Knaves over queens, p.46
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.46

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

  She could hear her father working in the studio, chipping away as some awful music from the seventies blared from his ancient stereo. Mum had obviously left; she would never let him have the music on that loud if she was working in there too. Drifting to the window, she could see the car was gone. London was at least six hours away, and that was on a good run. She wouldn’t be back until late.

  She made herself some toast and put extra jam on it, then hit upon the idea of scouring the news for any sign of Pygmalion. But she’d missed the breakfast shows and, with neither satellite TV nor a computer, there was nowhere else to look until the lunchtime news.

  ‘Did you see the note?’ her dad asked from the doorway. When she nodded, he came over and took the TV remote, switching it off. ‘Seeing as you’re free today, can you help with the shed? It needs to be painted and the weather’s perfect.’

  She couldn’t think of a good enough excuse to get out of it. The day passed with a steady string of jobs in both the garden and the house. She missed the lunchtime news and the evening news too. Her father was full of energy, directing her in the midst of his own work. It wasn’t until the evening, when they were watching the X Factor episode he’d taped for her the night before, that it occurred to her that he had been keeping her busy.

  ‘Do you know when Mum will be home?’

  ‘Late, pickle. Very late.’

  ‘Have you spoken to her?’

  He shook his head. ‘I got a text saying she was setting off soon. You’ll be in bed when she gets back.’

  ‘Can’t I stay up?’

  ‘You might as well go to bed. If you’re still awake when she gets back, you’ll see her then.’

  He didn’t look away from the screen as he spoke. He was just as tense as she was. ‘Have you seen that Pygmalion on the news?’

  ‘You know I don’t watch the news. Half of it’s lies and the rest is propaganda.’

  ‘But—’

  ‘Everything we need to know about living our lives can be found right outside our door. Worryin’ about what them politicians in London are doin’ is bad for you.’

  ‘But Pygmalion isn’t a—’

  ‘People worry too much about what other people are doin’.’ He closed his eyes and sighed, then looked at her for the first time. ‘I know you’m worried, my ’andsome, but there’s nothing on the news that’ll help with that. We just have to wait for your mother and see what’s to do. A’right?’

  Kerry sat back, cuddling a cushion, wishing they had a computer so she could find out about the ace online. She had so many questions that needed answers. Was she really an ace? She didn’t look different but she could do something … unnatural. But what she did was horrible. Did that make her a knave? No, they looked different, didn’t they?

  She watched the singers on the TV, filled with a sudden loathing for the vacuous spectacle she and her dad used to love. It seemed stupid now. Empty. She closed her eyes and curled up as he commented on the latest performance. No matter what the news from her mother was, she’d go to Uncle Cal’s tomorrow and ask to use the computer. She had to learn more about aces. And knaves. Just in case.

  The sound of the front door closing woke her. She had fallen asleep on the sofa, and judging from her father’s quiet groan he had done the same. They both scrabbled to their feet, Kerry delayed by the blanket that her father must have draped over her.

  Just as she was reaching the hallway there was another sound – squeak of a meow – and she stopped, her body rigid as she listened for it again.

  ‘It worked!’ she heard her mother say. ‘Look! He changed him back!’

  For a moment, all Kerry could do was cover her face with her hands as the relief flooded through her. She hadn’t realized how much she had needed this, until now. Then she dashed to the door to see her father pulling the little kitten out of the pet carrier, its white-booted legs splayed out in surprise.

  ‘Look, Kez!’ Dad said, holding him out towards her. ‘He’s right as rain!’

  Kerry laughed and cried all at the same time. ‘What was Pygmalion like, Mum?’

  ‘Plump little fellow in a waistcoat. Nice enough, I s’pose. He was very understandin’. He said we were doin’ the right thing, given how young you are.’

  ‘Is he coming to visit?’

  ‘No! He’s got a job. Busy one at that. There are all sorts of dodgy wronguns that he and that Flint bloke have to catch, y’know. But he wishes you well and said that if an accident ’appens again, he’ll ’elp us out.’

  Kerry looked to her father to share her joy, but there was a frown which he quickly tried to hide. ‘Good, good,’ he said. ‘I think we’ll keep this little one in our bedroom tonight with the door closed.’

  ‘What about Plum?’ Kerry asked. ‘Did you talk about getting Plum back?’

  ‘Well, we know it’s possible now,’ Mum said and yawned. ‘But not right away because of the money, like I said. It’s past three. We should all get to bed and talk in the mornin’.’

  Kerry looked at the kitten curling up in her father’s palm and wished she could take him to her room. Even though there was the real chance of getting Plum back, there was something about the way her parents looked at each other before climbing the stairs that made her nervous. Something was being left unsaid, and she was certain it was because they didn’t want her to hear it.

  Her mother’s voice, high and strained, woke Kerry with a jolt. It was muffled by the bedroom wall, but still loud enough to penetrate. They were arguing again. It was mid-morning and she’d slept far later than usual. She worried about the kitten and whether the raised voices would be frightening him. What were they fighting about now? Surely the news about Pygmalion was a good thing?

  She lay still for a moment, frustrated by how she couldn’t make out the actual words, before getting out of bed and creeping out of her room. The door was thinner than the wall and she wanted to hear this one. Unlike all the other arguments that had filled the house over the past two years, something had actually changed. There was no cure for what she was – as far as they knew – but there was a safety net now. Had Pygmalion said something that caused this one?

  ‘But it’s not right!’ her father was saying. ‘How are we going to explain it to her? Bad enough that we’ve asked her to change all those animals. Asking her to do this is … it’s going too far!’

  ‘What choice do we ’ave?’ was her mother’s reply. ‘We didn’t ask for any of this! At least we made some good come out of it! I know it’s … I don’t want to do it either, but think of the money! God knows we need it!’

  ‘So that’s supposed to make it all okay then, is it?’

  ‘We’re talking about the farm! About Cal! If we don’t help him it’ll kill him, Crispin! You know that!’

  Kerry opened the door. ‘What’s goin’ on with Uncle Cal?’

  Her dad was only wearing his pyjama bottoms, Mum was in her nightdress. At the sight of her they both froze. ‘Nothin’ that—’ Dad started to say, when Mum shook her head at him.

  ‘She should know.’

  ‘Know what?’

  Her mother came closer as Dad scooped the kitten off the bed and held it, in case it was tempted to go over to her. ‘The farm’s in trouble. Uncle Cal just can’t make enough money any more. It looks like he has to sell it.’

  ‘But he sells more milk than ever!’

  ‘Times are changin’, my ’andsome. Farmin’ just int what it was. We’ve been tryin’ to help but …’

  ‘It’s not enough,’ Dad said. ‘He hid how bad it was from us. He thought he could sort it out but he can’t and now he needs a lot of money very quickly, else we’ll all be thrown out.’

  ‘But can’t he just come and live here?’

  ‘This land is part of the farm,’ Mum said softly. ‘That was the agreement. We gave up a big share of the farm after your grandparents died and in return Cal helped us to build this house. This was back when things were good. Before the foot and mouth and losing
the herd. He had to sink so much money back in just to keep the farm goin’ and it wasn’t enough.’

  Kerry wouldn’t have believed a word of it if she hadn’t seen those envelopes with the red writing on them, and the way Uncle Cal had been acting. Then she remembered what she’d heard through the door. ‘What were you arguing about?’

  Her parents merely looked at each other.

  Kerry swallowed the lump in her throat away. ‘Do you need me to make more sculptures? Is that it? To save the farm?’

  ‘Let’s go downstairs and have a nice cup of—’

  ‘No, Mum, tell me now. Is that what I need to do? Were you scared of asking me because you think I’ll want to send them to Pygmalion instead of that Mr Wetherby?’

  Another silent look exchanged between her parents sent her temper soaring. ‘Just tell me! I can’t stand it when you’re like this!’

  ‘The animal sculptures make a lot of money, but not nearly enough for the farm. But, Pygmalion said … he knows that there are people who …’ her mother looked up at the ceiling, ‘… who want to know what it’s like to be a statue and then be changed back. It’s … a weirdo thing. And … he said they ask him about it all the time and when he heard there was someone who—’

  Kerry clamped a hand over her mouth, appalled. ‘You want me to turn a person to stone?’ she whispered through her fingers. ‘An actual person?’

  ‘No,’ said Dad, at exactly the same moment as her mother said ‘Yes.’ They looked at each other, something expressed without words between them, before her father walked away to the window and her mother took another step closer. ‘Yes, darlin’, that’s what we need. Pygmalion knows some very, very rich people. Strange people who … who get excited about this sort of thing. He said if you change them into stone, he’ll change them back. And we’ll get a lot of money for it. Enough to keep the bank off Uncle Cal’s back for a while, at least until he gets back on his feet.’

  Kerry looked from her mother’s desperate eyes to the kitten that had clawed its way onto her father’s shoulder to survey the room. He was still turned away from her. ‘But … that’s just horrible. Why would anyone want that?’

  ‘There’s some weird people in the world, love,’ her mother said.

  ‘But what if it killed them?’

  ‘It won’t. Look at the kitten. He’s fine.’

  ‘I’m going to put the kettle on,’ Dad said and she stepped aside as he went out, his face as white as the fur on the kitten’s feet.

  ‘But … people are different.’

  ‘Pygmalion said it will work and he must know better than any of us, mustn’t he? But we have to be very, very careful and keep it a secret. No one must ever know. A’right?’

  ‘But how could he know? He can’t have done it before.’

  ‘He was very certain,’ Mum snapped. Then she held her hands up. ‘Sorry, love, sorry. I’m just so tired and I’m so worried about Uncle Cal and the farm and us, too. Where will we live if we can’t save it? How will we be able to keep you safe if we don’t have anywhere to live?’

  It was hard to think when her mum looked at her that way and when all of her worries sloshed about inside. It felt wrong, totally wrong, but her mother wouldn’t lie to her about something like this. It was too big and important. And she had to do something to help Uncle Cal. ‘Will it save the farm if I do it?’

  Her mother’s eyes were welling with tears. ‘Yes, darlin’, yes, it will. You’ll save the farm … all of us. Maybe even Plum, if we—’

  ‘And Pygmalion will change them back?’

  She nodded.

  ‘Promise?’

  ‘I promise, darlin’, I promise he will.’

  Kerry looked down at her toes, at the pyjama bottoms that were too short now. It still felt wrong, but she couldn’t think of a way to say no that wouldn’t sound selfish. If those people wanted it, if Pygmalion thought it was safe, if it meant saving the farm, then what else could she say to all that? ‘A’right. I’ll do it.’

  Kerry looked down from her bedroom window onto the roof of the art studio annexe below. The light shining through its doors spilled onto the garden and every now and again there was a shadow as her father moved around.

  Her mother was down there too and Kerry was glad. She didn’t want to be with either of them. They should have told her it would be today. They should have given her a chance to be ready. Mum said it was to stop her from getting nervous, which was fair enough, but it still annoyed her. She hated surprises and this was the worst sort.

  She tried to imagine what kind of a person would pay someone to turn them into a statue and then back again. It made no sense to her. It would be the same as going to a hospital and asking the doctors to stop her heart and then start it again. How could there be any fun in dying?

  There was one question that she just couldn’t shake off; if the person died when they were turned to stone and Pygmalion brought them back to life, would their soul somehow come back to their body? It wasn’t the sort of thing the experiment with the kitten could answer. She hadn’t known his personality beforehand and he’d been taken back to the pet shop so she didn’t know if there were any long-term effects. Did kittens have souls? Did people?

  Uncle Cal said she wasn’t allowed on his computer but didn’t say why. He was grumpy and withdrawn and had sent her away early every day, even when there was still work to be done. She wanted to tell him they had a plan, that it would be okay, but she’d promised to keep it all a secret.

  Kerry rested her forehead against the cool glass of her window, unable to look away from the studio roof. All of these questions and yet there was already someone down there, ready to take the risk. How could they not be asking the same ones?

  Her mother came in without knocking. ‘Are you ready?’

  ‘Is the … are they really down there, right now?’

  ‘She is.’

  ‘What’s her name?’

  Folding her arms, her mother gave her a hard look. ‘I thought I told you not to think about it too much.’

  ‘Does she know that we’ve never done this before?’

  ‘She talked it through with Pygmalion and he was happy. Now, your dad has set her up in the pose she wanted and it’s set dressed. Like those classical statues in the book we showed you.’

  ‘They didn’t have any clothes on!’

  ‘She has a veil, and a very simple dress. And we’ve done her hair too. She’s been practising her pose and your dad has been sketching her. To help her relax and get used to being still, a’right? Now, we think it would be best if you just go in super quiet like, and just touch her back. Don’t say anything to her. Don’t tell her you’re about to do it.’

  ‘That doesn’t seem right, Mum. Shouldn’t she have some warning?’

  With a smile fixed in place, her mother sat on the bed and patted a space near her. ‘We talked it through and all three of us agreed that it’s the best way. It’s all to do with the way we hold our breath and get all tense if we’re waitin’ for something to happen. Like … imagine I was going to take a picture of you when a bucket of water was being thrown over you. If you knew it was comin’, you’d hold your breath, and your shoulders would lift up a bit and you’d probably clench your fists, right? Well, this is the same. She wants to look absolutely natural as a statue. Not knowing the exact moment when it’s goin’ to happen will keep her relaxed, see? That’s all it is. Now, let’s not keep her waitin’, eh?’

  Like every time she felt nervous about something, her mother sounded so reasonable it felt silly to keep questioning it. There was nothing she could say that would stop this from happening. And if she refused, Pygmalion would be angry and then there would be no hope of getting Plum back at all. Besides, they needed to save the farm.

  No matter how much Kerry tried to tell herself that it was up to the woman downstairs if she wanted to do something this stupid, it didn’t stop her legs trembling as they went down the stairs. The sound of something operatic fl
oated down the hallway from the studio’s open door and she had the urge to just turn around and run from the house and never come back. She even half turned, only to see her mother standing at the bottom of the stairs, watching her.

  Kerry managed a little smile as her mother raised her index finger and pressed it to her lips, urging her to be silent, before shooing her onwards with a couple of flicks of her hand.

  The music grew louder with each step. Her father came into view, seated at the far end of the studio with the doors behind him. He was wearing his reading glasses and sketching. As Kerry approached the door, she saw a sort of plinth that wasn’t usually there, like the big rostra blocks they had in the school hall that were used to make a temporary stage for the school play. It was covered in one of Grandma’s fancy old tablecloths and lying down upon it, back to the door, was the lady who wanted to be turned into a statue.

  Kerry froze at the sight of her. Her back was smooth and uncovered, the sheer gown she was wearing was very low cut. She had flowers in her hair shaped in a sort of crown, holding on a chiffon veil that covered her hair and shoulders. It was like looking at the back of an artist’s model, posing as a medieval bride resting after her wedding.

  When she reached the doorway her father looked up and then straight back down at his sketchpad without even reacting. The music was loud enough to mask her footsteps and she was only wearing socks anyway. Keeping her eyes fixed on the model’s back, Kerry moved into the room without seeing any change in the woman’s position. Certain that the model had no idea she was even there, Kerry stretched out her hand and leaned closer.

  Her fingers were trembling and her heart was pounding so hard she could feel it in her throat. It felt wrong! How many times had she been desperate to touch someone else, to brush her fingers against her mother’s hand as they walked, to reach out for a hug from her father? She’d worked so hard on quashing that need for touch that to do it now felt unnatural.

  She wants to do this, Kerry reminded herself. She wants this, and I need to save the farm and Uncle Cal.

 
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