Summerhouse land, p.23
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       Summerhouse Land, p.23

           Roderick Gordon
 

  ‘Predictable,’ Vek said.

  The one-legged child added another shout of, ‘Give me my shoe back!’ as, to Sam’s horror, he spotted that the smaller children were throwing around what actually appeared to be his dismembered leg.

  ‘No respect,’ Damaris said.

  Sam wasn’t thinking when he opened his mouth. ‘So these kids came through the cliffs too? After they’d died back in the world?’ he asked.

  Letting go of his arm, Damaris drew her knees up under her chin and hugged her legs, while Tom pretended to concentrate on his plate.

  Sam let out a weary groan.

  He’d broken the convention of never talking about their deaths when he’d just watched a little girl quite willingly kill herself – at least she would have if she wasn’t being revived by the power of the valley before his very eyes. Sam could see that she was enveloped by wisps of white vapor, although what was left of her dress was no longer pink, but singed black by the intense heat.

  ‘This place is unbelievable,’ he said, adding under his breath, ‘And so are all of you.’

  Chapter Fifteen

  ‘De-rum, de-rum, rum, rum, de-rum, rum, rum, de-rum, rum, rum, rum-m—m-m-m,’ Baby Pain part-warbled, part-squawked in a crude approximation of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, then continued with some more rather random ‘Rums’.

  Making shapes with its hands, the infant was tucked away on a shelf under the long bar at the Straw Hat while Randall stood on the other side, polishing the counter with a cloth.

  ‘Subtle, very subtle,’ Randall grunted, working his way along the varnished surface with vigorous strokes. ‘The sun’s not over the yardarm yet, and you’re not having your first tipple this early in the morning.’

  At the mention of ‘early in the morning’, Pain broke into song. ‘Earloi in the mawning,’ it trilled in the exaggerated manner of an old sea salt. ‘Oh, what shall we doh with the drunkoin saila, what shall we doh …’

  ‘Jiminy Cricket,’ Randall muttered. ‘What I have done to deserve an eternity with—’

  He stopped abruptly. In the corner of his eye he’d caught a movement at the other end of the bar. Appearing out of thin air, something had dropped to the countertop. There it pirouetted as in slow motion before it flopped over and was still.

  Randall hurried along the bar toward it. Strings of treacle elongated from the end of the metal spoon as he picked it up to examine it.

  ‘Well, knock me sideways,’ he said. ‘So this is where he sent it.’

  ‘Huh?’ Pain asked, trying to lean forward to see what had happened. It was impossible from where it was. ‘Who sent what where?’

  ‘Nothing. Doesn’t matter. I’ll get you that drink if you promise to put a sock in it,’ Randall said, lobbing the spoon into his bucket. ‘And I think I might join you,’ he added, shaking his head in disbelief. Then he spat on the bar before setting about wiping the little gluey puddle of treacle from it.

  ‘Goody,’ shrilled Pain.

  ***

  ‘Your first time on the south bank, Sam,’ Damaris pointed out, as she and Tom made their way over the old iron bridge that spanned the two halves of the valley. Damaris turned to find that the boy had hung back by the railings halfway across where he was contemplating the river fifty feet below.

  ‘Sam,’ Damaris called gently, but his gaze was lost in the swirls of white spume whipped up by the rushing water. She and Tom continued across the bridge anyway, joining Vek who was waiting for them on the far side.

  ‘We’re being followed again,’ he said.

  A solitary dog was on the bank they’d just left, its muzzle raised as it sampled the air. Damaris shrugged. ‘Let it if it wants,’ she said.

  When Sam finally caught up with them, they began to ascend the steep incline at some speed, but he had no difficulty in matching their pace. As he regarded his three companions taking powerful strides with their long, graceful limbs, it struck him that he wasn’t any different to them now.

  Seven days in the valley was all it had taken to complete the metamorphosis from the sickly child afflicted by migraines and physical disability. But it hadn’t ended there − each additional week had imbued his skin with that healthy burnished glow that was typical of most in the valley. Sam knew he’d changed so much that his own parents would have struggled to recognize him.

  He felt so physically fit and supercharged that he was sure he would have given the very best athletes at his school a run for their money. Victor ludorum! Sam smiled inwardly as he pictured himself scooping all the trophies on sports day much to the dismay of Big Ed and his goons. Or stealing the ‘Man of the Match’ accolade away from its usual recipients, the thuggish doublet of Manky Macmillan and Balls Beddows, megastar apes of the first fifteen.

  Sam! Sam! Sam! He could almost hear the cheers of the spectators as he flew down the pitch and romped over the touchline to score yet another try, his parents watching too.

  And there it was again – the thought that somehow or other he had to get back to his world. In his mind, the writing on Rachel’s photograph was incontrovertible proof that it was possible. That it was going to happen. He imagined the moment that he’d be reunited with his mother and father, and their delight at how he’d been completely cured of his condition. After their astonishment he was still alive – although that might take some explaining.

  Of course Sam would be giving up this arcadian place – this secret valley – for his gray London existence, and once he’d left he might never be able to return, but he was willing to take that risk. In the months he’d been here, he had settled into the life of self-indulgence led by his new friends, who did little else than idle the days away with picnics and the odd expedition such as the one they were on now. And Sam also considered the sad captain a friend, and was always more than willing to accompany him on his horseback patrols along the cliffs.

  But if Sam thought hard – and he really had to think hard − there was a disquieting side to the valley. He found that he was struggling to remember what he’d actually done on certain days. One following another, they were simply slipping away, the valley and its carefree routine drawing him inexorably in, subsuming him, until his priorities became indistinct and his thoughts blurred as if he was losing focus. As if he was being sucked deeper and deeper into some dizzying vortex in the ocean.

  But at the same time there was part of him – and again perhaps this was the valley exerting its influence – that didn’t care that he didn’t care more about this because it was so idyllic here with its unspoiled countryside and unpolluted air.

  As the track leveled out, Sam had just lifted his head in appreciation of the meadows around him when something caught his eye. He swung round to look, then froze on the spot.

  As the wind gusted gently, the ropes creaked.

  Six pairs of feet were dangling unsupported in the air.

  The young children had been hanged from the lower branch of an oak. Half a dozen in an orderly row, nooses cutting into their necks, their eyes bulging obscenely from their skulls. Sam recoiled as he saw that their lips and tongues were a frightful shade of blue.

  ‘Oh no,’ he gasped, overcome by the horror of the scene. He recognized the pair of thin twins in their rags, and also some of the older urchins. But when he saw her right at the end of the branch, he couldn’t take his eyes from the tiny girl with her blonde locks; this time she was in a scarlet dress with sandals to match.

  ‘Pay them no notice,’ Tom snapped, grabbing Sam by the arm.

  ‘But …’ he started to say, resisting the boy who was trying to pull him away.

  Just then Sam heard distorted giggles coming from their constricted throats. Several of the apparently dead children began to twitch, wind-milling their arms so they could pivot round on their ropes to see him. The giggling increased from the corpselike faces, and the little girl even winked at him with a red-rimmed eye, puckering up her oxygen-starved lips to blow him an obscene kiss.

  Tom rais
ed his voice in an angry shout. ‘You runts don’t show no respect! Mark my words − someday the wind will change,’ he threatened. ‘You won’t be laughing then.’

  He began to drag Sam along with him as he strode furiously up the track.

  ‘Wait!’ Sam planted his feet, refusing to go any further. ‘We can’t just leave them like that.’

  Damaris had hurried back to Sam and Tom, while Vek kicked his heels farther up the track, looking a little bored with the whole situation.

  Tom was trying to convince Sam to come with him. ‘The other brats will cut them down,’ he said.

  ‘How do you know that?’ Sam demanded. ‘And why do they keep hurting themselves?’ He took a step toward the children.

  ‘No, Tom’s right – just ignore them,’ Damaris told him. ‘Don’t encourage it.’

  Sam was frowning. ‘But how did they know anyone would be passing here?’ He met Damaris’s eyes as something dawned on him. ‘They must have overheard you and Tom talking. They knew we’d be coming this way, over the bridge. It’s me. They’re doing this because of me, aren’t they?’

  ‘Don’t be silly,’ Damaris replied. She took him by the hand and began to march away with him in tow. He allowed himself to be led, and she didn’t release his hand for several miles, swinging his arm with hers.

  Although he wasn’t exactly thinking straight after the shock of seeing the children in that predicament, Sam couldn’t help but notice that Tom was giving him and Damaris the occasional glance, as if he was checking whether their hands were still linked.

  Sam was half expecting him to comment on it with one of his usual quips, but he remained silent as they continued on their way. And Sam rather liked it that Damaris both seemed to care so much about him, and also wanted to hold his hand like that. This attention from such an attractive girl was something he’d never experienced back in the world, and never likely to have experienced because of his appearance.

  Half an hour later the gradient of the track had increased again until it finally leveled out across a vast plateau of golden corn.

  ‘This is where most of our food is grown,’ Damaris told Sam. And whenever the figures in the fields wielding scythes to harvest the crops broke from their labors to wave in greeting, Sam would join her and the other two in waving back.

  Along the way he began to notice small buildings – farmsteads, he presumed, where the people working in the fields lived.

  ‘Who decides who stays here or in the village?’ he asked. ‘Curtis?’

  ‘Eternity can feel like forever,’ Damaris replied with a smile. ‘People make up their own minds, but most choose to fill their days with something useful.’

  ‘Nobody tells anybody what to do in the valley,’ Vek said from up ahead on the track. With a hand he swept back his white fringe from his face. ‘Least of all Curtis … when he was still around.’

  ‘So some choose to live on this side and work the land,’ Tom said, then pulled a face. ‘Never been my thing, though. Too darned quiet here. I like people round me.’

  ‘Yeah, lots of them, in slums,’ Vek put in with a wry grin.

  ‘Better than skulking in swamps, froggy boy,’ Tom snapped back.

  Sam was waiting for a rejoinder from Vek, and was mildly surprised when none was forthcoming. Eventually they came to a place where the track wound through a small area of woodland, then emerged into the open countryside again. Damaris motioned toward a building on the crest of a nearby hill. ‘I haven’t always lived in the village. For a very long time that was my home.’

  Sam was wondering precisely what constituted ‘a very long time’ in the valley when Tom let out a whoop of excitement.

  ‘There they are!’

  He and Vek climbed onto a dry-stone wall at the side of the track and sat astride it. Tom was making low mooing sounds and, as they heard him, a number of cattle grazing in the pasture beyond slowly lumbered over.

  Sam blinked, not quite believing his eyes. ‘What on earth are they?’

  The massive beasts were easily twice the size of any normal cow or bull, with enormous horns and coats of thick matted hair.

  ‘Aurochs,’ Tom replied, extending a hand to one that came closer than the others. It snorted condensation from its leathery nostrils, and poking out a tongue almost as large as the boy’s head, gave his hand a lick. ‘Ow!’ Tom chuckled. ‘That’s rough enough to rip your flippin’ skin off,’ he laughed as he wiggled his reddened fingers.

  ‘They’re after the salt,’ Vek said.

  Rearing its head, the behemoth opened its cavernous maw to loose a rumbling call so far down the scale that it made Sam’s body resonate. As it lowered its head again, Sam caught a glimpse inside the auroch’s mouth with its ranks of hoary looking molars, each the size of a pack of playing cards.

  ‘Do they bite?’ he asked Tom, fearing for his friend who was in a vulnerable position on top of the wall – particularly as the animal had moved even closer to him and was grinding its jaws like some sort of animated waste disposal unit.

  ‘They’re herbivores,’ Tom replied casually, tickling the beast under its chin. ‘And what does it matter, anyway?’

  Sam nodded. He had to keep reminding himself that a different set of rules applied to this place. Looking around, he saw the field was completely enclosed by the wall and that there was a gate not far away, beside which stood food and water troughs. It was evident that someone was caring for these aurochs, husbanding them. ‘What are they kept for?’ he asked.

  ‘Big juicy steaks,’ Vek said.

  ‘You’ve already had auroch, Sam,’ Damaris told him.

  ‘Oh,’ he said.

  ‘Yes, we can eat these,’ Damaris continued. As Sam appeared confused, she went on, ‘You realize that any animal which comes through the cliffs is like us, don’t you? It can heal, but it can’t reproduce.’

  ‘Simon’s old nag, for example,’ Tom put in. ‘We can’t eat that … not that it’d be very nice.’

  ‘’Specially if you tucked into too much of old dobbin,’ Vek said, grinning.

  ‘Really bad case of the trots,’ Tom said, and they both guffawed loudly. These exchanges had the feel of set pieces, like a series of unelaborate rituals they’d both performed time and time again.

  Nevertheless, Sam had to ask. ‘Why? What do you mean?’

  They were both still grinning. ‘Well, somewhere there’s a little fish,’ Tom began.

  ‘A leetle fish,’ Vek echoed.

  ‘And every once in a while some poor chump swallows it,’ Tom said.

  They both laughed uproariously as Sam looked at them in bemusement.

  ‘Pretty disgusting, I can tell you,’ Tom said, curling his lip with a hand on his stomach.

  ‘Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle,’ Vek laughed loudly. ‘All the way down.’

  Sam was frowning as he tried to work out what they were telling him.

  ‘Down, down, down,’ Tom was chuckling. ‘And out.’

  Damaris rolled her eyes. ‘Please … do you have to?’ she said, then turned to Sam. ‘No matter what state it’s in – how much you slice it up or cook it or chew it – it will always come back to life inside you, because it crossed through the cliffs.’

  ‘Oh,’ Sam said, then it clicked. ‘Oh!’ he exhaled, and his friends laughed at his reaction. ‘Um … but then where are these animals from?’ he asked, scanning the assembled herd before them.

  ‘From this world. Curtis allowed them in, before he closed off the valley,’ Damaris replied. ‘He selected lines of animals, breeding them down through the millennia, not just cattle, but sheep, pigs and a sort of chicken, to get what he wanted.’ She glanced at the house in the distance. ‘A very old friend of mine worked with him on the aurochs, then took on the herd.’ Damaris seemed impatient all of a sudden. ‘Now let’s get going, shall we?’

  The house was built of stone, and it was only when they were almost upon it that Sam realized it was more extensive than he’d first appreciated – it had obvi
ously been added to during the centuries, with rambling wings extending from the rear. And behind it were a series of pens and outbuildings where he spotted young auroch calves.

  ‘That’s new,’ Damaris said, pointing to the slope below the house which was covered with thick green vines. As the four of them climbed the steps to the porch of the house, Sam was expecting to find that some ruddy faced farmer lived in it, the person Damaris had spoken of who had devoted his never-ending life to rearing the goliath cattle.

  Damaris had just made a move toward the heavy wooden door studded with nails when it suddenly swung back.

  A diminutive girl stood there, her face radiant as she smiled. ‘I thought I heard a familiar voice,’ she said.

  ‘Lucy!’ Damaris cried, throwing her arms around the girl. With her long hair and delicate frame, Sam’s first impression was that Lucy was a year or two younger than Damaris, but he wasn’t so sure about this when she turned to face him. There was a depth to her eyes that belonged to someone far older, someone who had seen it all many times before. But then Damaris and the other two boys weren’t that different from Lucy; they had that air about them too, although it wasn’t perhaps as evident. Sometimes Sam had the feeling that he was with a group of adults who were simply pretending to act like teenagers.

  ‘Word reached us that you’d come through the cliffs. Hello, Sam,’ Lucy said, immediately hooking her arm through his.

  ‘Cattle look on fine form,’ Tom said.

  ‘Yes,’ Sam added, because he hadn’t said a word to this girl yet, and felt he had to say something. ‘They’re incredible.’

  ‘Thank you,’ she replied.

  ‘Does someone else help you with them?’ Sam inquired, peering inside and still wondering where his ruddy-faced farmer was.

  ‘No, just me,’ Lucy replied, smiling at him. Sam was asking himself how someone so petite could possibly manage this as she led him into the house. ‘I expect you’re hungry,’ she said.

  ‘His cliff hunger passed off quite some time ago,’ Damaris piped up, taking hold of his other arm.

  For a moment Sam stood there, Lucy on one arm and Damaris on the other. They locked eyes and, as if this had resulted in some sort of understanding, Lucy abruptly let go and moved away from him.

 
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