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Authors: Graham Joyce

Dark Sister

BOOK: Dark Sister
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DARK SISTER

 

 

by
Graham Joyce

 

 

G&S Books

 

 

Dark Sister is a work of fiction.  All characters and events
portrayed in this novel are fictitious or used fictitiously.

Copyright © Graham Joyce 1992.  All rights reserved.

This E-book edition first published 2012 by G&S Books.

Graham Joyce is a multiple award winning author.  He grew up
in the mining village of Keresley near Coventry.  In 1988 he quit his job
as a youth officer and decamped to the Greek island of
Lesbos
,
there to live in a beach shack with a colony of scorpions and to concentrate on
writing. He sold his first novel while still in Greece and travelled in the
Middle East on the proceeds.  He is a winner of The World Fantasy Award;
is
five-times
winner of the British Fantasy Award for
Best Novel; is twice winner of the French Grand Prix De
L'Imaginaire
;
and was the winner of the American O Henry short story award in 2009.

His website is:
www.grahamjoyce.co.uk
.  He tweets as
Grahamjoycebook

Other
novels by Graham Joyce:

Dreamside
(Kindle available)

House
Of
Lost Dreams

Requiem

The Tooth Fairy (Kindle available)

The
Stormwatcher

Leningrad Nights

Indigo

Smoking Poppy

The Facts Of Life

The Limits
Of
Enchantment

Memoirs
Of
A Master Forger by William
Heaney/ How To Make Friends With Demons

The Silent Land

Some Kind
Of
Fairy Tale

(Short
storie
)
:
:

Partial Eclipse & Other Short Stories

Tales
For
A Dark Evening (Kindle
available)

(
Children & Young Adult novels
):

Spiderbite

TWOC

Do
The
Creepy Thing (Kindle available)

Three ways To
Snog
An
Alien

The Devil’s Ladder

(
Non-fiction
):

Simple Goalkeeping Made Spectacular

TO:
MY MOTHER AND FATHER, WHO NEVER PUT ME THROUGH ANY OF THIS

 

When Alex had ripped out the boards, in a cracking and
splintering
of wood, he called Maggie. The kids came too, along with Dot,
their Labrador-cross, who had a sniff at the results.

"I knew it!" Maggie said. "It's beautiful!"

Alex was more doubtful. "It might be when it's cleaned up."

It was a standard Victorian fireplace, with a
wrought-iron and tiled surround. Maggie was already rubbing at the tiles,
exposing bright, floral patterns. The grate was intact, though choked with soot
and debris.

"It's got to be swept. Kids, take all this wood out the back."

Alex liked to have his
gofors
around when he was doing a job. Maggie was already
making inroads into the debris with a dustpan and brush when she leapt back.

"Ugh!"

The children crowded closer. "What is it?"

Maggie looked as though she wanted
to be sick. "Come away from it."

"What is it, Mummy?"

Alex poked at the debris in the grate. Mixed in with
the soot were what seemed like sticks and
straw.
"I see it," he said. "It's nothing.
Only a
dead bird."
He lifted it out on the dustpan. It was a large,
black-feathered bird with wings spread. Obviously it had been there for some
time. Desiccated, though not decayed, its feathers were choked with dust and
soot, and its eye had whitened over. Its beak hung open. Alex waved it at the
kids.

"Ugh!" said Amy.

"Ugh!" said Sam, with fascinated eyes.

Even Dot seemed to wince.

"Take it away, Alex."

"It must have nested in the chimney
at some time.
Then got trapped.
Happens
all the time."

"What will you do with it, Daddy?"

"We'll have it for Sunday dinner.
Blackbird in
parsley sauce."

"Take no notice, Amy, he's being
silly. Get it out of the house, Alex."

"Will we give it a proper burial,
like Ulysses?" Amy wanted to know.

When Amy's goldfish Ulysses had died,
they'd given it a state funeral in the back garden, so Alex took the bird
outside, dug a hole for it, and covered it over.

Amy patted the soil with the spade.
"Will it go to heaven now?"

"Yep," said Alex. "If you
look up at the sky, you'll see its white soul flying towards heaven."

It was an afternoon in late October, and
the sky was as blue as a bird's egg. Amy looked up at the sky for a long time.
Then she looked back at her father. He could see that at five years old she was
already beginning to distrust some of the things he said. It made him sad.

"Let's go back inside."

It had all started the night they'd gone over to the
Suzmans
for dinner. First the car wouldn't start.

"What are you getting mad about?" Maggie said.

It was the kind of remark
guaranteed to infuriate Alex. He wasn't mad until Maggie had told him not to
get
mad. Now he was mad. He took a deep breath and tried to think why he was
getting angry. It had started to rain, the kids were playing slap in the back
of the car and Maggie was looking at him. She wore too much blusher and
eye-shadow. Whenever they went to the
Suzmans
, Maggie
felt insecure; and whenever Maggie felt insecure she put on too much makeup.

He got out of the car, flung open the
bonnet, and was impotently fiddling with the plug leads when the engine coughed
into life, fan blades narrowly missing lopping off the tops of his fingers. Now
he really had something to be mad about, and this made him feel a lot better.

Maggie still had her hand on the ignition
keys. "Magic touch," she said, smiling at him as he climbed back
inside.

"Trying to amputate my fingers, were
you?" Her smile disappeared. He looked at the heavy red lipstick at war
with her flaming chestnut hair. Who could stay angry with someone so nervous
about meeting old friends that she had to plaster her face like that? Alex
couldn't. "Forget it."

He turned to the kids in the back.
"If you two don't stop slapping each other, I'm going to bang your heads
together." He'd never banged heads, and probably never would, but Maggie
turned and nodded to them as if to say
he means it.

"This is supposed to be enjoyable," she said.

"So why isn't it enjoyable?" said Amy.

"That kid's five," Alex
shouted.
"Five!”
And Maggie knew everything was fine.

And the visit to the
Suzmans
had turned out to be enjoyable after all. Amy and
three-year-old Sam were whisked off by the
Suzman
kids, giving their parents the chance to show Alex and Maggie around their
monster of a new house. Bill
Suzman
, a commercial lawyer,
had managed to get in before the house prices went crazy. Alex had missed the
boat, as usual.

After Alex and Maggie were
conducted on a grand tour (where they were expected to admire the way the
towels were folded in the bathroom, and to comment on the parquet floor) Bill
cracked open the wine. Anita drew attention to their new integrated sound
system and located the right music before they settled down in front of a
rip-roaring log fire.

Maggie looked into the flames, firelight
reflecting in her hair and in the wine glass at her lips, and Alex knew exactly
what she was thinking. Marriage, proximity to another person, he supposed,
cultivated knowingness, a rough telepathy. It was something you acquired in
exchange, when ardour faded. But he loved to do things to make her happy, and
if she, too, wanted an open fire, she could have one.

Nice fireplace," Alex observed.

"Original to the house," Bill
said, getting up to stroke the marble mantelpiece. He always stroked anything
he wanted others to admire: his CD player, his mantelpiece, his wife.

"Look at those tiles.
Perfect condition.
Been boarded up for
years.
We had to rip out an old gas fire to get to it."

"That old fire had protected
it," said Anita.

"You wouldn't believe," Bill
continued, "the state of the thing we took out. You're an archaeologist,
Alex; you'd appreciate it.
One of those sixties plastic
log-effect things.
You plug 'em in and a rotating fan casts shadows on a
very unconvincing orange light."

"Ghastly," Maggie agreed, and
they laughed more at the word than at Bill's description.

"We've still got one," said
Alex.

There was a pause. "I'd forgotten
about that," said Anita.

"What the hell," said
Bill.
"Is dinner ready?"

Dinner was indeed ready, because Anita had
hired some help for the evening, a gesture beyond Maggie's comprehension and
budget. Silverware gleamed, crystal glimmered, and no one seemed unduly worried
when Sam seemed deliberately to tip a glass of claret on to the snow-white
tablecloth.

"Why did you do that?" said
Alex, exasperated.

Sam giggled and showed everyone a mouthful
of half-chewed dinner.

Otherwise the meal went well. Alex and
Bill cackled a lot and guzzled wine. Anita said sophisticated things about
antiques, in which she had a "hobby" business, and Bill stroked her
arm a great deal. Maggie paid attention to keeping the children in order. Then
she won the others' interest by telling them about a psychic evening she'd
attended.

"It was a birthday present from
Alex," she said.

Alex coloured slightly. "It was what
she asked me for. It was a joke."

Maggie began to relay the events of the
evening, but she caught herself in the middle of the story. The two men were
gazing at her, entranced by her enthusiasm, but Anita was looking at her
strangely, so she allowed the story to tail off.

But it had been a pleasant evening; the
conversation had stayed light, friendly. With the kids asleep in the back of
the car, Maggie drove them home.

 

Alex,
mellowed by
the wine, said, "Why did you stop halfway through your story about the
psychic?"

"I don't think Anita liked me
grabbing the limelight."

"Why
d'you
say that?"

"Just a feeling."

"It's your imagination.
Anyway, to hell with Anita.
That was your story, and your
chance to tell it. She wouldn't stop for you."

"No. You're right. I think Anita
doesn't like me because I've got red hair."

"Nonsense.
You're drunk."

"No I'm not. Anyway it's not
my hair. Not just that anyway. It was a ... feeling. Sometimes I look at people
and
I
...."

"And you what?"

"Never mind."

"Go on! Say it!"

"No. You'd just laugh at me. You always do."

"Yes, I probably would."

"Did you see that lovely open
fireplace, Alex? Do you
think ?
.."

"Don't ask. The answer is yes."

Which is how Alex had come to be tearing
out the old gas fire from their lounge the following day, a Saturday. The
moment he'd seen Maggie staring into the fire at the
Suzmans
,
he'd remembered what had irritated him.

Every time they visited Bill and
Anita's immaculate house, Maggie returned discontented. Consequently his
precious weekends (designated for watching
Sports Report
from the
comfort of the sofa while lubricated by tins of beer) were spent trailing
around home improvement stores the size of aircraft hangars.
Death
by DIY.
Previous visits to the
Suzmans
had
spurred the conversion of the cellar into a playroom for Amy and Sam, and the
erection of a lopsided conservatory at the rear of the house. However
long-suffering he was about it, Alex just wanted to make Maggie happy. He would
look at her moist eyes and her long, curling chestnut hair, like a
Pre-Raphaelite painting, and generally he would give in to whatever she wanted.

With the gas disconnected, the fire had lifted out
easily enough. Alex had had more difficulty with the nailed-up boarding. A
strong timber frame had at some time been constructed out of thick lengths,
leaving only a small vent for the passage of the gas fumes up the chimney. But
now that part of the job was done. Meanwhile someone had to stop Sam juggling
with the loose soot, and Alex decided that was women's work. He put his coat on
and adjourned to the Merry Fiddler.

Theirs was a large Victorian villa
with a huge, over-hanging gable. It was described by estate agents, when they'd
first bought it, as a character property, and character properties were
Maggie's enthusiasm but not Alex's. Character properties were like character
people. Their qualities, entertainments, and rewards came in equal measure with
their usually hidden but considerable faults. Alex had doggedly devoted much of
his leisure time in the past five years to beating back elements permanently
poised to invade the sanctuary he was trying to build for his family.

There was the ongoing damp problem
that made him sometimes wonder if the house were built over a river. There was
a woodworm blight he'd poisoned into submission. There was a silverfish
infestation astonishing even the experts from
Rentokil
.
The high-ceilinged rooms had demanded the installation of powerful central
heating just to secure the beautiful plaster mouldings round the light
fittings. And he was still embattled over a roof leak which thwarted him by
shifting nine inches every time it was "fixed."

Embattled yes, and if occasionally
he broke ranks and deserted the front line in favour of the Merry Fiddler,
Maggie let him go. She said nothing as he went out, and checked the Yellow
Pages for a chimney sweep.

She primed the children for the
arrival of the sweep. They'd seen
Mary
Poppins
on
video, and she told them stories from her own childhood. When she was a kid,
the chimneys had been serviced by a local man who played ventriloquist to keep
curious children amused. He pretended to have a midget assistant who spoke
from the chimney, and would send Maggie outside to check if his brush had
cleared the chimney pot. Amy and Sam were fascinated. They sat by the window,
waiting eagerly for the man to arrive. Maggie told them they should
"touch" the sweep for luck.

When he arrived that afternoon,
Maggie was enormously disappointed that he wasn't black from head to foot, and
that he brought with him a suction machine instead of a set of brushes. The
modern version was a bespectacled young man arriving for his first job of the
day in a clean set of blue overalls. He had no sweep's humour for her children.
When Amy and Sam ran forward to touch him almost before he got through the
door, he looked at the spot on his overalls where the children had put their
fingers. Then he looked (sourly, Maggie thought) at the children. Maggie
quickly showed him where to set up his gear.

Sam rapidly lost interest in this
unpicturesque
sweep and trotted away to play with Dot, but
Amy remained, watching his every move. She was utterly spellbound. She inched
forward, gazing over the shoulder of the man as he knelt before the fireplace,
until she was almost breathing on his neck. Maggie was about to shift her out
of his way, but she was checked by a second thought, almost like another voice
in her head.
Why not? Why not let her look?

The first thing the sweep did (though it
didn't seem right to call him a sweep when he was only a man with a machine
which sucked) was to put his arm up the flue, bringing down more debris, straw,
and sticks into the grate.

"Hello," he said, withdrawing his
arm.
"Something else here."
He was holding
some dirty object in his hand. It was a book. He scraped away the soot and the
dust. "People hide things up chimneys, then forget all about them."

BOOK: Dark Sister
12.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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