LabLit.com

Buy The Honest Look for the Kindle

Fiction

Corridor of shadows

By The Sea: Part I, Chapter 1

Henry Gee 20 May 2007

www.lablit.com/article/256

Despite her misgivings, the lab work has its attractions and is beginning to draw her down like a dark undertow

Editor's note: We are pleased to begin the weekly serialization of an original novel by Henry Gee, By The Sea. Set in present-day Norfolk, Gee blends science, murder, sex and Victorian secrets into a dark, gothic thriller.

Chapter One

Under your feet, the sea surges and rips. Spume like icy razors rakes your flesh.

“It’s not the way you think, really, it isn’t,” he insists. The water, churning and milky, is up to your waist. He is a pale swine-thing in this wind and freezing water, wispy hair aping the curled waves, spray fuming overhead like spittle from a galloping horse.

But at least it is warmer beneath the waves, where the wind doesn’t reach. Marginally. You duck down, feel the dark foam lap over your shoulders in viscid gouts, and so your rage towards him calms. You become icy, like this wind. Like this water.

“Oh, and I suppose you know how I think, do you? As if you care!”

You look towards the beach. The crowds, dressed up in coats and scarves and hats against the north wind, shining anonymously towards you on this shortest of days. A winter carnival, celebrating the Solstice. It is not, though, an attentive audience. All it sees are the intrepid Solstice Sea Bathers, recalling with forced seasonal jollity, and a few column inches in the Deringland Mercury, an ancient rite of this coast: a rite whose provisions have been long forgotten apart from the mere fact and longevity of the celebration, that it is a contract between the pliant Land and the unforgiving Sea. But not all is mirth, and the sea drowns all in its enveloping noise.

“We’ve been over this so many times. I have nothing to say.”

“But I have seen you together,” you mock: “so many times.” Your reasoning deserts you, like the shifting sand beneath your feet.

“And your point is?” he replies, Oxbridgely arrogant. “Can I not associate with whom I wish?”

“Yes!” you scream, oblivious to all but him, him! Your cries like the squawks of gulls. You hate yourself for it, the shrillness, and then, quietly, chastened: “Yes, Evan, of course. But not…her.”

He calms too, comes closer, looks down at you. You can smell the thick grease on his skin, proof against the chill. You can see it. It makes him look like a pithed frog.

“Look…” he begins.

Under your feet, the sea surges and rips. Something brushes against your calves. Funny, you thought your legs had been numbed with cold.

“Look, Heather, I’m sorry you feel that way. But I’m afraid there is nothing I can do about it. I’m leaving soon. I have my life to lead, and so do you.”

So, you look away. You see a dozen or so Solstice Sea Bathers, greased, like you, but unlike you (so unlike!) they are all men, all in briefs or boxers or flappy trunks. Really, Deringland is so bracing. But there is one, alone, a little further out to sea. A woman.

It is her.

She is looking your way. Inquisitive, with concern. How dare she! And he has pretended not to notice. For a split instant you swear you could kill her.

No, kill him.

Under your feet, the sea surges and rips. It is a rip too far, a sudden high wave towers above your head, above his head, above her head, indeed, above you all, and crashes down. Your feet leave their moorings and you are buffeted by the cold sea, helpless, beneath the waves.

You open your eyes. Yes, if only for a fraction of a second, but it feels much longer, and in that long moment you have a glimpse into water of almost infinite clarity, of a world flattened between sand and surface, stretching outward to a greater blueness.

And there are shapes out there, moving in the blue.

You regain your footing, thrust your head above the surface into the now, the new and minted coldness, the wind, and, like you all, like him, like her, you struggle to the shore. The sea tastes bitter in your mouth. Bitter, and warm.

**********

All she can now see are her knees, flexed, together forming something like a gun-sight for the arched window beyond, its white sashes sharp against the night.

She had seen that window before, her memory grumbles into action, yes, it was that painting, American Gothic, and now she sees the kindly and pious farmer (the one with the little round glasses and the pitchfork) and the even more God-fearing farmer’s wife (with the pursed lips and buttoned-up collar) from that painting, now standing one either side of the window, each one a guardian to a knee at the foot of her iron-framed bed (yes, it is iron-framed, she knows that now, as befits a Victorian maternity wing, which this is) as she strains and strains to get this…thing out of her womb.

And then, pure release: blood pours out of her to soak the bed, but she does not care. The farmer’s wife reaches down as the farmer looks benignly on and smiles. The farmer’s wife comes back up, now dressed in a theater gown and thick blue rubber gloves, with a squalling infant clothed in a towel. The farmer’s wife betrays no change in expression from the thin-lipped and Presbyterian, as if she is not a real person but a cardboard cut-out, or a mask.

“Oh, Alex, well done!” says the farmer, his eyes sparkling behind the glasses. As he bends over her he notices that he isn’t as bald as she thought, but has long wisps of gray hair, and in fact he has no glasses at all. She recognizes him as the baby’s father. He is her husband, not the husband of the starchy farmer’s wife. But she’s not married…is she? Panic. She struggles to remember his name. Is it ‘Evan’? Or perhaps ‘Evanston’? He has something of the Midwest about him. The farmer looks down at what the farmer’s wife is holding in her hands, now holding up for inspection. “Oh! Alex! It’s a…it’s a…” The farmer, whose name might be Evan or Evanston, turns a uniform dead-flat gray and turns away.

The farmer’s wife looks at her. Her expression now changes…or, rather, not so much changes, but dissolves.

“Here is your baby, Alex,” she says, her voice surprisingly deep, but compressed, as if heard from the far end of a telephone. Her mouth opens. There are a lot of teeth in it. In fact, Alex thinks, if she opened that huge mouth any further it would cover her entire face.

“Here is your baby, Alex,” repeats the farmer’s wife in the same harsh monotone, her tongue moving behind her teeth. “Look at your baby, Alex,” she insists, thrusting out a nameless object dwarfed by those same, thick, blue rubber gloves. “Just run it up the flagpole, see if anyone salutes. You’ve got to roll it out now, Alex. You have targets to meet. Look at it, Alex. It’s all your fault.”

She, herself, that is, Alex, is gripped by a sudden urge to look at the baby, and an equal and opposite urge not to look at it. The negative wins, and she feels she has been spared something horrific. Instead she looks up at the insistent face of the farmer’s wife. But she has changed: the blonde bun has gone. She has glasses on now, thin titanium rims, and she’s a he, with slick black hair, and a business suit. But still those same thick blue rubber gloves. And those teeth. And that smile. “Look at the baby, Alex. It’s all your fault.”

**********

Alex whimpers, wakes and sits up in bed. The noise batters immediately in from all sides, for a storm is blowing, rain blasting at her dormer window. She switches on her bedside light. Her arm is assailed by chill the moment she extends it from the beneath the duvet. The action seems to drive away the noise, to create a small primeval pool of security. But the bulb glows weakly through the pinkish, tasselled shade that reminds her of old ladies’ knickers. It is but a mockery of light, and looking up, all she can now see in its womb-glow are her knees, flexed, together forming something like a gun-sight for the arched window beyond, its white sashes sharp against the night.

She had seen that window before, her memory grumbles into action, yes, it was that painting, ‘American Gothic’. But there are no others here. No kindly, bespectacled farmer. No starchy farmer’s wife. She is quite alone, and for that she is grateful. She exhales a damp cloud into the room. As she does this, the ghostly walls and high ceilings of the Victorian hospital close in on her to make a room that is smaller but much more real. She rubs her stomach. It is not bloated and sore, but flat, or at least no more rounded than she has a right to expect for a 22-year-old woman who has never been pregnant. She sits up further, relieved, steeling herself against the night, the draughts that seep into her room through the rattling panes, shreds of nightmare scattering off her duvet like scraps of Christmas paper, torn in haste from gifts and soon forgotten.

Her room. Her room, here at the Institute.

The arched and sashed window is a dormer in the room which itself is a hived-off corner of one of the huge attics. She remembers how she cannot open the window fully, because a crumbling iron gutter, now gurgling with a load of water it cannot contain, runs right across its width, splashing greenish onto the steep pitch of the roof below.

Apart from the bed there is an office chair and a cheap deal desk piled with papers and books; and a wardrobe, over-ornate by comparison with the desk, a mahoganized excrescence of the kind found readily in cheap antique shops, because nobody really wants them. It is too large for the room. She has sometimes wondered how they got it up the steep stairs and narrow corridor. Perhaps it had always been there, grown in situ from the skewed walls and warped rafters of the creaking building. Accommodation for scullery-maids or junior postdoctoral fellows: the names may change, she thought, but the social position never varies.

Under the arch-pointed and inoperable dormer window, which in the mornings admits a marine light, stained by the algal growth wandering from the choked guttering, is a tiny kitchenette, equipment for a postdoctoral fellow where once stood a washstand for a scullion. There is a gas ring, a small and never-quite-cleanable fridge, a collapsing melamine-and-chipboard cupboard for food and crockery, and an aluminium sink. Bathroom facilities are next door, down a narrow hall.

Alex looks at her bedside clock. It is hardly two in the morning. She has no desire to go back to sleep now, for fear of blundering into American Gothic again, even though the details of the dream are now fading into harmless, washed-out sepia. Even then, the storm howling outside would probably keep her awake. That, and the unplottable howling from the organ-pipe plumbing. And she can hear that drip again, from a corner of the dormer, splashing stern, rusty drops into the sink. That settles it: against such nocturnal orchestrations there can be no victory. She decides to get up instead. The thunder of water reminds her that she needs to go to the loo, and that she is thirsty. So she swings her legs out from under the duvet and plants her feet on the threadbare rug, a comfort of home to hide the frigid, worn-out linoleum floor.

Alex Beach. That’s Doctor Alex Beach, yes it’s ‘Alex’, never ‘Alexandra’, because that would make ‘Sandy’, and, well maybe it’s no surprise she swerved from the life of busy biochemistry, doctorate newly-minted, and into marine biology and this…backwater. Perhaps if she’d never met Morrison at that conference last summer in Atlanta, she’d have stayed on the straight and narrow of biochemistry, with its order, its measure, and its cleanliness. Damn Morrison for his targets and indicators and, well, being so…persuasive. If not for Morrison, she bit her lip until a tear started, she’d never have been exiled to the Lowdley-Purring Institute, stuck out here in north Norfolk, practically at the ends of the Earth: literally so, being perched on the very edge of a cliff. She might even be getting on with her career, in a lab with contacts, or at least people. Damn it, and damn him, she might even be doing something useful.

Alex sits up, the smooth arcs of her white body pinked by the lampshade’s glow, silent against the noise of the wind and rain. And then she stands, looking down at herself, and then at her reflection in the mirror on the front of the unavoidable wardrobe. Her large, round gray eyes and short, brown bob stare back at her from her pale face, inquisitorially, and stooping slightly, because of her height: Alex Beach is almost six feet tall. She grabs a sweatshirt from the end of the bed and shucks it over her head. In so doing she looks down at her legs, then her knees, and has a stomach-churning flashback to her dream, in full technicolor clarity, if only for a fraction of a second.

She sits down again.

Her dream was one of guilt, guilt at what she has let herself become. Within months she has turned from a hopeful career prospect in biochemical natural-product synthesis to a Sex Object, a brood mare, captive at this dreadful place as a focus of men’s desires, as much a part of the Collections as the bottled infusoria and polypi, or the carnostomidae she studies, or even (crikey!) Pickled Lily.

With a rising gorge she remembers how Evanston Bland keeps looking at her breasts and her legs and making comments. That is, when Bland is not fighting off the attentions of that wretched Heather Franks creature, who curls up in on herself in another attic room not too far away. Alex takes a deep breath as she reminds herself that she really ought to be able to handle such things by now. Her legs were always long, and her height has always put her breasts within easy male staring range. In any case, Bland will be leaving soon, or so he says, now that Morrison has taken over his job as Institute Director.

Oh God…Morrison. His ideas for rolling out new, re-synthetic natural products. His contacts at MagusPharm that led to her fellowship, buying her. Resource acquisition. Drug discovery. Secrets of the Sea. And none more Secret than at the LPI. And she, fresh from a PhD and a career for the making. Or the taking. How had she let herself come to this? There is nothing for it. She has made her bed, she muses, turning to straighten the duvet, and so she must lie in it. Do the work, fulfil the contract, get out, move on. She puts on her slippers and pads into the horrid, white-chipped, never-quite-cleanable bathroom.

**********

Now dressed in jeans, Nikes, sweatshirt and flask of tea, Alex pads from her attic study-bedroom onto the varnished boards of the corridor outside. It is barely 2.19, but she is wide awake. The lonely life of a postdoctoral fellow in a team of one, at work on her own strange cul-de-sac of a project, has shaken her free of the companionship of lab work she’d been used to until six months before, the social norms that dictate the conventional routine of the diurnal cycle. She has decided that she will work until breakfast on those Victorian microscope slides, drawing, taking notes; grab some food from the refectory, and then return to her eyrie to ravel sleep. Despite her conscious misgivings about her situation, the work has its attractions and is beginning to draw her down like a dark undertow.

She commutes from ‘home’ to ‘work’, threading her way through the enormous shadowed building as surely as filaria bore through the distended limbs of an elephantiasiac.

First: there is the corridor under the eaves themselves, boards creaking beneath her feet in sharp, woody exclamations; rain arrowing into the slates just inches above her head as she stoops through too-low attic doors in the musty air, squeezing past many other attic doors and grimed cases removed from exhibitions and long since forgotten. A ruff forever displaying before a reeve, with blown eggs. Shells of giant tortoises, each endemic to an island of which she has never heard, Antilia, Santanazes, Saya, Ymana, each one long extinct in the wild. Skeletons of fetuses in various stages of development, artfully arranged around preserved coral. The baculum or penis-bone of a walrus, as long and dense as a baseball bat and probably as effective, mounted lovingly on a carved wooden plinth (she can’t help thinking of Morrison here, as what he lacks in size he makes up for in brutality). A cat with some advanced intestinal infestation, sliced through sagittally, and mounted against glass, so one can see concentric circles of cat and worm, cat and worm, compelling as patterns on polished agate. All cast woolly shadows from the sparse bulbs screwed at intervals into sconces in the walls and eaves.

At the case containing that something-or-another, mercifully unseeable by virtue of the accumulated dust, and cracks in the thick glass liberally but badly patched with old parcel tape, she turns left, along a short corridor from whose ceiling hangs, uvulous, a brass chandelier shaped like an astrolabe; and then almost tumbles down a series of narrow, precipitous stairs.

First, they wind, as if just inside ancient stone walls, painted a bald white but peeling psoriatically in the all-penetrating damp.

Although illuminated from high, blue-stained windows during the day, the too-narrow, ragged-carpeted treads themselves remain in dense shade. She found this deeply disconcerting when she was new, because she could not see where to put her feet, even were she able to bend down and look, in that cramped space. After a while her feet learned to pilot their way on their own, so the sensation was less one of climbing or falling, but of floating through blue holes drilled deep in a reef. At night, however, the illumination is from wainscot-mounted night-lights, so she can now see her feet, but anything above ankle level is cast into fantastic Hitchcockian shadow. She cannot see the windows as much as hear them, resounding to the plash and ping of the hurling rain.

The curving stair tightens into an anxious knot amid rafters and beams that jut from walls and corners like the ribs of a decomposing whale; but then, quite suddenly, the staircase straightens out: but is made narrower still, as the walls on both sides, and some of the ceilings beneath which she is forced to stoop, at times almost burrow, are festooned with bookcases. These are stuffed with volumes, bound in leather, gilded, or damp-spotted paper, books she is sure no-one ever sees, for none ever seem to be moved. Some of the books are wedged in with bookends of a most bewildering variety. African masks; preserved heads; assorted fossils; bones (lots of these); fragments of marble pediment; brass instruments of unfathomable purpose, all lenses and dials and knurled wheels. Tiny clay and wood and stone idols of a vitality that belies their crudeness, contrasting with the grace and refinement of ancient Chinese porcelain, possibly of great value. And there are things suspended in spirit whose jars she never dares brush against for fear of breaking them and disgorging the contents so that once released, they would follow the splashes of the once-suspending fluid and slop, glutinously, down the stairs before her.

Ah yes, things. The Institute has so many things, the esoteric strandline refuse of the ages, cast up from wide oceans of ignorance before our wondering eyes. Alex is as personally untidy as any other young scientist, but the Institute comes as a shock to one used to the uncluttered lines of a modern laboratory. It is the shock of diseased floridity, of almost obscene extravagance. It is like the once-respectable citizens in a Hogarth painting who have abandoned themselves to gin and whoring.

It is like an outbreak of new leprosy.

At one point on a half-landing, the left-hand wall of the stairwell vanishes entirely for a spell of no more than three or four feet, bridged by a guard rail at shin-height, giving a vertiginous view of a corridor below, hung with a once-rich but faded tapestry showing what look like scenes of dismemberment. The lower edge of the tapestry fades into the unseen gloom of the floor, whence a vast stuffed animal looms upwards. Alex has never wanted to stay long enough on this perch to learn what this animal might be, clothed as it is in a shapeless mass of black fur. All she remembers are huge, accusing eyes that seem to follow her with unblinking gaze as she bridges the catwalk above, gripping the bookshelf to her right and trying not to trip on the low rail and fall into the chasm.

Alex has searched for an entrance to this corridor at floor level, but she has never found it.

The stairway continues past this void, stuffed with bookshelves, bookends, and the books between. She knows that just part a shelf straining to hold, frustratingly, just eleven of a twelve-volume Records of the Natural History and Antiquities of Anchester, Radnorshire (qto., oxblood morocco, slightly foxed), the staircase takes a wild, downward lurch to the right and debouches, like a glacial stream pouring from a hanging valley, between two vast portraits of nameless eighteenth-century worthies, nameless because their heads ascend into the ceilinged gloom, into a broad corridor on the ground floor of the building.

She turns left and walks in the centre of this wide corridor, throwing her long arms wide to left and right, glorying in its wide spaces after the contortions of the staircases, luxuriating in the comparatively deep and level pile of the carpet after the threadbare potholes of the staircases. The corridor is punctuated to right and left with grand entrances. By day these are brightly lit by the cold north light. By night, brass chandeliers bearing dim, candle-style bulbs, many of which have long since expired, shed a sickly light that fails to reach the further corners of the great space.

To her left, the landward side, great square archways give access to the public galleries; each door, as she passes, giving no more than an unlit hint of the attractions within. By day, these galleries host occasional stray visitors, refugees from the Deringland wind and rain who have nothing better to do than to gawp at the curiosities the Lowdley-Purring Institute has to offer; and the gaggles of excited schoolchildren who, steered by their teachers past Kitten Hell, gurn and point and giggle at Pickled Lily. Alex prefers to avoid the public galleries by day. Even more so by night, when the play of shadow and light on the exhibits, the unseen depths of darkened cases, is unsettling.

To her right and seaward are the rooms used by the Institute’s small cadre of resident scientists; the common room and the refectory. The common room is immense, cheerless and barely used. The furniture, mainly second-hand old sticks and the occasional half-sunk chesterfield, is dwarfed by height of the room, the monumental cornicing and plasterwork. The room is always cold: the enormous, cast-iron radiators can never adequately heat this vast north-facing space, because the huge, single-glazed windows quickly suck out such feeble warmth as they can produce. The fireplace, once so grand, is blind, boarded up during the war as an economy measure and never reclaimed. But the views over the sea through the wide windows are as magnificent as those enjoyed by a guillemot perching on the very teeth of the cliffs. She can hear the storm now, like thunder against the rocks below, almost as if she were right in it. The waves hurl sand and grit at the panes, but she can see nothing: the electric sconces burn low, and the windows are covered with thick velvet curtains which by day are deep maroon. At night, they are black as squid ink.

The refectory, in a room just as vast as the common room, has similarly good views, and such makes it an interior yet more dismal: it is furnished with modern tables and chairs of a quite calculating meanness, given the architecture (it had once been a ballroom). On one side is a counter, staffed, very grudgingly, three times a day, by reluctant part-timers serving generic overpriced snacks and tepid stodge to such scientists and members of the public desperate enough to avail themselves of its services.

At 2.27 a.m., the refectory is closed, the common-room unpopulated, and Alex walks the wide avenue, charting a course straight along its meridian spine. As with everywhere else in the Institute, every spare inch of wall space is crowded with specimens: this corridor, however, has exhibits commensurate with the scale of the spaces they inhabit.

On each side, between doors and beside and beneath windows, are more glass-and-darkwood cases, some of them huge, depicting geology, fossils, exquisite glass models of microscopic creatures of the plankton expanded to the size of footballs, each case surmounted by mounted trophy heads and antlers of the number and density of the pictures at any Royal Academy summer exhibition, a true stampede of beheaded carnage; there are detailed dioramas of life on land and at sea during every age of the Earth; and vast antiquities. Broken columns, parts of temples raided; friezes of lapiths and centaurs; menacing totem poles depicting potlatches from the violent edges of Pacific prehistory, each towering toplessly into shadow; Egyptian gods seated in splendour, and gods of other cultures she cannot identify. She tries not to look too closely at one vast seated figure, carved in what looks like greenish soapstone, of a god that looks like nothing so much as a giant toad. There is something repulsive in its curves, its lines, what disturbs her is that she cannot quite put her finger on what it is, precisely, that repels her.

The corridor ends in a series of broad, marble steps leading down to the mosaic-floored entrance hall, which has but one exhibit: a statue of the Institute’s founder, Sir Frideric Lowdley-Purring (1776-1845), Carrara marble on a gray granite plinth.

Alex doesn’t like this statue much. There is something about Sir Frideric’s expression, something that inevitably draws lines from memories of schooldays, of a wrinkled lip, and a sneer of cold command, and of a sculptor who well those passions read, stamped on this lifeless thing. The statue is thrown in a weirdly rotating shadow, for it is here, through the thick stained-glass of the Institute’s immense front doors, that one can trace the yellow beams of the Deringland Light, just a few hundred yards along the clifftops, and slightly inland. As the beams graze and glance in rhythm on the image of Sir Frideric, they create a kind of slow-motion strobe effect. As Alex walks past the statue, she is convinced that, seen out the corner of one eye, it moves. She tells herself that it is a lump of marble, but, as one scientist said under his breath when bound by his persecutors: eppur si muove.

Alex turns left and down a small flight of stairs that grazes Sir Frideric’s plinth, and confronts a green-painted fire door marked ‘Private, Staff Only’. She gets out a set of keys, unlocks the door, and arrives in a familiar world. It is 2.31 a.m., and she sighs with relief.

At no time during her ten-minute hike, her writhing course from apex to basement of this sprawling building, has she met another living person.

She has not been at the Institute quite long enough to take her expert pilotage for granted, that she can now get from attic to basement without getting lost. Her first few days were a nightmare, often literally so, as her mind would replay her mishaps mercilessly in anxious dreams of hopeless mazes. The Institute is, however, nightmare incarnate, tuberculous with fractal corridors and Escherian staircases which all looked the same to Alex until she could learn the landmarks, each of which was, inevitably, something stuffed, or half-seen in a glass case; to each of which she stood in immediate debt, praying that it would not move to a different place between one journey and the next, mocking her still-fragile grasp of the building’s mazy geography. In this way the landmarks became more than zoological curios, but household gods, worthy of votive offerings and prayers, silent but knowing keepers of secrets. They would watch her closely as she passed by.