Summerhouse land, p.25
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       Summerhouse Land, p.25

           Roderick Gordon

  ‘Sure, I’m no spring chicken either. In fact, I’m the oldest baby that’s ever been.’ Pain gave a high-pitched chuckle, rolling its head on its small shoulders, then its expression turned glum. ‘You have no idea how fortunate you are.’ Pain was so demonstrative with its hand that the piece of soggy bread went flying. ‘I’m doomed … doomed to an eternity in this feeble little frame. At least you had a chance to grow some before you broke through.’

  Sam was about to ask the baby more about this, but it held out a dithering finger. ‘Go there,’ it commanded in a squawk.

  It was the church that Sam had noticed before. As they entered the gates, Pain was already issuing another instruction to the boy, waving him toward a grove of trees. ‘Get me under those and out of this blessed sun,’ it ordered. ‘You just try coping with these temperatures if you’ve got the circulatory system of a sprog. It’s really no fun at all.’

  Unlike most of the buildings in the village, the church was in ruins. Where the roof had fallen in and the rafters were exposed, nesting doves cooed noisily, as if objecting to Sam’s and Pain’s presence there.

  ‘No one looks after this place, do they?’ Sam said. The margin of land around it was full of gnarled and overgrown trees between which unusual looking rabbits with tufted ears were feeding. They hopped away as Sam selected a shaded spot under one of the trees and placed Pain’s basket gently on the ground, then sat beside it.

  ‘No, in these parts there’s not much call for advice on the great hereafter,’ Pain explained with an askew grin. ‘It’s about as useless to us as doctors or dentists.’ The baby wobbled its head toward Sam. ‘So tell me about yourself. What brought you here?’

  Sam couldn’t contain his amazement. ‘What – through the cliffs? You mean you want to know how … how I died?’

  ‘Yep,’ the baby answered succinctly.

  ‘Nobody else has asked me before – they won’t talk about it. But you want to know?’

  Pain nodded, a strand of gluey dribble pendulating from its lower lip. ‘Dang,’ it protested, trying to swipe it away with the back of its hand. ‘Sorry – as I said, this is my curse – to be stuck in this imbecilic infantile state.’

  The baby looked intently at Sam, and for once its head ceased its constant gyration on its shoulders. ‘Don’t think I like it one bit, but at least I’m not as blinkered as the others.’ Pain held up its hand, wiggling its fingers as if playing an invisible piano. ‘You see, the valley has the power to heal, and that includes minds. Sure, there are a few unredeemable souls it can’t help, but for most who find their way in, memories of those bad, sad events that brought them here are …’

  The baby paused as it sought the right word. ‘Blurred, and over the years simply forgotten.’ It gave a fleeting, toothless grin. ‘You’ll have noticed how laid back all the peeps in the valley are. Totally chilled, like a bunch of old hippies.’

  ‘Hippies?’ Sam repeated.

  Pain showed its pink gums again in a grin. ‘Yes, but I’ve never become like that, maybe because I was just a sprat when I crossed through. You see, I have no idea what brought me in. I don’t remember anything, except …’

  There was little trace of Pain’s usual swagger as it spoke. ‘Except … I was bust up pretty good, and I don’t have the foggiest why or how.’ The baby tried to touch its forehead. ‘I have the occasional flashback … feelings, sensations mostly … of hunger and agony. When they found me by the cliffs they thought I was some ancient, partially shrunken old man from my appearance.’

  As Sam looked at Pain now, he wondered what had changed.

  ‘I healed and I shrank … and kept on shrinking, until I ended up this size,’ the baby said. ‘The big man told me once that I was born with a genetic disorder – he said he thought it was accelerated senescence. Highly accelerated, because I hadn’t been alive for very long.’ The baby fixed the dark points of its pupils on Sam. ‘Now it’s your turn. I want to hear it all.’

  ‘You do? Really?’

  ‘Yep, fire away.’

  ‘Well … I had a genetic abnormality too, from my dad,’ Sam began, then talked about his illness and how it had become progressively worse. As he recounted his story, the baby remained completely silent, absorbing every detail, forever twitching its head and limbs. Then Sam finally spoke about the operation he underwent to have the metal plate fitted, and the incident with his brother that had brought him into the valley. It felt good to be able to talk openly for once, even if it was to the strangest of beings.

  ‘Interesting. Thank you,’ Pain said, when Sam had finished.

  ‘So people always have to die to get into valley?’ Sam asked.

  ‘Yes, that seems to be the rule – certainly in all the cases I know something about.’

  Sam was frowning. ‘But how do you know about them, if no one will speak about it?’

  ‘Over the years you tend to pick up bits and bobs – a little here and a little there – until you have enough to make an informed guess. As nobody can have kids in the valley, I tend to get passed around a lot.’ Pain smiled. ‘And people are less discrete around a baby, because I’m so innocent and angelic.’ Pain made a trilling noise, adopting what it probably thought was a sweet face. The sum result was something out of the very worst of nightmares.

  ‘But isn’t it weird that no one talks about it?’ Sam asked. ‘At all?’

  ‘Back in the world, death probably wasn’t exactly something you’d go on about either, not in polite company, was it?’

  Sam nodded. ‘No, I suppose not.’ Then he looked Pain straight in the eye, daring it. ‘So if you know so much about everyone, tell me about them … Damaris – what happened to her.’

  Pain tried to lean conspiratorially toward Sam, but its infant’s physique didn’t allow it to move very far. ‘Drowned, in a lake in Suffolk.’

  ‘No wonder she doesn’t like swimming.’

  ‘She didn’t just drown, she was drowned. She was being tried as a witch.’

  ‘A witch?’

  ‘Yes, she was an obvious target – autistic and living rough, cut off from her family.’

  ‘Poor Damaris,’ Sam said, shaking his head. ‘And Tom? What about Tom?’

  ‘Father killed in accident, mother turned to gin, thrown out of their lodgings, died of hypothermia, I think, on the streets of Whitechapel in the late nineteenth century.’ Pain looked thoughtful. ‘Actually I’m not sure if the cold got him first, or if he was buried alive.’

  ‘That’s awful,’ Sam whispered. ‘And Simon? It was in a tank, wasn’t it?’

  ‘Yes, you got that in one – leading a tank charge when he was shelled.’

  ‘He told me he’d lost his family.’

  ‘Beforehand, yes, and for some reason he can’t seem to let go of them, so he hasn’t found peace here.’


  ‘Odd one, that kid – bit of a dark horse. I’m not sure about him, but obviously something happened in the distant future.’

  ‘Right, and Randall?’

  ‘Sword fight.’


  ‘Murdered. Shot down.’

  Sam thought for a moment. ‘And the urchins?’

  ‘Starved, bludgeoned, burned, poisoned, asphyxiated, sacrificed – take your pick.’

  ‘That’s just terrible. What about the small girl who wears the bright dresses?’ Sam asked. ‘She’s really creepy.’

  ‘Ah, yes, Rosie Plummer. She was a cutpurse. Managed to get trampled by a horse in the early seventeen hundreds.’


  ‘A pickpocket. And before you ask, the twins, Roy and Annie Rodgers – they were both hanged.’

  ‘Why? What for?’

  ‘Those two waifs were in a gang that roamed the country looting the gentry.’

  Sam frowned. ‘Both hanged? That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? They’re only young.’

  ‘Par for the course at the time. And if you think our little Rosie’s creepy, that unsavory twosome
are in a class all of their own. There were rumors of cannibalism, and they’re also terribly close for a brother and sister – not an inch of daylight between them … too close, if you know what I’m saying.’

  Sam nodded knowingly, not knowing what Pain was talking about at all, but then he hit the baby with the question that had been troubling him. ‘So why do the urchins keep hurting themselves around me? And it is because of me, isn’t it?’

  Pain contemplated the fingers of its hand for a moment. ‘Like many in the valley, they’re drawn to you. Because of what you are. You’re not the same as everyone else.’

  Sam was lost for words. Of course, he’d had the feeling all along that he wasn’t precisely like everyone else, but Pain was being so black and white about it.

  ‘Come on, Sam. Things vanish when you touch them … spoons just disappear … you know you’re a very different fish.’ The baby’s brow furrowed as it asked, ‘Have you had any sensations that you’re overheating … burning … yet?’

  Sam thought back to the time at Lucy’s farm. ‘Yes, once. It wasn’t really burning th—’

  ‘Look, I didn’t want to be the one to tell you this,’ Pain interrupted, ‘but nobody else is going to and you have a right to know.’ The baby paused, its cheeks moving in and out like a trumpeter as it sucked its gums. ‘How do I do this …?’ It held a wavering hand at the cemetery in front of them. ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’

  ‘Huh?’ Sam said.

  ‘Something’s not as it should be. Have a look around, buster, and tell me.’

  Sam scanned their immediate surroundings. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, then detected a movement deep in the shrubbery. ‘The rabbits?’

  ‘Not the funny bunnies, no. What do you usually find in graveyards?’ Pain posed. When Sam failed to come up with an answer, the baby began to point. ‘I’ll make it easier for you. Take me over there.’

  Sam carried Pain in its basket, stepping over the short grass peppered with rabbit pellets as he approached the corner of the graveyard.

  ‘That’s far enough. Now put me down and have a really good look,’ the baby ordered. Sam did as he was told, walking slowly until he spotted something. He spun round to Pain.

  ‘A grave!’

  Toward the back wall of the cemetery, the gravestone was covered in blotches of lichen and very weathered and pitted as if it had been there for some considerable time. Going right up to it, Sam squatted down and began to pull some stands of ivy from away its face so he could see it clearly.

  ‘T?’ he said, making out the solitary letter carved into it. ‘But nothing else – no date.’ Then he straightened up as he realized something. ‘Wait a minute … I thought no one died in the valley?’

  ‘You got it. That’s right.’ Pain was silent for a beat, sliding its saliva-shiny lips against one together, as if it was undecided about continuing. ‘Almost right,’ it said eventually. ‘I knew the man who’s buried there. He was different too. Stuff vanished when he touched it. And like you, he was restless and couldn’t find peace here in the valley. This ringing any bells?’

  Sam swung toward Pain. ‘Yes … but the valley healed m—’

  ‘It healed him too, in the beginning,’ Pain cut in. ‘But he only lasted a short while before …’

  ‘Before what?’

  ‘He combusted.’

  ‘Combusted?’ Sam repeated hollowly.

  ‘Burned up. He had several nasty episodes, then – phut! – he went off like a human firework. You might think I’m over-sensationalizing this, but that’s how I remember it. Torched the whole floor of a house when he blew.’ Pain lowered its voice. ‘The big man said that he was jinxed … that his body was unique because it soaked up too much of the valley’s energy until it simply couldn’t take any more. Something had to give.’ The baby hesitated for a moment before continuing. ‘And I’m sorry to have to tell you, Sam, but I believe that’s what’s wrong with you too.’

  As the grave, the trees and the church began to spin around him, Sam had no alternative but to sit down.

  ‘So I’m going to burn up?’ he whispered. It wasn’t fair. He’d been handed a reprieve from the disease which had been slowly but surely killing him, and now it seemed that reprieve had been snatched from him. And if Pain was right, he wasn’t anything like Damaris or Tom or Vek. He felt excluded from the people he was the closest to, and whom he had come to think of as his equals.

  He wasn’t like them at all. He was mortal.

  Very mortal, because – according to the baby – he was going to die. And soon.

  Sam’s voice was barely a croak when he spoke. ‘No. Why are you saying this? You don’t know for certain it’s the same for me.’

  ‘I’m sorry, kiddo, I really am,’ Pain said, its little brow arching in genuine sympathy. ‘And you’re not wrong that the urchins and many others in the valley are drawn to you. You hold a morbid fascination for them … in their timescale you’re a glorious mayfly … an electrifying, one-night-only, flash-in-the-pan … attraction.’ Realizing that it had become rather carried away, the baby cleared its throat and took a breath. ‘Perhaps I’ve been a little clumsy in my delivery, but it’s only right that you should be told.’

  ‘Yes … thank you … thank you for being so honest,’ Sam mumbled. At least now he had the truth. He shrugged. ‘But is that it, or is there anything I can do?’

  All of a sudden Pain clamped its mouth shut, assuming the most intense of expressions.

  ‘What is it?’ Sam asked, thinking the baby was about to divulge something vitally importance, something that might help him.

  Pain relaxed again. ‘You’ve got to get me back to Dorry – and pronto.’ It sniffed sheepishly. ‘I just filled me nappy.’

  But as they left the churchyard, it made Sam stop for a moment. ‘If anyone can do anything for you, it’s Curtis,’ Pain said.

  ‘That’s great, but he’s gone, hasn’t he?’ Sam replied despondently. ‘How do I find him?’

  The baby pointed at the shuttered house a little farther up the way. ‘That was his house. Nobody’s been in it for years, centuries, but that would be where I’d start.’

  Mrs White wails, hands to her face, her cry reporting back from the houses across the street.

  She’s in her dressing gown, her husband in his pajamas. They’re only a couple of steps from the house, the front door open behind them.

  Jesse is sprawled on the roof of their car in the drive, his leg twisted under him. He’s landed with some force as the roof is dented, pushed in. He’s not moving. His head is crooked at an unnatural angle as it hangs over the side of the car.

  They’d both been woken by a loud crash from outside. Mr White’s first thought was that one of their vehicles was being broken into. Cars are regularly targeted by junkies or just resentful has-nots in their neighborhood, and it’s been happening with monotonous regularity in recent months.

  Thinking he might catch them in the act, Mr White had grabbed a tennis racket from the umbrella stand on his way out. He’s still holding the impromptu weapon in his clenched fist, but now drops it as he rushes to his son’s side. He gently lays a hand on Jesse’s chest to see if there’s any movement. There isn’t. He knows for sure now.

  ‘No, no, no,’ he mumbles under his breath. ‘Not again.’

  ‘Is he?’ Mrs White cries from the porch. ‘Tell me!’

  Mr White is about to shake his head, but doesn’t. He can’t do it, not after losing Sam. He can’t be the one to deliver the news to his wife. Instead he shouts urgently. ‘Ambulance! Call one right now!’

  As Mrs White almost falls through the door in her haste to get inside, he turns to look up at the open window of Jesse’s room.

  ‘Why?’ he asks, shaking as he begins to cry.

  Chapter Sixteen

  Although it was well past midnight, even the heaviest shadows were defused by the burned-treacle glow of the London sky.

  Sam was back in his garden as he dreamed. He was
overjoyed to be home again, although he had no idea how he’d come to be there. He didn’t stop to question it, reveling in that uncomplicated happiness found only in dreams.

  A dog was barking. ‘Maxie,’ Sam spoke out loud, stirring in his bed.

  But even though he searched from one end of the garden to the other in his dream, he couldn’t seem to locate his pet anywhere. And something wasn’t right. The dog was making even more noise. He was agitated, just like when Jesse taunted him.

  ‘Maxie!’ Sam called urgently in his sleep, and that was when he became aware of the pain.

  ‘Tom! Damaris!’ Vek yelled at the top of his lungs. ‘Quick!’

  A dog was still barking somewhere, but it wasn’t in Sam’s dream.

  As he flicked his eyes open, Vek was at the side of the bed, his face anxious. Sam could see the boy’s expression so vividly in the light given off by the flames licking up around his legs. His own legs. He was on fire. Sam screamed in pain and fright.

  Vek had just dragged him from the bed and onto the floor when Tom dashed in. ‘Find a blanket!’ Vek shouted to him. ‘Smother it!’

  Tom seemed to locate one in no time at all and the two boys flung it over Sam’s legs, then threw themselves on top, pressing down to starve the flames of oxygen.

  Damaris was there too; at first she was too stunned to do anything, but she quickly set about Sam’s bed, trying to put out the mattress where it was burning.

  ‘It’s not working,’ Vek yelled, as the blanket over Sam’s legs caught alight.

  ‘Damaris – leave that! Go and fill the bath!’ Tom shouted at her.

  As they carried him the two boys didn’t flinch from the fierce flames sprouting from Sam’s legs. If they were suffering, they didn’t show it. But Sam was writhing in agony and crying out.

  As soon as they reached the bathroom, they plunged him into the half-filled bath of cold water. Watching in trepidation, Damaris kept both taps fully open. ‘Is it working?’ she asked doubtfully, as there was much hissing and a thick pall of steam rose from the surface of the water.

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