'He was a funny little thing!' Anne Lake laughed, shook her head and set her blonde hair flying in the breeze from the car's half-open window. 'Do you remember when we had him that year?'
It was late in the summer of '77 and they were driving down to stay with Georgina and Yulian for a week. The last time they'd seen them was two years ago. George had thought the boy was strange then, and he'd said so on several occasions - not to Georgina and certainly not to Yulian himself, of course not, but to Anne, in private. Now he said so again:
'Funny little thing?' He cocked an eyebrow. 'That's one way of putting it, I suppose. Weird would be a better way! And from what I remember of him last time we came down he hasn't changed - what was a weird baby is now a weird young man!'
'Oh, George, that's ridiculous. All babies are different from each other. Yulian was, well, more different, that's all.'
'Listen,' said George. That child wasn't two months old when he came to us - and he had teeth! Teeth like little needles - sharp as hell! And I remember Georgina saying he was born with them. That's why she couldn't breast-feed him.'
'George,' said Anne warningly, a little sharply, reminding him that Helen sat in the back of the car. She was their daughter: a beautiful, occasionally precocious girl of sixteen.
Helen sighed, very deliberately and audibly, and said,
'Oh, mother! I know what breasts are for - apart from being natural attractions for the opposite sex, that is. Why must you put them on your taboo list?'
'Ta-boob list!' George grinned.
'George!' said Anne again, more forcefully.
'Nineteen seventy-seven,' Helen scoffed, 'but you'd never know it. Not in this family. I mean, feeding your baby's natural, isn't it? More natural than letting your breasts be groped in the back row of some grubby flea-pit cinema!'
'Helen!' Anne half-turned in her seat, her lips com-pressing to a thin line.
'It's been a long time,' George glanced at his wife, semi-ruefully.
'What has?' she snapped.
'Since I was groped in a flea-pit cinema,' he said.
Anne snorted her exasperation. 'She gets it from you!' she accused. 'You've always treated her like an adult.'
'Because she is an adult, very nearly,' he answered. 'You can only guide them so far, Anne my love, and after that they're on their own. Helen's healthy, intelligent, happy, good-looking, and she doesn't smoke pot. She's worn a bra for nearly four years, and every month she -' 'George! 'Taboo!' said Helen, giggling.
'Anyway,' George's irritation was showing now, 'we weren't talking about Helen but Yulian. Helen, I submit, is normal. Her cousin - or cousin once removed, or whatever-is not.'
'Give me a for-instance,' Anne argued. 'An example. Not normal, you say. Well then, is he abnormal? Subnormal? Where's his defect?'
'Whenever Yulian crops up,' Helen joined in from the back, 'you two always end up arguing. Is he really worth it?'
'Your mother's a very loyal person,' George told her over one shoulder. 'Georgina is her cousin and Yulian is Georgina's son. Which means they're untouchable. Your mother won't face simple facts, that's all. She's the same with all her friends: she won't hear a word against them. Very laudable. But I call a spade a spade. I find - and have always found - Yulian a bit much. As I said before, weird.'
'You mean,' Helen pressed, 'a bit nine-bob notish?'
'Helen!' her mother protested yet again.
'I get that one from you!' Helen stopped her dead in her tracks. 'You always talk about gays as nine-bobbers.'
'I never talk about... about homosexuals!' Anne was furious. 'And certainly not to you about them!'
'I've heard Daddy - in conversation with you, about one or two of his man-friends - say that so-and-so is gay as a defrocked vicar,' said Helen matter-of-factly. 'And you've replied: "What, so-and-so, nine-bobbish? Really?"'
Anne rounded on her and might well have lashed out physically if she could have reached her. Red-faced, she cried, 'Then in future we'll have to lock you in your bloody room before we dare have an adult conversation! You horrid girl!'
'Perhaps you better had.' Helen was equally quick to rise. 'Before I also start to swear!'
'All right, all right.r George quietened them. 'Points taken all round. But we're on holiday, remember? I mean, it's probably my fault, but Yulian's a sore point with me, that's all. And I can't even explain why. But he usually keeps out of the way most of the time we're there, and I can't help it but I hope it's the same this time. For my peace of mind, anyway. He's simply not my type of lad. As for him being how's-your-father - ' (Helen some-how contrived not to snigger) ' - I can't say. But he did get kicked out of that boarding school, and - '
'He did not!' Anne had to have her say. 'Kicked out, indeed! He got his qualifications a year early, left a year before the rest. I mean to say, do qualifications - does being intelligent above the average - certify someone as a raving... homosexual? Heaven forbid! Clever Miss Know-it-all here has a couple of second class "A" levels, which apparently make her near-omniscient; in which case Yulian has to be close to godlike! George, what qualifications do you have?'
'I fail to see what that has to do with it,' he answered. 'The way I hear it, more gays come out of the universities than ever came out of all the secondary moderns put together. And-'
'I was an apprentice,' he sighed, 'as you well know. Trade qualifications, I've got them all. And then I was a journeyman - an architect earning money for my boss, until I got into business for myself. And anyway - '
'What academic qualifications?' she was determined.
George drove the car, said nothing, wound down his window a little and breathed warm air. After a while: The same as you, darling.'
'None whatsoever!' Anne was triumphant. 'Why, Yulian's cleverer than all of us put together. On paper, anyway. I say give him time and he'll show us all a thing or two. Oh, I admit he's quiet, comes and goes like a ghost, seems less active and enthusiastic about life than a boy his age should be. But give him a break, for God's sake! Look at his disadvantages. He never knew his father; was brought up by Georgina entirely on her own, and she's never been altogether with it since Ilya died, has lived in that gloomy old mansion of a place for twelve years of his young life. Little wonder he's a bit, well, reticent.'
She seemed to have won the day. They said nothing to dispute her logic, had apparently lost all interest in the argument. Anne searched her mind for a new topic, found nothing, relaxed in her seat.
Reticent. Helen turned her own thoughts over in her head. Yulian, reticent? Did her mother mean backward? Of course not, her argument had been all against that. Shy? Retiring? Yes, that's what she must have meant. Well, and he must seem shy - if one didn't know better. Helen knew better, from that time two years ago. And as for queer - hardly. She would greatly doubt it, anyway. She smiled secretly. Better to let them go on thinking it, though. At least while they thought he was a woofter they wouldn't worry about her being in his company. But no, Yulian wasn't entirely gay. AC, DC, maybe.
Two years ago, yes...
It had taken Helen ages to get him to talk to her. She remembered the circumstances clearly.
It had been a beautiful Saturday, their second day of a ten-day spell; her parents and Aunt Georgina gone off to Salcombe for a day's sea- and sun-bathing; Yulian and Helen were left in charge of the house, he with his Alsatian pup to play with and she to explore the gardens, the great barn, the crumbling old stables and the dark, dense copse. Yulian wasn't into bathing, indeed he hated the sun and sea, and Helen would have preferred anything rather than spend time with her parents.
'Walk with me?' she'd pressed Yulian, finding him alone with the gangling pup in the dim, cool library. He had shook his head.
Pale in the shade of this one room which the sun never seemed to reach, he'd lounged awkwardly on a settee, fondling the pup's floppy ears with one hand and holding a book in the other.
'Why not? You could show me the grounds.'
He had glanced at the pup. 'He gets tired if he walks too far. He's still not quite steady on his legs. And I burn easily in the sun. I really don't much care for the sun. And anyway, I'm reading.'
'You're not much fun to be with,' she had told him, deliberately pouting. And she'd asked, 'Is there still straw in the hayloft over the barn?'
'Hayloft?' Yulian had looked surprised. His long, not unhandsome face had formed a soft oval against the dark velvet of the back of the settee. 'I haven't been up there in years.'
'What are you reading, anyway?' She sat down beside him, reached for the book held loosely in his long-fingered, soft-looking hand. He drew back, kept the book from her.
'Not for little girls,' he said, his expression unchanging.
Frustrated, she tossed her hair, glanced all about the large room. And it was large, that room; partitioned in the middle, just like a public library, with floor to ceiling shelves and book-lined alcoves all round the walls. It smelled of old books, dusty and musty. No, it reeked of them, so that you almost feared to breathe in case your lungs got filled with words and inks and desiccated glue and paper fibres.
There was a shallow cupboard in one corner of the room and its door stood open. Tracks in the threadbare carpet showed where Yulian had dragged a stepladder to a certain section of the shelving. The books on the top shelf were almost hidden in gloom, where old cobwebs were gathering dust. But unlike the neat rows of books in the lower shelves, they were piled haphazardly, lying in a jumble as if recently disturbed.
'Oh?' she stood up. 'I'm a little girl, am I? And what does that make you? We're only a year apart, you know...' She went to the stepladder, started to climb.
Yulian's Adam's apple bobbed. He tossed his book aside, came easily to his feet. 'You leave that top shelf alone,' he said unemotionally, coming to the foot of the ladder.
She ignored him, looked at the titles, read out loud: 'Coates, Human Magnetism, or How to Hypnotise. Huh! Mumbo-jumbo! Lycan ... er, Lycanthropy. Eh? And... The Erotic Beardsleyf She clapped her hands delightedly. 'What, dirty pictures, Yulian?' She took the book from the shelf, opened it. 'Oh!' she said, rather more quietly. The black and white drawing on the page where the book had opened was rather more bestial than erotic.
'Put it down!' Yulian hissed from below.
Helen put down the Beardsley, read off more titles. 'Vampirism - ugh! Sexual Powers of Satyrs and Nymphomaniacs. Sadism and Sexual Aberration. And... Parasitic Creatures? How diverse! And not dusty at all, these old books. Do you read them a lot, Yulian?'
He gave the ladder a shake and insisted, 'Come down from there!' His voice was very low, almost menacing. It was guttural, deeper than she'd heard it before. Almost a man's voice and not a youth's at all. Then she looked down at him.
Yulian stood below her, his face turned up at a sharp angle just below the level of her knees. His eyes were like holes punched in a paper face, with pupils shiny as black marbles. She stared hard at him but their eyes didn't meet, because he wasn't looking at her face.
'Why, I do believe,' she told him then, teasingly, 'that you're quite naughty, really, Yulian! What with these books and everything...' She had worn her short dress because of the heat, and now she was glad.
He looked away, touched his brow, turned aside. 'You... you wanted to see the barn?' His voice was soft again.
'Can we?' She was down the ladder in a flash. 'I love old barns! But your mother said it wasn't safe.'
'I think it's safe enough,' he answered. 'Georgina worries about everything.' He had called his mother Georgina since he was a little boy. She didn't seem to mind.
They went through the rambling house to the front, Yulian excusing himself for a moment to go to his room. He came back wearing dark spectacles and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat. 'Now you look like some pallid Mexican brigand,' Helen told him, leading the way. And with the black Alsatian pup tumbling at their heels, they made their way to the barn.
In fact it was a very simple outbuilding of stone, with a platform of planks across the high beams to form a hayloft. Next door were the stables, completely run-down, just a derelict old huddle of buildings. Until five or six years ago the Bodescus had let a local farmer winter his ponies on the grounds, and he'd stored hay for them in the barn.
'Why on earth do you need such a big place to live?' Helen asked as they entered the barn through a squealing door into shade and dusty sunbeams and the scurry of mice.
'I'm sorry?' he said after a moment, his thoughts elsewhere.
'This place. The whole place. And that high stone wall all the way round it. How much land does it enclose, that fell? Three acres?'
'Just over three and a half,' he answered. 'A great rambling house, old stables, barns, an over-grown paddock - even a shady copse to walk through in
the autumn, when the colours are growing old! I mean, why do two ordinary people need so much space just to live in?'
'Ordinary?' he looked at her curiously, his eyes moistly gleaming behind dark lenses. 'And do you consider your-self ordinary?'
'Well I don't. I think you're quite extraordinary. So am I, and so is Georgina - all of us for different reasons.' He sounded very sincere, almost aggressive, as if defying her to contradict him. But then he shrugged. 'Anyway, it's not a question of why we need it. It's ours, that's all.'
'But how did you get it? I mean, you couldn't have bought it! There must be so many other, well, easier places to live.'
Yulian crossed the paved floor between piles of old slates and rusty, broken-down implements to the foot of the open wooden stairs. 'Hayloft,' he said, turning his dark eyes on her. She couldn't see those eyes, but she could feel them.
Sometimes his movements were so fluid it almost seemed as if he were sleep-walking. They were like that now as he climbed the stairs, slowly, step by deliberate step. 'There is still straw,' he said, voice languid as a deep pool.
She watched him until he passed out of sight. There was a leanness about him, a hunger. Her father thought he was soft, girlish, but Helen guessed otherwise. She saw him as an intelligent animal, as a wolf. Sort of furtive, but unobtrusive, and always there on the edge of things, just waiting for his chance...
She suddenly felt stifled and took three deep, deliberate gulps of air before following him. Going carefully up the wooden steps, she said, 'Now I remember! It was your great-grandfather's, wasn't it? The house, I mean.'
She emerged into the hayloft. Three great bales of hay, blanched with age, stood dusty and withered in a pyramid. One end of the loft stood open, where projecting gables spared it from the elements. Thin, hot beams of sunlight came slanting in from chinks in the tiles, trapping dust-motes like flies in amber, forming yellow spotlights on the floorboards.
Yulian took out a pocket knife, sliced deftly at the binding of the uppermost bale. It fell to pieces like an ancient book, and he dragged great deep armfuls down onto the boards.
A bed for a gypsy, thought Helen. Or a wanton.
She threw herself down, was conscious that her dress rode up above her knickers where she lay face down. She did nothing to adjust it. Instead she spread her legs a little, wriggled her backside and contrived to make the movement seem perfectly unconscious - which it was not.
Yulian stood still for long moments and she could feel his eyes on her, but she simply cupped her chin in her hands and stared out of the open end of the loft. From here you could see the perimeter wall, the curving drive, the copse. Yulian's shadow eclipsed several discs of sunlight and she held her breath. The straw stirred and she knew he was right behind her, like a wolf in the forest.
His floppy hat fell in the straw on her left; his sunglasses plopped down into the hat; he got down beside her on her right, his arm falling casually across her waist. Casually, yes, and light as a feather, but she could feel it like a bar of iron. He lay not quite so far forward, propping his jaw in his right hand, looking at her. His arm, lying across her like that, must feel very awkward. He was taking most of its weight and she could feel it beginning to tremble, but he didn't seem to mind. But of course he wouldn't, would he?
'Great-grandfather's, yes,' he finally answered her question. 'He lived and died here. The place came down to Georgina's mother. Her husband, my grandfather, didn't like it and so they rented it out and lived in London. When they died it fell to Georgina, but by then it was on a life-lease to the old colonel who lived here. Eventually it was his turn to go, and then Georgina came down to sell it. She brought me with her. I wasn't quite five, I think, but I liked the place and said so. I said we should live here, and Georgina thought it a good idea.'
'You really are remarkable!' she said. 'I can't remember anything about when I was five.' His arm had slid diagonally across her now, so that his fingers barely touched her thigh just below the curve of her bottom. Helen could feel an almost electric tingle in those fingers. They held no such charge, she knew, but that's how it felt.
'I remember everything almost from the moment I was born,' he told her, his voice so even it was very nearly hypnotic. Maybe it was hypnotic. 'Sometimes I even think I remember things from before my birth.'
'Well, that might explain why you're so "extraordinary",' she told him, 'but what is it makes me different?'
'Your innocence,' he at once replied, his voice a purr. 'And your desire not to be.' His hand caressed her rump now, the merest touch of electric fingers tracing the curve of her buttocks, to and fro, to and fro.
Helen sighed, put a piece of straw between her teeth, slowly turned over on to her back. Her dress rode up even more. She didn't look at Yulian but gazed wide-eyed at the sloping rows of tiles overhead. As she turned so he lifted his hand a fraction, but didn't take it away.
'My desire not to be? Not to be innocent? What makes you think that?' And she thought: because it's so obvious?
When he answered, Yulian's voice was a man's again. She hadn't noticed the slow transition, but now she did.
Thick and dark, that voice, as he said, 'I've read it. All girls of your age desire not to be innocent.'
His hand fell on her belly, lingered over her navel, slipped down and crept under the band of her knickers. She stopped him there, trapping his hand with her own. 'No, Yulian. You can't.'
'Can't?' the word came in a gulp, choking. 'Why?'
'Because you're right. I am innocent. But also because it's the wrong time.'
'Time?' he was trembling again.
She pushed him away, sighed abruptly and said, 'Oh, Yulian - I'm bleeding!'
'Bleed - ?' He rolled away from her, snatched himself to his feet. Startled, she stared at him standing there. He shivered as if in a fever.
'Bleeding, yes,' she said. 'It's perfectly natural, you know.'
There was no pallor in his face now: it was red with blood, burning like a drunkard's face, with his eyes narrow slits dark as knife slashes. 'Bleeding!' this time he managed to choke the word out whole. He reached out his arms towards her, hands hooked like claws, and for a moment she thought he would attack her. She could see his nostrils flaring, a nervous tic tugging the corner of his mouth.
For the first time she felt afraid, felt something of his strangeness. 'Yes,' she whispered. 'It happens every month...'
His eyes opened up a little. Their pupils seemed flecked with scarlet. A trick of the light. 'Ah! Ah - bleeding!' he said, as though only just understanding her meaning. 'Oh, yes...' Then he reeled, turned away, went a little unsteadily down the steps and was gone. Then Helen had heard the puppy's wild yelp of joy (it had been stopped by the steps, which it couldn't climb)
and its whining and barking fading as it followed Yulian back to the house. And finally she started to breathe again.
'Yulian!' she'd called after him then. 'Your sunglasses, your hat!' But if he heard, he didn't bother to answer.
She wasn't able to find him for the rest of the day, but then she hadn't really looked for him. And because she had her pride - and also because he had failed to seek her out - she hadn't much bothered with him for the rest of their holiday. Perhaps it had been for the best; for she had been innocent, after all. She wouldn't have known what to do, not two years ago.
But when she thought of him, she still remembered his hand burning on her flesh. And now, going back to Devon with the countryside speeding by outside the car, she found herself wondering if there was still straw in the hayloft...
George, too, had his secret thoughts about Yulian. Anne could say what she liked but she couldn't change that. He was weird, that lad, and weird in several directions. It wasn't only the creeping-Jesus aspect that irritated George, though certainly the youth's furtive ways were annoying enough. But he was sick, too. Not mental, maybe not even sick in his body, just generally sick. To look at him sometimes, to catch him unawares with a side-glance, was to look at a cockroach surprised by a switched-on light, or a jellyfish steaming away, stranded on the beach when the tide goes out. You could almost sense something seething in him. But if it wasn't mental or physical, and yet encompassed both, then what the hell was it?
Hard to explain. Maybe it was both mind and body -and soul too? Except George wasn't much of a one for believing in souls. He didn't disbelieve, but he would like
evidence. He'd probably be praying when he died, just in case, but until then...
As for what Anne had said about Yulian at school: well, it was true, as far as it went. He had taken all of his exams early, and passed every one of them, but that wasn't why he'd left early. George had a draughtsman, Ian Jones, working for him in his London office, and Jones had a young son in the same school. Anne would hear none of it, of course not, but the stories had been wild. Yulian had 'seduced' a male teacher, a half-way-gone gay he'd somehow switched on. Once over the top, the fellow had apparently turned into a raver, trying to roger every male thing that moved. He'd blamed Yulian. That was one thing. And then:
In his art classes, Yulian had painted pictures which caused a very gentle lady teacher to attack him physically; she'd also stormed his bed-space and burned his art folios. Out nature rambling (George hadn't known they still did that) Yulian had been found wandering on his own, his face and hands smeared with filth and entrails. Dangling from one hand he'd carried the remains of a stray kitten. Its carcass was still warm. He'd said a man had done it, but this was out on the moors, miles from anywhere.
That wasn't all. It seemed he walked in his sleep and had apparently scared the living shit out of the younger boys, until the school had had to put a night-guard on their dorms. But by then the head had spoken at length with Georgina and she'd agreed he could leave. It was that or expulsion - for the sake of the good name of the school.
And there'd been other things, lesser things, but that had been the gist of it.
These were some of the reasons why George didn't like Yulian. But of course there was one other thing. It was something very nearly as old as Yulian himself, but it had fixed itself in George's mind indelibly.
The sight of an old man clutching his sheets to his chest as he died, and his last whispered words: 'Christen it? No, no - you mustn't! First have it exorcised!'
Anne could be strident if she had to be, but she was good through and through. She would never say a thing to hurt anyone, even though she might think certain things. To herself - if only to herself - she had to admit that she'd thought things about Yulian.
Now, lying back a little in her seat and stretching, feeling the cooling draught from the half-open window, she thought them again. Funny things: something about a big green frog, and something about the pain she'd get now and then in her left nipple.
The frog thing was hard to focus on; rather, she didn't like to focus on it. Personally she couldn't hurt a fly. Of course a child, a mere five-year old, wouldn't realise what he was doing. Would he? The trouble was that as long as she'd know Yulian he'd always seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Even as a baby.
She had called him a 'funny little thing', but in fact George was right. Yulian had been more than just funny. For one thing, he never cried. No, not quite true, he had cried when hungry, at least when he was very small. And he had cried in direct sunlight. Photophobia, apparently, right from infancy. Oh, yes, and he'd cried at least one other time, at his christening. Though that had seemed more rage - or outrage - than crying proper. As far as Anne knew, he never had been properly christened.
She let her thoughts take hold, carrying her back. Yulian had just started to walk - to toddle, anyway -when Helen came along. That was a month or so before poor Georgina had been well enough to go home and take him back. Anne remembered that time well. She'd been heavy with milk, fat as butter and happier than at any other time in her life. And rosy? What a picture of health she'd been!
One day when Helen was just six weeks old, while she was feeding her, Yulian had come toddling like a little robot, looking for that extra ounce of affection of which Helen had robbed him. Jealousy even then, yes, for he was no longer all important. On impulse - feeling a pang of pity for the poor mite - she'd picked him up, bared her other breast to him, her left breast, and fed him.
Even remembering it, the twinge of pain in her nipple came back like a wasp sting to bother her. 'Oh!' she said, stirring where she had fallen half-asleep.
'You all right?' George was quick to inquire. 'Wind your window down a little more. Get some fresh air.'
The steady purr of the car's engine brought her back to the present. 'Cramp,' she lied. 'Pins and needles. Can we stop somewhere - the next cafe?'
'Of course,' he answered. 'There should be one any time now.'
Anne slumped, returned half-reluctantly to her memories. Feeding Yulian, yes... She'd sat down with both babies, nodded off while they fed, Helen on the right, Yulian on the left. It had been strange; a sort of languor had come over her, a lethargy she hadn't the will to resist. But then, when the pain came, she'd come quickly awake. Helen had been crying, and Yulian had been - bloody! She'd stared at the toddler in something close to shock. Those peculiar black eyes of his fixed unwaveringly on her face. And his red mouth, fixed like a lamprey on her breast! Her milk and blood had run down the swollen curve of her breast, and his face had been smeared and glistening red with it; so that he'd looked like a dark-eyed gorging leech.
When she'd cleaned herself up, and cleaned up Yulian too, she'd seen how he'd bitten through the skin around her nipple: his teeth had left tiny punctures. The bites had taken a long time to heal, but their sting had never quite gone away...
Then there had been the frog episode. Anne didn't really want to dwell on that, but it formed a persistent picture in her mind, one she couldn't wipe clear. It had happened after Georgina had sold up in London, on the last day before she and Yulian had left the city and gone down to Devon to live in the old manor house.
George had built a pond in the garden of their Green-ford home when Helen was one; since when, with a minimum of help, the pond had stocked itself. Now there were lilies, a clump of rushes, an ornamental shrub bending over the water like a Japanese picture, and a large species of green frog. There were water snails, too, and at the edges a little green scum. Anne called it scum, anyway. Mid-summer and there would normally be dragonflies, but that year they'd only seen one or two, and they'd been small ones of their sort.
She had been in the garden with the children, watching Yulian where he played with a soft rubber ball. Or perhaps 'played' is the wrong word, for Yulian had difficulty playing like other children. He seemed to have a philosophy: a ball is a ball, a rubber sphere. Drop it and it bounces, toss it against a wall and it returns. Other than that it has no practical use, it cannot be considered a source of lasting interest. Others might argue the point, but that summed up Yulian's feelings on the subject. Anne really didn't know why she'd bought the ball for him; he never really played with anything. He had bounced it, however, twice. And he'd tossed it against the garden wall, once. But on the rebound it had rolled to the edge of the pond.
Yulian had followed it with eyes half scornful, until suddenly his interest had quickened. At the edge of the pond something leaped: a large frog, shiny green, poising itself where it landed, with two legs in the water and two on dry land. And the five-year old child froze, becoming still as a cat in the first seconds that it senses prey. It was Helen who ran to retrieve the ball, then skipped away with it up the garden, but Yulian had eyes only for the frog.
At that point George had called out from inside the house: something about the kebabs burning. They were to be the main course in a farewell meal for Georgina. George was supposed to be doing chef.
Anne had rushed to save the day, along the crazy-paving, under the arch of roses on their trellis to the paved patio area at the rear of the house. It had taken a minute, two at the outside, to lift the steaming meat from the grill onto a plate on the outdoor table. Then Georgina had come drifting downstairs in that slow get-there-eventually fashion of hers, and George had appeared from the kitchen with his herbs.
'Sorry, darling,' he'd apologised. 'Timing is everything, and I'm out of practice. But I've got it all together now and all's well...'
Except that all had not been well.
Hearing Helen's cry of alarm from the lower garden, Anne had breathlessly retraced her steps.
At first, as she reached the pond, Anne hadn't quite known what she was seeing. She thought Yulian must have fallen face down in the green scum. Then her eyes focussed and the picture firmed. And however much she'd tried to forget it, it had remained firm to this day:
The tiny white mosaic tiles at the edge of the pond, slimed with blood and guts; and Yulian slimed, too, his face and hands sticky with goo. Cross-legged by the pond like a buddha, Yulian, the frog like a torn green plastic bag in his inexpert hands, slopping its contents. And that child of - of innocence? studying its innards, smelling it, listening to it, apparently astonished by its complexity.
Then his mother had come wafting up from behind, saying; 'Oh dear, oh dear! Was it a live thing? Oh, I see it was. He does that sometimes. Opens things up. Curiosity. To see how they work.'
And Anne, aghast, snatching up the whining Helen and turning her face away, gasping, 'But Georgina, that's not some old alarm-clock - it's a frog!'
'Is it? Is it? Oh dear! Poor thing!' She'd fluttered her hands. 'But it's a phase he's going through, that's all. He'll grow out of it...'
And Anne remembered thinking, God, 1 certainly hope so!
'Devon!' said George triumphantly, jogging her elbow, startling her. 'Did you see the sign, the county boundary? And look, there's your cafe! Cream teas, fudge, clotted cream! We'll top the car up, have a bite to eat, and then we're on the last leg. Peace and quiet for a whole week. Lord, how I can use it... '
Arriving at the house and turning off the Paignton road into its grounds, the party in the car found Georgina and Yulian waiting for them on the gravel drive. At first they very nearly failed to notice Georgina, for she was over-shadowed by her son. As George stopped the car, Helen's jaw fell open a little. Anne simply stared. George himself thought, Yulian? Yes, of course it is. But what's he been doing right?
Getting out of the car, finally Anne spoke, echoing George's thoughts.- 'Yulian! My, but what a couple of years have done for you!' He held her briefly, taller by inches, then turned to Helen where she got out of the back seat and stretched.
'I'm not the only one who has grown,' he said. His voice was that dark one Helen had heard on a previous occasion, apparently his natural voice now. He held her at arm's length, stared at her with those unfathomable eyes.
He's handsome as the devil, she thought. Or perhaps handsome was the wrong word for it. Attractive, yes -almost unnaturally so. His long, straight chin, not quite lantern-jaw, high brow, straight, flatfish nose - and especially his eyes - all combined to form a face which might seem quite odd on anyone else's shoulders. But coupled with that voice, and with Yulian's mind behind it, the effect was quite devastating. He looked somehow foreign, almost alien. His dark hair, flowing naturally back and forming something of a mane at the back of his neck, made him seem even more wolfish than she'd remembered. That was it - wolfish! And he was getting tall as a tree.
'You're still slim, anyway,' she finally found something to say, however uninspired. 'But what's Aunt Georgina been feeding you?'
He smiled and turned to George, nodded and held out his hand. 'George. Did you have a good journey? We've worried a little - the roads get so crowded down here in the summer.'
George! George groaned inwardly. First names, just like with Mummy, hey? Still, it was better than being shied away from.
'The drive was fine.' George forced a smile, checking Yulian out but unobtrusively. The youth topped him by a good three inches. Add his hair to that and he looked taller still. Seventeen and already he was a big man. Big-boned, anyway. But give him another stone in weight and
he'd be like a barn door! Also, his handshake was iron. Hardly limp-wristed, no matter the length of his fingers.
George was suddenly very much aware of his own thinning hair, his small paunch and slightly stodgy appearance. But at least I can go out in the sun! he thought. Yulian's pallor was one thing that never changed; even here he stood in the shade of the old house, like part of its shadow.
But if the last two years had improved Yulian, they'd not been so kind to his mother.
'Georgina!' Anne had meanwhile turned to her cousin, hugging her. Beneath the hug she had felt how frail she was, how trembly. The loss of her husband almost eighteen years before was still taking its toll. 'And... and looking so well!'
Liar! George couldn't help thinking. Well? She looks like something clockwork that's about wound itself down!
It was true - Georgina seemed like an automaton. She spoke and moved as if programmed. 'Anne, George, Helen - so good to see you all again. So glad you accepted Yulian's invitation. But come in, come in. You can guess what we've got for you, of course. A cream tea, naturally!'
She led the way, floating light as air, and went inside. Yulian paused at the door, turned and said, 'Yes, do come in. Feel free. Enter freely and make yourselves at home.' The way he said it, somehow ritualistically, made his welcome sound quite odd. As George, at the rear, made to pass him, Yulian added, 'Can I bring in your luggage for you?'
'Why, thanks,' said George. 'Here, I'll give you a hand.'
'Not necessary,' Yulian smiled. 'Just give me the keys.' He opened the boot and took out their cases as if they were empty and weighed nothing. It wasn't just show, George could see that. Yulian was very strong...
Following him inside the house, and feeling just a shade useless, George paused on hearing a low growl of warning which came from an open cloakroom in an alcove to one side of the entrance hall. In there, in the deepest shadows behind a dark oak coatstand, something black as sin moved and yellow eyes glared. George looked harder, said, 'What in - ?' and the growling came louder.
Yulian, half-way down the corridor towards the stairs, turned and looked back. 'Oh, don't let him intimidate you, George. His bark is worse than his bite, I assure you.' And in a harsher tone of command: 'Come, boy, out into the light where we can see you.'
A black Alsatian, almost full grown, (was this monster really Yulian's pup?) came slinking into view, baring its teeth at George as it slid by him. The dog went straight to Yulian, stood waiting. George noticed that it didn't wag its tail.
'It's all right, old friend,' the youth murmured. 'You make yourself scarce.' At which the vicious looking creature moved on into the house.
'Good Lord!' said George. 'Thank goodness he's well trained. What's his name?'
'Vlad,' Yulian answered at once, turning away, cases and all. 'It's Romanian, I believe. Means "Prince" or something. Or it did in the old times... '
Yulian wasn't much visible for the next two or three days. The fact did not especially bother George; if anything he was relieved. Anne merely thought it odd that he wasn't around; Helen felt he was avoiding her and was annoyed about it, but she didn't let it show. 'What does he do with himself all day?' Anne asked Georgina, for the sake of something to say, when they were alone together one
Georgina's eyes seemed constantly dull, but only mention Yulian and they'd take on a startled, almost shocked brightness. Anne mentioned him now - and sure enough, there was that look.
'Oh, he has his interests...' She at once tried to change the subject, words tumbling out of her: 'We're thinking about having the old stables down. There are extensive vaults under the grounds - old cellars, wine cellars my grandfather used - and Yulian thinks the stables will crash right through to them one day. If we have them down we'll sell the stone. It's good stone and should fetch a decent price.'
'Vaults? I didn't know that. You say Yulian goes down there?'
'To check their condition,' (more words babbling out of her.) 'He worries about maintenance... could collapse, make the house unsafe ... just old corridors, almost like tunnels, and vaults opening off them. Full of nitre, spiders, rotten old wine racks... nothing of interest.'
Seeing the sudden build-up of her - frenzy? - Anne got up, crossed to Georgina, laid a hand on her frail shoulder. The older woman reacted as if she'd been slapped, jerked away from Anne. Her eyes suddenly focussed. 'Anne,' she said, her voice a shivering whisper, 'don't ask about that place below. And never go down there! It's not... not safe down there... '
The Lakes had come down from London on the third Thursday in August. The weather was very hot and showed no sign of letting up. On the Monday Anne and Helen drove off to buy straw sunhats for themselves in Paignton a few miles away. Georgina was having her noontime snooze and Yulian was nowhere to be found.
George remembered Anne mentioning the vaults under the house: wine cellars, according to Georgina. With nothing better to do he went out, walked round the house to the back, came face to face with a sort of shed built of old stone. He'd noticed it before, had long since concluded that it must be an old, disused outdoor loo and until now had had nothing more to do with it. It had a tiled, sloping roof and a door facing away from the house. Shrubbery grew rank, untended all about. The door was sagging on rotten hinges but George managed to drag it ajar. And squeezing inside, he knew at once that this must be an entrance to the alleged cellars. Narrow stone steps went down steeply on both sides of a ramp perfectly suited for the rolling of barrels. You could find covered delivery points like this in the yard of any old pub. He went carefully down the steps to a door at the bottom, began to push it squealingly open.
Vald was in there!
His muzzle came through the first three inches of gap even as George pushed on the door. The snarl of rage preceded it by the merest fraction of a second, and snarl and snout both were the only warning George got. Shocked, he snatched back his hands, and only just in time. The Alsatian's teeth snapped on the door jamb where his fingers had been, tearing off long splinters of wood. Heart hammering, George leaned on the door, closed it. He'd seen the dog's eyes and they had looked quite hateful.
But why would Vlad be down there in the first place? George could only suppose that Yulian had put him there to keep him out of the way while guests were around. A wise move, for obviously Vlad's bark was not as bad as his bite! Maybe Yulian was down there with him. Well, they were a duo George could well do without...
Feeling shaken, he left the grounds and walked half a mile down the road to a pub at the crossroads. On the way, surrounded by fields and lanes, birdsong and the
normal, entirely pleasant hum of insects in the hedgerows, his nerves slowly recovered. The sun was hot and by the time he reached his destination he was ready for a drink.
The pub was ancient, thatched, all oak beams and horse-brasses, with a gently ticking grandfather clock and a massive white cat overhanging its own chair. After Vlad, George could stand cats well enough. He ordered a lager, perched himself on a barstool.
There were others in the bar: a fashionable young couple seated well away from George at a corner table close to small-paned windows, who doubtless owned the little sports job he'd seen parked in the yard; local youths in another corner, playing dominoes; and two old-timers deep in conversation over their pints at a table close by. It was the muttered, lowered tones of this latter pair which attracted him. Sipping his ice-cold lager and after the bartender had moved on to other tasks, George thought he heard the word 'Harkley' and his ears pricked up. Harkley House was Georgina's place.
'Oh, ar? That 'un up there, hey? A funny 'un, I'm told.'
'Course there ain't a jot o' proof, but she'd bin seen wi' 'im, right enough. An' clean off Sharkham Point she went, down Brixham way. Terrible!'
A local tragedy, obviously, thought George. The Point was a headland of cliffs projecting into the sea. He glanced at the two old-timers, nodded and had his nod returned, turned back to his drink. But their conversation stayed with him. One of them was thin, ferret-faced, the other red and portly, the latter doing the story-telling.
Now he continued, 'Carryin', o' course.'
'Pregnant, were she?' the thin one gasped. 'It were 'is, you reckon?'
'I reckons nuthin',' the first denied. 'No proof, like I said. An' anyway, she were a rum 'un. But so young. 'Tis a pity.'
'A pity's right,' the thin one agreed. 'But ter jump like that... what made 'er do it, d'you think? I mean, unwed an' carryin' these days ain't nuthin.
Out of the corner of his eye, George saw them lean closer. Their voices fell lower still and he strained to hear what was said:
'I reckon,' said the portly one, 'that Nature told 'er it weren't right. You know 'ow a ewe'll cast a puggled lamb? Suthin' like that, poor lass.'
'It weren't right, you say? They opened 'er up, then?'
'Oh, ar, they did that! Tide were out an' she knew it. She weren't goin' in the water, that one. She were goin' down on the rocks! Makin' sure, she were. Now 'ere, strictly 'tween you an' me, my girl Mary's at the hospital, as you know. She says that when they brung 'er in she were dead as mutton. But they sounded 'er belly, and it were still kickin'... !'
After a moment's pause: 'The child?'
'Well what else, you old fool! So they opened 'er up. 'Orrible it were - but there's none but a handful knows of it, so this stops right 'ere. Well, doctor took one look at it an' put a needle in it. He just finished it there and then. An' into a plastic bag it went an' down to the hospital furnace. An' that was that.'
'Deformed,' the thin one nodded. 'I've heard o' such.'
'Well, this one weren't so much deformed as ... as not much formed at all!' the florid one informed. 'It were -'ow'd my Mary put it? - like some kind of massive tumour in 'er. A terrible sort of fleshy lump, and fibrous. But it were s'posed to 'ave been a child, for there was afterbirth and all. But for sure it were better off dead! My Mary said as 'ow there was eyes where there shouldn't be, an' things like teeth, an' 'ow it mewled suthin' terrible when the light fell on it!'
George had finished his lager, the last of it with a gulp.
The door of the pub was flung open and a party of young people came in. Another moment and one of them had found a juke-box in some hidden alcove; rock music washed over everything. The barman came back, pulled pints for all he was worth.
George left, headed back down the road. Half-way back, his car pulled up and Anne shouted, 'Get in the back.'
She wore a straw hat with a wide black band, contrasting perfectly with her summer dress. Helen, sitting beside her, wore one with a red band. 'How's that?' Anne laughed as George plumped down in the back seat and slammed the door. Mother and daughter tilted their heads coquettishly, showed off their hats. 'Just like a couple of village girls out for a drive, eh?'
'Around here,' George answered darkly, 'village girls need to watch what they're doing.' But he didn't explain his meaning, and in any case he wouldn't have mentioned Harkley in the same breath as the story he'd overheard in the pub. He took it that he'd simply misinterpreted the first few words. However that may be, the unpleasantness of the thing stayed with him for the rest of the day.
The next morning, Tuesday, George was up late. Anne had offered him breakfast in bed but he'd declined, gone back to sleep. He got up at ten to a quiet house, made himself a small breakfast that turned out quite tasteless. Then, in the living-room, he found Anne's note:
Yulian and Helen are out walking Vlad. I think I'll drive Georgina into town and buy her something. We'll be back for lunch -
George sighed his frustration, chewed his bottom lip angrily. This morning he'd meant to have a quick look at the cellars, just out of curiosity. Yulian could have perhaps shown him around down there. As for the rest of the day: he'd planned on driving the girls to the beach at Salcombe; a day by the sea might fetch Georgina out of herself. The salty air would be good for Helen, too, who'd been looking a bit peaky. Just like Anne to get cab-happy with the car the minute they were out of London!
Ah, well - maybe there'd still be time for the beach this afternoon. But what to do with himself this morning? A walk into Old Paignton, to the harbour, perhaps? It would be a fair bit of a walk, but he could always drop in somewhere for a pint along the way. And later, if he was tired or pushed for time, he'd simply come back by taxi.
George did exactly that. He took his binoculars with him and spent a little time gazing at near-distant Brixham across the bay, returned to Harkley by taxi at about 12.30 and paid the driver off at the gate. He'd enjoyed both the long walk and his glass of cold beer enormously, and it seemed he'd timed the entire expedition just perfectly for lunch.
Then, wandering up the drive where the curving gravel path came closest to the copse - a densely grown stand of beech, birch and alder, with one mighty cedar towering slightly apart - there he came across his car, its front doors standing open and the keys still in the ignition. George stared at the car in mild surprise, turned in a slow circle and glanced all about.
The copse had an overgrown crazy-paving path winding through its heart, and a once-elegant white three-bar fence running round it - like a wood in a book of fairy tales. The fence was leaning now and very much off-white, with rank growth sprung up on both sides. George looked in that direction but could see no one. Tall grasses and brambles, the tops of fenceposts, trees. And...
maybe something big and black moving furtively in the undergrowth? Vlad?
It could well be that Anne, Helen, Georgina and Yulian were all walking together in the copse; certainly it would be leafy and cool under the canopy of the trees. But if it was only Yulian and the dog in there, or the bloody dog on his own...
Suddenly it came to George that he feared one as much as the other. Yes, feared them. Yulian wasn't like any other person he knew, and Vlad wasn't like any other dog. There was something wrong with both of them. And in the middle of a quiet, hot summer day George shivered.
Then he got a grip of himself. Frightened? Of a queer, freakish youth and a three-quarters grown dog? Ridiculous!
He gave a loud 'Hallooo!' - and got no answer.
Irritated now, his previously pleasant mood rapidly waning, he hurried to the house. Inside ... no one! He went through the old place slamming doors, finally climbed the stairs to his and Anne's bedroom. Where the hell was everyone? And why had Anne left his car there like that? Was he to spend the entire day on his bloody own?
From his bedroom window he could see most of the grounds at the front of the house right to the gate. The barn and huddled stables interfered with the view of the copse, but -
George's attention was suddenly riveted by a splash of colour showing in the tall grass this side of the fence where it circled the copse. It caught his attention and held it. He moved a fraction, tried to see beyond the projecting gables of the old barn. It wouldn't come into focus. Then he remembered his binoculars, still hanging round his neck. He quickly put them to his eyes, adjusted them.
Still the gables intervened, and he'd got the range
wrong. The splash of colour was still there - a dress? -but a flesh-pink tone was moving against it. Moving insistently. With viciously impatient hands, George finally got the range right, brought the picture close. The splash of summer colours was a dress, yes. And the flesh-coloured tone was - flesh! Naked flesh.
George scanned the scene disbelievingly. They were in the grass. He couldn't see Helen - not her face, anyway -for she was face down, backside in the air. And Yulian mounting her, frantic in his rage, his passion, his hands gripping her waist. George began to tremble and he couldn't stop it. Helen was a willing party to this, had to be. Well, and he'd said she was an adult - but God! -there must be limits.
And there she was, face down in the grass, naked as a baby - George's baby girl - with her straw hat and her dress tossed aside and her pink flesh open to this... this slime! George no longer feared Yulian, if he ever had, but hated him. The weird-looking bastard would look a sight weirder when he was finished with him.
He snatched his binoculars from his neck, tossed them down on the bed, turned towards the door - and his muscles locked rigid. George's jaw fell open. Something he had seen, some monstrous thing burned on his mind's eye. With hands numb to the bone he took up the binoculars, fixed them again on the couple in the long grass. Yulian had finished, lay sprawled alongside his partner. But George let the glasses slide right over them to the hat and disarrayed dress.
The straw hat had a wide black band. It was Anne's hat. And now that fact had dawned he saw that it was also Anne's dress.
The binoculars slipped from George's fingers. He staggered, almost fell, flopped down heavily on his bed. On their bed, his and Anne's. Willing party... had to
be. The words kept repeating in his whirling head. He couldn't believe what he'd seen, but he had to believe. And she was a willing party. Had to be.
How long he sat there in a daze he couldn't tell: five minutes, ten? But finally he came out of it. He came out of it, shook himself, knew what he must do. All those stories from Yulian's school: they must be true. The bastard was a pervert! But Anne, what of Anne?
Could she be drunk? Or drugged? That was it! Yulian must have given her something.
George stood up. He was cold now, cold as ice. His blood boiled but his mind was a white snowfield, with the track he must take clearly delineated. He looked at his hands and felt the strength of both God and the devil flowing in them. He would tear out the black, soulless eyes of that swine; he would eat his rotten heart!
He staggered downstairs, through the empty house, reeled drunkenly, murderously towards the copse. And he found Anne's hat and dress exactly where he'd seen them. But no Anne, no Yulian. Blood pounded in George's temples; hate like acid corroded his mind, peeling away every layer of rationality. Still reeling, he scrambled his way through low brambles to the gravel drive, glared his loathing at the house. Then something told him to look behind. Back there, at the gates, Vlad stood watching, then started forward uncertainly.
Something of sanity returned. George hated Yulian now, intended to kill him if he could, but he still feared the dog. There'd always been something about dogs, and especially this one. He ran back towards the house, and coming round a screen of bushes saw Yulian striding through the shrubbery towards the rear of the building. Towards the entrance to the cellars.
'Yulian!' George tried to yell, but the word came out as a gasping croak. He didn't try again. Why warn the perverted little sod? Behind him, Vlad put on a little speed, began to lope.
At the corner of the house George paused for a moment, gulped air desperately. He was out of condition. Then he saw a rusty old mattock leaning against the wall and snatched it up. A glance over his shoulder told him that Vlad was coming, his strides stretching now, ears flat to -his head. George wasted no more time but plunged through the low shrubbery to the entrance to the vaults. And there stood Yulian at the open door. He heard George coming, turned his head and cast a startled glance his way.
'Ah, George!' He smiled a sickly smile. 'I was just wondering if perhaps you'd like to see the cellars?' Then he saw George's expression, the mattock in his white-knuckled hands.
'The cellars?' George choked, almost entirely deranged with hatred. 'Yes I fucking would!' He swung his pick-like weapon. Yulian put up an arm to shield his face, turned away. The sharper, rustier blade of the heavy tool took him in the back of his right shoulder, crunched through the lower part of the scapula and buried itself to the haft in his body.
Thrown forward, Yulian went toppling down the central ramp, the mattock still sticking in him. As he fell he said, 'Ah! Ah!' - in no way a scream, more an expression of surprise, shock. George followed, arms reaching, lips drawn back from his teeth. He pursued Yulian, and Vlad pursued him.
Yulian lay face down at the bottom of the steps beside the open door to the vaults. He moaned, moved awkwardly. George slammed a foot down in the middle of his back, levered the mattock out of him. 'Ah! Ah!' again Yulian gave his peculiar, sighing cry. George lifted the mattock - and heard Vlad's rumbling growl close behind.
He turned, swung the mattock in a deadly arc. The dog was stopped in mid-flight as the mattock smacked flatly against the side of its head. It crumpled to the concrete floor, groaned like a man. George panted hoarsely, lifted his weapon again - but there was no sign of consciousness in the animal. Its sides heaved but it lay still, tongue protruding. Out like a light.
And now there was only Yulian.
George turned, saw Yulian staggering into the vault's unknown darkness. Unbelievable! With his injury, still the bastard kept going. George followed, kept Yulian's stumbling figure visible in the gloom. The cellars were extensive, rooms and alcoves and midnight corridors, but George didn't let his quarry out of sight for a single moment. Then - a light!
George peered through an arched entrance into a dimly illumined room. A single dusty bulb, shaded, hung from a vaulted ceiling of stone blocks. George had momentarily lost sight of Yulian in the darkness surrounding the cone of light; but then the youth staggered between him and the light source, and George picked him up again and advanced. Yulian saw him, swung an arm wildly at the light in an attempt to put it out of commission. Injured, he missed his aim, setting the lamp and shade dancing and swinging on their flex.
Then, by that wildly gyrating light, George saw the rest of the room. In intermittent flashes of light and darkness, he picked out the details of the hell he'd walked into.
Light... and in one corner a glimpse of piled wooden racks and cobwebbed shelving. Darkness... and Yulian an even darker shape that crouched uncertainly in the centre of the room. Light - and along one wall Georgina, seated in an old cane chair, her eyes bulging but vacant and her mouth and flaring nostrils wide as yawning caverns. Darkness - and a movement close by, so that George put up the mattock to defend himself. Insane light - and to his right a huge copper vat, six feet across and seated on copper legs; with Helen slumped in a dining chair on one side, her back to the nitre-streaked wall, and Anne, naked, likewise positioned on the other side. Their inner arms dangling inside the rim of the bowl, and something in the bowl itself seeming to move restlessly, throwing up ropes of doughy matter. Flickering darkness - out of which came Yulian's laughter: the clotted, sick laughter of someone warped irreparably. Then light again - which found George's eyes fixed on the great vat, or more properly on the women. And the picture searing itself indelibly into his brain.
Helen's clothing ripped down the front and pulled back, and the girl lolling there like a slut with her legs sprawled open, everything displayed. Anne likewise; but both of them grimacing, their faces working hideously, showing alternating joy and total horror; their arms in the vat, and the nameless slime crawling on their arms to their shoulders, pulsating from its unknown source!
Merciful darkness - and the thought in George's tottering mind: God! It's feeding on them, and it's feeding itself to them! And Yulian so close now that he could hear his rasping breathing. Light again, as the lamp settled to a jerky jitterbug - and the mattock wrenched from George's nerveless fingers and hurled away. And George finally face to visage with the man he'd intended to kill, who now he discovered to be hardly a man at all but something out of his very worst nightmares.
Fingers of rubber with the strength of steel gripped his shoulder and propelled him effortlessly, irresistibly towards the vat. 'George,' the nightmare gurgled almost conversationally, 'I want you to meet something...'