Summerhouse land, p.28
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       Summerhouse Land, p.28
 

           Roderick Gordon

  ‘In the North African campaign, the Eighth Army under Lieutenant-General Montgomery has consolidated its hold on Tripoli. Troops from the 51st Highlanders …’

  Curtis had gone over to an armchair and sat down, so Sam did the same, perching on the sofa opposite. As he felt the sandy-colored animal pelt under him, Sam’s eyes wandered over the display of spears, and bows and arrows on the walls. Twisting around to see the corners of the room, he spotted animal heads mounted on shields, as if they were trophies from big game hunting.

  ‘… sustained limited casualties in sporadic outbreaks of fighting …’

  The smaller mammals were unusual enough – Sam had never seen anything quite like them before – but what held his attention were the lizards’ heads. One of them was massive and made Sam uneasy as it stared back at him through its heavily hooded, malevolent eyes.

  As the static increased and the voice was lost under it, Sam turned to Curtis again, watching as he adjusted a dial on what appeared to be a rather old-fashioned radio.

  ‘Ah, good. Found it again,’ Curtis whispered after a moment.

  ‘Rommel’s armored divisions have been forced to withdraw to the Mareth Line north of Medenine …’ the announcer said with obvious pride, then was swamped in static again.

  ‘Drat it,’ Curtis grumbled. ‘It never lasts for very long.’

  ‘What is that?’ Sam asked, indicating the radio.

  ‘Bog standard wireless as they called it in my day. I made it a while back when I figured out how to manufacture glass valves.’

  ‘An actual radio? You made it?’ Sam said, studying it more closely.

  Curtis let out a short breath, his eyes tracking a bluebottle in its see-saw flight across the room and remaining on it as it alighted on a pane in the window. ‘Yes, I made everything,’ he said a little wearily. ‘The car brought you here on the road through the Hallions, didn’t it?’

  ‘The factories?’ Sam guessed. ‘They were yours?’

  ‘Yes, all of them. I built them in the years I was alone, one after another. They probably told you this at the village, but when I was flung headfirst into this world, there was only a basin of pulverized rock here … nothing …’ Sam couldn’t tell if Curtis’s eyes were still on the fly or on the garden outside as he continued in a monotone. ‘Sometimes worse than nothing … I’ve had to endure more ice ages than I care to remember, and floods too. Biblical floods.’

  Curtis was distracted for a moment, then his attention was back on Sam. ‘But what’s interesting is you just heard a radio bulletin from the Second World War,’ he said, his voice animated again.

  Sam was puzzled. ‘You mean a recording?’

  ‘No, it’s the real deal,’ Curtis answered. ‘You just heard the actual broadcast as it was transmitted by the BBC Empire Service.’

  ‘Really?’ Sam said in amazement. ‘From when?’

  ‘1943, beamed straight to us,’ Curtis replied, as he made a last attempt at retuning the radio, but then gave up with a dissatisfied noise in his throat. ‘You see, every so often a stray signal finds its way from the world and into the valley,’ he went on, as he switched the radio off and the static stopped. ‘The signals I pick up date from the approximate chronological points at which people have crossed through. It’s as though each one leaves an impression, a fault line, and, if anything, I believe that these become more pronounced over time.’

  ‘What other sorts of things do you find?’ Sam was fascinated by the radio broadcast he’d just heard. And there was a second dimension to it that also encouraged him; this piece of living history was a direct connection to the world – his world – and Sam’s first real evidence that the valley wasn’t irrevocably cut off from it. If a radio wave could sneak through, then maybe it was feasible for him to go in the opposite direction.

  ‘The odd radio transmission, like the one you just heard, and if I’m lucky some visual traffic … snippets of television and that sort of thing,’ Curtis said. ‘Once in a month of Sundays, I’m treated to a data-rich carrier wave from a future iteration of the internet.’

  ‘The internet?’ Sam gasped. He was astounded that Curtis even knew the word. ‘From the future?’

  Curtis was nodding. ‘Sure, and that’s a veritable treasure trove – that’s where I get my hands on books and scientific journals, sometimes whole libraries of them. But down at the other end of the spectrum, I have a soft spot for these old radio bulletins. Searching for them is a pastime of mine.’ Curtis leaned back in his chair. ‘The one you just listened to dates from my era – actually the day of the implosion … when I died.’

  Sam sat up. ‘Died?’ he blurted without intending to. Since he’d been in the valley, Baby Pain was the only one who had been prepared to talk about the unfortunate events that had brought them in. But here was an adult doing the same.

  Curtis smiled knowingly. ‘Yes, I do sympathize,’ he said. ‘All the others are so tight-lipped about what happened to them because of some silly superstitious nonsense they’ve cultivated. But I’m not here for the same reason they are. I’m not here by birthright. Through no fault of my own, the technology I devised …’ Curtis parted his hands to indicate an explosion, ‘… went off in my face, creating this aberration known as the valley, or more accurately the envelope, because that’s what it effectively is.’

  ‘Why are the others here then?’ Sam put in quickly. ‘Damaris and Tom and everyone else? Because they suffered so much when they died?’

  ‘Oh, that the universe was such a just and righteous place.’ Curtis was shaking his head. ‘No, it’s because of a genetic trait. They possess an extremely rare form of energy at a cellular level and, given the right circumstances, they’re able to transfer into the envelope. It’s a one-time deal, because once they’re in, they’re in. There’s no going back.’

  Curtis was staring fixedly at the boy. ‘But you, Sam … you’re a very different kettle of fish. You’ve been blessed with an abundance of what they have. The readings I saw when you crossed into the valley were off the scale.’

  ‘Readings?’ Sam mumbled. Disconcerted by what he’d just been told and uncomfortable that Curtis was staring at him with such intensity, Sam began to fumble in his pocket.

  ‘You’re different from everyone else because you have no natural brake on the amount of energy you can absorb,’ Curtis continued. ‘That’s why you were becoming so ill back in the world. You were soaking up too much and your body couldn’t cope. It was overloading, and this resulted in uncontrolled cell development.’

  Sam frowned with incomprehension.

  ‘The growths,’ Curtis said.

  ‘Oh,’ Sam said, looking blankly at Curtis. ‘That’s what caused my disease? Is that it?’

  ‘Yes, and the attribute may have been inherited. Did your mother or father exhibit any signs of it? Any similar symptoms?’

  In one fell swoop, Curtis had given Sam the explanation for all his years of devastating headaches and suffering. The reason why he’d been slowly but surely dying. Sam shook his head numbly. ‘Only my … my great-grandfather … he had growths too,’ he began, then his voice failed him.

  Curtis said something, but Sam didn’t take it in. Instead he finished what he’d intended to do, pulling the photograph of Rachel from his pocket. He leaned across to hand it to Curtis.

  ‘What’s this?’ the man asked, as he studied the image.

  ‘That was my friend,’ Sam told him. ‘But look at the other side.’

  Still reeling from Curtis’s revelation about his disease, Sam tried instead to focus on Rachel and her plight to take his mind off it as he began to recount the incident at the hospital when her grateful parents turned up. ‘Does this help you, because it seems I’ve done something or, I mean, I’m going to do something to make her well again before she dies?’ he said.

  From his response there wasn’t any doubt that Curtis was able to decipher the lines of closely-written Japanese characters. ‘So you cross through to the world a
nd bring her back into the valley with you for a period of time. You and Damaris. She’s seen this?’

  Sam nodded. ‘She was a bit surprised when she read it.’

  ‘I bet she was.’ Still scrutinizing the back of the photograph, Curtis blew emphatically through his lips. ‘Yes, this certainly does help. It demonstrates that you can come and go from the valley,’ he said. ‘And you’re going to make the return journey through the cliffs not once, but twice, because your friend is obviously reunited with her parents. If we needed any more proof that you and I succeed, then this is it.’ Curtis flapped the photograph in the air.

  Sam opened his mouth, then closed it again.

  ‘What is it?’ Curtis asked.

  ‘Um … but does all this help with my problem?’

  Curtis smiled. ‘Definitely, because each time you make the transition, it’ll purge some of that excess energy which was killing you back in the world and which will kill you here.’

  Sam wasn’t convinced. ‘Okay, but how do I get back to the world? And I don’t understand where we are, anyway? Where exactly is the valley?’ he asked in rapid succession.

  ‘The question is not where, but when,’ Curtis replied.

  ‘When?’

  The man rose from his chair. ‘If you come with me, I’ll try to explain.’

  Leaving the room, they crossed the corridor toward a door on the opposite side, and Curtis was just pushing it open when he paused. ‘Have you ever had premonitions? Ever known that things were going to happen before they did?’

  Sam thought for a moment. ‘Before my accident I kept feeling that something terrible was going to happen, although it was more than just a feeling. I just knew it. And I saw some weird things the night I died,’ he replied, then told Curtis about the rapid shifts in the sky.

  ‘Interesting,’ Curtis said, as he pushed the door fully open and they entered a room where the narrow windows didn’t let in much light. Most of the illumination was from three lamps under a long shade directly above the full-size billiards table that dominated the room. Balls were scattered over the green baize of the table as if someone had been interrupted in the middle of a game.

  Curtis swept the balls into the side pockets until only three remained. ‘I’ll do my best to keep this simple,’ he said, half-sitting on the edge of the table while Sam stood listening. Then he reached over and picked up the black ball. ‘The perceived wisdom is that this is composed of many millions of atoms, but I want you to imagine it’s just a single atom. The building block of all matter. With me?’

  Sam nodded.

  Curtis knocked the ball on the edge of the table. ‘Sounds solid, doesn’t it? Only the reality is there’s no such thing as an atom. It’s actually a coordinate in a field of energy. And it’s the same energy you were soaking up too much of.’

  ‘It is?’ Sam mumbled.

  Taking a breath, Curtis began to speak in a deliberate manner, as if he was eager that Sam kept up. ‘You see, in your lifetime, it had become painfully obvious that the accepted model for the universe had more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese. For starters, nobody was able to explain where over seventy percent of the energy in the universe was hiding. They glossed over this by saying it was dark matter, which was a total cop out.’

  ‘I didn’t know that,’ Sam admitted.

  ‘Then you know as much as they did,’ Curtis responded briskly. ‘There was something crucial missing from their thinking ...’ As the man let his words hang in the air, Sam wondered if he was supposed to make a stab at what it was. Instead he gave a small shrug.

  ‘It’s time,’ Curtis said.

  ‘Time?’ Sam repeated.

  Curtis held up the black ball again. ‘You see, Sam, this atom, or more properly this coordinate, only exists because of its presence in the lattice at this very moment. No time, no atom, no anything. Time rolls relentlessly on, allowing everything we recognize in the physical world to have form, and that’s the missing energy that your scientists couldn’t put their fingers on. It’s why and how all matter behaves as matter.’

  ‘So that’s the first lesson,’ Curtis announced, as he very precisely positioned the black ball next to a red one in the dead center of the table, then went over to the rack on the wall to select a cue. ‘And now we move onto the second.’

  Placing the white ball on the table in front of him, with his cue he indicated the pair of balls together in the middle. ‘I want you to imagine those two there are the present moment. Right now, as we stand here. Got that?’

  ‘Yes,’ Sam said.

  Curtis leaned over the end of the table and took the shot, without even bothering to aim his cue. The white ball hit the other two, both of which streaked like lightning into their respective corner pockets on either side.

  Curtis could see that Sam was impressed with his skill. ‘The product of a misspent eternity. I practice a lot,’ he chuckled. ‘Anyway, what I’m attempting to show you is that at any single juncture in time, there are two or more possible outcomes as to what happens next. And branch theory says they all happen.’

  ‘All of them?’ Sam said.

  Curtis nodded vigorously. ‘The line of thought is that all these outcomes are realized, continuously spinning off into other universes, like those two snooker balls each in their own pockets.’ Curtis drew in a breath. ‘But when my device imploded back in Oxfordshire, it released the energy I’ve just been talking about. So much of this energy that it tore a hole right through to this branch, and back into Earth’s history.’

  ‘You went back in time?’ Sam said. ‘How far?’

  ‘Right back, although exactly when doesn’t really matter.’ Curtis punctuated this remark by letting his cue slide through his hand so the handle struck the floor with a bang. ‘What does matter is that we’re trapped here in this envelope, in this particular branch, with all the energy that my device released, which is why we heal, why we’re immortal.’ He put his cue on the table. ‘So, to be precise, this isn’t another place as such, just how Earth could have turned out if things had happened differently. We’re in an alternative branch.’

  Sam had been listening with rapt attention, thrilled that he was finally about to get some answers, but now he felt even more in the dark than he had been before. ‘Yes, of course,’ he lied as convincingly as he could. ‘I see.’

  Believing that he had got his theories across, Curtis was looking pleased with himself. ‘And with that, I think it’s time for some lunch.’

  As he began toward the door, he swiped at the bluebottle that seemed to be following them from room to room, but failed to connect with it.

  ***

  ‘So has anyone got any idea at all where he’s gone?’ Randall asked, looking around the group gathered outside the Dormitories. Damaris, Tom and Vek were there, along with a number of other villagers who’d volunteered to help. Surprisingly, the urchins had even pitched in and seemed to be behaving themselves for once, although that was unlikely to last.

  ‘It’s my fault,’ Damaris said, her face downcast. ‘I shouldn’t have fallen asleep when he was so upset.’

  ‘You couldn’t watch him all the time,’ Vek said.

  ‘If he was going to leave, he was going to leave,’ Tom agreed.

  ‘But if he’s not anywhere in the village …’ Randall began.

  ‘He’s not – we’ve searched everywhere,’ Tom cut in.

  ‘Us too,’ came a little girl’s voice, and everyone turned to look at Rosie Plummer as she stood with the other young children, all showing concern on their faces.

  ‘… then somebody must have seen where he went,’ Randall continued. ‘And he’s on foot, so by rights one of the farmers should spot him on his travels. A newcomer like Sam isn’t exactly inconspicuous.’

  ‘I just hope he doesn’t go near the Monastery, for his sake,’ Tom said.

  Randall shook his head. ‘That’s a good two day’s walk. Simon can ride out and head him off if he’s going in that direction.’ Ra
ndall frowned. ‘Where is Simon, anyway?’

  Damaris glanced along the thoroughfare where it left the village. ‘He’s checking around the cliffs,’ she said.

  ‘Simon’s always checking around the cliffs,’ Baby Pain squawked.

  Everyone’s eyes were on the infant now. Dorry bent down to the Moses basket. ‘You had that chat with Sam. You didn’t put any silly ideas in his head, did you?’ she asked sternly.

  Pain made a burbling noise, trying its best to look a picture of innocence.

  ‘Come on,’ Dorry urged. ‘The boy’s still new to the valley and doesn’t know his way around yet. He can’t just vanish. We need to know if you told him something.’

  ‘Not me,’ the baby replied. ‘Though he did keep asking about Curtis.’

  ‘Well, that’s a dead end if ever there was one,’ Dorry said with an air of finality as she straightened up. ‘It’ll be the twelfth of never when anyone sees that man again.’

  ‘We need to be methodical about this,’ Randall said, addressing the gathering, but Pain wasn’t listening. Its dark little pupils had drifted in the direction of the circular pool with the sculptures, then to the shuttered house beyond, its baby lips curving into a smile as it blew a saliva bubble.

  ***

  ‘So all that power my Gondola unleashed had to go somewhere. It ruptured the lattice and created this permanent glitch where we are now,’ Curtis said, pushing his empty plate away from him. ‘Think of it as a sort of temporal hernia, if you will.’

  At the head of the kitchen table, Joely had joined them for lunch, a pair of spaniels sitting alertly on either side of her. She barely uttered a word during the meal as Curtis monopolized the conversation, describing to Sam how his wartime research project had been hijacked by Morgan with his secret agenda, and how it had resulted in the incident at the quarry.

  Sam seriously doubted that Damaris and his friends back in the village would ever believe him if he told them he’d heard all this directly from the man himself.

  ‘And it dropped you here in the valley?’ Sam said in wonder.

  ‘Actually there wasn’t a valley before my device scooped it out of the surrounding flatlands. It took material from here and deposited it over those acres in Oxfordshire. And some material came back this way, including – to answer your question – yes, me with it.’

 
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