Childe and Burd

[Loosely based on the version of the story ‘Childe Rowland and Burd Ellen’ told by Flora Annie Steel in 1918, itself based on a Scottish Border ballad.]

Burd Ellen by Vladislav Erko

Roland lowered the slug-horn from his lips. The echoes from its blast were still bouncing off the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains as he took a double-handed grip on the sword that was much too heavy for him and braced himself to strike for one last time.

The thump of footsteps sounded from inside the cavernous entrance to the Dark Tower. He watched as the bare white feet came hurrying towards him. He could not bear to look at her face. If he looked at her face, as his brothers had, he would never be able to do what he had to do.

Already she was standing in front of him, chest heaving from her running, air spilling out of her mouth to warm his cheeks. ‘You came!’ she cried. ‘I knew you would! I knew –’

He took a tighter grip of the hilt of the sword and raised it with an effort. He had done this so many times in the last few hours that every joint in his arms and shoulders screamed in pain. He must look her in the eye before he struck the fatal blow; if he didn’t he couldn’t be sure it would be a clean one. He lifted his eyes. He held her gaze. He saw her expression of joy fade to puzzlement, then to alarm as the blade began its slow descent.

‘What – ’ she said, and then the thud came, followed by the spray of blood, which drenched him from head to foot as she toppled towards him.

Gasping, he lent on the blade and waited for the miracle to happen. He did not look at her body. He wasn’t sure what the process of regeneration would involve: whether the head would come crawling across the pebbles on sinewy feet, or whether it would bounce like Ellen’s ball toward the severed neck, still pumping out blood in a diminishing stream; and by what strange form of alchemical or vegetable coupling the separate strands and bones of the head and neck would knit themselves together. He didn’t want to know. The outcome was all that mattered: regeneration, the return of movement, jerky at first, then smooth. The sound of her voice, bubbling at first in the blood-choked windpipe, then spilling forth clear and loud as it had before.

He didn’t look. He waited, leaning on his sword, watching the crimson pool of blood as it spread towards his feet, feeling the blood drip from his nose and chin, noting how the landscape all round the Tower was stained as if with blood by the setting sun.

It had been a long day.

Someone coughed behind him.

‘So you did it,’ a voice remarked. ‘You followed my instructions. I’m amazed.’

Slowly he turned his head. The old man stood there, as he had before, his crooked hands still resting on the handle of his stick in exactly the pose Roland had adopted after striking off his sister’s head.

‘Amazed, and impressed,’ the old man went on. ‘None of your brothers could do it. That’s why they died. This is a land where instructions must be followed to the letter, and failing to follow them is always fatal. Well done, my child. Well done indeed.’ And he smiled as he turned to leave.

‘Wait,’ Roland cried, with a final effort. ‘It’s not over yet. Ellen – she needs to come back with me. That was the deal!’

The old man stopped, turned, raised an eyebrow. ‘That was the deal?’ he repeated. ‘How so?’

‘That was the deal,’ Roland said again, and felt a flush creep across his face in spite of the cold. ‘“When you come to Elfland, you must cut off the head of everyone you meet. Everyone, you hear? Man, woman or child. Do this and your quest will be successful. Fail to do it and you will die.” That’s what you said when I saw you before, on the Blasted Plain.’

The old man nodded. ‘Why yes, that’s what I said. “Do this and your quest will be successful.” And so it has. You’re alive, child, aren’t you? Your bones are not lying with the bones of your older brothers in the ash pit yonder?’

Roland turned to peer where the old man’s finger pointed, then wished he hadn’t. He felt sick and shaky. He dropped the sword and ran his hands through his blood-roped hair.

‘But Ellen,’ he said.

‘Is dead,’ the old man said. ‘You killed her, child. Look where she lies. How can she possibly come back with you now?’

A bird flapped suddenly on a nearby rock, and the noise drew Roland’s attention so that his eyes flicked to one side. When they flicked back again the old man had disappeared.

The mountains had lost their redness. They were now the colour of rock, like the Tower, the sky, and Roland’s hands. The bird gave a harsh despairing cry and took off, flapping in a zig zag path towards the nearest peak.

Roland picked up the sword and stumbled after it.

Puppet

Dancing at the bottom of my string,
My tangled string, a merry little thing,
Merry because my wooden features smile,
Smile open-mouthed, as if about to sing,
Sing with delight, although the weather’s vile,
Vile because rain has polished both my cheeks
From an unnaturally lurid red
To shining apples in my wooden head,
My head that wobbles through the rainy weeks,
Weeks that have doubtless some mysterious use,
Use which the passers-by, on growing tired
Of hearing, drenched, a lonely puppet’s squeaks,
Have made of them when softly they retired,
Retired beneath a layer of autumn ooze,
Autumn which sets about discolouring
The leaves and I, weighting my feet with lead,
My feet which turn towards the winter gales,
Gales which will set me dancing on my head
And billow out my pinafores like sails –
I ought to be a sight to see in spring.

 

Kark and Kerr, Part 2

Exactly two years later, the circus rolled into the town of Bogton St Mary in Devonshire, England. Crowds lined the narrow streets to watch the carts and horse-drawn vans parade to their destination, an open field by the river Bog, where a rival township quickly sprang up under the busy hands of the circus performers. A tall old woman wandered through this temporary town of wood and canvas, gazing at the bunting, admiring the fire-eaters and the girls on stilts, pausing to examine the side of the brightly-painted caravan where Fatima the Fearless promised to Ftudy your Future and report her Findings with Fidelity. The old woman was dressed in shimmering crinolines of brown and gold, and many of the passers-by were as much inclined to stare at her as at the denizens of the circus. Her nose was hooked, her cheekbones prominent, and her eyes – her eyes were the strangest thing about her. They were larger than most, and the yellow pupils, which seemed to have virtually effaced the whites, were flecked with what looked like pieces of mica.

Despite the lively interest with which she examined every detail of her surroundings, the woman strode about the circus grounds with the air of one who possesses a fixed purpose. She stood for some time before the banner which advertized the feats of Polly the performing horse. Then she stopped again in front of the large striped tent where the Flying Nardini Family would later demonstrate the difficult and dangerous art of the high trapeze as practised in Italy, furnished – so the painting suggested – with tiny wings like those of Raphael’s putti. She seemed about to enter the tent, but just at that moment a small girl carrying a bucket ducked out from under one of the flaps. The old woman took one look at the young Nardini’s costume – thick wrinkled tights, frilly pink bodice and wings of gauze – gave a snort of disgust and wandered on. She spared no more than a glance for the extravagant notice-board which lauded the many miraculous properties of Dr Jugg’s Universal Remedy and Beautifying Agent, to be sold at the door of his waggon for the bargain sum of five shillings the flask, but stopped once again in front of a crimson pavilion dedicated to the Miracles of Nature as collected and authenticated by Professor Petronius P. Pomaine, of the University of Pennsylvania.

An enormous signboard stood outside the professor’s pavilion listing the wonders to be found within: a two-headed lamb preserved in formaldehyde; a woman with horns; a duck-billed platypus with poisonous spurs on its webbed hind feet; the skeleton of a dragon slain by the Anatolian warrior known as St. George; a unicorn from Harappa which would lay its head in the lap of any virgin; a Patagonian giant; a Congolese pygmy. But her attention, it seemed, had been arrested by one wonder in particular: the Astonishing Bird Boy, listed among the lesser miracles of nature which did not warrant space for extended treatment on the crowded signboard. She leaned forward and tapped the words ‘Bird Boy’ as if expecting them to explain themselves. Then she nodded once and entered the pavilion.

Inside, the tent was gloomy and stank of urine and preservative fluid. The cages containing the exhibits were covered with awnings. A mournful-looking man with a receding chin and a huge moustache came up to the woman and asked what she wanted. ‘I am a representative of Dr Balthazar Buzzard,’ she replied, ‘and I have come to collect the exhibit known as the Bird Boy, in accordance with the agreement concluded between Dr Buzzard and Professor Petronius C. Pomaine by letter last week.’

‘Excuse me, madam’ said the mournful man in an accent that was meant to sound foreign, possibly Slavic. ‘I myself am Professor Pomaine. I know of no letter and no agreement.’

‘The arrangement, then, if you must be so particular. I have a brougham waiting for me on the Tavistock Road. I would be most grateful if we could finish this business with expedition, since I intend to catch the noon train from Biddlecombe to Truro. Please let me see the boy at once.’

‘Madam,’ said the mournful man, trying his best to look supercilious but looking only pained. ‘There must be some mistake. I have received no letter from Dr Buzzard. No arrangement has been made. The Bird Boy is one of the outstanding attractions in my scientific exhibition, and I cannot possibly consent to disappoint the public by letting him go. His arrival in Devon has been eagerly anticipated for many weeks. Should I dispose of him before we open this afternoon I shall be obliged to compensate the members of the public for their disappointment by offering them a partial reimbursement of their entry fees. I shall suffer material losses, Madam; very material losses. I am sure you understand my position.’

‘You are wrong, Professor Pomaine,’ said the old woman, opening the diamantine reticule she had been carrying in her left hand. ‘There has been no mistake and you will suffer no losses. I have here another letter from Dr Buzzard in which the arrangement I mentioned is described in full. I believe you will soon recall the drift of your correspondence, once you have reminded yourself of the sum offered by Dr Buzzard for the transference of the boy to his establishment.’

Professor Pomaine put on a pair of lozenge spectacles and peered through the gloom at the paper she held out to him. His mouth dropped open as he read the figure. ‘Ah yes,’ he said slowly. ‘I am beginning to remember this letter. A most agreeable man, Dr Buzzard, and one with a very shrewd head for business.’

‘You will remember, then, that I must see the boy before any money changes hands. And you will remember that Dr Buzzard has left it entirely at my discretion as to whether or not the transaction will take place as per the aforesaid correspondence. Now lead me to him, please, Professor. Time is short.’

Professor Pomaine’s mournful expression had now been replaced with an air of acute anxiety. ‘I promise you, madam, Dr Buzzard will not be disappointed,’ he blustered as he led the way between cloth-covered containers towards the darkest recesses of the tent. ‘The boy is authentic and quite unique. He was discovered by Latvian traders in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. I have cherished him like a son. It will break my heart to lose him. Unfortunately, however, he has not been in the best of spirits recently. A slight imbalance of the humours, I understand from the esteemed Dr Jugg, but it has altered his appearance, and not for the better. Not that he was ever a beauty, mark you! But now – that is – you will see for yourself.’

The Bird Boy sat hunched in the corner of his cage, his knees drawn up to his chest. He was naked and appallingly thin. His arms and what could be seen of his torso were covered with long dark feathers and scraps of down, worn away in patches to expose the dirty blue-grey of his skin. His legs, although covered in scabs, were those of an ordinary boy, but they terminated in what looked like claws. The strangest thing about him was his head. It was the head of a bird, covered with fine black feathers which had worn away here and there as they had on his body, and armed with a long, sharp beak. The eyes were closed; but when the old woman addressed him in an odd fluting language unknown to Professor Pomaine (who had lived most of his life in Islington) one eye suddenly opened wide and stared at her sideways for a minute or two before closing again just as suddenly.

‘This boy is dying, Professor Pomaine,’ the woman pronounced, after examining him for two or three minutes between the bars. ‘And what is more, I suspect he is a fake. I ought by rights to return to Truro and advise Dr Buzzard not to waste his money. But Dr Buzzard is a genuine scholar, unlike some I could mention, and I do not think he would take it kindly if I were to rob him of the pleasure of studying this sorry specimen for himself. I am prepared to offer you –’ and she named a sum less than half of that which had been mentioned in the letter. ‘Take it or leave it, sir. I cannot miss my train.’

Professor Pomaine wailed in protest and demanded more. The woman made as if to march out of the pavilion. The Professor relented, no doubt after a rapid calculation of the very much smaller amount he could expect to make on the boy’s dead body if, as seemed more than probable, the woman was right and he did not have long to live. A bargain was struck, the woman took a packet of coins from her reticule and the Professor rapidly counted its contents, then wrote out a receipt on a grubby ticket-stub which he produced from his waistcoat pocket. The woman promised to send a man to collect the boy at once. Professor Pomaine bowed her out of the pavilion and returned to counting the coins she had given him. His mournful look had been replaced with one of cautious optimism.

A few hours later the old woman sat on a plush velvet seat in a private railway carriage belonging to Dr Balthazar Buzzard, and watched as the Bird Boy was fed from a bottle by another old woman with crippled hands. As soon as the boy had finished drinking the women laid him on a carriage seat and watched as powerful convulsions stretched him out and doubled him up. Within an hour the last remaining feathers had fallen from his body, and by sunset his grotesque head had begun to buckle and bend as if under tremendous pressure. The carriage was shunted into a siding on Bodmin moor, a bath was drawn and dirt and feathers scrubbed from every crevice of his shuddering frame. By this time the boy was running a high fever. The women sat with him through the night, answering him in soft voices when he cried out in fear, or babbled in the fluting tongue of birds, or whispered scraps of nonsense. At daybreak he fell asleep. Dr Balthazar’s representative sent the other old woman to bed and settled down to read a book, kneeling on the floor beside the carriage seat where the boy lay stretched in corpselike stillness under a blanket. As she read, one of her hands rested on the boy’s exposed left foot, which no longer resembled a claw.

After an hour or two she glanced up and saw him staring at her with eyes now large and dark in an ashen face.

‘How are we feeling now?’ she asked.

‘Terrible. I hurt all over. How do you know my language?’

‘Never mind. I’ll tell you later. All you need know at present is that you are safe and that we are bound for Truro. You may call me Margaret. I am a specialist in the study of exotic birds, and I am very curious to know how a citizen of Lazarus came to be travelling with an English circus, trapped, it would seem, at a mid-way point between one phase of the Changes and the next.’

A violent shiver made the boy’s teeth rattle in his narrow head. ‘Where is Professor Pomaine?’

‘Far away. He will never trouble you again. As I told you, you are safe, and once you have recovered your strength you may go where you choose. Now tell me all about yourself – or rest, if you prefer. I have no wish to elicit information from you which you would rather keep secret.’

The boy grinned ruefully. ‘I’m not much good at keeping secrets. I guess that’s why I’m here. And I don’t remember much about Professor Pomaine, nor about the circus. I feel like I’ve been living a dream for years or centuries. No, not a dream, a nightmare…’

He stopped for a minute to study her face. But he seemed reassured by what he saw there, because he soon went on, and his voice grew stronger as he spoke.

‘You’re right, though, ma’am. I come from Lazarus. Didn’t like it much, though. My parents died when I was young and I had nothing left to keep me there. Nothing but my poor old Nan, and I think I killed her when I ran away from home. I wanted to become a bird, you see, like they did in stories. So… so I ran away to the woods, and Chew Chew betrayed me, and the hunters came with dogs to track me down, so I ran away again, and I think I Changed. I remember wind in my eyes and the ground below, and black wings beating – but perhaps I was only climbing a hill, or falling off a cliff, or sick, or mad. But I think I turned into a bird, and I think I flew – yes, flew – for a long, long time before they caught me.’

He lay for a moment staring at the book in the old woman’s hands, as if he thought it held the rest of his story. Then he shuddered and laid back on the seat. She thought he would go back to sleep without saying more, but after a while he spoke again, in his croaky voice that kept veering from high to low like a broken church organ.

‘Professor Pomaine says I was found by Latvian traders, and that I was still a bird when they found me, half dead with cold. He says they put me in a cage because they’d never seen a bird so large and strange with a human voice. Isn’t it odd, though, that they would cage me for sounding human? They took me to England because that’s the best place, the Professor says, to get money for freaks. By the time we got to Dover I was starting to look like a human being as well as sound like one, so they began to think I was some sort of devil. Some of them wanted to cut off my head and dump me in a ditch, others wanted to find a priest to exorcise me, but in the end they sold me for pennies to a man in Portsmouth who collected monsters.

‘The man’s name was Morrow, and he was more of a monster than anyone in his collection. He had a cabinet full of drugs which he liked to test on us to see what happened. He discovered that one of these drugs could stop me Changing; it froze my body in the shape of a bird, or a boy, or the half-and-half thing I was when you found me. I don’t know where he got it, but Dr Jugg says it can be used to stop buds from blooming into flowers, or caterpillars from turning into butterflies, or children from growing up. Professor Pomaine and Dr Jugg were friends of his. They helped him pay for his drugs by buying freaks from him to show at the circus. After Morrow had finished with me I was very ill, so Professor Pomaine was able to buy me for a knock-down price, along with the recipe for the drug that kept me as the Bird Boy.

‘I travelled with the circus for a long time, but I never got better from the things Morrow did to me. I hurt all the time, and the pain got worse. Dr Jugg used to give me the drug every Thursday morning. Funny, isn’t it? That was the very same day when Mrs Chakchak used to make us eat her disgusting stew. I expect her stew had a drug in it like Morrow’s. Who knows? Maybe he got his drug from Lazarus. I used to think about that when I was in my cage. I’d run all that way to get away from Mrs Chakchak, and here I was in a prison still worse than Lazarus, having the same foul substance forced down my throat in a rubber tube. I flew straight out of one cage into another. Perhaps all the world is just a mass of cages, cage after cage with prisoners on the inside looking out and keepers on the outside looking in. Only you can’t always be sure who is the prisoner and who the keeper. Professor Pomaine used to scream at night, I could hear him sometimes, screaming and screaming in his sleep like a rabbit in a trap…

‘And now here I am in another cage. I don’t know if I’m free, as you say, or if I’m a prisoner and you’re my keeper. I don’t know anything. I… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.’

The old woman smiled. ‘You’re right to be mistrustful,’ she observed. ‘And of course I was wrong to say you’re free. You’re as much a prisoner as I am, though no one but ourselves is ever likely to know it. I told you to call me Margaret, but you’ve spoken my proper name quite often in your fever. It’s Kerr.’

‘Kerr!’ cried Kark, sitting up suddenly so that the blanket fell away from him. ‘I thought…’

‘You thought I was dead,’ the woman finished for him. ‘But I am merely grown up and no longer Changing. You’ve told me your story; I must tell you mine.

‘I escaped from Lazarus much as you did, leaving my past behind me – together with a silver ankle-bracelet which I must have lost when feeding on a carcass in the mountains. But in every other respect our fortunes were different. Unlike you, I was lucky enough to return to human shape a long way from the haunts of men. For a while I lived alone on the Russian steppes, running down wild beasts and drinking water from snow-fed streams with a mind as fierce and featureless as a winter blizzard. After more than a year I wandered into a village, naked and hungry, having forgotten how to speak. The village schoolmaster took me under his wing. I found out later that he had heard of Lazarus, and that some of his forebears had been shape-shifters much like us; there are more of us, Kark, than we’ve been led to believe. He taught me his language; I told him of my sickness and metamorphosis; and slowly we began to piece together the story of the valley as your grandmother told it to you.

‘Like your grandmother, we came to the conclusion that the people of Lazarus were not sick, but possessed instead of a wonderful talent: the capacity to assume the form of birds at certain times of year – or perhaps in certain years, we cannot be sure since there has been no scientific study of such metamorphoses, at least in recent centuries. We decided that this capacity had been hidden from them by the Council, not so much for fear of reprisals from the outside world as to keep the population of the valley timid and tractable (my schoolmaster was an anarchist and had little faith in governments). We understood, too, that the stew must have contained a drug of the kind you’ve described, capable of suppressing the symptoms of the Changes. But my schoolmaster also realized that we did not possess this drug, and that I might undergo the Changes again at any moment. To protect me he must hide my nature from hostile scrutiny by removing me to a secret location. He therefore arranged that I should pay regular visits to his brother, a fur-trader who lived in a cabin many miles from the village, and who was fully apprised of my condition. These visits were meant to give me a pretext for leaving the community without arousing suspicion whenever the Changes showed signs of returning.

‘We were too naive, however. After a few such visits, gossip began to run rife in the village. It was said that I was mistress of both brothers and that I had seduced them into taking part in diabolical rituals. The best way to quash these rumours was for me to marry the fur-trader. I did so, and went to live with him in the forest. Every few years, when the Changes came over me, I fled away deep into the wilderness with my secret. For the rest of the time I behaved as an ordinary Russian housewife, except that I did not sleep with my husband and bore him no children. Instead I read all I could about ornithology in books and periodicals sent me by my schoolmaster, which he ordered from Moscow for my use whenever he could afford to do so. I was searching, endlessly searching for some clue as to who I was.

‘Then one day I read in one of the periodicals about a leading British naturalist, Mr Balthazar Buzzard – owner of the world’s most remarkable bird collection – who had advanced an absurd but intriguing theory. He argued that human beings and birds have a great deal more in common than had previously been supposed, and that there was even a possibility that at some remote point in the evolution of both races they had shared a common ancestry. The theory was only mentioned in the periodical in order to be derided, but it was the first hint I had seen anywhere of a scientific acknowledgement of my condition. I decided at once that I must meet Mr Buzzard. I packed my bag, took leave of my husband, and set off to visit my schoolmaster for the last time, and to discuss with him the best means of reaching England. He gave me the name of a correspondent of his in London who might put me up on my arrival, slipped into my hand a purse containing a few gold coins – half his worldly goods – and clasped around my neck a necklace that had once belonged to his mother. We parted with tears, exchanging many expressions of mutual esteem.

‘The journey to England was largely uneventful. A ship I boarded at Sebastopol sank, but not while I was aboard, and my bag was stolen in Naples, but by that time it was empty. Winter came and I had to take refuge in the mountains of northern Spain when the Changes overtook me. Here I was badly hurt by a fowling-piece, but recovered my human form in time to catch a ship from Lisbon to Flushing the following spring. I reached Truro safely, where I met Mr Buzzard, and found him to be quite as insane as the periodical had painted him, and hopelessly addicted to opium.

‘But he was very kind. As soon as he’d heard my story he offered me a post in his Institute of Esoteric Ornithology. I am now his private secretary and itinerant researcher. He has made me responsible for seeking out evidence in support of his theories about the link between men and birds. For years now this has been my principal occupation: hunting through archives, scientific journals, learned tomes and volumes of improbable fictions, as I did when I lived in a cabin in a Russian forest, searching, constantly searching for anything that might shed light on the history and habits of my people – the Bird People. It was in connection with this research that I heard of you, from a particular friend of Mr Buzzard’s, a man called Wells. And it was in the service of this research that I sought you out, as I have sought out many interesting specimens in the past to add to the more exotic sections of Mr Buzzard’s collection. The question now is: what is to be done with you?’

The boy lay still on the seat, looking weak and ill. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I can hardly believe that you’re really the Kerr I’ve heard so much about. You seem so different…’

‘You mean I’m older.’

‘No! I mean, yes; but there’s something more. You’re so much less… less wild than I thought you’d be. I always thought of Kerr as a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue… everything Nan said she was.’

‘She was. She still would be, if circumstances permitted. She is, in fact. One of the things you will learn about this world outside the valley is that for a woman like me to exist at all is a rebellion, an adventure, and an act of roguery all at once. How many female researchers do you think there are in the British Empire today? Your grandmother was right about me, as she was about everything else.’

‘You seem to know a lot about my Nan. Did you know her well, in Lazarus?’

‘Not well, no. She was some years younger than me, and when you’re a child a few short years make all the difference. I know her better now.’

At this point the second old woman entered from another part of the carriage. She gave a cry of delight when she saw Kark sitting up in bed, and fell to her knees beside him. It took him several seconds to recognize her, because her face had been scarred by frost, her back bent double with exhaustion, and her hands twisted into claws by arthritis. ‘Time hasn’t been kind to me,’ she said with a laugh that dismissed all time’s unkindness. ‘I wandered for many months in many cruel countries. But I have found a true friend, and I have found my grandson, and now at last the tide seems to be turning.’

There is more to tell, but little space to tell it in. This narrative is growing bulky enough already, and I am beginning to wonder if it will fit into the hiding place I have chosen for it. Besides, my poor old hand no longer writes as well as it did. Whatever the Mad Hatter said, a raven and a writing desk have little enough in common, and a pen sits uneasily in a hand shaped like a raven’s claw. I must bring my tale to a close, however unsatisfactory.

The three from Lazarus celebrated their meeting with more laughter, some tears and a great deal of talking. Kark slept again through the rest of that day and the following night, and when he woke they talked again, and little by little his strength returned. As he grew stronger, as the train moved west, the situation in which he found himself became clearer to him. Kerr had been right: he was not so free as he had seemed at first. From the moment of his recovery his life, like hers, would be regulated by drugs: the same drugs that had kept him trapped in the body of the Bird Boy, and that had formerly kept him locked in human shape throughout his life in the valley. He learned from Kerr that a modest traffic in these drugs had existed between the valley and the outside world for generations; a traffic that was strictly controlled by the inner circle of the Council of Lazarus, and whose profits bought certain special foodstuffs and a degree of protection for the people of the valley. By the merest good fortune a supply of the drugs had fallen into the possession of Balthazar Buzzard, who had apprised his new secretary of their properties as soon as he knew of her unusual predicament. She took them every week now – but not on Thursdays. Kark must take them regularly too, if he did not wish to run the risk of falling once again into the hands of men like Morrow, Jugg and Pomaine. From henceforth silence and secrecy would be his best protection, as they had been all his life. The difference was that they would now be self-imposed, and that he might drop them at will should he choose to subject himself once more to the perils that accompany the Changes.

But the drugs were not the only kind of constraint to which he was now subjected. All three of the former inhabitants of Lazarus felt a powerful urge to devote themselves to righting some of the wrongs they had suffered. Kark longed to track down Professor Pomaine so as to liberate his fellow prisoners before they succumbed to the despair and resignation that had so nearly killed the Bird Boy. He wanted to raid Morrow’s laboratory in Portsmouth and free the poor unfortunates who were the victims of his experiments. And he yearned, as did Kerr and his grandmother, to return to the valley of Lazarus. He wished to inform his afflicted people of their true natures, to expose the lies that had been told them by the Council, and to reveal to them the boundless world of possibilities that lay beyond the walls of their mountain prison, available to be entered in relative safety by those who had learned to manage the Changes with wisdom. But before he could begin to do any of these things he must find a way to earn his living.

Once again it was Balthazar Buzzard who came to the rescue. The celebrated ornithologist took to Kark as soon as he met him; a little twisted man with a look of constant hunger in his vast black eyes, he saw fulfilled in the former Bird Boy all his own dreams of the possibility of metamorphosis which had belonged, he thought, to his ancestors, and which had forever been denied him. He would follow Kark round his turreted mansion talking incessantly about the mechanics of flight, and offering him food or drink or toxic drugs of various kinds in the hopes of coaxing him into conversation about his life as a bird – conversation that might afford some clue as to how Mr Buzzard, too, might undergo the Changes. From time to time, in response to his generous patronage and frequent pleadings, Kark and Kerr would consent to stop taking the drugs for several weeks and Change for him themselves. On these occasions Mr Buzzard would send away his household staff and make up a bed in the famous glasshouse, where he would watch for hours, biting his fingers, as the pair of them wandered among the plants, their skins bristling with incipient plumage, their faces stretching and distorting as beaks began to form under the discoloured flesh. Nan, in turn, would watch Mr Buzzard, in case he should be tempted to put himself in danger by mimicking their behaviour, perhaps by climbing a tree and flinging himself from its branches, or by eating something ill suited to human digestive system. Nan was past the age for Changing and in any case had never enjoyed the sensation, which recalled for her the pains of childbirth – pains she had never forgotten, and which she likened to forcing one’s limbs out of their sockets through sheer strength of will.

Not long after Kark’s arrival at Buzzard Heights, Mr Buzzard offered him the position of Assistant Birdkeeper in the glasshouse. From then on he was responsible for the care of the exotic specimens that made their homes in its various habitats, and later for helping to add new specimens to the collection, taking over from the ageing Kerr as Mr Buzzard’s most trusted aide. It was an interesting job but a hard one, and not one from which he could afford to absent himself for more than a few days at a stretch. Not that he felt much inclined to leave behind the comforts of his new environment. He and Nan and the redoubtable Kerr spent most of their leisure time in a strange artificial leaf-filled world beneath the great glass domes, wandering among tree-ferns and sitting in the shade of orange groves and ornamental arbours, plotting the liberation of Lazarus, or recalling details of their travels, or mulling over their confused and contradictory impressions of their life as birds.

Days passed into months and months into years. Kark visited Portsmouth and found that all traces of Morrow had long since disappeared. Pomaine too seemed to have vanished into thin air; Kark suspected that he had dropped his professorial alias and retired with his fortune to his house in Islington. At last the three lost citizens of Lazarus performed a similar vanishing act. As is well known to historians, a mysterious gas escape wiped out the birds in Mr Buzzard’s collection in the winter of 1900. The day before the tragedy, the young man and the two old women who had tended the collection left the glasshouse from different exits and were never seen again. The press and the public were far too interested in the question of what had happened to Mr Buzzard to speculate as to the fate of his three employees. For a while the police took a desultory interest in their disappearance, but they soon abandoned the investigation. As an ambitious young police sergeant explained it later to the local paper, inquiries into their whereabouts were greeted by the local community with what could only be described as a ‘resounding silence’.

And now it is time to finish writing. Indeed, I would never have started if I had realized how foolish my story would look on paper. To begin with, there are so many coincidences involved in it – as many as in a bad Victorian adventure story. How in God’s name, for instance, did Kerr, Kark and his grandmother contrive to find their way to the South West corner of England, to the hospitable environment of Balthazar Buzzard’s glasshouse? And by what improbable routes did Morrow and Buzzard obtain their supplies of the drug that arrested the Changes? The valley itself, in my account, resembles an English valley in the Lake District more closely than a valley in the Urals – or so I presume, having forgotten anything I ever knew about that district of what is now the Soviet Union. The names of the valley’s residents make them sound like a bunch of talking animals from a pantomime. And as for the central premise of my narrative – that a certain subsection of the human species might be capable of changing into birds – well, you are twelve years old this week, young Karl, and this is 1967: you know as well as I do the sheer absurdity of that proposition.

Why, if there were even a grain of truth to it we would have to revise our entire notion of human history. We would have to look with fresh eyes on a whole range of myths, legends and fables, both ancient and modern – from the traditional depictions of angels in Western tradition to those of the Victorian flower fairies, from the Russian firebird to the Indonesian Garuda, from the phoenix to the Mesoamerican fathered serpent Quetzalcoatl and the lightning bird of the Xhosa… In short, the whole eccentric course of my researches, which has drawn on me the bemused derision of my academic colleagues, would need no further justification…

And I am tired of justifying myself. As tired as your great great grandmother was when she told me the equally foolish tale of Kerr with which my own story opened. That is why I have written this narrative down as I have, and as my ancestors did, in the guise of a harmless fiction. I was encouraged to do so by the fact that for a week now you have been off your food. Your mother says that you are deliberately starving yourself, out of some perverse desire, I suppose, to share my suffering, as I succumb to the final stages of the wasting disease that has extinguished my appetite. She is angry with me for being no more forceful in my efforts to encourage you to start eating again. My story will explain why I find it impossible to give you more than half-hearted encouragement.

I saw you, Karl, the other night, as you scurried to the bathroom in your flannel dressing gown. Your chest has thickened and your legs are as long and powerful as the legs of an ostrich. Believe me, boy, these early stages are the hardest. By the time you’re my age the notion of even the most cataclysmic physical Change will arouse in you the mingled terror and delight felt by every modern student when confronted with the prospect of revolution. The young people of the world are flying in their heads now, Karl, dreaming of liberties unimaginable to my generation. The tides are turning, as Nan would have said. Perhaps by the time you read this they will have turned.

An unusually large raven is tapping at my study window with its beak. Before I go to see what it wants I shall leave these sheets in their hiding place, together with a long brown feather bequeathed to me by my Nan. If you are reading them now you will know how cleverly they were hidden, and will spare a kind thought for your old grandpa, and for all those other lost lonely ones who never told their secrets.

Kark and Kerr, Part 1

Every Thursday Mrs Chakchak made one of her special stews and stood over the children with a ladle in her hand to make sure they ate every drop. If a boy or girl protested she would lash out with the ladle and rap them over the knuckles – once, twice, three times – telling them they were ungrateful little insects, and promising she would really give them something to cry about if they made another sound before emptying their bowls. Nobody got their knuckles rapped more often than Kark. Perhaps that’s why whenever he thinks of Mrs Chakchak’s stews he remembers them now as tasting mostly of salt.

When Kark was twelve years old he fell ill and lost his appetite. On Thursday Mrs Chakchak came and stood by his bed with a bowl of her stew. But the smell of it made him retch, and when she tried to spoon it into his mouth he vomited all over his Nan’s best linen.

Nan told Mrs Chakchak that the boy was clearly too sick to take his dose this Thursday. Mrs Chakchak said ‘Nonsense!’ (her favourite word), and the two old women started shouting at each other in high, querulous voices.

‘Sick or not, if he eats nothing else this week he must eat this!’ cried Mrs Chakchak.

‘It’s no use insisting,’ cried Nan. ‘For three days he hasn’t taken anything but water. Come now, Mrs Chakchak! It’ll do no harm if he misses his dose this once!’

‘It will do a great deal of harm, as you know very well. Remember what became of the Kerr child, who refused her dose three weeks running! We lost a good man in the search for her, and when they finally found her body there was nothing left but bones and a bit of skin! They had to identify the remains from the silver bracelet on her ankle!’

‘That was a different case and well you know it. The Kerr girl had something wrong with her glands; and besides, they didn’t keep a proper eye on her. I’m keeping an eye on Kark both night and day. He’s already getting better, bit by bit. By next week I’ve no doubt he’ll take a double helping of your stew and ask for a third. Now I’m sure you’ve got a lot to do today, Mrs Chakchak. What this boy needs is bed-rest, and it’s my job to make sure he gets it. Goodbye!’

‘This boy is an impudent dabchick, and what he needs is a good sound thrashing! I shall take up the matter with my fellow councillors!’ And Mrs Chakchak flounced out of the shack, splashing gobbets of evil-smelling liquid onto the floor at every step.

‘You mustn’t mind Mrs Chakchak, dear,’ said Nan. ‘She’s a well-meaning soul and was once a wise one. Fear and loneliness turn us all bad in the end. But you must do your best to get well enough to eat your stew next Thursday.’

Luckily the fever broke that evening, and Kark emptied his bowl three times the following week to please Nan and spite Mrs Chakchak. But he didn’t forget the shrill exchange at his bedside. Day and night he nagged at Nan till at last she agreed to explain what had happened to the girl named Kerr. ‘O very well,’ she said one evening, when she looked old and tired and seemed unable to get close enough to the fire to warm her bones. ‘I’ll tell you the story. It may even do you good, if it teaches you to eat what’s put in front of you. But don’t breathe a word to any of your friends. If the Council hears I’ve been talking about such things they’ll send me away from the valley to die of cold and hunger.’

Of course Kark promised faithfully. But even as he listened he forgot his promise, and began planning in his head how he would embellish the tale for his best friend Chew when he got the chance. He squatted down with Nan beside the fire and watched her rubbing together her knobbly hands as she talked, trying and trying to bring warmth to her aching knuckles.

‘You know, of course, that the stew is a kind of medicine,’ she began. ‘When you were small we told you it was good for you. You must eat it up, we said, if you want to grow big and strong. But later, when you were wise enough to understand what we were saying, we taught you something different: something we couldn’t mention earlier because it would have given you nightmares. For generations, we said, the people of Lazarus have suffered from a rare and dangerous illness, a congenital disorder unique to the men and women of our country. From time to time this disease breaks out of our bodies like a monstrous moth breaking out of its cocoon: splitting our skin, twisting our limbs, never failing to kill or cripple its victims. You must eat the stew, we told you, if you wish to stay alive. It’s not just a health-giving supplement; it’s the condition of our existence, as inseparably part of us as our limbs and inner organs.

‘From the moment you heard about this illness, Kark, you knew you were a prisoner. It’s because of this disease, we explained, that we live as we do, in this barren valley hemmed in by mountains. This is our place of quarantine, the island where we’ve been marooned. We were dragged here in chains by men in masks, and forbidden to leave on pain of death. Since then we’ve had little to do with the world beyond. We trade with the men in masks for things we need that the valley doesn’t yield us, spreading out skins and gemstones on blankets, then retreating behind a wall to watch them quarrelling over the pathetic portions of salt and spices they leave us in exchange. But we never go beyond the Seven Passes, never risk the wrath of our jailers. This valley is our prison and the stew is part of our penance for the crime of being sick. That’s how it’s been for thirteen generations, and that’s how it shall be till the end of time.

‘So long as we eat our stew, we’re told, we shall all stay healthy and be left in peace. But if ever any one of us forgets to take our dose – or refuses to take it – or pretends to take it then secretly spews it up – disaster will strike. The disease will burst from our bodies and spread the wings of its contagion from town to town; the Seven Passes will be sealed shut, and we’ll be left to die in solitude, cut off forever from the rest of mankind. Or worse: the men in masks will ride back into the valley, wrapped in protective cloth from head to foot, and kill us all, men, women and children, so as to stamp out the disease before it can infect their families. That’s why old Mrs Chakchak was so horrified when you wouldn’t eat. Poor dear, you mustn’t blame her. She really believes the stories, really thinks her revolting gunk is the key to our salvation.’ Nan laughed wryly and held her hands out to the fire. ‘Trouble is,’ she added, ‘there are as many stories as there are names, and as many explanations for both as there are blades of grass on the distant steppes. Tell me, child, have you learned how our valley got its name?’

Kark nodded. ‘Miss Rikikikik told us it was because of a man called Lazarus who rose from the dead. She said the people who came to the valley were so happy to get away from their troubles that it was as if they had died and been born again, so they named it Lazarus in memory of the man who came back to life. But Mrs Hoo says that’s not true. She says Lazarus was a poor man like us who never had enough to eat, and that he was only ever happy when he died. She says they called the valley Lazarus because the food here was so bad and there was so little of it. How can that be, Nan? Was the valley named after two different people? Or is Miss Rikikikik wrong? Or Mrs Hoo?’

‘People and places get names for many different reasons,’ Nan said. ‘And sometimes old names find new meanings. When I was a child my teacher taught me that the valley got its name not from a person but from a building. She said it came from two words, “lazar house”, which means a place where lepers are sent to live till their illness kills them. A lazar is a leper, and a leper is a man or woman who suffers from a disease called leprosy, which eats away at the flesh till there’s nothing left but a pile of bones. I’ve never seen a leper, but I’m so old and worn out that I sometimes feel like one.’

‘I bet that’s what happened to Kerr,’ cried Kark. ‘She was a leper, and one day she wandered away from home, and got lost in the mountains, and went round and round in circles till her flesh was all eaten away and there was nothing left but the bracelet on her ankle.’

‘Yes, perhaps that’s it,’ said Nan. ‘Perhaps she was a leper. Perhaps we’re all lepers, and the story of Kerr is just a way of making us feel better about ourselves. Like the story of Lazarus who rose from the dead, which is so very much more cheerful than the story of Lazarus who died of hunger.’

She fell silent, gazing into the flames; and it was all Kark could do to persuade her to go on with her story.

Kerr, it seemed, was a little scamp; a rebel, an adventurer, a rogue. (‘Very much like you,’ Nan added with a smile.) Like Kark she complained every Thursday when the bowl was put in front of her; like Kark she was always getting into trouble; and like Kark she got ill one day and refused to eat her stew, despite all the efforts of the woman who made it. But unlike Kark, having once refused her dose Kerr never took another. She would eat only fruit and water. Anything else, whether hidden in spoonfuls of apple pulp or forced between her clenched teeth by members of the Council, simply would not stay down. She got thinner and thinner and weaker and weaker with every passing day, and at the end of the third week her body began to change in other ways. Her skin broke out in pimples, her face became long and sharp with hunger, her legs were covered with flakes or scales of brittle skin, and her chest swelled to make room for the air she was always gasping. The wise old men and women of the valley gathered at her bedside and argued about what was wrong with her.

‘It’s her womanhood,’ said one. ‘She’s becoming a grown woman, and her glands can’t cope. Look at the length of her arms and legs, the joints of her fingers and toes, the girth of her chest. Parts of her body are growing very fast while other parts are wasting away to compensate for the vitamins she isn’t getting in her diet. As soon as she starts to eat normally these things will sort themselves out.’

‘I wish I could agree,’ said another with a sigh. ‘This looks to me like something worse than growing pains. Something very serious is happening to her skin. I would hesitate to diagnoze leprosy; but I see every indication here of a severe skin disorder, and I recommend that the girl be kept in the strictest isolation till time and a better diet have resolved the situation – one way or another.’

‘You’re both talking shit,’ snapped a high-ranking councillor. ‘You know very well what’s happening here, and it won’t do to pussy-foot around it any longer. The girl is going through the Changes. In a matter of days or weeks she will have Changed completely. We must convene an emergency meeting of the Council to decide what’s to be done.’

The wise men and women all drew in their breath at the mention of the Changes. Some of them thought they understood the word; others merely reacted to a term that had acquired an air of mystery from stories and songs they had heard in childhood. But by the time the councillor had ended his address to the emergency meeting, they all knew more than they had known before, and what they knew made them terribly afraid.

‘All of you have heard about the Changes,’ he said. ‘Songs are still being sung and stories told, even if you take them for nursery rhymes and fables. We in the Council have always hoped that these stories and songs would soon be forgotten, replaced by new ones full of comfort: stories with happy endings, songs to lift the heart and point to a brighter future. We put about the story of leprosy to hasten the process of forgetting; but we planned one day to replace that nasty tale with something nicer.

‘More than this, we began to hope for something better than stories.   We began to hope that the Changes had indeed stopped working their terrible magic on our bodies. We grew slack in administering the herbal treatments devised by our clever ancestors to keep the Changes at bay. Yet despite our slackness, nothing like this – like what has happened to Kerr – had happened in living memory. The Changes seemed to have become in reality what we’d laboured to make them in the minds of our people: a thing of the past. Very cautiously, we dared to believe that we in the valley were finally free from the curse that has shaped our history. In a few generations, we told ourselves, we shall leave the valley for good, and our children’s children shall live in the world of men in perfect safety.

‘Now, it seems, our hopes have been dashed. After only three weeks without her dose, a girl of the valley has begun to show signs of metamorphosis. Our curse has returned, and if the news gets out we may suffer appalling consequences. We shall be persecuted, isolated, put to the sword. We must see to it, then, that no word of her condition leaves this room. Silence is now, as it has always been, our best protection. I have every confidence in your secrecy. The people of Lazarus are skilled in the ways of silence – that’s why we are still alive. But those who have forgotten how to hold their tongues will find that the Council has not yet forgotten how to punish.

‘How to deal with the girl herself? We must be humane: that’s one of the conditions under which we aspire to recover our full humanity. I propose that our safest course is to put her in one of the bothies on the lower slopes of the mountains. The opinion of my wise friend must be spread about the homesteads: that she has contracted leprosy, and that nobody may come near her till every trace of infection has been cleansed from her limbs. We will place her under careful surveillance. With any luck she will quickly return to health without going any further along the road to metamorphosis. But if she does undergo the Changes we must think again. It will be very difficult to keep her condition quiet once the Changes have been allowed to run their course.

‘In the meantime, do not lose heart. It is quite possible that the situation is not as grave as it seems. We have every reason to suppose that our original diagnosis was correct, and that the people of the valley are no longer so susceptible to their ancient curse as once they were. It may well be that this is a freak occurrence – a final parting blow from the disorder that has dogged our destiny for so long. It may well be that nothing of this kind will ever happen again. For generations we have watched our fears subside and the promise of freedom flourish. If properly handled, we may look back on this incident in years to come as the last savage stroke from a dying monster before it and its kind are stamped out for ever.’

So Kerr was moved from her elder sister’s cottage to a bothy at the edge of the valley, and a guard was set to watch her. The councillor who had proposed this course of action visited her every day with other members of the Council to monitor the progress of her symptoms. They gave it as their opinion that the Changes, if they were to happen, would take place at the next full moon. They were wrong. They had worked so hard to erase all reference to what they called the Curse that they had forgotten how to recognize the tell-tale signs of its imminence. Added to this, the harvest was in full swing, and all the people of the valley were working from dawn till dusk to gather in the meagre crops and prepare their produce for the coming winter. The councillors were as busy as the rest, and no doubt their inspections were more perfunctory than they ought to have been. The guard appointed to watch the girl was an elderly councillor too weak to take part in the harvest. The woman swore she didn’t need much sleep, being old, and so could keep an eye on Kerr by night as well as by day. But she was lying; she spent the night and most of the day in bed with her eyes tight shut and her mouth wide open. So she took her little granddaughter to stay with her in the bothy, with strict instructions to wake her up if anyone approached. Each day she fell asleep before sunset and slept through to the following noon. She was fast asleep when the Changes came, and the only person who saw what happened was the wakeful granddaughter. ‘And that little girl,’ said Nan, ‘was me.’

‘She was you!’ cried Kark, amazed. ‘So you saw everything! What did you see?’

‘What did I see? I’ll tell you. I saw that the Changes were not a disease after all. I saw something that has stayed in my memory ever since, and which I’ve ached all my life to describe to my friends and family. Something that frightened me half to death and yet filled me with unbearable happiness, and which still fills me with fear and happiness whenever I think of it. What I saw made me hate and despise the Council forever, because of their secrets and lies, and because of the terrible things they threatened me with if I should ever let a hint of it pass my lips.

‘What did I see? I saw Kerr Change. One minute she was tossing and turning on a bed of bracken. The next she had thrown off the bedclothes and leapt into the middle of the floor, sweat streaming from her limbs as if her flesh was melting. Feathers sprang from her outstretched fingers. Her legs seemed to buckle and bend in the wrong direction, her horrible misshapen toes dug furrows in the dirt as they turned to claws. Her face seemed to split in two as her jaws stretched wide to let out an inhuman scream. When they shut at last they had become a beak. She turned her back on me and a bristling armoury of quills was forcing its way through her trembling shoulders. I screamed more loudly than she had, and she turned to stare at me with an eye that had turned bright yellow and lost its whites. Then she gave a second leap, and sprang straight out of a hole in the bothy roof. Nobody ever saw her again. Not as Kerr, at any rate, although some of us may have seen her as a bird.’

‘A bird!’ cried Kark. ‘Was she a bird-woman, then – a witch, like the ones in stories?’

‘She was,’ said Nan. ‘And so am I, and so are you, young man. This is what the Council has been trying to hide from us for so long. This is the disease from which we suffer. This is what we are. We’re not lepers. We’re not even ill. We are shape-shifters like the ones in the stories, and the stew we take each Thursday is no medicine but a drug designed to prevent us from becoming ourselves. We are the Bird People, and if we do not take our medicine we turn into birds when the Changes come, as Kerr did, and fly through the air like angels.’

‘But why?’ Kark asked, bewildered. ‘Why don’t they want us to turn into birds? Is it wrong?’

‘It’s very wrong. Wrong of the Council to hide our gifts from us. Wrong of those of us who know to keep quiet about it. Wrong of Mrs Chakchak to force her stinking stew on us without explaining what it’s for. And wrong that we have to live in fear of the Changeless Ones, the men in masks from beyond the valley who drove us out of the fertile lands because of their fear and ignorance. But I haven’t finished with the story of Kerr.

‘As soon as Kerr flew out through the roof, the little girl ran to wake her Nan, and the poor old woman began to shriek at the top of her voice. She had no idea what to make of the little girl’s story; she only knew that her charge had escaped and that the Council would punish her severely for her negligence. Then the door burst open and a man rushed in. It was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting. “What in God’s name was that?” he cried. “It was Kerr, sir,” said the little girl. “She’s turned into a bird,” and she held up a long brown feather for his inspection. He stood there in amazement, looking from feather to bed to the shrieking old woman, who had now begun to pull out her hair in handfuls. “So it has come to this,” he said at last, and left the shack without another word.

‘He went straight to the village and organized the fittest villagers into search-parties. “A giant bird has carried Kerr away,” he told them. “It flew down from the mountains, smashed a hole in the roof of the bothy and snatched her from her bed. We must find the bird and rescue the girl or avenge her death. Follow me!” But before he led the searchers to the mountains he sent certain trusted Councillors to watch the old woman and the little girl, and to keep them prisoners in the bothy till his return. The prisoners were not to speak about what they had seen, and not to have any visitors until they had been thoroughly examined by the Council.’

Their imprisonment, said Nan, lasted for three long months. When the old woman and her granddaughter had entered the shack to watch over Kerr, the valley had been sweltering in the thunderous dying days of late summer. By the time they left, November storms like savage birds had torn the leaves from the poor stunted trees of the valley orchards and the mountains were white with snow. The prisoners were never subjected to the threatened examination. For the first month the search parties combed the mountains in vain, finding no trace of Kerr or of the bird that had carried her off. The most energetic of the searchers was the councillor who had addressed the emergency meeting; and in the second month his energy killed him. He set out with two younger men to explore a cave in a cliff-face, and fell to his death as he struggled to swing himself into the cave mouth. In the third month a shepherd found the bones of Kerr, picked dry by scavengers, with the silver bracelet among them. The old woman and her granddaughter were released at once, with orders never to mention the lost girl again. The old woman found these orders easy enough to comply with. She had gone quite mad during her confinement, and died within a month of being released. The little girl kept her secret with more difficulty, but she kept it for many years.

‘And now,’ Nan added, ‘she has told it to her grandson. I can’t think what possessed her to speak out. Perhaps she has simply grown too old to keep her mouth shut. Perhaps she thinks that the truth should not be lost. Or perhaps she saw something of Kerr in the boy who refused to eat his stew. In any case, she hopes that the story will bring colour to her grandson’s dreams, as he lives out his life in this dreary mountain prison where we’ve shut ourselves up for no good reason. So that at least his dreams can escape from confinement, as hers have done each night since she saw a girl turn into a bird.

‘But there’s a price to pay for the knowledge I’ve given you. For your sake and mine you must never tell a soul, unless you trust him with your life, as I trust you. The councillor who died said one wise thing: that silence is our best protection. You should think very carefully before you forfeit the safety of silence. Remember this: by staying silent you will be protecting me as well as yourself. Now off to bed with you, and never let me hear another word about Kerr, or stew, or the Changes.’

Kark went to bed as he was told, but he could not sleep because his head was buzzing with the things Nan had told him. So he was one of the bird people! And if he didn’t eat Mrs Chakchak’s stew he would take to the air and fly like an angel! Ever since he had first heard stories of men and women who could change their bodies as ordinary people change their clothes he had yearned with all his heart to be one of them. And now his wishes had been granted, his dreams made flesh! Whatever Nan said, it was not enough for his dreams to remain just that: vivid pictures in his head, good for nothing but to while away the dreary valley winters. He did not think he would ever sleep again until he had found out whether he too could change as Kerr had changed, could share with her the adventure of the skies. But to find this out he would need help, and to get help he would have to betray his grandmother’s confidence.

As it happened, Kark had a friend called Chew Chew whom he would have trusted with his life. The very next day he was due to meet up with Chew Chew to plan a rabbit-hunting trip into the hills. Before Kark fell asleep he had begun to work out a scheme for testing the effects of not taking his dose, and by the time he woke next morning the scheme was fully formed in his head. They would go for the hunting trip as planned; but they would stay away just long enough to make folks at home uneasy. After a week or so Chew Chew would go back to the village and tell the villagers that he and Kark had got lost in the hills in fog, and that they had later lost each other. Meanwhile Kark would hide in a place they had found when they were children, in a lonely wooded corner of the valley. While search parties looked for Kark in the hills, Chew Chew would creep out of his parents’ house under cover of darkness and bring food to where Kark could collect it, together with information about where the searchers were planning to look in the days ahead. If nothing had happened to Kark after several weeks, he would return to the village with a story of some kind to explain his absence. If something did happen, on the other hand… somehow or other he would find a way to let Chew Chew know what had become of him.

Chew Chew was not as keen on the plan as Kark had expected. For one thing, it seemed to him that the most dangerous and least glamorous part of it fell to his share: something that was perfectly true, and hadn’t crossed Kark’s mind. Chew Chew’s parents were councillors and strict disciplinarians. They would react angrily to Chew Chew’s disappearance, and it would be hard for him to slip away after that, even under cover of darkness. It took all Kark’s eloquence to persuade his friend that he was getting a good deal out of the scheme. It was Kark who was acting the part of the human guinea-pig, and Chew Chew would eventually reap the reward of knowing the result of their experiment without having to undergo the Changes himself. Chew Chew finally agreed to do what Kark wanted, but he insisted that the experiment should last no longer than three weeks, and that he should deliver food to Kark no more than twice a week. ‘They’ll notice it’s gone from the storage bins, I know they will,’ he moaned, and Kark felt compelled to smuggle a lot of dried goods out of Nan’s inadequate winter supply so as to reduce the risk of his friend’s being exposed as a thief.

Even then Chew Chew complained all the way to the hills the following week. He complained about the weight of the blankets and clothes Kark had insisted they take with them. He complained about the weather, which drizzled as steadily as he did. He complained about the camp-site they had chosen, which turned out to be the only patch of marsh for miles around, and which reduced all their clothes and blankets to the colour and consistency of mud. Kark bullied him into staying away from the village for a week; but once Thursday had passed and they had missed their first dose of Mrs Chakchak’s concoction Kark almost began to regret that his friend had let himself be persuaded.

‘I feel so strange,’ moaned Chew Chew. ‘My skin burns all over and I’ve got a sore throat. What if your Nan was wrong and the stew is really a medicine to stop us falling ill? What if we get so ill in the next few days that I’m too weak to go home on Sunday?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with you that a hot bath wouldn’t cure,’ Kark scoffed. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if you were infested with fleas by now. If you’d take a dip in the stream from time to time, like me, your skin would feel as soft as a feather bed.’

‘Me, swim!’ cried Chew Chew. ‘You must be crazy. That stream’s far too cold to swim in – you’ll catch pneumonia. And for God’s sake don’t talk about feathers. It’s you who wants to turn into a bird, not me. Every morning as soon as I wake up I have to feel myself all over to make sure I’ve not turned into a chicken or a goose. I wish I was at home. At least there I get to sleep on feathers instead of growing them.’

Chew Chew didn’t turn into a chicken, and at the week’s end he went home as they had planned. But he did not come back the following week, nor the week after that. In the meantime Kark made his way across the valley to the hole in the ground where he had meant to live out the course of the Changes. But he found that it had filled with water in the recent downpour, and instead he set up camp under an overhanging rock screened by bushes, which afforded him scant protection against the perishing autumn wind. From the top of the rock he watched as search-parties scoured the valley. Often he had to take cover when a party came too close; and once, when he was checking one of the snares he had set for rabbits, a hunter passed within inches of his nose, and he had to hold his breath until she was out of earshot. Every night he went to the hollow tree which Chew Chew and he had chosen for a meeting place; and every night he returned home angry and disappointed. But he did not think for a moment of abandoning his scheme. He had only to think of the triumph that would be written on Mrs Chakchak’s face as he humbly accepted her stew, or of the tears that would shine in Nan’s eyes as he confessed to his robberies, and his determination to stay where he was grew stronger.

As the days went by his body grew stronger. He hardly noticed how hard and long his legs were growing, or how thick his chest, or how sharp his jawbone. Indeed, he thought less and less after the first fortnight. Instead he concentrated on catching enough food to live on. He ran after deer with the aid of his increasingly powerful thighs. He watched for pigeons, bow in hand, with eyes that could now pick out every detail of the lichen on a rock many hundreds of yards away, and he patrolled his network of snares with the vigilance of a glutton. He no longer bothered to cook the meat he ate. At first he told himself that this was because it was too risky to light a fire, but after a few days he found himself relishing the gush of blood from a fresh kill as it ran down his gullet and settled warm in his stomach. And he also began to relish his anger. He was angry with Chew Chew for failing him; angry with the hunters for seeking to bring him home; angry with the Council for trying to rob him of the freedom he craved; and angry with the rain for running down the back of his neck. Anger gave him invisible wings when he hunted, and anger woke him with all his senses alert when a strange noise startled him awake in the dark.

Then one night, as he crouched in the hollow tree nursing his anger, he heard footsteps approaching. The fallen leaves made it sound as though an army were wading its way towards him through the drifts, but when he peered through a crack in the old oak’s trunk he saw only Chew Chew, stumbling and snivelling and calling a name which it took him several seconds to recognize as his own.

Kark stepped out of the oak at once and grabbed Chew Chew by the wrist. His friend gave a shriek and fell to his knees. ‘Who are you?’ he gasped. ‘It’s never Kark, is it?’

‘Of course it is,’ Kark snapped in his new hoarse voice. ‘But I’m the one who should be asking questions. Where in God’s name have you been? What happened to the supplies you promised you’d bring me? What’s going on down in the village? I ought to break your arm for leaving me alone like this.’

‘Please don’t hurt me!’ Chew Chew squealed. ‘We’re best friends, remember? It’s not my fault I couldn’t come earlier. My parents knew all about our plan. When I got home they shut me in the shed for thieving, and I had nothing to eat, and I was tired and sick, and I had to tell them – no, no, I never told them where you were hiding! But it was a stupid plan, Kark, it could never have worked, and you’ve got to come home with me now or – or they’ll hunt you with dogs!’

‘My Nan!’ Kark hissed. ‘You didn’t tell them anything about her, did you? Say you didn’t!’

‘I couldn’t help it! They wanted to know where you heard about the Changes, and they could tell when I was lying! But don’t worry, she’s all right! She said so when they drove her out of the village. She’s wanted to leave the valley all her life, only she never had the courage! She must be half way to the outside world by now, and she took plenty of food, and she seemed so pleased to be going!’

‘I’ll kill you for this,’ Kark snarled, clacking his teeth together. ‘How did you get away from the village? Were you followed?’

‘Don’t! Please don’t! It’s not my fault! They made me!’

As Chew Chew spoke, a branch shook behind him. Kark knew at once that several people must be hidden in the trees, waiting to see if Chew could persuade him to walk into their ambush. He let out a cry that was more like a croak than a word, flung Chew Chew to the ground and began to run.

The wood seemed to burst into life around him, hunters detaching themselves from branches and trunks like leaves torn away by an autumn gale. A wild excitement coursed through Kark’s body, and he leaped over streams and fallen trees as if he were flying. The pain of his running intensified with every leap, but this only gave him greater strength. With one last bound he broke free of the trees and found himself skimming over the heather of an open hillside. Sticks and stones rattled against the rocks and buried themselves in peat on either side. He tore off his few remaining clothes to help himself run faster. Balloons of air filled his agonized lungs and made him buoyant; he swept aside swathes of air with his arms like a swimmer; his feet barely touched the golden fronds of bracken that stretched out to catch him.

He looked back once to gauge the distance between himself and his nearest pursuer, and saw the pale faces of the hunters far below, their mouths gaping wide in astonishment, their spears and bows hanging forgotten in their hands. The hill had dropped away, he was falling into the star-filled sky, frantically flapping his arms in an effort to keep his balance. For a moment he felt giddy and terrified. Then he forgot his giddiness and terror, forgot everything but the roll and surge of the wind beneath his wings, the roar of it in his ears, the rush of it through his feathers.

[To be continued]

Intruder

[Last night we held our Fantasy Reading Party at the Dram Bar in Woodlands Road, Glasgow. This has become an annual event supported by funding from the School of Critical Studies, at which current and past students from the MLitt Fantasy read out their creative work, revealing in the process just how dazzlingly diverse and innovative fantasy fiction and verse can be. Tacos are involved, and a certain amount of beer and other liquids. A couple of our readers fell ill, so I read out the following extract from my work-in-progress, a novel called Ratpig, to fill in the gap. I’m posting it here at the kind request of the listeners!]

That night as the Manager slept, a guard was strolling along the East wall of the city, whistling a tune he had just made up. The kids called him Twitter because of his whistling: he could do it by blowing air through a chink in his body armour, and he could vary the tone by twisting his torso in different directions, which made his posture as he walked decidedly odd. He would bend his body left and right, or tilt it backwards, or turn it round till the chestplate faced behind him, and the noises this produced when he whistled seemed to him quite beautiful, though most people thought them hideous; they were always asking him to stop. In fact, the Manager had forbidden him to make his music less than five hundred metres from Kozy Klothes, which was why he walked the city walls when he wanted to practise.

And this was the perfect night for practising. The storms of the previous night had swept the skyways clear, and now the tiny traffic lights of the stars blinked rapidly on and off as if picking up a signal from some far-off controller. The forest was still, and in the intervals between his whistling he could hear small creatures crashing about in the undergrowth, inspired to sudden movement by his tunes, or so he liked to think. Inspired means breathing in, he reminded himself; I breathe out through the chinks in my armour, the creatures breathe in, and together we form a circuit, a connection across time and space which is powered by music. What a lovely thought. If only his fellow guards could see it as he did.

Twitter stopped and leaned his elbows against the parapet. He couldn’t inhale the scent of the forest, but he could let the breeze from it play in his joints, and he could appreciate the altered tone this gave to his whistling. Sometimes he stood like this for hours on end, like a harp in an empty hall being played by the currents of air that swept across its strings. He would stand here till dawn if he could, unless Sergeant Rivet showed up and shouted at him.

A loud clank sounded next to his elbow and a chip of stone from the top of the wall flew up and struck his helmet with a high-pitched ping. So rapt was he in his whistling that he merely thought how nice the sound was, how well it blended with the melody he was weaving. Then he looked down and saw a metal hand grip the parapet with fingers of steel. No, not a hand: a hook of some sort, three prongs like crooked claws digging channels in the stonework. Twitter stared for a moment, then leaned over the parapet.

Someone was clambering up the wall directly below him, swinging from a length of cord attached to the hook. Someone human and agile, with a bundle strapped to its back. The human was dressed in green and had long thin limbs like the limbs of a spider, though there were only four of them.   He could not tell the human’s gender, so he would think of it as a ‘he’, as he thought of himself. He had been programmed to think of human beings as males, it was his default setting, though he had often wondered why, and had even thought of changing it.

But for now the question was not what gender it was, but what were its intentions? Twitter was a Kozy Klothes guard and therefore responsible, by extension, for the safety of Stitch, where the Kozy Klothes factory was located. Admittedly his principal task was to keep the workers under control; the present situation, whereby a stranger was climbing into the city without authorization, was unfamiliar to him, and he had to root through his programming for several seconds before he found the relevant guidance on what to do about it.

As a matter of fact there were several options available, but the simplest choice, and the one that would enable him to return most quickly to what he really wanted to do – that is, to whistling – was to burn this human to a crisp with his trusty flamethrower. After that it would be unnecessary either to interrogate the thing or determine its sex. It would be speechless. It would be sexless. It would be dead.

Pleased with his decision, Twitter raised his left arm and aimed the nozzle of the flamethrower at the intruder. But to his surprise, the intruder was not where he had been before. The rope was still hanging down from the three-pronged hook, swinging slightly in the breeze, but the climber had gone. Perhaps he had sensed Twitter’s presence and returned to the safety of the forest, leaving his rope behind? That would have been sensible of him. Such a decision would have relieved Twitter of the need to take any action, and as such Twitter would have been grateful to the stranger for taking it. He didn’t like taking action unexpectedly; it disrupted his creativity circuits, which were better equipped for making music than making corpses.

Twitter decided he had better take one last look around, just to make sure, before he went back to his whistling. He rotated his upper body through one hundred and eighty degrees, and in the process saw – again to his surprise – that the stranger was standing behind him holding a knife. It was a large, serrated knife, and Twitter noticed with some interest that it was of a perfect size and weight to pierce his body armour at the point towards which the human was aiming it: that is, the narrow opening between the top of Twitter’s neck and the lower section of his metal throat.

This was the last thought that passed through Twitter’s head before it was violently wrenched from his shoulders and sent bouncing off into the darkness like a metal football.

As it went, it experienced some regret at this interruption to its whistling.

Meanwhile the stranger sheathed his knife, picked up the grappling hook and began to coil the rope around his left hand and elbow. As he coiled, he raised his lean face and sniffed the air, flaring his narrow nostrils like a dog’s.

The wind had changed direction and was now blowing fitfully from the city. Something about it, some scent it carried, caught the man’s attention and he paused in his coiling. A smile spread across his face. He had found what he had been looking for and it was right here in this city, only metres from the place where he now stood. He would not go and fetch it at once – he must study the situation first, see what he was up against. But he had found it, found her, and there was no way on the Plain she would escape from him again.

Bedbound

One morning, Mr McGhee rolled over in bed and refused to get up.

‘Are you all right, love?’ asked his wife. She shook him a couple of times, then went to phone his work.

‘Tommy’s ill, I’m afraid,’ she said.

‘No I’m not,’ said Mr McGhee through the open door of the bedroom. ‘I’m just not getting up. I’m never getting out of bed again.’

And he didn’t.

***

As word spread about Mr McGhee’s decision he became something of a celebrity. A piece appeared in the local paper. A national magazine ran a feature on him. A TV crew came to film him where he lay among stacks of empty pizza-boxes and buckled beer-cans. The longer he stayed in bed the more elaborate and satisfying reasons he found for doing so.

‘It’s a good bed,’ he said. ‘My grandfather and great-grandfather were born in it. Most of our dreams are dreamt in bed, and sex is best between the sheets. It’s nicest to have breakfast in bed, or tea in bed while watching TV. If more people stayed in bed there wouldn’t be so much greed and violence in the world. I like my bed, and all the evidence suggests that my bed likes me.’

His neighbours regarded him as something of a hero. After he’d been in bed a year they threw him a party, to which the lord provost and most of the councillors were invited. A piper serenaded him outside his bedroom window, and the bedroom became an Aladdin’s cave of unlikely gifts: porcelain figures, footballs, garden furniture, and every kind of spare part for his car. There was a cake with a single candle, and a lot of cards wishing him either ‘Happy Anniversary’ or ‘Get Well Soon’.

His wife left him three months later.

***

For a while after that a volunteer came round with meals on wheels. Then the day came when the service was discontinued. ‘You’ll have to get up now, Mr McGhee,’ said the cheerful official who brought him the news. ‘The trouble is, you’re not an invalid, so you don’t qualify for government aid. There’s nothing we can do to help you. You’ll have to get up or starve.’

Mr McGhee warmly agreed with the official, and began to starve to death almost at once. As day followed day he got thinner and thinner, till one morning two of his neighbours wandered in and found that he seemed to have stopped breathing. When they moistened his lips with a little beer he revived and asked for a slice of toast. So they phoned the district councillor, and after a short debate, responsibility for feeding Mr McGhee was resumed by his former employers, the city council.

***

Five years later he was interviewed again by the same TV crew as before. He had stopped shaving and his beard had grown into a thick forest at one end of the rugged landscape of his continental quilt. The quilt had developed growths of its own: fungal blossoms and several varieties of moss that throve on a diet of rotting feathers and liquid secretions from his body.

‘Do you miss anything?’ they asked him. ‘Do you regret your decision? Don’t you think it’s irresponsible to stay in bed when there are so many people in the country with genuine disabilities?’

‘They have their reasons for staying in bed; I have mine,’ he answered sagely.

‘Don’t you feel like a sponger?’

‘Sometimes,’ he admitted. ‘But on the whole that’s balanced by the memory of what it was like before I started to sponge. I can live with the guilt, I think.’

***

After that people forgot about Mr McGhee and his gesture of defiance. The delivery of meals on wheels became erratic. His neighbours no longer visited. Only his wife came in from time to time with a bag of this or a basket of that, but she refused to do so regularly. ‘You made your decision, I made mine,’ she said, and Mr McGhee warmly agreed.

One morning he found he couldn’t sit up in bed. He lay flat on his back for three days and three nights till his wife dropped by. She took one look at him and phoned the doctor, a call that had been delayed by fifteen years.

‘Your husband has had a stroke, Mrs McGhee,’ said the doctor.

‘Not Mrs McGhee. Ms Winkelmeyer,’ said the ex Mrs McGhee. ‘He needs to be treated in this bed. He can’t be moved.’

‘That’s just as well,’ said the doctor. ‘These days we prefer to treat our patients at home. The hospital wards have all been converted to suites for private patients. I’ll send some nurses over.’

Several weeks passed before the nurses arrived, and in the meantime Ms Winkelmeyer cared for Mr McGhee with dispassionate assiduity. The nurses, when they came, were big burly men with hairy chests bursting out of their green cotton blouses. ‘How are we today?’ they said to Mr McGhee as if he had suddenly turned into a roomful of people. Then they helped him to move his limbs, to sit up in bed, to raise his arms and legs one by one and flex them. These movements caused him excruciating pain. ‘That’s very good,’ they said. ‘Tomorrow we’ll begin speech therapy.’ They left him looking grey with agony, trying to swallow a pill.

Next day, as promised, the nurses began speech therapy. ‘Talk,’ they said, and slapped his cheeks. He rolled his eyes and laboured with his tongue, but no matter how he tried he could only manage to let out a few feeble screams when they slapped him. ‘Very good,’ they said again. ‘We’re doing very well. Tomorrow we’ll try walking.’

Mr McGhee shook his head and Ms Winkelmeyer protested, but the nurses were firm. ‘We mustn’t be lazy,’ they insisted. ‘A walk will do us good.’

Next day they ordered Mr McGhee to stand up. When he shook his head, they seized him by his skinny arms and swung him round so that his little withered legs were dangling over the side of his great-grandfather’s bed. All at once he spoke to them clearly.

‘Nothing you can possibly do to me,’ he said, ‘will make me take one step.’

‘We’ll see about that,’ said the nurses, pulling him upright.

He gave a terrible shriek, and died.

‘Poor soul,’ they said as they laid him on his quilt. ‘Still, at least he’s now at rest.’

***

His funeral was attended by an enormous crowd. As it turned out, Mr McGhee had bought shares in the successful Dreamboat Mattress Company and become fabulously rich, though he had never seen fit to mention this to anyone. He left his fortune and his bed to his ex wife.

 

 

Picture credit: Unmade bed by Silvina Day

Autumn Lights

At nightfall when the cottage lights went on the street should have been plunged in an abysmal darkness; but where Mr Printon (being an educated man) knew the stars must be, although he had never seen a star, there was a palpitating red glow like the inside of a mouth. That glow throbbed to the distant city’s pulse, as did the constant moan of traffic as it bowled along the raised motorways that gripped the city in concrete coils. Mr Printon did not live in the city. He inhabited the town of Addenden, an urban satellite with a steadily expanding population towards whose prosperity, he flattered himself, he had made a not insignificant contribution. His office stood only three hundred and sixty-seven paces from his cottage gate, and between the door of the cottage and the door of the office Mr Printon led a life of such regularity it was a wonder there was not a trench from threshold to threshold.

Apart from twenty-seven pounds a week spent on cigarettes Mr Printon’s management of his domestic economy was irreproachable. He was a man of clean-cut principles, his suit well shaven, his chin faultlessly pressed, his bowler hat immaculately brushed and his hair set at a jaunty angle on his (though he said so himself) polished intellect. He kept to his daily timetable with a precision not to be measured with instruments. Passers-by were blinded by the shine from his shoes, and you might wound yourself on his pocket-handkerchief.

The reason for Mr Printon’s fastidiousness (if reason it could be called) lay in the walk to his office and his twice-weekly visit to the town shopping centre. It could be found in the fluttering of abandoned newspapers, insurance policies, travel brochures and miscellaneous refuse on the pavement; in the gurgle of oily water in the drains; in the smelly sludge that slimed the streets on rainy days; in the shrieks of despair or snatches of drunken bawling that scrabbled against his window at night; in the amorous wails of his neighbour’s cat; and above all, in the faceless passers-by reduced to a shabby anonymity by the murk that passed for weather in these prosperous parts. That was why when Mr Printon returned home every evening he enacted furtive rituals with tape-measures, weighing scales, pocket calculators and soap.

At eight o’clock each morning (after an hour’s careful grooming) he entered the kitchen with ceremonious solemnity. He switched on the kettle and the radio, boiled water in a pan for his breakfast egg, swallowed a glass of orange juice fortified with nine additional vitamins together with whatever tablets his doctor had prescribed, then settled down to read the newspaper over a cup of strong black coffee. In his opinion the government could do worse than take his household arrangements as a model for the running of the nation.

Consider, then, his consternation when he entered the kitchen one morning and found there was no egg. He stood for an indeterminate period staring into the recesses of the fridge as if he expected the egg to drop out of the freezer compartment with an icy cluck. Shaken, he reached for the orange juice – only to find that this was missing likewise. His brain gave out a hiss of bafflement tinged with anxiety, and it was only after several seconds that he realized he was listening to the white noise emitted by the radio. Then he turned to the sideboard and found to his relief that the coffee-jar was still half full. He brewed himself a cup of coffee, swallowed the aspirins he discovered in his pocket and settled down to search for an explanation in the newspaper.

Then he found himself searching for the newspaper.

He even opened the front door and peered out into the misty morning, but the mat had WELCOME on it and nothing else. That word, WELCOME, somehow disconcerted him, and he hurriedly closed the door. He was, he concluded, sickening for something, and accordingly strode to the medicine cupboard with a new sense of purpose, swallowed everything he found there, and began to feel genuinely queasy.

Now he realized that a new sound was buzzing in the hairs of his ears, having detached itself from the hiss of the radio. Little by little he heard voices in the confusion. He drew aside a corner of the hall curtain, and though the mist was pressing up against the glass he could tell that a crowd had gathered in the High Street and was heading towards his cottage. He had the absurd impression that they were coming to root him out with staves and scythes, as the Roman peasantry might have rooted out a fallen emperor. Fighting the nausea in his stomach he donned a raincoat, took his bowler hat and tightly rolled umbrella and stepped over WELCOME, the perennial concerned citizen, to find out what was going on.

The street lamps still glimmered at intervals through the mist. A light wind was blowing which would soon disperse the early morning vapours. As he stood by the cottage gate he soon made out the foremost figures hurrying towards him with the intentness of those who can feel their purpose rapidly slithering away. Mr Sanders the estate agent, Miss O’Toole the postmistress and a slender young man in a silk shirt were the first he recognized. Soon a host of faces known and unknown were milling about the newcomer, chattering in high, strained voices, rubbing the backs of their necks, shifting from foot to foot, staring up into the impenetrable blankness. The townspeople converged about Mr Printon’s bowler hat as about the entrance to a government building, finding comfort in his rigid collar and gold cuff-links.

‘O Mr Printon, thank God you’re safe!’

‘Mr Printon, have you heard? There’s been no food for a fortnight!’

‘We tried to hush things up, sir, to prevent unnecessary panic; but stocks in the shops are running very low.’

‘O Mr Sanders, I’m perishing with hunger already. I’d nothing but a slice of bread for my supper last night!’

‘Be calm, Miss O’Toole. Don’t fret yourselves, don’t fret yourselves!’ exclaimed Mr Printon in his most authoritative tones. ‘Everything is under control. No doubt it’s a strike, or a temporary side-effect of the spending cuts; they’ll soon have things back to normal.’

‘O Mr Printon, do you really think so?’

‘You don’t think it’s anything serious, then, Mr Printon? I can’t tell you what a relief that is.’

‘I’ve such a respect for Mr Printon’s judgement!’

‘Constable Mathers! Has no-one contacted the council yet?’

‘No, sir, the lines are dead. I don’t want to cause unnecessary panic, but perhaps it’s a terrorist attack?’

‘Mary mother of God and all the saints preserve us!’

‘What a ridiculous notion! Who’d attack Addenden?’

‘Complete waste of time. Much better bomb the city.’

‘Perhaps that’s what’s happened! Perhaps the city’s no longer there! O God, has anybody been to look?’

‘For heaven’s sake, calm yourselves!’ Mr Printon called over the rising hubbub. He lifted his umbrella and rapped the pavement sharply with the tip. A sudden hush fell. Mr Printon cleared his throat and felt himself rising to the occasion.

‘Listen here, townspeople. It won’t do a scrap of good panicking about it. Since we’ve no means of contacting the authorities by telephone, we must take the situation into our own hands. I’m sure we’ve got enough tinned and dried food between us to withstand a siege. All it needs is for one of us – a respectable, trusted member of the community – to go to the city and demand an explanation. There can’t be anything materially wrong or we’d have heard about it yesterday on the radio. Constable Mathers, you’re a man of sense; gather these good people in the village hall, organize hot drinks and refreshments; perhaps Mr Sanders will be so good as to entertain us with a song or two. I myself will take responsibility for delivering our grievances to the government.’

At this there was an outburst of scattered clapping and somebody raised a faint cheer. Mr Sanders swelled with pride to hear his vocal talent acknowledged; Miss O’Toole gazed at Mr Printon with unfeigned admiration; the motherly constable began to shepherd the villagers through the fog in the direction of the village hall, and Mr Printon was left alone by the cottage gate crowned with the hopes of his people.

Mr Printon’s bicycle was a machine that drew glances, if only because he rode it so seldom. It was painted black and glinted like a very slow meteor. Mr Printon put on an apron and polished it with a soft cloth every time he wheeled it out of the garden shed. He now pins up his trouser-cuffs with bicycle clips, presses his hat firmly over his brows and straddles the saddle. Declamatory trumpets sound in his head as he begins his stately progress up the High Street, past the entrance to the shopping centre, past the church, toiling up to the top of the little ecclesiastical hillock, then spins faster and faster into the basin of lingering darkness, leaving the morning, the mist and humanity in sunlight at the summit.

Oddly enough, although Mr Printon was in the habit of extolling the benefits of the country air he very rarely visited the open countryside because he suffered both from hayfever and a touch of agoraphobia. Moreover, he had a horror of insects, especially the kind that crawl up your trouser legs and get themselves hopelessly entangled in your hair, that flutter in your face and give you unsightly stings on the calves and forearms. His declaration that he would go to the city had been made on the assumption that he could bestride his bicycle and appear in the city centre with as much ease as he entered and left the bus, of which there were only two a day. He read financial newspapers on the bus journey, which meant that he had no idea what the land looked like between Addenden and the metropolis. He had a vague impression of neat farmhouses, lollipop trees and geometrical fields formed during his schooldays, when he had coloured in pictures of such things with felt tip pens, making sure not to go over the lines. So it was hardly surprising that he lost himself almost at once.

At first he concentrates on pedalling his bicycle. His pinstriped trousers pump up and down, his head juts forward between his shoulders as he peers intently ahead to avoid colliding with cars, curbs or trees. He sees no cars or curbs, but trees become more and more thickly crowded on either side, and the tarmac becomes more and more uneven until he begins to fear for his tyres. Riding his bicycle has always inspired him with a confidence far in excess of his skill on the road, no doubt because the only other vehicles he has used operate to timetables and one complains when they arrive late or at the wrong destination. The sun comes out overhead – as much as it ever comes out in these prosperous parts – transforming the permanent cloud canopy into a translucent sheet of light whose source is untraceable. To his distress, and in spite of the flickering shadows of the passing trees, Mr Printon begins to perspire. The road rises steeply before him and yes, it is now definitely no more than a track. But Mr Printon has no more thought of turning back than a railway train. Up and down pump his pinstriped trousers. His bicycle jolts over stones and he fears for his tyres.

About midday the track swerves to the right and is crossed by a sparkling brook. Before he can stop himself he has plunged his bicycle into the midst of the current, soaking his trousers to the knee. The bed of the stream is muddy so that half way across the wheels stick fast. Mr Printon’s balance was never of the best, and it is not easy at the best of times to remain upright on a stationary bicycle; he topples sideways with a cry of despair and a thunderous splash. Fortunately (for Mr Printon’s education doesn’t extend to swimming) the brook is no more than five inches deep. Nevertheless it takes several minutes of floundering and gasping before he has wrestled his conveyance and himself from the mud and caught his bowler hat, which has drifted several yards downstream. The lorry of his shoes is utterly extinguished, his hair disarrayed, his handkerchief’s razor edge blunted – and as for his suit! In an agony of frustration he hurls his cigarettes into the water. Then he resumes his journey. The thought of turning back still has not entered his head.

An hour or so later his pauses have become more frequent. The branches sweep low across his path, twigs stick in his hair. A branch has caught his bowler hat and whipped it out of reach; in vain he tries to knock it down or scramble up the offending tree – he has only torn his trousers and covered his jacket with blue-green mould. Silvery cobwebs are profuse in this neck of the woods; every time one brushes his skin he stops to feel for spiders, though he seldom finds one. He has taken off his raincoat so that when it starts to rain he gets drenched before he can unfasten the saddlebag. A while later he finds that the saddlebag has dropped off unnoticed. One of his shoes somehow gets jammed in the pedal and splits. When the wood turns to larches he is showered with brown needles that work their way under his shirt collar, down his back and into his socks. He has three punctures, one in each tyre and one in his hand where he crashed into a prickly spruce that sprang into his path. And now the path is scarcely visible, the twilight under the boughs is deepening. He cannot tell the time because his watch has stopped. At this point it occurs to him, with the clarity of revelation, that it might be wise to turn round, go home and take the bus.

In autumn the night can drop with appalling suddenness on the hills. Here, far from the city’s pulse, the darkness is utter. Here on rare occasions the cloud-canopy is ripped open, and through the hole one catches a glimpse of the spangled depths on which the earth spins like a bowler hat on a turbulent ocean. On this fleeting window a man may gaze to see himself reflected, or his eyes may pierce the shining surface to plumb infinity. Through this hole from time to time the night descends to pace the earth in awful nakedness. Mr Printon (whose mind retained a few scraps of classical reading) knew the tale of Actaeon, even if he couldn’t replace his inner tubes; but he had never before tonight seen Diana unveiled.

By this time on his journey there are two Mr Printons. One toils numbly along, dismounting from his bicycle, remounting whenever the trees thin out enough, losing his shoe in a muddy patch, losing his handkerchief, bumping into treetrunks, breathing heavily as he strains uphill, panting as he attempts to restrain his bicycle in its downward career. The other Mr Printon has wandered off in a different direction, is now striding sternly through the lobby of a government building to present his grievances to the prime minister in an elegant leather briefcase. Or eating rogan josh, a favourite dish, in a city restaurant. Or asking himself whether he ought not to be pushing his bicycle the other way, whether he might not soon strike a tarmac road where he might possibly catch a lift from a passing lorry, whether that is the hum of traffic he hears in the distance or merely the rushing of a woodland stream astonishingly like the one he came to grief in earlier. He finds himself perishing with thirst, so he kneels on the muddy bank and scoops up some of the water in his two cupped hands. It is icy cold and reminds him how chilly his numb counterpart must be, alone in the woods so far from human habitation. He even begins to pity that other self, as he sits by a warm fire behind drawn curtains sipping whisky, before he realizes with a start that he is once again on foot, having left his bicycle on the riverbank to rust and fall to pieces on its own. Only now does he begin to wonder whether a sheep has died and rotted upstream recently.

Suddenly he bursts out from among the trees. Both Mr Printons merge at once. He finds himself on a hilltop looking down into a moat of inky blackness. The trees rustle at his back. A road winds its comfortable way between verges of lush grass. The whole scene is awash with a light such as Mr Printon has never seen before. He is reminded of cottage lamps, kitchen neon, molten silver, dim street lights suspended poleless in the mist, the glowing arm of God as it pokes through the clouds in an apocalyptic painting. As he very rarely does, he raises his head and looks towards the sky. There, flanked by the ragged borders of brown industrial billows, licking the perpetual cloud canopy with cold fire, floats the moon in all her fullness. He has no way of knowing it, but this night is a particularly fine one, the moon particularly brilliant; his eye does not rest on her surface, it is sucked as through a tunnel into a core of brightness. Stars glimmer at the edges of his sight. His weary body falls away and he becomes all vision. The rustle of leaves becomes heavenly music. Flakes of brightness peel from the moon’s rim and spin down to lay soft wings on his face and chest. Unable to breathe he sinks to his pinstriped knees, and gazes, and gazes.

All at once he knew what he must do. He had found the source of light, the axis about which life whirled and eddied, formed and reformed like billows from an industrial chimney. He must tell Addenden. He must bring the townsfolk to this spot with ladders, or better still helicopters, and they must climb to the radiant gateway and enter the tunnel.

Summoning unknown reserves of strength he leapt to his feet and bounded down the slope towards the road. He seemed to know the direction of Addenden by instinct, without recourse to the points of the compass. Tattered garments flying, dust rising from the caked mud on his trousers, eyes gleaming, leaving his other shoe discarded by the wayside, he galloped over the mica-speckled tarmac with the stars reeling overhead. He could not have kept up such a pace for long, but he had described a vast circle though the course of the day and night and was now not far from his starting-point. His breath came in great gasps which lingered like a locomotive’s steam in his wake. Up hill and down dale he galloped, beneath the shade of the trees, out into full moonlight, down into inky hollows, up into glorious brilliance with fields of dew stretched out on either side. Here at last was the steeple, the church itself, he was lolloping past the doorway. A host of startled rooks leaped from a pine in the churchyard. Past the entrance to the shopping centre with those little dim lights the shopkeepers leave in forgotten corners for fear of thieves. Up the High Street shouting at the top of his voice, past his cottage gate towards the village hall. Heads poked out of lighted windows and he called that they were fragments, that all were scattered from a single blazing ball, that they must hurry and follow him home before the gates of heaven were obscured by an oily curtain. Doors opened, footsteps hurried after him. Before he reached the village hall, whose windows were a chain of orange links, he had an army of townsfolk at his heels brandishing brooms and rolling pins, cricket bats and kitchen knives.

He burst open the hall door and at once the building erupted in confusion. Women and children shrieked, men’s voices too turned shrill with rage and fear. Tables were overturned as people jumped to their feet. Crockery shattered on the floorboards, spattering the evening meal against the walls like the gore of Penelope’s suitors. Mr Sanders, who had been delivering a recital of music-hall songs from the little stage, leapt to one side and pulled the curtain down on himself, rail, cords and all. The pianist fell over backwards. Constable Mathers, who had a flock of children gathered round his knees wearing various items of his uniform, clutched at his helmet and truncheon making all the children scream. Into the midst of the chaos bounded Mr Printon, still pursued by the angry mob who were convinced he was a terrorist come to machine-gun their families. The families, meanwhile, were convinced that a foreign army had broken in. All sense of sanity was lost. People rolled on the floor covering their heads from the hail of bullets. Others trampled them and tripped over one another in an attempt to escape through the windows before the shooting started. Others surrendered loudly to everyone in sight, waving their hands in the air. It seemed the flimsily-constructed building must collapse at any moment, it groaned so at the seams.

Somewhere in this turmoil a battered figure dropped to its hands and knees, crawled beneath a table that was miraculously still erect, tangled with the table-cloth and pulled all the unbroken mugs and dishes to the floor. It left its jacket in the hands of a bellowing publican who declared that he had seized the assassin; left its trousers caught on a fallen umbrella stand; and finally reached the door wrapped in someone else’s fur coat like a baby in a blanket. The uproar was such that nobody noticed a single fur-clad figure slip out into the night and limp down the High Street the way it had come. The sky throbbed; the distant city moaned in its concrete coils. The figure stopped by Mr Printon’s cottage gate, fumbled with the latch and entered. The house was cold and empty, as if the owner had just died and there had been no time to drape the place in black. The figure left the front door ajar, passed through to the back and went out into the garden. An icy wind romped gleefully through the hall, puffing up newspapers, insurance policies, travel brochures and miscellaneous refuse from waste paper baskets. The figure returned from the garden shed carrying a ladder, swept through the house in its long fur gown and ran down the High Street with the ladder on its shoulder. Occasionally Mr Printon gave a little skip, as though his happiness might lift him off the ground and send him spiralling heavenwards with the last of the autumn leaves.

 

 

Little Ships

These days when she dreamed it was as if she were talking face to face with friends long dead, and when she woke she opened her eyes onto sepia tints inside a narrow frame, a dim imitation of her colourful dream world.

This morning she was startled from sleep by drawn-out howls from the direction of the High Street. They must have been very loud indeed, since few sounds penetrated the thick walls of the house now that the aeroplanes had gone and the airport fallen silent. She looked as if for the first time round her room: a high, spacious barn of a room divided down the middle by a thin partition, lit by a greenish deep-sea light that filtered through the vegetation pressing up against the window-panes in wild profusion. She had forgotten to draw the blinds again last night. You silly old fool, she told herself, you’re forgetting even the simplest things your mother taught you.

Each morning it was a tremendous effort to push back the bedclothes and swing her stick-thin legs over the edge of the bed, the first in a series of efforts which got steadily more tremendous as the day went by until she could permit herself to climb into bed again as the sun slipped behind the yews. She pushed her swollen feet into a pair of slippers and straightened the bedclothes carefully before shuffling off to light a fire in the kitchenette. She did this with the help of spills like the ones her nanny had taught her to twist out of sheets of tightly-folded newspaper. How lucky she had collected all those bundles of papers for the scouts to give to charity! And how lucky that John had fitted her kitchenette with a wood-burning stove and stocked the boiler-house with logs before he left for France! I’ve wood enough to last for years – more than enough to see me through to the day when John gets home on leave, she told herself as she did each morning.

The thought was a spur to send her in her wobbly stride to the side door with her plastic bucket. She must fetch water from the ditch before the day could properly begin! To do this she had to fight her way through the overgrown remains of her beloved herb-garden, shocks of heavily-scented rosemary and thyme slapping the hem of her floral dressing gown as she strode past (one of her daily efforts was the losing battle of stitching up the rents). The water in the ditch was a godsend, delivering clean, fresh water every day, even in the driest weather, even after weeks of rain had turned the rest of the streams and rivers in the area to muddy soup. She didn’t remember any water in the ditch before the evacuation, certainly nothing so clear and sweet as the stuff that ran beneath the ferns this morning. Perhaps she hadn’t looked.

She dipped the bucket, then pushed it firmly under till it held enough for two or three pots of tea and a superficial wash. Meanwhile she listened for more noises from the High Street; not in apprehension (she had lost her apprehension as a girl when she caught TB and almost died), but to hear if the owners of the voices were getting nearer, motivated only by the curiosity she brought to all things: the path of an ant across a wall, the movements of a robin among the hazel branches, the delicate footsteps taken by a deer as it cropped at the grass on the weedy lawn. She listened, too, to see if she would recognize any of the voices. She did not, of course – she never did – but there was always a chance that she might, and if that happened she would act at once, letting the bucket drop unnoticed from her hands and setting out in her wobbly stride round the front of the house towards the drive, arms raised in welcome, a smile ready on her face for the departed friends she had thought about each morning since they had left her…

The robin sat on the fence, as he had done for years past counting, and twittered remarks as she tipped her head to catch the sounds. Behind him the yews shook their skirts in disapproval and hissed, sending out little flurries of starlings to swirl and cheep for a while before settling down on their hidden perches. The howl rose again from the south, beyond the ruins of the Catholic church. A human howl: refugees must be on the move again through the village. No, it sounded as though they were chasing someone, which meant they were hunters, not refugees, with spears and clubs made from old scrap metal. She had seen them once through a skein of roses when she’d gone on a slow and painful scavenging expedition to the shops in search of scraps. God protect my John, she prayed in silence, and send him safely home from the front. The hunters had looked fearful, as much because of their obvious desperation as because of their snarling faces and bloodstained clothes.

She shuffled back to the house and over the remains of the carpet that was now growing patches of mould here and there no matter how hard she scrubbed. She set the kettle on the hob, then retired to the bathroom to put on her clothes. Button followed difficult button, each button a different colour because she hadn’t any matching ones left in her formerly well-stocked button-box. As her fingers fluttered about the fastenings her mind drifted off, searching among the quiet morning birdsong and the wavering sunlight that squeezed between honeysuckle-leaves at the tiny window, searching to regain the shining dream-path it had left. Dead relatives sat in the sitting room waiting for her to re-emerge and bring them a nice hot cup of tea. An old friend peered round the door. She could hear Mr Barnes as he pottered among the roses in the yard, tying the recalcitrant ones which dared to curve away from an upright posture with yards and yards of orange twine, lashing their stems to stakes three times their girth in the interests of maintaining the air of military discipline gone to seed which the yard had worn in the old days, before he left with the refugees.

At last the bottom button was done up and she had even pinned a brooch at her throat (a perilous task she set herself each morning to test the steadiness of her hands). Regally she strode from the bathroom to greet her guests. But the sitting room was empty. The photographs on the partition smiling at her apologetically from beaches, front doors and prams long turned to ashes in the hearth of time, the hearth of war. You haven’t written for so long, John, she told the painting over the bed (his eyes twinkled down at her from under his cap). Of course there’s hardly any leave in wartime, but surely after all your efforts they could spare you for a week or two, just to see your mother? Hasn’t Dunkirk happened yet? All those brave little ships and the sea as bright and calm as a picture postcard sold on the beach when she was the laughing black-eyed girl in one of the snaps beside the tallboy, throwing a ball to her husband-to-be, but her grandmother would hurry her past the naughtier postcards in case she should glimpse more naked flesh than was good for a child of fourteen. She allowed herself a secret smile. How could Nanny know about the time I kissed Jerry Tomkins behind the woodshed? His lips and tongue had surprised her with their excessive wetness – surprised her so much that she had drawn back and pulled out her hanky to wipe her mouth, all the while apologizing for her rudeness, she had enjoyed it, she really had, she’d just felt in danger of drowning in the tide of his saliva…

Faintly from the hall she heard the grandmother clock in her grandmother’s voice telling her it was twelve o’clock, time to start preparing lunch. She couldn’t stand here dreaming all day, there were things to be done, cleaning and mending to be completed if John weren’t to come home to find the place in confusion! She opened the back door of her bedroom and stepped into the passageway that gave her access to the rest of the house. Here the dogs had lived before they disappeared – who knew when or how. Perhaps they had left with Mr Barnes. Perhaps they had carried out their own evacuation and were now running free through the fields as dogs had done when she was a girl, before you needed leads and collars to constrict them as Mr Barnes constricted his runner beans and roses. At the end of the passage lay the storeroom, which had once been the kitchen proper with its many cupboards and its giant cast-iron stove. Here her friends from the village had piled up tins and crates and cartons full of supplies against her long wait for John’s return. Here were boxes of cream crackers to dip in her soup, tea, sugar, salt, flour, vinegar, and endless glass jars and metal containers, the flour now rancid, the crackers no longer crisp. She missed butter, of course, but there were still several jars of marmite to give the crackers flavour.

When she stood in the storage room doorway she liked to pretend she was going shopping; she had not gone shopping for months before the evacuation because of her feet. She loved the sense of boundless riches waiting on the shelves, treats and treasures as well as necessities, brought from far away through many dangers for her comfort, to spread on tea-time scones when friends and relatives paid a visit, or to brew on special occasions instead of normal tea. Brought on brave little ships like the ones at Dunkirk, sailing over a placid picture-postcard sea. She felt like a little ship herself as she grasped a tin of soup in one hand and a box of crackers in the other before turning, somewhat precariously, and striding back along the passage to her bedroom door.

Before she reached it, something made her pause at the back door of the building, turn the key in the lock and pull it open. As she did so, she remembered how Doctor Waters had always called this the House of Many Doors, because of the many odd passages, lobbies, landings and stairways leading from door to door at every level, each of them opening onto new vistas: bedrooms, storage cupboards, bathrooms, studies. She sometimes compared these doors to the ones in her mind, which opened and shut at a touch of her questing fingers, letting sunlight fall on a chest of drawers littered with photographs, perhaps, or a corner cabinet full of old china, some of it chipped in particular ways that recalled accidents or fits of temper which would have been long forgotten but for these commemorative flaws…

When she opened this particular door, the back one, she thought for a moment she had found her way to her dream-world, where friends, relatives and long-lost pets still lingered among the flowers and the apple-laden branches. The late roses were in bloom, a tangled screen of green and crimson that stretched across the bottom of the garden like an embroidered picture of the thorns that hid the palace of Sleeping Beauty, the place of dreams, the house of many doors. The flagstones were cracked and buckled into humps, and sprays of jagged weeds sprang out through the gaps between them. The little crab-apple was dead, its bony branches sticking up from among the briars that had choked it, and the once diminutive maple tree with its leaves of fire now soared ten feet above her head, casting shadows like cooling water across her face. Someone was standing on the flagstones by the gate: someone in ragged, colourful clothes whose left hand rested on the handle of an old-fashioned Silver Cross pram. Of course! How could she have forgotten? This was the day when Auntie Ida and baby Ruth were due to drop by for a cup of tea before the christening! She stepped forward with a social smile, both hands held out to greet the child and its timid mother.

The refugee who crouched among the weeds saw the door swing suddenly open to reveal a skeleton, a bony ghost with cloud-white hair and a gown of cobwebs. Its spider hands clutched a rusty tin and a battered box, talismanic gifts to trap a soul with. Its eyes glistened like dying oysters in their damaged shells. Its lips writhed as it lurched towards her. For a heartbeat the refugee trembled there on the broken flagstones, caught between the need to keep hold of the pram and the urge to flee. Then she gave the pram a shove – let the skeleton keep its rotten treasures! – let out a long-drawn howl of terror and scuttled sideways through the gate like a panicking crab. The skeleton staggered after her, waving its things and emitting the mews of a starving sea-bird. She could feel its breath on her calves as she sprinted down the drive.

By this time, of course, the old woman had seen that the visitor couldn’t possibly be Auntie Ida. For one thing, she had red hair where Ida’s was mousy. For another, she looked quite unlike the neat little figure stored away in the button-box of her memory. Her clothes were brilliant shreds of colour, she wore mismatched shoes, the pram had no baby in it, only oddments. When you got close you could see that her face was pale and worn, her eyes red-rimmed. Poor dear, she’s lost and alone, she thought, and stretched out her hands to soothe her, forgetting the tin of soup and the crackers. How strange I must have looked, she told herself later, waving those things as if I meant to clobber her with them! Why didn’t I speak? My throat was dry, that’s why; no sounds would come. I haven’t had my first cup of tea, I can never speak a word before I’ve had the first. She must have thought me mad or angry; no wonder she ran. The old woman’s shoulders slumped in disappointment at her inadequacy, her weakness, which had already lost her so many friends, so many members of her once extensive family: brothers, sisters, husbands, sons. You’re so weak, her mother had told her. Why can’t you learn? Why can’t you be strong?

In the pram, among other things, was a carriage clock the old woman remembered from long ago. Surely that clock had been upstairs? It had belonged to Uncle Freddie who was such a fine pianist; a conscious objector, he had joined the merchant navy when war broke out, his ship had gone down within a week in the North Atlantic. But his clock hadn’t stopped; they seldom do, in her experience, unlike their owners. She picked it up and placed it under her elbow where the crackers had been; she would take it inside and add it to her collection, her growing collection of forgotten clocks that beat so many different times. The grandmother clock, which announced each quarter hour in a querulous contralto. The alarm clock with her husband’s name scratched on the base with a pocket knife. The clock with the Donald Duck figure always pointing, pointing in delight, which had once stood on John’s bedside table in what they had grandly called the nursery, and now stood by hers, its beaming face anticipating the joy that would fill the house when he got home. The carriage clock could go in the sitting room where the guests were, so that they could admire the inscription: first prize in an international piano competition in Manchester, she forgot the name and date. She could check them now, of course, but that would involve some complicated juggling with the tin of soup and the box of crackers, she might drop the clock, and then who would mend it now that Mr Barnes had gone with his toolbox, his box of tricks as she used to call it, which had held so many nameless instruments large and small tangled up with yards and yards of orange twine? Nobody, that was who, not even one of the neighbours. There was nobody left. She would have to do it herself, if it was to be done, with her shaky fingers and her dimming vision.

She always switched on the radio at lunchtime just in case they had fixed one of the stations. What with so many voices and tunes in her head she could easily fill up the crackling void with entertainment: cricket commentaries from Old Trafford, Thought for the Day from her favourite Rabbi, the latest hopeful predictions from the Met Office, the latest accounts of the glorious rescue from Dunkirk. This afternoon, however, there was little of interest on her mental airwaves. The weathermen shook their heads uneasily and stayed tight-lipped. The captains of the little ships looked apprehensively at the sky, wondering if the Channel would stay quiet for the crossing. Strange clouds hung over the house – you could see them from the sitting room window: big blustery creatures which writhed when no wind shook the yew trees, which bulged with rain but refused to shed it, as if holding themselves back for a special occasion. Her memories grew dark and plaintive as shadows collected under the herbs, spinning their webs where the nut-tree stooped over the brimming ditch, gathering under the corner cabinet, behind the tallboy, on either side of the chest-of-drawers. Now she remembered the little squabbles, the loneliness of the sanatorium in the forest where she been sent to recover from her TB, all the absences in her life since the evacuation. ‘Now, now,’ she told herself sharply. ‘You asked to be left behind, remember? You wanted John to find everything in the village just as it was, before he left, before the fighting started.’ But things were not as they were, each passing day made this more obvious. There was mould on the carpet, cracks in the ceilings, moths in the curtains. And here the biggest cloud of all came roiling and writhing into her chest, the cloud she tried to scrub away when she scrubbed the carpet on her hands and knees. What if John had been left behind on the beach in France? What if he was now a prisoner, kicking his heels in a Nazi prison camp hemmed in with searchlights and barbed wire? Worse still: what if he were dead? But no, he couldn’t be; he hadn’t yet joined the swarm of ghosts who entered the room with the thickening shadows. She hardly dared glance in their direction now, lest she see his face among the rest. As always, though, she did dare in the end, steeling herself as the men must have steeled themselves before engaging the enemy. She looked, but there were only shadows, not a human face among them, no ghosts, no John. There was a flash at the window: a cat had leaped onto the sill outside and was rubbing its flank against the glass so that its fur flattened out in sprays of thistledown. She hobbled to the side door to let it in before the rain began – but the cat had gone, like the ghosts, and even the robin had disappeared from its usual perch among the hazel branches. Gone to find shelter, she supposed, and no wonder, the rain these days stung as it never had when she was young, you would need fur and feathers of steel to stay outside when the heavens opened…

As she stood in the doorway looking out, waiting for the sinister hiss of the rain as it swept its curtains round the house, she heard a rustling behind the fence, furtive movements like those of a fox or badger. A pair of grubby hands gripped the top of the fence and little Jerry Tomkins poked his head over, glancing backwards over his shoulder. He did not see her standing there, but she noted that his hair was full of twigs and tangled like the nearby bushes and that his shirt was several sizes too big. That shirt looked familiar, with its chequered pattern of of red and blue, its narrow collar, the badge on the pocket which said CND and had a kind of damaged cross on it, cross-bars slanted down as if they’d been snapped by malicious vandals. That was the insignia of John’s regiment, she knew it now though she hadn’t known it when he had first shown her. She had last seen that shirt, she thought, in John’s big wardrobe. All at once she knew this child wasn’t Jerry Tomkins: he was much too young and much too scrawny, as well as too filthy to be kissed, even behind a woodshed with your eyes closed and your fingers crossed in an act of defiance against your teachers, mother, nanny, the whole wretched system of proper behaviour. When he looked round his eyes were black with fear and hunger. She took a step towards him and called out: ‘Young man! Whose shirt is that? Not yours, I think. Give it back at once!’ At least, she tried to call, but all that came out was a feeble croak, and he had vanished before she’d finished the final sentence.

For perhaps half an hour she stood in the doorway listening for the sound of further movements behind the hiss of rain in the grass, the giggling of water in the ditch, the shushing of leaves. Every now and then flashes of lightning ripped the sky: sheet lightning that threw leaves and branches into sharp relief like a gigantic flashbulb on a box camera, fixing moments in black-and-white stillness to be stored away on some gargantuan chest-of-drawers stuffed with old chequered shirts and carriage clocks inscribed in honour of unknown regiments, forgotten triumphs. At last she stepped back and closed the door, pulled the cord that drew the curtains across it, stood in a darkness like the inside of a camera where images of light are stored among shadows. Darkness and lightning were not part of the world she had grown up in, a world of nightlights, glowing embers, lanterns, lamps; mellow luminescence and murmuring voices, gentle tunes. Time to light one of my precious candles, she decided. And time for tea.

Afternoon tea was her favourite ritual, her most ringing statement of defiance against the encroaching chaos of darkness and loss. She took the carefully ironed tablecloth from one drawer and a set of coasters from another, put the kettle on the hob, arranged the teapot, cups and saucers on a wooden tray. No milk, of course – she could not bring herself to use the powdered stuff they’d left in the store-room. She took as long over the arrangements as possible, smoothing the cloth till the ridges where it had been folded vanished, setting the coasters at regular intervals round the table, placing a vase she had earlier filled with sprays of lavender precisely at the table’s central point. Again she imagined expectant laughter as her guests watched her work. The rising patter of water poured from the kettle into the pot laughed with them across the years; she always smiled to hear it. Then somehow she managed to lift the tray, cups, pot and all, and walk with stately grace from the kitchen into the sitting room, head thrown back to show off the social smile which her friends knew concealed the warmth of her real affection for them…

But when she was seated in her upright chair she didn’t pour the tea, though it was brewed and her mouth was dry. Instead she folded her hands in her lap and gazed round the room with a troubled expression. On the wall, an embroidery faded with time whispered in floral script: ‘Dear Lord, I’m sailing on thy wide, wide sea; Please guard my little ship for me.’ It was signed in uneven stitches at the bottom: Ida Mather, 7 ½. Hadn’t she met Auntie Ida with her baby just this morning? Jerry Tomkins, too? Why hadn’t she invited them to tea? But no, there had been a scavenger woman dressed in rags and a little boy wearing one of John’s shirts, they had run away when she tried to approach them. ‘Am I really so frightening?’ she wondered aloud. ‘Me with my house of many doors and my hair untouched by a hairdresser’s hands for so many weeks?’ She struggled to recall what the strangers had looked like, but their faces were now the faces of Auntie Ida and Jerry Tomkins. ‘I can’t remember faces any more,’ she lamented, ‘not without photographs.’ Her dry old voice blew round the room like autumn leaves. She reached for a shawl that hung from the back of the upright chair and pulled it close around her shoulders, shivering. John had bought it for her, she had told him she always felt as though he were hugging her when she wore it. It didn’t warm her now.

She wondered where the girl – for she was only a girl, she saw that now – and the little boy had come from. Were they together? Perhaps they were from the village, perhaps they had known some of her relatives, some of her friends. But no, the village had been quite empty on the day she’d gone on her scavenging expedition to the High Street. She had seen the butcher’s and the sweet shop and the grocer’s all with shutters locked in place, the houses with broken windows and missing doors, the clothes spilled out across the pavement by the brutes who had swept through the village when the locals left. Or perhaps they hadn’t been brutes at all; perhaps they had been ordinary people like the girl and boy with nothing of their own, no pictures or memories, only an emptiness they must snatch what they could to fill. How ill-bred they must be, with no grown-ups to teach them manners! She pictured John as a little boy sitting at the table: ‘Sit up straight and keep your elbows by your sides. Don’t frown, it will give you wrinkles.’ And then his expression became the startled expression of the boy on the fence, legs straddling the borders of her world, eyes with nothing behind them meeting her own so full of pictures… Her zest for good manners vanished in an instant, it had only ever been a game to her in any case, a means of drawing the dance of laughter from two pairs of lips when there was nothing better to do. She reached out to clasp the child to her bony chest, but once again he evaded her fingers, ducking into the shadows with a kind of sideways twist that made her think of the games of tig she had played with her agile sisters in the days when they wore their hair in plaits, when nanny had brushed their hair each evening by the fire, a hundred strokes of the brush for every strand, till the sparks had flown and they had laughed to see how the fire had somehow leaped from hearth to head…

Tears had dampened her hands where they lay in her lap; she imagined them running down her cheeks like the rain that fed the water in her precious ditch. She thought about going to fetch a hanky from the chest of drawers. And then at last, as always happened at some point in the day, she ceased to think altogether. Her head stood empty, like an empty house. She stared into the darkness, person to person, the darkness of her mind answering the darkness of the room, a perfect mirror.

The minutes passed, the days, the years.

Outside, the howling started up once more. At first she thought it was the wind, or an air raid siren, but the howls quickly broke into scattered shrieks that surged along the road outside the house, past the Catholic church and the whispering yews towards Jenners Field and the woods and fields of the world beyond. Why in the world did they feel the need to make so much noise? But there had always been howling, now she thought about it. There had been howling during the war when the men came home in the little ships, leaving so many dead bodies in the shallows to be tossed about by the darkening tides. There had been howling when her husband left her, breaking his promise to let her die first, the first promise to her he had ever broken. There had even been howling when she kissed Jerry Tomkins behind the wood-shed: howling because they had fallen out afterwards, and because he had died in a motor-cycle accident before they could make it up. Each time her heart had given answering cries, weaker than the howls but no less piercing. Each time her heart had felt as if it would break, but of course it hadn’t, it had been left so strong by her childhood illnesses, her grown-up losses, the tremendous efforts, day to day, of her interminable old age.

At her back there was a sudden rustling outside the window: furtive movements like those of a fox or badger. She came back from the outer darkness and took her daytime place behind her eyes. She turned her head to listen. Someone’s legs brushed through the herbs; she imagined the scent of thyme and rosemary rising in clouds to the stranger’s nostrils. There came a breathless hush as someone tried to peer into the room between the curtains. ‘Should I snuff the candles?’ she asked herself. ‘Total blackout when Jerry comes.’ But no, she was much too old for such acts of caution. And besides, why give rein to fear when she was a cause of fear in others? If they catch sight of me they’ll run, she thought, like everyone else. Let the candles burn.

More rustling, urgent whispering, a cough. How many of them were there, she wondered vaguely. Could these be the long-awaited marauders with their spears and cudgels? God knew she had dreamed about them often enough, they were as familiar to her as the dead, she could see their faces when she closed her eyes, pale, drawn and fearful. Let them come in, then, if they must. There was room for them, as for so much else, in the house of many doors.

Rustle rustle, crunch crunch on last year’s hazelnuts. A hesitant tap on the side-door, so soft she would never have heard it if the wireless had been working. Quickly she raised her hands to the sides of her head to smooth her hair. If only there were time to give it a brush! Never mind, her guests were here; she must fetch more water from the ditch. She pushed aside the curtain, peered through the glass, but the streaks of rain gleamed in the candlelight and she could see nothing in the night beyond. John had made her promise not to open the door unless she’d looked first, and then to keep it on the chain – but what was point on a night like this? Someone had coughed; they might be ill; they might need her help. And what murderer taps so gently at the door? She pulled it wide and pulled herself erect, armed only with her smile.

There stood John, uniform in tatters. Blood smeared his cheeks as if the rain had pierced his skin, and he held one hand across his chest at an awkward angle. He stared at her slack-jawed, as if he had never seen her before. Auntie Ida and Jerry Tomkins crouched behind him, ready for flight.

So it had happened at last. She wasn’t fooled for even an instant; this wasn’t her John, just a memory of him overlaid on the living body of a passing stranger. She would never see John again, not in the flesh. He had joined her ghosts.

But this was no time to reflect on the discovery. These people were in trouble. She smiled and stepped aside, made what she hoped was a welcoming gesture, a kind of bow intended to show that they were welcome, that they should come in. ‘Hello, my dears,’ she said. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

Supported by the girl and child, the man stumbled over the threshold and stopped just inside, raising his head and opening his mouth as if to speak. Perhaps he thought he owed her an explanation, some sort of apology. Perhaps he wanted to give her news from beyond the village. But he was in no condition to stand there observing the civil niceties; he was wounded, trembling with exhaustion, like the children behind him. She reached out and touched his elbow, gestured to the couch. ‘Won’t you lie down? You look so tired. You must have come a long way. I’ll fetch you blankets. I’m so glad you’re here!’

The youngsters watched in silence as she covered him up, unwrapped the dirty cloth that swathed his injured hand, examined the wound that had almost split the palm in half. ‘We’ll need to clean this up,’ she told them calmly. ‘Would you fetch water for me? You’ll find the bucket in the kitchen, and the water’s in the ditch, you’ll have heard it running when you were at the window. I’ll fetch first aid and a bite to eat, I’m sure you’re starving. Hurry up, now, children! The sooner we have water the sooner we can have supper!’

They gave no sign of having heard her, just stared in solemn silence as she strode towards the door into the passage. Her step became stately under their gaze. As she shuffled along the passage towards the storeroom her head was whirling, though not with dreams. They could sleep upstairs. But no, it was better if they stayed together, they could bring down mattresses and lay them out on the bedroom floor, that was the warmest place in the house because of the stove in the adjoining kitchenette. She must sew the child’s torn shirt first thing in the morning – she no longer thought of it as John’s. This time she did not pause at the storeroom door; instead she loaded her frail arms with food and medicines, all she could carry, and headed back along the passage in a burst of speed that took her by surprise. She hadn’t walked so fast in years! Stranger still, her feet didn’t hurt her in the least! Or rather, she didn’t feel them hurting, her mind was too busy making plans for the days to come…

All the same, she did slow down when she reached the middle of the passage; she even stopped for a minute or two to catch her breath. Indeed, she had little choice; for the dogs had come snuffling round her feet and drumming the walls with their great thick tails, and little Jerry Tomkins was dragging in a lump of firewood bigger than himself. She glimpsed Auntie Ida dashing down the corridor that led to the front hall, off to fetch a mattress or some extra blankets. Outside she heard the howls being swept aside by a final gust of rain. And then even the rain ceased, and the night stretched out before her like an unbroken plane of water, the moon scarcely bobbing as it rode the waves.

Cloud Palace

Stretched out in my seat in row 7, absorbed in my book,
I detected a tentative touch on the crook of my arm.
An old woman was sitting beside me; her scent was of herbs
And the light cotton tunic she wore was a riot of colour, pinks, yellows and greens.
I looked up, and she smiled, and she pointed, not saying a word;
Pointed out of the circular window and into the clouds.
She had the seat by the window, I one by the aisle;
In between, an unoccupied seat, a hiatus of calm.
Outside, the clouds stretched to a level horizon, unblemished and white,
Save where, at the limits of vision, a glittering gem
Nestled softly among the wide acres of featureless wool,
The bright sunlight awaking a flame in each facet and curve.
I leaned closer, inhaling the scent of the herbs as I peered
Through the glass of the window and screwed up my eyes in the sun.
And distinctly I saw it: a palace of marble and gold,
With roofs of a crystalline substance and windows of jet,
A tiara of bristling steeples, white, yellow and pink,
And a hundred and seventy flags all alive in the wind.
All around it the acres of cloudage extended, unstirred
By the breeze that made banners and oriflammes buckle and snap.
On the tip of one steeple an angel was perched with a horn,
A horn made of silver which flashed as she raised it and blew –
Though of course in our sealed-off compartment we heard not a sound.
From one window a figure leaned out, and I guessed, though I couldn’t be sure,
That her dress was a riot of colour and scented with herbs.
Did she wave to us? Maybe; she seemed to be smiling, at least;
There was movement, and some kind of gesture, of that I’m convinced,
And a message that flashed through the space between palace and plane.
For a minute we watched it together, the woman and I,
That palace of marble and gold in the nebulous heights.
Then a curtain of cloud swept across, and the palace was gone,
And we looked at each other, half dazed, in the brightness of space,
And nodded, and turned to our doings – her window, my book –
While a bird seemed to open its wings in our heads, in our chests,
And cry out in amazement at wonders unbidden, untold:
The new things you perceive when you briefly forget to be old,
The new friendships you form on a flight through the regions of gold.