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Fiction

A metaphor for death

By the Sea: Part II, Chapter 8

Henry Gee 9 September 2007

www.lablit.com/article/299

She is not a colleague, not a lover, not even a friend, but a specimen trapped in a designer bottle

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.

Advisory: this chapter contains explicit sexual references

Chapter 16

On returning to her aerie, The Voyages of Obed Marsh concealed in her bag like the smug prize of a jackdaw, Alex finds a text on her mobile. It is an invitation to dinner. My treat, it says. A small part of her wishes that it had been from Garry Williams, and this embryonic desire could, she imagines, be a part of her long road back to the surface: but it is not. It is from Morrison, and she obeys, with a mixture of fascination, resignation and the hope, perhaps beyond hope, that there will be a change in the weather, something more to this assignation than brutal expediency. But she is armed now with new knowledge, knowledge of which Morrison is surely unaware – and were he made so, he’d dismiss it as idle rubbish. Mermaids? Honestly! But Garry is right – knowledge is power, and it coats her in what she imagines is a sheen of impenetrable diamond, proof against whatever Morrison might throw at her.

Put on posh frock. Meet lobby 7. At first she is blindsided, but soon loses herself in an unaccustomed fluster of grooming. She is forced to admit that this very act is therapeutic in itself. However, the only frock she has that is remotely posh is the strappy red one she had worn for her doctorate graduation. Audacious, she had thought at the time, even though it had been concealed by an academic robe. She had worn it, then, as a kind of rebellion, or as a way of pleasing herself and no-one else. The wearing of it brought with it, as if it were an accessory, a memory of being a teenager in Marks and Spencer in Marble Arch, watching agog as a parade of Arab women in full burkas solemnly passed by, each pushing a supermarket trolley piled high with the sheerest lingerie. She felt akin to those women then – more so, now, concealing a significant new discovery in her mental underclothes, beneath the pretence of her corporeal shell.

And so she arrives, beneath the Founder’s statue, as promptly as they both knew she would.

She finds herself disarmed of her pre-emptive steel even before it is deployed, for when she peers through the glass of the Institute’s main doors, there is Morrison on the gravel forecourt, suited and floodlit in the sleeting weather. He is holding open the door of his red sports convertible, the tails of his tan raincoat flapping in the northerly squall.

“Ma’am – your carriage awaits!” he declares, yelling against the wind, but managing, all the same, a self-deprecating flourish that is quite out of character – but Alex is so charmed, so relieved, that she decides to ignore this, for the moment.

Morrison drives with assurance and great speed through the wet, to a discreet but extremely expensive restaurant in Tombland, on a small cobbled square opposite the gates to Norwich Cathedral. He leaves the car on the kerb, tosses the key to a valet (she is amazed at this) and shepherds her into the restaurant – all in one, commanding swoop. She is quite bowled over, and it is not until they are some way into the first course, and she’s had a glass of wine, that she can begin to attempt the policy of confrontation she’d resolved to pursue. She feels, even as she starts, her resolution crumbling at the edges.

“I’ve managed to do some reading. Background.”

“Hmmm?” Morrison fusses with his food. He does not meet her eyes, but Alex is not sure whether this owes more to his organized dissection of a dressed Deringland crab or to something deeper, more strategic.

“Yes, I…” her voice quavers. “I’ve read up on Houghton. The Spaniel. The first records of carnostomids. The...deaths. They remind, me, you know…”

He looks at her then with a blue stare so penetrating that she stops in mid-sentence, all possibility of further speech taken away. But then he smiles. That big, welcoming smile that forgives everything.

“Oh, Alex. Alex! I told you not to worry when you stumbled across Bland’s body, your poor, sweet thing…” Another part of Alex wants to curl up, then, at this small crumb of affection, for him to tuck her up in bed and read her a bedtime story. “But yes, I have something to share with you which I really ought to have done earlier, as part of our respective contracts – and I apologise. I really do.” She feels herself swell with relief (and pride, and vanity) as another part of her fissile and treacherous soul is now thrust into command: a colleague, yes, but first among equals.

“You may have noticed that I’ve been hogging the Library copy. I’m sorry you’ve had to dig out another.” Alex notices that he does not ask the source of her information. “But yes, I’ve known about carnostomids for, well, a little while…”

“But why…?”

“Because MagusPharm asked me. First, to track your work, as a kind of check – not that you aren’t doing great stuff – but if you’d known what I was up to, that would have spoiled some of the controls, wouldn’t it? Especially as I’m...we’re...” A third part of Alex wants to pull the little lost boy to her breast and hug him.

“Because we’re an item?”

“Well, yes, Alex. That’s just it. That part wasn’t in our MagusPharm contracts.” They both laugh. “Though it’s – I hope you agree – a very nice extra.” Her emotions on hearing this are both so violent and so conflicting that she feels that to say anything risks disgorging a treatise. So she remains silent, and hopes that her smile is not too sickly.

“But better to be hung for a sheep as a lamb,” he continues. “As Director I’ve...er...loaned some of our carnostomid material to our masters at MagusPharm. So they could do some tests – exploratory, mind – on human cell lines. Just to see what they’d find. And, well –”

But Morrison is interrupted by the waiter, who arrives to take their order, and amid much flourishing and gesticulating about the chef’s specials in what Alex is certain is a very fake French accent, Alex and Morrison make their choices (with much solicitation on Morrison’s part), and the waiter retreats. Alex is now desperate to hear the end of Morrison’s account. So desperate, she recalls later, that she’d believe anything. Just to be vouchsafed this information is to receive the food of the Gods.

“What did they find, Morrison?” She is conscious, now, of the blood retreating to the core of her body: her skin is cold. Morrison stares back, with a different face – a flash of the old reptilian. His pupils shrink to points like black lasers. Alex wonders if she has stepped too far – across the line that says one should never, ever question Morrison about anything, not if you know what’s good for you, and she has the sudden sensation of being quite naked before him and inwardly recoils.

“Well, I’d have told you about it eventually, but you know, what with one thing and another...” He leaves the words hanging as he refills her glass. Alex remains mute and still. “But, yes, rough extracts of carnostomids did have the most remarkable effects. Something like a super-antigen. But, you know…” He shifts in his seat. Alex dares to venture another question.

“Anything specific?”

“Well, no. I...they...they haven’t managed to get anything pure, not enough to home in on specific agents – well, that’s all they’ve told me – so we don’t know much about mechanism. And they haven’t scaled things up to an in-vivo level yet. Mice. Rats. You know the drill.” The waiter, as if on cue, arrives with their main courses. “But I can guess, and, well, Bland and all that. I think you’re right, Alex.” She has the curious sense of having dropped into a conversation several steps ahead of where she thought it was. “Bland was killed, I think, from exposure to carnostomids.” Alex’s mind races ahead to possibilities. Connections. The Spaniel Collection. Pickled Lily. Had Morrison had the same intuition she’d had? Had he already disrobed her of her new and precious secret, before she’d known it herself? She feels herself blanch, and once again the sensation of cold panic freezes her limbs. She feels she wouldn’t be able to move even were the tablecloth to ignite.

“But how…?”

“Alex? Alex! Don’t look like that. But yes, I confess, it worries me too. How could Bland have been infected with carnostomids, unless he’d been drinking the preserving fluid? Who’d do that? It’s crazy. And Bland may have been many things, but I’d never have marked him down as that kind of a drinker. No-one is that desperate. Not even Bland. Not when you can get a drop as decent as this Sancerre, anyway.” Morrison laughs as he tops up their glasses once more, but Alex detects a remnant of coldness behind his eyes. A coldness not of remorseless control, but of fear, of a world beginning to slip from his grasp. Without knowing nor caring why, she reaches her left hand across the table and rests it on his wrist. He looks up, then, his pupils once more enlarged, vulnerable.

“There’s something else, Alex. The night Bland died. That same night. Well, he and I had an argument. I might well have been the last person to have seen him alive. The police kept on about it, but, well, I had to be evasive.” He puts down his fork and rests a hand on hers. His fingers find the warmth in the pulse-point of her wrist where the radial artery almost breaks the surface, and strokes her skin with an almost imperceptible movement that nevertheless makes her catch her breath.

“Morrison? Why? What about?” She remembers her own meetings with Inspector Sheepwool, and guesses that even as skilled an operator as Morrison (she is under no illusions on that score) would have had to have choose his words with care.

“Believe it or not, Alex, it was all about you.” Morrison tries to laugh, but it is forced and brittle: “He came on like the alpha male, ranting on about how you were his, or something. I said that Alex – you – were your own woman, and didn’t belong to anyone. But he wouldn’t have it. He said a lot of other things, too, shooting off in all directions, saying how I wasn’t fit to be Director, not with my scientific record, blah blah blah, not that he’d stirred himself to very much on that front. All bollocks. So I told him to...er...get lost. And, well, he did. Pity he had to do so just then.”

It is here that Alex sees a glimpse of things darker, secrets of whose existence she’s not been aware, but Morrison now seems to be talking more to himself than her – so she does not feel entitled to question him further. Nor does she dare. But he looks up then, pinning her to her seat once more with that icy stare, a shocking contrast with the warmth of his hand round her wrist.

“Good job the coroner came up with that natural-causes verdict. Because if he hadn’t, the police would make two and two equal five and conclude Bland was done away with as part of some scientific cover-up. You know what people think of us scientists, Alex, don’t you? Especially those of us who’ve bought into the pharma dollar. Well, what with our work on carnostomids, I’d really be in the shit. And so, Alex, would you. What a mess.

“But we have to keep working on them, you and I. Carnostomids. Given what I...we...MagusPharm knows of their potential immunological effects, we could be onto something big. But you’ve read the small print. Tell no-one what you come across.” His gaze is relentless, stripping away layers of her mind, in search of anything she might be concealing. She feels her lips part as she struggles for breath. “No-one except me, of course.” He smiles again, the same big old smile, and she asks herself, as he pays the bill with his MagusPharm platinum card, why she always falls for it.

**********

She lies now, half on her back, half on her side, half awake, in his bed, cradling him to her. He is asleep, faintly snoring, his face cushioned between her breasts.

The relief she’d felt – that he’d confessed he’d felt too, of a problem shared and thus halved, but mostly that he’d at last confided in her, bringing her into the fold. That whatever they were in, they were in it together, as a pair, as a gang, as a couple. So that when he’d whisked her back to his house, they’d made love as partners, and not as she’d become wearily accustomed, as if he were some kind of mechanic, and she the soulless machine. And yet, even though she’d known she’d had too much to drink, her mind was alert – braced – for his violence. That his lovemaking was, uncharacteristically, anything but violent caught her unawares and, she reflects, made her participation all the more willing, more forgiving, as if compensating for having been so uncharitable to have thought Morrison anything but gentle and considerate.

She remembers little of it, now, except in isolated, pinkly-fogged flashbacks.

Of his big sofa in the huge, upstairs living room, the walls still brick-and-flint rough. And after that, of his big bed downstairs.

Of his hands again, his electric fingers, rucking up the rebellious red dress and parting the scratchy fabric of her knickers, his palm curved around her warm, wet sex, his fingers sliding inside her, her whispers of pleasure, willing him on.

Of his tongue, around and inside her, as his hands – his hands, again – kneading her breasts through the same rebel dress and raising her nipples, and her whispers of pleasure, willing him on.

Of his body as he rose above and on top and inside her, and her own self as she pulled up her bare legs and crossed them over his back, his shoulders, so she could feel him within, as deeply and as hugely as possible.

Of his movement, as measured and as relentless as the sea, in crimson waves of surf that seemed to last forever, bringing them both to tidal climaxes.

Of him now, close to her, unmanned, vulnerable, like a baby in her arms, the half-light of dawn through the French windows. Look at your baby Alex. Look at it. And not like Morrison at all. She drifts once more into seamless sleep.

**********

Rebecca is in her room once again, a room that overlooks the long-shadowed lawn and the clifftops, waiting for the familiar knock, and dreading it. Every evening she prays that it is any one else – Mr Willoughby, her own maidservant, her mother, even – any one but her father’s valet with his message, a message that bears the same wearisome words, a summons to Sir Frideric’s private rooms, a place she now equates with hell itself.

She can hardly bear to think about the transactions that occur within those walls, and when she screams, as she does, inevitably, her soul unable to contain her suffering, she now – after long habit – hears these utterances with detachment, as if they were the screams of someone else, some other tortured creature. Yet this offers scant solace, as it is after all the point of view of a witness complicit in the dreadful actions therein committed: a witness sworn to silence, however unwillingly held.

It is a summons she dare not disobey. She knows, from experience, what would happen to her, should she refuse it.

**********

It is fully light, the silver of an overcast dawn washed with recent rain, when Alex wakes. She is cold, and turns over into a dead space. Morrison has left, silently. Disoriented, she sits up and wonders. But Morrison is a creature like any other animal, true only to himself. This is something she knows she should simply get used to. But did last night count for nothing? She rises and finds a bathrobe, the bathroom, the stairs and the kitchen, air chill around the glow of a cooling kettle on the gleaming steel of the range. It occurs to her then how flawless the kitchen is – indeed, how spare and brand-new everything is in Morrison’s house. As if it had been delivered yesterday. Not a proper home: a show-home, devoid of personality, revealing no more of its occupant than it might an alien. She has been here before – of course! – but she has never been left alone here, and only now, in this gray morning, does she notice the absence of books on the teak shelves; the absence of CDs or DVDs around the big plasma screen; the absence of any photographs that might indicate some connection, however exiguous, with human beings. Family. Friends. Colleagues. The absence of any conventional clutter whatsoever. The surfaces are spotless: even the bins are empty – it could be a set-up for a particularly well-heeled sting operation.

Or a metaphor for death.

She feels the walls close in and draws the robe around her as reflexive protection. Drawn to the kettle as a stone-age hunter – or a moth – might be entranced by a fire, as the only sign of homeliness in a pitiless Universe, she notices a mug already set up with coffee (instant) and milk, and a folded sheet of paper. It is Institute paper, bearing the single line:

Duty calls. Make yourself at home. Love M.

The amatory declaration foxes her. At first she reads it only as some impenetrable glyph; then as an imperative, a command. Finally it dawns on her that it’s the only time either of them has said anything of the sort, but rather than being warmed by it, she remains confused. Nobody could make themselves at home here. Nobody except Morrison. She boils the kettle, fills the pre-arranged mug and takes it to the sofa. The same sofa on which, the night before, they had started to make love. But even that bears no stigma of the previous night’s excursions. No creases, no residual heat, no musky smell. It’s as if she’s woken up in a different house.

The realization hits her so hard that she almost up-ends the entire mug on the pristine beige carpet. That she has walked into a trap. She is not a colleague, not a lover, not even a friend, but a specimen trapped in a designer bottle, and she expects at any moment huge faces to peer in through the windows, leering.

Yesterday her most earnest wish was that Morrison would confide in her. Today, she wishes that he had said nothing, for now he has confessed – the parallel work on carnostomids, the experiments on human tissue, his suspicions about Bland’s death and what that might imply for them both: and now, apparently, his love – she has become nothing, no-one, expendable. His tenderness of the night before was therefore as cruel in its deception as his previous violence had been to her physical frame.

For now she is soiled, tainted, compromised – bought. For whatever else might happen, Morrison knows perfectly well that she, Alex, can never say anything to Sheepwool for fear of saying too much.

Had she been any other person than the human nullity she knows herself to be, she would have raged, then: spilled her coffee on the carpets, ripped the stuffing from the cushions, beaten chips out of the granite worktops, smashed in the TV, anything to impose some personality on this mockery of a home. But she doesn’t, and Morrison knows she never would.

But before Alex can give herself up for lost, a small bubble of hope rises to the surface of her mind. She still knows something. Something that no-one else knows. She clings to it as a shipwrecked sailor might to a broken spar.

**********

In the same dawn light, five miles to the north, Detective Inspector Sheepwool stands at a different counter-top, nursing a different cup of coffee. The mind, she reflects, is a wonderful thing. Her beloved surrealists had known it – that life is no more than the plane on which we blithely skate, unaware of the surging forces beneath, the subterranean connections between one life and another, connections which are so easily made, provided that one detaches one’s mind sufficiently from the banal prejudices which so often obscure them. Sleep, she finds, is the medium in which such links are forged. Sleep, the gift beyond price which, just a few months before, had been stolen from her, and only lately regained. This is why Sheepwool, more than anyone, appreciates its value.

Connections.

Something that American scientist said – Wilson? Willans? Williams, that was it – about his wife. Middle-aged and pregnant, and a victim of the sea.

And something earlier, much earlier, something that Fitch had said in the car, about Sir Frideric. His wife.

And closer to home. Much closer. Something that Methwold said, or, rather, the shape of something he has never said, but defined in negative by his every action. His glances at the woman in the photograph. Middle-aged. A suicide.

Connections. In the deepest, bluest holes of her mind, she fancies she can see, just on the edge of vision, a yet deeper blue. A flick of a tail, and it’s gone.

Editor's note: This chapter completes Part II. Part III, the concluding section, will resume after a two-week break.