Summerhouse land, p.16
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       Summerhouse Land, p.16

           Roderick Gordon

  The garden is so quiet and still as he passes under the bald branches of the copper beech and arrives at the compost heap. He places one foot on it, then hesitates. The left side of his face and body are becoming numb and unresponsive – and not from the cold. He’s still hesitating when the calm voice makes itself heard again.

  Go on – it’s now or never.

  ‘Why? Why never?’ Sam asks, his speech slurring. He doesn’t like the sound of that at all, and the anxious voice seizes the opportunity to push in. It urges him to return to the house and summon help. Sam begins to turn, then stops.

  You’re close now. You have to reach it, the calm voice commands, and Sam obeys it.

  He scrambles messily to the top of the compost heap, but the exertion makes his head throb so mercilessly that he slumps down against the old fence. He isn’t sure if he loses consciousness for a moment, but the next thing he knows is that Maxie is licking his ankle. Sam just wants to shut his eyes and stay there for a while, but the calm voice is insistent.

  You’re so very close. On your feet!

  It takes Sam several attempts to get up, hanging onto a crumbling crossbeam in the fence to support himself. Then, by gripping the top of fence, he heaves with all his might. He has no idea where the strength in his arms comes from, but all of a sudden he’s bent double over the top of the panel. Maxie is whining and jumping excitedly up and down at the foot of the compost heap as Sam swings one leg across the fence, then the other.

  The dog barks excitedly as Sam lets himself slide awkwardly into the lost gap, banging a knee on one of the slabs of rock as he lands. But this is nothing compared with the grinding thumping pain coursing through his head.

  Go on! You can’t stop now!

  ‘Okay,’ Sam mumbles. Lurching from side to side, he staggers through the gap. As the clouds allow a little moonlight through, this helps him to see more clearly. He brushes past weeds with curling leaves the color of old tea bags, and twigs snap under his feet as he doggedly makes for the tree, its shadowy outline visible up ahead.

  Turn around now! You haven’t got long left, you stupid little fool. They’ll find you here in the morning ... broken, the worried voice castigates him. Like Humpty Dumpty.

  Ignore it. Keep going! It’ll all be fine, the other voice counters.

  Maxie is barking loudly as if he can hear the antagonistic voices.

  Sam is almost at the tree, but when he tries to go farther, his feet are hindered by the thick lattice of ivy roots. In the moonlight they look like the white fingers of dead men.

  He manages to take another step and, for the moment, the two voices desert him as something else begins to happen. The agony and the disorientation are reaching a crescendo, but it isn’t this that makes him want to cry out. It’s as though his head, his very mind, is being divided, separated. There’s the strongest feeling that he isn’t alone. He can sense another presence with him there in the lost gap. He tries to see if anyone else is close by, but it’s hopeless in the murky darkness.

  He resumes his struggle toward the tree and, as he reaches it, the branches bend against his face, against the damaged plate and shattered growths on his cranium.

  The anxious voice is back. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men ... it’s saying, but now it sounds more hysterical than anxious.

  Nevertheless Sam keeps going. He can hardly see anything, the beams of pale moonlight all but blotted out by dense foliage. He thinks that he’s going to have to turn back as his dressing gown becomes entangled in the branches and swathes of ivy.

  Sam is sure that this is it – that he can go no farther. His hair is slick with blood, and he barely has any control over his left leg or arm.

  Game over, you idiot! This is where it ends! the hysterical voice screams at him.

  ‘No!’ Sam shouts.

  With one last effort, he reaches as far as he can into the ivy, trying to get himself through it.

  To his astonishment, someone grabs his hand.

  They’re pulling him, helping him.

  He hears branches snapping.

  The shroud of ivy parts and he falls forward, all the tiny points of illumination in his vision merging into a single blinding light.

  A few antediluvian sheep stood around idly watching Curtis from under their shaggy fringes. They had grown accustomed to the bearded man who was forever talking to himself. After nearly a thousand years without any human companionship, it was how he’d learned to deal with the solitude.

  And Curtis was talking rather excitedly and quickly now as he extracted the clay mold from the kiln he’d built on a grassy slope not far from the stone shack that was his home.

  Smoke was still issuing from the mold as Curtis dropped it to the ground. Leaning over it, he set about breaking it open with a flint hand tool and, in seconds, the baked clay had been removed to reveal the shiny iron component he’d cast inside. Curtis hurriedly retrieved a wooden shaft that he’d fashioned, ramming it into the iron object, then dousing the still hot metal with water from a hide bucket.

  Curtis rose to his feet, admiring his handiwork.

  It was a shovel, the blade rather rudimentary and irregular, but otherwise perfectly serviceable. Several times he rapped the metal with a knuckle so he could hear the dull tone it produced, listening to it in the manner a piano tuner listens to a tuning fork. ‘Yes! I’ve done it!’

  Then, hoisting the shovel triumphantly above his head as if presenting it to the sky, he yelled at the top of his lungs, ‘Welcome to the Iron Age!’ Before his voice had finished carrying through the empty valley, he added, ‘My Iron Age!’

  He immediately strode farther along the mist-covered slope, past the field where he’d grown crops for so many seasons. Choosing a spot, he began to pace out a large rectangular area, counting the feet as he went. ‘So … a wall here,’ he muttered, then planted the tip of the shovel on the ground and leaned his weight on it. As he began to dig, turning over the first clod of soil and then the second, he was grinning widely. ‘And now begins the Industrial Revolution.’

  After several hours of digging a trench for the foundations, he struck something. Putting his shovel to one side, Curtis took a moment to get his breath back. As he rubbed his palms together, he barely noticed they were covered with blisters and even bleeding in places from the intense work. It didn’t matter. The valley would heal them in no time at all.

  He stooped to retrieve the object he’d unearthed from the bottom of the trench, then rubbed it on his wool coat to clean the soil from its highly polished surface.

  It was a human eyeball.

  Made of glass.

  He stared at the eyeball as it stared back at him.

  ‘Hello, Morgan,’ Curtis said.

  As Sam pitched forward, there was a low buzzing, as if a hornet’s nest had been disturbed. A milky vapor swirled all around him – a dense, churning pall of it. Through this shone a bright light, intense as white phosphorous. His first thought was that he’d blundered straight into a bonfire.

  But that couldn’t be correct. He wasn’t burning and, besides, none of the neighbors would be having a fire at that time of night.

  Whoever was holding his hand had let go, but he caught a brief glimpse of a face. A girl’s face.

  As he tried to prop himself up on his elbows, he realized that the vapor was coming from him. He might not be on fire, but it appeared precisely as if his body was smoldering.

  Finally heaving himself up into a sitting position, he forced his eyes to stay open. From what he could see there was no question that the whirls of white vapor were emanating from him. They were twisting in a miniature cyclone around his head and, as he moved his hand, he could make out a trail of powder similar to talc lifting from his skin.

  He managed to get another glimpse of the girl. ‘What is this? Fire? Am I burning?’ he asked.

  ‘This always happens. It’s not fire, it’s normal,’ she replied calmly. ‘Just hold on.’

  She was right,
and the phenomenon was short lived. As the last of the vapor was spirited away by the breeze, he struggled to his feet. But he wondered if this was wise as he had the oddest feeling above his eyes. ‘Oh Jiminy,’ he gasped, dropping back down onto the ground as the pain in his head returned.

  There was a small damp Snap! as one of the rivets popped out.

  The girl took a step back. ‘Ohh,’ she gasped.

  With the sound of twanging metal, the other rivets came free and the plate on Sam’s forehead was flung off with some force. Spinning through the air to land ten or so feet away in the long grass, it barely missed the girl who ducked just in time. There was a gush of fresh blood running down Sam’s face, which stopped almost as quickly as it had begun, the pain with it.

  ‘That was gruesome,’ the girl said.

  ‘What just happened?’ Sam asked, noticing that there were a few fresh wisps of white vapor rising from his head.

  ‘I have no idea,’ she admitted. ‘Something shiny shot out from there,’ she added, pointing above his brow.

  ‘Here?’ he asked, indicating his own forehead but not daring to touch it for fear of what he might find there. His eyes were still watering from the sudden pain above them, but he was thinking clearly now. ‘I need a doctor,’ he demanded. ‘I’ve got to go home and get help.’

  ‘Help with what?’ she asked, frowning.

  ‘This!’ he snapped, as he jabbed a finger at his forehead again and immediately regretting he’d spoken so bluntly to her. ‘Does it look bad?’

  ‘Looks fine to me,’ she replied.

  He was prepared for the worst, to find a gaping hole through which the damaged fore lobes of his brain were exposed.

  But as he finally felt around with his fingers, his forehead was perfectly smooth. ‘What?’ he said. He checked the rest of his head, running his hands over his temples and up to the top of his cranium. He couldn’t find any of the barnacle-type growths there at all.

  ‘I don’t understand …’ he was just saying, as he was distracted by something gritty on his tongue. One of the particles caught in his throat. He coughed and spat whatever it was out into his palm. They were fillings from his teeth.

  ‘That’s usual,’ the girl said cheerfully. ‘Everything’s mending. It’s normal.’

  ‘Normal?’ Sam repeated, absolutely confounded.

  He began to examine his arm for growths but didn’t find any. Then he held out his other arm next to the first. Not only were both limbs smooth and completely free of any lumps, he noticed that they were somehow fuller and larger.

  As his eyes finally adjusted to the brightness, he was able to take stock of his surroundings. And also the girl who was watching him.

  ‘Where am I? Where’s my garden? And the houses?’ The meadow around him contained such an abundance of poppies that a carmine haze seemed to be floating above the long grasses. And beyond, into the distance, a wonderful landscape opened out, as if a vast carpet of the richest design imaginable had been unrolled before his watering eyes.

  ‘I must be dead,’ Sam said, wiping away the tears and focusing on the girl. She looked so beautiful and perfect that he knew none of this could be real. ‘Is this heaven?’

  ‘Not quite,’ she answered smiling. ‘I’ve never helped anyone through like this before. That was wild. I suppose like giving birth.’

  Sam didn’t know what she was talking about. ‘So this isn’t heaven?’

  The girl shook her head.

  ‘And you’re not an angel?’’ he asked in earnest.

  ‘Me? An angel?’ The girl opened her mouth as if she was surprised by the question, but then giggled. ‘No, I’m no angel. I’m Damaris.’

  ‘No angel,’ Sam repeated distantly, trying to work out what had just happened to him.

  ‘No.’ Then Damaris was really laughing, so much that she was holding her sides. Sam was certain she was going to fall over. ‘I don’t think so.’

  She held her hands out to him. ‘If you’re able to walk, let’s go and get you cleaned up. There’s some water along here.’ As Sam remained on the ground, she looked down at him. ‘Come on,’ she said breezily. ‘You’re going to love this place.’

  Sam was still in a state of total confusion as to why he wasn’t dead. And why he was no longer in pain. ‘But where am I?’

  Part Two


  Chapter Twelve

  ‘You’ve got to be joking!’

  Hands in his dressing gown pockets and slouching because he felt so tired, Sam peered disbelievingly at the huge cliff face directly behind him.

  ‘So how did I get here? From up there?’ he asked, craning his neck to see all the way to the top, his gaze scaling the chalky white of the sheer face. The cliff rose to a dizzying height, so high that the top blurred into the blue of the sky. Climbing it would be out of the question. And falling down it not a great idea either.

  ‘No, from there,’ Damaris said, pointing very precisely.

  ‘Here?’ Sam shuffled over to the cliff face to touch it. ‘You mean out of the rock?’ he asked, pushing against the solid surface. ‘How does that work?’

  ‘You can’t g—’ Damaris began, but Sam held up a hand and shushed her. He listened intently for a moment, then put his ear to the chalk.

  Damaris was frowning. ‘What is it?’

  He shushed her again.

  ‘You’re being rather rude,’ she complained.

  ‘I heard Maxie,’ Sam replied. After several seconds, he took his head away from the cliff and looked at Damaris with a mystified expression. ‘Sorry I was rude, but I swear I could hear Maxie barking. He’s my dog.’

  ‘I doubt it,’ Damaris said. ‘Nothing stays open for long around the boundary. It lets people through, but only very occasionally, then it closes up again.’

  ‘So I am dead?’

  ‘Not here, but back there … yes,’ Damaris answered. She appeared to be ill at ease speaking about this. ‘But it’s not something we ever discuss.’

  Sam squinted to his left and then to his right; in both directions the cliff face continued far into the sun-hazed distance. Then he turned toward Damaris again, scanning the land behind her. ‘You didn’t tell me where we are. Where is this?’

  She gave a shrug. ‘It’s here. The valley.’

  ‘One thing’s for sure – we’re not on the Heath!’ Sam said, perplexed. He seemed to be somewhere deep in the countryside. The nearest park to his home was Hampstead Heath, but where he was now was on a totally different scale. He and Damaris were standing at the top of a gentle slope and as his eyes swept down it, he took in the endless meadows, interrupted here and there by occasional groves of trees. The incline seemed to continue for miles, but then dip down and rise up again on the other side. And for all the way it extended to the distant horizon, he couldn’t make out a single man-made structure of any kind.

  ‘Just look at that,’ Sam said. It truly was the most exquisite scene. The sun painted the clear blue sky and the greenness of the fields, imbuing both with its humming light, like a sun of old. Strong, youthful, confident.

  Sam half-laughed, half-gasped, finding it impossible to believe what he was seeing. ‘Now I know I’m dreaming,’ he chuckled, as he shuffled away from the cliff and toward Damaris.

  ‘What time is it?’ Sam asked, realizing that it had been the middle of the night when he’d gone out into his garden, but he was in broad daylight now.

  ‘I don’t know,’ Damaris replied. ‘We don’t take much notice of time here.’

  From the position of the sun it had to be around noon. But how could he have gained half a day just like that? And it also wasn’t winter here by a long shot. Far from it – the lushness of the vegetation suggested it must be the height of summer.

  Spotting movement in a meadow several hundred feet away, Sam shielded his eyes to see more clearly. Wild horses were crossing it in a loose group, the younger foals racing ahead, their manes flowing out behind them. And above swallows were darting
, their song filling the wide, empty sky. The only other sound was the gentle ruffling of the grasses as the wind rippled multiple waves across them.

  And the strangest thing was that it all seemed so very familiar, as if he’d been here before. He asked himself again whether it could be Hampstead Heath. His parents took him there when he was up to it so Maxie could get some exercise. And again he knew, without any doubt, that it couldn’t be – this place dwarfed it. But why then did he feel that he knew it so well?

  ‘I know … I’m in Summerhouse Land!’ he announced, as it dawned on him. That’s the only way this makes sense. This isn’t real. This can’t be real, he thought to himself. It’s a dream.

  Damaris had a knowing smile on her face. ‘You think this is a dream, don’t you?’

  She’d got Sam’s full attention now. ‘How did you know that?’ he demanded.

  Damaris raised an eyebrow. ‘Everyone thinks the same thing in the beginning. Because it seems too good to be true.’

  Sam wasn’t going to let it drop at that. ‘Aha,’ he said, ‘you’d only know I was thinking that if … if it was my dream, which is why you’re now going to tell me—’

  ‘That I’m a figment of your imagination,’ Damaris cut in.

  By now Sam was feeling very detached from the proceedings. ‘Yes, so I’m dreaming you. I have to be. You’re far too pretty … too beautiful … to be real.’

  Damaris glanced coyly at her feet. ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me in centuries.’

  Scrunching his eyes shut, Sam took several breaths as he attempted to order his thoughts.

  He seriously wondered what would be there when he opened them again, but when he did Damaris was waiting, smiling, amused.

  ‘Still here?’ Sam said.

  ‘Yes, still here.’

  Sam looked at her properly for the first time. A little self-conscious under his scrutiny, she whisked her shoulder-length hair from her face with a flick of the head. She was about his age, maybe slightly older, and had fine – elegant even – features and the deepest blue eyes.

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