Thanks BebyNakod Apa©
THE FIRST GLIMPSE I ever had of the girl was her naked arse.
I'd been leading Wilful, my donkey, round the side of the barn when I heard smothered squeals and the flunk of a hand striking bare flesh. Trim, round and reddened from the impact of the farmer's hand it pointed solidly toward the evening sky as he held her bent over a saw-horse; legs spread, her long skirts pulled up over her head.
'That'll teach you to play with yourself. 'Tis an obscenity and an offence against God's word. No girl in my house will follow Satan's ways.'
I coughed loudly.
Startled the farmer lifted his head, saw me, and rapidly pulled the girl's skirts back down to cover her tormented cheeks with those fat labia poking provocatively below. 'What do you want? This is private land,' he growled.
'I'm hiking south and need somewhere to rest for the night and water my donkey. I wondered if I could spend the night in your barn.'
'I'll have no loafers and vagrants on my farm. The Lord God gave us hands and feet to labour and feed ourselves, not to bum around looking for unearned handouts.'
'Oh, I'll repay you. I'm not some tramp expecting a free lunch. I'm an artist, a painter. I've been travelling around looking for ideas from the country.' In one way I wasn't that concerned whether he said yea or nay, though in another I didn't want to be forced to push on too far into the summer evening.
While he considered he glanced at the girl, 'You get back to the other two and attend to your chores.'
I threw him the sweetener, 'I'll do a drawing of you and your family in return for a bit of supper and your letting me stay overnight.'
After a moment's thought he shouted after the girl, 'Thanksbe! Find the twins and get yourselves back here. No dilly dallying.' Then he looked at me; suspicious. 'I'm calling your bluff, Mister. Make a good likeness of me and my three and you can stay in the barn. Just the barn, mind. Don't want you nowhere near my house, or my girls. If you don't produce, you're on your way with my boot up your backside.'
I started to unstrap one of the panniers on Wilful to get my sketchpad. 'Just the four of you?'
He took my meaning. 'Just the four. No business of your's where their mothers be.'
Keep him talking, I decided. 'Unusual name, Thanksbe. Don't think I've come across it before.'
'Damn fool notion of her mother. Seems she had trouble birthing the kid and was convinced she was a goner. When the kid pulled through she said, "Thanks be to the Lord". And that's what she called her.'
The girl - who looked to be in her late teens, with caramel toned skin and long, wavy, black hair brushing the waist of a drab brown dress - returned followed by two somewhat older, pale, lumpy looking blondes.
I looked round for some way of posing them. 'Why don't you lean against that fence,' I suggested. 'Thanksbe can sit at your feet and the other two can stand behind you, one on each side.'
He turned to them, 'You heard what the man said. Thanksbe come here. Honesty and Temperance get in the paddock, behind the rail. '
A full painting can take considerable time and effort, but it doesn't take me long to dash off a quick sketch. A talent I developed while convalescing. Giving it a final check before passing it over for the farmer's consideration I saw I'd drawn him and the twins a touch pedestrian and stereotypical, but the girl Thanksbe's gamine features fair leapt off the page in a way that was far beyond my usual standard. I made a mental note to think later about why.
He took the sketch from me and studied it suspiciously. 'You've got the gift. Don't know whether it comes from the Man, or from the Devil, but my word is my word. You can stay the night, but I want you gone in the morning.'
'Thank you,' I said, leading Wilful into the barn and unbuckling his panniers.
Later, when one of the blondes brought me a dish of rather stringy chicken casserole, I tried engaging her in conversation. But she was monosyllabic, to say the least, and confirmed my impression that the twins were somewhat retarded. Well, not my problem, I'd be on my way, come the morrow.
IT WAS DARK and I was reading by the light of a battery lantern that I carry when there was a quiet rustling at the threshold.
'Who's there?' I called.
'Ssh. Not so loud, please, mister.' It was that Thanksbe.
'Somehow I don't think your father would approve of you being here right now,' I said.
She crept into the lamplight. 'He'd beat me terrible.'
'Then why have you come?'
'Please mister. Take me with you in the morning. Please.'
'But won't he come after you?'
'Yes. But if we go early enough we can be out of sight and he won't be able to use his shotgun.'
'Whoa back! That's getting serious. You mean he'd shoot you?'
'Not me - I think. But he'd surely have a go at you.'
I'm cautious around firearms - I've seen what they can do. I'd been shot at while in the army; before I was so badly injured. But that was duty to King and Country. To risk life and limb for some skirt, however neat and nubile, was a horse of a different colour.
'Why don't you just walk out?'
'He'd never let me, and how would I know where to go?'
'Why is it so vital that you leave?' I was talking around the problem, looking for a way to reject her that wouldn't hurt too badly.
'He says it's time he got to know me.'
Now I was confused. 'What do you mean. Surely he knows you. He's your father?
'No, not in that way. Like it says in the Good Book. He says that following my eighteenth birthday - that's the day after tomorrow - he'll get to know me as he does one of the twins most every night.'
The penny dropped. 'You mean as it says in the Bible - and Adam came to know Eve? Meaning he fucked her.'
'What's fucked? Mother didn't teach me that word.'
'To have sex with. Didn't you learn that at school?'
'Didn't go to school. Mother taught us here at home.'
She was rousing my curiosity, drawing me in. 'What about the twins?'
'Mother taught them as well. They were only four or five when their mother left. Then Father took my mother and me in.'
'Then he isn't your true father?'
'No. Don't know who was. Mother once said I was a mistake that stopped her earning proper.'
'How old were you?'
'Well, the twins are three, four years older than me, and mother said they was about five when we came. So I reckon I was about one or one-and-half.'
'So what happened to your mother?'
'Why, 'bout three years back she took sick. Wanted to go into town and see a doctor but Father wouldn't let her until it was too late. So she died.' Her head dropped and I could see the glint of tears.
I needed to change the subject, I'd almost been interrogating her. 'Do I understand you to say that your father, who's not your real father, has sex with the twins?'
'Yes. He makes one of them sleep in his bed most every night.'
'But if he's truly their father then that's incest. It's against the law.'
'Yes. Didn't your mother teach you that?'
'Well, she taught me to figure and to read the Good Book and the newspaper. Used to like reading the newspaper, but we don't have it no more now that mother's gone.'
'What about when you go shopping?'
'Never go now.'
'Where do you go?'
'Just to church in town on Sundays; sometimes. That's why I don't know where I'd go if I just left.'
We were back with the problem again. Having myself been firmly down and out when the medics didn't think I'd recover from my injuries I've become something of a sucker for strays and lost souls. So now I found I couldn't bring myself to just say "no". At least so I told myself. Later I decided it was more likely because she was an attractive, nubile young woman and my first instinct as a man was to shelter and protect her.
'Give me a moment to think,' I said, reaching for my map. I'd come down the road from the north and it seemed there was a small town about three miles further on. 'What's between here and Belton. Houses, fields, woods?'
'Couple more of our fields then wood for the rest of the way.'
'The map shows the road goes over a stream about half way along.'
'That be Lowe Bridge.'
'Right. You get yourself down there good and early. Hide in the trees until you see me come by. If It's safe I'll wave for you to come out and join me.'
'Thanks, mister. What if it's not right?'
'Stay put and I'll come back as soon as I can. Oh, and call me Ralph. I'll call you Bea. And the donkey is Wilful - by name and nature.'
THE NEXT MORNING I procrastinated somewhat in my departure as I wanted the farmer to see me leave alone. One of my better ideas for I had barely got Wilful loaded than he appeared, shotgun in hand, demanding to know where his Thanksbe was.
I shrugged my shoulders, 'How should I know? She's your girl. Haven't seen her since last evening.' Semantically correct even if not absolutely true, though he wasn't to know that.
Suspiciously he watched Wilful and me out of the gate and onto the highway where we ambled along in no particular hurry. Some twenty minutes later he stuttered past in an old jalopy, heading toward the town, which was my signal to slow even further.
Another quarter-of-an-hour and we reached the stone bridge. The farmer not having returned I crossed the stream and pulled off the road where a path ran alongside the water and into the trees. Leaving Wilful to crop the grass I strolled up the track hoping a casually observer would think I was looking for a spot to relieve myself. In fact I was searching for the girl.
Thirty yards into the trees and she appeared. Palms facing, I made a pushing gesture, 'Keep out of sight. Your stepfather passed me in a car. We'll wait until he comes back.'
She stepped back into shadows. 'There's a spot further up where your donkey could drink. We could wait there.' I looked doubtful, but she added, 'We shouldn't be noticed from the road.'
'Good idea.' I wandered back and collected Wilful.
Once he was settled, searching out clumps of grass, I sat on a fallen tree trunk and inspected her. Same drab dress, bare feet, and long shiny hair. 'What did you bring with you?'
'Only a picture of Mother.' She reached into the top of her dress and pulled an oval locket from the deep cleft between her breasts. Carefully opening it she held it for me to look. The photo was of a woman with wide eyes, high cheekbones and a short, straight nose that might well have been of Bea herself, except for the light skin.
'Not got any worth bringing.'
'Well, I had thought to disguise you for when we go through the town. Now I'm not sure how. Still, let's experiment a bit.'
I rummaged through my pack and found the old lumberjack's shirt and spare pair of jeans I kept in case I got caught in a downpour. 'Try these on.'
Grasping her dress by the hem, she swiftly pulled it over her head. Underneath she was naked.
I turned away. But not before noticing that this lithe urchin was in truth a slim waisted young woman, exuding all the nubile charms that are a feature of an eighteen year old, with a pair of full, shapely breasts, their nipples like chocolate kisses against her caramel skin. Not oversize boobs to be sure, but more than enough to satisfy all but the most gluttonous of men. I felt sure they had yet to feel a bra, or a male hand.
In a quiet voice she said, 'Oh, you can look. I'm a woman like any other.'
'Who taught you that?'
'Mother used to say that we are all made the same, and there is nothing dirty in showing the body God gave you.'
'Perhaps. But did she not also say it's better not to display it to men? It can cause them to act in ways you may dislike.'
'Oh, can it? Are you saying that just because you've seen all of me, you're lusting to know me?' Startled I said nothing. 'Though I wouldn't mind you knowing me,' she added, pensively. 'You're kind. Not like Father.'
What had I taken on? What was I going to do with this odd mixture of naivety and astuteness? Cowardly, or merely cautious, I postponed the issue.
'Probably be very nice having sex with you,' I told her. 'Unfortunately I haven't been able to please a woman since I was shot. Doctors say there's nothing physically wrong and I'll get the use of my manhood back sometime. However that was four years ago and I'm still waiting.'
I always say shot to save explanations. Actually, it was shrapnel damage, mainly in and around the belly, from my partner stepping on a land mine. Since when, though I had often felt the urge for a woman, my tool had signally failed to rise to the occasion. At first I had reasoned it was merely because it hadn't received the right stimulation, but recently I had come to suspect it could be that paradox: failure caused by fear of failure.
'Where were you shot?'
I pretended to misunderstand. 'Iraq. Right, let me see how these clothes fit.'
The shirt sleeves were way too long, but they could be rolled. It was the tightness and strain across the upper buttons, and the way the perfect orbs of her young boobs were outlined, their hard points clearly manifest, which gave me doubts. Still they would only have to hold for a few hours.
The pants hung almost stylishly low on rounded hips but, even with her long legs, the bottoms still crinkled badly, bringing a smile to my lips.
'Give the pants back,' I commanded, feeling in my bag for the hunting knife I carry.
Innocently she whipped them off, again giving me a clear view of a dark muff above those puffy nether lips. I told myself it was fortunate that, being an artist, I was used to looking at things as they truly were, without the distorting mask of emotions to distract me.
It took but a moment to amputate the legs of the jeans well above the knee, turning them into hot pants. I had hoped to make her look boyish, at least from a distance, but the silhouette, both from the side and back, shouted that she was a woman; and a very shapely one at that.
One last ploy occurred to me. 'Let's crop your hair. Hopefully then no one will recognize you.'
Hands being an artist's tools I carry a pair of nail scissors in my wash bag. Not the easiest implements for cutting hair, and it seemed a pity to hack away those long tresses, but needs must and I had soon given her a short, spiky style.
If she really went so little into town I doubted the locals would know her; that is if they put her light chocolate colouring down to being deeply sun-tanned. Thus it only remained for us to avoid her stepfather.
'That's the best I can do. Now we'll just have to hope.'
She whirled around a few times. 'Wish there were a mirror, so I could see for myself.'
'I've got one I use for shaving. On those days when I bother.'
She had me hold it while she postured, trying to get a full view. 'Is that really me? I look quite good.' It must be instinctive. Maroon a girl alone on a desert isle and she'd still be concerned about her hairdo and the size of her bust.
She kicked the ground with a dirty toe and I realised there was still the problem of footwear. 'Don't you have any shoes?'
'Nah. Father always said we couldn't afford them. Bit cold in the winter but I can do without now.'
'I hope so. Come, sit here and let me measure you. If I see anything suitable I'll try and requisition them.'
What to measure her with. Grasping her slim ankle I spread my other hand and laid it flat on the sole of her foot. She giggled slightly at the absurdity of my idea. It wasn't so good, for while my hands are large and her feet are small it wasn't going to be accurate enough when I came to examine a pair of shoes or trainers. Still there's one thing an artist is never without; a brush or pencil. I found an old brush in my paint box and quickly marked both the length and breadth along the handle.
I was glad when I'd finished. I'd been very conscious of the soft smoothness of the skin my hand had been grasping.
ALL THIS WHILE I'd been keeping half an eye on the bit of road I could see through the trees. Up to now the traffic had been sparse with not a sight of the farmer returning from town. 'Stay here and keep back where you can't be seen. I'm going to keep watch by the road. We'll move on when I think it's safe.'
Sketch book in hand I wandered back to the bridge and occupied myself making rough studies of it from different angles. A pretty mundane subject, so it was fortunate that I only had to fill fifteen minutes or so before the jalopy returned and carried on past me towards the farm. I gave it another five minutes to make sure then called for her to bring Wilful and join me.
The delay had been useful in another way since, while drawing, it had occurred to me to wonder why I should keep to my plan of following the road round the lower edges of the moor. If my memory served me there was an ancient drover's route from here, straight up and across the heath.
A quick check of the map showed that a bridle way started at the near edge of the town and ran in the right direction to connect with a network of paths that went the whole forty miles or so until re-joining the main road a short distance from my cottage on the coast. Useless for cars, but fine for Wilful and me. At my usual leisurely pace, with stops to make the odd sketch, I could reckon on it taking nearly three days; at least. With no convenient farms at which to plead for shelter it would mean having to risk the weather, but today was sunny. I'd just have to hope it stayed that way.
I'd - no, we'd - have to eat; did I have enough for two? A quick check of Wilful's panniers showed I didn't. That meant a delay to pick up some extra supplies.
I explained my idea to Bea as we briskly, or as briskly as a lazy donkey allowed, continued down the road. 'I'll have to go into town and buy a few bits and pieces,' I told her. 'You start along the path and I'll catch you up when I can.'
She frowned. 'I'd sooner come with you.'
I realised that underneath her apparent assurance she was nervous and scared that I might be going to abandon her and carry straight on along the highway.
'No, too risky. Someone just might recognise you. Take Wilful with you. Just keep him moving while I slip into town and I'll follow as soon as I can. The map doesn't show any turnings for several miles so you shouldn't get lost.'
She thought a moment before nodding, seemingly reassured by being trusted with my donkey.
Just then we rounded a bend and came upon the bridle way. Broad and rutted from centuries of hooves it ran straight up into the trees, its surface sprinkled with a layer of last year's leaves. I turned Wilful into it and giving him a warning slap on the rump set him ambling along, then watched for several moments as they moved slowly up the path. At that pace they wouldn't get far. I'd have no trouble catching up.
Walking swiftly, I carried on down the road which curved to the left. First I came to a couple of late Georgian houses hiding behind high brick boundary walls. Then a short terrace of small cottages, a riot of colourful blooms filling their front gardens, followed by a thatched pub - The Carter's Halt - and finally, as the road descended, a raised pavement with several bigger houses converted to small shops. Mostly they catered to trippers, of which there were few about this early in the day, but further along was a grocers, which should contain all our needs.
As I passed the tourist traps, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the windows. With my long locks and straggly beard I looked a tramp. It wasn't surprising the farmer had nearly thrown me off his land, but what was mystifying was how the girl had decided to trust me. A sign of her desperation, or maybe she could see behind the hair. A couple of shops along I came on a barber's and decided that I could afford the time to get a proper shave and haircut.