Summerhouse land, p.19
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       Summerhouse Land, p.19
 

           Roderick Gordon

  And from his elevated position in the saddle, Sam was able to see that a spaniel was moving parallel to them in the thick grass, always keeping its distance, always observing them. Sam tried to keep an eye on it, but the rhythm of the horse’s movement was gradually lulling him asleep.

  They had trekked several miles when something someone was saying caused Simon to draw the horse to a stop. ‘Of course, cliff hunger. I ate enough for a whole regiment. Completely forgotten about that.’ He went to one of the saddlebags and delved inside to extract a package. ‘Remiss of me not to offer this to you before, Sam … my packed lunch. Didn’t get around to eating it today.’

  ‘Thank you,’ Sam replied, opening the sandwiches.

  ‘And if you lean back and have a rummage round in the other saddlebag, you’ll find something to drink,’ Simon offered.

  Having polished off the sandwiches and then washed them down with mouthfuls of the drink from the saddlebag, Sam was surprised to find that he was feeling much better again. In fact, it was as if he was being lit up from inside with a warming glow. He sat up in the saddle and really began to take note of his surroundings again.

  The track was following the gradual incline down the side of the valley, and in the distance a thin column of smoke snaked its way up into the sky from beside a clump of trees. Sam was just able to spot that someone was tending a fire close to the trees, and that between two of the largest and oldest of them, a pair of huge oaks, there was a thatched awning of some description.

  ‘What’s that over there?’ he asked.

  ‘It’s where we get together in the evenings, but we’re not going there now,’ Damaris informed Sam. ‘It’s called the Straw Hat for obvious reasons.’

  Sam began to laugh. It did resemble an old straw hat strung between the trees – albeit one for a giant. Although there was no reason for it, Sam continued to chuckle mirthfully to himself.

  As if something had just occurred to him, Simon glanced up at Sam. ‘Um, old chap, you did drink from the canteen, didn’t you?’

  ‘Er … nope ... from this.’ Sam held up the flask to show him.

  ‘Right. Thought as much,’ Simon said to Damaris. ‘He’s been swigging my whisky mac. That’s strong stuff, Sam.’

  ‘Ooops,’ the boy said, squinting through one eye into the neck of the flask. ‘All gone.’

  Vek and Tom were roaring with laughter and clapping.

  ‘Way to go, Sam,’ Vek congratulated him.

  ‘Want some more like that?’ Tom asked mischievously.

  ‘Yes,’ Sam said. ‘Shure.’

  ‘Why don’t we take him to the Straw Hat?’ Tom said. ‘Go on – it’ll be fun.’

  ‘Look at him. He’s in no fit state for that now,’ Damaris objected. ‘And he’s also exhausted.’

  ‘He’s looks pretty happy to me,’ Vek said. ‘Feel happy, Sam?’

  Sam hiccupped.

  Simon raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘What harm can it do? He’ll have plenty of time to sleep this off. He’s going to be out for the count for a good week anyway.’

  Damaris clucked as Simon changed course, leading the horse toward the awning. As they approached it, the ground leveled off – they were evidently on a shelf above the valley floor. The sound of laughter and raised voices carried over from people at tables under the smaller trees. A pig carcass was cooking on a spit over the fire, the smell making Sam’s mouth water. He couldn’t believe that he still had any appetite after the extraordinary amount he’d already put away.

  Directly below the thatched awning was a long counter of darkened wood, behind which a woman was cleaning glasses. Suspended from the awning and gently rocking when the wind caught it was a wooden sign, the letters carved into it proclaiming, Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we’ll do the same.

  Sam was still suffering from the hiccups as he was helped down from the horse, then steered in the direction of the counter by Damaris and Tom. There was no change in the overall level of hubbub; people were glancing up as they noticed somebody new was in their midst, but they tactfully went back to what they’d been doing.

  Even so, Sam began to feel rather self-conscious. Not only was he a little tipsy in front of all these new faces, but he was in his dirty and blood-stained pajamas. The people were all well turned out, wearing shirts and pants in a material similar to both Damaris’s and Tom’s clothes.

  As they continued toward the counter, Sam saw that three men at a table had risen to their feet when they spotted Simon tying up his horse. As Simon turned, the trio caught his eye and he shook his head at them. The men all assumed similar expressions of disappointment and took their seats again.

  As Sam scanned around, many of the people were drinking and talking, while others were playing cards and board games. Another group was absorbed in a game of quoits. But by far the greatest noise, the raucous shouting and cries of jollity, was coming from a huddle behind one of the massive trees. And somewhere in among all this clamor, someone was playing a strident waltz on a violin, the higher notes accompanied by the falsetto wails of a baby, as if it was attempting to better them.

  ‘Noisy,’ Sam said.

  ‘I’ll introduce you to Dorry,’ Damaris said, directing his attention to the woman behind the counter, who looked so tranquil and removed from the general hullabaloo while she polished a glass. As she finished it and put it away, a few wisps of her fine black hair slipped over her forehead which she swept to the side, singing softly to herself in a language that Sam didn’t recognize.

  ‘Dorry, we’ve got someone to meet you,’ Damaris announced to the woman, who immediately wiped her palms on her apron. ‘This is Sam.’

  ‘Well, I didn’t expect that!’ Dorry said, beaming at him. ‘How nice to have another young person in the fold. Welcome!’

  As they shook hands, Sam was grateful for the warmth of her greeting. Then she turned toward where all the shouting was coming from, and called ‘Randall!’ She had to do this several times before a blunt acknowledgment was forthcoming.

  ‘I’m playin’ a game,’ Randall bellowed in a way that suggested he had no intention of stopping what he was doing. ‘Got a bundle riding on this turn.’

  ‘It’s a newcomer,’ the woman shouted. ‘Always difficult to drag him away from his shove ha’ppeny matches,’ she confided to Sam in a low voice.

  ‘What’s all the rumpus, Dorry?’ Randall asked, as he finally lumbered behind the counter.

  ‘We’ve got ourselves a newcomer,’ Dorry said, inclining her head toward Sam.

  Randall’s gaze settled on the boy. ‘Well, well, well … so we do ... a fresh face at the dance.’ He was a heavily-built man with short curly hair and mutton chop whiskers. ‘Delighted to have you here ... er ...’ he said, grasping for a name. Realizing he hadn’t been told one, he loosed a deep rumble of laughter. Sam had been leaning against the counter for well needed support, but now took an unsteady step back, not sure what to make of this man.

  ‘His name is Sam,’ Damaris helped Randall out.

  ‘Sam,’ Randall repeated. ‘Well, Sam, so glad you could join us. What’s your poison?’

  ‘Whahic?’ Sam replied, almost managing a word before a hiccup ambushed him.

  ‘What’s your poison, young man?’ Randall asked Sam again, who was distracted at that moment because Vek had reappeared with some more food. He was balancing four plates in his frog-like hands, on which slices of steaming hot pork were piled.

  ‘Sam, Randall’s asking you what you want to drink,’ Damaris explained.

  ‘How about some crab apple cider?’ Vek suggested, as he passed the plates around.

  ‘With a little something extra to really make those apples spin,’ Tom interjected. ‘But not too much. Sam’s got a head start on us with a flask of whisky mac.’

  ‘Is that so?’ Randall winked knowingly at Sam. ‘Always the right idea – start as you mean to go on,’ he said, moving to the far end of the counter. Although the violinist had stopped playing, the bab
y was making even more noise, wailing at the top of its lungs. Dorry bent behind the bar and lifted up a Moses basket.

  ‘Your baby?’ Sam asked.

  ‘No!’ she replied, as if appalled by the suggestion.

  ‘Oh sorry, Dorry,’ Sam said quickly, then smiled because of the unintended rhyme. Simon had been right – that whisky mac was potent stuff.

  Dorry gave him a whimsical look, then laughed. ‘No, Sam, not my baby. Never my baby,’ she said, turning a stern eye to the basket. ‘Just stop that sham caterwauling,’ she snapped very un-maternally at it. ‘Who do you think you’re kidding?’

  ‘Lemme see the newbie,’ something demanded in a screech.

  Placing the basket on the counter, Dorry spun it around.

  Sam saw what was in it.

  He’d been about to take a bite from a slice of pork, but let it slide from his hand onto the plate. He couldn’t help but blink in astonishment.

  A baby was propped up in the Moses basket – a tiny baby. But it was wearing a blue suit, replete with a small waistcoat.

  Sam hiccupped.

  In imitation the baby hiccupped back, grinning. Then, in a helium-high voice, it inquired, ‘How’s it hanging, buster?’

  Sam tried to answer, but no words came. The minute points of the infant’s jet-black pupils were fixed firmly on him. In its hand was a miniature cigar on which it now puffed and, with some accomplishment, blew a perfect smoke ring. ‘Nasty habit this, my boy – see how it stunts your growth,’ the baby advised, showing its bright pink gums as it guffawed silently.

  The strangest thing was that the baby’s arms were making those small involuntary movements which any young infant makes. But as the baby’s hand jabbed its cigar in Sam’s direction, the effect was more of an old man trying to make a point in an argument. ‘Curious hairstyle, that,’ it remarked, studying where Sam’s cranium was shaved at the front. ‘Is it de rigueur where you hail from?’

  His mind wasn’t exactly working at anything like normal speed, and Sam was at a loss how to respond. Instead he hiccupped again, he and the baby simply looking at each other.

  There was a moment of silence in which some frothy dribble leaked over the infant’s lower lip. ‘So … nice weather we’re having,’ it finally said, trying to fill the gap in the non-existent conversation. All its limbs began to twitch now as it did its utmost to turn its bald head toward Dorry, then it let out a shrill cry, at the end of which the word ‘Rum’ was clearly discernible.

  Randall had returned with a tray full of tumblers, each filled nearly to the brim. He placed the tray on the counter, but didn’t distribute the drinks right away, instead picking up a metal container the size of thimble between his meaty fingers.

  ‘Tot for a tot,’ he laughed, moving it teasingly in front of the infant. ‘He claims it helps with his teething pain, but we all know that’s a massive porky. Truth is he loves his rum.’ Randall switched his eyes from Sam to the baby and back to Sam again. ‘This is Baby Pain. We call him that because he’s by far the biggest pain in the whole valley.’

  ‘So help me, chum, one day I’m gonna knock your block off. So help me I will,’ Pain retorted in its cartoon voice, brandishing a soft little fist at Randall. Then it let out a high-pitched cackle. ‘Now gimme my rum, you old sot.’

  ‘Down the hatch,’ Randall said, holding the measure to the baby’s mouth so it could slurp from it. As the baby finished, it licked its lips, shiny wet with the brown fluid. Sam was really quite troubled by what he’d just witnessed. A baby drinking alcohol didn’t seem right, not in any world, but no one else appeared to be bothered by it as Randall handed the tumblers round. Presented with his, Sam was about to try it when Tom stopped him.

  ‘Hold on a tick,’ the boy said.

  ‘Righty, right, Sam.’ With great ceremony, Randall rolled up the sleeves on his thick hairy arms and then strode over to the trunk of the nearest of the oak trees behind the counter where an old wooden cupboard hung lopsidedly. The whole thing shook and the contents rattled as he threw the doors open with a crash. ‘So, what have you got for us?’ he asked Sam in a loud, almost challenging voice.

  Sam surveyed the collection of items nailed to the planking at the back of the cupboard and on the insides of the open doors. Many of them were incredibly rusty as if they’d been there for decades, but he could make out a mantrap with jagged teeth, some thumbscrews, and a pair of medical forceps.

  ‘What do you mean?’ Sam asked, aware that everyone had fallen silent.

  ‘Have you got anything for us?’ Randall said again, and shook a heavy length of chain in the bottom of the cupboard to make it clatter. Sam noticed that next to it were a modern handgun and several savage looking knives, all fixed to the planking with nails.

  ‘When people arrive, they often bring stuff with them,’ Tom explained.

  ‘It’s a custom of ours to put them in there,’ Dorry went on. ‘We consign them to the darkness, then forget all about them.’

  ‘Out of sight and out of mind,’ Vek said.

  ‘Amen,’ Pain belched.

  Sam was aware that everyone’s eyes in that place were on him, waiting. ‘But I … I don’t have anything,’ he said timidly.

  ‘Yes you do.’ Damaris reached over the counter to Randall. In her hand was the shiny metal plate that had forced its way out of Sam’s forehead.

  ‘You …?’ Sam began, taken aback that she had it.

  ‘I found it in the grass,’ Damaris said.

  Randall held it in his huge hands, turning it over several times to examine it. ‘Ah, chromium alloy … for a surgical application … it’s a cranial plate. Right,’ he said, identifying it immediately, as if it was something he encountered every day. He swiveled around to the cupboard and slotted it in behind a length of crumbling barbed wire. ‘And that’s an end to it,’ he said, slamming the doors shut. Someone cheered, then others followed suite.

  ‘Here’s to Sam,’ Tom said, raising his tumbler in a toast.

  ‘To Sam,’ everyone around the place chorused.

  ‘Bottoms up,’ Vek said, and they all drank from their glasses.

  ‘Too tart?’ As Sam took his first sip, Randall had seen how he was pulling a face. ‘It can take a bit of getting used to,’ Randall said, sliding a bowl filled with a thick golden substance along the counter to Sam. ‘A dash of honey will take the edge off.’ He laid a teaspoon beside the bowl. ‘Here, help yourself, Sam.’

  Damaris, Tom and Vek had now been joined by Simon and were chatting away among themselves. Only Randall and Pain were watching as Sam took hold of the teaspoon and scooped some honey into it.

  ‘Yummy,’ Pain said, smacking its tiny lips. ‘Good stuff, that.’

  There’d been a tingling sensation in Sam’s fingertips when he’d touched the spoon, but it hadn’t deterred him from using it.

  He was holding it above his tumbler when he gasped.

  In less than the blink of an eye, the teaspoon had simply vanished. The dollop of honey that had just detached itself from the end fell with a plop in the cider.

  Sam might have been the worse for wear, but something extraordinary had just happened before his very eyes. Maybe this was a dream after all?

  His empty hand still poised above the tumbler, he looked at Randall and then Pain. They said nothing, but they were both staring at him. The baby’s mouth was agape in a small stunned “o”.

  When Randall did speak, he kept his voice low, apparently disinclined to draw attention to what had just taken place. ‘Not to worry,’ he said.

  ‘Everything okay?’ Damaris asked, turning from the others.

  ‘All Yankee Doodle,’ Randall replied, as he delved below the counter. ‘There you go,’ he said awkwardly, as he produced another spoon and passed it to Sam without making eye contact.

  Sam glanced at Pain, which drew on its cigar, the small tip glowing redder than ever as the light waned with the approach of night. Then trilling to itself, the baby took the cigar from its mouth and
pretended to be studying the well-sucked end. It was avoiding him.

  Baby Pain and Randall both knew something they weren’t saying.

  Having given his cider a quick stir, Sam took another sip now it was laced with honey. The combination of the sweet and the sour cloyed in his throat. Breaking out into a sweat, he suddenly had to get away from there, away from all these people he didn’t know. That he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

  He tapped Damaris on the arm to get her attention. ‘I don’t feel so good. Is there somewhere I can lie down?’

  ***

  ‘Good golly,’ Curtis exhaled, absorbed by what was on the screens, Joely watching over his shoulder. ‘Did you see that?’ he repeated twice.

  She nodded. It had been impossible to miss it; Sam with Baby Pain and Randall were visible from two different angles on the large displays in the darkened room.

  ‘That teaspoon will have weighed a good few grams. Ferrous content, of course … he’s a walking, talking, breathing Gondola,’ Curtis said.

  ‘So where did it go – the spoon?’ Joely asked.

  Curtis shrugged a shoulder. ‘I don’t know … could be anything from a minor loop, which means it’ll reappear at some not too distant point in this continuum, or possibly it’s a complete transference. Whichever it was, it’s quite phenomenal,’ he said. Shaking his head, he blew dramatically through his lips. ‘The energy it took to do that, particularly as he hasn’t had a chance to recharge yet.’

  ‘So he’s like the last one we had here,’ Joely said. ‘It’ll build up in him?’

  Curtis looked at her. ‘Yes, but he’s already infinitely more powerful. No wonder there was such a surge when this boy came through.’

  ‘He hasn’t got much to look forward to then, has he?’ Joely said sadly.

  Curtis thought for a moment. ‘Last time I didn’t know what I had. This time I do.’ He was watching the screen as Damaris and Tom led Sam away from the counter of the Straw Hat.

  ‘Even so, you’re still fishing in the dark,’ Joely said, moving toward the door. ‘One slip, and it’s not just his life you’re playing with – it’s all of ours. Be careful, won’t you?’

 
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