By The Prophet
(First placed online at h2g2.com on April 6th, 2001)
It had been almost five years since Marian Fairbrass had stopped receiving unexpected callers. Not that she had become a recluse or a hermit, but it was five years ago that her youngest daughter, Karen, had moved away. Karen lived in Glasgow now, but she was still the closest of Marian's four children. Lawrence lived in New York, Mary in Paris, and Paul was a palaeogeologist and spent the greater part of each year in Antarctica drilling for rock cores.
Very few people came to visit Marian at the Grange now, and those few - the doctor, the Reverend, and the sweet-natured, if highly interchangeable, ladies from the W.I. - always made and kept appointments scrupulously. Mrs Roberts, the Housekeeper - the last of the Grange's once substantial permanent staff - always let herself in through the kitchen entrance, and never even spoke to Marian except when she served her meals.
The cleaning staff came in once each year, for a fortnight in April, and it was now August. There were a lot of them, but then there was a lot to clean. Mrs Robert's young daughter, Cheryl, a bright, pretty girl of nineteen, would come in to help her mother with the tea and meals; and to eye up some of the lissom young men who seemed to have replaced the rather heavy-set chambermaids of Marian's youth. Cheryl was also always happy to talk to 'Old Mrs F', at least when her mother was not there to scowl disapprovingly and there were no pretty young things for her to ogle. For those two weeks, the Grange buzzed with activity, as every inch of the old place was scrubbed spotless, and any water damage repaired, but for the remainder of the year the old place was quiet, and ever so still.
Marian was over seventy years old; exactly how far over she could never now be drawn to specify. In recent years, she had attained a state of almost Zen-like calm, wherein the prospect of her own impending death had ceased to trouble her. In a similar fashion she had passed beyond the state of loneliness, and merely enjoyed the peace and quiet of her fading years. It was an unexpected pleasure for her to wake up each morning, for all that young Dr Walker would remark on her continuing rude good health.
She had energy still, but her joints were too rusty for her to really burn that energy off, and so she spent all day dictating her memoirs into a very old cassette recorder which had belonged to her late husband, John. The machine was precious to Marian for that association, but once she had completed a tape she always entrusted it to Mrs Roberts to be taken into town to be transferred onto compact disc. She felt that she was composing her legacy - a record of a way of life all but extinct - and she wanted that to last.
So quiet had the Grange been these past five years that when the doorbell rang, it took a moment's thought for Marian to identify the unfamiliar sound. Once she had done so, she shut off the cassette recorder and hobbled to the door, an act as painful for its slowness as for the aching in her joints, as her restless spirit urged her to go faster. At the door she took up her battered, leather-bound copy of the Torah. Karen had bought the book for her mother as an aid to deterring a rash of Jehovah's Witnesses who had taken the trouble to come out to the Grange about a decade ago. It was a beautiful volume, and had a wonderful old-book smell. Marian loved it, for all that her hands were scarcely strong enough to hold it now, and had kept it in pride of place by the door long after the vanquished Jehovah's Witnesses had packed up their copies of the Watchtower and gone back to their more regular routes.
"Hello," she replied, politely. The young man at the door was familiar, but Marian could not quite place his face. She must - she thought - have known him as a boy.
"May I come in?" He inquired. His voice too was familiar, although again Marian felt that it might have been more so with less maturity in its tones; with the cocky, self-assured cadence of youth. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, but more mature in his bearing than most men of his age seemed to be these days. From the little television that Marian troubled herself to watch, and from observations of the men of her cleaning staff, men seemed no longer expected to be responsible and respectable until they turned forty.
"You seem to have the advantage of me," she said, unable to think of a reason to politely refuse his request outright, but unwilling to admit a stranger - or near-stranger - to her home unchallenged. He smiled warmly.
"Why, it's me Marian. It's Edward."
Marian was speechless with shock.
Edward had been her fiancÚ years ago, until her step-father's hand had come between them, and now she saw that it was Edward that this young man reminded her of. But Edward had disappeared years ago, while trying to make his fortune overseas. Even had he not, Edward would be an older man - older than Marian - not this sturdy, broad-shouldered, sun-browned man of twenty-five odd. The mere idea of this man claiming to be him was preposterous. Then a thought struck Marion.
"Am I to understand that you are Edward Walter's grandson?"
"I don't know anyone called Walters," he replied with a smile. "My name is, and always has been, Edward Barrett. And no, I'm not your Edward's grandson. My grandfathers were Hector Barrett and Martin Bryar." She took this in as best she could, and he smiled kindly. "Do you think we could discuss this inside?" He asked solicitously. "It's been quite a walk here from the town, and you look as if you could use a sit down."
"Alright," Marian said, after a long moment of consideration.
She stepped aside and allowed the man to enter. He did not - she noted - move like Edward, who had been a slightly awkward youth, but with a smooth, almost rolling gait. It was odd how clearly she remembered Edward, whom she had not seen in over fifty years, when she could scarcely picture Jack as he had been on their wedding day. On the other hand, she thought as they moved through to the parlour, she had seen Jack grow old. She sat in her armchair, while the young man stood for a moment before settling nervously into a chair, as if expecting it to bite him. That movement reminded her very much of Edward.
"I was never allowed in here," he said in response to her glance. It was true that Edward, being in her step-father's opinion one of the great unwashed, had been barred from all of the Grange with the exception of the servant's wing. This man had certainly done his homework, an effort which made his bizarre masquerade all the more difficult to understand.
"Tea?" Marian offered, from long habit as much as anything.
"Yes, please," he replied, earnestly. Marian rang down to the kitchen and asked Mrs Roberts to bring her afternoon tea for two. 'Edward' was examining his surroundings with some interest. "So," he said at length. "Jack Fairbrass. I thought his brother had an eye on you?" Marian felt a peculiar conflict inside herself. His familiar tone was at once grating, and enough like Edward to breed in her a nostalgic fondness for him.
"Arthur married Clare Collingwood while I was still pining for you," she responded, as tartly as she could manage. "After you were given up for dead, Jack helped me pull myself back together.
"Lucky Jack. And poor Clare. I'm glad that bas... That Arthur didn't get you though." There was another of those little touches. Edward had always been mindful of his manners around Marian, although his language was by inclination coarse, if not actually vulgar. "How'd that work out for you then?"
"Very well, thank you," she answered primly. "Not that it's any of your business, but Jack and I were very happy, and I have four beautiful children."
"I'm glad you were happy," he said sincerely. "I met your daughter in Paris; Mary. She does look a lot like you, you know. If a little older than I remember you."
Marian was feeling increasingly disconcerted. He was so like - and yet so not like - Edward. She was glad of the distraction when Mrs Roberts brought the tea, but her relief was short-lived as he rose to pour.
"Is it still milk and two sugars?"
"No sugar," she said. "Not for years."
"The world turns," he commented, but she noted that he still took his tea black, with one sugar.
"Alright, Edward," she said. "Suppose then that you start by proving that you are who you - rather ridiculously - claim to be?"
"OK then. Ask me something. Something an impostor couldn't know, rather than trying to catch me out with surnames." His calm assurance was aggravating, and Marian was determined to catch him in his elaborate, ludicrous pretence.
"When did we first meet?" She eyed him shrewdly as she spoke.
"Harvest fair; I think I was sixteen. You wore white and I got mud on your dress." She nodded; so far all correct.
"Several weeks later, in the back of the car."
"The one your father was driving when he was killed. Your mother insisted it be left in the ditch where he crashed it and kept clean and whole. You used to sit there when you needed to think." Marian blushed. Whoever this man was, and whatever he wanted, he did know things about her that no-one else knew. "I notice it's still there," he added.
"They still take care of it," she said. 'They' were the local handymen, the Crane family. "Where did we first make love?"
"You didn't want to, and I didn't want to push you," he answered regretfully. She nodded slowly, but this was still nothing he could not have found out or surmised.
"You left to make your fortune. Why?"
"Your stepfather disapproved of us. I was going to make some money, get a place somewhere and we were going to elope."
Marian was silent for a long moment, then very quietly she asked: "And why did he disapprove so much?"
"Because he believed he was my father," Edward replied softly. "I doubted it, and you never believed it, but he was convinced I was the skeleton in his closet come out to haunt him." Marian nodded silently. Almost no-one - not even her mother - had known of her stepfather's conviction that Edward was the opportunistic fruit of a past fling. But if this was Edward, then that still left the burning question:
"Dear God, Edward. How can you be so young?"
"Did you get my letters?" Marian nodded. They had arranged for letters to pass via a mutual friend, knowing that her stepfather would try to intercept their communications. The last letter had come three years after Edward's departure, promising that they would be together again soon. The letter had come from the Belgian Congo, and had been the last anyone had heard of him.
"Everyone thought that you'd died in the Congo," she told him.
"For the longest time, I thought I'd died there," he replied with a slight smile. "As I told you in that last letter, I was having trouble making more money than I needed to keep myself, let alone to take care of you." Marian frowned; one of the stumbling blocks in their plans had been Edward's refusal to let her even try to survive among his class. "But while I was in the Congo I got to hear tell of a city; a lost city in the depths of the jungle, built by an ancient and civilised race who had been wiped out centuries ago by something terrible; if fairly non-specific. I knew that if I could find that city, we'd be rich."
"You disappeared chasing rumours and myths?" Marian asked, appalled.
"No! I found a man who had actually been there." Edward paused; then grinned sheepishly. "Well; a man who said that he had been, and could take me to it. Actually he..."
"Took you into the middle of nowhere, beat you, robbed you and left you for dead?" Marian hazarded.
"Something like that," he admitted. "Actually he beat me, robbed me and sold me as a slave." Marian gasped in alarm, and Edward's voice became low and serious as he continued. "As a matter of fact, he did take me to the city; that's where he sold me. I ended up a slave in the lost city I had been searching for," he told her. "And the builders were certainly advanced, but they had not died out. Nor to my eye were they all that civilised."
"You poor lamb," Marian whispered.
"I thought it was painful when I was beaten as a child," he continued. "But a belt has nothing on a whip. The first year almost killed me," he confessed. "But the rest just made me stronger, harder. But still I had no chance of escape, until I began to get older." His eyes as he spoke were haunted, and Marian's heart went out to him.
"How did you survive?" She asked him. "It must have been unbearable."
"You have no idea," he assured her. "And for that I'm grateful. But it was you that pulled me through: my memory of you; the prospect of some day coming back; of hearing you scold me for being such a bloody fool," he added with a wan smile. "Of course in time I began to lose hope of ever seeing you again, but by then I'd grown strong enough to survive the work, and bloody-minded enough to stay alive just to spite the overseers."
"But you did grow old?" Marian asked.
"I did, yes. But my royal masters did not. Save only one boy, the king's grandson, who grew into a man and then stopped, not one of them seemed to age a day." He sipped his tea slowly, savouring the taste, before continuing.
"I began to fall into a pattern with my work," he said. "And I got so used to doing what I was told - however much I hated it - and to not complaining, that I became a favoured servant to the royal family. That was how I discovered their secret," he finished in a whisper.
"Their secret?" Marian whispered back, aware of her own rising excitement.
"The elixir of life," he replied. "The key to immortality. It was rare and precious, and closely guarded. As a favoured servant I was allowed free run of the palace; all but one door was open to me, so I came to know that the source must lie behind it.
"One day, after a great deal of planning, I incited a revolt of the slaves," Marian gasped. "The royals panicked: they had too few soldiers and overseers to resist the mob, yet if they fled they risked losing their supply of elixir. In the end though they ran, and in the confusion I escaped with some of the elixir." And so saying, he reached into his jacket and produced a small, crystal vial. Marian caught her breath. The vial itself was of exquisite workmanship, and she had no doubt as to what the clear, bluish liquid inside must be.
"Edward," she whispered, her throat dry.
"One vial restored my youth," he told her. "Made me twenty again, and gave me the strength and vigour to find my way out of the jungle and back to you. This one will do the same for you."
"Edward. I don't know what to say."
"Don't say anything," he answered, proffering the vial. "Just drink, and there'll be all the time in the world to say what has to be said." His excitement was clear, his energy intoxicating, and already Marian could all but feel that same energy buzzing through a body free of pain and stiffness. Oh to be able to use that energy, that vitality again. But then...
"No Edward," she said. His shock was palpable, his expression stricken. "Thank you for the offer, but I can't."
"I'm old, Edward. Even if my body weren't my heart is, and I'm ready to move on. I don't want to live forever."
"We won't," he promised, his tone pleading. "The royal family had to stay at the source because the elixir only gives you youth, not immortality. We won't live forever; we'll just get back the life we never had." Marian gazed at the young man with sad eyes, as he knelt in front of her chair.
"Oh Edward," she whispered. "Dear Edward. I loved you like no other in this world, but I mourned for you and I moved on with my life. While you were having this terrible adventure, I was living. I have four children, Edward; I don't want to outlive them." Tears welled in the familiar eyes.
"I need you Marian," he choked.
"No you don't Edward," she assured him. "I thought I would never be whole and happy after you were gone, but I was, and you will be too. You will find someone new..."
"I don't want anyone but you!" He cried, impassioned, clutching her skirt. Marian stroked his hair with her shaking hands and shushed him gently.
"I know, Edward. But that's because you've not had the chance to get over me."
"I had fifty years."
"Only time, Edward. You had the time, but you haven't lived." She gazed down, into his eyes, and she smiled a sad, benevolent smile. "But you shall, Edward. You shall."
And he put his head in her lap and wept.
Marian Fairbrass died at the age of ninety-one, two days after completing her taped memoirs. Her estate was divided among her children, and provision made for Mrs Sarah Roberts, the Housekeeper, to become resident custodian of the Grange. Three years later her daughter Cheryl married Edward Walters, a close confidant to Mrs Fairbrass in her last days, and the couple took over the custodianship when Mrs Roberts retired.
When he died, aged eighty-seven, two years after his wife, Edward Walters left a singular bequest to his eldest son Jack.
A small, crystal vial, filled with a clear, bluish liquid.