Summerhouse land, p.17
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       Summerhouse Land, p.17

           Roderick Gordon
 

  Realizing that he had been staring, he cleared his throat and looked away. This dream is big on detail, he thought, as he spotted a rounded pebble in the grass by his foot. He bent to pick it up, then tested its weight in his palm. He ran a finger over its smooth, water-polished surface, observing there was the tiniest cluster of sparkling crystals nestling in a pit at one end. ‘What are these?’ he asked, showing Damaris.

  ‘Quartzite, I think,’ she answered.

  ‘It’s so real.’

  ‘It is real,’ she said.

  He shook his head dubiously. Could the pebble – and the girl and valley in front of him – really be explained by some hyper-vivid dream? Had his injuries caused him to black out back in his garden and was this all simply some construct of his dying brain? Nothing more than an elaborate fantasy playing out in his head?

  He threw the pebble into the air and caught it again. It behaved just as it should do – both the pebble and his surroundings appeared to be so genuine, so rational. If he was having a dream, by rights there should be aspects that defied rationality. He had to look out for them. But then, he reminded himself, dreams create their own rules, so how could he possibly tell what was wrong or out of place? He would have no way of telling.

  He wanted to put his head back and roar with laughter. What was he imagining? This whole situation was wrong and out of place!

  Damaris clicked her tongue as she waggled a finger at him. ‘Now I want you to do what your pretty figment is telling you. We go thataway.’ She moved her finger so it was pointing to somewhere farther around the slope. ‘It’s really no distance.’

  ‘Okay,’ he agreed, and she set off, her long legs carrying her with such ease she appeared to be floating.

  All of a sudden, he was overcome by a weariness that made him feel as he was glued to the spot. ‘Come along,’ Damaris encouraged him, retracing her steps and putting an arm around him. ‘Lean on me. You’re doing really well, considering. After they cross through some people can’t speak, much less stand, for days or even weeks.’ She looked at him intently. ‘But – I warn you – the fatigue will come in waves. It always does.’

  He walked with Damaris supporting him, not sure what to think of her closeness. He’d decided to play along and treat her as if she was real, as if the situation was real. And her body against his certainly felt real. ‘So when was that? When did the last person cross through?’

  ‘A good millennium ago, actually.’

  ‘A mill—? Oh,’ he said, as they moved slowly along the slope together.

  In another part of the valley, a chime sounded insistently through the rooms of a large house. Curtis was out of his chair in an instant and racing down a corridor, which he left halfway along as he tore up an oak staircase two steps at a time. He didn’t stop at the first or second floors, going straight to the attic.

  ‘Alarm off. Show me,’ Curtis ordered quickly, as he went into a darkened room without any windows. A display flickered into life. As wavering curves of different colors weaved across the screen, he added, ‘Go to event.’

  The lines immediately reversed their direction on the screen and then froze. ‘There it is,’ Curtis said, his eyes widening. He turned and rushed from the room, almost falling down the stairs in his haste to reach the floor below where he threw open one of the leaded light windows. ‘Joely!’ he yelled, leaning through the window. ‘Come in and see this!’

  His voice rolled across the lawns, reaching a sunken garden in which a woman knelt beside a flowerbed where she was working. A group of spaniels were dotted around her, sitting or lying, one stretched out on its side asleep. They all reacted at the same time she did, looking back at the house. Letting her trowel drop to the ground, she began to run, her hat flying off as she went.

  Curtis had returned to the display – he had no need to explain the urgency to Joely as she could tell from the tone of his voice. It came of being together for so many years.

  She sprang up the stone stairs from the sunken garden, toward the magnificent building with its intricate frontage of granite and brick, and its roof of slightly blue-hued slate from which candy twist chimneys sprouted. Then she was on the main lawn, dashing past her carefully tended beds and a fountain as she headed toward a flight of steps up to a terrace and an open door into the house.

  ‘There you are,’ Curtis said the moment she entered the darkened room, breathing hard from the exertion. ‘Just look at this event – it’s off the scale.’

  One of the colored lines rose far above all the others to form an acute peak.

  ‘Is that a reading from back in the world?’ she managed to ask although she was out of breath.

  ‘No, look.’ He extended a finger toward the screen. ‘It’s here in the valley, by the cliffs. A couple of minutes ago.’

  ‘So someone new has crossed through? It’s been a while.’

  ‘It’s not just someone new. It’s much more than that,’ Curtis said. ‘I’ve only ever seen such a spike once before, and this is far larger, far more powerful.’

  ‘You think a second one has found their way here?’ Joely asked, wiping her brow now she’d got her wind back. ‘What are the chances of that?’

  ‘Millions to one, but this was meant to be. And I know what I’m dealing with this time.’ He twisted around to her. ‘Have you got any dogs at the periphery?’

  ‘As ever,’ she replied. ‘I’ll see what I can pick up.’

  She left Curtis staring at the screen, muttering, ‘Good, good, good.’

  It’s one of those racking sighs that comes from so deep within it’s almost as if part of his soul is leaking out.

  For a moment Mr White closes his eyes.

  ‘Have to be strong. Have to get through this,’ he whispers tersely.

  His face is drawn and gray, and the cigarette in his trembling fingers has smoked itself. He slings the stub in the border and immediately lights another.

  It’s bitterly cold that morning, but he’s not conscious of it although his greatcoat is flapping open and he’s not wearing any socks. There wasn’t time for them as he threw on his shoes after the shouts from his wife alerted him that Sam wasn’t in his room. They were both following the trail of blood down to the kitchen when they heard the dog outside.

  Mr White draws aggressively on his cigarette. ‘Oh, Sam. how could this happen?’

  That’s an image that will be forever indelibly etched on his mind. His son lying face down in his dressing gown and pajamas at the foot of the small tree in the lost gap.

  He turns to look away from where the heads of the ambulancemen are just visible above the top of the old fence. They’re preparing to move the body. At least he assumes that’s what they’re about to do because a few minutes ago one of the pair of policemen by the compost heap helped to pass a stretcher across.

  Mrs White appears beside her husband, noticing he’s not bothering to hide the fact he’s smoking. It really doesn’t matter anymore.

  ‘You made sure Jesse isn’t going to see this?’ he mumbles.

  ‘He’s on his PlayStation. I told him to stay in his room,’ she replies emptily, as one of the ambulancemen climbs back over the fence, which strains and creaks under his weight as if it might collapse. Then the man on the other side begins to pass the stretcher over the top.

  Mrs White hugs her coat tightly around her.

  Sam’s body in a black bag looks so small on the stretcher, and it’s unnecessary for all four men to be involved. Nevertheless, they all help, because it’s the body of a child they’re moving, and they’re showing they care. They’re showing their respect.

  While the ambulancemen gather their equipment from under the copper beech and pack it into a rucksack, the policemen walk over to the Whites to wait with them.

  They watch together as the ambulancemen begin toward them with the body.

  ‘Terrible thing, sir. Very sad,’ the policeman next to Mr White says in a subdued voice.

  ‘He always loved that part o
f the garden, ever since he was tiny. Said something about a secret passage in it,’ Mr White remembers.

  This elicits a sharp look from the policeman.

  ‘In a dream,’ Mr White adds. ‘A dream he had.’

  The policeman nods, then the ambulancemen with the stretcher come to a stop as they reach Mr and Mrs White.

  ‘Maybe that’s why he was there,’ Mr White suggests. ‘We found him unconscious on the bench once before.’

  Mrs White steps forward and very lightly touches the bag over Sam’s shoulder. ‘The fresh air helped with his migraines. That’s why he came out here last night. To try to make the pain better. But he couldn’t make it better this time.’ She swallows hard. ‘Good-bye, Sam,’ she says, squeezing his shoulder. Then she takes a step back.

  The ambulancemen are looking at Mr White for an indication they can continue.

  ‘Thank you. And thank you for all you’ve done,’ Mr White says to them, then he and his wife proceed slowly toward the house behind the stretcher, the policemen bringing up the rear.

  Mrs White hears Maxie howling inside. She glances up at the house.

  What she doesn’t see is that Jesse is crouched down at Sam’s bedroom window, peering over the sill to watch the procession. He lowers to the floor, turning so his back is against the wall.

  His gaze falls on the blood, now dried a deep crimson on the carpet by his brother’s empty bed.

  He grins.

  Sam was still relying heavily on Damaris’s support when his bare foot struck something that sounded hollow. Looking down, he found a lifebelt half-buried in the ground. It had evidently been there for some considerable time because the orange plastic was sun-bleached, its surface weathered and hatched with scratches.

  ‘Where did this come from?’ he asked.

  ‘People bring things through with them,’ Damaris replied.

  Sam was trying to decipher the name of the vessel written on the lifebelt, but gave up because not enough of the letters were showing and the visible ones too faded. He turned to Damaris. ‘What – when they die?’

  Damaris’s face lost its warmth as she averted her eyes from him. ‘I told you – that’s not something we talk about,’ she answered stiffly.

  ‘Sorry,’ Sam said, feeling that he needed to apologize because he’d obviously upset her. He tried to take some more steps but, without any warning, his legs went from under him. Damaris didn’t act quickly enough to hold him up and he slid to a sitting position on the ground.

  ‘I really can’t go on. Just let me rest,’ Sam begged, cradling his head in his hands. ‘And I’m so thirsty. I need something to …’ he trailed off, as his hands came in contact with his forehead and he felt the unblemished skin. He began to probe around the rest of his cranium as if the lumps were somehow hiding there. But they weren’t. His head was symmetrical and quite normal again – just as it had been before the neoplasia had taken grip. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said listlessly. ‘It’s all gone.’

  With the sun behind her, Sam was squinting up at Damaris as he continued, ‘When my disease first got really bad, I used to have dreams like this, but after a year or so the dreams changed. In those I did have awful lumps on me … larger growths even than in real life. Sometimes I dreamed they were so huge that I couldn’t get up from my bed or leave home. I suppose I’d just accepted what was happening to me, and I was sort of getting myself ready for the worst.’

  Damaris shook her head. ‘We’re not back on that old chestnut again, are we? Yes, okay then, this is all a dream. You’re right.’ She was smiling again, the sternness from before gone. ‘But you’re in my dream.’

  Sam shook his head – something he could do now without causing any dizziness. ‘No, it’s definitely my dream,’ he insisted.

  She giggled. ‘No, it isn’t.’

  ‘Is.’

  ‘Isn’t.’

  ‘Is, and this is stupid and I’m not going to argue,’ Sam argued.

  ‘You are arguing, and it’s mine,’ she challenged.

  ‘That’s enough!’ he said. He raised a hand toward Damaris to emphasize his point, but instead moved it to his mouth as he yawned cavernously. ‘I’m so tired. I need to sleep.’ He made as if he was going to lie down.

  ‘No!’ Damaris yelled, shocking him upright again.

  ‘That gave me a fright.’

  ‘It was meant to. In any case, you can’t go to sleep in a dream. I’ve never dreamed that.’

  ‘No, I don’t think I have either,’ Sam admitted, frowning at the notion.

  Damaris indicated the direction they’d been heading. ‘See that pile of rocks up ahead? Just over there is water and food. You badly need both, and it’s not going to come to us.’

  Sam resignedly allowed her to help him to his feet again. ‘Hold on a second,’ he said, hiking up his pajama bottoms.

  ‘That’s what happens. You’re burning off weight,’ Damaris told him. ‘Your body needs food because it’s trying to finish mending itself, and at the moment you’re feeding off yourself.’

  Sam had become lost in an exploration of his midriff as he lifted his pajama top inside his dressing gown and ran a hand up and down the skin between his hip and ribs. ‘All the growths have gone from here, too.’ He suddenly realized how odd his behavior must appear and pulled his top down again. ‘Sorry. That was weird.’

  ‘Whatever was there … they’ve gone and you’re never going to get them back, or grow old, or have any sort of illness again.’

  Despite his exhaustion, Sam couldn’t take this seriously. ‘So, what, is this the place of eternal youth? I read about that in a b—’

  ‘You can call it whatever you like. I told you we refer to it as the valley, but in the old days I heard Curtis call it the envelope.’

  Sam reacted to this immediately. ‘Curtis? Really? I know that name.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, yeah, of course, that would be in my dream, wouldn’t it?’

  ‘Come along, before your pants fall off altogether,’ Damaris said firmly, helping him on. A few minutes later, they were struggling up the side of a mound of loose stone where the cliff face had slipped.

  ‘More poppies,’ Sam said. A few scattered colonies of grass had taken root in the loose surface, but not to the extent of the poppies growing on it. As they reached the top, there was a large pond on the other side filled with the bluest and clearest water Sam had ever seen. Trees overhung the bank on the opposite bank, and it was from these that he heard voices shouting with glee.

  Two boys in swimming trunks suddenly gyrated out on ropes strung from the branches, flying haphazardly into the air as they let go. One was performing somersaults in mid-flight, while the other had rotated upside down.

  They both hit the pond at about the same moment, landing chaotically with great showers of water. Sam watched as one of the boys came up to the surface and began to swim toward the bank where he and Damaris were standing.

  ‘Who are they?’ Sam asked.

  ‘My friends. And here’s …’ Damaris had just begun to tell Sam, taking several steps toward a wickerwork basket in the shade of a willow tree. But Sam had other ideas. He threw himself down by the water and began to frantically cup handfuls of it to his mouth as he drank. He kept going, finding he couldn’t quench his thirst.

  The boy emerged from the pond. ‘No?’ he said. ‘He’s new?’

  ‘Yes,’ Damaris replied proudly.

  ‘Just now? And you were there?’ the boy asked, watching Sam single-handedly attempting to drain the pond dry.

  ‘Hello, I’m Tom,’ the boy introduced himself to Sam.

  Sam tried to reply but he only managed a spluttered ‘Hi’, then resumed drinking.

  ‘I was by the cliff when I spotted that shimmering which people have spoken of,’ Damaris was saying. ‘I knew something was about to happen, then these fingers just sort of appeared.’

  Tom was looking at her in disbelief. ‘Blimey O’Reilly. So what did you do?’

  ‘What would y
ou have done? I grabbed them and pulled, and he came through.’

  ‘So what’s his name?’ Sam inquired.

  Damaris giggled. ‘In all the excitement I’ve forgotten to ask.’ She squatted momentarily beside Sam. ‘Sorry to interrupt, but what’s your name?’

  ‘Sam White,’ Sam gurgled through a mouthful of water.

  Tom rubbed his chin, studying Sam as he lay stretched out by the water. ‘And is Sam White all right?’ Tom asked.

  ‘It’s was gory to start with, but he’s all right now,’ Damaris said, then suddenly became aware of something. ‘Where’s Vek?’

  It had been a good few minutes since the other boy dove below the surface.

  ‘You’re always so nervy around water,’ Tom said. ‘I mean, it’s not as if he can drown or anything, is it?’

  Damaris remained silent.

  ‘Maybe, one day, you’ll come in with us,’ Tom muttered, as there was much splashing. The second boy had broken the surface of the pond. After swimming a few strokes, his incredibly tall body was revealed as he began to wade toward the bank, blowing water from his nostrils.

  By this point Sam had stopped drinking and was regarding the boy from his low vantage point.

  ‘Sam’s just crossed through,’ Damaris said.

  The strange boy acknowledged this with a nod. ‘It’s been a while since the last one,’ he said, as he stepped up onto the bank. ‘Welcome.’ He had a very clipped, efficient way of speaking, as if the beginning and end of each word that left his lips had been lopped off. ‘Cool haircut,’ he said, looking at where Sam’s scalp had been shaved for his operation. ‘Is that fashionable where you’ve come from?’

  ‘Sam, this is Vektor … with a “K”,’ Damaris cut in. ‘But we call him Vek.’

  ‘Lanky Vek,’ Tom said as an aside.

  ‘Hi,’ Sam said, cautiously eyeing the other boy. Tom’s appearance was normal enough, but Vek was one of the strangest looking people Sam had ever seen, with long spindly limbs that were creamy colored, and hair so blonde as to appear almost white under the radiant sunshine. The most striking aspect was how unbelievably large his eyes were, followed closely by the length of the digits on his hand, which he was now proffering at Sam.

 
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