Summerhouse land, p.9
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       Summerhouse Land, p.9

           Roderick Gordon

  The miller’s wife is aghast as she sees the injuries to her daughter’s forehead and that her white arms are covered in cross-shaped burns. ‘What have they done to her?’ she asks.

  ‘Damaris,’ the miller says barely audibly, as he tries to take a step forward but he’s held back by the blacksmith.

  ‘There’s nothing you can do for her now,’ his friend says in his ear.

  Damaris is bound to the seat at the end of the beam by a chain that passes twice around her trim waist. She couldn’t cry out or scream even if she wanted, because it’s all she can do to gulp down air while she has the chance.

  ‘An’ again,’ Hopkins’ lieutenant shouts. The beam is released and Damaris hits the water with a splash.

  ‘Relent, ye child of Satan!’ Hopkins bellows, giving as good a performance as any of the onlookers has witnessed so far. He thrusts his hands to the sky, the Bible clasped in one of them. ‘Relent and confess your liaison with he of the cloven hoof.’ All this theatricality is rather redundant as there’s no way Damaris can possibly hear him under the water.

  As the miller’s wife staggers a few steps and swoons, friends rush over and try to revive her. The miller watches numbly as his daughter is lifted once again from the lake and then plunged back into the slimy waters.

  ‘God save her,’ he mumbles, as over and over his daughter suffers the barbaric treatment. Each time Damaris resurfaces she splutters and tries to fill her lungs, but each time she’s sagged down a little more in her restraints. Her young body is giving out.

  The miller is watching as, little by little, his daughter is being drowned before his very eyes, and there is absolutely nothing he can do to prevent it. He knows and everyone else there knows too that there can be no happy outcome to this trial. If Damaris somehow manages to survive, then Hopkins will say it’s a sign that she has unnatural powers and is a witch. Only her death can establish her innocence, which isn’t much of a consolation.

  In the miller’s anguish he tries to tell himself at least she’s been spared the other torments that the Witchfinder General’s victims usually endure. Other than the head wounds and the brand marks, she hasn’t been put through the full gamut of horrors that are whispered about whenever Hopkins’ name is mentioned. Tales of him bleeding suspected witches to death, or forcing them to walk for days on end until the soles of their feet are ragged. This walking assize would continue without allowing the suspected witches a moment’s rest, and when they finally confessed – as they invariably did – the poor victims were promptly burned at the stake.

  Perhaps it’s kinder for Damaris that she dies this way. The miller tries to keep watching. He feels he at least owes her that.

  Hopkins’ men raise and lower the pole again and again, and each time Damaris is weaker. Her fine blonde hair has algae in it like some macaber garland, and strands of weed are draped around her shoulders. Her head lolls loosely on her slim shoulders.

  The end is near.

  ‘Repent, witch!’ Hopkins shouts repeatedly.

  His men raise the dunking stool.

  Someone screams.

  There’s a collective gasp from all the onlookers.

  The miller takes a step forward because he can’t believe what he’s seeing.

  The seat at the end of the timber beam is empty.

  Damaris has gone.

  ‘Recapture the witch!’ Hopkins barks, and his men immediately wade into the lake. But then, toward the middle, one of them steps off a ledge and into the deepest part of the lake. ‘Whup!’ he just has time to cry before, rather comically, he slips completely from sight.

  There’s a second’s pause as everyone stares at the bubbles and turbulent water where he was last seen. Then the surface of the lake is broken by his thrashing arms and his head bobs up. Still spluttering and coughing, he’s helped back into the shallower waters by the other men. They’re all much more careful after that about how far they venture in because none of them can swim. Besides, the water is freezing, and the townspeople can see that Hopkins’ men are slowing up and becoming more clumsy in their movements as the cold gets to them.

  ‘The witch shall not escape!’ Hopkins promises over and over at some volume, his face flushed red.

  But his men find nothing. They can’t even locate the heavy-linked chain that had bound her to the ducking stool, and there’s absolutely no way that she’d have been able to swim any distance with it around her. Hopkins goes into a brief huddle with his men, who then renew their efforts to find her.

  Someone from the town had gone back to fetch a drag hook which Hopkins’ men now systematically begin to haul across the deeper parts of the lake.

  ‘Is it her?’ a woman in the crowd asks, and there’s a general commotion as Hopkins’ men snare something and tow it to the bank. The miller moves forward to see as people closer to the object exclaim in disgust – it’s the rotted carcass of a sheep, in which eels have been feeding. These long black sinewy shapes slither out, trying to regain the water.

  The drag hook goes back into action again, but there’s nothing.

  All the assembled people are talking to each other in grave murmurs. It’s impossible for Damaris to have emerged from the lake and not have been observed by a single one of them. And despite the continuing use of the drag hook, Hopkins’ men still can’t find any sign of her body on the lake bed. The waters aren’t so deep that they would have been likely to have missed it, and particularly not the heavy-linked chain which logic dictates is down there too.

  It’s taking too long and Hopkins is in danger of losing his audience. He’s looking thoroughly disgruntled with the situation when he’s saved by his lieutenant. The man lets out a triumphant hoot as he comes across a bull toad sitting on a lily pad. He snatches it up, whirling it around his head by one of its hind limbs.

  ‘The witch has transmuted!’ Hopkins decrees without hesitation.

  ‘It is the she-devil,’ his men repeat among themselves.

  As it croaks and squirms in fear, two of his men hold the unfortunate amphibian between them, and Hopkins reads it its last rites. Then, with a final prayer, his men light a fire and ceremoniously burn the bull toad over it.

  ‘I have cleansed you of this evil. My work here is done,’ Hopkins announces to the crowd. As his men dismantle the dunking stool, he sets off back to town to collect his fee of twenty shillings.

  Chapter Seven

  ‘So it’s serious,’ Sam begins, not really wanting to know, ‘if they called you like that?’ He throws a look across at his father, noticing that he hasn’t shaved that morning. That’s unlike him. He can’t have been up for long before the hospital rang.

  ‘The X-ray revealed there’s a problem there,’ Mr White says, indicating the most prominent lump on Sam’s head. ‘With the frontal bone.’

  ‘What sort of problem?’

  ‘The density of your skull has fallen to critical levels because of the size of the growth. You need a plate ... to strengthen it.’

  ‘Oh.’ That’s something Sam really doesn’t want to hear.

  Mr White continues, ‘The neurosurgeon also suggested the displacement of your frontal lobes could be behind the nosebleed and that last migraine that went on for so long.’

  ‘It’s funny … haven’t had a really bad headache for days,’ Sam says quietly, bracing himself as the taxi takes a corner. It was waiting for them outside the school and is now heading straight to the hospital, although Sam wishes that he had been able to go home first. This is all happening too fast and he’s not ready.

  Father and son are silent for several streets.

  ‘They’re going to do another pre-op scan as soon as we report in, then most likely operate tomorrow,’ Mr White says.

  Nil by mouth. Sam pulls a face, wishing he’d had more for breakfast because he knows they won’t allow him to eat anything for the rest of the day. ‘And the operation – will it be under a local or a general?’ he asks, referring to the anesthetic. He’s no stranger to
the operating theater.

  ‘I’m not sure. Local, I think,’ Mr White replies.

  Sam sighs. That sounds ominous. It means they want him to be conscious during the process to monitor him and check that there isn’t any damage being done to his brain.

  On the other side, he thinks, trying to do what a nurse told him once. If you’re facing something major that you’re anxious about, the trick is to visualize a scene afterwards. Like an explorer taking a fix on a distant peak to keep to his compass bearing.

  The scene can be something trivial – mundane even – but if you can visualize it clearly enough, it will tide you through.

  Climbing into the car to go home after being discharged from hospital.

  Waking up to that first hug from your mother.

  Or maybe even enjoying a simple pleasure, like a McDonald’s burger and fries in bed once the wooziness from the anesthetic has worn off. Closing his eyes, Sam tries to do this, picturing himself sipping a chocolate milkshake in his hospital room with a book propped open in his lap.

  On the other side. But it’s no good. Right now, the trick isn’t working; all Sam can see is a black nothingness on the other side. He concentrates again, but still finds it impossible to visualize anything at all – and that troubles him.

  ‘You said they’re putting in a plate?’ he asks, gently touching the outcrop on his forehead. ‘Is it definite? I thought they wanted to wait until I’m older. After I’m past adolescence, because of the changes to my skeleton.’

  Mr White’s voice is barely audible over the diesel engine. ‘Your condition is moving faster than they anticipated,’ is all he says.

  Then comes the outburst Sam has been expecting. His father takes an involuntary breath and begins to shake his head. ‘I don’t understand that situation in the playground. What the heck were you even doing out there? After all the help I’ve given that stupid school with their stupid plans and they can’t even look after you properly,’ he says angrily. ‘What if I hadn’t turned up when I did and you’d been hurt by those thugs? The master who sent you out there must be an idiot.’

  ‘He is, and it doesn’t matter now, Dad,’ Sam says.

  Mr White goes from being angry to being distressed. ‘But it does matter,’ he replies, sighing before he continues. ‘When you have children, it’s as though you feel everything they feel. Every time they bump themselves or get a graze you feel it – as though they’re extensions of you … invisible limbs you can’t control.’

  Mr White clenches his hands together. ‘And you do anything you can to try to make it better, to take the pain away from them.’ He looks straight at Sam. ‘But there’s nothing I can do to take it away from you, is there? I’ve never felt so completely and utterly helpless.’

  Sam doesn’t know what to say, but Mr White hasn’t said all he wants to say anyway.

  ‘You know, I don’t have any real belief in God or a higher power or anything like that, but I’ve still prayed. I’ve begged for this disease you’ve got to be switched to me instead. It’s mine – it’s because of me – and I should have it, not you. I’d do anything to trade places with you.’

  Mr White is very upset now. He’s fidgeting with the handle of the overnight bag on the seat between them, but Sam reaches across and squeezes his hand. ‘Don’t be silly, Dad. It’s going to be fine.’

  ‘Here I am, trying to deal with what you’re going through, and you’re comforting me.’ Another involuntary breath. ‘And, Sam, none of this is fine. Oh sure, I can chuck money at your problems and get the best treatment I can for you. I can make sure you get some sort of education. But none of it comes close. It’s not enough with what you have to go through.’

  ‘Dad,’ Sam says. His father is close to tears and the driver is peering at them in his mirror. Mr White seems to become aware of this and manages to get control of himself again. Sam can hear him breathing heavily as he stares out at the frosty sidewalks. For several miles neither of them says a word.

  ‘Dad, have I been acting weird lately?’ Sam asks out the blue.

  ‘No more than usual!’ Mr White quips, then laughs loudly, overcompensating for his earlier display of emotion.

  Sam remains stony-faced, and Mr White’s laughter stutters and then peters out altogether. There’s something so depressing when people try to lighten the mood in a charged, desperate situation but fail miserably. It just makes everything so much worse. Mr White clears his throat awkwardly, then there’s a thick and impenetrable silence filling the back of the cab, as if all the sound, the drone of the engine and the squeal of the brakes, has been sucked away.

  It’s a relief when the cab driver provides a distraction. ‘Dipstick!’ he yells, swerving sharply and simultaneously sounding the horn. A car had begun to pull out from a side road without looking, only braking at the last moment. The cab driver slows and leans across to the passenger window. ‘Y’need to get them checked!’ he shouts, pointing in an exaggerated way at his own eyes. ‘Yeah, y’peepers, pal! Y’overdue an eye test!’

  The driver is still grumbling to himself as Mr White turns to his son. ‘Why? What’s the matter?’

  ‘You need to tell me …’ Sam’s not sure how to put this. ‘Have I been sort of … forgetting stuff?’

  There’s no attempt at levity this time; Mr White presses his lips together as he considers his son’s question. ‘Not that I’ve noticed. Forgetting what kind of stuff?’

  ‘Er … like about Rachel,’ Sam replies. He doesn’t want to go into any detail, but he’s got to find out if he’s been suffering from blackouts or some form of neural aberration. Because he needs an explanation.

  ‘Rachel … Rachel …’ Mr White says, looking vaguely at something outside the cab. ‘Oh, yes, your friend in the hospital. That poor Japanese girl – I wonder how she is.’

  ‘So you haven’t heard anything about her?’ Sam inquires gently. Like the fact that she’s dead and buried? Or that her mum and dad are absolutely convinced that I helped her in some way, and I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

  Mr White shakes his head. ‘No, nothing recently. I’ve got her parent’s number somewhere, so I could give them a ring and find out how she’s doing.’

  Sam knows his father isn’t lying – it wouldn’t be like him not to mention it if he’d had some news about Rachel. Even bad news.

  Mr White is fidgeting with the handle of the overnight bag again as he goes on to say, ‘Look, Sam, I wouldn’t be too concerned if you are a bit forgetful. You’re just very preoccupied, like all of us are. I mean you’ve got a lot on your mind.’

  Yeah, too right I have – a load of bony prongs pressing straight into it. Sam decides against telling him about the episode at the hospital with Rachel’s parents or the odd messages in the library book and the Annex. Firstly because it all sounds so fantastical when he thinks about it. And secondly because it’s hardly the right moment to add to his father’s worries.

  Sam knows that he just needs to focus on getting through yet another ordeal on the operating table, and that everything else can wait until afterwards.

  That’s if he comes through.

  He sees a small flock of pigeons helping themselves to a takeaway dropped in the gutter. They flap their wings and squabble over the remains of the kebab and chips in the squashed carton, seemingly oblivious to the cars passing so close to them. Then there’s a man with wild hair and a long beard, and a grubby blanket wrapped around his shoulders like a cloak, who drifts along the sidewalk glaring at the tourists and office workers with fierce red-rimmed eyes. Everything Sam sees through his window becomes valuable and beautiful and enshrined in that moment, as if it might be the last time he’ll ever see it. Ever see anything.

  The taxi swings into a road Sam recognizes, and he notices a red light come on by the side of his seat and simultaneously hears the click of the intercom as it’s activated. The driver adjusts his rear view mirror so he’s got one eye on Sam.

  ‘You’ll be after
Casualty then, guv?’

  ‘Er, no, the main building in Queen Square, please,’ Mr White replies. ‘Neurology In-Patients.’

  ‘Okay, guv. If that’s really what you want,’ the driver says doubtfully. Frowning heavily, he continues to glance at Sam’s face in the mirror; he’s obviously jumped to the conclusion that Sam’s had some kind of accident.

  Sam is beyond caring. As he spots the main entrance of the hospital a wave of dread washes over him. He feels so shaky. He wonders if his legs will support him when he has to leave the cab.

  But despite of this, there’s a small, nagging thought rattling around in his head that he can’t dismiss. The name in the book … Curtis. Who the heck is Curtis?

  Curtis gasps and, scattering papers everywhere, sits bolt upright at his desk as if someone’s let off a gun behind him. Only there’s no gun, just the sound of birdsong carrying through the window as swallows dart over the fields that morning in 1943.

  And a chair creaking on the other side of Curtis’s desk.

  ‘The sleep of reason produces monsters,’ the occupant of the chair says benignly, as he uncrosses his legs and places his cap on a small table beside him. ‘A very good morning to you.’

  Curtis focuses hard on the man. ‘What the blazes are you doing here?’ he demands. ‘This is my office. Who let you in?’

  ‘You snore like a trooper. Burning the midnight oil, were you?’ the man says, smiling and completely relaxed.

  Curtis’s face is creased from his unintended nap at his desk and his clothes are disheveled because he hasn’t changed them for days. In contrast the officer appears as though he’s about to go on parade in his crisp, clean uniform. Even his face looks freshly laundered.

  ‘How long have you been there?’ Curtis asks, leaving his chair to pick up his papers. They’re covered with rows of closely written numbers and small rather arcane looking symbols, and Curtis hastily gathers them together as if he doesn’t want the other man to see them.

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