Summerhouse land, p.5
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       Summerhouse Land, p.5

           Roderick Gordon
 

  ‘I can’t be in two places at once,’ Mrs White shouts angrily on the floor above.

  Then Sam hears his brother’s complaining voice, equally angry, but within minutes all three of them are in the car and making their way through the streets at speed. Cocooned in the blanket with the air conditioning blowing warm air into his face, Sam is in the front passenger seat, staring lethargically at the frosty sidewalks as they slip by. He feels detached, as if he’s not really there. The only thing that pulls him back is the continual loud sighing and grumbling from the back seat of the car. Jesse is still furious, but Mrs White simply ignores it.

  They come to a stop in the road outside a large house. Sam realizes it’s where a school friend of his lives. With his shock of blond hair, Gareth is waiting in the drive, hands deep in the pockets of his navy blue coat. Sam feels a rush of affection for him. Kids at school aren’t generally very kind to Sam, as if he’s something unclean, something to be avoided. Gareth’s never been like that.

  The boy doesn’t make a move to approach the car, he and Sam looking at each other over the distance. Sam feels awkward. He really doesn’t want Gareth to see him this way – huddled in the car seat, blanket over bloodied pajamas and, worse still, with lavatory paper stuffed up his nose. It’s not a great look.

  ‘Why are we here?’ Sam mumbles to his mother.

  She doesn’t seem to hear, then he realizes she’s not in her seat. The cold air from the open car door clears Sam’s head a little as he watches his mother usher Jesse up the drive and into another car where one of Gareth’s parents is behind the wheel. Sam knows then that this is his brother’s ride to school. Jesse doesn’t once look round.

  Sam’s last view is of Gareth still eyeing him with concern. Then Mrs White climbs back into the car.

  ‘I feel like I’m going to be sick, Mum,’ Sam says, closing and opening his mouth several times.

  ‘It’s probably all the blood you’ve swallowed.’ Mrs White gives his hand a squeeze. ‘Hang on in there, love – we’ll be at the hospital before you know it,’ she says, and fires up the ignition and then really puts her foot down as they head off.

  ‘He hates me, doesn’t he,’ Sam says after a while, the intonation that of a statement and not a question. He’s slid far down in his seat and taking next to no notice of the passing city outside.

  ‘Come on! Out of the way!’ Mrs White is trying to get around a garbage truck that’s stopped in front of them. She manages it, flooring the accelerator to take advantage of the clear stretch of road beyond. ‘Your brother?’ she responds after a couple of moments, preoccupied with driving. ‘Jesse doesn’t hate anyone. He doesn’t know what the word means.’

  ‘I think he does.’

  ‘Dratted lights,’ Mrs White is grumbling as they’re held up at a junction. ‘If anything, he’s jealous.’

  ‘Jealous? How can he be …’ Sam says, barely able to string a sentence together, ‘… be jealous of me?’

  There’s nothing until Sam comes to in bed. His head feels heavy on the pillow.

  ‘Hospital?’ he asks weakly, as his vision settles down and everything is brought into focus.

  ‘Hello, Sam,’ Mrs White says. ‘Dad got here first. He carried you in from the car. By some miracle they’d already found not only a bed for you, but a room too.’

  Sam manages a weak smile at his mother. Then he looks at his surroundings. It’s like all the other rooms he’s been in so many times before. By his bed he sees the two plastic bags of fluid suspended from a stand – one clear, the other a dull maroon color.

  ‘You’re on a drip. They’re putting fluids back into you,’ his mother informs him gently. ‘Wouldn’t you know it, the bleeding stopped by itself, but they want to X-ray you to find out what caused it. The doctor thinks it was a ruptured sinus, due to deformation in the bone around the nasal cavity.’

  ‘Dad?’ Sam asks, not keeping up with what she’s telling him.

  ‘Yes, I told you – he’s here. He brought you in from the car. He’s with the doctor right now,’ Mrs White replies. ‘Now close your eyes and try to rest.’

  ***

  And now we’re bringing you a report on recent conservation work at Tsavo National Park.

  Sam watches the images playing on the television of a land that he’ll never see, not by physically traveling there at any rate. Part of him doesn’t believe it exists, nor any of the other overseas places he sees on the television or that his friends jet to for their holidays. Maybe there is only London and this life he knows, and the rest is just some sort of conspiracy. He has no real recollection of the one or two trips abroad his parents said they took him on when he was much younger and before his condition had set in.

  Without much interest, Sam continues to watch the views of bedraggled wildebeest with the sun-dried African bush as a backdrop. Air travel is out of the question for him because the lower pressure in the cabin might cause the cavities in his head to expand, and the consequences could be unpleasant to say the least. As a worst-case they could even explode like sealed containers stowed away in the main baggage hold.

  ‘Pop,’ Sam mouths, making no sound, as he thinks about what the neurosurgeon told him and his parents. ‘Pop, pop.’

  Apart from that, the level of medical support he might require wouldn’t be readily available, certainly not if he’s several hours drive away somewhere in a Kenyan safari park.

  ‘Not real,’ he says to the television screen as a giraffe gallops away from the camera.

  He’s just trying to work out how these shared experiences could be embedded in people’s memories, perhaps by brainwashing them once they’ve boarded the aircraft, when the door to his room clunks open. He looks at the woman standing there, with a pleasant smile on her face.

  ‘Hello,’ she says breezily. She’s Japanese and around his parents’ age. The woman is wearing a coat and doesn’t appear to be any of the hospital or medical staff he’s met before, as far as he can remember.

  From where he’s sitting in his chair beside the bed, Sam nods and smiles back in reflexive politeness.

  The woman takes this as a sign that she can come in. She helps a man who is walking with a cane to enter the room. He’s also Japanese. They stand there, by the foot of Sam’s bed while he remains in his chair. He can see the wildlife program still playing on the television mounted on the wall behind their heads.

  They are looking at him so attentively that despite his fatigue, he makes an effort to pull himself up in the chair.

  For a moment no one speaks.

  He wonders if they’ve come to the wrong room.

  Then the woman gives a small bow. ‘We wanted to thank you for what you did,’ she says rather nervously. Sam notices that she has tears in her eyes. But there is the look of the deepest gratitude on both her face and that of the man with her.

  And something else.

  Affection.

  For him.

  The woman is still speaking. ‘It was more than we could have ever hoped for … those months with her. A miracle from heaven.’ She bows again, hands clasped together. ‘Thank you, Sam, from the bottom of our hearts.’

  ‘… bottom of our hearts,’ the man repeats, a human echo.

  Sam is now wondering if some sort of joke is being played on him, or whether they are the kind of people his father is always warning him about. Con men. Thieves. But they appear so harmless and friendly. Maybe that’s how it works.

  ‘We brought some pictures to show you,’ the woman says. ‘She didn’t get seriously ill again for three or four months. She refused any treatment. She was so brave through it all. We were with her to the end. She was just so happy th—’

  The man is still smiling, but the woman chokes up. Sam sees the tears streaming down her face before she lowers her head, fumbling to get her handbag open.

  Sam now wonders if they’re the parents of another child who is very ill, perhaps looking for comfort from someone. But why him? Or perhaps they’ve both
become unhinged by their experience.

  As the woman takes her hand out of her bag, there are many photographs in it. She leaves her husband gripping the rail at the end of the bed as she ventures closer to Sam. Ventures closer as if she’s a little bit afraid of him. Glancing at the breakfast Sam has hardly touched on the tray, she begins to lay the photographs on the unmade bed so he can see them. He spots a girl in the photos.

  Then it clicks.

  ‘Rachel,’ he says. He looks up. These are her parents. He does know them. ‘Rachel Nishio.’

  ‘Yes,’ the woman says, arranging the photographs.

  One of the first times he was brought into this hospital for tests, there was a little Japanese girl in the children’s ward. She had all the latest gadgets because her father ran the UK arm of one of the largest Japanese electronics companies. Sam remembered that although his posting had come to an end in England and he could have returned to Japan, he opted to stay on because his family liked it here so much. Sam glances up at him now, recognizing him. Somewhat impossibly, the man is still smiling despite his wife’s evident distress.

  The girl, Rachel, was very ill from a rare chondrosarcoma affecting the skeleton all over her body and was forced to spend even more time in hospital than Sam. In fact, she never seemed to be out of it. When he was brought in, nine times out of ten, she’d already be there. A strong bond formed between them because their bodies were betraying both of them, their bones rebelling and growing in a way that they weren’t meant to. Sam and Rachel read stories to each other and did jigsaws together where there always seemed to be a single piece missing from the box.

  But Rachel was constantly being subjected to endless rounds of bone grafts, chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions, and each time Sam saw her she’d gone a little farther downhill. When a section of her pelvis was removed and she became unable to walk, he’d push her around in a wheelchair. And if he was well enough, he’d race her up and down the corridors far too fast, much to the chagrin of the nurses.

  Giggling and laughing and getting looks of disapproval from the people who worked in the hospital, no part of the building was off limits to them. Sometimes they would even take the service lift down to the sub-basement and sneak around the level where the boilers poured out heat night and day, and the back-up generators hummed away like sleeping dragons. But a favorite destination was the chapel which very rarely had anyone in it so they could talk without interruption.

  Sam doesn’t know what had become of Rachel, although she’d been so very ill the last time he’d seen her, he wouldn’t be terribly surprised if she had died. When he’d asked them, Mr and Mrs White either didn’t seem to know, or perhaps weren’t saying.

  But here is Rachel in these photos, standing unassisted in the lapping waves on a beach with no wheelchair in sight. Sam has never seen her like this, looking so well. With her burnished skin and sleek black hair she’s stunning.

  ‘Hair!’ Sam blurts out without meaning to. She had lost it all from the chemotherapy treatment.

  ‘Yes, she was so happy to get it back. She loved her hair,’ the woman says.

  Sam studies the photographs more closely. It had grown back? He knows how unlikely that is. Her hair in the photographs could be a wig, but it looks far too real. ‘She’s cured,’ Sam says under his breath, as he sees that Rachel’s body in her bathing suit shows not the slightest trace of the many operations she’s endured, and indeed her limbs are lithe and strong. ‘So she’s better?’ Sam asks the Japanese woman.

  There’s a delay before she answers. ‘She was. Better than we could have prayed for. We took her to see her grandparents in Okinawa and had a wonderful, wonderful time there.’ The woman is wringing her hands together so aggressively that her fingers are turning red. ‘Then we returned here to England as the cancer resumed, just as you said it would. She wanted to be in this country – she said it was her home.’

  ‘She made her choice,’ the man says from the foot of the bed, speaking his own words for the first time. ‘No more treatment. We respected her for that.’

  As Sam scans along the line of photographs he sees now that indeed she seems to become ill in them again. He reaches out and picks one up where she’s back in a wheelchair and her face is very gaunt.

  ‘Yes, that’s near the end, after it had spread again,’ the woman tells him. ‘She passed away last month. We didn’t want to trouble you with the news.’

  Sam opens his mouth, wanting to say something, but the man speaks first.

  ‘No, because we swore we’d keep what happened secret,’ he says. ‘We would never break our promise to you.’

  The woman doesn’t seem able to control herself any longer and can’t stop crying, her face shiny with her tears.

  Sam is completely thrown by all this and beginning to wonder if he’s been out of it for longer than he thought, rather than just the previous night when the bleeding knocked him for six. It’s all still a bit of a blur, even when they took him to be X-rayed.

  But what’s going on here is bigger than last night.

  ‘I …’ Sam bursts out, his brow furrowed.

  ‘I’m so sorry we’ve disturbed you,’ the man interrupts, holding up a hand. ‘We shouldn’t be here but, you see, Rachel spent so much time in this hospital that the staff have become our friends. One of the registrars told us you were in,’ the man explains. ‘And we thought it would be okay to visit you, just for a moment.’

  ‘Yes, sure, of course … I had a nosebleed that …’ Sam tails off, wondering why he’s telling them this.

  ‘But we don’t want to break our promise to you, so we will never contact you or speak of this again,’ the man says. ‘Scout’s honor.’ He raises his arm, twists a palm toward Sam, then extends two fingers in the usual salute. This gesture is so incongruous that Sam thinks he has to be joking, but his expression is grave.

  The woman suddenly shoots out a hand and clasps one of Sam’s, making him start. Her speech is broken into breathy snatches. ‘I can’t tell you how grateful we … no, we will never tell, just as you asked … thank you, Sam.’

  There’s a small silence when no one talks. The woman lets go of Sam’s hand.

  The man coughs. ‘A photo – you should have a photo. So you have a keepsake to remember Rachel by.’

  The woman goes to pick one out. ‘Yes, have …’

  ‘No, there …’ the man directs, pointing at the bed. ‘That one.’

  The woman passes Sam an alternative photograph. It’s the one in which Rachel is on a beach and looks so well.

  The woman quickly collects together all the other photographs and bundles them into her handbag.

  They both begin toward the door.

  Sam can’t contain himself any longer. ‘Is this about something I’ve done?’ he asks, his voice edged with desperation. He’s trying to understand.

  ‘On my honor we will tell no one. Not a soul. Goodbye,’ the man replies, with another smile of gratitude. Then he looks away because he has to help his wife to the door as she’s so overcome with emotion. The man pauses for a moment in the doorway and turns again to Sam. ‘And also give our thanks to the girl who helped you, helped that day with Rachel.’

  ‘Girl?’ Sam asks, holding the photograph. The gloss surface is streaky from Mrs Nishio’s tears. ‘What girl?’

  The door closes behind the Japanese couple, leaving Sam alone with the television again. He’s missed the report on the safari park and now there’s some footage of a hedgehog at night, which appears to be munching on a pulpy slug.

  Sam lets his head slump against the backrest of his chair, so mired in confusion that he wonders if he’s losing grip on his sanity.

  ‘What was that?’ he asks the empty room, trying to work out what Rachel’s parents were talking about, and whether he’d forgotten some incident. ‘What the heck was that?’ he almost shouts because he’s so upset and also rather frightened. How could whatever he’d done be so important to them and to Rachel. And why does
n’t he have any recollection of it? No, none of it makes any sense at all.

  As the news about Rachel’s death sinks in, he studies her photograph. When he happens to turn it over to look at the back, there’s something there – closely handwritten lines in Japanese. He regards these for a moment then, with a last glance at Rachel on the other side, thrusts the photograph into his dressing-gown pocket, trying his best not to cry.

  Chapter Five

  It could have been mistaken for a change in the light, maybe a flicker of anemic sunlight breaking from between the dense clouds, but the lieutenant immediately locks onto it. He’s been watching for the best part of a day from a hide close to the flat stone with another of Hopkins’ men, who he now nudges awake.

  In no time at all the second man has collected his wits sufficiently to join the lieutenant who directs him to where he saw the movement. They both wait, only too aware that if the girl slips through their fingers, they’ll have Hopkins to answer to.

  Tucked behind a clump of ferns, Damaris holds completely still, listening to the whisper of the breeze as it combs the foliage. She uses the senses honed from her life in the woods, trying to pick up any scent on the air while carefully scrutinizing the undergrowth around the flat stone, but it’s not quite working for her. Her senses are dulled by her intense hunger – she desperately needs a proper meal. And the cloth bundle on the stone is too tempting: her eyes are continually drawn to it, pulling her in, enticing her.

  She can bear it no longer. Keeping low, she breaks from cover. She moves slowly, like a cat stalking a mouse, as she crosses the open ground.

  In the hide the lieutenant tenses.

  Damaris reaches the stone. She straightens up and extends a hand to the bundle of food.

  The lieutenant has crept up behind the girl and now throws himself at her, seizing hold of her wrist.

  She’s screaming and flailing at him with her free arm, desperate to escape from the man’s grip. Apart from the fear of being trapped, she can’t stand the touch of another human being, can’t stand his proximity. She goes for his face with her long broken nails, scratching him, trying to get at his eyes.

 
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