Authors: Ramsey Campbell
Tags: #Horror, #Fiction
For Catherine and J. K. Potter
who lit up more of the dark for me
(“The last dream tells the truth,” says Guilda Kent)
A good few people helped me with this novel. While I prepared it for writing, Dennis Etchison took me to the Dark Country, where Tony Mendoza bought me a pen in Ensenada so that I could work on my notes. During the writing I benefited greatly from the hospitality of Tom and Barbara Doherty in Connecticut and Doug and Lynne Winter in Washington, not to mention the World Fantasy Convention in Providence. I’ve a special word of thanks to Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman and Joe Stefko of the Turtles. As always, my wife Jenny was the midwife, and our children Tamsin and Matty helped ease the passage of the novel too.
As the bus out of Liverpool sped up the overpass, the night storm from Wales came across the bay to meet it. Alison Faraday could see nothing of the Seaforth docks or the marina except rain and blurred lights, and she felt as if she were drowning. At the foot of the overpass, the broad Georgian houses of Waterloo were blocks of mud. Under the Five Lamps, five globes skirting a stone angel, a train slipped eel-like through the bridge. Beyond the station the bus splashed past Thompsons Boot Repairers into Mount Pleasant, where the windows of tall terraces dwindled toward the roofs, and Alison was already hauling herself along the swaying aisle towards the exit doors.
The drenched concrete pole of the bus stop crumbled under her fingers as she pushed herself toward the side street and met the August storm. It plastered her raincoat and her nurse’s uniform to her as she fought her way along the narrow street beneath sodden embers of sodium lamps. Darkness several storeys high carried windows past the end of the street, as if Queenie’s house had floated loose from its foundations. It was a ship beyond the dunes, and the dark bulk from behind which it had sailed was Queenie’s house, towering massively over its neighbors. Up among its chimneys and haphazard slate slopes, Queenie’s window glared toward the bay. Alison’s stomach tightened as she came to the end of the street and groped through the downpour for the gate.
The garden path was slippery with moss. Alison stooped over her handbag to keep out the rain while she fumbled for her key, and then light from the hall spilled across the flower beds choked with restless grass. Hermione had snatched the door open. “Derek was called out to a job, and she’s been shouting for Rowan.”
Hermione must have run to the door when she’d heard the gate scrape the path. Her small features looked huddled together in the midst of her long plump face; the dents like thumb marks under her eyes seemed deeper than ever. “I sat with Rowan to make sure she stayed asleep.”
Alison squeezed her sister’s forearms gently, the nearest she could get to a hug while she was so drenched, and heeled the door shut behind them. “It’s all right now. I’m here.”
“And every inch of you soaked to the skin,” Hermione said, the protective older sister. “I’ll make you a coffee with brandy in it while you get changed. She’s quiet now. I shouldn’t bother going up.”
“I may just look in to see how she is.”
Hermione brushed back her greying hair that no longer curled properly but wouldn’t stay straight, and rubbed her forehead as if she could rub away the wrinkles. “I expect you’re right,” she said heavily. “She’ll know you’re here.”
The hall that was wide enough to drive a car through stretched fifty feet to the stairs. Plaster fallen on the stained-glass lampshade cast shadows like mould on the darkly papered walls. Shivering with the chill of the building, Alison climbed the zigzag staircase, whose treads sagged toward the cracked rear wall of the house. Three dim corridors formed a T at the first landing. She tiptoed down the corridor towards the front of the house and into Rowan’s bedroom.
Rowan’s white furniture, her bed and chest of drawers and wardrobe, looked almost lost on the expanse of worn carpet that fell short of the pale pink walls. She lay with her cheek on one palm, her long reddish hair trailing over her face. As Alison stroked it away from her eyes she turned onto her back, mumbling “Down the cellar,” though there wasn’t one. With her eyes shut she looked even more like a delicate eight-year-old version of Derek: long blunt nose, slightly pouted lips, wide forehead, square chin. Alison kissed her long lashes and tucked the sheets tighter, then she plodded soggily to the next room, hers and Derek’s.
It was as though their flat in Liverpool had been reduced to a bed-sitter, their bed and three-piece suite and bedroom furniture fitting easily into the room. She peeled off her clothes and was buttoning herself into a dress when the door inched open, and she heard a slow footstep. It was Hermione, slowed down by a brimming mug of coffee.
She watched approvingly while Alison drank it, and lingered when she had. “Shall I come up with you?”
“I can cope with her,” Alison said, and then hastily “You’ve done more than your share.” She gave her the mug and made for the stairs as if she wouldn’t dream of hesitating. The upward flight leaned even more sharply, and she held on to the shaky banister. At the halfway turn her hand touched the rear wall of the house, and she felt plaster shift under the browned paper.
Three corridors branched from the top of the staircase. Those to either side were unlit, and she heard the storm blundering about in the dark. The farther of the two bulbs dangling ahead of her on fattened tangled cords had failed in its rusty socket. As soon as Alison had passed beyond the first bulb, boards giving underfoot beneath several layers of carpet that smelled stale and damp, her shadow filled the corridor in front of her. Silence filled the lightless rooms beyond doors that no longer fitted their distorted frames. The stuffy dark seemed deepest at the end of the corridor, where Queenie’s room was. Alison reached for the knob that hung awry in its socket, and eased the door open.
Even seen from the dark corridor, the large room was dim. The browning of the books that were piled against the walls wherever there was space seemed to have gathered in the light beneath the heavy greyish shade. Among the piles of books, black wardrobes and black chests soaked up the glow, which fell short of the corners of the room. Between the door and the far wall, and facing the wide window, Queenie lay in bed.
Perhaps she had been watching the storm or the distant lights of Wales, for the stained velvet curtains and their veils of net were open, but now she appeared to be sleeping, one hand on a book that lay splayed on her chest. Alison’s breathing faltered. She had never seen her aunt looking so young: her long sharp wedge of a face with its thrusting chin, her features cramped into half of the face as if the tight thin lips begrudged the others even that much room, looked hardly a quarter of its eighty years. Was she more than just asleep? The room seemed to exhale the smells of disinfectant and old paper as Alison tiptoed forward, suddenly breathless with the childhood fear that Queenie would rear up without warning, all six and a half feet of her. She was just close enough to read the title of the book under Queenie’s wizened hand—
The Nurture of the Child
—when Queenie spoke. “You look surprised, my dear.”
Her voice was thin as her lips and sharp as her face. She must have been watching beneath her eyelids, Alison realised, angry with her heart for thudding. “If you’re taking an interest I’m glad.”
“Someone in this house has to. My little girl’s safe in bed, I trust, not playing with her dirty friends or with the workman on his rounds, the bright spark.”
“He’s my husband and her father,” Alison said quietly. “And I wish you’d let him do something about the electricity up here.”
“He’ll do as he’s bid in my house.” Queenie raised herself on her elbows, her long body sliding stiffly under the greying blankets, and fixed her pale gaze on Alison. “You should be thankful that I harbour him at all after you married beneath you, just like your father. You’ll say it was for love,” she said, drawing out the last word and shuddering, and then her voice sharpened. “I notice you still haven’t brought those masks.”
“Queenie, I told you I can’t take them out of the hospital. If infection worries you so much—”
“Don’t you dare even think it. I’ll stay where I’ve always lived, and God help anyone who tries to shift me.” Her right eyelid drooped, spoiling the symmetry of her face, until she raised it with an effort that made her bare her teeth. Then she settled against the pillow, her eyes closing. “Do my hair for me. I don’t want to look like a witch.”
She was just an old woman, embittered and lonely and now wheedling, Alison told herself. She went to the dressing-table by the window that was shivering with shapeless darkness and picked up the brush and combs. The patch of light around the bed looked smaller than ever. She laid the combs on the musty patchwork quilt and brushed Queenie’s long grey hair back from her papery forehead, and Queenie said “Don’t stand there like a dummy, tell me about your day.”
Alison told her about the little boy who’d been circumcised yesterday, whose parents had still not been to visit him; the four-year-old who’d kept saying “Big one” to a student nurse who had thought he meant his teddy bear and hadn’t rushed him to the toilet until it was too late; the six-year-old whose monster puppet had had to ride the trolley down to the theatre to undergo the same operation he had… Queenie bared her teeth again whenever the brush tugged her hair, and looked disgusted by the anecdote about the four-year-old. As a child Alison had always felt drained by her dozens of questions, and now her silence was just as demanding. When Alison had exhausted her day on the ward Queenie peered at her, her right eye opening belatedly. “You’ve told me more than you know, my dear. You’ve told me how dissatisfied you are with your life.”
“Not with my life, just with the system sometimes. I never thought nursing would be easy, and life doesn’t always go the way you want it to.”
Queenie let out a breath that showed even more of her teeth. “My father brought me up to expect the best and never be content with less. If more people refused to give up the ideals they were raised with the world might be less hellish.” She stiffened as Alison put in the combs, fixing her hair in buns above her ears. “If you ask me, you want to spend less time caring for other people’s offspring and concentrate on your own.”
Alison lowered her voice to keep her temper. “Rowan has two parents, and we both—”
“I’m saying nothing against the child. She’s as near perfect as they come these days. She reminds me of myself at her age,” Queenie said, and stared at Alison as if to make sure she realised how much of a compliment that was. “Especially the way she likes nothing better than to sit by herself with a book.”
But you never did anything with all your reading, Alison thought, just as Queenie said “You’re thinking I could have made more use of my learning. My father always said it was the work of a lifetime to improve oneself without trying to change the world, but now I’ll surprise you again. You bring the child to me now and see how much I can improve her reading.”
Perhaps she was losing her sense of the time of day. “Maybe tomorrow, Queenie. It’s her bedtime now.”
“Your sister said that hours ago, and I’ve let the child sleep until you came. Don’t think you can do what you like in my house just because I have to lie up here. Your sister knows better, and so should you.”
Alison dropped the hairbrush on the dressing-table and wondered if she was being unreasonable: how long might the old woman have left to spend with the child? Rowan wasn’t starting at her new school for more than a week, after all. Before she knew it, Alison was heading for the door. “That’s the way, you fetch her,” Queenie urged.
Alison hesitated between the twitching window and the glade of light about the bed. Queenie’s eagerness had put her on her guard and cleared her head. Sometimes it seemed that Queenie had only to speak for the family to defer to her, but how could Alison have considered wakening the child so late? She turned toward Queenie to refuse as amiably as she could, and the old woman raised herself, her fists gripping the quilt, her pale eyes bulging furiously. The next moment the door slammed.
Queenie leaned forward, her thin arms trembling as they supported her, and poked her face, chin first, at Alison. “Now you give me your word you’ll go straight down for her.”
“Not this late,” Alison said, and strode to the door. A draught she hadn’t noticed must have slammed it, she told herself, and in any case it never closed properly—and then she realised that the slam had wedged it in the frame. She gripped the knob with both hands and tugged until she felt the spindle begin to work loose of the knob on the far side. Whatever she did, she wouldn’t give in to the fears that were welling up from her childhood and Hermione’s; Queenie was just a crotchety old woman, and she wouldn’t plead with her to open the door as Hermione once had. She made her hands let go and turned to the bed. “It looks as if we’ll have to wait for Hermione or Derek to budge this.”