Summerhouse land, p.37
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       Summerhouse Land, p.37

           Roderick Gordon
 

  ‘I can’t help you with any ‘Damaris’, but surely you mean the fire you caused up there?’ Randall said. With a thumb he gestured at the Dormitories behind him.

  Sam sought out where Randall had indicated, shaking his head as he spotted the blackened windows in an upper floor. ‘No. That’s not right!’ He went right up to the man and gripped his arm. ‘Promise me that you’ve never heard of Damaris and this isn’t some stupid trick you’re all playing on me? Because if it is, I’ve really had enough.’

  Randall’s forehead was a row of deep furrows. ‘Trick? No, I swear to you, Sam, I’ve never heard of anyone with that name in the valley. There’s a Daphne at one of the farmsteads, though, if that helps.’

  ‘What about Vek?’

  ‘Vek? Of course I know him. He lives with Lucy over on the south side,’ Randall said, waving in the general direction. ‘Has done for as long as I can recall. He’s never much cared for it here in the village. Each to his own, I suppose.’

  ‘And Tom?’ Sam asked.

  ‘What is it?’ Tom said, as he stepped from the Dormitories with Baby Pain in its basket.

  ‘Oh, Tom, thank heavens,’ Sam gushed, so grateful to see him as he hurried over. ‘Where’s Damaris … I’ve had enough of this stupid …?’ Sam faltered as he read the boy’s face. ‘Tom?’ he asked, because although the boy’s eyes were convivial enough, he sensed indifference in them. The usual warmth was missing.

  ‘Yes,’ Tom replied, with an intonation as if he wasn’t sure quite how to respond.

  Sam swallowed. He couldn’t believe what his instincts were telling him. ‘We’re not … not friends, are we?’ he said.

  Averting his eyes from Sam as though he was embarrassed for him, Tom exchanged glances with the baby, which was grinning like an inebriated toad.

  Tom brought his gaze back to Sam, pulling a slightly flippant face. ‘We’re all friends here, but you and I aren’t friend-friends, if you know what I mean.’

  ‘I’ll be your friend, if you like,’ Pain piped up, relishing Sam’s distress.

  ‘Be quiet,’ Randall told the baby. He gave Sam a sympathetic look as the boy backed away from Tom. ‘Are you getting ill again? Is this to do with another build-up of energy,’ Randall asked, ‘because I have to say you’re acting very strangely?’

  Sam merely shook his head, at a complete loss to explain what was going on. ‘Something’s wrong here,’ he mumbled eventually. ‘This is all very wrong. I need to speak to Curtis.’

  ‘Curtis?!’ Tom laughed outright. ‘Best of luck with that, me ol’ cocker! Let me know how you get on.’

  ‘Why?’ Sam shot back.

  ‘’Cos you know very well nobody’s seen hide nor hair of him in millennia,’ Tom answered.

  Baby Pain gurgled gleefully. ‘What’ya been doing all these months since you got here, Sammy boy? Sleepwalking?’ it asked.

  ‘Yes, but … when I was burning … he …’ With another glance at the damaged floor in the Dormitories, Sam tailed off. ‘No. It’s all wrong!’ he exclaimed, and suddenly tore off down the main thoroughfare toward Curtis’s old house.

  ‘I don’t get it. What does he think is wrong?’ Randall asked, watching the retreating figure of the boy for a moment before casting an eye around the village. ‘There’s nothing wrong here.’

  Baby Pain shrugged its diminutive shoulders. ‘Search me.’

  ‘And does he seriously believe he can just conjure up Curtis after all these years?’ Tom posed. ‘Fat chance. That kid’s got problems.’

  ‘Cuckoo time,’ Baby Pain agreed, corkscrewing a snot-covered finger at its forehead.

  The garage doors at the rear of Curtis’s former house had been repaired since Sam’s last visit. As soon as he approached them, they appeared to recognize him and promptly swung open. Sam was relieved to find that the car was where it had been before. He wasn’t sure what he could rely on now that the valley seemed to have undergone some sort of abrupt reconfiguration in which friends became strangers, and destroyed buildings were magically restored. He touched the square plate in the car door to open it, then climbed in and spoke to the dashboard.

  ‘Take me to Curtis’s house.’

  In minutes he was being borne along the main track from the village, the feeling of dread so strong in his stomach that he truly thought he was going to be sick.

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  The instant the car arrived at Curtis’s house in the woods, Sam was out and crashing his way through the thorn bushes. His heart pounding, he stormed onto the lawn.

  ‘Wait. Wait. Wait.’ Although everything inside him was screaming to keep going, Sam forced himself to a halt so that he could take stock. His mind was all over the place and he was struggling to keep a grip on reality, albeit that it seemed to be a drastically different reality he’d woken up to.

  He peered over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of the car’s sleek silver body through the undergrowth. It was still there. Although he’d left it only seconds ago, he felt as though he couldn’t take anything for granted in this jumbled-up world – not even his own senses.

  ‘Okay,’ he said, facing forward again and squaring his shoulders. Perhaps he couldn’t be sure of anything, but Sam now felt a tinge of optimism and hope, because the scene before him, the meticulously tended garden, the large house under the clear blue sky, was precisely as he remembered it. Nothing appeared to be different or out of place, but he had to keep his wits about him and look for any signs of change. Perhaps one of these signs would give him a clue as to what had happened, what had gone wrong.

  He was about to resume toward the house when he held his head and mumbled, ‘Oh Jiminy, Damaris, where are you?’

  Sam had to accept that she was no longer in this world, and never had been.

  It was as though she had died but he was the only one who knew or cared, the only one who could mourn her. And behind this lurked another thought. Was it his fault? Perhaps he’d broken one of Curtis’s rules while they were on the other side of the cliffs and this was the consequence? The price. That she had been wiped from existence.

  Sam had to find the man himself and ask him. Curtis was the only one in the valley who would be able to put things right, and the sooner the better.

  ‘Okay,’ Sam said again, taking a breath and then stepping across the perfect carpet of grass as he headed toward the sunken garden.

  Once he’d descended into it, he checked for anything different. It was just as airless here as it had been by the pond and he was sweating, but he took his time, scanning the borders in case anything had changed. It all looked the same to him.

  He climbed the steps up to the main lawn, studying the house for any activity. He couldn’t see anyone inside. He kept going, constantly looking around him. Then, ahead on the lawn, Sam did see something. Something that jarred. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

  One of Joely’s beloved spaniels was at the foot of the stone steps leading to the terrace. The dog was sprawled on its side, but it didn’t appear the way it would if it was just resting, laid out from the heat.

  He knew immediately that something was very wrong.

  This was the sign.

  As he ventured closer, the dog’s eyes were unblinking and dull. In the grass around it was a congealing pool. The blood looked glassy and black in the sunlight.

  ‘Who did this?’ Sam said, as he peered down at the carcass. It had been shot or stabbed, an obvious wound to its side. Already, in the warmth, it was beginning to attract flies.

  Pulling his gaze from the dead animal, Sam scrutinized the rest of the garden again. Everywhere else was peaceful, quiet. Somehow it made the slaughter of the dog that much worse. But he wasn’t going to learn anything by remaining there, so he climbed to the terrace and crept warily into the house.

  As he entered, his feet crunched on broken glass. His eyes fell on the chimneypiece over the fireplace. Curtis’s display of cogs had been vandalized, some of them missing. And a number
of the pictures around the walls had also received similar treatment, torn down and slung across the floor.

  ‘Hello,’ Sam said, though not at any volume. He needed to find out who was responsible for this before he broadcast his presence.

  Moving through to the kitchen, he edged around the doorway, surveying the upturned table and the broken crockery strewn everywhere. ‘Who did this?’ he asked himself again in a whisper, then went back through to the hall, leaving it via the corridor. As he crept into the room with the lizards’ heads, he found it was also in disarray. Furniture had been thrown over and Curtis’s old radio had been smashed. It looked as though it had been struck with an ax.

  He returned to the corridor where he stopped to listen. An ominous silence pervaded the house. If it wasn’t for the slaughtered dog and the destruction everywhere, he could have imagined Curtis and Joely had gone off for the day.

  ‘The workshop?’ he said out loud, as he thought of it. If there had been some kind of trouble, it might be where Curtis would go for refuge. The entrance was hidden by a veiling field, and the door had looked pretty unassailable.

  Sam had just made a move to head there when he caught a sound from upstairs. He listened for a moment. Even though the valley would heal him if he blundered into something unpleasant, he was still going to take it slowly. He’d begun to tiptoe up the stairs when he heard his name being called.

  ‘Curtis?’ Sam called back, forgetting his caution and climbing the stairs two at a time.

  He heard his name being shouted again as he reached the first floor. Someone – Curtis? – must be in the room right at the top of the house. Sam threw himself up the last flights of stairs.

  As he rushed into the dark room, a figure sat in front of the triptych of screens. Sam immediately recognized the view on the middle screen because he’d been there minutes before. From a low angle down on the ground and with the picture rotated ninety degrees, it was a visual feed of the garden from the dead spaniel.

  The figure was in some sort of hooded robe or cassock. ‘Saw you were on the way,’ it said, giving a nod to acknowledge the scene in the garden, where the only movement was from bluebottles skimming in and out of view.

  The instant that Sam heard the voice, he knew it wasn’t Curtis. ‘Who the blazes are you? What’s going on?’

  The figure swiveled the chair around. It slipped off its hood.

  Sam looked at the face.

  His own face.

  The face smiled.

  ‘Curious, isn’t it … to meet oneself?’

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Sam was dumbstruck. He stood there, mouth open. This other version of himself appeared to be older than he was, but not by much. It was difficult to tell precisely because Sam didn’t know what he’d look like with all his hair shorn off. The older Sam’s head was completely clean-shaven, with only the crown on it. Another crown, because Sam still had his around his neck.

  ‘He’s looking a bit peaky. Better get him a chair before he falls over,’ older Sam directed.

  They had been waiting on either side of the doorway and now the pair of razor-thin figures, also dressed in dark cassocks, took hold of Sam.

  ‘That’s Emma,’ older Sam said, ‘and that’s Jane,’ pointing to both in turn.

  As the two of them led him to a nearby chair, Sam caught a glimpse of hands under the illumination from the screen that were like anatomical drawings, the veins and sheathes of muscle exposed as if the skin had been flayed.

  ‘Don’t mess with them,’ older Sam advised. ‘They may be on Morgan’s crew, but I managed to make them eat something, so they’re not as weak as they normally are. A lean, mean pair of babes.’

  Behind Sam’s left shoulder, Emma made a gargling noise in her throat; it may have been a laugh or it may have been a growl. Sam couldn’t tell.

  It was then that it clicked who these animated anatomical drawings were, and he also became aware of Curtis in another chair with two further dark figures flanking him. He was simply sitting there in the corner of the room, not even being restrained. Sam couldn’t understand it. He shot Curtis a look, who gave a helpless shrug in response. ‘There was nothing I could do, Sam. They’ve got Joely,’ he said in a strained voice.

  Sam was very afraid but at the same time very angry that his world was being turned upside down. ‘Who the heck are you? Me from another branch?’ he demanded.

  ‘You can’t jump branches,’ older Sam replied. ‘There isn’t a Curtis out there mad enough to attempt that. Not anywhere, not in all eternity.’

  ‘But you’re older than I am.’

  ‘That’s because of all the time I’ve spent back in the w—’

  His younger self didn’t have time for explanations. ‘You know, I don’t actually care. You’ve got no right to be h—’

  ‘Oooh, that’s very feisty,’ older Sam said, interrupting Sam back. He threw a glance at one of the figures beside Curtis. ‘Wasn’t I feisty in my youth?’ Older Sam didn’t wait for an answer as he addressed Sam again. ‘You’ve probably worked it out already, but that’s Morgan over there, with Blinks next to him. You’ve got all the valley originals in this room. In fact, in the long history of our little world here, this is a red-letter day, its two founders back together for a reunion.’

  ‘I wasn’t a ‘founder’ and this is no reunion,’ the figure beside Curtis rumbled, as it brandished a basic looking rifle with a thick barrel. ‘This is the day of reckoning.’

  ‘That’s very melodramatic, Morgan,’ older Sam said.

  Sam had no idea yet what he was up against, but he wasn’t about to take the situation sitting down. His fury edging aside his fear, he sprang to his feet. ‘So that’s the gun you used on the poor dog outside? Shame it’s not much use on anyone in the valley, is it?’ he challenged Morgan. From under the man’s hood Sam had a flash of his macaber half-formed face, two lidless eyes drilling into him.

  Older Sam was amused by this show of defiance, giving a loud laugh. ‘No, but a slug from our elephant gun will put you down long enough for us to deal with you.’ Older Sam grinned. ‘And as you know, you can always tell an elephant gun …’

  Hearing these words spoken in his own voice sparked a childhood memory in Sam. ‘Because it has this great big trigger ...’ he continued, reciting without expression.

  ‘… so an elephant can use it,’ older Sam finished for him. ‘Didn’t Dad love that stupid joke and insist on telling it time and time again?’ Older Sam smiled broadly. ‘See how much you and I have in common. You become pretty jaded as century by boring century grinds by, but isn’t this a buzz? Now be a good boy and take a pew so I can explain a few things to you.’

  Sam had no intention of being ordered around by himself. He advanced toward him, fists clenched. ‘We’ve got nothing in common. I want it all back the way it was. Where’s Damaris?’

  ‘No, Sam!’ Curtis shouted, leaping up. ‘You can’t go near him!’

  ‘Listen to the man. If you lay one finger on me, game’s over,’ older Sam warned. ‘You can forget everything.’

  Sam was aware that Emma and Jane weren’t far behind him, ready to pounce, but older Sam waved them down and they slipped back into the shadows. Sam wondered why, then noticed that Morgan had swung his rifle round so it was trained on him.

  Curtis was still on his feet and in such a state of agitation he was hardly drawing breath as he spoke. ‘Remember branch theory … if the same matter comes into contact with itself, the whole blessed tree comes crashing down. There will be nothing left. No universe. Nothing! So for Pete’s sake back off, Sam. Get away from him!’

  Sam stayed where he was, fists still bunched.

  ‘Listen to Mistah Curtis – he right. You and me – we’re identical matter, so no touchy touchy,’ older Sam said, wagging his finger at his younger self. ‘Think about Mum and Dad. Do you really want to snuff out their lives too? Do you?’

  Sam shook his head slowly.

  ‘Rather puts a crimp on any
retrograde action, doesn’t it? Now be a good boy,’ older Sam urged.

  After a moment Sam relaxed his fists, begrudgingly returning to his chair. Morgan lowered the rifle as Curtis took his seat again, relieved that the situation had been defused.

  Sam studied the person in front of the screen who appeared to be so confident and so in control. If nothing else, Sam’s show of bravado had established one thing for certain. ‘Then you really are me, but from the future,’ he said. Was this what he’d become in the centuries ahead? If it was, he didn’t like himself very much. ‘But how come you’re here? I thought it was impossible to travel back in time in the valley. How did you manage it?’

  ‘With this.’ Older Sam turned his head so Sam could see what the crown looked like on the other side of his head. ‘It’s a mod that the Curtis from my time cooked up.’ Next to the control box on older Sam’s crown there was an addition to the device – a second, similarly sized rectangular box. ‘Took him a good long while but he developed it so I could return here to the past, because there’s something he wants done.’

  ‘If that’s true, why didn’t he come with you?’ Sam asked.

  ‘Oh, did your Curtis omit to tell you anything about that?’ older Sam said sarcastically. ‘None of the valley originals can pass through the cliffs. Full stop. Not even with our help.’

  ‘They can’t?’ Sam said.

  Older Sam shook his head. ‘The blast brought them in. It means none of them can ever go back to the world, or anywhere else for that matter. And it’s why we’re so valuable, why we’re liable to be used by them. Do their dirty work.’

  ‘He never mentioned that,’ Sam said, meeting eyes with Curtis for a moment. Deciding he needed to find out as much as he possibly could about his older counterpart in case he could use it to his advantage, Sam turned his full attention back on his doppelganger. ‘You haven’t told me what you’re doing here. And what’s happened to Damaris.’

 
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