Knaves over queens, p.44
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.44
 

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  How to Turn a Girl to Stone

  by Emma Newman

  Cornwall, 2003

  Kerry scrabbled over the gate and ducked behind the hedge when she heard the old van chugging up the lane. She was sure it was Mandy being taken to school by her grumpy dad and she didn’t want to be seen, even though she’d imagined it so many times.

  In her fantasy, she’d be walking down the lane just as the van came round the corner, right next to the gate so they could pull over safely and chat to her without blocking the narrow road. Her friend would burst out of the old banger and throw her arms around her. ‘I knew it was you!’ Mandy would say. ‘Where have you been? Everyone’s been asking about you!’

  Fantasy Kerry would laugh and say, ‘Oh, there was a mix-up and the council said I didn’t have a place at the school so I’ve just been teaching myself.’ Sometimes, her fantasy reply was less plausible. ‘They did this test on me and it said I didn’t need to go to school any more, so I’ve just been hanging out at the farm, chillin’ out, y’know.’

  Did they even say ‘chillin’ out’ any more? She had no idea.

  When she was feeling particularly annoyed, as she did this morning, her imaginary conversation would be darker. She would hold out her hands, covered in the pale blue cotton gloves she hated so much, and say to her old best friend, ‘I’m supposed to tell you that I’m allergic to everything now. But the truth is—’

  She jumped at the sound of the van’s horn. Had they seen her? She crouched lower, the dungy smell of a nearby cowpat horribly strong now the morning sun was heating the field up. A fox shot through the bars of the gate next to her and she realized the van had blown its horn to move it out of the road. Mandy’s dad might be grumpy, but he would never run something over if he could avoid it.

  Shaking, Kerry was caught between the relief that she hadn’t been seen and the burning wish that she had been. Those hated blue gloves were in her pocket. She was tempted to push them into the cowpat with a stick, but as with all the other times she’d thought about it, she put them on instead. She was almost at her uncle’s house, and she couldn’t take the risk.

  Kerry stood up once the chugging wheeze of the van’s engine had faded away and watched the fox race to the opposite side of the field. She couldn’t help but remember when Mandy’s mum had taken them both to the cinema in that van, years ago, when they went to see Toy Story 2. She’d loved the trip there almost as much as the popcorn, the van seats high enough to see over the thick Cornish hedges that lined the roads. It had taken nearly an hour to get to the cinema, thanks to the winding roads and the way the ancient van struggled with the hills, but they’d chatted all the way there and all the way back.

  She didn’t want to remember it. It merely made her long for trips like that even more. If only she lived in a town, somewhere with a cinema and shops a walk away – or even a bus ride! There were no buses that served the nearest village and that was over two miles’ walk away. The little shop there, where she used to get her Saturday morning treat, had closed down over a year ago, leaving just a pub and the village hall. It wasn’t worth the risk to go there with nothing to do. Only one of her former classmates actually lived in that village and they had never really liked each other anyway. The rest were scattered over farms and other tiny villages. If only Mandy lived closer! Just one secret friendship would make everything easier to bear.

  She wondered what Mandy looked like now. Was she spotty? It was one of the things she’d been warned about but so far she’d only had a couple of zits on her nose and chin. Did she still have her long brown hair or was that style too childish now? After all, the last time she had seen Mandy they had both worn vests beneath their school uniform, tied their hair back with bobble ties shaped like fruit and wore knee-high socks. Now she was wearing a bra – something she and Mandy had once giggled about – and wouldn’t be seen dead in knee-high socks. Her hair was still just as black, curly and unruly as it ever was. She feared she wouldn’t recognize Mandy now, but she knew her old best friend would know her a mile off.

  Shoving her gloved hands deep in her jeans pockets, Kerry resumed her bad-tempered stomp across the field. She was already on her uncle’s land, and never left it, but she was still out of sight of the farmhouse, nestled as it was in the valley below. Once it had felt as if the whole world was just two valleys and the fields that stretched over the hill between them. When she was younger, before everything changed, her uncle had owned all the fields she could see from her bedroom window. Since then he had sold off half of the land, but the hill was still his.

  The day Uncle Cal came over to tell them about the sale was just as sunny and they had all stood on the patio at the back of the house, the adults with tea, she with apple juice. Uncle Cal hadn’t been himself since he’d arrived. Instead of gathering her up into his arms as he normally did, he’d just patted her on the head and gone to find her parents in the studio, both of them covered in clay and dust up to their elbows.

  ‘Let’s ’ave a cuppa,’ he’d said to them and like her, they’d known something was up.

  He’d been expecting a fight. She knew that now, looking back. But her dad had just nodded at the news and said, ‘You can still walk from our house to yours without leaving Tremaine land?’ When Uncle Cal had nodded, he’d nodded too. ‘Well then. That’s not so bad. We’ve still got the hill.’

  ‘I’ll never sell the ’ill!’ Uncle Cal said. ‘And I put a rider on the sale, sayin’ it has to stay dairy land. Don’t want none of them property developers gettin’ any ideas. I reckon Pentroath’ll buy it. He’s all right.’

  In her family’s eyes, the other local farmers that were ‘all right’ were the ones who helped each other out when the man from the government made them kill all the cows and burn them to stop the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. That had been the first time she’d seen her uncle cry. Mr Pentroath had helped him that day, and rested a hand on his shoulder when he broke down.

  She could still remember the smell, even though it was over two years ago. Even now it made her shudder. That year had seen the last of her primary school education, the slaughter of the animals she knew by name and the end of her freedom. So many people said 2001 had been the worst year for farming since mad cow disease. For her, it was the worst year for a very different reason.

  Cresting the hill, Kerry looked down into the neighbouring valley and saw her uncle’s farmhouse. It was too big for him but he’d never leave it, even though it was draughty and damp and felt cold all year round. It had been in the family for generations, since her great-grandfather built it to replace the old cottage that his grandfather had built there before. The Tremaine family had owned the land she walked on for hundreds of years, but it didn’t have the same magic for her as it seemed to for her uncle and father. Right now, the same fields they had played and worked in felt like an open-air prison.

  The cows were in the next field. She knew all their names too and, even though she worried it would always be there, the fear that they too would be culled had passed. Unlike the herd before, she didn’t head over to say good morning to them but instead moved as far away as she could. A couple headed towards her in the hope of a fuss so she picked up the pace and got through the next gate before they reached her.

  From the last field before the farmhouse she could hear Damson barking. She made sure her gloves were on properly and tucked them into her sleeves so there was no gap exposing her skin. At least it wasn’t too hot yet. She missed wearing T-shirts.

  Damson was waiting for her on the other side of the last gate, the only one with chicken wire secured over it to stop her running through the widely spaced bars. Her mouth was too full of her favourite ball to bark now. She was mainly Border Collie, with enough German Shepherd in the mix to make her a little bigger, with black-and-white fur and the most gentle nature. The sight of her delight made Kerry’s heart ache for Damson’s sister, Plum. She checked the gloves again before reaching into her back pocket for one of
Damson’s favourite biscuits.

  ‘Hello! Yes, I’m glad to see you too! But you know the rule. Sit. Calm down, now. I’ll be through, dreckly, you just sit first. Then you get your treat.’

  Damson sat and dropped the ball in front of her, long lines of drool stretching between it and her mouth as she spotted Kerry’s closed fist.

  ‘Now, you stay, Damson. Stay, there’s a good girl.’ Kerry dropped the treat over the top of the gate and then opened it as Damson gobbled the biscuit up. Once she was through to the other side and the gate was locked behind her, Damson was on her feet, nudging the ball with her nose, tail wagging. With a grin, Kerry picked it up and threw it as far down the yard as she could. Damson sped off, leaving a plume of dust, barking happily.

  Kerry threw the ball three more times, grateful that Damson had learned to drop it at her feet and then back off after each retrieval. When it looked as if she was getting too excited to remember, Kerry reminded her to stay and placed a treat in front of her as a reward. She resisted the urge to fuss her, despite the gloves. It wasn’t worth the risk. So she threw the ball one last time and hurried to the front door as Damson sped off again.

  It was unlocked, as usual. ‘Helloooo!’ she called. ‘Only me, Uncle Cal!’

  She ate some scraps of crispy bacon left in the frying pan before rinsing it in the sink. Closing the heavy lid of the AGA oven, Kerry wondered where her uncle was and why he’d left the kitchen in such a mess. He was usually far tidier than this.

  ‘Hello?’ She peeped into the living room that was barely used and wrinkled her nose at the dust. It used to be her gran’s favourite room and Uncle Cal kept it just as she’d liked it. She wouldn’t have approved of this neglect.

  ‘Uncle Cal?’

  She had gone down the hallway to the bottom of the stairs, wondering if he was in the bathroom, when she heard his voice coming from the office. It used to be the dining room until her grandparents died and her uncle took over the farm. He said he was tired of carting boxes of receipts and paperwork up and down the stairs but they all knew how much he hated it when it was his turn to do Sunday lunch. At least her dad loved cooking, when he remembered to do it, and Mum didn’t resent doing a roast every now and again.

  Kerry paused, listening long enough to realize he was on the phone. He didn’t sound happy. She heard something about being unreasonable and not having enough time before she hurried back to the kitchen. As much as she wanted to know what was going on, she knew better than to listen in. She’d only blush if something was said and then he’d know she’d eaves-dropped.

  Unable to go back home, Kerry put on the rubber gloves over her cotton ones and started washing up. It was clear that Uncle Cal was struggling to keep on top of things, even though it was well into June and all the calves had been born.

  Just as she was starting to dry the dishes, the post was delivered. Wanting to be helpful, she gathered the letters from the mat to leave on the kitchen table ready for when he finished his call. She couldn’t help but see the red words stamped on several of the envelopes.

  FINAL DEMAND

  Demand for what? Money? She flipped them over, seeing return addresses that were in London. She left them on the table and went back to the sink.

  ‘Kerry? What are you doing here?’

  She jumped at the sound of her uncle’s voice. ‘Mum said I had to come.’

  ‘But I’ve got someone coming over. She knew …’ he sighed. ‘She must have forgotten.’

  He looked tired. And he was wearing a tie and a plain white shirt with smart trousers, instead of a tatty T-shirt and jeans. ‘You goin’ somewhere after?’ she asked.

  He shook his head. ‘They’re comin’ ’ere. I just said.’

  The sharpness of his tone made her polish the plate she was holding harder. Uncle Cal was never snappish like this. If her mother hadn’t told her she wasn’t allowed home until lunchtime, she would have left then and there.

  ‘I’m sorry, my ’andsome,’ he said, crossing the kitchen to come and hug her before remembering himself and stopping a few feet away. ‘I got things on my mind, s’all. But it might be best if you come back over later. I’ll let you drive the biggun’ if you like.’

  She loved driving the tractor, but she could see it was a bribe. ‘I can’t go home. Dad’s agent is there.’

  His frown returned, deepening. ‘T’int right,’ he muttered, grabbing the kettle and filling it at the sink. ‘Girl your age should be at school. Should be meetin’ new people. When I were your age …’ He flicked the kettle’s switch, scowling at it.

  ‘I don’t need school, not when I’m inheritin’ the farm. I don’t need no exams to prove I know how to take care of it all. There ent no GCSE in muckin’ out and silage, is there?’ Kerry said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

  It didn’t seem to work. If anything, it made her uncle’s dark look even worse. ‘There ent no future in farmin’, Kerenza. No future at all.’

  Steam plumed from the spout and the kettle clicked itself off. She watched her uncle making a cup of tea, feeling a tightening in her stomach. Her eyes flicked from the red-lettered envelopes to his poorly knotted tie and the dark patches of damp cotton at the armpits of his shirt. Who would he wear a suit for? Suits were for weddings and funerals and bank managers, he always said. But bank managers didn’t visit farms. Did they?

  ‘Are you in trouble, Uncle Cal?’

  He stirred in the milk, keeping the spoon circling far longer than he needed to. ‘Didn’t that doctor do anything? I thought he was supposed to be the best in the country.’

  The change in topic threw her. Doctor? Then she remembered the latest lie, one said in haste over Sunday lunch a few weeks before, when her uncle had started giving her parents a hard time about her ‘allergies’. She’d hated her mother so much as she made up another pile of crap to throw Uncle Cal off the scent. Surely it was better to tell him the truth? When she said as much to her mother that evening, she’d been furious.

  ‘You call me a liar when all I’m doing is protecting you?’ Her voice sounded as harsh as a shovel scraping the concrete floor of the cowshed when mucking out. ‘How can you think any good would come of people knowing what you are? You’ve seen them on the news—’

  ‘I’ve seen them savin’ people! There was that thing on the telly about when Captain Flint caught those people who blew up that ship and—’

  ‘Don’t you be goin’ on about that Captain Flint, he b’aint no natural thing! You want to end up like him? Being ordered about by the Queen and havin’ no life of his own? That want you want, is it?’

  ‘Mel …’ her dad had said to her, gently, but when her mother got started, it took more than a gentle man to stop her.

  ‘I don’t want to keep lyin’!’ Kerry had shouted back. ‘And Uncle Cal wouldn’t tell no one! Not if we asked him not to!’

  ‘You think he’ll just nod and smile and nothin’ will change? Do you think he’ll still love you when he knows what you are?’

  Then the tears had come, hot and overwhelming, and she’d run from the room. Not even her dad’s efforts to comfort her with his gentle voice had worked that night.

  She looked at her uncle who was staring at her over the rim of his mug. Surely he would still love her if he knew the truth? He loved her even though he thought she was some freak allergic to the most unlikely things. But she couldn’t find the courage to tell him, not after all this time. That would hurt him, finding out his own family hadn’t trusted him, and she couldn’t bear the thought of that.

  ‘Oh, he said we were doin’ all the right things and … and that it’ll probably just get better when I’m older. Like asthma, y’know.’

  ‘He did, did he? What was his name again?’

  She shrugged. ‘I can’t remember.’

  He glanced at the clock above her head. ‘You can go and watch the telly upstairs if you like, but …’ He paused, reconsidering. ‘No, I’m sorry, Kerry, you need to go back ’ome. I can’t … it w
ouldn’t be a good idea for you to be here when she arrives.’

  ‘Who?’

  ‘Just someone from … the bank. Nothin’ for you to worry about, but I’d never forgive myself if it made you ill. There’s some fruit in the bowl, and the flask is under the sink. Make yourself a picnic if you like and go over to the north field, it’s empty at the moment. Come back after lunch and I’ll show you how to strip the Rover’s engine. I’ve been puttin’ it off. Gotta make sure you learn somethin’ useful, eh?’

  She put an apple and a banana in a bag, mainly to keep him happy, and left as he shoved the post into a drawer and muttered a goodbye. Maybe if she walked back over the hill slowly the agent would be gone by the time she got home.

  ‘Oh! I forgot!’ her uncle said, searching a pile of newspapers and then pulling one out. He rolled it up and handed it to her. ‘Take this with you. Look on page twenty-five. I’ll see you later, right?’

  In the north field there was a tree her great-grandmother had planted on her wedding day. The story handed down to each generation was that she had buried a pasty below its roots, so the piskies would be appeased, and poured beer over the newly planted sapling to keep the buccas happy, so the wedding night wouldn’t be disturbed.

  Of course, no one really believed in buccas or piskies any more, but she could remember her grandfather always telling her to break off a chunk of pasty crust and throw it into the hedge for the little magical creatures to eat. And even now, every time they had boiled eggs for breakfast they all turned the empty shells upside down afterwards and broke them at the bottom, so they couldn’t be used by local witches to sail out to sea and sink the fishing boats. Even though she knew it was ridiculous, she still did it. Habits died hard.

  Now the tree her great-grandmother had planted was a stout oak with a thick trunk perfect for sitting against and a generous shaded area that all manner of wildlife made use of in the hottest summers. There were little clumps of hair trapped in the gnarls of the bark where the cows had rubbed against it the day before.

 
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