Summerhouse land, p.6
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       Summerhouse Land, p.6
 

           Roderick Gordon

  He’s overawed by the ferocity of the attack from this mere girl, who’s turned into a spitting tornado.

  Then she simply folds to the ground.

  The second man is there with his staff poised in his hands. ‘I felled the she-devil! I felled the she-devil!’ he announces proudly, laughing as he dances a little jig.

  The lieutenant can see the blood already trickling from Damaris’s hairline where she’s been struck. He doesn’t seem to be pleased at the way things have turned out. ‘You better pray you ’aven’t done for ’er,’ he says, gingerly touching the scratches she’s inflicted on his face. He shakes his head at the second man before bending over the limp form of the girl to see if she’s alive. ‘We need the witch breathin’ for the assize.’

  ‘One potato …’

  Alone in the kitchen, Sam goes through the routine for the second time that day, mechanically taking the pills left for him by his mother on the worktop while he stares out at the garden.

  ‘Three p—’

  He’s not paying enough attention and the pill nearly goes down the wrong way as he swallows. He coughs. Still looking through the window, he takes a moment to get his breath back. Evening has set in and the large copper beech tree at the end of the garden is consolidating into a single dark shadow. The sky above is a deepening gray, as if a thick carpet is being slowly laid over the Earth, its edges stained with luminous ocher from the streetlamps in neighboring roads.

  Sam finishes the last of the pills and puts his glass in the sink, then touches his forehead. He’s grateful that for the moment he’s not in the grip of one of his headaches, but there’s still the occasional dull ache, as if he’s hearing the rumble of distant thunder. A warning of what might be coming.

  His head isn’t being helped by the dry, over-heated air in the house, and he suddenly longs to be outside. There on the spot he decides to go into the garden. In any case, he’s dressed for it, still with his school coat and a scarf on. And Mrs White has nipped to the shops to pick up some groceries, so there’s no one around to nag him and tell him to stay in the warm.

  He calls to Maxie, who’s been snoozing on the sofa in the sitting room, which he’s not allowed to do. Sam doesn’t have to call a second time as the dog charges toward the back door, bouncing with excitement. He’s already got his well-chewed tennis ball in his mouth.

  ‘Come along,’ Sam says affectionately, patting Maxie’s head before letting him into the garden. Stepping carefully across the damp York stone terrace, Sam descends the small flight of steps between the twin rose beds down to the lawn.

  The grass feels crisp underfoot as he stops halfway along the garden to throw the ball for Maxie, who each time retrieves it and comes lolloping back. Then the dog finds something interesting to sniff at and Sam makes his way across the remainder of the lawn. He likes the end of the garden, dominated by the old copper beech and where he’s far away from the house.

  He goes right up to the thick trunk of the tree and runs a hand over the gnarls and whorls in the gray bark. Ever since he can remember it’s always been the leg of an impossibly large elephant to him.

  Then he moves to the right of the tree where there’s an ancient iron bench on the lawn, its white paint peeling from the epidemic of rust all over its surface. The bench was already there in the garden when his parents moved in. Sam sits on it, then cranes his neck to peer up into the leafless branches of the old tree.

  He tries to locate the section of weather-bleached timber nailed to an upper twist of its trunk, but there’s not enough light. Someone, a former tenant of the house, must long ago have built a tree house or at least some kind of platform up there, and a piece of timber had been left high in the tree.

  Sam smiles to himself. Jesse often taunts him that one day he’ll climb that far up while Sam will never be strong enough to do it. Jesse says he’ll prize off the piece of timber and bring it back down with him as evidence. Sam knows his brother doesn’t have enough confidence to attempt it just yet.

  Sam lowers his gaze down the trunk and back to the ground. Just behind the tree, quite possibly built by the same occupants of the house who had conquered the upper reaches of the tree, there once stood an old summerhouse.

  Some of Sam’s earliest memories are of playing in it. Constructed of hand-hewn timber, it was octagonal in shape, and although it was in a pretty parlous state, thatch still remained on the roof. The problem was that its foundations had let it down. Much of the timber frame of the base had crumbled away, devoured by woodworm and fine tendrils of white rot which laced its surface. Sam’s parents had had no alternative but to pull it down before it collapsed. Now the only signs that it had ever been there were a few stumps poking out of the loamy soil.

  Sam sniffs, recalling so vividly the scents and smells he associates with the summerhouse – the muskiness of the decaying wood mingling with the rich odor of many seasons of dried leaves the wind had blown inside it. And he also remembers how after the men had been taking the upper sections apart and throwing them on a raging bonfire, they had lifted the floor only to find the remains of dead hedgehogs underneath. Many mummified balls of quills that hadn’t survived hibernation through past winters.

  The memories of the summerhouse are important to Sam because they’re from the years before he was ill.

  He’s pulled from his thoughts as the back door of the house opens and in the shadowy light he sees someone emerge.

  ‘Oh, please, not Jesse,’ he prays under his breath.

  But as the figure descends the steps from the terrace, Sam recognizes it’s not his brother but his father. Maxie romps over to him.

  ‘Someone forget and leave you outside, boy?’ Mr White asks the dog. Once he’s reached the lawn he begins to do some leg stretching exercises, although without much enthusiasm as if he’s only going through the motions. Maxie keeps scampering around Mr White and depositing the ball at his feet, who each time seems somewhat relieved to stop his exercises so he can throw it.

  Mr White eventually finishes his stretching and continues down the lawn. He slows his pace, squinting as he makes out someone’s on the bench. ‘Sam? What are you doing here?’

  ‘Hello, Dad. Been to the gym?’ Sam asks, noting that his father is wearing his tracksuit and trainers, with his Barbour jacket done up to the neck.

  ‘No, just a quick run. You shouldn’t be outside, you know. It’s a bit nippy – you might catch a chill. Besides we don’t want to find you zonked out on the bench again, like we did last time.’

  ‘No,’ Sam mumbles, as Mr White looks shiftily at the house.

  ‘Gave your mother a terrible scare, that did,’ his father says distractedly, as he fishes in a pocket of his Barbour to produce a packet of cigarettes. ‘You won’t tell her, will you?’ he mutters, not waiting for Sam’s response as he lights one.

  ‘I thought you’d given up. You promised her.’

  ‘Got too much on my mind at the moment,’ Mr White says, moving behind some tall shrubs at the edge of the lawn to shield him in case anyone’s watching at a window.

  From miles away there come the distant echoes of a police siren, reminding them that they’re in a city. They don’t speak for a moment, then Mr White gives an exaggerated shiver. ‘It may be a bit cold, but it’s really quite peaceful here, isn’t it?’

  ‘Yes, I’ve always loved it down this end of the garden,’ Sam says, smiling to himself. ‘I was just thinking about our old summerhouse,’ he adds. He can see his father nodding at this because in the gloom the glowing tip of his cigarette bobs rapidly up and down. ‘You know after it was taken away, I had this dream that I climbed right over that fence behind it.’

  Sam turns his head to where he’s referring although it’s shrouded in darkness now evening has set in. The fence had largely been hidden by the summerhouse while it was still there, but is constructed of the same roughly-cut timber, made pale by many seasons of rain and sun. And the area once occupied by the summerhouse is now used as a genera
l dumping ground for garden waste with a compost heap on it.

  ‘You know there’s that gap on the other side of the fence … well, in my dream it became this …’ Sam says, basking in the recollection, ‘this sort of secret passage that went all the way down the hill … down the backs of the gardens of all the other houses. It was so cool because nobody knew it was there. And it went straight to some of the most incredible countryside you could imagine, like something out of a story, with no cars or buildings in it at all.’ Sam grins to himself in the darkness. ‘In my dream it felt so real. You know I even gave it a name. I called it Summerhouse Land.’

  ‘Summerhouse Land?’ Mr White repeats.

  ‘Yes, and what was weird was when I went over the fence it was a lot like this – cold and dark – but when I came out in Summerhouse Land the sun was up in the sky and it was so hot.’

  Mr White laughs. ‘Show me the way!’ He rubs his shoulder as if trying to warm himself up. ‘Sunshine … I could do with a shot of that right now.’ He doesn’t speak for a moment. ‘You know it’s funny now you mention it, but that sliver of land you’re talking about doesn’t have any title to it. It’s only four or five feet across, and it’s on the deeds. Or, rather, it’s not on the deeds. Anyone’s.’

  Sam is immediately intrigued. ‘So it doesn’t belong to anyone?’

  ‘No, and it’s probably not that uncommon in a built-up place the size of London. It’s just been sort of overlooked through the years.’ Mr White takes a long drag on his cigarette. ‘Of course, it’s no good to anyone unless they can incorporate it into their plot. And it’s hardly worth the trouble because there’d most likely be a legal wrangle about who has first dibs on it.’

  ‘But wouldn’t somebody want to buy it? We could have it.’

  ‘Why – what does it add? – it’s so small. And it’s not as if anyone else is going to bid for it on the open market.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘It’s landlocked, isn’t it?’

  ‘Landlocked?’ Sam asks.

  ‘There’s no access to it from the road.’ Mr White puffs thoughtfully on his cigarette. ‘Just a useless, forgotten area, maybe for all time.’

  ‘I climbed up to have a look at it once,’ Sam says, still thinking about what he’s just learned.

  He remembers the year that the compost heap was the highest he’d ever known it. His school shoes had sunk deep into the putrefying grass cuttings, but by climbing the heap and hanging onto the top of the old fence, he’d been able to pull himself up far enough that he could peer over and into the gap. On the other side and directly facing him was the brick wall that marked the edge of a neighbor’s garden, but the strip of ground in front of it was filled with many years of accumulated twigs and branches, a few nettles, and some slabs of stone speckled with lichen.

  There was something so enigmatic and mysterious about a secret alleyway that appeared to lead somewhere, although he hadn’t actually confirmed this for himself. The neighbor’s wall closed it off to the right, but to the left a small tree swathed in ivy obstructed Sam’s view so he couldn’t see very far and certainly not past it. And that’s what had fired his imagination – the notion that it went farther.

  ‘Maybe, one day, I’ll climb over and have a proper look,’ Sam suggests.

  ‘Yes,’ Mr White says distantly, exhaling smoke.

  There’s a silence because both Sam and his father know that Sam isn’t capable of anything that physically demanding.

  ‘Anyway,’ Mr White says, treading his cigarette butt into the border with a trainer, then kicking a little soil over it to hide it from his wife. ‘Anyway, you’re coming inside with me now before you catch your death. No argument.’

  ‘Okay, Dad,’ Sam agrees, getting to his feet and walking beside his father as they make their way back to the house.

  But now Sam has been reminded of his old dream he can’t stop thinking about it. When his condition had really taken hold and he’d laid on his bed wrestling with the pain from his mutinous bones, his mind had often wandered the route of the dream. Escaping in the lost gap between the gardens.

  For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of the abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

  By the lake Hopkins is bent over his King James, moving his finger along the line of scripture as he reads. He’s composing himself for what comes next.

  All has been quiet from farther around the bank where his men have roped the witch to a tree, waiting for her to regain consciousness. The instruments of assize have been laid out in preparation. He grins to himself. He lives for days like these. It’s all going according to plan.

  Looking up from his Bible, he scans the land by the lake. He doesn’t see anyone, but then he’s not expecting any of the townspeople to show up. Not yet, anyway. They don’t know that the witch has been caught and, besides, it’s better this way. He can’t stop them if they want to come and watch, but he prefers not to have any onlookers during the preliminary stages.

  It’s made easier if you’re dealing with an ugly old hag with warts and no teeth who actually looks like a witch. People need little convincing in those cases. However, if it’s a more youthful person like Damaris where there might still be a vestige of sympathy and the risk of a rabble coming together in an effort to save her, then a different approach is required.

  The trick is to injure and deform the accused so badly that they’re dehumanized. Or, at least, so mutilated and physically shocking that people will instinctively back off, because of their horror. He learned this lesson early on when a whole village rose up against him to try to save – in their eyes at least – a poor lost waif, and he had his work cut out to keep them at bay and finish the process.

  All of a sudden the silence of the countryside is shattered by a piercing scream. More screams follow, interspersed with desperate guttural cries that sound more bestial than anything else. It’s the girl, and Hopkins can only think that his men must be cutting off one of her limbs or putting her eyes out.

  He immediately slaps his Bible shut and runs along the bank.

  Grinning from ear to ear, the lieutenant steps aside to allow Hopkins to see the girl. She’s fully conscious, that’s for sure. Even at a distance Hopkins observes how she tugs against her bonds. With her back stripped bare, his men have bound her wrists with a length of thick hemp rope so her arms are pulled tight around the circumference of the trunk.

  Hopkins doesn’t hide his displeasure. ‘What is this?’ he snaps at his lieutenant. ‘You were to summon me when she was awake.’

  The lieutenant’s grin has vanished from his broad face. ‘We started a time ago,’ he admits. ‘I wanted to soften ’er up for you, sir.’

  Hopkins is frowning as he approaches the girl. ‘What do you mean you started a time ago? When?’ He sees one of his men by the fire taking an iron from the flames to inspect the glowing tip and at the same time he spots the livid wounds on the girl’s arm. They have already marked her twice with the sign of the cross. ‘You dared to do this without me?’ he bellows.

  The lieutenant shifts uncomfortably on the balls of his feet. ‘That’s not what made ’er cry out, sir.’

  ‘No?’

  ‘No, sir,’ the lieutenant gulps. ‘There wasn’t a squeak from the she-witch when we branded ’er. Not a squeak. Just a few tears. Most unnatural it was, too.’

  ‘Well, then what does make her react so?’ Hopkins asks. ‘And why is her head more blooded than when I left?’ he demands, with a gesture at the dark crimson in Damaris’s matted blond hair.

  ‘Did that to ’erself, she did. You need to watch this.’ The lieutenant then waves to one of the other men. Hopkins moves beside the tree so he can see the girl’s face. There’s a feral, frightened look on it, but when his henchman simply touches her unclothed shoulder with a finger, the transformation is startling.

  Damaris’s eyes look as though they might pop from their sockets as she goes into
a paroxysm of terrible screaming, heaving herself away from the tree and slamming her forehead against the rough bark and making it bleed even more.

  ‘Enough. Leave her be,’ Hopkins orders his henchman.

  After a while Damaris stops both the screaming and the frantic bucking against her bonds, but the wildness in her eyes remains. There’s froth around her mouth and she’s panting hard.

  ‘She cannot abide the touch of another person,’ the lieutenant points out unnecessarily.

  Hopkins nods. ‘Symptoms of a disturb’d mind,’ he quotes, recalling an account he’d read of a trial that took place in Salisbury earlier that year. ‘We need do no more. It is plain to see that she is an odious witch, and when the people behold her like this, they’ll see it too.’

  He addresses his lieutenant. ‘Set up the ducking stool, and dispatch a man to the town elder to let him know we are to begin.’

  Chapter Six

  Sniff.

  A chair strains under movement, presaging the rustle of a page being turned.

  Sniff.

  Sam’s in the school library, and he’s not alone.

  Stifled cough.

  Only the sick in here, at break time, while all the other pupils have their imposed twenty-five minutes out in the fresh air.

  More sniffs.

  Sam doesn’t look up from his book, the pages in front of him occupying his field of vision. He’s caught up with all the classwork he needed to do and this is his reward. He likes where he is at the moment, immersed in a story.

  A half-cough half-sneeze, followed by a throat being cleared.

  Sam lowers his head, hunkering down over his book. It’s intended to warn anyone off. Don’t you dare think about talking to me.

  The sniffer from the other side of the table closes the covers of his book and puts it down in front of him. Or rather, he drops it from a few inches so it makes a phup sound. He’s trying to draw attention to himself.

 
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