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Fiction

Pickled Lily

By The Sea: Part I, Chapter 4

Henry Gee 10 June 2007

www.lablit.com/article/265

The eye-sockets are untenanted, the faces disfigured, gluey globs of matter float in the jars alongside the specimens...

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue 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 Four

Now quite outside the town but not yet at the crest of the ridge that dominates its southern skyline and which, to an extent, determines the peculiarity of its weather, Fitch signals left. Sheepwool can see no sign of a turnoff, although she records with quiet amusement a notice advertising ‘Restful Paws Luxury Cat Hotel’ over five gold stars, with the subscript ‘Fully Licensed’. But there it is, just past a coven of low brick-and-flint cottages half-hidden in a spinney of sepulchral trees.

The side road is steep at first, and surfaced only in scabrous patches of asphalt between scaphes of chippings. Fitch grits her teeth, slipping down into first gear and willing the car to scramble up the potholed ascent, sharps flying in all directions. The grade soon becomes less precipitous, and the lane continues upwards as a rutted track between low hedges of writhen beech which thin out and eventually vanish altogether. After a few hundred yards the lane is the only mark left on an otherwise featureless landscape, a scar across a sea of close-cropped grass which, swept into swirls by the gusting wind, extends to a horizon over which nothing can be seen but sky.

A lone mote in a vast green-gray space, the car, breeze-buffeted, reaches the top of the grade and, quite suddenly, Sheepwool can see the sea before her, welcoming and terrifying. Buildings appear to punctuate the expanse and give it scale.

The track passes, first, to the right of the Deringland Light with its keeper’s cottage and walled outbuildings, its flawless whitewash exuding, to Sheepwool’s eyes, nothing so much as a witless smugness, strange in view of the maritime destruction to which it is a testament.

Behind the Light, on a bluff set somewhat to the right and further along the track, on the very edge of the cliffs, is a building which Sheepwool has seen every day since her arrival in Deringland, although never at close quarters. This is their destination, The Lowdley-Purring Institute. From a distance no more than a vague smudge of disquiet, close up it rises like a thunderhead behind the whiteness of the Light, and is quite possibly the ugliest building Sheepwool has seen in her life.

As the car slows on its final approach to the Institute’s gaping gates and gravel forecourt, Sheepwool sees the many gables and rooflines of the over-large building, cast against the white of the sky, as a constantly shifting line. And so it is for the building more generally. The closer she gets to it, the harder it is to see as a cohesive entity. One factor never changes, and that is its loathesomeness.

The building might once have started, she supposes, as a Jacobean folly, that is, a kind of mistake, set on a headland perhaps more extensive than it is now. But where the building should have been admitted straightaway as an architectural abortion and cast down, either replaced by the elegant lines of a Georgian mansion, or removed entirely, it was, in fact, built on, compounding the error. So it is that big, rectilinear Nash-style windows were forced into its structure like the stigmata of traumatic violation.

In subsequent years, no expense was spared to make the place as hideous as possible. If any one theme could be said to dominate the raucous parliament of styles, it is Victorian Neo-Gothic, whose singularly inappropriate lines form the greater bulk of the building. Being, as it is, one of the very earliest examples of the Gothic Revival in Britain, the architects had not quite managed to achieve any particular harmony of proportion: explaining why, perhaps, the third and fourth storeys of the building, with their elaborate gables and dormers, perhaps more appropriate for one of London’s larger railway stations than for a remote seaside mansion, seem shambling and unfinished; and why the stained-glass windows seem either too large or too small. Even the Neo-Gothic parts of the building have not proven immune to later alteration and replacement, subsequent builders being always careful to leave the very worst examples, as if they were the stubbornest marks on the base of a scorched frying pan which no amount of scrubbing can erase.

But worse was to come. Plastered ineptly on to the Victorian revival of the Gothic is the Edwardian revival of the Tudor, such that in between the dark buttresses one can see exposed beams and pargetting, a juxtaposition which Sheepwool would find sad were it not quite so comic, given that much of the ornate plasterwork has pitted and fallen away, revealing the underlying structure in wide, unseemly holes. By that period, Sheepwool realizes, the structure of the entire building was becoming compromised, not only by the ill-assortment of its component parts, but by the unsoundness of the cliffs on which it rested. For the entire building is riven with cracks, such that the supreme ugliness of the architectural additions of the later twentieth century might be excused, if only partly, by their utility: for the building now stands in part thanks to steel bonds and what must be thousands of tons of reinforced concrete. Even that shows signs of disfigurement, with the efflorescent stains of rust from corroded steels showing through, as dispiriting here as in any 1960s shopping mall.

As Fitch brings the car to a halt in a space marked ‘visitors’, Sheepwool reflects that were the building a living thing, it had died sometime in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with any Edwardian additions analogous to embalming. In this light, subsequent alterations comprised the kinds of makeshift patch-up jobs required only to offer the appearance of soundness, concealing what is in fact an inexorable slide into putrefaction.

But as Sheepwool gets out of the car into the cool breeze and looks around at the palleted stacks of cement bags in various corners of the car park, the large piles of sand, gravel and scaffolding poles, she admits an alternative view, that the building had never been truly finished; that Sir Frideric’s aims were not yet achieved; that the Institute is as any living thing, that is, a dynamic equilibrium, a constantly shifting armed truce between small-scale death and resurgent life. A closer inspection gave the lie to this, however, the scaffold poles are pocked with rust and twined with brambles; the sand piles garlanded with nettles and red-blemished dock, and girt all round with couch grass. The building has died, then, and so have the final attempts at restoration. Just for an instant, Sheepwool sees herself and Fitch, in the understated costume of detectives on duty, walking into a flesh-strewn orifice of a gigantic corpse.

Now Fitch and Sheepwool stand before the great oak doors, each of which bears the kind of stained-glass window seen in Edwardian villas up and down the country, but whose subjects here must be unique: marine life in profuse array, what look like sea-serpents and tentacles curling round one another in a silent yet urgent frenzy. The design reminds Sheepwool of the alarming window-dressing in ‘Secrets of the Sea’, and finds herself simultaneously fascinated and repelled. Her reverie is short-lived, for the door is opened by a housekeeper, an elderly woman whose smallness is only emphasized by the edifice that surrounds her. She neither asks their names nor introduces herself, but beckons wordlessly for them to follow. And so they enter the maw of the great building.

The long skirts of the housekeeper conceal her feet so that she seems to glide rather than walk, and, even so, she moves surprisingly quickly. Fitch follows her with decision, as quickly as high heels and a pencil skirt will allow, her steps clacking on the marble floor of the entrance hall. Sheepwool, however, is distracted by her surroundings, forever drawn aside by details, and soon falls behind. She notices, first, an imposing statue of a man whose handsome face suggests some evil, barely concealed yet proudly worn. She takes this to be the Institute’s eponymous founder. To the right, and down some steps, is a thick door marked ‘Private’, already barred with police-lines tape. That must be the scene of the crime, if such it is.

She looks up just in time to see Fitch ascend marble stairs to a long, carpeted vestibule hung with large, darkened portraits and chandeliers, dusty in the light of morning filtered through windows from adjacent rooms, and she stirs to follow. But Fitch is too quick for her: as Sheepwool reaches the top of the stair, her colleague has disappeared. The movement of the corner of a tapestry in air reluctantly stirred into motion suggests that Fitch has turned through an open door, second on the right off the wide hallway.

Content in this knowledge, Sheepwool takes time to linger. Her first impression of the hall is of the rampant clutter of natural history: fossilized, shot, decapitated, flayed, dressed, dismembered, reassembled, preserved, categorized, rearranged; everything, she thinks, short of outright reanimation. Preferring calm and minimalist order, almost messianically so in her new life, scrupulously shorn as it is of personal complication, this is not a place to which she would gravitate, still less call home. She wonders, though, why she doesn’t find such artfully displayed carnage detestable, even creepy, and also why she is not more outraged than she is at the antics of people, evidently unable to leave the works of nature well alone, but driven instead to catch, kill and rip them to pieces, only to put them together again in grinning tableaux that can never be more than cynical simulacra of unvarnished reality. No, rather than outrage, she feels wonder at all this perverse industry, her mind forming a host of questions about science as the expression of some human urge to control, to dominate. But she’s not convinced by that line of reasoning either. For a moment, she wonders whether her lack of engagement with such issues is a reaction to what she resolutely refers to only as ‘recent events’.

Perhaps, she thinks, her detachment is more than the consequence of such events, but simply goes with her job. She is here, after all, not as a tourist, but in the line of duty. As it always does, this thought gives her more than a little solace. And so resolved, she sets off to follow Fitch.

**********

Once through the imposing square arch through which she’s convinced Fitch has passed, Sheepwool finds herself in a great display hall, presumably the main exhibition space of the Institute. Like the vestibule, the walls are crowded with specimens, from the statues and cabinets at floor level to the tapestries, bas-reliefs and trophies hung so high that reading their labels is impossible from ground level. Much of the intervening parqueted floor is similarly covered, with hardwood-and-glass cabinets displaying various examples of sea life trapped like exhaled exclamations in vials and jars or beneath watch-glasses. The hall faces south and somewhat eastward, such that the winter sun now peers through the tall windows, shafts riding on motes in the great space and glancing, distractingly, off the many panes of glass that separate the visitor from the specimens. Whenever Sheepwool tries to read one of the yellowing labels beneath a specimen, the words always seem half-obscured by reflected sunshine and dancing rainbows of refraction.

Thus squinting, she comes to a cabinet at the very centre of the room, a towering, hexagonal mausoleum divided into six, separate, prism-shaped display cases, each one reaching from knee height to well above, she thinks, the height of a tall man carrying a toddler on his shoulders. Like Nick did, that day when...No, she reins herself in. Not now. Not here. Not anywhere.

The cabinet is central to the Institute in more ways than one, it seems, for it is here (Sheepwool reads through half-closed eyes) that the pride of Sir Frideric’s collection is displayed, the many artful taxidermic ‘fakes and fancies’ (Sheepwool smiles at the phrase) for which the Institute is famous. Starting in the welcome shade of the most north-facing pane of the hexagon, she is invited to wonder at a display of ‘arctic trout’ in fur coats, and other oddities. One of these, the platypus, is a kind of double-bluff, a genuine work of nature discovered when the fashion for taxidermic artistry was at its height, and so naturally assumed, at first, to have been something of the same kind.

Feeling herself edified, Sheepwool works clockwise, to the next case.

This displays, in its upper half, a line of stuffed cats, some with wings, in a grotesque display she cannot immediately understand. Many of the cats are in fact kittens, invariably white, and in costume, some as Victorian Ladies and Gentlemen, booted and bonneted, but others in the clothing of other eras. There is a Roman centurion, and a cat dressed in furs and a club, the cartoon caveman. But other cats, adult ones, all black, and with the chiselled faces of Siamese or Abyssinians, are bat-winged and unclothed, suspended above the line of penitents: yes, penitents, that’s what they are, grimacing horribly and waving, what are they? Pitchforks? Tridents? When she sees the direction in which the queueing kittens are headed, downwards, through an open set of shark jaws, she realizes what she is looking at.

It is hell.

Literally so, for the lower half of the display reveals a cavern, roughly made from plaster and gaily lit with orange fairy-lights, in which the bat-winged cats are subjecting the white kittens to all kinds of torture, everywhere the silent screams preserved for posterity by the skill of the taxidermist; other kittens are being dissected ‘alive’, in a simulacrum of extremis, by grinning, drooling cats. And there are all manner of other delicacies of feline interaction which Sheepwool can hardly imagine any teacher, or any parent, subjecting a school party. She feels her face, her neck, and the skin beneath her blouse prickle in a cold sweat.

She turns to the next panel. The exhibits in this cabinet, now half-facing the sunlit windows, are initially hard to make out amid the glancing glare. The label, however, is in shadow, and more easily read: from it, Sheepwool learns that in this case, six of Sir Frideric’s finest specimens of mermaids might be viewed. Two or three he made himself, the label informs her, whereas others were received from other connoisseurs. Just as she finishes reading the label, stooped down low to make out the finer print, the sun is covered by a scut of cloud, and the reflections of sky in which the case had been wrapped now vanish. The mermaids, she is disappointed to see, are quite small, and almost laughably crude. Although each one is suspended in alcohol in a tall glass jar, it is easy to see that they are no more than the front halves of monkeys, crudely stitched to the back halves of fishes.

On a closer look at one of two of the larger specimens, however (marlin and macaque? shark and siamang?) the division between fish and monkey is harder to make out. But these examples, Sheepwool notices, are the more decayed ones: the eye-sockets are untenanted, the faces disfigured, and gluey globs of matter float in the jars alongside the specimens.

Sheepwool finds herself relieved, heartened, even, that the mermaid cabinet is such a comedown after the nightmare of the kitten-hell, and so turns to the next cabinet, the one facing more or less southward, towards the high windows, with more composure. But the sun has emerged from its veil, and strikes the cabinet full on. All she can see in the thick glass is the sun’s disk, reflected back at her, hardly ameliorated by her own silhouette. Behind the sun she can just about make out a pair of arms and the bifurcating end of a large, fishy tail. Dazzled by the glare, Sheepwool looks down at the label, mercifully in shadow. The large, coal-black italics, picked out on the wrinkled, sun-baked card, read ‘Pickled Lily’. Ah, Sheepwool thinks, this must be the specimen Fitch was on about in the car. Interest heightened, she reads further.

Many tales surround this famous specimen. The most celebrated is that it was a real mermaid, caught in the South Seas at some time in the eighteenth century by one Obed Marsh, a whaler from the port of Innsmouth in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The story is that the specimen, soon named ‘Pickled Lily’, despite being killed and preserved in white rum, had cursed Marsh’s crew, many of whom died during the voyage, and that Marsh was very keen to sell her as soon as he made landfall. She was acquired in Valparaiso by an agent for Sir Frideric and made her way to this Institute.

A likely story, Sheepwool thinks. But being the policewoman she is, though, habit propels her to read further in search of corroboration. At first, she thinks she finds it.

Modern scholarship suggests that this tale is fanciful, and that Pickled Lily is less a genuine mermaid than a very fine example of the taxidermist’s art. It is now generally believed that this specimen was created by Sir Frideric himself. If so, the tales that have grown up around Pickled Lily are a tribute to the skill of a master at the peak of his powers.

However, as is so often the case in police work, there are always loose ends that no amount of tying-up can ever seem to resolve.

It is however notable that Sir Frideric’s will explicitly forbids the examination of ‘Pickled Lily’ to establish the truth of the matter.

Sheepwool pauses to consider this. Never mind how skilful Sir Frideric’s artistry, nobody, even he, would ever doubt that the specimen before her, still obscured by glare, was a fake. Taxidermy is all a matter of illusion, of bluff, of convincing one, in the same way that a conjuror might, that the canonical Beautiful Assistant really has been sawn in half, even when you know perfectly well that she hasn’t. So why then, if it were well known as such, would Sir Frideric seek to prevent the exposure of his skill, even after his own death?

But before she has had time to assimilate this, a cloud once again covers the sun and she can see Pickled Lily for the first time, and when she does, her skin crawls with the miasmic horror of it.

Her hands fly to her face.

“Ma’am?” Fitch’s voice echoes from the far end of the gallery, as if from the bottom of a well.

“Ma’am?” Now moving closer, heels tick-tocking on the hard floor , now right beside her. Fitch’s pale blue eyes turn to her inquiring, concerned. “Ma’am, I turned round and you weren’t there. Ma’am, are you all right? You look as white as a sheet!” Fitch quite pointedly does not look at the specimen, but moves, hand gently on elbow, to chivvy her immobile superior away from it.

“Yes, quite all right, thank you, Fitch. Now, remind me, whom should we see first?” Sheepwool removes her arm from Fitch’s light grasp with the waspish, exaggerated care of an old woman who despite her infirmities feels she can manage quite well on her own, thank you very much.

Fitch, stung, looks at her quizzically. “We’re going to see the Director of the Institute, Ma’am, who reported the discovery of the body.”

“Which was…of whom?” Fitch looks puzzled, as if Sheepwool has lost her mind.

“Just remind me please, Fitch.” Sheepwool hopes she doesn’t sound as sharp as she thinks she does. She hopes that she can plead in mitigation, as it were, that her mind still feels as if it is surrounded by cotton-wool, and that Fitch seems to be speaking to her from a very great distance.

“That was Dr Evanston Bland, the previous Director.”

“But the new Director? His name?”

“Yes, Ma’am, it’s a Dr Morrison. Marion Morrison.”

Sheepwool pulls herself up sharply: “Is Dr Morrison a woman?”

Fitch falters: “I…er…don’t actually know, Ma’am…with a name like that, I kind of assumed that she…he…”

Sheepwool feels slightly cross with Fitch, but realizes in an instant that she should really feel cross with herself for not finding all this out for herself. The gender of Dr Morrison could be important, especially if allegations about the late Dr Bland’s sexual predation were related in any way to his death.

“Well, no matter, we’ll soon find out.”

Fitch smiles weakly, feeling that she has been absolved of some misdemeanour she didn’t know she had committed, and the two detectives turn to where the mute housekeeper waits outside a white-painted door at the end of the hall.

The distance is a matter of no more than ten yards, but to Sheepwool it might as well be ten miles, or ten light years. Before her shocked eyes, her mind, as if imprinted by the glare of the sun, is the after-image of Pickled Lily. Her tail: well, that was as fish-like as one would expect. Her torso, though. Her face…

The door is now before them. The detectives halt before it, before the white door, the brass plate inscribed ‘Dr Marion Morrison, Director’. The housekeeper knocks on it with a tiny fist.

The torso was white and hairless. Creased and desiccated by time, but plainly not the torso of any monkey or ape. And her face…

“Come in.”

The face was surrounded by a halo of grayish hair that looked like it might once have been long and blonde, but now waving in the preserving fluid like blind weed. The arms, white, dead white, the white of bleached coral, and reaching out as if imploring, begging. The breasts, gray-white flaps like dead-men’s fingers, but which once looked like they might have been plump, and fresh, and human.

The door opens. The first impression Sheepwool gets is of a rich blue carpet and, abruptly, the too-strong odor of cologne.

The face. There is no avoiding it. It is the face of a mummy, with chapped, rotted lips stretched back over prominent, blackened teeth. The nose sunken between high cheekbones, peaked by death. But the eyes. Deeply, hugely blue in that shrunken face, pleading for absolution, for relief from some terror that Sheepwool, helpless in their gaze, cannot name, still less, grant.

A man, it is a man, small but exaggeratedly well-groomed, as if a well-dressed but ordinarily-sized man were shrunken, his tailoring condensed, concentrated, walks towards her, hand protruding from tailored crimson-and-white-striped cuff, extended in greeting.

Sheepwool knows that whatever else this specimen is, might be, the eyes, at least, must be fakes. But why do they seem so alive? Why do they follow her across the hall as she moves, flees, with Fitch, towards their appointment? And why does she get the distinct impression that it is not just the specimen’s eyes that turn to follow her, but its whole head, an expression painted on its dead features of anguish, of…disappointment?

“Detective Inspector, Detective Sergeant, please come in, take a seat.” A calm voice, beguiling, disconcertingly deep and, well, masculine, for the small frame. A smile that resolves from the rot of centuries to the clean lines offered by modern dentistry. Extreme lines, actually. For as Dr Marion Morrison smiles, Sheepwool feels that his lips, as they draw back to expose his teeth, might as well just keep on pulling backwards, until the edges of his mouth encircle his head so that it falls from his body, as if unzipped. Morrison, perhaps sensing Sheepwool’s stare, closes his mouth abruptly. At one glance, Sheepwool knows she has seen that sneer before, on a statue, in the lobby of this awful place.

It has taken a few minutes for her to learn to hate the Lowdley-Purring Institute.

But Dr Marion Morrison she hates on sight.