Summerhouse land, p.14
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       Summerhouse Land, p.14
 

           Roderick Gordon

  ‘Oh, Jesse,’ Sam says. ‘Why?’

  ‘This is one luxury I’ve grown rather too used to,’ Curtis says, cradling a mug of Dagby’s coffee in his hands.

  ‘Greatest aid to productivity ever devised by man,’ Morgan replies, as they sit across from each other in the office where they first met that morning several weeks before.

  ‘Anyway, here’s to the Gondola.’ Curtis raises his mug to Morgan in a toast. ‘And to you, for your assistance.’ Much to Curtis’s surprise, this interloper into his research facility has been indispensable in helping him to refine the ‘Gondola’, as they renamed the casket-shaped healing device.

  Morgan has not only been a useful sounding board because of his scientific background, but his influence in London has been a great asset. On several occasions he was able to summon experts from other installations, and requisition materials and equipment that Curtis might otherwise have waited months for.

  ‘To the Gondola,’ Morgan responds, also raising his mug. ‘And all who sail in her.’ He smiles, resting his mug on the desk. ‘But before I leave here for my next posting, there’s something I need to ask of you. The War Office has been in touch to request that you give a presentation on your research.’

  Curtis splutters coffee everywhere. ‘Me? I haven’t got time for that. Besides if it’s those old school-tie types in the War Office, they won’t understand a word I’m saying.’ He hurriedly tugs a handkerchief from his pocket and dabs at the coffee he’s spilled on his shirt. ‘Anyway, present to whom exactly? When? And where?’

  ‘Tomorrow, in St James’s.’

  ‘You want me to lug all the way up to London at such a critical stage – just when I’m putting the finishing touches to the Gondola for a field test? Don’t you think that’s a ludicrous misuse of my time?’ Curtis says, raising his voice in frustration.

  Morgan is unruffled by his response. ‘You’ve undoubtedly caught the whispers about Tube Alloys?’

  Curtis opens his mouth as if he’s going to say something, closes it again, and then finally does speak. ‘I don’t know if I should answer that.’

  ‘Oh, come on now. Tube Alloys is the codename for our nuclear weapon research program. Most scientists involved in defense research are aware of it from the grapevine, so why should you be any different?’ Morgan takes a breath. ‘The race is on to develop an atom bomb before Jerry manages it. Tube Alloys is our joint initiative with the Canadians, while the Yanks are rowing their own boat with a separate program called the Manhattan Project.’

  ‘Yes, I had caught wind of it,’ Curtis admits.

  ‘The top brass in London want you to present a summary of what you’ve achieved here to a small envoy of scientists from the Manhattan Project, just in case there’s any crossover.’

  Curtis makes a pah noise. ‘There isn’t. My process has absolutely nothing to do with nuclear fission, and you know that.’

  ‘I do, but the War Office still wants to keep our American friends onside. You won’t dish up too much detail – just enough to whet their appetites. It’s all in the interests of trans-Atlantic relations and Uncle Sam’s continuing financial support for our war effort,’ Morgan says.

  ‘So not much theoretical detail … and it’s just one presentation, then I’ll be left alone to finish my work here?’ Curtis says, becoming calmer. ‘That’s the deal?’

  ‘It is. The presentation will be at some point during the afternoon or possibly early evening, and you’ll have a ministry bod with you as your chaperone in case the Yanks try to overstep the mark with their questions.’ Morgan arches his eyebrows as if to say he’s not asking much from Curtis. ‘Just get it over with, then drive back the next day.’

  ‘I could come back the same day,’ Curtis suggests straight away.

  ‘No, the War Office will put you up in a swish hotel for the night because we don’t know yet when the presentation will take place. Anyway, it will do you the world of good to take some time off from this place.’ Morgan sweeps a hand at Curtis’s office. ‘You practically live here. Why don’t you fit in a show or go to the movies while you’re in London? I can recommend Went the Day Well – it’s set in this county, in Oxfordshire.’

  ‘A rather clumsy piece of propaganda so I’ve heard. Do you think people’s paranoia about Germans behind every bush needs to be stoked any higher than it already is?’

  There’s an uncomfortable silence in the room for a few moments until Morgan speaks. ‘While you’re away I can keep an eye on the fort for you. Then you’ll be back here and pushing on with the Gondola again, with no interruptions. You have my word.’

  Curtis doesn’t reply.

  Morgan clears his throat. ‘Look, I’m willing to ignore the odd irregularity such as your failure to inform the War Office about the tattoos and that tiny electrical gadget you found. Treat this request as a small favor to me.’

  Curtis shrugs dismissively. ‘Other than that, I’ve kept them fully up to speed on progress. And I reported the previous implosion immediately it happened.’

  ‘I know – and that’s why I’m here. And I know precisely why you held back on those other … er … matters, because it might have meant delays to your project while an investigation was conducted. Or, worse still, a complete shutdown pending further review.’ Morgan reaches over for his mug of coffee. ‘Totally understand why you broke from protocol, old man. But just do this one thing for me, and we can brush all that under the carpet.’

  Chapter Ten

  Sam’s breath is crushed from him as a dark shape lands on his chest. He’s been wrenched from his sleep and is very confused – all he can see is the outline of someone in the soft glow from his always-on night light in the corner of the room. His first reaction is to cry out, but a hand claps his mouth shut.

  ‘Oh, did I wake you up?’ Jesse says sarcastically, thrusting his face just inches in front of Sam’s as he sits astride him, pinning him under the duvet. ‘Was it nice – Dad reading you asleep tonight?’

  Sam tries to reply but it’s useless with his brother’s hand pressed over his mouth.

  ‘What was it – Charles Dickens again?’ Jesse squeezes his legs together, hurting Sam’s ribs. ‘D’you know, I looked in and even though you were asleep, he was still reading? He doesn’t do that for me even when I’m awake.’

  That’s because you find Dickens boring and yawn all the way through it, Sam thinks to himself.

  ‘Okay, loser, I’m going to move my hand. If you shout or anything, I’ll hit you so darned hard,’ Jesse warns. He sounds very angry. ‘Tell me – why do you get all the time with Mum and Dad. All the special treats … when I get sweet nothing?’

  ‘Because … because I’ve just had another operation,’ Sam answers tentatively, not wanting to aggravate his already aggravated brother any further.

  In a strange way, Sam often does feel guilty that he receives more attention than Jesse, and that’s why he suffers these outbursts in silence. They’re nothing new, and usually don’t amount to much more than some cruel words and a few bruises. His brother vents his spleen, then skulks back to his room, grumbling and swearing. That’s how it goes. And the next morning neither of them mentions a word about it to their parents, as if it’s a guilty secret they both share.

  But this is different. Sam feels that.

  Jesse shakes him violently by the shoulders. ‘Oh sure, right – another operation, blah, blah, blah. So it’s because you’re sick all the time. Great reason! Maybe I should get ill too.’

  What, and have a hole cut into your head and a flipping metal plate riveted on?

  But what Sam really answers is ‘You really wouldn’t want that.’ As these words leave his lips, the sheer dread he’s been sensing coalesces into the dark shape on top of him. Was he seeing this moment all along? Is this where it all goes wrong?

  Sam can’t make out his brother’s face in the darkness, but as he manages to slide a hand from under the duvet to indicate the bandage on his forehead, he asks, ‘Jess
e, do you know what they’ve just done to m—?’

  Maybe Jesse thinks Sam is raising his hand to strike him, or maybe the younger boy was intending to do it anyway, but he punches Sam in the mouth. One of Sam’s teeth punctures his lip. He tastes blood.

  ‘What makes you so special?’ Jesse hisses, spitting into Sam’s face as he utters the final word.

  ‘That hurt. You’re really hurting me. Just get off,’ Sam pleads. He assumes it must be late in the night and debates whether to call out to his parents. His door is shut and most likely the door to their bedroom is too, so he’ll have to shout at the top of his voice if he’s going to be heard.

  ‘It’s ... not ... bloomin’ ... fair,’ Jesse fumes, shaking Sam to emphasize each word. Sam guesses that his brother hasn’t slept yet, lying in bed until his resentment built to flash point. ‘You’re a sick freak, but you always get more than me. Why’s that?’

  ‘Just stop it, or I’ll get Mum and Dad,’ Sam threatens.

  ‘Not a chance!’ Jesse slaps his hand back over Sam’s mouth again.

  Sam has had enough.

  Coming on top of the pain in his head and Jesse’s vandalism of his books in the library, this is the last straw. As Jesse continues to gag him, he’s leaning forward over Sam. Sam lashes out, catching his brother by surprise as he drives the heel of his hand into Jesse’s chest. Jesse is thrust back against the wall at the side of the bed.

  ‘You little cr—’ Jesse gasps, immediately launching a counterattack.

  But now Sam is able to sit up and use both hands to defend himself.

  There follows a breathless struggle between the two of them, slapping, punching and pushing each other. The younger boy has the upper hand because of his strength as they grapple, the two brothers locked together in that peculiar intimacy that comes of any fight at close-quarters. But as it grows more and more violent, Sam becomes frightened. He’s got more to lose than Jesse.

  ‘That’s enough!’ he tells his brother, who is showing no sign of backing off.

  Sam finally shouts for his father.

  ‘You little sneak!’ Jesse growls with a combination of unrequited fury and fear that their father has heard. ‘Dad will catch me in here!’

  ‘Good – I hope he does,’ Sam replies. ‘Why don’t you just get out?’

  Jesse is incensed by this. With his back braced against the wall, he uses all the strength in his legs as he kicks out.

  Sam is sent flying from the bed. He hits the side table face-first, his head crashing heavily into it. Everything is thrown from it, the Dickens book and a glass of water, but Sam’s trajectory isn’t over yet.

  As he slides across the top of the table, everything happens in a kind of sickening slow motion and it topples over with him still on it. His head takes a second impact as it slams against the floor.

  Jesse knows he’s gone too far this time. In a second he’s sprung off the bed and is over by the door.

  Sam lies on the floor, moaning. There are bright points of illumination dancing in his eyes.

  ‘If you tell on me, I’ll blooming kill you. I promise I will,’ Jesse says, then slips from the room, closing the door behind him.

  ‘Oh gosh,’ Sam whispers. As he’d connected with the table, there had been the most terrible sound – the crunch of a carton of eggs being crushed, all the shells breaking at the same time. He rolls groggily onto his side and gingerly checks the growths along the side of his head. His hand is shaking as he feels the dampness from the blood.

  Then he probes his forehead. That’s when he has an even bigger shock. The dressing has been dislodged and the flesh around the metal plate is pulpy to the touch – not unlike a piece of overripe fruit. As he explores further, he discovers that the plate is at an alarming angle on his forehead. He doesn’t know if some of the rivets have been loosened, but something’s horribly wrong.

  ‘Oh, no,’ he sobs. The plate bore the brunt of the second impact when he hit the floor, and he realizes how serious this is. From what he can feel, the piece of metal must be digging into the fore lobe of his brain. And there’s so much blood, it’s running into his eyes.

  ‘Help me,’ Sam mumbles weakly. Although he’s disoriented and his hands are shaking, he knows instinctively that this is more than just shock he’s experiencing after the fight with Jesse.

  It’s due to the damage to his brain.

  He’s aware only too clearly what the implications are. It’s likely the edge of the plate has penetrated the brain itself, causing untold harm. With a major effort, he manages to haul himself into a sitting position and then to his feet. All the while, he can feel blood trickling down his face and neck.

  ‘Bomber,’ he mumbles, because there’s so much pain all he can focus on is stopping it with one of his special painkillers. Opening the door, he staggers from his room and out to the landing. There isn’t the slightest sound from his brother – realizing what he’s done, Jesse is hiding under his duvet.

  Sam feels shaky and weak. He holds the banister as he stares at his parents’ room for a moment, but his thoughts are so jumbled. He should wake them up and get help. He knows this. But instead something drives him to go downstairs so he can take one of his painkillers.

  ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid,’ he says as he starts down the stairs. He hasn’t gone very far when he has a hot flush – he knows that feeling – he knows that he’s close to passing out. But the acute pain in his head spurs him on. He just needs to reach the kitchen and have one of his pills.

  Bomber.

  He grasps the banister even harder, continuing to slip and fumble his way down.

  Although the house is pitch black, points of light are fizzing across his vision like falling stars.

  That’s not good.

  As he reaches the bottom step, he completely loses his balance and has to sit for a moment.

  Bomber.

  He forces himself to get up again, swaying unsteadily into the kitchen. There’s sufficient moonlight from the windows for him to locate the medicine cabinet.

  It’s no mean feat to pull a stool over and then balance on it to reach the pills. As he half-steps, half-falls from the stool with a full panel of his bombers, for a moment he stands there, not understanding what the dark patches all over the lino are.

  Then it clicks that it’s his blood.

  ‘I’ll clean it up in a minute,’ he says. His thoughts are all over the place. As he goes to the sink, he forgets for a second why he’s there.

  ‘Oh yes. Stupid, stupid, stupid.’ He takes one of his painkillers with a mouthful of water, using the nearest receptacle he can find from beside the sink. He tastes coffee – he realizes that he’s used a mug that was put there to be washed.

  Leaning against the sink for support, he tries to blink the blood from his eyes. The pill hasn’t helped. If anything the pain is becoming worse than ever. He feels so hot – his body is drenched – but he can’t tell if this is from blood or sweat.

  And there’s something very wrong with the metal plate. It feels as though it’s humming, vibrating.

  Sam helps himself to another bomber, pressing it through the foil, then more of them, unthinkingly, as if he’s taking his regular cocktail of pills.

  ‘That has to do it,’ he mumbles, touching the protruding corner of the metal plate as he looks out at the garden.

  As he does so, he sees the oddest thing. Bright flashes. And it’s not the points of light that have been filling his vision.

  It’s as though he’s seeing the transition from night to day over and over again, but speeded up. Day and night, day and night, over and over.

  ‘What?’ he gasps, as in the time it takes an eye to blink, stars track across the sky, and the winter sun moves in a startlingly fast arc across the horizon.

  Taking his hand from his forehead, he turns away from this to look around the kitchen. Everything is normal there. As it should be. He can hear the sound coming from the fridge.

  There’s a scratching on the f
loor behind him. He looks down. It’s Maxie, staring up at him with his big, beseeching eyes. His dog obviously thinks it’s already morning and time for him to be let outside.

  ‘No, Maxie,’ Sam whispers, wondering if he should have another bomber because the pain is still so terrible. He holds the panel of pills up to examine it. There’s only one left in it. He’s taken far more than he should have.

  ‘Stupid,’ he says, glancing through the window again. It’s dark there now. Then he touches his forehead again, his finger on the exposed metal plate. The rapid transition restarts in the garden. Day to night, night to day. He has to see this for himself. Besides, something’s urging him to go out. He has to go out.

  ‘Oh, come along then, Maxie,’ he slurs, taking his dressing gown from the washing basket on the way. ‘Into the garden, boy.’

  Thursday, 13th August 1943.

  5.30 AM.

  In the hotel room Curtis turns onto his back, unused to the feel of a thick mattress under him. He looks at his wristwatch, following the second hand as it ticks around. Time seems to be passing so slowly. Outside the occasional vehicle grinds by and sometimes there are voices. Accustomed to the total silence and peace of the countryside, he’s had a night of broken sleep in the city with all its sounds.

  Glancing at his wristwatch again, he thinks back to the day before with the odd presentation to the two American scientists who didn’t ask a single question. In fact, other than the representative from the War Office’s very brief introduction when Curtis first met the scientists, no one uttered a word except for him. He didn’t even have the opportunity to hear their accents; they could have been anyone.

  He glances at his watch again. The second hand hardly seems to have moved.

  None of it felt quite right, but then – Curtis tells himself – these official meetings are often forced, awkward affairs. And giving a talk like that isn’t made any easier when there’s absolutely no feedback.

  And the pair of scientists ...

  Entirely underwhelming.

  He pictures their impassive, uninterested faces. They didn’t bother to take notes, sitting there in their nondescript suits.

 
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