Summerhouse land, p.4
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       Summerhouse Land, p.4

           Roderick Gordon
 

  There’s a thin mustache hanging on for dear life along the roller-coaster line of the man’s upper lip that only goes to accentuate the complete lack of symmetry. Even Theodor’s glasses are odd – due to his lopsided head, the arms are bent at different angles to fit behind his ears, which aren’t anything like the same height on either side of his face. And the massive growths on his scalp are made all the more conspicuous because no hair grows on their summits, the exposed skin glinting as if the artist was trying to make a feature of them. Sam always likens these growths to volcanic islands poking up from an ocean of unkempt hair, but that’s probably the influence of the photographs in the Kon Tiki book.

  Sam continues to gaze at the face. For Theodor’s face is Sam’s destiny, a reflection of what he will become. And he has never shied away from it.

  ‘A leapfrog condition,’ the boy says out loud, using the words of one of the medical specialists. Then he picks up the torch and switches it off, allowing the pitch black to swallow him again.

  At the age of six a small lump had appeared on Sam’s elbow. Innocuous at first, it grew rapidly over the ensuing months into a bony protuberance like a unicorn’s blunt horn. And with each passing year, more growths began to pop up all over him, from his toes to the very top of his cranium. Of varying sizes, they were hard calluses of bone covered with loose swells of flesh.

  The worst ones appeared on his skull, where they rose like calcified bubbles, with the largest and most prominent of these on his forehead. The size of a duck egg, over time it has even become to resemble one in color, assuming a bluish hue as the thread work of fine capillaries in Sam’s skin is stretched to its elastic limits.

  Depending on which doctor Mr and Mrs White had taken their son to, the condition was diagnosed variously as neurofibromatosis or Proteus syndrome, or something in-between. In other words they had absolutely no idea what to call it. But what was certain was Sam had inherited the rare disorder that was causing these bone abnormalities. And with time it would only get worse.

  ‘A leapfrog condition,’ Sam repeats. Leapfrog. Such a jaunty word, with connotations of harmless fun, like mucking around in the garden on a sunny summer’s day – yet in the context of his future it means something so sinister for him. It means that Sam has drawn the short straw, that he lost out in the lottery. There was a good chance that he’d have been born without the condition, just as his father and his father’s father had been, like Jesse was, but fate was against Sam. Because the inherited condition had apparently leapfrogged two generations, straight from his great-grandfather to him.

  Mr White says it’s his fault that Sam has this rare condition, which has plagued a number of his ancestors down the centuries. He’s talked to Sam about how his grandfather’s life was affected by it, and how the genetic time bomb is now inside his son. A time bomb which is going off in slow motion, month-by-month, year-by-year.

  Sam’s parents have also been very open with regard to the prognosis they’ve been given. Inside Sam’s cranium his brain is coming under pressure, and his fore lobes are being squeezed into the ever-increasing cavities at the front of his skull. This why he’s been getting the migraines. Once Sam is past puberty and stopped growing, modern surgical techniques mean that his cranium can be reshaped, and everything – including his brain – put back as it should be.

  In theory.

  But the big catch is that the procedure might result in his fore lobes, the seat of his personality, becoming irrevocably altered.

  So, while Sam might appear more normal, more like everyone else, he might actually be someone else.

  As he thinks about this, he remembers something he read in one of the old paperbacks with a brash cover.

  ‘A handsome stranger,’ he says across the darkness to the portrait of his great-grandfather.

  ***

  It’s one o’clock in the morning when Sam’s father leans over the kitchen counter and slides the sash window open, easing it up little-by-little so as not to make any noise. He listens for a moment, checking that everyone else in the house is asleep, then takes a packet of cigarettes from his trouser pocket.

  In the basket in the corner of the kitchen there’s a sigh. Maxie the Labrador is regarding Mr White through his liquid brown eyes, his head propped on the edge of the basket. Mr White smiles. ‘You won’t rat on me, will you, boy?’ he says.

  Aware that Mr White is still looking at him, Maxie studiously avoids him in that way that dogs do, peering at nothing on the floor in front of the basket, his dark brows ticking up every so often. ‘Knew I could trust you,’ Mr White says under his breath. Slipping a cigarette from the packet, he passes it under his nose to smell it, closing his eyes in appreciation. Then he puts it in his mouth and lights it, sending the first puff in the general direction of the open window.

  It’s dark outside and he can hear that horrible nocturnal barking of a fox which has become so typical of London.

  Mr White draws deeply on the cigarette, holding the smoke in his lungs before releasing it. ‘Wow,’ he whispers, as the nicotine washes through him and he feels his body relax. After another puff, he realizes that there’s a fug developing in the room around him.

  ‘That’s a dead giveaway,’ he tells the dog, waving his hand around to disperse the cloud. ‘Can’t have that.’ He goes to lean on the counter to be nearer to the black opening into the garden.

  As he does so, there’s a brittle tap as something small strikes the stainless steel work top beside him.

  ‘What …?’ he says. His first thought is that one of his shirt buttons has pinged off.

  He catches sight of whatever it is just as it completes its second bounce, slapping his hand down over it.

  As he picks it up for a closer look, he finds it’s a large white pill.

  ‘That’s curious.’ He can’t understand it. It’s as if the pill has dropped out of thin air.

  Or from above. He glances at the ceiling over his head. But that hardly makes sense.

  Still at a loss to explain where it’s come from, Mr White even glances at the dog in the corner. Stretched out on his side in the basket, Maxie has gone back to sleep.

  Then a distinctly unwelcome scenario presents itself to Mr White. Somebody has thrown the pill at him.

  He spins on his heels toward the doorway into the kitchen. He has the cigarette out of sight behind his back, although he’s aware the smoke curling from it is rather incriminating.

  He girds himself; if his wife has caught him in flagrante, he’s for the high jump. And it’s no great leap of the imagination to picture her slinging the pill at him before giving him yet another dressing down about smoking. ‘Sarah?’ he asks in a muted voice. ‘Is that you?’

  There’s no response.

  His son sometimes has trouble sleeping because of the pain and comes downstairs. So he waits a beat before asking, ‘Sam? Are you there?’

  But it’s unlikely. If Sam was in difficulty, why would he be throwing pills around? No, that didn’t make sense. If anyone, it must be his wife.

  ‘Sarah?’ he tries again.

  But there’s absolutely no sign that she or anyone else in the house is awake. Certainly not Maxie, who is evidently having some sort of adventure as his paws flex in little movements as if he’s running, perhaps chasing down a dream rabbit.

  Mr White turns back to the worktop, relieved that he’s in the clear. Taking a drag on his cigarette, he studies the pill in that arms-extended-to-their-limits way that people do when they should really be wearing glasses but don’t want to admit to themselves they need them. He doesn’t recognize the pill and the letters on it mean nothing to him.

  With a small shrug and another puff on the cigarette, he goes over to the medicine cupboard and places the pill on the lower shelf. Then he finishes his cigarette, dowsing the stub with water from the tap to make sure it’s extinguished before hiding it in an empty milk carton in the trash.

  And as he turns off the lights on his way out of the ki
tchen, he thinks nothing more of it.

  Chapter Four

  As the wind drives sheets of rain up the hillside, Damaris is lying in the middle of a thicket of bracken. She’s on her side, knees pulled up to her chest to keep warm. She may be soaked through and very hungry, but she’s still working, using the closest material to hand. Fashioned from freshly plucked blades of grass and each no more than an inch in height, a group of human figures stand on the sodden ground just in front of her face. The half-finished figure leading the group is Matthew Hopkins and the other three are his cronies. Damaris only caught the briefest glimpse of the men on their way up to the woodman’s hut, but it was enough for her.

  She senses a movement from nearby and holds still. A roe deer trots up behind her, sniffs her matted straw-blond hair, then moves off again, no haste or anxiety apparent in its gait as it goes. Damaris is so well known to the creatures of the wood that they’ve accepted her as one of their own.

  She resumes her work on the Hopkins figure. The blades of grass are too fresh and not easy to manipulate into shape, but she perseveres until this last figure is finished. And there they are, fabricated from the green strips, the Witchfinder and his men with their long coats and brandishing their staffs. For these she has used some common butterwort stems. She’s watching the course of a droplet of rainwater as it slides down one of the stems when her gaze falls on something beyond it. Her stomach rumbles loudly. Then, quick as a flash, she shoots out a hand to snatch up what she’s spotted in the earth. It is a chafer grub almost as big as her little finger. The grub writhes in her grip, arching an abdomen the color of old ivory as its brown legs ply the air.

  With another rumble of her stomach, Damaris moves the grub toward her open mouth. Despite the fact that she’s starving and desperate for something to eat, she can’t bring herself to do it and releases the grub.

  She looks at her grass figures, realizing that she has crushed them with her sudden lunge. Her face is expressionless. She doesn’t know that these men represent a terrible, impending threat to her. Similarly, when the woodman’s hut was burned down Damaris had felt the loss of her shelter, but she had no more conception of the danger to her than any of the other animals in the wood. Like them, she was wary of the humans’ incursion into her habitat so she instinctively kept away.

  Her immediate concern is that the destruction of the hut means her stock of food has gone – she can’t rely on the nuts and vegetable roots she had stashed there, or the supplies her family had provided. There isn’t much in the woods to forage this late on in the year, so her options are limited. She could always steal into town and raid either her former home or one of the other houses. But she doesn’t want to venture anywhere she might run into people. That would be worse for her than enduring this terrible hunger.

  All she can picture in her mind is the flat stone and the food that might be waiting on it.

  In the morning the headache has eased slightly, but there’s something else. There’s blood. Lots of it. As he becomes fully awake, Sam can feel the sticky warmth on his neck and shoulders. And even though the curtains are still drawn he can see that there’s something dark, like a large ink blot, over his chest.

  He sits up, his nostrils bubbling as he breathes. ‘Oh dear,’ he mumbles, getting off the bed. He cups a hand over his nose and mouth as he walks unsteadily to the bathroom.

  When he examines himself in the mirror over the sink, he recoils from the image that greets him; there’s an alarming amount of blood down his face and neck.

  ‘Yes, nosebleed,’ he says, realizing it must have been going on for some hours while he slept because in places it has already congealed into long dark caterpillars, and his pajamas around his shoulders and chest are drenched through. He gets more blood on his hands as he probes around his nose. There’s no pain there, but he begins to feel a little shaky because of how bad it looks. Grabbing the first thing that comes to hand, a wash cloth, he tries to staunch the flow.

  In a couple of minutes the cloth is wet through. He looks down at the livid red streaks on the white porcelain and where the blood is pooling around the plughole.

  ‘Mum!’ he shouts, half-heartedly, because he doesn’t want to admit yet that this is something he can’t deal with. Doing his best to remain calm, he remembers the advice that he should tilt his head back, and tries it. But this makes no difference and he spends several more minutes attempting to control the bleeding by holding his nostrils shut. However, when he lets them open again the blood is still flowing copiously. There’s no way he’s going to be ready for school in time.

  ‘Mum, Mum!’ he calls out, with more urgency now. He becomes aware that he’s not alone in the room. From the reflection in the mirror, he sees that Jesse’s come in and is lounging against the wall with his legs crossed. The younger boy might be lounging, but he’s doing it in a tense, unrelaxed way, head slightly turned away as if he’s completely unmoved by Sam’s plight.

  ‘Great timing. I need to clean my teeth but you’re in here, Sicko,’ Jesse says in a low voice, shaking his head. ‘Why does stuff like this always happen just when we’ve got to go?’

  Uncrossing his legs and pushing himself away from the wall, Jesse reaches over to give Sam a dig in the back. It’s not done with enough force to cause any real pain, but more as an indication of what Jesse would like to do at that moment. Or what he intends to do to his brother when the opportunity presents itself.

  ‘Get off,’ Sam says, taking his hand from his face. Another deluge of blood gushes from his nose and down over his top lip.

  ‘Yuck! Watch it!’ Jesse shouts in dismay, stepping back quickly as if he wants to avoid getting any of it on him. But Sam has managed to swing around in time so most of it is caught by the sink. ‘Good grief! Why are you so disgusting?’ Jesse says, making a clicking sound with his tongue as if he’s about to spit. ‘This is just typical. Dad’s already left so there’s nobody to take me to school. I’m going to be late again, all because of you. You really are a selfish little creep.’

  Swearing under his breath, Jesse stomps toward the doorway. He’s on his way out as Mrs White rushes in. ‘You’re gonna need a shedload of plasters,’ Jesse advises her, as she gives him an inquiring look

  Sam’s mother hesitates, pausing in her step for the briefest moment as she sees Sam’s smeared face and his blood-stained pajamas. Her eyes switch to Jesse’s fleeting back as he storms off. It only occurred to Sam later that she was wondering if Jesse was responsible for his nosebleed.

  But Mrs White doesn’t hesitate for long, immediately going into action. ‘Let’s see to this,’ she says, as she snatches a hand towel from the rail and, turning on the cold tap, begins to dab the worst from Sam’s face so she can assess the bleeding. Then she throws the towel into the bath, grabbing a second from the rail, which she holds to her son’s nose while supporting his head. All this is done without a further word until she asks, ‘Pain?’

  Because Sam has lurched from crisis to crisis over the years, and situations like this are not uncommon, he and his mother talk in a sort of triage shorthand.

  ‘Headache’s better. Feel dizzy,’ he replies.

  She nods. ‘Probably from blood loss. Numbness?’

  He flexes his fingers and then wriggles his toes first on one side and then the other. ‘No,’ he reports, recalling the episode several months before when pressure on his brain meant he had loss of sensation down the left side of his body, causing him problems walking.

  ‘Good.’ Mrs White peels the towel away a fraction to check his nose. ‘It’s no better. I’m going to have to take you in,’ she decides.

  ‘But, mum, what about sch …?’ Sam begins to protest, tailing off because he’s feeling light-headed. His mother notices how he’s swaying.

  ‘Don’t worry. I’ve got you,’ she tells her son, holding him upright. Then, with her foot, she hooks a chair from beside the bath and drags it over. ‘Sit down,’ she says, helping him onto it. She glances at her watch
. ‘I should call ahead.’

  Sam knows she’s talking about taking him to hospital, and much as he’d rather not go back in, he also knows it’s useless to argue. Mrs White has set her jaw in that way she does. In any case, he doesn’t feel strong enough to put up any resistance.

  ‘It’s not stopping,’ he says, as they both look at how much blood is permeating through the new hand towel. ‘I’ve never had one this bad before.’

  No,’ Mrs White agrees, ‘but they always look worse than they really are.’ She draws herself up. ‘Right, keep the pressure on and I’ll be back in two shakes.’

  Sam holds the towel in place while she hurries next door to fetch a roll of lavatory paper. When she returns, she takes a single sheet, tears it in half, then folds each of these into two small plugs. Then Mrs White removes the towel from Sam’s face so she can very gently insert these into his nostrils. The flow of blood is held back, although Sam can still feel the warm liquid running down the back of his throat.

  ‘At least we won’t leave a trail for the vampires,’ Mrs White says. Sam smiles limply. He watches his mother in the mirror as she wipes his face with a damp wash cloth. He couldn’t remember a time when her hair hadn’t been gray and he liked the way she kept it short – that and the black-rimmed glasses through which her eyes never showed any sign of panic. And she isn’t showing any now, even though Sam has turned very pale and is rather unsteady on his feet as she helps him downstairs.

  Mrs White guides him to a chair by the front door and sits him there. He’s slightly losing track of time because before he knows it he finds that his mother has draped a thick blanket around him and there are slippers on his feet. His head is slumped forward on his chest but he groggily lifts it as he hears raised voices from upstairs.

 
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