Summerhouse land, p.22
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       Summerhouse Land, p.22

           Roderick Gordon
 

  ‘Better take you home, old chap. I’ll get the horse ready,’ Simon mumbled, going over to it. He was uncomfortable because he knew something.

  And in the grass a dog was watching.

  Chapter Fourteen

  ‘Sam, can you tell me about this?’

  It was Damaris. She wasn’t as much asking as demanding.

  ‘Sam?’ she repeated when she didn’t get a reaction.

  Curled up on his bed at the Dormitories, he’d been in no mood to speak to anybody since Simon had brought him back to the village.

  ‘Are you sulking or something?’ Damaris said. Sam curled up even tighter, but then she began to babble away ten to the dozen in a language that he didn’t understand.

  He rolled over and looked at her. ‘Is that Japanese?’

  ‘Yes, and you obviously don’t know it, because I just insulted the heck out of your forefathers,’ she said. ‘So if you haven’t learned to speak it, it’s unlikely you’ve learned to write kanji either?’

  ‘No,’ he replied, in that way people do when it’s the last thing they’d contemplate doing. ‘But you have?’

  ‘Sure. Like most people in valley, I know loads of languages – we teach each other. It’s something to fill the days and it’s not as if there isn’t time.’ She brandished the photograph of Rachel at him. ‘But I want you to explain this,’ she said forcefully. ‘I came across it in a pocket when I was washing your dressing gown.’

  ‘What’s the big deal?’ Sam said dismissively. ‘It’s of Rachel … an old friend of mine from hospital. I found out that she’d died from her parents, but …’

  Flapping the photograph impatiently, Damaris spoke over him. ‘Okay, okay, then why’s my name on it? Is this some sort of joke?’

  Sam sat bolt upright. ‘Your name? Where?’

  Damaris sat on the edge of the bed beside him, then pointed to a line of the tiny Japanese symbols handwritten on the reverse of the photograph. ‘There it is. What’s my name doing on here? And why do you and I have to contact this man for help?’ She slid her finger to another line below. ‘That’s the address where we’ll find him. It’s in London, so it’s back in the world.’ She laughed angrily. ‘So this has to be a prank you’re pulling on me. Who put you up to it? Tom? Or Vek?’

  Damaris was really quite livid, but then noticed how nonplussed Sam was. ‘I thought it was all a misunderstanding when Rachel’s parents visited me on the ward,’ he said. ‘They told me that I’d made Rachel well again. But they also told me her condition had come back and she’d died. Because that was what she chose.’

  ‘Your friend was cured, then grew ill again?’ Damaris asked.

  Sam was so lost in his thoughts, he didn’t answer for a moment. ‘Come to think of it, they might have mentioned you too.’ He had a remote look in his eyes. ‘If that’s really your name there, then you and I return to the world and bring her back here with us. That’s the miracle they were talking about, because she doesn’t stay in the valley forever. She goes home to them again.’

  Sam suddenly sprang from the bed, full of hope. ‘So it is possible for me to cross through the cliffs. You and Simon and everyone have got it wrong. I can go back.’

  ‘No you can’t. Nobody’s ever done it,’ Damaris replied unequivocally.

  ‘Explain that then,’ Sam said, jabbing a finger at the photograph in her hand. ‘How can Rachel’s dad have possibly known your name? He must have written that. Are you saying it was a wild guess?’

  Damaris pursed her lips. ‘That’s a mite unlikely.’

  ‘Of course it is,’ Sam said, almost shouting with excitement. ‘And tell me how Rachel can have been so ill, but then suddenly recover – half her pelvis was missing and she was stuck in a wheelchair for the last couple of years when I saw her. There’s only one answer; the valley must have healed her.’

  Sam thought of something. ‘Maybe it’s linked to the things disappearing when I touch them.’ Although Damaris didn’t seem at all surprised when Sam went on to tell her about incident with the metal cup, as if she’d already been informed about both it and the spoon, she didn’t make any comment.

  Sam was still too fired up by what he’d just discovered to push her on the matter. ‘Does it mean that I’m different from everyone else … and that’s why I can cross back through?’ he posed.

  Damaris shrugged. ‘There’s only one person who could help you with all this.’ Before Sam could say anything, she added, ‘The thing is nobody’s seen or spoken to Curtis in several thousand years.’ She was shaking her head slowly. ‘You’ll never find him. He doesn’t want to be found.’

  ‘Well, I’m going to,’ Sam replied.

  ‘Where’s that damned dog got to?’ Mr White holds the door to the garden open, whistling in furious staccato bursts. After a while he gives up, and not happy that he’s being forced to leave the warmth of the house, ventures out onto the terrace. ‘Maxie! Maxie! Come here right now!’

  Still no sign of the animal.

  Treading carefully on the damp steps leading down to the lawn, Mr White begins along the garden. An icy wind is blowing and he wishes he was wearing his coat.

  ‘Maxie!’ he continues to call as he goes, stooping every so often to check beneath the bushes in the borders to make sure the dog isn’t lurking there. As he moves under the bare branches of the large copper beech at the end of the lawn, he pauses to listen.

  There are sounds from the other side of the tree, but when Mr White goes to investigate the dog isn’t anywhere to be seen.

  ‘Not again,’ he grumbles, making straight for the old fence and climbing to the top of the compost heap. Girding himself because it’s not somewhere he’d choose to revisit, he peers down into the lost gap.

  ‘You stupid dog, are you in there again?’ he asks.

  With a rustling, the animal’s muzzle sticks out from the ivy-shrouded tree to the left.

  ‘Maxie!’ Irritated as he is, Mr White keeps his voice low, making an effort not to disturb the neighbors. They’ve already been disturbed enough by the incident with Sam.

  Maxie shuffles out from the ivy. He obviously thinks it’s some sort of game as he does that thing that dogs do, lowering the front half of his body while keeping his haunches up, tail switching playfully from side to side.

  ‘Bad dog! Come out of there right now!’ Mr White says, glowering at the animal. Maxie obeys, belly crawling over the dry twigs to the fence, where he stops to look helplessly up at Mr White.

  Jumping from the compost heap, Mr White lands beside the fence and immediately begins to test each panel to find where the dog has managed to get through. He locates the loose panel, and it creaks against its rusted fixings as he pushes it back as far as it will go.

  Maxie squeezes through, then hightails it for the house. Mr White follows, trying to scrape the leaf mulch from his shoes on the grass as he walks. Arriving at the back door, he lets the dog in.

  ‘To your basket,’ Mr White directs Maxie once they’re both in the kitchen.

  Mr White’s at the sink, water gushing from the tap to fill the kettle when he hears the sound of teeth chomping on something hard. ‘For Pete’s sake.’ He turns off the tap and goes to the corner of the kitchen. ‘What have you got there, Maxie? Let me see.’

  Maxie lowers his head defensively in the basket, but not before Mr White catches a glimpse of a sizable object in his mouth.

  ‘What is it, boy?’ Mr White says, assuming the dog has found a bone from something that’s died in the lost gap. Or perhaps another pigeon in an advanced state of decay – a perennial favorite. Whatever it is, Mr White doesn’t want it in the house. ‘Leave,’ he orders.

  The dog isn’t chewing now but staring insolently up at him.

  ‘I said leave!’

  Mr White reaches toward the dog and, completely out of character, the animal growls unpleasantly.

  ‘You bad tempered cur!’ Mr White snaps, but isn’t dissuaded from reaching toward Maxie’s mouth again. ‘Drop i
t right now!’

  The dog’s growl is even more threatening this time. Mr White is really quite taken aback as Maxie is always so good natured, even around food.

  He turns to find his wife has been watching the proceedings. ‘Did you hear that? Dratted thing growled at me!’ Mr White says. ‘Dopey animal went through the fence again. Don’t know what the attraction is all of a sudden, but we’ll have to get someone in to fix it. I reckon that fat bloke from police forensics did for it when he climbed over – thought the whole fence was going to give way under him.’

  Without a word Mrs White goes to one of the lower cupboards and takes out a box of dog treats, then approaches Maxie with a handful of them. ‘Ooooh, look, Maxie-waxie,’ she says in a coaxing voice. ‘Who’s a lovely, greedy boy, then?’

  Maxie-waxie immediately perks up his head at the tantalizing alternative. ‘A little applied psychology,’ Mrs White proclaims, as the dog opens his jaws and something drops to the lino, rolling to Mr White’s feet.

  He picks it up while Maxie is still distracted, munching on his treats. ‘Look at this.’

  Mrs White joins him. ‘Some sort of metal container,’ she says.

  ‘More than that. It’s an old stirrup cup … not in bad nick either.’ Mr White sniffs it, then frowns. ‘Whisky? It smells of whisky!’ He runs a finger over the engraved letters on it. ‘I haven’t got my glasses – can you see what that says?’ he asks.

  ‘It’s from the Second World War,’ Mrs White tells him.

  ‘From when?’

  ‘There’s a date very clearly engraved on it,’ Mrs White says, then reads out the full inscription.

  Simon

  My dear husband

  Come back to me

  17th September 1940

  ‘So it’s a gift, a keepsake for a soldier going off to fight,’ Mr White says. ‘But I wonder who left it at the end of our garden.’

  ‘It’s highly polished and not tarnished at all, so it can’t have been out there for long,’ Mrs White says.

  ‘And it also wouldn’t smell of whisky if it had. So either one of our neighbors is a closet dipso and chucked it there to hide the evidence, or more likely someone from the police or the emergency services dropped it when they came about Sam,’ Mr White reasons. ‘Maybe that fat bloke was drinking on the job.’

  ‘But if that’s the case, why was Maxie so possessive about it?’ Mrs White asks. ‘I mean, it’s a metal cup.’

  ‘Here we are,’ Damaris told Sam, as they left the track and headed toward the area behind the Straw Hat.

  ‘What this?’ Sam asked, a little daunted by what he could see.

  Although Chinese lanterns had been hung in the trees, their light was nothing compared to the intensity of the roaring bonfire which threw everything into hard relief. It conferred upon the scene a wild Saturnalian air, not least because as a violin player and his accordionist accompaniment upped the tempo, the long shadows of dancers rolled across the ground like spokes around a hub.

  The place was filling up as more people arrived all the time. Sam studied the queue at a table which was laid out with food and drink. They were a disparate bunch, some young, some old, all chatting enthusiastically with each other as they waited in line. A number of people were already sitting on the carpets that had been spread on the grass a safe distance from the fire, and beyond these were sofas and armchairs pushed together in small clusters where Sam glimpsed still more figures.

  ‘Let’s take that one,’ Damaris suggested, steering Sam toward a group of vacant seats where they sat down on a large leather-upholstered sofa.

  ‘What’s all this for? Someone’s party?’ Sam asked, letting his head sink against the backrest. He really didn’t feel in the mood to be among all these people or to take part in any sort of celebration.

  Tom vaulted over the back of the sofa to land heavily beside Sam, the springs twanging under him. ‘It’s for you, Sam,’ he said.

  Just then an elderly couple presented themselves, both of them smiling in a kindly way at Sam. His manners taking over, he automatically got to his feet.

  ‘Nice to have you here, Sam,’ the man said, the woman echoing his words, and both shaking his hand heartily before they simply walked off.

  Rather surprised by this attention, Sam took his seat again. ‘They know who I am,’ he said.

  ‘Of course they do,’ Damaris chuckled.

  Another woman appeared and again Sam rose to his feet. ‘Congratulations,’ she said.

  ‘Thank you,’ he replied, and as he held out his hand expecting her to shake it, she put her arms around him and gave him a quick hug. It was similar to the over-affectionate greeting Sam always received from one of his aunts back in the world.

  As he retook his seat, Sam blew bemusedly through his lips, then turned to Tom. ‘You are joking, aren’t you? This can’t all be for me.’

  Tom laughed. ‘It really is, to mark your entry into the valley.’ He leaned closer to Sam, dropping his voice. ‘But don’t worry about it – it’s not as though they need much of an excuse. This lot live for a good knees-up.’

  Randall suddenly hoved into view, carrying a huge tray. ‘Thought I’d save you the trouble,’ he said, setting it down on the ground at their feet. Sam looked at the generous plates of meat and the glasses of drink. ‘I was hoping to catch you this morning, but you obviously had other plans,’ Randall said to him with a wink. ‘Enjoy your party,’ he added, before lumbering off again.

  As they ate, Tom and Damaris were discussing what they were going to do the next day, which sounded like another picnic by the pond. Sam broke into the conversation. ‘Why won’t either of you tell me what’s going on?’

  ‘What do you mean?’ Tom replied unconvincingly.

  ‘Well, like why things are just vanishing when I touch them, for starters,’ Sam said sarcastically. He didn’t mention the writing on the back of Rachel’s photograph because Damaris had said it would be wise to keep quiet about it for the time being. Sam fixed Tom with a stare. ‘Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. The spoon and Simon’s cup. What is it? Why won’t anyone tell me?’

  ‘Because we don’t really know,’ Damaris said.

  ‘We’ve got company,’ Tom muttered.

  Sam looked up. On the carpet across from them were a dozen young children. They must have crept onto it with some stealth because Sam was startled to discover them all there. As he scanned across the group, every single one of them was looking at him with wide inquiring eyes.

  Their faces were dirty and their clothes ripped and torn, giving them the appearance of a band of neglected waifs. There was a pair of twins, both stick thin and their faces almost identical except they appeared to be boy and girl. They were dressed in black rags like a pair of Victorian chimney sweeps.

  ‘Oh, hello,’ Sam said to the assembled group.

  The smallest girl smiled sweetly, while the others remained blank-faced, simply observing him. The little girl was perhaps three years old, in a tattered pink dress with a large pink ribbon tied around her waist.

  Sam switched his attention to the others, noting their expressions weren’t quite so innocent after all, and the combination of youthful faces with hard, knowing eyes and drawn mouths was actually very unsettling. And a couple of the older boys had what appeared to be savage-looking swords or cutlasses tucked in their belts.

  ‘Shift it, brats,’ Vek said, suddenly popping up from nowhere. ‘Nothing for you here.’

  As Sam turned to Vek, then back again to the children, they had all slipped away into the darkness. Except for the smallest girl who rose to her feet, then began to prance daintily straight toward the blazing fire. As she reached the dancers, she looked back at Sam, a teasing smile on her face. ‘Byesy-bye,’ she said.

  Sam couldn’t stop watching as if he knew what was about to happen. Already too close for comfort to the fire, the little girl showed no sign that she was going to change course. With a gleeful squeal she did a hop, skip a
nd jump, pitching herself headfirst into the flames, arms outstretched.

  ‘Oh my goodness,’ Sam gasped.

  ‘Darned urchins!’ Tom snapped, getting to his feet. ‘We’re all fed up to the back teeth with this.’

  Sam could see her dress, her blonde hair burning. The smell that reached them on the sofa – of seared human flesh – was frightful. Damaris took hold of Sam’s arm in a gentle grip. The gesture was comforting after the appalling spectacle he’d just witnessed, although she too looked rather unnerved by it.

  ‘The day’ll come when the valley won’t foot the bill,’ Tom growled. ‘Then they’ll be laughing on the other side of their stupid faces.’

  Vek was nodding. ‘Too right – they’re abusing it. Those brats take too much for granted.’ He and the others were silent for a moment as they watched the rest of the children jumping up and down and cheering by the burning little girl. Then they swooped in, dragging the smoldering body out by the legs.

  ‘But doesn’t it hurt?’ Sam asked numbly.

  ‘They’re beyond that,’ Damaris told him.

  ‘They’re bored,’ Tom said.

  ‘They do it for kicks,’ Vek said. ‘You can become a pain junkie, especially if you know that salvation is only minutes away.’

  ‘Don’t give them runts no mind,’ Tom said, looking away in contempt. It seemed that was what most of the people gathered around the fire were doing – ignoring them. Only a few were taking any notice, while the majority were still chatting, eating and dancing.

  Farther back in the shadows, as the little girl lay face down, the other urchins were running riot and shouting rowdily around her.

  ‘So that girl’s going to be okay then?’ Sam asked.

  ‘’Course she is,’ Tom replied.

  Sam was catching glimpses of two of the older urchins play fighting with swords as the rest rallied them on. Only they weren’t play fighting. There was a high-pitched shriek and then a yell of ‘Ow! You blackguard!’ from one of the two swordsmen, who now seemed to be hopping, because he only had a single leg.

 
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