Vengeance child, p.3
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       Vengeance Child, p.3

           Simon Clark
 

  ‘Damn.’ Miss Hendricks’ sunny disposition turned all of a sudden cloudy.

  ‘I’ll help you get them back to the hostel,’ Victor told her.

  She gave a regretful smile. ‘I’m sorry, Victor. It looks as if I might miss that drink tonight.’

  ‘Some other time. Oh, best stand back. Greg’s starting to look off-colour.’

  By the time they had got the kids back to the hostel even Miss Hendricks had started to wear a distant expression. When the hostel manager asked if she’d like a coffee she dashed through the door marked bathroom.

  ‘It looks as if we’ll be on mop and bucket duty tonight,’ commented the manager as he eyed the hiccuping kids with displeasure.

  ‘I can stay and give you a hand?’ Victor offered.

  ‘We can manage, thanks anyway.’ The man paused. ‘There’s one thing you can do.’

  ‘Fire away.’

  ‘The Badsworth Lodge visit’s back on again. They’re arriving tomorrow evening. We make special arrangements for them to stay at the islanders’ houses rather than the hostel – it’s more homely for them. Would you call at the addresses on this list and let them know when the children will be arriving?’

  ‘No problem. Are you sure you don’t want me to—?’

  Gurgling sounds came from the bathroom.

  The manager grimaced. ‘I guess it’s best to let nature push outside what man put inside, if you see what I mean.’

  Victor grinned. ‘You paint a vivid picture, Dave. I’ll leave you to it.’

  Four

  ‘Marry a man, not a job.’ The carer, an amiable Jamaican woman of fifty, took the towels from Laura as they met in the corridor. ‘I’ll get these down to the laundry.’

  ‘Thanks, Lou. While it’s quiet, I’ll check if Jay’s ready for bed.’

  The woman’s face became serious. ‘I’m not joking, Laura. You should get some love in your life – I’m talking about man love, not a love affair with this place – otherwise you’ll end up haunting the Lodge when you’re in your box.’

  Laura smiled. ‘I wish I had the time.’

  ‘Make time, honey. Or you’ll wind up like me. Fifty. Two failed marriages. A face like an old prune.’

  ‘You’re here because you’re an angel. We couldn’t manage without you.’

  ‘Yes, you could – one day you will. Laura, girl. Don’t get left on the shelf, pretty young woman like you. Catch yourself a man.’ She sighed. ‘Lord, isn’t it ever going to stop raining? We’ve got a lake for a playground.’

  ‘I’ll think about what you said. About man love.’

  ‘Plenty of man love. Make it soon, or I’ll put a spell on you that’ll make you fall for the first man you meet.’

  ‘Best do that, Lou. It’s going to be the only way I’ll find romance.’

  ‘You asked for it, honey. I’m going to put your photo in a bag full of rabbit bones tonight.’

  Laura shot Lou a startled look.

  Lou chuckled. ‘I can’t even cook Jamaican food never mind put a love spell on you. Go put an ad in the paper. “Lovely blonde, thirty, seeks handsome man. GSOH.” Now, I’ll drop this off, then my time to watch some television in bed. See, told you I’m a lonely shrivelled old prune!’ With a hearty laugh she sailed away down the corridor.

  Laura checked her watch. Other members of staff would be switching off dormitory lights in the wing that accommodated the younger children. After a fraught day a silence had finally crept over the building. Good silence? Or a bad silence? Only time would tell. Sometimes when it got quiet like this in Badsworth Lodge it was like sitting on a time bomb. At least she had good news for Jay.

  She found him sitting on the bed in his pyjamas. Rain clicked at the windows. A brittle sound that tugged your nerve endings until you wanted to shout, ‘Stop that!’ Jay stared at the picture of a ship in a comic. Maybe he’s beginning to remember?

  ‘Jay,’ she sat beside him. ‘Good news. I’ve just had confirmation from my boss: the trip to the island is back on. We’re leaving tomorrow afternoon.’ She refrained from adding ‘after Maureen’s funeral’. ‘You must be pleased about that.’

  He stared at the picture. A red ship sliding across the ocean.

  Gently, Laura added, ‘I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard it’s a nice place. It’s an island in a river, not the sea. We can have barbecues. They tell me there are otters, deer and even wild mink.’

  Without letting his eyes wander from the ship picture he asked, ‘Will I meet new people?’

  ‘Some.’

  ‘That’s frightening.’ A simple, matter-of-fact statement.

  ‘You’re going to be frightened of people on the island. Why?’

  ‘No . . . I’m frightened of what I’ll do to them.’

  ‘Jay.’ She put her arm round his shoulders. ‘That’s nonsense. You’re the kindest, most considerate boy I’ve ever met.’

  ‘Nobody says Maureen’s name in front of me. They know I killed her.’

  Laura had overheard what the children were saying to each other. Jay’s done it again . . . the little witch made the bus crush Maureen . . . She leaned forward so he could see the smile she now wore. ‘You mustn’t say that. It was an accident. What happened was tragic, and it makes us all hurt inside because we loved Maureen, and we miss her.’ Laura made a point of talking about feelings to the children. They were accustomed to suppressing grief until it festered dangerously inside of them. ‘Do you want to talk about Maureen?’ she asked.

  ‘Do you think she ever went on a boat like this?’

  ‘I guess so. What made you ask that?’ Maybe he’s having flashbacks of when he was on the ship. With that thought came memories of seven years ago when the news was dominated by the sinking of the N’Taal, taking hundreds of refugees with it. Just one four-year-old boy had been picked up from an inflatable raft.

  Slowly, he shook his head. ‘Grown-ups won’t talk about Maureen in front of me, just like they don’t talk about Tod Langdon.’ He turned those large brown eyes to her. ‘Tell me what really happened to him.’

  ‘Well . . .’

  ‘You can tell me a made-up story; that’s OK if it makes you sad to tell the truth.’

  Her mind whirled back six months. Just hours after Jay arrived at Badsworth Lodge she had found him in the kitchen. The eleven-year-old sat on his floor with his back to the fridge door. Emotionally withdrawn, face clammy enough to shine beneath the fluorescent lights, he could have been a mannequin sitting there. A fragile one with jet-black hair, and large – strangely large – eyes that were dark as a shadow. And then Jay began to speak from the depths of his trance. She had to crouch down to hear properly. ‘Tod . . . Tod Langdon. Tod Langdon. Walk . . . going for a walk.’ The syllables pulsed with their own unsettling rhythm. At first she thought Tod had bullied the younger boy. But no. Not Tod. He obsessively cut pictures of animals from old magazines. Many children here related better to animals than people. These pictures he carefully filed away in an old filing cabinet in the cellar. Love was too tame a description for his interest in wildlife. So there was no obvious reason why Jay should repeat the teenager’s name. ‘Tod Langdon . . . Tod . . . Tod . . .’ And that peculiar comment: ‘Walk, go walk, walk him.’ A mantra? A spell? Or a curse?

  Laura picked up the story of what happened all those months ago (without mentioning she’d found Jay in the kitchen, almost comatose, and uttering Tod’s name). ‘Tod Langdon had reached an age when he felt he was growing into a man. We should have realized that he’d outgrown Badsworth Lodge. One day he ran away. I think he wanted to prove that he was independent. That he could find a job.’

  ‘Animals. He loved animals.’

  ‘That’s right. I’m sure his plan was to go to a zoo and ask for work there, so he’d be close to them. Only he met some people . . . unpleasant people . . . who wanted to use him. They tricked him into stealing things from shops. From what I hear they secretly put drugs into his food so it would stop him realizing what h
e was doing was wrong.’ Jay appeared to be digesting what she told him so she continued. ‘Only there was a lot of anger in Tod. He kept it stored away in the back of his mind for years. You know, like something nasty pushed into a drawer, where you hope you’ll forget it, but never do. Anyway, the drugs let it out.’

  ‘They say he went crazy.’

  ‘It wasn’t madness. It was all those memories of bad things that had happened to him. He got so angry because it seemed to him everyone in the world had ignored the cruel things his father did to him, so he took his anger out on the world that was around him at that moment. Tod smashed windows in shops, which was very frightening for him and the people near him at the time. Then he hurt himself badly with pieces of glass.’

  ‘You’ve told the truth.’

  She realized he wasn’t asking a question. ‘How did you know?’

  ‘Tod told me.’

  ‘He can’t. Tod’s . . .’

  ‘He’s not dead.’

  ‘That’s right.’

  ‘It’s a place like this. Only there are bars on the windows. They don’t let him outside. Mostly he’s very tired because of the medicine they give him. The walls are painted green because the doctors say that colour helps keep the patients calm.’

  ‘Jay, has one of the children told you about Tod?’

  ‘I’m right, aren’t I, Laura?’

  She nodded, mystified. ‘But how do you know?’

  ‘I’ve said already. Tod told me.’ He closed the comic. ‘Sometimes I take Tod for a little walk.’

  She tried to quell the shiver, but there was nothing she could do to suppress its creep up her spine. ‘I liked Tod. He didn’t deserve that.’ A more recent memory brought yet another shiver. ‘Yesterday. When we were talking about Maureen. You told me you took her for a little walk. What do you mean by that?’

  He said nothing. Exhaustion had drained the poor kid. Shame on me. I shouldn’t be interrogating him. He’s been through hell, too.

  ‘OK, young man,’ she said brightly. ‘Time for bed.’

  His face darkened as a troubling thought struck him. ‘When we go to the island, will we have to cross the water by boat?’

  Five

  Why didn’t you keep your mouth shut? Haven’t you heard what happened to the cat when it became too damn curious?

  Laura Parris turned down the quilt ready for bed. At midnight Badsworth Lodge could have the dead silence of a tomb. She pictured all those empty rooms downstairs. Vaults filled with darkness. Damn the local authority for housing troubled kids in a creepy old pile like this. Savagely, she started to brush her hair. A tangle made her hiss. Damn it, she was really angry with herself. When Jay had asked about crossing the river by boat she’d made light of it, telling him that she heard it was just a short ferry ride. That had made him happy enough to make a light-hearted comment about them needing a boat to cross the lawn if it didn’t stop raining soon, so carelessly she’d asked the question that had been bothering her. ‘Jay. You’ve told me that you took both Maureen and Tod for a walk. Will there be a day when you take me for a walk?’ His shoulders had scrunched as if he’d been doused in cold water. Trembling he’d climbed into bed and pulled the sheet over his head. She’d wished him good night, while cursing the looseness of her own tongue. What made me ask that?

  She dragged the brush through her hair. ‘What’s got into you, Laura? You looking for a death wish?’ Grimacing, she set the brush down. ‘It’s fine. Don’t get all superstitious. You need a break, too.’ She leaned to the mirror to study her eyes. ‘Look at those bags. Big enough for the week’s groceries.’

  Quickly she climbed into bed, then switched out the light. Outside, the rain fell with a steady murmur. Through her mind streamed the kind of night-thoughts that keep sleep away. She needed to collect the flowers for Maureen’s funeral. A temporary team of carers would arrive early to cover while the permanent staff were at the chapel service; they needed briefing on meal and medication requirements. Also she had a list of numbers to call to confirm the children’s arrival at the island. And don’t forget the children’s cards for Maureen. They’re collected at 10.30. As she lay in the darkness, the rain finally stopped with a suddenness that made the silence heavy against her ears. Then soft footsteps in the corridor. Puzzled, she sat up in bed. Her door swung open to reveal a figure in the gloom. Its eyes glinted, sparks of unearthly flame.

  Then a voice. ‘Laura. I’ve come to take you for a little walk.’

  ‘Jay? Is anything wrong?’

  ‘It’s time for your walk.’

  ‘Jay, it’s gone midnight. You should be in bed.’ Quickly, she donned her dressing gown and slippers. ‘Give me your hand. There . . . come on back to your room. We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.’

  Again, he spoke in a whisper. ‘It won’t take long.’

  When she took his hand to walk through into the corridor she flinched. Drops of rain struck her face. A breeze sighed through the trees. They walked beside a high wall topped with razor wire.

  ‘Jay . . . no . . . no!’ A sense of cold dread filled her. ‘I didn’t see where . . .’ Confusion swirled her senses. ‘Jay, how did we get outside?’

  He glanced up at her. His normally golden skin had turned white as bone. In the darkness all she could make out of him was a face that blazed like a skull, the huge eyes dark as midnight. Suddenly, the boy dragged her by the hand.

  Dear God, how did he bring me outside without me knowing? ‘Jay. No, I don’t want to go. Don’t make me . . . please . . .’ Fear scrambled her senses. She could barely see, only confused images of trees that towered over her with all the menace of giant men. The sense of the masculine, a raw animal power was so overwhelming she staggered before it. She’d never felt so vulnerable. Someone’s waiting out there for me. They’re going to hurt me. Air currents in the branches hissed . . . an impression that they murmured suggestions. Come into the bushes, Laura, dear. We’re waiting for you. Still being dragged along by Jay, her gaze was drawn to a seething mass of hawthorn. A figure in a bright blue dress stood there. ‘Maureen . . . Stop Jay! I don’t know where he’s taking me.’ Maureen wore an absurdly cheerful smile, only her mouth had been daubed so thickly in crimson lipstick it resembled the fixed grin of a clown. ‘Maureen?’ But Maureen’s dead. Crushed between two buses. Her body reduced to a sack of jelly. Every bone broken. Teeth squeezed from their sockets. Eyes ruptured . . . ‘Jay, stop this. I don’t want to walk any further.’ Terror became a peal of church bells. Panic, fear, distress, dread – all had a different note, but all clanged mercilessly inside her skull.

  All of a sudden they were running hand-in-hand across a lawn to a forbidding building. Its windows gazed coldly at her. Through one window a man and woman in green uniforms that suggested medical care writhed together on a sofa. Quickly, frantically, they were stripping one another. The man pushed up the woman’s top to reveal her bare breasts. Dark nipples against brown skin stood out as they hardened. The man kissed her nipples before moving down her stomach to a smudge of hair. When he worked her with his hungry tongue she writhed on the sofa in pleasure.

  Even though Laura closed her eyes she still felt herself slip through solid brickwork like a ghost.

  ‘Here,’ Jay whispered.

  She swayed in a bedroom with green walls; vertigo tugged at her. A steel door with a peephole stood firmly shut against the outside world. Stuck to one wall, a huge poster seemed to act as a window to the Arctic. In the picture a polar bear swam in deep blue ocean.

  ‘Why haven’t you visited me before?’

  A grey-faced figure sat on the bed with the edge of the blanket grabbed in his two fists. One eye was swollen from a punch; his face had bloated since she last saw it, but she knew the identity of this teenager.

  ‘Tod? Tod Langdon? What happened to you?’

  He stared at her with blazing eyes. At last he choked out, ‘Laura . . . Why haven’t you visited me?’ His voice got louder. ‘I don’t like it here. I don’t!


  She backed from him as his fear turned to anger.

  ‘Don’t leave me! Don’t you dare!’

  As he stood up on the bed, still holding the blanket in front of him, Laura tried to push Jay behind her to relative safety. She knew the crazed youth had reached breaking point.

  ‘You’re not leaving me again!’ He leapt from the bed. As he did so he threw the blanket over her like he would net a wild animal. ‘You’re going to stay and see how they torture me.’

  She cried out as she fought to free herself from the blanket. The light that struck her so forcefully made her blink until her room came into focus. For a moment she lay there, savouring the tranquillity. Sun shone through the curtains. She heard the gardener whistling as he trundled the wheelbarrow across the patio. The nightmare image of Tod Langdon hurling the blanket over her head came back so strongly she kicked her bedding off her entirely. For a moment she lay there, the cool morning air on her bare legs, just thankful to be free of the dream. Such a darkly terrifying dream, too. A shudder ran through her as she recalled it: Jay’s appearance with the promise he’d take her for ‘a little walk’. Then the stroll through the forest to the mental hospital where had Tod sat in his room, his face bruised from beatings and mad with fear.

  ‘Stop it,’ she told herself. ‘You’re having bad dreams because you’re stressed.’ Chasing the remnants of the nightmare away, she headed for the bathroom.

  Lou suggested they take her car to the funeral so they could pick up not only the flowers but three dozen flip-flops, assorted sizes.

  ‘Knowing these kids,’ she said as Laura sat beside her in the car, ‘they’ll be in and out of the water all day. Their shoes will get ruined.’

  For a moment they chatted about everyday things, especially arrangements for the stay on the island. Then, when they pulled up at the red stop light and they both had a clear view of the hearse containing Maureen’s coffin in pale brown wood, they fell silent. Laura knew that Lou must be thinking about Maureen, too. The usually happy-go-lucky Jamaican woman sighed; a tear ran down her cheek. Laura didn’t like the silver handles on the coffin. The way they shone seemed far too bright. Nothing had the right to glitter cheerfully on a day like this.

 
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