Summerhouse land, p.24
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       Summerhouse Land, p.24

           Roderick Gordon
 

  ‘Well, I expect you could do with something after your journey here,’ she said. ‘Let me show you around, then I’ll prepare some food.’

  ‘Great,’ Sam said, only now looking at the interior of the house. The room they were in had a low ceiling crisscrossed by heavy beams, and white-washed walls which appeared as rough as if the plaster had been thrown on by hand. But what drew his eye were the tapestries depicting the countryside which were hung everywhere. They were so detailed and lifelike that Sam could easily imagine that he was peering through windows at the actual landscape itself.

  ‘These are fantastic,’ he said.

  ‘Kind of you to say so,’ Lucy replied graciously. ‘It was Damaris who first showed me how to weave. She may not like to do it herself, but she’s an inspiring teacher.’

  Sam was about to ask why Damaris didn’t weave herself when his friend tugged his arm and began to guide him toward a door. ‘Wait ’til you see Lucy’s studio,’ Damaris said.

  Sam sniffed – he wasn’t over the threshold yet and already he could smell the linseed oil in the air. Inside the room and surrounded by earthenware pots of brushes, an easel was set up in the middle of the paint-splattered floor. The canvas on the easel was bathed in a pool of light coming through a large skylight directly above it.

  ‘Started a new one?’ Vek said, as they all stood in front of the canvas, peering at the misty colors smeared across it.

  ‘No, it wasn’t working so I wiped it off last week,’ Lucy explained, then laughed. ‘Actually I set out to do a portrait of Curtis, but I found it difficult to remember what he looked like.’

  ‘You and me both,’ Tom chirped up.

  ‘Been an age, hasn’t it?’ Vek added, raising his brows.

  Sam was making his way around the walls, every inch of which were covered with oil paintings. Most were of aurochs, either individually or in herds.

  ‘What happened to Curtis? Why isn’t he around anymore?’ Sam asked innocently, leaning in to look at a painting, and hoping that he might get some sort of clue to the man’s present whereabouts.

  Damaris turned to Lucy, speaking to her quickly in a language that Sam had never heard before. Lucy gave a short, curt response.

  ‘Don’t worry – they don’t mean to be rude. You’ll find they do that all the time. It’s a girl thing,’ Tom told Sam. He laid a hand on Sam’s shoulder, giving him a reassuring squeeze. ‘They were speaking ancient Greek.’

  Although Sam nodded, something in Tom’s eyes told him that he’d understood every word that had passed between the two girls.

  ‘I’ll go and start supper,’ Lucy announced, heading back toward the tapestry room. ‘Why don’t you have a wander round my vineyard while I’m getting it ready.’

  It was an hour later when they finally sat down for their meal. The oil lamps filling the room with flickering light were hissing loudly as they ate. Sam couldn’t participate in the conversation around the table as the other four talked about what various people were up to in the valley.

  ‘This isn’t fair on our guest,’ Lucy announced all of a sudden, turning toward Sam. ‘Earlier, you asked about Curtis … about what happened to him.’

  Sam noticed the others had stopped eating and how they had straightened their backs, as if they were nervous about what Lucy was going to tell him. Damaris broke into another language that Sam didn’t know, Lucy answering her. The exchange went back and forth, both of them looking a little tense.

  ‘Mandarin Chinese,’ Tom whispered to Sam.

  Lucy said something with an emphatic movement of her head and Damaris didn’t respond for a moment, then nodded.

  ‘I’m glad that’s settled,’ Vek said.

  Lucy turned to Sam. ‘I’m what they call an old soul in the valley. I was one of the first to cross through after Curtis, so we go way back,’ she said.

  ‘Way way back,’ Vek said under his breath.

  Lucy gave him a quick glance. ‘Anyway, regarding Curtis, there was a difference of opinion.’

  ‘Right,’ Sam replied, wondering where this was going as he noted that Damaris’s expression was still far from happy.

  Lucy moved her plate away from herself on the table. ‘Over the millennia two factions emerged in the valley; one wanted an uncomplicated, natural way of life, while the other wanted Curtis to continue to mechanize everything – he’s a scientist so it’s in his blood to forever keep moving forwards and keep working on new technology to make, as he saw it, our lives easier, but at the same time more sophisticated. Only many of us didn’t see our future like that. And in the end the constant opposition got to him and he simply withdrew.’

  ‘But where?’ Sam asked.

  Lucy shrugged.

  ‘The Luddites had won the day,’ Vek said gloomily.

  Tom had been shaking his head slowly. ‘Talk about ungrateful. We still use all the things he gave us – electricity, buildings, fresh water, your aurochs, and so on – you name it. We were only too ready to accept those, weren’t we?’

  As they debated the situation, Sam could see that even among the four of them, Damaris and Lucy had very different views to Tom and Vek.

  They continued to talk, sometimes becoming quite heated with one another, and completely ignoring Sam in the process. He wondered what he’d been hoping for; nobody seemed to know where Curtis was, but even if Sam could find him, why would this legendary figure in the valley be interested in helping him? And there was so much Sam didn’t know about the valley. He’d only been there for a matter of months, while everyone else had been together for an unimaginable length of time. Was he always going to be an outsider? An onlooker, always trying to catch up with these people, and failing?

  He felt a drop of sweat run down his temple, and realized that his head was thumping with pain. It was a shocking and unwelcome reminder of how he’d been before back in the world. Sam had no idea what was causing it; maybe it was because of his frustration at the sense of helplessness he was feeling, which was rapidly approaching bursting point. As he pressed his hands together under the table, he realized that his palms were beginning to feel very hot.

  Then he felt a searing pain in them, as if they were burning.

  He looked down at his hands in his lap. There was the vaguest suggestion of vapor around them – but no obvious sign of what had caused the discomfort.

  He leapt to his feet, still looking at his hands.

  ‘You all right?’ Vek asked.

  ‘Sam?’ Damaris said.

  ‘I’m fine,’ Sam mumbled, dismissing their concern with a shake of the head. ‘Just need some water,’ he added, hastily heading toward where the kitchen lay.

  It was same as the other rooms except its low, beamed ceiling was discolored with smoke from the wood stove. He ran the tap over his hands, but it was unnecessary now. They appeared to be perfectly normal, although his head still throbbed a little. That wasn’t right. What was happening to him?

  I thought nobody got ill in the valley!

  As he was helping himself to a drink of water, he remembered all those times in his kitchen at home as his mother supervised his daily rounds of pills.

  ‘Bombers,’ he said out loud, smiling to himself, missing her terribly. He felt so very far from home at that moment.

  His gaze alighted on a small knife on a chopping board beside the sink. He knew he couldn’t be seen from the table in the other room, but nevertheless he hid the knife behind his arm as he moved toward a door at the far end of the kitchen and went outside.

  He found himself on a porch where he sat down on one of the chairs there. A single oil lamp hissed away to itself, pushing back the darkness. Drawn by its glow insects buzzed in epileptic orbits around it.

  Sam held the knife up to feel the edge with his thumb. What with all the talk about the valley’s powers of regeneration, the time had come for him to find out if it worked for him too, as it did for everyone else. Of course, his condition had been cured when he’d first come through the clif
fs, but since then the thought hadn’t crossed his mind to test its powers on himself. He rolled up his sleeve and placed the knife against the soft flesh on the underside of his forearm, taking a breath to ready himself.

  He hesitated, but then remembered how he’d felt at the table and his frustration welled up inside him again, and he really didn’t care if he injured himself or not.

  ‘Let’s see,’ he whispered, as he dug the blade into his arm. It only made a very small cut. ‘Oh come on. Just do it,’ he urged himself, then gritted his teeth, applying more pressure as he drew the blade along. The pain made him grimace. The incision was several inches in length, blood welling from it and running down to his fingers as he hung his arm away from his body.

  Already having second thoughts about the experiment, he shut his eyes and counted to five, his jaw clenched from the pain.

  Then he opened his eyes to inspect his arm. He had to wipe the blood away with the heel of his other hand before he was able to see it properly. Although it was less than a minute since he’d made the incision, the wound had already shrunk in length, and the blood wasn’t flowing nearly so copiously. And unless the light from the oil lamp was playing tricks on his eyes, he was sure that he could see a few wisps of vapor hanging over the wound before the breeze took them away.

  He put his arm up to his mouth to clean more blood from it.

  ‘I … don’t … believe … it,’ he said slowly, as he lowered it to his lap.

  The incision was no longer an incision at all – it was merely a red impression on his skin as if someone had drawn a line there. And as he probed it, there was no pain.

  He heard someone approaching.

  ‘You okay out here?’ Tom inquired. ‘We were all a bit concerned. You didn’t look … well.’ The boy had hesitated before he’d used the word.

  ‘Yes, absolutely fine,’ Sam said, quickly flipping his arm over in case there were any signs left of what he’d just done. ‘But I thought nobody ever gets ill here? Isn’t that right?’ He wanted to see the other boy’s expression, but Tom had moved to the end of the porch and was facing away from him, toward the darkness.

  Tom didn’t speak for a few seconds. ‘It’s late, so we’re going to stay the night. Hope you don’t mind?’ Before Sam had a chance to respond, he added, ‘Damaris really likes you, you know – I mean she brought you here to meet her mum.’

  Sam looked askance at the boy, who had now swung back toward him.

  ‘This was her home for a long time,’ Tom explained.

  ‘Yes, she told me that. But you said her mum? What are you talking about … Lucy’s younger than Damaris!’

  ‘No, she isn’t,’ Tom said, shaking his head. ‘Not by a long chalk.’ He waved a flying insect away. ‘She may not be Damaris’s real mum, but Lucy took her under her wing way back in time. Lucy really is one of the oldest souls here … as old as the hills.’

  As the forlorn, rumbling calls of aurochs echoed up from the low-lying pastures, Tom squinted beyond the reach of the lamplight. ‘Older, actually.’

  ***

  The weeks passed until early one day when Sam and Tom were basking in the warmth of the morning sun. They were in a pair of deckchairs in front of the terraced house where Sam was now living. Although the interior was terribly old and crumbling, he’d been flattered to be asked to move in with his friends.

  Tom, Damaris and Vek had done everything they could to make him feel at home, but the more they tried to make him feel like one of them, the more he realized that he wasn’t and never would be. Whatever it was that set him apart, was growing, building, inside him, and forcing him away from them, from everyone. Perhaps that was why his friends were making ever-increasing efforts to include Sam in everything they did, to compensate for this. Or perhaps it all stemmed from Damaris and the feelings she so obviously had for him.

  ‘Fancy some breakfast?’ Tom suggested lethargically.

  Sam opened his eyes a slit to give the Dormitories building across the way a glance, but neither he nor Tom made the slightest move to get up. Sam yawned. ‘In a minute. I’m too comfortable.’

  ‘Me too,’ Tom agreed, trying to fight it, but then also yawning.

  A child’s voice squealed with excitement.

  They both looked up.

  One of the urchins had flung himself out of an upper-story window of the Dormitories.

  For the briefest of moments his legs scissored in mid-air, as if he was managing to defy physics and keep himself aloft. But if Sam had blinked, he would have missed it as the boy plummeted straight down and hit the dirt with the sickening sound of splintering bones.

  ‘No,’ Sam gulped, as all the other urchins hooted with glee and came running over. They gamboled around their friend’s broken body, laughing and shouting at him while his bloodied head opened its mouth and tried to shout back from the ground.

  Sam was appalled. ‘That’s horrible.’

  ‘Brats,’ Tom mumbled. With a disapproving grunt he settled back in his deckchair, resolutely turning his face from the scene, but Sam couldn’t stop watching. The head on the ground was now uttering noises, gurgled words, because the child’s voice box was full of blood. And it might have been looking Sam’s way when he was sure it said his name, but by then his view was obstructed as one of the urchins stepped in the way.

  The valley had already gone to work and begun to heal the injured child, the small pall of vapor that was lifting from his body almost iridescent as the sun’s rays caught it. Sam was still watching as all the children encircled their friend and bore him up, his twisted limbs hanging limply from his sides like a broken toy’s. Then they spirited him away, racing down the main thoroughfare with him on their shoulders.

  ‘Why do they keep doing that?’ Sam asked quietly. ‘It is because of me, isn’t it?’

  ‘They’ve always pulled stunts like that,’ Tom replied, but a little too casually, as if he was trying to play it down. This annoyed Sam, who felt he was forever being fobbed off.

  ‘Are they trying to tell me something?’ he asked.

  Tom’s only response was to take a deep breath, as he pretended to be dozing.

  ‘Well, if no one’s going to give me a straight answer,’ Sam said, his voice raised because he was suddenly angry, ‘I think I’ll go for a walk round the cliffs.’

  ‘What about breakfast?’ Tom mumbled, eyes still closed. ‘You’re wasting your time at the cliffs.’ He stretched his legs out in front of him and held them there, splaying his toes. ‘I’m going to get my shoes.’

  As he traipsed inside, Sam didn’t wait for him to reappear, immediately getting up from his chair and leaving the small garden at the front of the house. Sam turned left along the thoroughfare, not so much because it was the right direction for the cliffs but because he needed some time by himself.

  He’d only passed a couple of the houses in the terrace when a shrill voice rang out.

  ‘Hey, kid!’

  The voice was unmistakable. ‘Baby Pain?’ Sam asked, peering at an open window in the closest house with a puzzled expression.

  ‘No, here!’

  As Sam lowered his gaze, he spotted a white parasol under a knotted dwarf tree in the front garden. ‘Hello?’ he said.

  ‘Yes, over here.’

  Entering the garden, Sam went to the Moses basket and crouched to see under the parasol. Pain was dressed in a cream-colored three-piece suit, although there were damp patches down the front of the waistcoat.

  ‘Couldn’t help overhearing you,’ the baby said, clutching a soggy piece of bread in one hand, which it had evidently been sucking. ‘If you want answers, you’ve come to the right place. Grab my basket and we’ll go somewhere we can talk.’

  ‘Um, I not sure I can j—’ Sam was saying, glancing at the house.

  ‘Sure you can. Dorry puts me down for a morning nap while she does her stint in the kitchen.’ Pain rubbed its tiny mouth, dislodging a piece of saliva-soaked crust that had been clinging to its lip. ‘Coul
dn’t help earwigging what you and Tom were talking about. Nobody’s put you straight on this place, have they?’ it asked. It gave Sam a gummy grin. ‘If you want the lowdown, I’m your man. Now grab my basket, will you?’

  Sam wasn't ready for the responsibility of looking after a baby, however worldly wise it might be. ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘You bet. Dorry won’t be finished for a while, so you and I can have a good old chinwag.’

  ‘Okay,’ Sam agreed, full of misgiving as he took hold of the Moses basket by the handles and lifted it. The whole thing including the baby didn’t weigh much. Thinking it would be better to head where there were fewer people, he again turned left as he stepped out onto the thoroughfare.

  ‘No, the other way! The other way!’ the baby squeaked furiously.

  Sam did an about turn, wishing the baby wasn’t quite so loud. He felt as though he was committing some terrible crime by taking Pain without Dorry’s permission. But as he walked and the odd person passed by, they didn’t seem to care in the slightest, simply giving him a smile or a friendly nod. And there was still no sign of Tom anywhere – Sam was relieved because he didn’t want his friend to catch him in the act of baby-knapping.

  A spaniel loped out into the road and began to follow a distance behind.

  ‘Another of those dogs,’ Sam commented.

  ‘I have a theory that they’re the big man’s eyes and ears. It’s how he keeps tabs on us. And speaking of Curtis, did you know he built this foolishness with his own hands?’ Pain informed Sam, as they came to the circular pool with the rusted water sculptures.

  ‘Seems like Curtis built most things around here,’ Sam said.

  Pain nodded. ‘That’s the truth of it. He was in the valley yonks before anyone else showed up, so like most folks here, he had to do something to keep himself busy.’

  ‘How long have you been here?’ Sam asked the basket.

  ‘Quite a few millennia.’

  Sam stopped on the spot, holding up the basket so he could look into the baby’s eyes. ‘You’re not seriously telling me …?’

 
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