Summerhouse land, p.3
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       Summerhouse Land, p.3

           Roderick Gordon

  Hopkins stares unseeingly through the flames as his company continues to obliterate the incredible sculptures in the trees. ‘Now the witch has no home and no food. These are not good months for foraging,’ he says. ‘We will bait the flat stone and, sooner or later, the witch will go there to feed, like the animal it is. And that’s where we’ll be waiting’.

  They wouldn’t have to wait for long.

  Chapter Three

  ‘One potato, two potato.’

  With a finger Sam nudges each of the different pills laid out on the kitchen worktop in front of their plastic containers.

  ‘Three potato, four.’

  By the fifth he’s begun to lose interest because he’s not in the mood. It’s a ritual his mother came up with when he was little so that he’d take his medication, and he feels slightly ridiculous he’s still doing it after all these years.

  ‘And then some more.’

  He continues along the row of pills.

  ‘And even more.’

  He sighs. ‘Anyway, here we go … again.’

  Returning to the first pill in the row, he picks it up, pulling a face as he places it on his tongue. ‘This one makes you smaller,’ he says, swallowing it down with a mouthful of water.

  ‘Only the parts that should be smaller. If the doctors know their stuff,’ Mrs White replies from the other side of the kitchen where she’s balancing on top of a stool. She’s rooting around at the back of a shelf in the cupboard where all the medicines are kept. ‘They’re here somewhere.’

  ‘I hope so. I need one,’ Sam mutters. The glass in front of his mouth, he hesitates before he takes the next pill. ‘I can feel it coming, like there’s this thing here in my head, and it’s getting tighter and tighter.’ Touching the large growth on his brow, he sighs. ‘Oh, please, not another headache. Not again.’

  ‘I know, love. I’m sorry. But maybe this one won’t be so bad.’

  Sam’s shoulders sag with the inevitability of it all. ‘I’ve got that really sour taste in my mouth. It’s going to be mega,’ he says, brushing aside his mother’s optimism.

  Mrs White manages to knock several boxes of pills from the shelf and they fall to the floor. ‘Drat it,’ she says, then announces, ‘Ah, here we are.’

  She gets down from the stool, proudly sweeping a panel of large pills through the air. ‘Bombers. A whole squadron of them.’

  Despite the fact that he’s feeling sick, which might be because of the impending migraine, or just as likely due to the cocktail of anti-inflammatory drugs he’s forced to take twice a day, every day, Sam manages a smile. ‘Bombers,’ he repeats. That’s what he and his mother call the extra-strong painkillers he’s been prescribed. They’re so potent that his parents have been advised to limit his intake of them, particularly because they’re highly addictive.

  Mrs White is just pushing one through the back of the panel when Sam says, ‘I wish that man would stop staring at me.’

  ‘Who?’ Mrs White finds that Sam is looking into the garden. And he’s right. In the middle of one of the two flower beds closest to the house, there’s a bearded man in a grubby apron using a pair of secateurs as he dead-heads the roses. As Mrs White watches, he stops again to gawp at Sam. ‘That’s the new gardener Daddy’s taken on,’ she says.

  ‘His name isn’t Mellors, is it?’ Sam inquires mischievously.

  ‘Mellors? What are you implying? Me … him?’ Mrs White says, her hands planted on her hips. ‘So tell me, Sam, which books precisely have you’ve been reading lately? Behind my back?’

  ‘Oh, none,’ Sam replies with mock innocence, taking another pill.

  Mrs White’s attention is back on the gardener. ‘He shouldn’t be staring at you like that. I’ll fix it – I’ll give him something to really stare at.’ She immediately begins to jump up and down, flapping her arms wildly. ‘HALOO! HALOO! LOOK AT ME!’ she yells so loudly that the man can’t fail to hear.

  He’s rather taken aback, giving her a small wave before sheepishly returning to the roses.

  ‘That’s shown him,’ Mrs White laughs.

  ‘Oh, great, Mum,’ Sam says, chuckling with his mother, ‘Now he thinks he’s working somewhere not just with a monster kid … but a hooligan woman too.’

  Mrs White stops laughing and her expression turns serious. ‘Let him think whatever he likes. He should know better.’ She’s glaring at the man, waiting for him to look their way so she can face him down again. ‘Why don’t people just mind their own darned business?’ she says protectively.

  ‘It doesn’t matter, Mum,’ Sam replies, taking the last of his medication. ‘The painkiller?’ he reminds her.

  ‘Oh yes, sorry. Open bay doors, and bombs away.’ Mrs White lobs the pill with an exaggerated underarm movement, making a whistling noise. ‘Watch out below!’

  With a grin, Sam steadies himself against the counter as he catches the pill. His hand on the stainless steel countertop tingles slightly, but he thinks nothing of it. ‘Got it!’ His grin transforms into a grimace because even that small act of coordination is enough to make his vision blur and to exacerbate the pain in his temples, as if a vise is tightening around his head. Nevertheless, he holds up his clenched fist containing the pill. ‘I hope this does it.’

  Then he opens his hand.

  In his palm there’s nothing.

  ‘What?’ Mrs White exclaims in surprise. Sam is glancing around the kitchen counter as his mother comes over to peer at the floor by his feet. Then she also gives the counter a careful check in case he’s missed it there. ‘Funny thing is I didn’t hear it land,’ she says.

  Sam is frowning. ‘Me neither.’

  ‘Perhaps it caught in your jumper.’

  ‘I don’t think so,’ Sam says, but Mrs White is already running her hands inside the neck of her son’s gray school jumper, then she pats down his sleeves to make sure it hasn’t lodged in a fold anywhere.

  ‘No, it’s not there.’ Mrs White takes a step back from him, a bemused expression on her face. ‘I can’t understand it. It’s not as if the pills aren’t big enough – how on earth can we have lost it?’ She looks annoyed with herself. ‘Teach me not to mess around.’

  ‘It’s okay, Mum,’ Sam says. ‘We’ll find it later. Can you give me another one for now?’

  Mrs White pushes a second painkiller through the foil and, this time, hands it carefully to her son, who swallows it with a gulp of water. ‘Maybe if I get some sleep, it won’t be so bad. I’m going up to my room, Mum,’ Sam says.

  Mrs White nods with concern. ‘Of course, love. You do that.’


  ‘No,’ Sam mumbles, rudely dragged from his sleep by shouts in the garden outside.

  For a moment he tries to cling to that empty, dreamless void, hoping against hope that he can find his way back to it again, but it’s useless. He’s too wide-awake now; sleep isn’t going to offer him a way out.

  Instead, he remains quite still on the bed except to slowly lift a hand and place the tip of his index finger on the bridge of his nose. It’s not quite at the midpoint between his eyes because a little nub of bone has grown there, and it feels as if he pushes too hard it might break through the skin, like a mushroom sprouting through wet cardboard.

  ‘Go away,’ he murmurs. ‘Please go away,’ he says more loudly, wishing that by some miracle the pressure from his finger would give him a respite from the pounding headache that hasn’t left him for two days. Even if just for a moment.

  More shouts from the garden find their way into his room. Each one causes a red ripple of pain in his head. He tries to control it with his breathing, but the air in the room feels overheated and sluggish, and every breath is an effort, as though he’s sucking treacle into his lungs. He would give anything to go outside and bask in the coolness and the open sky but he can’t. Not with Jesse there.

  He removes the finger from the bridge of his nose, then his eyes drift to the small handbell on his bedside table. He considers ringing it to summon h
is parents for a drink of water and a painkiller if isn’t too soon for another, but does nothing because of the effort it would take to move. And, in any case, he loathes the shrill clattering of that bell. It signifies so much to him.

  Sam wonders where his parents are. He’s generally very good at placing where people are in the house from even the smallest sounds they make. Here in his room where he’s spent so many months and years on this same bed he’s had enough practice.

  But other than the occasional noise from the garden, Sam can’t pick up anything from inside the building. He tries to catch the sound of the television from the sitting room downstairs, but the alarm clock ticking away on his desk suddenly begins to monopolize his hearing. His heads throbs in time with its rhythm as if it’s beating out each painful pulse in his forehead. The ticking of the clock also makes him aware of each passing second, of passing time.

  Even terrible pain is bearable if you believe it’s only temporary.

  The worst type is the pain you think will never leave you. That was what Sam feared more than anything; that this or even some greater agony was how it was going to be from now on. For ever. World without end.

  He tries not to think about it – the notion that his headache might never let up only brings him to the verge of panic.

  Although it’s early in the evening, darkness has fallen outside and his room is filled with a gloom broken only by a small lamp in the far corner. His mother must have come in while he was asleep and turned it on. If he didn’t feel so terrible, Sam would smile; she’s always worried that he might get up in the middle of the night and stumble into something and fall. And that could be fatal.

  So over the years, during the long, lonely hours of the headaches and discomfort from his body, that light has been a constant in his life. He slowly turns his head on the pillow, a special one, shaped to accommodate the various growths on his head, so that he can look at it.

  Even though it’s not particularly powerful, the bulb appears so bright in the darkened room. And as he continues to gaze at it, it becomes a fiercely burning star, coronal loops coiling and uncoiling around its circumference. Sam knows this is because his eyes aren’t fully open and his eyelashes are causing it, but still he continues to stare at the light, imagining that he can also see planets orbiting around it. And if he stares at it long enough, it becomes his own personal solar system, the miniature elements rotating and shifting right there in the corner of his room.

  More shouts from the garden: Sam remembers that his younger brother, Jesse, was due to have a school friend over. Then the dog barks. It isn’t Maxie’s normal bark – it’s anxious, urgent. They are teasing him. Jesse does that all too often, because it’s meant to be Sam’s dog and so he doesn’t treat it with any respect. Sam knows the younger boy taunts Maxie when no one’s looking, and once even caught him whipping the animal across the muzzle with a branch. Sam feels helpless now because there’s really very little he can do to stop it.

  Then the dog lets out a howl of distress. Holding his head, Sam slowly sits up and swivels his legs around so that he’s perched on the edge of the bed. He prepares himself, then rises to his feet, swaying uncertainly for a moment. Crossing over to the window, he pushes the curtain aside.

  It takes him a moment to find them because a fine mist hangs over the garden, although light leaking from the downstairs windows helps. His brother and his friend are haring across the lawn as they chase after the black Labrador. The two boys manage to collide with each other and tumble messily on the grass. Chuckling like idiots, they pick themselves up and begin to run around again.

  Sam leans his forehead against the cold pane. ‘They don’t know,’ he whispers.

  He could so easily resent, so easily hate other children. They have their health, yet they just take it for granted, as if it’s nothing.

  Being ‘fragile’ and ‘very poorly’, as his parents tell people when they refer to him, is Sam’s default state, and truth be told it’s all he can really remember. The time before, when he was well, is a distant and sketchy memory. He would give anything to take off his shoes and run barefoot across grass or do any of the things a normal boy his age is capable of.

  Sam watches his dog, closely followed by the two boys, come flying out of the mist and into the area of lawn nearest to the house. Jesse’s friend aims a kick at Maxie’s rump and connects. The dog had been attempting a sharp turn in a bid to get away from his pursuers, but the kick throws him off balance. His paws thrash the air as he twists over onto his back with a frightened yelp.

  That’s enough for Sam. He hammers on the window.

  Jesse and his friend immediately come to a halt, squinting up at the house.

  ‘Hey, lookit!’ Jesse shouts stridently, thrusting a finger in Sam’s direction as he makes out his shadowy form at the window. ‘If it isn’t Sicko! Sicko lives!’ Jesse puts his hands on his hips as if challenging his brother. ‘Why don’t you come out and play with us, sick boy?’

  Because that’s so unlikely Jesse bursts into sour laughter, his friend joining in. Then Jesse abruptly stops laughing. ‘Or we’ll come up there and get ya’,’ he threatens with a sneer, advancing a step toward the house.

  Letting the curtain swing back into place, Sam hastily moves away from the window. He wonders again where his parents are. Headache or no headache, he can’t face the inevitable jibes from Jesse as he shows off to his friend. The last thing he wants is the two of them in his room. Walking tentatively as if he’s treading on ice, he leaves his bedroom, then takes the staircase up to the next floor.

  His head is thumping fit to burst as he passes along a dark corridor and enters the doorway at the end. The ‘library’, as Sam’s parents refer to it, is nothing that grand. It’s that neglected room you find in many homes, which is explained away with the words ‘one day we’ll get around to doing something with it’.

  The house itself has been in Mr White’s family for over a century, but for much of that time it had been leased out. Quite fortuitously the lease was up for renewal the year that Sam’s parents married, so they moved into it. They renovated the ground and first floors but went no further because it gave them enough room for their needs. The so-called library, the large former billiards room right at the top of the house, remained untouched, becoming what it is today – somewhere to store all the books and possessions nobody wanted when family relatives passed away. Crudely constructed wooden shelves line the walls, and in the middle of the room is a paint-splattered table piled high with boxes.

  Once inside, Sam lowers himself to the floor and takes several breaths before he gropes in the darkness for the torch he leaves just inside the doorway. The torch is necessary because the bare bulb hanging in the center of the room has never worked. Quietly closing the door behind him, Sam begins to crawl along the passage he created for himself many years ago between the piles of books and packing crates.

  The unheated air up here at the top of the house makes his head feel marginally better, and he’s immediately comforted by the familiar smell of the age-old dust in the room as it registers in his nostrils.

  For this is Sam’s place, away from the eyes, the curious and often horrified eyes that devour his face, his deformities.

  And it’s also a place to escape the concerned eyes of those who love him, his mother and father, because they’re always watching him too. Quietly monitoring him for any signs of decline.

  The library is Sam’s one true refuge, away from it all.

  Still on all fours, his hand brushes over some Cunard Line playing cards with the picture of a large ship on the back that have lain where they fell after the last delivery of boxes. The route he made for himself takes him under the old table, then past some forgotten paintings propped up against one other.

  Once in the corner Sam lowers himself to the floor, stretching out on several heavy cotton armchair covers with matching cushions that he found in bin liners. He turns off his torch, relishing the pitch black of the roo
m. The exertion of getting there hasn’t helped, each thunderous pulse of blood making him wince, so he takes a moment to let his heart rate settle down. But he doesn’t allow himself to relax completely, listening out for his brother on the floor below. However, the silence remains unbroken, and after a while he switches the torch back on and shines it around himself.

  Within reach there is an untidy heap of books he’s picked out from the shelves. On the jacket of one is a black-and-white photograph of men on a raft skimming over a wind-tossed sea, with the name Kon Tiki in the title. Sam likes that name, and repeats it to himself. Next to it is a paperback with a creased cover showing a square-jawed man pushing open a door with a gun in his hand; it’s a story about a detective in America. There are others like this in the heap, many with lurid covers. It gives Sam a thrill that he’s illicitly dipping into these stories while his parents have no idea what he’s up to.

  With no intention of actually reading it because his head is hurting too much, Sam reaches for the detective story. But his hand doesn’t get as far as the book because, at that moment, his torch rolls from his lap and onto the dusty floorboards where it comes to rest.

  The beam spears between two towers of stacked crates and falls directly on an oil painting leaning against the blocked-up fireplace. The painting is of Sam’s great-grandfather, although the varnish has discolored and the paint darkened to such an extent that the image is rather ghostly.

  Sam continues to gaze at the face in the circle of light as if it’s an actor on a stage who at any moment will begin to deliver his lines. Sam’s father told him that his great-grandfather, Theodor, died before Mr White had been born so he never knew him. And it was no great surprise that the portrait had been consigned to the library; it’s not easy to look at it. In the painting the man’s head is the shape of a lopsided artichoke, his visage severely deformed by the growths all over it, much like a lawn with a chronic infestation of moles.

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