Summerhouse land, p.18
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       Summerhouse Land, p.18

           Roderick Gordon
 

  Sam reached up and shook it.

  ‘If you think he looks creepy, that’s because he comes from years ahead of us,’ Tom explained. ‘At least that was what he told us.’

  ‘Creepy?’ Vek repeated, in mock outrage. ‘Thousands of years of evolution separate you and me,’ he said, addressing Tom. ‘And it’s been worth every minute.’ Although this was evidently an old and well-worn joke between them, they both laughed.

  Tom hadn’t finished yet and, without warning, slipped into the broadest of cockney accents. ‘’E says that, but I knew this family lived in Somers Town that were all the spitting image of ’im.’

  ‘I really hate it when you do that,’ Damaris murmured. She had opened the basket and begun to unwrap the food inside.

  ‘But that’s what I was like,’ Tom replied, genuinely a little offended.

  ‘I know,’ she sighed, her brows ticking up.

  By now Sam wasn’t paying much attention to the exchange because Damaris was holding out what appeared to be a pork pie. He seized it and began to wolf it down in massive bites.

  ‘Delicious,’ he said, though indistinctly because his mouth was full.

  She automatically offered him another when he’d finished, which he set about with equal zeal.

  ‘Cliff hunger,’ Vek said.

  ‘Yes. Good thing nobody else is peckish,’ Tom said wryly, ‘because that basket is gone.’

  Sam continued to eat voraciously; it had become somewhat of a competition between the two boys as they watched him work through the basket, trying to guess when he might have reached capacity.

  Sam appeared to be slowing as he tugged at the neck of his pajamas. ‘Getting hot,’ he said through a mouthful.

  ‘No! Don’t stop now,’ Tom urged him. ‘Or I’ll lose my bet with Vek.’

  ‘Maybe you could do with a sip of lemonade?’ Damaris said, as she produced a ceramic bottle from the basket and passed it to Sam. ‘And it’s too warm out for this heavy thing,’ she added, trying to extract one of Sam’s arms from his dressing gown. He moved the bottle to his other hand and continued to drink from it as she managed to free his second arm.

  She held up the dressing gown and inspected the blood stains. ‘We can get those out with a wash. You’ll need a change of clothes anyway when we reach the village.’

  ‘Listen to mummy,’ Tom said in a mock whisper to Vek.

  With a napkin she’d taken from the basket and then dipped in the pond, she set about wiping the worst of the blood from Sam’s face, as he set about yet another pie.

  ‘She never did anything like that for me,’ Tom commented.

  ‘Doesn’t she always get these massive crushes on newbies?’ Vek said.

  ‘Do you know, it was so long time ago,’ Tom replied, sniggering, ‘that I honestly can’t remember what that was like.’

  ‘You? In your dreams, pal!’ Damaris burst out. ‘Now put a sock in it, you two.’

  ***

  Sam yawned. He couldn’t remember nodding off, but the loose crumbs on his pajama top immediately brought back the memory of how much food he’d consumed.

  ‘Still hungry?’ Tom asked.

  ‘Not so bad now,’ Sam answered. Sitting up, he glanced at the empty wickerwork basket with two recumbent forms beside it. They were all in the shade of the willow, but while Damaris and Vek slept soundly, Tom was wide-awake and watching him with quiet interest.

  ‘That’s how it goes in the beginning. Food and sleep, food and sleep,’ the boy said. ‘But the tiredness wears off after the first week.’

  Sam got to his feet. ‘I won’t be here that long.’

  ‘Why – where do you think you’re going?’ Tom asked, but not in an unkind way.

  Sam didn’t answer, instead stretching his arms and then rubbing his shoulders. ‘I feel so good. I haven’t felt like this in years.’

  ‘You’re a Londoner like me, aren’t you?’ Tom said.

  Sam nodded.

  A flock of birds flew into the branches of the trees across the pond and Tom turned to look at them. ‘Seeing you guzzle like that reminded me how hungry I was back in the world. It was tough.’ He switched his gaze to Sam. ‘I reckon it was a quite a bit before you, though,’ he said, a hint of Cockney returning to his voice. ‘Queen Vic was still on the throne in them days.’

  ‘Victoria? Queen Victoria?’ Sam asked, then swayed as if he’d lost his balance. ‘Whoa! That’s weird.’

  Tom stood up suddenly. ‘What is?’

  Sam was wearing a puzzled expression. ‘You’ll think I’m mad, but I feel … I feel taller … somehow.’

  ‘Yeah, you’re not mad. That’s usual. You’ll have grown. I did too, after the rickets had gone.’ Tom pointed to a second willow farther around the bank. ‘Tell you what – race you to that tree and back.’

  ‘Me? Race?’ Sam looked at him incredulously. Tom with his honed athletic build was the picture of good health, but Sam couldn’t remember the last time he’d been well enough to contemplate anything that strenuous. ‘I can’t run. I can’t even stand at the moment!’ he said. ‘Besides my bones aren’t str—’

  ‘Sure you can,’ Tom interrupted. ‘You need to try out those new pegs of yours. There’s nothing like getting used to your new body with a quick sprint.’ He smiled broadly. ‘I can’t tell you what a buzz it is if you couldn’t do it before.’

  Tensing each leg in turn, Sam was hesitant. ‘They feel so different.’ He looked at Tom. ‘Well … okay, I suppose I could try, but you are going to beat me.’

  He came alongside the other boy, who counted down with ‘Ready, steady, go!’

  Astonishing himself, Sam began to run, slowly at first, then speeding up. Beside him, Tom was laughing. He moved to the shallows where his feet kicked up the water. ‘Faster!’ he shouted.

  Sam was laughing too as he pounded along the bank. The sensation of his heart pumping blood around his renewed body was exhilarating.

  They both touched the tree and nearly collided as they reversed direction, thundering back along the bank again to the wicker basket. When they reached it Sam sat down, but he was barely out of breath, and his legs positively vibrated with their newfound vitality. It was as though a butterfly had emerged from the pupa to beat its wings for the first time. Sam couldn’t believe what he’d just been able to do.

  ‘Wow!’ he exclaimed.

  Enjoying Sam’s elation, Tom gave him a pat on the back. ‘Told you, didn’t I?’

  Damaris and Vek had been woken by all the commotion.

  ‘Don’t overdo it, Sam,’ Damaris warned. ‘We’d better get you to the village before the tiredness lays you out again, because it will.’

  After they’d put their clothes on over their trunks, Tom and Vek picked up the basket between them, then climbed to the top of the mound of loose stone. Damaris and Sam followed, but as they reached level ground again and began in the opposite direction to the cliffs, Sam wasn’t so sure.

  Drawing to a halt, he let his gaze roam across the endless pastures. ‘Where exactly are we going?’ he asked, watching dandelion seeds as they were swept along by the warm breeze.

  ‘To the village,’ Damaris replied. ‘That’s where most of us live.’

  A robin redbreast alighted in the branches of a small tree not far from him and broke into song. Sam felt intoxicated by this place; he wished he could believe what Damaris was telling him – that it wasn’t all some fantasy playing out in his head, because he couldn’t remember feeling this well and this happy for so very long. For ever.

  But then Sam cast a critical eye over these people that he’d only met such a short time ago. They were complete strangers. He didn’t know them at all. What was he thinking?

  ‘No, I can’t just go off. I need to get home to my parents,’ he said, turning to where the cliffs lay. He wondered if this was the point at which his dream might finish and he’d wake up to face whatever reality was waiting for him in the lost gap. Or, maybe, he wouldn’t wake up at all, because a refus
al to go with these people was when his life ended. Could that be it?

  ‘But, I told you, once in the valley, always in the valley. None of us can leave, or would want to,’ Damaris tried to reason with him. ‘Anyway, it’ll be dark soon, so you have to come with us. We can’t just leave you here.’

  Sam didn’t reply right away because he didn’t want to appear ungrateful for her concern. He was also aware that she was keeping close to him, as if he might keel over at any minute. As he looked at her face, he realized how much he liked her.

  Damaris had shown nothing but kindness and solicitude toward him, and while he didn’t want to offend her, he couldn’t just throw caution to the wind.

  ‘Besides you’ll love it in the village,’ she was saying. ‘It’ll be the best home you’ve ever had. You’ll be there with us. You’ll be there with me.’

  Damaris’s invitation hung between them as she extended a hand tentatively toward him. He had to admit that this was one of the pleasantest dreams he’d ever had.

  ‘Dog,’ he said suddenly.

  ‘What?’ Damaris replied.

  But Tom was nodding. ‘Yes, over there.’

  ‘Maxie,’ Sam muttered under his breath. With a pang he thought of his pet, and how he’d left him outside in the cold night.

  ‘Who’s Maxie?’ Tom asked.

  ‘My dog,’ Sam replied. As Damaris and Vek sought out the animal he’d spied in the long grass thirty feet away, Sam asked, ‘Who does that one belong to?’

  It wasn’t by any means a large dog, but with its thick-set shoulders and piebald coat of white and sandy-yellow, Sam could tell it was well cared for and hadn’t just been left to run wild. In that slow trancelike way that dogs do, it was alternating its gaze between the four of them as they stood there regarding it.

  ‘Watch this, Sam.’ Tom opened the basket and found a scrap of food, which he slung at the animal. The food landed not far from the dog, which could obviously smell it as it lifted its muzzle. ‘You see it knows it’s there, but it doesn’t make a move,’ Tom observed.

  ‘It’s a dog,’ Vek said. ‘Who knows what it wants or what it’s thinking. And what does it matter?’ He pulled an I’ve-got-an-idea face. ‘Tell you what – I’ll try to communicate with it and find out!’ He dropped onto all fours. ‘Wof, wof, wof!’ he yelled at the animal, but with his strange, clipped voice he couldn’t have sounded less like a dog if he’d been trying.

  ‘They don’t have many pooches in your time, do they?’ Tom said.

  But the dog didn’t even bother to look at Vek, and Sam had the strangest feeling that it was staring solely at him.

  ‘We don’t know where they come from, but they’re all over the valley,’ Damaris said, answering Sam’s question. ‘Been like that for years.’

  ‘But if you know dogs, Sam, you’ll know that’s not normal, is it?’ Tom said, a tone of suspicion in his voice. ‘I mean what dog ever ignored grub? That’s just not what they do ... none of the dogs from my time would turn their noses up at grub.’

  ***

  ‘So there’s the source of the spike. Look at him – he’s far younger than the first one we had through.’ Curtis was pointing at Sam’s image in the view Joely had brought up on a display. Two walls of the room were covered with these displays, relaying scenes from all over the valley. Curtis was silent as he watched Sam ambling along beside Damaris. ‘From now on, can you make sure we track him round the clock?’

  Joely nodded. They continued to watch as Sam stared straight at them, then Tom lobbed some food.

  Curtis laughed. ‘We’ve been rumbled. They’re onto us!’

  ‘They don’t have a clue,’ Joely said.

  ***

  Hearing the distant beat of hooves, Sam tried to raise his head to locate the source.

  Instead he saw three concerned faces peering down at him. ‘What happened?’ he asked, as he peered blearily back at them.

  He was flat on the ground and had no idea how he’d got there.

  ‘You went out like a light,’ Damaris told him.

  Tom crouched down beside Sam. ‘Vek and I were just deciding which of us was going to carry you on our backs.’

  ‘And even after five minutes of deciding they still haven’t decided,’ Damaris said dryly, looking down the incline. ‘But it’s okay because the cavalry’s coming to the rescue.’

  Sam again tried to raise himself up enough so he could see where they were all looking.

  ‘Is that real?’ Sam asked. A man on horseback was galloping at full tilt straight toward them.

  ‘It’s real, all right,’ Vek chuckled.

  ‘It’s Simon,’ Damaris said, waving at the man.

  Tom leaned in to Sam to whisper conspiratorially to him. ‘Simon spends all day, every day, trotting around the cliffs, forever hoping his family will suddenly appear through them with a hop and a skip. Of course that’s not going to happen,’ he said. ‘Bit of a hopeless case is our sad captain.’

  ‘Shhh! That’s enough,’ Damaris said. ‘He’s a friend. You shouldn’t talk about him like that.’

  The man was very upright and formal as he pulled on the reins and the horse slowed to a canter, then stopped. To Sam’s eye there was something decidedly military about him as he swung himself down from the saddle and marched briskly over.

  ‘Who’s there? Who is it?’ he shouted, optimism in his voice. ‘Oh,’ he said when he came close enough to see the exhausted boy laid out on the ground.

  ‘This is Sam,’ Damaris told him, adding with much occasion, ‘He’s new through today.’

  The man didn’t seem to be at all surprised by this but, as hard as he tried to hide it, a look of disappointment flicked across his face.

  ‘Simon Dunning,’ the man introduced himself to Sam with a quick bow.

  He turned to Damaris. ‘It’s been ages but I knew in my bones that we’d have a newcomer today. There was a quality to the air – a sort of static charge, like just before a storm.’

  Damaris nodded.

  ‘And ... and was there anyone else?’ Simon ventured, with a furtive glance in the direction of the cliffs.

  ‘Not that I saw,’ Damaris replied.

  ‘Right,’ he said, stepping closer to Sam. ‘Good to have you on board, Sam.’ With his small mustache and short-trimmed hair, he had a very old fashioned air about him. The only discordant aspect was he seemed to wear a permanent frown, as if he was deeply concerned about something. But other than that, his manner was as neat and straightforward as his appearance, and Sam instinctively felt this was someone he could trust and rely on.

  ‘Always good to have new blood in the vall—’ The furrows in his brow grew more pronounced as his gaze fell on the red splatters down Sam’s front. ‘Do hope it wasn’t too rough on you on the way in,’ he said earnestly. Then he seemed to be rather amused. ‘I say, you’re in your jimjams, old chap. First thing we need to do is sort you out some new mufti.’

  The horse had followed him over and chose that moment to nuzzle him in the back with such force that he was pushed forward and almost stepped on Sam.

  ‘Steady now,’ Simon said, stroking it under the chin. It was a magnificent beast, a huge chestnut-colored stallion. Sam could smell the sun-warmed leather of its saddle and bridle, so highly polished there was a luster to them.

  ‘Sam can’t make it back under his own steam,’ Tom said. ‘Lanky was about to give him a piggyback, but wasn’t sure if he was up to it.’

  Vek responded to this with a good-natured scowl. ‘So sayeth the boy with the bendy bones.’

  ‘Only for the first few minutes until they were cured,’ Tom countered. ‘Shame the valley couldn’t fix your resemblance to an oversize tree frog.’

  Damaris cut through their banter as she spoke to Simon. ‘We were hoping Sam could hitch a ride with you?’

  Simon was only too ready to help. ‘Of course. No trouble at all. Yes, you look done in, poor chap, and I was on the point of going back myself anyway.’

&nb
sp; Tom and Vek hoisted Sam to his feet, but as the large animal snorted and stamped a hoof, they could see how apprehensive he was about it.

  ‘You’ll be safe as houses on him. He’s a very old friend,’ Simon assured the boy. ‘Let’s get you into the saddle,’ he said, taking hold of the reins and backing the horse up ready for Tom and Vek to help Sam on.

  ‘No way,’ Sam said, resisting the efforts to lift him. ‘Far too dangerous.’ After all his years of having to be cautious, he was thinking about the damage to his skull if he came off.

  ‘You haven’t got the hang of this place yet, old man, have you?’ Simon said. ‘Even if my horse dragged you from one end of the valley to the other with your foot caught in the stirrup, you’d be right as rain again before you knew it.’

  Sam looked at him, not knowing how to respond.

  ‘Possibly not the best example you could have chosen,’ Vek said sotto voce, ‘in the circumstances.’

  Simon hadn’t said all he wanted to say yet. ‘Sam, you must understand that injuries, ailments and whatever hardships the Lord Almighty tested us with back in the world – here they’re no more than a bad memory. So come on, there’s nothing to be frightened of.’

  Sam was so tired that he gave in, allowing Tom and Vek with much grunting and heaving to lift him up into the saddle. And as he was being borne along at a steady trot, he was grateful that he hadn’t had to walk the distance, although in the back of his mind the reservation that he was moving farther away from home still lingered on.

  The others took turns to walk on either side of the horse in case Sam passed out again, chatting among themselves about the latest goings-on in the valley. Sam didn’t mind at all that he was excluded up in the saddle – he was too weary to pay attention to what was being discussed. Besides, it gave him the opportunity to reflect on everything that had happened, and also take in the countryside as they passed through it.

  He noticed red squirrels in the trees. He’d never seen these in the wild, but here in the valley there was an abundance of them. There were also deer grazing not far from the track, which barely gave the humans a second glance as if they had nothing to fear from them.

 
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