Christmas, 1999 / No. 3

There is a time and a place for everything. That’s my motto . . . or at least, one of them. So, how did I end up standing here helpless in the middle of Glastonbury Abbey, while half the city of Osaka makes a celluloid record of this moment? I consider my options carefully and decide that I cannot kill her without definite risk to myself. A thousand photographs would be compelling evidence indeed when the case came to trial. I’ve seen her pack and unpack her bag half a dozen times this week, but I’ve never seen that white choir robe before. Yet, here she is, a vision of purity, lying spread-eagle on Arthur and Guinevere’s grave. How could she do this to me?

As I looked closer at the apparition, my breath constricts. Even from twenty paces, that stupid gown screamed cotton-polyester blend. What could have inspired my sister to commit such a fashion crime on top of this other indiscretion?

The public-relations man in me sprang to the fore. It can only be a matter of minutes until a professional photographer turns up. I can easily spin the New Age ritual—after all, most tabloid readers truly believe in extraterrestrials and the like. But how will I ever explain the polyester when a simple muslin would have been just as easy to pack?

Even more embarrassing than Cassandra’s bad taste is the talentless supporting effort of her two friends. The Gregorian chants and ludicrous Isadora Duncan choreography around the outstretched maiden offends at least two of the senses. I look around the familiar grounds. This has always been one of my favourite places in all of England, but now the commotion caused by my sister and her woolly wickens has turned this hallowed sanctuary into a three-ring circus. Where are the guards? I don’t want my sister carted off to jail or anything, but shouldn’t they at least be paying some attention to what’s going on? If this sort of thing happened back home, the cops would have arrived in sufficient force to put down a small uprising.

In the thirty-three years I have been her brother, my ability to influence Cassie on personal matters has been circumscribed. My persuasive talents are limited to her business decisions. What would St. Shirley MacLaine do now, I wondered? I looked at my watch and sighed. She’d probably go with the flow. After all, it’s only one life. But I had to try to retrieve the situation. I shouldered my way through the crowd of camera-mad onlookers. “For Christ’s sake, Cassandra, get up!” I said.

All eyes in the gallery turned on me. Abby and Patricia stopped and glared at me. Cassandra’s eyes remained closed and her face retained its calm, composed appearance. “Shut up, Peter! You’ll break her concentration,” Abby said.

“I don’t give a damned if I break her concentration, I want her to get up off the grave and out of that robe-of-dubious-fabric-origin right now,” I said.

Patricia looked at me severely. “She’s attempting an astral projection.”

“I know what she’s doing, you twit. I simply want her to return from wherever she is and stop making such a spectacle of herself.” By this point, all I had accomplished was making myself the centre of the spectacle, while my corpse-like sister remained immobile. I was torn by my desire to wash my hands of the whole situation, and my responsibility to my sister and our business. There was no doubt in my mind that she would need my assistance any minute now, and these two chanting cretins were unlikely to be much help with the authorities.

Patricia helped make the decision. “Why don’t you just go take a chill pill, Peter?”

How could I compete with such a rapier wit and razor tongue? This New Age bitch would be completely incapable of managing the situation when officialdom arrived. Even without calling on my powers, I could foresee it all. Actually, anyone with two eyes could figure out how this scene would end. In the meantime, I needed a drink. I looked at my watch. It was only eleven, but somewhere in the world it was past five and I could project myself there if necessary. Fortunately, in this part of England, you can get plastered at virtually any hour of the day. As I reached the exit to the abbey, I looked back at the ever-increasing throng around the gravesite.

As I sat down at the George and Pilgrim, I heard the siren and saw the police van go down the street and around the corner. I ordered a pint of ale and waited at a table by the window. In about ten minutes, the van returned up the street, the siren blaring. I knew where to collect my sister. Perhaps it was the warm, amber liquid or the warm, amber light, but following the van with my eyes, I felt abandoned. This was the first time Cassie had excluded me from her plans. Staring at my half-finished pint, my mind wandered to our first time. It seemed like yesterday, but it was six years ago.

The final descent into Hong Kong’s airport is probably the most exciting in the world. You feel as if you are landing on top of the skyscrapers, and the glitter from the lighted buildings is breathtaking. It was my first visit. I was eager to see the city and Cassie. She had moved here about nine months earlier to get production going on her line of clothing. Cassie is the creative side of the business; I am the marketing and public relations. This had been the biggest risk of our careers. Fortunately, events had transpired even more successfully than we had dreamed possible. Not bad for a couple of kids from the suburbs of Toronto.

The week was a whirl of meetings and inspections. Hong Kong’s frenetic pace exhausted and exhilarated me in a way I’d not known before. Cassandra had become a minor celebrity by virtue of her name being on the backside of a million pairs of jeans. Yes, it was a bit tacky, but my idea had worked nicely in providing her with a higher profile, both at home and here in Hong Kong.

By Sunday morning, we were drained. We slept late and then Cassie suggested a trip to get away from it all. We caught a ferry to Lamma Island. It was like taking a forty-minute ride to another planet. The hurly-burly of Hong Kong gave way to the pastoral charm of the mountainous island. It was the first quiet moment of the week.

“I come over here almost every Sunday,” Cassie said.

“I can understand why,” I said, looking around at the foliage cascading down the mountainside to the edge of the beach.

“It’s the only place I know where I can really think,” Cassie said, as we walked along Lo So Shin Beach. “This is a great city for getting things done, but it’s a lousy place for contemplation.” She turned to me with a pursed smile. The glint in her eyes betrayed her excitement. “Pete, there is a special place I want to show you.” She reached out her hand, which I took.

We turned off the beach, walked down a path for about thirty minutes and came upon a small temple on the edge of a village. We went under the torii gate and into the temple yard. Cassie clapped and bowed three times, and threw some coins into an offertory in front of the altar. She nodded for me to do the same. Then, she took my hand and led me to a small courtyard off to the side. It was so quiet and still that you could actually hear the wind in the trees. We sat down on the grass and said nothing for what seemed to be the longest time.

Cassie broke the silence. “Do you ever feel that you are being moved by forces outside your control?” she asked, and stared at me. I nodded without speaking. “There are times when it seems I am being guided by hands I can’t see or touch or even really feel. But they are pushing me . . . I know it.” She reached out for me with both hands and I grasped them. A current passed between us and the words began to flow. That conversation has led us in a six-year quest for the force that guides us all. Occasionally together, but usually separately, we have sought out those forces in a series of adventures that bind us even stronger than our blood.

Ichecked my watch after my second beer. It had been forty-five minutes since the police van passed, which was probably enough time to let Cassie experience the wonders of a provincial British jail cell. I left the pub and walked down the block to the jail.

I walked in the front door and was greeted by a uniformed young man behind a desk. He peered up at me, expressionless. I flashed my most winning smile. “Hi! My name is Peter Cochrane, and I’m here to retrieve my sister, Cassandra.”

He stared at me blankly, without speaking. It seemed unlikely that they would have jailed too many Cassandra Cochranes that day, but I felt compelled to press on. “She’s the one from the abbey—the one wearing the white robe.”

At that he smiled. “Oh, yes!”

“Yes, I’ve come to make arrangements for her release,” I said.

“Fine. Do you wish to bail her out?” he asked.

“Actually, if it would be possible, I would prefer to pay the fine and settle the entire matter,” I replied.

He opened a large book and read through a table of figures. He looked up and said, “If she pleads guilty right now, the fine would be a hundred pounds.”

I flashed another of my public relations smiles. “Do you take American Express?” I asked.

The drive out to the tor was silent. Cassie seemed calm, but her appearance was disheveled. The back of her robe had grass stains and dirt all over it. There was still some dirt in her hair, so I handed her a brush.

We parked the car at the foot of the tor and walked up the path to the base of the hill. Picking our way carefully through the sheep droppings, we ascended to the top. The view of the town and the surrounding countryside was gorgeous. The various shades of green and gold in a Wessex summer were visible in their full glory. For the first time since she had emerged from the cell, Cassie smiled. We walked into the Chapel of St. Michael and looked up through the roofless tower. “Thank you for getting me out of there,” Cassie said quietly. She stepped forward and gave me a big hug.

I broke the embrace and smiled at her. “No problem. I’ll add it to next month’s bill.”

“What about Abby and Patricia?” she asked.

“Oh, I’ve made arrangements for them too, but I thought we could keep them locked up for an hour or two to give us a chance to talk,” I said. “Or, if we like, we can leave them here to rot forever.”

Cassie shook her head. We walked out of the chapel and sat on the hill looking down over Glastonbury. “Wherever did you find those two?” I asked.

Cassandra peered at me, confused. “I thought you’d like them,” she said, defensively.

“Cassandra,” I snorted in my most older-brother way.

“Well, you must admit—they’ve got spunk,” she said.

“Spunk?” I sputtered. “You call that spunk? More like punk, don’t you think?” Cassie mock-punched my shoulder and laughed. I turned and smiled at her. “You know that I would have arranged anything you wanted,” I continued quietly. “We could have been there at dawn or dusk, or anytime at all.” Cassie nodded. “Why in the middle of all that chaos?” I asked.

Cassie didn’t answer.

A cold flash went through me. I grabbed her arm and squeezed for a moment. “Tell me that wasn’t a publicity stunt,” I begged.

Cassie looked at me and frowned. “You, of all people, should know better. Haven’t you done exactly the same thing?” she asked.

“Of course,” I replied, indignantly. “But I did it at dawn on a foggy day and had the good taste to wear a burlap cassock for the event.” Having stared at it longer than I could justify, I finally fingered the suspect fabric of the robe, fearing that my lifelong allergy to polyester would cause my skin to break out. There was another long pause. I hoped that Cassie would say something, but she didn’t appear inclined to continue the conversation. She just stared down at the abbey. “It’s difficult to imagine astral projection working in the middle of a busload of Japanese tourists,” I continued.

“Give it a rest,” Cassie whispered without looking at me. She must have heard my mouth open to continue, because she reached out and put her finger to my lips. “For Christ sake, Pete, think where we are! We are atop Glastonbury Tor. Somewhere beneath us the Holy Grail is buried. Don’t you believe that?” I turned back to look at St. Michael’s tower and then my gaze returned to the valley spread out below us. I nodded without looking directly at my sister. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cassie pointing to the valley below. “And you must believe that Arthur and Guinevere lie together in the abbey.” She turned to me, her eyes wide with excitement. “Peter, surely you can feel the magic here! It’s all around us. You wouldn’t love this place so much if you didn’t feel it. You would never have brought me here if you didn’t want me to try to find it too. All I did was try.” There was a long silence. I wasn’t sure how to respond to her. She turned and looked directly into my eyes. “My timing may not have been great, but we never know when the truth is going to reveal itself. I took the opportunity that presented itself. That’s all,” she said, quietly and calmly.

I looked around the Wessex countryside and then down on the gravesite below us. “Did you feel anything?” I asked.

She smiled and slapped the ground. “So the scolding is over and now you want to horn in vicariously on the experience,” she said. “You drive me nuts, Pete. You claim to be on this search for the spiritual, but only at the right time and in the right outfit. You are so obsessed with how you go about looking that you’ll never actually be ready when you find the answers,” she said. “Earth to Pete—the force will be disorderly and frightening, not stylishly dressed or polite. If you want to explore . . . really explore . . . you’ve got to take risks and be willing to lose sometimes.”

I bowed my head and mumbled something indistinct, even to myself. “Are you hearing me?” Cassie asked. I turned to her and nodded. She pointed at the tower behind us. “Do you know who St. Michael is?”

“Of course I do. He slew the dragon,” I replied.

She pointed her finger at me as she spoke. I hate it when she does that. “Right! It’s time to take some inspiration and slay some dragons, Peter.”

“That’s not fair,” I said.

Cassie put her hand on my shoulder. “What harm did I do? Did I embarrass you?” I blushed and glanced away to avoid her piercing stare. “I’m sorry if I caused you any discomfort. But, Pete, we’re explorers—or at least you say you are. You can’t bottle yourself up and yet be open to the possibilities at the same time. You’ll never discover anything that way. More important, you’ll never discover what’s in here.” She touched my chest.

I put my hand over hers. She turned around again and we stared down at Glastonbury for a minute. Without turning back to me she said, “Thank you for bringing me here. There is magic. I can feel it.” With that she gently forced my hand onto the dirt in front of us. “I can feel it,” she repeated.

She let go of my hand and we stood. We walked wordlessly back down. At the base of the hill, Cassie looked over at me. “We better get Patricia and Abby out of that cell,” she said.

I smiled. “The rest will have done them some good.”

Cassie smiled at me and patted my cheek with her dusty fingers. “Be nice, brother, dear. Tomorrow is Patricia’s day. She’s really looking forward to Stonehenge.”

I stopped suddenly and turned to my sister. “What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“The deal was that I would do my thing here, and she would do hers at Stonehenge.”

“Cassie, don’t,” I blurted, grabbing her arm. “They don’t let you anywhere near the actual stones at Stonehenge. It won’t be some friendly provincial constable who handles you guys, it’ll be someone from the Salisbury police.”

“Peter, haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said. Look, a deal’s a deal. We’re going to Stonehenge tomorrow, with or without you,” Cassie said, exasperated. We got in the car and headed back into town.

The next morning, I dropped them off in front of the entrance to Stonehenge. The early morning mist diffused the light to a golden glow, casting a heavenly aura on all in our sight, even the two tour buses in the parking lot. It almost made me throw caution to the wind and go in with them, but I resisted the temptation. “I’ll come back for you at noon. If you’re not here, I’ll call my office to find out where they have taken you,” I said.

Cassandra rolled her eyes slightly. “Peter, we’ll be fine. We can take care of ourselves, but thank you for the help. We’ll see you here at noon, OK?” She kissed me on the cheek, and they turned and walked toward the entrance. I couldn’t help but wonder what they had in the basket, but I dared not ask, although I took secret satisfaction that they had packed a woollen smock in lieu of yesterday’s disaster. I thought of driving past the Salisbury constabulary for practice, but decided that I would have that pleasure later in the day anyway.

I got back in the car, turned on the ignition and put the car in gear. Over and over, I replayed yesterday’s conversation with Cassie in my mind. Without consciously choosing my way, I realized that I was passing the sign for Glastonbury, and was soon at the foot of the tor. I got out of the car and climbed to the top of the hill. The view was even more spectacular than it had been yesterday afternoon. The morning sun had broken through the mist, heightening the colours in the surrounding countryside to a vividness I had never seen before.

I felt for a moment that I was going to cry. I sat down, propping myself against the wall of the chapel. I sat there quietly for a few minutes, looking out over the abbey and the village below. Suddenly, I got up on my knees and put my hands flat on the earth in front of me. Slowly, I brushed away the top layer of loose dirt. Then my fingernails dug into the earth, breaking the surface. As I proceeded, I dug more quickly and deeply. The earth got progressively darker and moister. My hands and forearms took on the color of the soil, as I reached into the hole that now swallowed up to my elbows. I dug more and more feverishly, thinking of all those who had dug in this hill through the ages. But it wasn’t the Holy Grail I sought—I just wanted to find the magic.

G. J. Lindeblom is a Seaton Village resident and a photographer with New York City gallery credits. He has recently completed his first novel, for which he is seeking a publisher. Last updated Christmas, 1999.