‘Satan's Daughter’ is the latest collection of short and tall stories from Geoff Sadler. Often outrageous, sometimes sombre, they take us on a thought-provoking journey from war-torn London and the glamour of Italian high-life to the depths of rural France.
Enjoy 'Satan's Daughter', the title story in reproduced below. Read the complete book featuring 29 more stories in full on Kindle.
MARK RIPLEY EASED HIS FOOT off the accelerator and adjusted the sunvisor. Despite his dark glasses the glare was blinding. To his left the Mediterranean blazed a sheet of beaten silver, meeting a sky of the same intensity.
Although it was high summer there was little traffic on this narrow coastal road. Most heavy goods vehicles and tourists bound for the southern Costas would have taken the autopista further inland. And any sensible Spaniard was still at lunch, or holed up until life began with a vengeance at four-thirty or five o’clock.
‘Damn!’ Mark screwed up his eyes as the sunvisor dropped down yet again. The man at the airport kiosk had not been helpful. ‘Señor,’ he’d shrugged. ‘Is only car left. You want, you paying thirty-five euros gasolina.’
Mark had paid up after a mild protest although he had been assured a full tank was included in the rental.
He braked hard. A hundred metres ahead an enormous petrol tanker was backing out from a crowded forecourt. The driver was taking his time and Mark waited patiently until he had sped on his way. It was fearsomely hot and the air-conditioning was far from efficient.
Mark mopped his forehead and edged forward. Further along the road a café terrace beckoned, green umbrellas. Little aluminium tables and chairs conjured up the notion of a cold beer.
The café was packed and every possible parking place already taken. But ahead, beyond a small branch office of the Banco de Santander, was the narrow entrance of a gravelled carpark. It was shaded by tall, graceful palms and Mark slid gratefully under a massive flowering tree at the far end.
He looked about him as he walked back to the entrance. The place was almost deserted, but a sign proclaimed it to be a garden centre. He paused; the beer still appealed, but as the owner of a small garden centre in England he was curious to see what exotica was on offer in this fortunate area of Spain. He pushed his way between a small yellow Citroën with two wheels drawn up casually on the pavement and stacks of huge terracotta pots.
The interior of the shop was dark. He nodded to the girl sitting half-asleep behind the counter and walked through a double door into spacious arcades of magenta, red and orange bougainvillaea, oleanders and other flowering shrubs. It was a different world, very humid, and shaded overhead from the direct rays of the sun by layers of damp, green netting. Mark approved; these people knew what they were about.
After a stroll down the main avenue, largely devoted to pots of flowering geraniums, petunias and hanging baskets, he turned off into a side walkway. A large cage held brightly coloured parrots and a collection of exciting-looking cacti. The sound of water made him pause.
Beyond the cage a small pond displayed water lilies and other aquatics. Water cascaded down tall rocks from an unknown source. Another cage contained stone toadstools and several slow-moving, giant tortoises. Mark blinked. He could learn from these people.
He rounded a corner and was greeted by banks of orange and lemon trees, many of them fully grown and planted in giant, black plastic containers. Mark shook his head ruefully. It would be wonderful to offer such amazing plants in his own garden centre, but Horsham was hardly the place for them to flourish. He would keep to his bedding plants, small ceramic holders and the local farm produce he understood so well. Perhaps if Nikki hadn’t walked out on him he would have had more initiative. She’d studied horticulture, had even worked at Kew Gardens before they’d married, and possessed much more know-how than himself. He sighed. Thirty-six already and what had he achieved?
He caught his breath. At the far end of the aisle was a blaze of vivid yellow. He walked closer and saw it was a single tree, planted, unlike most of its fellows, directly into the soil. It was amazingly huge, soaring up and up through a great hole in the green netting. Mark gazed in wonder. What the devil was it? It had to be quite old, but it was impossible to gauge just how old from its trunk. Although thick, this seemed formed of several smaller trunks, entwining and twisting intricately together like a gigantic, nightmarish corkscrew.
He examined the tree’s large leaves in disbelief. Pointed, thickly veined and broad, they were clearly evergreen. Perhaps the tree was a tropical rain forest variety. Mark frowned and searched his mental data base; he’d thought himself knowledgeable on the subject of trees, but this species was completely new to him.
He looked closely at the wide-open blossoms. They were huge; at least twenty centimetres across, curiously rose-like, and a clear, sharp yellow. Almost metallic in their sheen. He could detect no scent whatsoever.
Mark looked to see if the tree carried a nameplate. Surely it would at least be priced?
It wasn’t, but at the foot of the strangely contorted trunk a small wooden stake had the word ‘PELIGROSO’ inscribed upon it in faded letters. Mark shrugged; it meant nothing to him.
Among the blossoms and scattered on the ground beneath the tree were some large, oddly-shaped seedpods. Mark stooped and picked one up; it felt strangely heavy for its size and as hard as stone. At one end of the peanut-shaped pod were two little horn-like shoots.
He glanced around. Caught in the supports of a nearby row of bignonias, was a tattered supermarket bag. Mark retrieved it and slipped half a dozen of the seedpods inside. Perhaps he could propagate this marvellous tree when he returned home. Or at least ask Kew to identify it for him.
‘Snitchin’ a few seeds, are we, then?’ said a woman’s voice almost in his ear, and Mark jumped guiltily.
Regarding him quizzically with her head on one side was a tall, attractive woman of perhaps his own age. At a time and place when most women sported skimpy tops and shorts she wore a formal black skirt and a spotless white blouse. She clutched a small plastic pot of basil.
Mark laughed. ‘Fair cop, ma’am,’ he said. ‘I’ll come quietly!’
The woman smiled. Her teeth were very white. ‘That’s a pretty impressive lump of tree, ain’t it?’ she said. ‘Are ya goin’ to grow ‘em in ya back section?’
Mark shook his head. ‘Hardly,’ he assured her. ‘But I run a garden centre in England and I wouldn’t mind importing a few if they could withstand the climate.’
‘Yeah?’ The woman stooped and picked up a few of the seedpods. ‘I might just have a wee go myself,’ she said, slipping them into her shoulderbag. ‘D’ya know its name?’
Mark pointed to the small wooden stake. ‘Not unless that’s it.’
The woman squinted at the notice. She should wear spectacles, Mark thought as she straightened up and frowned. ‘That ain’t its name, mate. Peligroso means “dangerous” in Spanish.’
Mark looked at her blankly, then back to the magnificent tree. ‘Dangerous?’
The lady pushed back her dark hair. ‘Don’t ask me,‘ she said. ‘All I know is it ain’t ya usual gooseberry bush.’
She looked around vaguely, her eyes very bright. ‘We could ask, I guess’
A few aisles away an elderly workman was dousing a row of vines from a hose. He was stooped over almost double and splashing the water around lavishly. Far too lavishly in Mark’s opinion. ‘He probably doesn’t speak English,’ he pointed out doubtfully.
But his new acquaintance was already striding purposefully forward. ‘Uh-huh?’ she said over her shoulder. ‘You never know till yer ask, mate.’
Mark grinned and followed her somewhat sheepishly. This lady certainly knew her own mind. He had thought her Spanish at first, but her accent seemed Australian.
The Spanish workman straightened up as the woman poured forth a torrent of fluent Spanish. He shook his head and pointed a shaking hand at the flowering tree. Then he muttered a few reluctant words in reply and turned abruptly back to his watering.
The woman took Mark’s arm and almost marched him away. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘He’s a strange sort’a guy!’
Mark raised his eyebrows. ‘Strange? How come?’
The woman stopped and looked back at the workman placidly wielding his hose. ‘The guy’s terrified,’ she said slowly. ‘He wouldn’t talk about the tree at all. Calls it “Satan’s daughter”.’
Mark was amused; he was enjoying this unexpected encounter. ’Good Lord!’ he said lightly. ‘ “Satan’s daughter,” eh!‘
‘He won’t go near the darn thing.’
Mark laughed. ‘We’ll ask about it in the shop.’
‘Yeah.’ Mark’s new friend sounded dubious. ‘But why the heck would they say a tree was dangerous?’
They wandered on without speaking for a while, then entered a section devoted to fruit trees. The woman stiffened. ‘Aw!’ she said suddenly. ‘Would’ya look at that?’
To their right, supported on thin bamboo canes, was a double row of healthy-looking vines. Mark didn’t recognise them.
‘What’s the problem?’ he asked.
‘They’re kiwis,’ the woman said crossly. ‘Like me. We’re the only guys supposed to grow kiwis.’
‘Ah!’ Mark smiled broadly. So this intriguing lady was from New Zealand.
‘I expect they only grow them as decorative vines,’ he said soothingly.
‘Yeah? They are pretty tricky to cultivate. You need a male an’ a female variety if ya want ‘em to fruit.’
Mark nodded. The day was getting interesting. He glanced at his companion, she was certainly remarkably attractive and Mark’s life had been devoid of feminine company long enough. ‘How about a long, cold drink?’ he suggested. ‘There’s a café almost next door.’
The lady glanced at her wristwatch and nodded. ‘Sounds good,’ she agreed. ‘I’ll go pay for my basil plant an’ ask the girl about that stupid tree. They can’t all be ravin’ bonkers around here.’
MARK BLINKED AS HE EMERGED into the brilliant sunlight and stood by the kerb thinking. There was more local traffic about now.
He stared into space. There’s no particular hurry, he told himself. He was on his way to stay with an old schoolfriend at his villa near Malaga, but had intended to spend a few days exploring before arriving there. An extra day or so would make little difference. This pleasant lady from down-under was very easy to talk to. Easy on the eye, too. Who knows? Perhaps if he hung around for a while–
It was still stifling hot. He smiled as his new friend appeared carrying a plastic bag.
She gave him a grin in return. ‘The girl’s new here,’ she told him. ‘All she knows is the tree comes from Vietnam.’
She strode up to the little yellow Citroën. ‘The basil’s for my gran.’ she explained. ‘She swears it keeps the mosquitoes at bay. I’m stayin’ with her an’ grandad for a few days.’
She wedged the pot of basil in a corner of the passenger seat. ‘Don’t ask me, mate. Somewhere near Benidorm, I think.’
Mark tossed his own plastic bag of seedpods onto the seat. ‘Mind if I leave this here?’ he asked. ‘My car’s at the far end of the carpark.’
They walked companionably past the Banco de Santander to the café. ‘I’m Mark, by the way,’ he told her. ‘Mark Ripley.’
He grinned. ‘When we first met I thought you might work in this bank.’
She seemed puzzled for a moment, then smiled. It was rather a ravishing smile, Mark decided.
‘Yeah?’ she said. ‘It’s the gear! This is for gran. She gets real stroppy if you turn up scruff.’
She stopped and extended an elegantly, slim hand. ‘Kitty Kendall.’ she said. ‘Now we’re legal, mate–’
THE CAFÉ WAS STILL CROWDED, with every table on the terrace occupied. A shaven-headed youth in jeans and a string vest leered at Kitty and she sniffed derisively. ‘Mind you, mate,’ she told Mark loudly. ‘I don’t like Spaniards thinkin’ we’re all a load’a creeps.’
They made their way into the café and clambered onto vacant stools at the counter. The babble of conversation was horrendous and the television over the bar was blaring out pasa dobles at a bullfight. They breathed sighs of relief; the air-conditioning was welcome after the humidity of the garden centre. They ordered beers and tapas of tortilla.
‘Are you staying in Spain for long?’ Mark asked.
Kitty laughed. ‘Nah! I live in Tunbridge Wells,’ she explained. ‘I have to get back. I’m a schoolteacher.’
‘Ah!’ Mark caught her eye in the mirror behind the bar. She was smiling again. ‘Teaching Spanish, no doubt,’ he said. ‘Have you worked in England long?’
Kitty bit her lip. ‘Since mom an’ dad were killed in a car crash. That was nearly ten years ago.’
She shrugged. ‘There was no-one left I cared for in Queenstown, so I came over to live with my grandparents.’
‘Who promptly moved out to Spain.’
‘Somethin’ like that, mate.’
There was silence for a while then Mark took a large swig of his beer. ‘Is a boyfriend hovering in the wings?’ he asked bravely.
Kitty Kendall spun round to face him and he was unable to fathom her expression. Then she turned away abruptly. ‘Not at the moment there ain’t.’
Mark smiled at her. ‘I’m on my way to Malaga, but I can’t say I’m in a desperate hurry. Could we have dinner this evening?’
Kitty shook her head and the harsh fluorescent lighting struck sparks from her glossy hair. ‘Not tonight, Mark,’ she told him gently. ‘Gran will be gettin’ a meal ready for me an’ then she’ll wanna talk ‘bout old times.’
She finished the last morsel of her tortilla. ‘Hows about tomorrow?’
Mark beamed delightedly. ‘Wonderful!’ he exclaimed. ‘That gives me a day to explore the joys of Valencia before belting south.’
Kitty scribbled down her grandparent’s address and her mobile phone number. She paused with her pen still poised. ‘You’re married, ain’t ya?’
Mark winced. ‘Not at the moment I’m not,’ he replied, and they both laughed.
A white-haired man limped his slow way into the café and took a seat on the vacant stool next to Mark. He looked English but ordered some lunch in rapid Spanish.
‘Mark,’ Kitty asked. ‘How do you manage to get away from your garden centre business?’
Mark shrugged. ‘It’s never easy. But I’m jolly lucky. I have a wonderful manager. Allen Bates knows what’s what better than I do myself.’
Kitty nodded. ‘That’s great. D’ya think you’ll really import some of those fantastic Vietnamese trees?’
Mark considered. ‘I might give them a whirl. It all depends on the price.’
‘If you’re referring to that flamboyant monster down the road,’ the man next to him butted in. ‘I should forget it.’
Mark was annoyed. He turned to the newcomer. The man was unshaven and looked as though he had known better days. ‘Do you usually listen in to other people’s conversations?’ he demanded coldly.
The man laughed harshly. ‘I’m afraid I do,’ he said. ‘I’m a journalist. I pick up all sorts of stories that way.’
He gave a wolfish grin. His teeth were yellow and uneven. ‘Not that there’s much work about for Paul Leighton at the moment. Regard me as semi-retired.’
Kitty leaned across. ‘Perhaps you know what that tree’s called–’
The barman slammed a bottle of red wine and an earthenware dish of stew before the journalist and he paused for a moment. Eventually he answered.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Most people call it “Satan’s daughter”.’
Kitty made a face. ‘What is all this “Satan’s daughter” rubbish?’
Paul Leighton shrugged. ’You’ll find this difficult to believe, but the tree’s actually a mutation of the Melaleucas cajuputi.’
Mark frowned; the name meant nothing to him.
‘Before the Americans sprayed Vietnam with herbicides there were dense forests of Melaleuca cajuputi in the Mekong Delta, and across the Ca Mau Peninsular.’
Mark nodded. ‘Wasn’t that awful herbicide called “Agent Orange?”’
‘That’s the stuff. It’s said the Yanks poured nineteen million gallons over South Vietnam during the war. The soils there are highly acid, of course, and the combination was disastrous. After defoliation there was a great deal less forest until, years’ later, this mutated variety began springing up all over the place.’
Paul took a large swig of his wine and dunked some bread in his stew. ‘I was commissioned by Newsweek to produce a feature about it. Travelled all over the area. They didn’t publish it, of course. Too damned sensitive.’
Paul Leighton sniffed. ‘I even obtained an interview with Professor Withers. Max Withers, the famous physicist. But they still didn’t believe me. Max’s theory was that one of the constituents of the defoliant had somehow created an imbalance of the nuclear components.’
There was a sudden burst of cheering and shouts of olé from the television and most of the customers rushed to crowd around the bar.
Mark frowned. ‘I don’t get it,’ he told the journalist. ‘Why should all this make the trees dangerous?’
Paul thumped the counter irritably. ‘I’m telling you, aren’t I? The trees themselves aren’t dangerous in the least. In fact, there’s quite an important industry grown up dependant upon them. Papermaking, woodchip production, cajeput oil–’
Kitty sighed extravagantly and laid a hand on Mark’s arm. Clearly she had little time for Paul Leighton’s yarns. ‘I gotta push on, Mark,’ she said, glancing once more at her watch. ‘The old folks eat real early these days an’ I mustn’t be late.’
She jumped up and gave him a cheery grin. ‘See ya tomorrow, mate.’
Mark turned reluctantly back to the journalist. ‘So?’ he demanded. ‘If these blasted trees aren’t a threat to anyone what’s the problem?’
Paul speared a chunk of something unknown and regarded it with distrust. ‘The molecular structure of the trees seems stable enough,’ he said at last. ‘It’s the seedpods. They’re hard, oddly shaped husks with two little horns sticking out of one end. That’s why people call the tree “Satan’s daughter”.’
Mark stared at him and Paul shrugged again. ‘Their atomic mass is critically unstable. Four or five together can remain benign without undergoing much change of atomic structure. But add three or four more pods and some form of nuclear fission can take place, They’re liable to disintegrate. Taking everything within a few metres with them.’
‘Whole villages have been known to disappear overnight. Vapourised into thin air–’
Mark leapt to his feet and dashed out of the café. The little yellow Citroën was just pulling away, two wheels still up on the kerb.
‘Kitty!’ Mark yelled at the top of his voice. But a blast of hot wind hit him, nearly bowling him off his feet, and the little Citroën vanished. Where it had been a mushroom of blue haze hovered for a long moment and then dispersed.
‘Satan’s Daughter’ is reproduced from a collection
of short and tall stories by Geoff Sadler.
Available now on Kindle from Amazon.