The Lorelei Signal
Written by Maureen Bowden / Artwork by Marge Simon
We can’t always control the brain thing that sits in our head. It has a mind of its own. A case in point is what my mother’s cousin, Professor Maggie Woodville did. She’s a highly acclaimed historian, my favourite relative, and more than a little mad. I hadn’t seen her for three years and I missed her, but I couldn’t cope with the friends who shared her house. They shouldn’t be there. They shouldn’t be anywhere. They’d all died centuries ago.
She’d introduced me to them when I last visited. They were polite, but I’m not good at exchanging pleasantries with strangers even in the best of situations. After half an hour of stilted conversation, of which I remember nothing, I’d fled to my room, packed my bags and left.
Following our long estrangement I was relieved when Maggie rang me, but too embarrassed about my behaviour to answer her call. She left a voicemail message. “Hello Stephanie. If you’ve recovered from your hissy fit please come back. I need your help.”
I turned up at Arbury Hall, her rambling country estate, inherited from her ancestors, the family of Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV and became queen of England.
Approaching the grand but time-worn entrance I observed that the friends were still in residence, The old couple, Maud and Leo, aka the Empress Matilda and Leonardo da Vinci were walking arm in arm around the duck pond; Jane and Will, aka Miss Austen and Master Shakespeare were flirting in the flower beds, and Boo, aka Boudicca, her wild red hair streaming behind her, was mounted on a tall, black horse galloping around the field beyond the stable block. She was accompanied by another rider I’d not seen before: a lithe boyish figure, with sunlight dancing on his golden curls.
Maggie opened the door and engulfed me in a suffocating hug. I came up for air and pointed to the golden haired horseman. “Who’s he?” I asked.
“He’s the reason I asked you to come back. His name’s Alex.”
“Alexander the Great.”
“What? This has to stop, Maggie. You can’t go on resurrecting historical characters. It’s not right.”
She put on her school mistress voice. “Don’t be so small-minded, Steph. You should get out more. Stranger things than this are happening in the world and unlike most of them my social bonding isn’t doing anyone any harm.”
“Well, call me old-fashioned but I believe the dead should stay dead.”
“They’re not dead. I tried to explain it to you three years ago before you flounced off in a huff. If you’ve calmed down make yourself a cup of coffee and I’ll try again”. She led me into the cavernous kitchen that resembled a film set from ‘Remains of the Day’.
I found a jar in her pantry. It contained a couple of inches of a solid black mass. “Is this the coffee I used three years ago?” I said.
“Yes. Nobody else drinks it. I don’t like it. I like vodka,”
“What about your friends?” I tried to keep the contempt out of my voice.
“They like vodka too.”
“This stuff has probably evolved its own eco system by now.”
“Bash it up a bit. It should be okay.”
I chiselled a spoonful into a cup while hoping boiling water would dissolve the more stubborn clumps. It worked for most of them. I took a sip. It tasted quite good. I carried it to the ancient oak kitchen table, sat beside her, and said. “Right, I’m listening.”
“My friends are not exactly their historical selves,” she said. “They’re products of my mind.”
“Of course, they are. That’s a comprehensive explanation. - Not.”
“Shut up and listen. History has always been more real to me than the present. I know the characters I’ve researched better than I know any living person, except, perhaps you.”
“Thanks. I’m honoured.”
She ignored my interruption. “I constructed detailed mental images of men and women that particularly appealed to me and I regarded them as friends, and then a miracle happened. Have you ever considered exactly what our minds are, Steph?”
I shrugged, “Our internal computer?”
“Fair enough, but what if we were all connected to one computer? I think of my mind as a spark of the one universal mind, just as our bodies, like everything else, are made from the dust of exploding stars. We’re bits of the universal body, do you agree?”
“I suppose so but astrophysics isn’t my field, Maggie, I’m just a humble arborist struggling to keep the nation’s trees healthy.” I swallowed my last gulp of coffee. “Tell me about the miracle.”
She nodded. “I don’t know how it happened but my mind connected to the universal mind and it made my friends’ bodies from the same stuff as ours, but without the process of evolution and reproduction. It took a short cut and there they were, not Alex, just the other five.”
Developing a headache, probably due to the coffee, I stood up. “I need some fresh air. Let’s go outside. I’ll take a look at your trees while you tell me the rest.”
“Good idea. I’ll just fetch a book from the library. I promised to lend it to Leo.”
While she searched for the book I strolled to the grove I knew so well and examined my old friends, the beech, cedar and silver birch. They were in good health. I felt secure here, in spite of the madness going on in the immediate vicinity.
Maggie caught up with me carrying a hefty volume, ‘A History of Aviation’. “Right,” she said. “Where were we?”
“You and the universal mind created your friends based on your research of dead people.”
“If you put it like that, yes.”
“Do they know anything about the people they’re supposed to be?”
“Of course. They know everything that I know. I also created their memories. What are we, Steph, if not the product of our memories?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m the one with the questions. Do they speak their own languages?”
“No, because I don’t speak them, not very well anyway. I think in English so their memories are in English. How are the trees, by the way?”
“They’re fine. Don’t change the subject.” I noticed Maud and Leo strolling arm in arm nearby, but keeping their distance from us. Leo was wearing a smart suit and a cravat. Maud’s clothes were similar to Maggie’s: High-necked blouse, knitted cardigan, good quality tweed skirt and sensible shoes. A thought occurred to me. “Did they turn up stark naked, or what?”
“Oh, no. They were dressed in the garments of their day, so after settling them in I scoured every charity shop in Northamptonshire for outfits that I hoped would fit them. After they’d adjusted to their situation I took them shopping for new clothes, of course.”
“Lucky you can afford it.”
“Quite. My books have earned me a fortune. Not so much the academic ones but the historical novels. There’s a buoyant market for them and the main advantage of being a best- selling author is not having to work for a living. Don’t be so scathing. It’s my money and if I choose to spend it on keeping my companions well-fed and well-dressed it’s nobody else’s business.
“I didn’t say a word.”
“No, but you gave me a snotty look.”
“Sorry. So, when did Alex show up?”
“It was while I was researching for a novel about him. I formed a very strong mental image of a remarkable young man. He’s still wearing Oxfam clothes. You know about young people’s fashions. You can take him shopping.”
“No chance. I’m keeping well out of it.”
“He needs a young companion.”
“Why don’t you do your reconstitution trick on Hephaestion? He was the love of his life, right?”
She chuckled. “He also loved his wives and he was rather fond of one of his eunuchs.”
“Oh, whoopee-doo, Bring them all. We’ll have a party.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, Stephanie, and actually, I think he’d rather I did my ‘reconstitution trick’ as you call it, on Bucephalus.”
We reached the edge of the grove, and my favourite tree, an ancient oak that had stood here since the house’s occupants were fighting the wars of the roses. Maud and Leo waved to us. Maggie beckoned to them and held the book aloft.
Leo bounded towards us, “Maggie my friend,” he said, “is this the tome that contains images of the Spitfire?”
She handed it to him. “Page one-twenty-six. You’ll love it.”
Maud followed him, slightly out of breath. “Greetings, Maggie. While you and Leo are discussing flying machines I’d like to have a chat with your young cousin.”
“Please do,” Maggie said. “Perhaps you’ll have more success than I’ve had in getting her to think outside the conventional metaphorical box.”
Leo bowed to me, Maggie led him to the bench beside the duck pond, and Maud said, “Stephanie is it not, if I remember rightly from our previous brief acquaintance?”
“You remember rightly, Your Imperial Highness.”
She laughed. “I’m not an Empress anymore. Call me Maud.”
“Thank you. Call me Steph.”
She nodded. “It’s ironic that you, the joy of your cousin’s life, should bear the feminised version of the name borne by my cousin, who was the bane of mine.”
I remembered a snippet of twelfth century history. King Stephen stole the British throne from her because she had the misfortune to be a woman. Same old story.
She continued. “I spent eighteen years fighting him for my inheritance. Many innocent people died in that conflict. My cause was just, but not worth such a price.”
“I regret I don’t remember the outcome. Who won?”
“Neither of us, my dear. We grew too old and tired to fight and when his son, useless Eustace died he named my son, Henry as his heir.”
I felt a sudden urge to hug this courageous woman who’d lived such a sad life. “Were you content with that?”
“Eventually I was, but there had been little room for joy in my life, or for love.” She sat on the grass and leaned against the ancient oak, “My old bones need a rest.” I saw a faraway look in her eyes. “I had one close companion. Brian, his name was, but there was no future in it. We had a war to fight and anyway we were both married. A king may do as he wishes but a queen is expected to be virtuous.” I sat beside her. She placed her hands on my shoulders and shook me. There was anger in her voice. “Open your eyes, Steph. Can’t you see what Maggie has done for this little circle of friends?”
I was taken aback but her words hit home. I’d not considered the situation from the friends’ point of view. “I see that you and Leo are happy together,” I said.
“Yes we are. He makes me laugh. A life without laughter is tedious. So is a life of constantly trying to live up to expectations. That’s what Leo had. He was a great artist but he knew he was only as popular as his last success and he could never be confident of producing another one.”
Images of half-forgotten pop stars sprung to mind. “He doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.”
“Exactly. Maggie has given him the opportunity to spend his time learning about this century’s machinery and pointing out that he thought of most of it first.”
I looked around and spotted Jane and Will. She was wearing a very short skirt. Apparently unaware that they were being observed, Will pinched her bottom. She didn’t appear to object.
Maud said, “Jane never found her soul mate. She has him now.”
“Has Will?” I asked.
She shrugged, “Who knows? He loved his wife, his dark lady and his lovely boy. Now he loves a witty, articulate woman. The two great storytellers are living their own story and they’re happy.”
“And what of Boo? What makes her happy?”
“To see this land free of Romans. It’s all she ever wanted.”
“Many people admire the Romans’ achievements, Maud.”
“They didn’t have to live with them. In Boo’s experience they were thieves, rapists and murderers. She’s found peace with Maggie and young Alex. They both love him like a son. The only thing that would make them happier would be for him to find a mate.”
Maggie had me lined up for that and I didn’t understand why.
She and Leo rejoined us and Leo helped Maud to her feet. She said, “I’ve enjoyed our chat, Steph. We must do it again.”
“Yes, we must. Thank you.”
On the way back to the house Maggie said, “Shall I tell the kitchen staff that you’ll be eating with us this evening or are you planning on bolting again?”
“I’d like to stay, please.”
“So you found Maud helpful?”
I nodded. “She helped me to understand why you did this, but I don’t understand why you haven’t found Alex a companion. History must be littered with young women who’d be interested in him.”
She sighed. “I tried, Steph. I had Lady Jane Grey in mind. She would have been rather young for him but the poor child had been forced to grow up fast, as was he. I believe they would have liked each other.”
“What went wrong?”
The universal mind refused to co-operate. The moment had passed. There’ll be no more historics. Alex will have to find a twenty-first century companion.”
I linked my arm through hers. “I’ll take him shopping but I’m not promising anything. I’m good with trees but not with people.”
“It’s an acquired skill, Steph. You’ve never bothered to learn it. You’re nearly thirty and it’s time you did.”
Next morning, while Maggie and Boo sat dangling their bare feet in the duck pond, I took Alex shopping. We hit the high Street, mainly Topman and H&M. His preference was smart/casual, but no tie. “What are they for, Steph?”
“They’re some sort of phallic symbol, like a codpiece but less aggressive.”
He laughed. “You’re so funny.”
I didn’t think I was funny, but knowing he thought so gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling.
After the shopping was done we drank cappuccinos in Starbucks. He said, “I like this coffee substance.”
“Good. We’ll call into Asda on the way home and buy a jar of the instant variety. What else do you like about the twenty-first century?”
He licked his spoon. “Not having to kill anybody and not having to watch out for somebody trying to kill me.”
“Don’t you miss leading an army into battle and conquering other people’s lands?”
“Not a lot. I was a king. That was what I was supposed to do.”
“You were very good at it.”
“Yes, I was, but it was my duty, not my choice.”
“So, what will you do with your life?”
“I haven’t decided yet but for the moment I’m enjoying spending my time with Boo and the horses. Do you like horses?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been acquainted with one.”
“You can’t ride?”
“Shouldn’t think so. I’ve never tried.”
“Would you like me to teach you?”
It would be a start, I suppose. “Yes,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had a hundred and fifty-four stories and poems accepted by paying markets, she was nominated for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize, and in 2019 an anthology of her stories, ‘Whispers of Magic’ was published and is available from Hiraeth Books. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed these in folk music clubs throughout the UK. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll, Shakespeare, and cats.