping staff.
“It’s beautiful. You made it for me, didn’t you?” She looked up at him with eyes full of delight.
“Yes, and I enjoyed every minute of doing it, knowing that you’d like it. You DO like it?” he added a bit nervously.
“I like it very much,” she answered him. “And I’m just sorry that I haven’t got anything for you.”
“Oh, I really think you’ve given me more than you think, my dear girl. And anyway, wasn’t it you that said it was better to give than to receive?”
Her eyes twinkled at him. “Oh, so I did,” she said with a mischievous grin.
“I’ve got to leave tomorrow, but I’ll come back and say goodbye before I do.”
She didn’t say anything, just gave him that enigmatic smile, and clasped her hand in his. He tried to pretend the tears that pricked his eyes weren’t there. He’d cried quite enough for one day.
He returned to the orphanage about ten-thirty. That would leave him enough time to say goodbye to Rachel before he had to head off for the airport in London to meet the others.
Mrs Atwell answered the door but she looked a little shaken when she saw him.
Ochre said quickly, “What’s wrong, Mrs Atwell? None of the children have been hurt?”
“Oh, Mr Fraser, I suppose you came to see Rachel. But she’s gone!”
“What do you mean, gone?” he asked flatly.
She motioned him to come inside out of the freezing air. “I saw her last night, just before I said goodnight and switched the light off. Then this morning, she didn’t come down for breakfast. Jenny and Susan, the girls she shared with, said her bed was empty when they woke up.”
“Steady.” Ochre tried to calm her, but at the same time his heart was thumping. “When did you last see her?”
“Last night, just before she went to bed. She shares a room with two other girls of the same age. I said goodnight to them all and switched off the light as I usually do. I thought maybe she had gone down to see the rabbits at the back of the house before breakfast, but we couldn’t find her.”
“Have you been to her room?”
“Yes, her bed was made and she left with just the clothes we found her in. There’s nothing missing, I mean, at first I thought, maybe…” She went slightly red, as if embarrassed to be thinking such a thought.
Ochre looked around and saw no sign of the angel he had given Rachel. She must have taken it with her. At least that was some sign of normality.
Mrs Atwell handed him an envelope. “However, I did find this, it was addressed to you.” He pulled out a note written in the most beautiful handwriting. He scanned it, his heart starting to thump in his chest.
“Dear Rick. You are a very special person and because of that I know you will worry about me. But be assured that I am fine. I can leave now because I know you will be all right. All pain takes time to heal but you have taken the first steps. You asked for help and I answered your call. Remember that you are never alone when you have people who care about you. Tell Mrs Atwell thank you for letting me stay with her for a while. Rachel.”
Ochre read the note again, this time out aloud and Mrs Atwell listened looking very puzzled.
“I’m not sure I understand any of this,” she said, shaking her head.
“I’m not sure I do, either,” Ochre replied and he stared at the note, trying to fathom what it meant. Somehow the way the words were written didn’t seem to come from someone who was only ten years old. His brain was having difficulty dealing with this.
You asked for help and I answered your call…
Fraser, you’re even more nuts than I thought if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking.
“What should I do?” Mrs Atwell looked quite bewildered.
“I really don’t know.” And he didn’t, he just hoped that she was all right.
Ochre met Rhapsody and Scarlet at the departure lounge in London airport after dropping off the hire car. There was no mistaking the glow of happiness around them and he was glad that he had left them alone to enjoy their time together. He knew now that Dianne would never look at him the way she looked at Paul, but somehow, he felt that he could deal with it. Scarlet had been through hell too, far more than he had, he thought with some shame, and he had borne it with his usual stoicism. The Englishman deserved someone wonderful to help him cope with what fate had thrown at him. If it had to be anyone, buddy, I’m glad it was you. I just have to accept it, and move on.
“Glad to see you’re still in one piece,” Scarlet joked.
“How is Rachel? Have they found her parents yet?” Rhapsody asked.
“I don’t know what to say, but when I went back to the orphanage this morning, she had gone.”
“What?” Rhapsody and Scarlet said together.
He thought he would show them the letter. “She left this, for me.” He handed it to Scarlet. Rhapsody read it too and was intrigued. “This is most bizarre, Rick,” she said, handing the note back to him.
He was about to say Remember what I said, about her saying she was an angel. He stopped himself. It sounded preposterous to him even as he thought the words.
“She probably just recovered her memory and realised who she was,” said Scarlet.
“Yeah, that’s probably what it was,” Ochre agreed. “Wherever she is, she really helped me out. She did better than an planeload of psychiatrists.”
“I’ll let Dr Fawn know,” said Scarlet dryly.
“Do you feel better?” Rhapsody ventured.
He smiled at them both. “Yeah, I do. Somehow, I feel like I’ve started to climb out of the well that I was in, and believe me, I don’t ever want to go there again. Let’s get back to Cloudbase. I think I need to apologise to some good friends of mine, after I apologise to you pair first.”
They smiled warmly at him and Rhapsody gave him a quick hug. He found the gesture didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would.
When they arrived back at the base, Ochre started to retreat down the corridor. Rhapsody called after him, “And where do you think you’re going?”
“Back to my quarters, why?”
“Well, it’s Christmas Eve, and there’s a party in the Amber Room, the Angels have it all arranged, we decorated the place a few days ago. All captains and lieutenants have to be there, no excuses. After all we’ve been through lately, we need a little fun.”
“Can’t I even get changed?”
“You can do that, then we expect to see you there or I’ll send Destiny to come and get you.”
“Oh God, no” he remembered with shame the last encounter with the beautiful Frenchwoman. She would probably take delight in doing something awful to him in retribution.
He stopped outside the Amber Room, and he realised he felt nervous. Well, better just get in there and get it over with. So he took a deep breath and waved his badge at the door. When he entered, the party was in full swing. Everyone was laughing and enjoying a glass of non-alcoholic punch. Even the colonel was there. So far they had been spared any more Mysteron threats and they were enjoying the respite. It was high time they celebrated the season and be glad that they were still alive to enjoy another Christmas.
He saw many heads turn as he walked in and he saw smiles and eyes greet him, warm with friendship. The first person to reach him was Destiny. She came up to him and handed him a glass of the warm sweet liquid.
“Joyeux Noël, mon capitan,” she smiled at him with her almond eyes.
“Juliette, can you ever forgive me for being so rude to you?”
“You are forgiven already, it could happen to any of us. Now come and join us.”
He found himself in a circle of his colleagues and felt the warmth of their friendship and support. He was suddenly terrified he might break down again in front of them all.
“Welcome back, Rick,” said Magenta, slapping him on the back. “And I mean that in more ways than one. Scarlet said that the trip did the trick.”
Ochre sipped on his punch. “It did, thanks. They were right. I guess I won’t argue with Rhapsody’s amateur psychology ever again.”
“I’m glad to see you look much better, Captain Ochre,” White said with a note of warmth in his voice. “I’m sure you will be back with us on duty in no time at all.”
“Well, assuming I let him,” piped up Fawn from across the room.
White smiled. “Ah, Doctor, you never let me have the last word, do you?
Ochre was standing by himself, taking a few minutes alone from everyone who seemed to want to know how he was. He felt overwhelmed by it all. He recalled Rachel’s words, about not being alone when you have friends. How true it was. She was an amazing girl. He suddenly missed her and he wondered where she was, and he fervently hoped that she was safe and well.
“You do realise where you’re standing?” he heard a honey-coated drawl in his ear.
“Magnolia!” He turned to see Melody. She pointed upwards. And he saw… mistletoe.
He bent down and brushed her lips with his. “Happy Christmas, Rick,” she murmured against them.
“Happy Christmas, mmm, you taste nice.”
“Now I know the old Rick Fraser is back. Just don’t get any ideas, I’m only doing it because it’s Christmas and to make you feel better.” Her eyes flashed at him, but he wasn’t sure if she was seriously chiding him.
He smiled at her. “I feel better already.”
Ochre at last retired to his quarters, realising he felt quite worn out. The events at the orphanage, the journey and the evening seemed to have taken its toll on him, but the fatigue he felt was not unwelcome. Rather it was tinged with comfort and a renewed sense of well-being and purpose. When he arrived at his door he keyed in the access code. He stifled a yawn as he wandered over to his bed, for the first time in many nights; ready for sleep that he somehow felt would be free of the anguish he had suffered.
Suddenly he stiffened and stared incredulously at the object on his coverlet. The low illumination threw highlights on the sparkling colours and gauzy wings. Standing poised, as if ready to fly, was the angel he had given Rachel.
How could it possibly have got here, 40,000 feet up in the middle of nowhere? Then, he knew that she had been telling the truth after all. He stood motionless, gazing at the angel, and all at once felt the sudden wetness on his cheek, and a surge of joy in his heart.
And so it was on Christmas Eve
That love came down to fill our dreams
And for those who weep awhile
Be comforted with the angel’s smile
Caroline Smith 2003
I have been fortunate to visit some of the Native American lands during my stay in the US and this inspired me to create the character of Wenonah. I hope I have not misrepresented the Lakota’s culture or rituals in any way in my story.
Any comments? Send an E-MAIL to the SPECTRUM HEADQUARTERS site