Summerhouse land, p.20
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       Summerhouse Land, p.20

           Roderick Gordon

  ‘Are you saying we should simply bury the poor kid, and be done with him?’ he shot back at her, but she’d already left.

  Chapter Thirteen


  It sounded like the call of a wild bird.

  ‘Huh?’ Sam’s pillow and sheets were clammy with sweat. As with the other times he’d woken, his first thought was that he was back in hospital, perhaps because of the way he felt. This impression wasn’t helped by the appearance of the room, with its walls and ceiling painted white, and the two ranks of rather basic cast iron beds down either side.

  But within seconds he’d remember that this was no hospital. He was in a room on the top floor of the building Damaris had referred to as the Dormitories. Sam couldn’t recall much about how he’d arrived there, except that he vaguely remembered a horse-drawn cart, and being carried up several flights of stairs.

  Then came sleep. Day after day of it.

  Now he lay unmoving, except to allow his eyes to climb the angle of the roof to its apex, and then drift down the other side. This attic room was all he’d known for the best part of a week, the only intermissions from his feverish sleep when he would eat the food left for him.

  He continued to listen out, telling himself he must have dreamed the sound. Then he heard the bird call again, but from two directions, and they were both close. Both in the room. With a groan, Sam pushed himself up on his elbows to look.

  Invisible birds?

  At best his senses were scrambled, at worst he was completely losing it.

  But there was an eruption of loud laughter as a head popped up over the foot of his bed.

  ‘Sorry,’ Tom said. ‘That wasn’t fair. It’s only me.’

  ‘And me,’ Vek confessed.

  Sam located the other boy; he was sitting astride one of the cross beams up in the roof at the end of the attic.

  ‘Oh, hello,’ Sam replied woozily.

  ‘We brought your supper – a couple of pies and some fresh milk,’ Tom said, pointing at the tray next to Sam’s bed. ‘The kitchen’s downstairs if you need anything else.’

  ‘How are you feeling? Any better?’ Vek asked. He was now gripping the beam with both hands and doing steady pull-ups as if he was a gymnast in training.

  Sam yawned. ‘Much better, thanks.’

  Tom had risen to his feet and was looking at him. ‘Thought you might be ready for a change from this stuffy room. We could show you round the village.’

  ‘Tom wants you to come out and play,’ Vek said with a chuckle, mocking the other boy. ‘He’s all excited that we’ve got a new friend.’

  ‘Yes … I’d really like that,’ Sam said in a measured way. The cycle of overwhelming exhaustion and cliff hunger seemed to have diminished, and Sam could feel himself growing stronger with each day of rest, but he didn’t feel ready to get up quite yet. Not for Tom and Vek and their antics, at any rate. ‘Maybe tomorrow,’ he added, not wanting to appear unappreciative.

  Truth be told, he relished being able to take it easy and sleep and do nothing, and for once not because he’d been laid low by his disease or a crippling headache. For Sam, this week of indulgence was something that he’d never experienced before, and he actually wouldn’t have minded if it never ended.

  He suddenly thought of something. ‘Was someone reading to me earlier?’ he asked, frowning. ‘Because I sort of remember hearing them.’

  ‘That would be Damaris,’ Vek said. ‘Reciting poetry.’

  ‘Even though you’ve been out of it, she’s been up here every day to see you,’ Tom said. ‘I reckon she’s sweet on you.’

  There was a huge crash from the end of the room. With a kick of his legs Vek had tried to swing himself right over the beam, but it had gone disastrously wrong. He’d hit the floor with some force.

  Swearing, he picked himself up. ‘That was stupid,’ he said in his odd way of speaking, then raised his hand to look at it. Sam thought again how phenomenally long his digits were, but that wasn’t what made him sit up even more.

  Vek’s little finger was so obviously broken, but worse still – it was sticking out sideways from his hand.

  Sam was horrified. ‘Oh no,’ he gasped.

  ‘Clumsy clod,’ Tom laughed.

  ‘Ho hum,’ Vek muttered. Moving to the nearest bed, he struck his hand against the bedstead. There was the terrible sound of bone clicking against bone.

  He raised his hand again – the finger was back in place, but it still looked very swollen.

  ‘Cue smoke,’ he said, watching with detachment.

  ‘Doesn’t it hurt?’ Sam asked.

  Vek’s eyes were watering, but he was smiling. ‘Not for long,’ he replied. ‘Pain is redundant here.’

  A few wisps of white vapor curled around the finger.

  ‘And it’s …’ he said, sweeping his hand through the air, then forming a tight fist as if nothing had ever been wrong with it, ‘… done.’

  ‘But your finger … the bone mended that quickly?’ Sam asked in amazement. There was no longer any redness or swelling – it looked perfectly normal. As normal as it had before the mishap.

  Vek nodded.

  ‘So that’s how it works? Injuries just heal themselves?’ Sam said. He might have been cured of his own condition, but it was another thing to see it in action on someone else, before his very eyes.

  Tom was grinning mischievously. ‘That’s how it works, even for freak-ugly tree frogs.’

  With a roar of boisterous laughter, Vek charged after Tom who was already making good his escape.

  Sam just heard Tom calling as he thundered down the stairs with the other boy in hot pursuit. ‘Find us when you’re up,’ he shouted.

  ‘I will,’ Sam said, then had some of his supper before he drifted off to sleep again. He woke several times during the night – he could tell roughly how late it was from the view of the sky in the two circular windows high on the walls at each end of the attic.

  Dawn was breaking in the gray sky when he woke again – this time with a start, and with the most vivid image of his parents lingering in his mind.

  ‘Mum. Dad,’ he said out loud, thinking how much he missed them and how frantically upset they must be, while he was here in this bed, living the life of Riley.

  For no apparent reason, the image of the bizarre chimera of part-infant, part-old man he’d met at the Straw Hat pushed the one of his parents aside.

  Baby Pain ...

  Sam winced. That was one memory too many.

  But he knew then what he had to do; he had to go back to the cliffs and cross through them and into his garden. How could Sam live with himself if he didn’t tell his parents that he was still alive? He couldn’t leave them not knowing.

  Lifting aside the blankets, he swung his legs from the bed, then stood up. He waited for the dizziness to pass. It only took a moment or two, and he’d evidently grown in height again because the floor seemed even farther away. As he took a step, he noticed something under his bed. It was a set of clothes. Placing them on the mattress, he unfolded them, recalling what Simon had said. They had to be for him.

  Sam quickly changed from his pajamas, donning the blue shirt and pants. Both were on the roomy side, and he smiled as his school outfitter’s stock phrase came back to him; ‘He’ll soon grow into it’.

  Maybe that was truer now than ever.

  Maybe he’d actually grow into the clothes during the course of the day. He put on the socks and brown leather boots, then crept through the doorway.

  The steep flight of worn treads led down to a half landing where he noticed a door was ajar. Venturing cautiously through it and inside the room, he tried a switch beside the doorway. As the light flickered on, Sam found he was in a white-tiled bathroom, although the tiles themselves were cracked and the gaps between them discolored with mold. Copper pipes tarnished to various shades of green ran all along the walls, like plumbing from some distant century.

  There was an ancient mirror above the basin, which Sa
m approached slowly, peering into it. The silvering on the back had deteriorated and his reflection was partially obscured by blotchy clouds, but he hadn’t seen himself properly since the miraculous transformation. He laughed in disbelief as he stood gazing at the face he saw there.

  His skin glowed with vitality like those sporty kids at school who spent all their time outdoors. Even his hair seemed somehow different; it was quickly growing back where it had been shaved for the operation, but this wasn’t what caught his eye. Where he could see it at his temples it had developed a few blonde streaks, losing some of its mousiness.

  As Sam leaned closer to the mirror, the face in it assumed a serious expression.

  ‘Who are you looking at?’ he asked, because someone so unfamiliar was there.

  Of course Sam knew it was him, but at the same time it wasn’t. He became quite unsettled as the face continued to stare unwaveringly at him, its eyes boring into his, defying him to blink, to look away. It was the oddest feeling, one of disassociation and detachment.

  ‘Who are you looking at?’ Sam demanded again. ‘Just who the heck do you think you are?’

  ‘Who’s asking?’ he replied.

  ‘I really don’t know anymore,’ Sam finally answered, breaking from the grip of the stranger’s stare.

  He had to laugh. He couldn’t get over how much he’d changed. He turned to one side and then the other to view himself in the mirror, and even tensed his arms like a body builder showing off his physique. There was no question that they were bigger and stronger, and the same was true of his legs.

  For most of his life all he’d known was the constant fear that his body was mutinying, looking for the next opportunity to bring him down with pain and illness. He’d had to live with that uncertainty, with the dread of not knowing what lay around the corner. Not knowing what tortures his condition had in store for him.

  But he no longer felt that fear. He felt confident and full of energy now. Somehow – and he was suspicious that it wouldn’t last – he’d been given a new lease of life in which he’d been invigorated and renewed.

  He sniffed, pulled from his thoughts as he detected the smell of cooking. He knew it must be coming from the kitchen that Tom had mentioned.

  Before he left the bathroom, he tried one of the taps and after a succession of knocking sounds from the pipes on the walls, fresh water trickled from it. He washed his new face, then went back onto the landing and began to tread softly downstairs.

  The flights of stairs eventually came to an end in a hallway with a dark stone floor. Devoid of any furniture, its walls were paneled in age-darkened oak, reminding him a little of his school. Stepping as lightly as he could, he went to what had to be the main door and looked through the glass panes. He saw an unmade track outside, the other side of which there was a whole row of buildings.

  As voices carried from rooms elsewhere on the floor, Sam warily scanned the hallway behind him. He wanted to avoid bumping into anyone, but was curious to find where the smell of cooking was coming from. He crossed to the rear of the hallway and then passed down a corridor, where he gently nudged open a pair of swing doors to peer in. He’d found the kitchen, and thankfully there was no one in evidence.

  Sam barely registered the wood-burning stoves or how antiquated the room and everything in it was as he cast his eye over the cutlery and rolled napkins precisely arranged at the start of a long table.

  ‘Like a hotel,’ he said out loud, remembering the occasions he’d stayed in them with his parents. However this was like an extremely old hotel that had seen better times.

  As Sam walked beside the table, there was a series of silver tureens, their domed lids so highly polished they shone. He touched the lid of the first one he came to and discovered that it was hot. Lifting it to find there was a pile of sausages underneath, he couldn’t resist helping himself to a couple, bolting them down quickly in case anyone came in. Then he found a similarly large pile of bacon in the next tureen along and, as he reached the end of the table, his gaze fell on many baskets of bread rolls.

  There was enough food on the table to feed a small army, and the aroma of freshly baked bread and cooked meat in the room was intoxicating. Although Sam felt guilty that he was just helping himself, it would have taken a small army to stop him as he grabbed a roll and broke it open. He filled it with a handful of rashers and, creeping silently back to the hallway, left the building by the main door.

  Mr White pours milk into his coffee and goes to the spot on the kitchen worktop where Sam would take his daily quota of pills, then stirs the mug absently as he looks out of the window.

  He hears the front door open and then a rapid thump thump thump as Jesse runs upstairs. Mrs White enters the room with his school bag.

  ‘Jesse okay?’ Mr White inquires.

  ‘Complaining about a headache,’ she replies, going to the medicine cupboard. ‘He isn’t acting like he’s got one, though.’ She takes a box from the shelf and checks the label. ‘I think he’s just after some attention.’

  Mr White continues to stir his coffee, which is unnecessary because he never takes sugar in it.

  ‘You’re very quiet. What’s wrong?’ his wife asks. ‘Not still annoyed about that camera, are you?’

  ‘Oh, no,’ Mr White replies, taking the spoon from the mug and dropping it into the sink. ‘Gave that up for lost ages ago. It’s gone.’

  ‘Well, what is it then?’ Mrs White says. ‘Because I can tell something’s bothering you.’

  Mr White presses his lips together, staring at the garden again. ‘You know what we talked about … about how we both keep thinking we’ve seen Sam when we’re out. His hat bobbing in the crowd, or a boy that reminds us of him, and you have to look twice but, of course, it’s nothing like him when you do.’ He turns to his wife. ‘You know?’

  ‘It’s not unusual. Actually it’s quite common during the grieving process.’ Mrs White had bowed her head slightly and is staring at the floor. ‘Subconsciously we’re trying to find our son, because we can’t accept that we’ve lost him.’

  ‘Yes.’ Mr White nods. ‘Well, I took Maxie out for a walk this morning. I was throwing his ball for him on that slope in front of Kenwood House, with the lake at the bottom.’

  Mrs White smiles sadly. ‘We used to go there a lot.’

  ‘I was halfway down it, waiting for Maxie to come back with the ball, when I was so sure I spotted Sam up by the house. I can’t tell you what a shock it gave me. Oh sure, the kid was a bit older than Sam … certainly taller and in better shape than he ever was and, of course, I knew that it couldn’t possibly be him … but his face was so very similar, and there was even something about the way he was standing.’ Mr White’s voice has started to tremble and he takes a sip of coffee.

  Mrs White remains silent while her husband recovers.

  ‘You’ll think this is crazy, but I ran up the slope after him. It was sunny this morning so there were quite a few people out along that walkway in front of the house, and I lost sight of him. I couldn’t find him anywhere.’

  ‘You actually went looking for him? In the crowd?’

  ‘For a few minutes. Yes,’ Mr White admits.

  ‘Right,’ his wife murmurs, not sure how to respond. She taps the box of paracetamol several times with her finger. ‘As I said, this is all part of the process as we try somehow to get over his death,’ she says more audibly. ‘Somehow or other.’ She goes to the sink to fill a glass with water.

  ‘But even though I saw him from a distance, the boy’s face was so incredibly similar. The likeness was uncanny. And the strangest thing was his expression … the sheer hatred as he looked at me.’

  ‘He was looking at you?’ Mrs White asks.

  ‘More than that – he was really glaring at me,’ her husband says.

  Mrs White shakes her head as if she’s heard enough. She laughs without any trace of humor. ‘So it was a moody teenager who was fed up because some old guy was giving him the eye. What do you w
ant me to tell you?’

  ‘I don’t want you to tell me anything,’ Mr White says, with a flash of anger. A flash of anger with himself for being so foolish. ‘But I was so sure …’ he tails off, because his wife has begun to cry.

  ‘I need to see to Jesse,’ she mutters, heading away with the paracetamol and the glass of water. But she stops in the doorway, leaning heavily against the jamb as if she’s suddenly lost her balance. ‘There’s no shortcut to dealing with Sam’s death.’ She turns to her husband, then shakes her head. ‘Precisely what were you hoping for – an easy way though this? Some sort of fairy tale ending?’

  ‘Oh, come on. What is this?’ Sam said. ‘Some sort of fairy tale?’

  The sun wasn’t fully up yet, but the promise of another glorious day was already in the air.

  The sight that met Sam as soon as he’d stepped outside brought him to a standstill. Although he’d taken a sizable bite from his bacon roll, he forgot to chew as he scanned the other side of the wide thoroughfare.

  The terrace of half-timbered buildings could have been lifted right out of a story book – many houses, some implausibly narrow, were crammed higgledy-piggledy together as if they were jostling for space. And above the terrace a battalion of chimneys sprouted from the dog-tooth roofline, a few of which were streaming smoke into the sky.

  Despite their archaic appearance, the houses were all well kept and very much in use. Curtains were drawn behind the leaded-lights of the upper floors, and there were one or two dim points of illumination showing in rooms downstairs.

  Sam remembered to chew again as he moved to the middle of the thoroughfare. Although at first glance the track of sandy soil and pebbles looked like an old riverbed, the surface was surprisingly firm and compacted, as if legion upon legion of feet had tramped it down over the years. Cherry trees in full blossom grew at regular intervals all the way along the track, reminding Sam of the one in his garden.

  Turning a hundred and eighty degrees, he looked up at the Dormitories buildings he’d just emerged from. It was almost as large as the entire terrace opposite, at least five hundred feet from one end to the other, and resembled something from Tudor England with its black timber frame enclosing panels of white mortar.

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