Read The Cruellne Online

Authors: James Clammer

The Cruellne

 

 

The Cruellne

 

James Clammer

 

 

 

 

 

Ebook version published in 2014 by

Galley Beggar Press Ltd

The Book Hive,

53 London Street,

Norwich, NR2 1HL

 

Typeset by Galley Beggar Press Ltd

All rights reserved© James Clammer, 2014

The right of James Clammer to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988

 

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The Cruellne

 

 

 

The
cruellne
is a creature very similar to us, in that it has two arms, two legs, hands, a body like ours. It is small, about the size of a ten-year-old child. Only from the neck up is it at all different. Instead of a chin, a long beak curves up and outwards, and in the place where a human nose might join a forehead, the upper beak begins its downward arch to meet and slightly overhang its neighbour. The two halves of the beak together make a shape that is bulbous and cup-like. If you have ever seen a black and white drawing of the dodo, before they became extinct, you will have a good idea. Cruellnes are fish-eaters by preference and the beak, or the bill, is this particular shape, cup-like, to enable it to catch and hold fish before swallowing whole. To the sides, two small eyes stare out and although the eyes have no pupils at all but are completely black, still somehow they express emotion. Whether this is from the way the cruellne widens or closes its eyelids, or from something more general in its expression, I do not know. Above the eyes the head curves away, and the topmost part has a thin layer of feathers which the cruellne will let you stroke if it is feeling happy.

The double L in the cruellne's name is not sounded. Mother has told me that the letters are a hangover from their time in France and Spain, many hundreds of years ago, before they discovered how to paddle logs or sail their makeshift rafts across the Channel. Since they are flightless, also like the dodo, they have had to learn how to be clever with their hands. Despite that there are not many of them left. The correct way to pronounce a cruellne's name is KREW-ENNE. Neither the males nor females have individual names like we do, though most are able to speak a basic kind of English, which is the most beautiful thing of all about them.

Last summer, when the days were hot and long and I would sleep at night under a single twisted sheet, mother took me to London to see a cruellne. She did not tell me at the time that that was what we were doing; she merely came into the room where I was trying to read and told me to get dressed. It was unusual, that sort of decisiveness. We had both spent the summer drowsing, not bothering with anything other than domestic chores, and even those not often, not daily. We would sleep or read or watch television, and in the late evening I would climb the hill that lies behind our house and watch the sun drop beneath the Downs and try to memorise all the colours. There was nothing to bother us and the weather did not change, it was one hot day after another, winter would never come again. Then one morning, without knocking, mother bustled into my room: in one hour's time we were catching the train to London.

Why are we doing that? I said. I don't want to go to London. There is nothing to do there unless you have money, we will fry in the streets and there will be thousands and thousands of people everywhere, getting in our way.

Both mother and I had agreed long before that we did not like people very much.

Just get dressed, Samuel, she said. Put on your cleanest clothes. Get yourself ready. Then come down for breakfast.

So I did as she said, I complied, leaving the safety of the sweaty mattress and the tangled topsheet.

 

On the way to the railway station, mother walked faster than I have ever seen. Usually she would plod twenty yards behind, content to move at her own tick-tock pace, which she never varied from. But on that day she raced ahead. It was all I could do to keep up. The sun was high and hot already and the thought of a day in London made me want to cry. I could only guess that she had received some money and wanted to go shopping, that was the only thing she really liked to do. The idea tortured me. But every time I slowed she would stop and tell me to hurry up. Usually it was the other way around!

At the ticket office I started to think differently however. Now I understood, from her conversation at the plastic screen, that she was excited about something. I had no idea what but because it was so unusual, this excitement, I decided I must stop acting like a spoiled brat and go along with whatever her plans were. I did not want her to be unhappy and I did not want me being the source of her unhappiness. So I said, What are we doing? What's the plan?

She shrugged; she did not want to tell me. And once we got on the train, she became quieter and calmer anyway, more like herself, which is to say she talked about nothing much, just the usual things that came into her head or the things she saw out of the window.

 

In London we took the Underground to G___. The first thing I saw when we reached street level was the Post Office tower. It loomed over everything, bristling technology in the midday heat. We must have been very close to it and I thought of all the people at the top, looking down on us, knowing nothing of our mysterious mission.

We stood for a minute or two on the busy thoroughfare outside G___ in order to get our bearings, or rather to allow mother to get our bearings, since I had never been in that part of London before. Then we set off. Mother has always said you do not need to go very far in London to get away from the people and she is right. After we had turned three or four corners the crowds were gone and we walked streets that were empty except for parked cars. There was no tranquility though. The sun bounced and burned off the concrete and metal and my head started to swim. Corner after corner we turned, and whenever I asked mother where we were going, she would say: It's at the end of this road. Or: It's just over there. Or: Nearly there now.

I badly needed a drink but we had not brought any water and mother refused to stop. Still, I did not want to spoil her fun, so I said nothing.

Finally we came to a long street with an ancient brick wall on the corner. When I say ancient I do not mean properly ancient but 1940s maybe. It was old enough that the bricks looked out of place, rounded at the corners and grainy-textured, like you could dig them out with a few swipes of a long nail. They were good prison-escape bricks. That's what I called them in my head. The Post Office tower looked sharp and defined and I could see the individual aerials and dishes, sending their messages across London and to the world beyond. This is it, Samuel, mother said. This is where we need to go, I didn't think I could find it again but oh here it is.

What is it? I said. What?

I tugged at her sleeve like a very little child and she pushed me away gently. Down the street we went. There was nothing unusual about it, just that old bit of brick wall on the corner. There were cars and flats and a brown patch of enclosed grass where swings and roundabouts stood motionless. It was too hot to go outside unless you had to. My head did not feel so swimmy now that we had our destination in sight. Maybe there would be cold drinks for sale when we arrived.

 

At the very end of the street, covered over by a brick archway, stood two wooden doors, the doors of a mechanic's yard. If you opened them both, cars could pass one by another as they were repaired or discharged. Mother told me to wait on the other side of the street and then she knocked, not too loudly, on the right hand door. They needed a coat of paint, those two doors. You could tell they had faded in the years of sunlight, once they might have been red but now they were pink, peeling pink, flaking away. Mother stood knocking for a long time, she was very persistent and she did not lose her temper. All I could think of was cold drinks and those desert explorers who used to go mad imagining palm trees and water where really there is only sand. But I knew I would be fine, we were in the middle of London after all.

Still she knocked. I could not understand why, she continued, it was obvious nobody was in. Our day out had been a waste of time and the journey home would be tense, no talking, I could see it all. But then the door opened and a man stepped through and pulled the door shut behind him, immediately. Mother spoke to him and beckoned me across. Everything's fine, she said. We can go in now.

She seemed triumphant. Her face was pink with pleasure and her eyes were bright and alive.

Go in fast, the man told me. Don't give her a chance to escape.

I wondered who he was talking about. Did he mean mother? He must have seen my look of alarm because hastily he added: It's for her own safety, she wouldn't last five minutes out there. Kids would get her - hunt her down. Or the firearms squad. Or she'd eat something wrong, be dead by nightfall.

Now I was totally confused. He could not mean mother, it was impossible. Who then? I took a quick look at the man as we slipped through. He was middle-aged, with a beard, grey t-shirt, trainers, wide khaki shorts, perhaps a slight foreign accent. But really there was nothing unusual about him. He was like anyone else going quietly about their job, taking care of business, a person you would not notice.

The doors opened onto a cracked concrete yard, covered in weeds and straw. I did not think of straw as a peculiar thing to find in London. The Post Office tower leaned in at one enclosed corner. It was everywhere that afternoon. To the left-hand side of the yard stood a long open-sided shed where they must once have repaired cars. Deep in the shadow I saw the gaping hole of a mechanic's pit and away in a corner a mound of old tyres. The rest of the roofed space, which looked deliciously shady, was taken up by three cafeteria tables, the sort where the table-tops, chairs and legs are all welded together, a small cooking area, and a glass-fronted fridge crammed with soft drinks.

Sit down, the man said, indicating the cafeteria tables. You might have to wait. Get out of the sun, why don't you?

I did not have to be asked twice. While mother wandered aimlessly around the yard I headed for the tables and the fridge with its treasure of cold cans. But there did not seem to be a cash register, or anywhere to leave money, so I stood in the shade gazing at the drinks and hoping someone would come and tell me what to do. It did not seem possible that I could just help myself without paying. Those were not the rules I understood. Why didn't mother come and join me? Round and round she went, first one way, then another, stopping occasionally to stare at the windows of the building on the opposite side of the yard. Most of them were boarded up, or had cracked glass. The doorframes were rotten, the window frames were rotten, the whole thing was derelict, but still she kept staring.

Take one, the man called out to me. Go on, you look like you need cooling down.

He pointed at the fridge but still I could not bring myself to open the door and pull out a can. If he handed me one, that would be different. I shrugged, it was the best response I could manage, and he ambled over and gave me a Coke.

What's your name, he said.

Samuel.

Sit down, Samuel. Do you know why you're here?

I said, No, I don't.

Well, don't go bothering your mother with it right now. You don't look as if you would, though, he said. You look like a good boy.

He reached out his hand and shook mine and told me his name was Christophe.

How's the drink, he asked. Good, eh? I get them mainly for Natalie. She likes them. It gets so hot in here, like a furnace sometimes.

I nodded. I was not sure I wanted to talk to Christophe, even if he had given me the can of Coke. No, I decided, I would sit and drink quietly on my own, keep one eye on mother and one eye on the doors to the street, and hope that soon we would be leaving. I settled back, trying to give the impression of being relaxed. Christophe said, She is an amazing woman, Laura.

I was shocked. I was not expecting it. Laura was my mother's name! He knew my mother, and my mother knew him! My hand gripped harder on the Coke can, it put a dent in the thin metal. Could this man, this
Christophe
, have anything to do with mother's divorce? Could he even be the cause of it? My head whirled, I was getting angry, suddenly I had to fight to stay in control. And the funeral, the funeral, was he also something to do with that?

Samuel, are you all right, said Christophe. You're starting to look hot again.

I'm fine, I said. Fine, fine.

Would you like me to get you some food? I have hotdogs in the fridge, onions I can fry, mustard, ketchup.

No, I told him. I do not want any hotdogs.

He was silent a moment, then said, I know what it is like, being a child. I remember. You cannot ever imagine that your mother had a life before you came along. You cannot imagine what she was like as a young person. What she wanted, what made her laugh. Perhaps she never was young, right? Just mother, always mother...

I did not say anything. I could not. I was furious. I wanted this man to go away from me but I did not know how to make it happen.

The hotdogs, I said. They would be quite nice actually.

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