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Fiction

Blinded by the rain

By the sea: Part III, Chapter 7

Henry Gee 11 November 2007

www.lablit.com/article/321

The circle is complete. She must defy the sea, spurn it, run from it as far and as fast as possible

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 Seven

It is difficult for me to write the words I must write, But write them I must, and in great haste – and then, no more.

Alex, holed up in a crevice of the library, a refuge she is confident no-one knows, reads the last page of a journal. It is cheap, octavo, with primitively thick, laid paper in scuffed black leather bindings. The crabbed writing often fades out into stellate blotches, as if drops of water had smudged them. The edges of the pages, too, though once sharp, dissolve into pastel chromatograms of age-separated ink.

I had revered him. He was, and still is, a genius. But one must ask oneself how far one must follow a visionary in the […] of genius, in the cause of Art? How deep one must sink so that the rise will be higher still?

Alex scratches the back of her neck, wonders – again – at the tightness of her clothes in this musty claustrophobia, with the dust of ages falling around her in slow, invisible cascades, mingling with her body’s sweat, slowly petrifying her.

It is with regret, and […] beloved rejected my suit. She […] could not consent to be my wife. Could not. For shame, I admit now that I pressed her, I asked […]. Her response in her eyes should have been eloquence enough, and when I pressed her further, she replied that she was already wed, to Art. To my Art, and his, and that her mind was quite [...] Her agitation was plain […] swooned [...] up, like a little child asleep, I perceived her lightness: and that when I had scaled the stairs to the house, that my left hand – which had been supporting her knees – was slick with her blood, which had issued from her body in thick, massy gouts and had soaked her red […]. It was red, I now own, so that she could advertise what she felt was her shame – and, at the same time, conceal it. I brought her to […] she was still alive, breathing […] gasps, like a small bird in distress. My master’s reaction sent a chill through me – his eyes, glinting with knowingness, with mal[…] scales began to peel from mine own, to see, now, how I had been […] devil.

The sun, barely filtered by the sashes and grime in the skylight, burns imperious white squares on the text.

I could only watch with apprehension at the episodes of […] days. How […] was deemed too far indisposed for my presence to be welcomed. How my master kept me away through one pretext or another. And how the delay was prolonged, when I heard that he had been working many long hours at a specimen, greater and […] he had earlier assayed – and yet, and yet, he forbade my presence, which had always been so essential aforetime. I forget where I had […] Honeypott […] loathly Calibans now forever in his service, and I […] as mockery at my exclusion from the Sanctum, where they were now freely admitted. It was when I heard of the reaction of Lady F[…] with grief and fear at the loss[…] whom I had thought indisposed that I could not in all conscience steer her from my master’s private rooms. So, following her, to ensure that she should not come to harm, we came to the threshold and saw that which I cannot […]

Alex’s eyes are gripped to the fragments between the crumpled, water-stained patches. Her heart strains against blood that seems to have clotted in this heat.

Then it was that the final scales fell. But I could not, now, leave, for a man accustomed to such depravity as I knew he was would hardly allow me […] his sight. I had seen the fates of those who […] worse – I had […] slow disaggregation. I can say no more, and I hope the Lord […] to forgive me. That I am doomed to follow […] will, I hope, […] balance of my punishment against that certainty of […] in the world to come.

A chill closes. Goosebumps rise on her forearms and, were one close enough to hear, the rising hairs on her arms and the back of her neck would make tiny noises of cracks propagating through layers of sweat-mortared dust. Clouds obscure the sun through the skylight, and in the last ray before the light is shut off, she reads the signature, making out the words and letters through a florid, uneven scrawl that had once worn the confidence of youth, but which now petered out into illegibility:

Ra[…] W[…]ou[…]

She puts down the diary, with great care, and in chill of the fast-closing dark, she is seized by an immense jolt as the life inside her kicks. She sits down, startled, new sweat beading her brow with cold, and a long-neglected memory now unfurls, opens up, like an egg, hatching.

You can play in the field and down the lane…

Daddy reads The Tale of Peter Rabbit to five-year-old Alex, curled up in her night-dress with her mass of toys. She remembers how Daddy lingered over the fate of those who stray into Mr McGregor’s Garden.

Only in later years did she recall why – that after their one and only beach holiday, his wife, her mother, had fallen pregnant with her baby sister. Six months gone, Alex’s mother had been seized with a red-eyed compulsion to leave so strong that none could resist her. The Police, when they were called, said that they could hardly restrain a grown woman from leaving, even in such distressing circumstances. Her car was found on the very edge of a lonely cliff-top, but of its driver there was no trace.

Alex, like all children, blamed herself, and, as she grew up, her father did rather little – she now thinks – to disabuse her of that notion. And to assuage her guilt, she thought, in her father’s eyes, she would never go to the sea, or near it – a view reinforced and internalized to become one of loathing and hatred.

There were no more seaside holidays for Alex. No buckets and spades, no funfairs on the pier: Alex grew up, never again having felt the warm grit of sand between her toes, the sun on her back as it glinted on tidal pools.

Things changed in her teens when, as all teenagers will, she taunted her father with the things she knew he most feared: held them up before his eyes, mocking. The long weekends when she would disappear seawards, leaving her father walking tiny, fretful circles as dawn rose. The boys she hung out with. Surfers. Divers.

Daddy had died, broken, less than a year ago. His emaciated, cancer-wracked body held together just long enough to see her awarded her doctorate. He lasted just two more days, and immediately after the funeral she had flown to that conference in Atlanta, when…well, Daddy was right.

Peter Rabbit’s father had been put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.

Alex has now grown to full womanhood, her white skin now scarred, her rosy flesh now bruised like a ripe fruit, her flayed soul now screaming with the pain of betrayal – first her own, of her father, and then of herself. She looks up into the darkness of the library. She knows, now, that the circle is complete. She must defy the sea, spurn it, run from it as far and as fast as possible.

And she must do it right now.

Beyond the Institute, way out to sea, clouds collide. A rent of lightning hits water, harbinger of the first summer thunder.

**********

She has not stopped even to grab her things. Her attic room, the lab, both are closed to her now. As the dark snaps shut, so those parts of her mind are pinched off, discarded, so she can see them only as if reflections in tiny soap bubbles, fading, drifting away on the wind to expand and expire in the distance.

There is only now.

The need, above all else, to escape, squaring up against the relentless pull of the sea. She grabs her bike from the shed just behind Reception. Janice Squearn is there, but her weak attempts to attract her attention are enfeebled further by a crack of thunder so deep and so close that the ground heaves, and her ears ring in response. In the corner of her eye she sees Mrs Squearn look up at what appears to be a crack in the wall and, as if in tableau, the receptionist grabs her bag, fumbles a cell phone from its spilled contents and starts tapping a text, furiously. Alex does not pause ask why, or to whom.

As she leaves, the lights of the Institute flicker, flash and die.

Dizzy, almost deafened by the thunder, Alex wrenches her bike free and lurches from a side-door, out to the car park. She feels rather than sees the gravel as it scrunches beneath her feet as they find the pedals, and she pushes away, free. She has gone no more than twenty yards before the dark above, and all around her, disgorges its load.

Wham.

The rain – more than rain – smacks into her like fists, a fusillade of blows.

Wham. Wham. WhamWhamWhamWhamWham.

She is drenched within a second, and can now feel the rain sluice down the back of her neck, into her eyes. But she must keep pedalling. Away. Away from this place and all it means. Away from all this encircling, enticing sea.

But it is all so heavy. The sudden weight of water; the increased bulk of her body; the accumulation of too many wired, febrile nights; the sheer weariness of fighting what seems no more than a long defeat; her knife-edge closeness to its acceptance – all conspire to drag her back, ever back. She feels that were she only to turn, to look at the Institute and the sea beyond, that tiny spark of her soul still weakly glowing in this endless dark would simply wink out.

She toils on, her sneakers now full of water, the wet denim of her jeans scraping and snagging at her inner thighs, impeding movement. She is now at that nodal point on the great prairie between the Institute and the main road where all that can be seen, in any direction, is the endless grass, whirling in the gale, lit now only by lightning and the dimly livid glare from the belly of the thunderhead. Blinded by the rain, panting and hot from the effort, she puts her faith in what she imagines is the right direction.

Her faith, as it always has been, is misplaced. She careers from the path and hits a rut. The speed is not great, but the rain, and the wind, and the weight of her body and her sodden clothes, tip her over the handlebars and she lands, face-first, in a puddle. She loses consciousness for an instant, but then wakes, sits up, feeling a new wetness on her lips, her chin. She thinks she has cut her tongue. Crawling through gray, chalky mud and grass, she makes contact with her bike. The front tire has burst, the wheel bent out of shape.

She tries to stand. Her left leg wobbles, as if something has gone wrong with her knee. She turns, unsteadily, and sees two things.

The first is the sea. It is much closer than she thought it was. Indeed, she feels that she is on a warm beach under a fluorescent blue sky, with emerald palms, swaying on the shore of a wide jade lagoon, straight out of a holiday brochure. More compartments in her mind close, denying access. Snap. Snap. Snap. She picks herself up and starts to walk back the way she has come. The mote of light in her mind wavers. Look at your Baby, Alex. Look at it. It’s all your fault.

The second thing she sees is two points of halogen-white light, approaching. She stands, warmed by the glare. The lights get larger and draw apart. They are headlights, the raindrops caught in its twin beams like the uncountable tiny flecks of plankton in the ocean, the Great Mother Ocean, who will grant her absolution in her healing surf, would she but let her. But as the car pulls to a stop beside her uncomprehending form, opening a door towards her, she can feel her bloodied mouth open and frame just one word, almost too faint to hear amid the rumble of the thunder, the splash of rain and the roar of the engine.

“Daddy…”

“What? Get in.” She obeys.

It is Morrison.

“Christ, Alex, you stupid girl. Out here? In the rain? I’ll have to clean you up.” She can make him out only in those pieces of him that are picked out in the dashboard lights. The end of his nose. His wristwatch. Cufflinks. She has not quite realized that he is anything more than a loose collective of fireflies – his voice appears to come from the centre of a green-golden cloud, but from a great distance. He drives on, and sliding down the last incline to the main road in a wash of water, turns right, into Deringland.

Swish, swish. The wipers battle against the sheeting water, clearing intermittent patches in the windshield like strobes. Morrison has now turned away from her, concentrating on the road ahead. He appears to forget she is there and, therefore, she is not. The wipers counterpoint a long speech he is making to himself. Of judgement. Of resolution. And, above all, of self-justification.

Swish, swish.

“It’s all over for us here. But no matter, I believe with confidence that our work here is done. It’s time to re-strategize our priorities. With the results we have we can rebuild capacity elsewhere, we can…”

Swish, swish.

“The subject I can present now is currently in an advanced state of development, rolling out a new research line, unfolding.”

Swish, swish.

“Yes, it’s just the one at the moment – and yes, I admit, I have a major stake in its timely delivery. You could say it’s personal.”

Swish, swish.

“Of course, my role was only supervisory. Facilitatory. Sowing the seeds, as it were.”

Swish, swish. He slows at the lights and, with great care, turns left, headed for Norwich, and, beyond that, the rest of the world.

“My collaborator, Dr Beach, is much closer to this…uh…research than I am. She’s onto it, twenty-four seven. It’s taken her over completely, really got – how can I put it? – under her skin. So she was of some fucking use after all. If only as an incubator.”

He turns to her then. All she can see are his teeth. His smile is disproportionately wide, as if it might unzip itself all the way round to the back of his head. It looks like he might eat her alive. Consume her. Consumables. And when consumed, discarded.

Internal fertilization.

Water, and more than water, pools on the seat below and between her thighs.

**********

“Janice?”

Torchlight in the darkened corridor, the foyer of the Institute.

“Dr Williams! Is that you? I was just trying to text Frankie – Miss Honiton – but all the lights went out.”

“It’s Alex, isn’t it?” He leans against the Reception counter. The thunder grinds and cracks its way round the horizon. The rain pounds against the front of the Institute with the faceless fury of a zombie army. Janice Squearn stands: lit from below by the glare from her computer screen, her face is thrown into grotesque Hitchcockian shadows that finger their way to the high cornicing.

The computers have their own generators, at least. Uninterruptible Power Supply. He’d insisted on that, when he’d come here.

“Alex? Alex – yes, I just saw her go. She went to get her bike, and…oh my. In this weather!”

“Yeah. And I saw Morrison in his car. Leaving. In this weather. Perhaps he’ll pick her up.”

Janice sits down again, casting her face around the desk, looking for something. “Oh, do you think so?”

“Sure I do. And it’ll be bad news for Alex if he does.”

“Will it? That poor girl. Driven. Do you know, I think she’s pregnant? Can’t imagine who the father is. But a girl in that condition, she should rest, she should…”

“She should do a lot of things. And above all, she should stay away from Morrison. I know more about that man than you’d want to know.”

Janice stands up again, quite straight, her face ashy white in Williams’ flashlight beam. “Do you…? I…I forgot…I should have…Oh my!” She looks down, and starts scrabbling once more among notes and papers and telephone books like a vorpal squirrel after the last of its hoard, muttering. Then she stares straight at him as if she had just spotted the severed head of John the Baptist hovering in the air, behind him. He wonders why she is so agitated, hopping around like spit on a griddle. Does he always have this effect on people?

Anyway, he has the distinct feeling that she’s not listening when he tells her of how Morrison had been banned forever from lab work. After he, Professor Garrison Williams, had uncovered those so-called accidents. Those girl graduate students, those ditzy lab techs he’d knocked up.

And then sliced up.

Careless, though. One of them had been alive – only just – to finger him to the Police, just as they raided his lab through the front, while he vamoosed out back.

He can still remember that girl. Haunts his dreams. On a gurney, awash with blood like you’d never seen, sliced like a bad C-section. Whatever was in there, though, had been ripped loose. Ripped. She died, that girl, right before his eyes – died right there, on the gurney, in all that blood.

It was hushed up, of course, as these things are. Drug money can do so much. He’d been under a cloak of anonymity, on the Board of Inquiry. But Morrison had been anonymous, kind of. Back then he was called John Wayne. God knows what he’ll call himself now, after his latest flit.

With Alex. And what she’s carrying.

And Williams remembers, and remembers, that girl on the gurney. How much she looked like Bev. He didn’t do so much work after that. His research took a nosedive. The drugs helped, though, for a spell, until they took over from work, sort of, and, well, here he is, in the same place of banishment as the man he’d helped exile. Ironic. And with a girl who, if he didn’t do something about it, would end up as his latest experiment. The voice of Janice Squearn knocks on the closing doors of his mind.

“Yes, that’s all very well, Dr Williams. But we can do something about this. You see, Miss Honiton has found something I think you should see. Look – I found it!” She holds up a big, steel key. It shines and sparkles in the torchlight. “I had meant to do something – call Elaine Fitch – when we found out, but then Bob Honeypott, well, you know…”

“I liked Bob,” he says, following Janice Squearn down the hall, pointing the way with a high beam between the lugubrious shadow-shifting shapes of the display cabinets, to Morrison’s office. “He was always very good to me.”

The door is ajar. The desk has been stripped of papers – a few scraps lie abandoned on the floor. Same old, same old.

“Bob Honeypott?” says Squearn, edging behind the desk to the concealed panel. “He had some redeeming features, then.” The panel yawns open to worlds beyond. “When I taught him at school he was a little shit.”

**********

Ralph Willoughby is packing a case as fast as he can. A footman – one he knows shares his fear of Sir Frideric and the Honeypotts – is ready with a horse to speed him away before they notice his absence. He will run, he will hide, he knows not where. England will be too small a compass for their vengeful search. He will try America, perhaps. Or Hindustan. Or the South Seas. Anywhere but here.

But his last memory of this place will not be of Sir Frideric and their work together, but of eyes. The maddened, bulging eyes in the face of Lady Felicity as she hurled herself over the cliff, right before him, paralyzed as he was with incredulity at what they had together witnessed, and unable to stop her. They were the same eyes – the same sweet, blue eyes – that his beloved Rebecca had once worn, before Sir Frideric had desecrated her, had done to her what even he, so close to the mind and the ways of the great Artist, would have thought beyond speech, beyond imagining.

The same eyes, before Sir Frideric had scooped them from her dead skull and replaced them with perfect, unseeing glass.