Authors: Tim Clare
Published in Great Britain in 2015 by Canongate Books Ltd,
14 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TE
This digital edition first published in 2015 by Canongate Books
Copyright Â© 2015 Tim Clare
The moral right of the author has been asserted
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available on request from the British Library
ISBN: 978 1 78211 476 5
eISBN: 978 1 78211 477 2
Typeset in Baskerville MT by Palimpsest Book Production Ltd,
Chapter 2 O Queen of Air and Darkness
Chapter 6 Unhappy and Forsaken Toad
Chapter 7 The Curse of the Stokehams
Chapter 9 The Inscrutable Mr Kung
Chapter 10 Better Drowned Than Duffers
Chapter 11 In Balance with this life
Chapter 16 Good Authors Too Who Once Knew Better Words
Chapter 18 Trial of the Profligate
Chapter 19 The Sleep of Reason
Chapter 23 The Little Gentlemen
Chapter 24 So Much for Operations in Salt-Marshes
Chapter 26 Forgive Me, Comrade
Chapter 27 The Running of the Bulls
Chapter 29 Voyage Au Centre De la Terre
Chapter 31 A Little More Than Kin
Chapter 32 The Isle is Full of Noises
Chapter 33 Good Servant, Bad Master
Chapter 34 Mr Garforth Sees it Through
Chapter 37 She who Fights Monsters
Chapter 40 You Will Die, Brother, If you go to it long Enough
Chapter 41 What She Strives to Shun
Chapter 42 The First Blast of the Trumpet
Chapter 43 Our Poison'd Chalice
September 12th 1935
he girl with the gun crouched waiting. The dark shape hung over the belt of poplars, then banked, swooping out across the salt marsh. It was coming nearer.
She braced a knee against the wet wall of the trench. The monster pumped its black wings â ragged, impossible. Curls of samphire crunched beneath her elbow as she brought the gun to her cheek. The wind lifted old book smells off the mudflats. Kidney-shaped pools shone copper and gold.
She mouthed the old lesson like a spell, falling into Mr Garforth's quiet, steady rhythm.
To kill a bird, I must first ascertain its speed and trajectory. To do this, I follow it with the muzzle of the shotgun
She tilted the barrels up and began tracking a spot a yard behind her target. She could hear the thing panting.
When I have ascertained its speed and trajectory, I bring the gun past smoothly
Any longer and it would see her. Her index finger twitched over the two triggers, dithering between full and half choke. She held her breath and brought the gun up too fast â stopped, waited, let the muzzle fall back in behind her target. She counted to three, tried again. This time, she swung the gun in one clean movement.
If I miss the bird â
I miss â I will miss it in front
She continued past what instinct told her was the sweet spot.
The gun kicked. A flock of brent geese took off in a rippling blast, their voices like starter motors. Dark bodies and white undertails confettied the air.
Delphine lowered the gun. She thumbed the locking lever and broke the barrel; the breech coughed a spent cartridge into the soft mud at her feet. She pressed her heel on the empty case until it sank. She reloaded.
The sky was red and empty. She hauled herself out of the trench.
On the edge of a small, crescent pool lay a smashed umbrella. As she got closer, it resolved into knuckled wings, cola-black fur, a sharp oval face like a weasel's. The creature was about three feet tall, its huge, shot-shredded wings veined and translucent like the membranes of a leaf. She prodded it with the shotgun. The clump of sedge at its cheek shivered.
She pressed the gun to its ribs and nudged it into the pool. Its huge wings settled across the surface. It floated; in the light of the setting sun, its fur blazed silver. She poked it in the belly; cloudy water puddled through the holes in its wings. The puddles began joining up and, bit by bit, the creature sank: its splayed ears, its closed eyes, the bright ring winking on its clenched finger.
Delphine gazed into the face of death and did not feel afraid. Maybe it was the after-effects of the tranquiliser; maybe it was the thought of her father, and the monsters waiting back at the Hall. The shotgun felt heavy and good.
She was going to kill them all.
Hidden amongst wind-hunched oaks was a cottage. Delphine rapped on the door with the curved iron tip of her crab hook.
The sound of footsteps, a bolt being drawn. She waited, then pushed at the door.
The ceiling was low and sagged in the middle. Mr Garforth sat testing gin traps by lamplight.
âYou're late,' he said. He was struggling to prise open a set of steel jaws. His fingers slipped; the trap cracked shut.
âThere was a scout.'
Mr Garforth looked up. âWere you spotted?'
âI killed him,' she said. âIt.'
He raised his wispy eyebrows. âWhat range?'
âSixty yards.' She caught his frown. âFifty. Forty. I hid the body.'
She set her gun down by the stove. âWhat's for dinner?'
A spider was scuttling across the table. He slammed his palm on it, scooped it up and popped it into his mouth.
âYou're not funny.'
He unfurled his fist, revealing the spider, unharmed. Delphine frowned to disguise a smile.
âIn you get. While it's still warm.' He nodded at the tin bath by the open hearth. A change of clothes was drying on a chair. âNo sense rushing now. If we do this, we do it proper. I'll rustle up some grub.'
âAnd then it's time. If you still want to go.'
âI still want to go.'
Delphine took two steps towards the bath, hesitated. Mr Garforth rolled his eyes. He shunted his chair round until he had his back to the fire.
Delphine lay in the bath with her head tipped back, listening to the water rumble and plop, and pretended she was being boiled alive. Her arms lolled over the sides, fingertips trailing on the cold tiles. Below the waterline, her ankles and buttocks throbbed.
Mr Garforth walked to the fireplace, shielding his eyes. Delphine watched him unhook the cauldron lid and pull out a string bag full of steaming brains. He limped to the table and began slicing them into chunks. When he was done, he set a saucepan on the stove and heated a knob of butter. He added the brains, which sizzled and spat.
âNearly ready.' He tapped an egg against the rim of the saucepan and cracked it one-handed into the mix, along with some parsley and a splash of milk.
Delphine got out of the bath. A scab on her knee hung open like a dead oyster, blood painting a zigzag down her shin. She put her finger in the blood then licked her finger. It tasted of money.
She took the towel and began with her hair, working outwards from the roots. Her skin prickled in the heat. Above the mantelpiece, a brace of rabbits hung from a nail. One looked like it was whispering a secret into the other's long ear. Beside the rabbits was a wooden cross, and beneath that, a carriage clock. The time was a quarter past seven.
She dried quickly. A salty, fatty aroma wafted from the stove and made her stomach belch. She pulled on her grey knickerbockers, her vest, her long blue woollen socks, then started brushing her smoky hair into some kind of shape. Her hands trembled. Each time the bristles snagged a knot, the tremor passed through damp strands to her scalp.
Mr Garforth set the table for dinner. He laid out knives and forks, a plate heaped with thick doorstops of brown toast, butter in a blue dish, salt and pepper, mugs of tea and, in the centre, the hot saucepan full of scrambled calf's brains. He slapped his hands together.
Delphine pulled up a chair and buttered herself two slices of toast. Then she held her plate up while Mr Garforth spooned brains over the top. She waited until he was sitting. He picked up his fork.
âAren't you going to say grace?' she said.
âVery well.' He bowed his head. Delphine went to close her eyes, but instead she watched him: the freckled nose against fingers pressed in prayer, the flaking, red skin on his scalp, the quiet motion of his lips.
âDear Lord, we give thanks for the food you have provided for us. May it lend us strength.' The three creases on his forehead darkened. âGive us help from trouble, for vain is the help of man. Through God we shall do valiantly: for He it is that shall tread down our enemies. Amen.'
He kept his head down, mouthed a silent addendum. His eyes opened.
âGo on, dig in before it gets cold.'
He was halfway through his second mouthful when he looked up at Delphine. Her cutlery lay either side of her plate.
âWhat's the matter?'
She wrinkled her nose. âIt looks like cauliflower.'
Delphine sighed and began sawing at a corner of toast. Her belly felt tight and cold.
He said: âWe can't do this on an empty stomach.'
âThere's still time to call it off.'
âNo,' she said, then, setting her fists on the table: âNo. I'll kill whoever I have to.'
âJust stick to the plan.'
âGood.' He slurped his tea and reached for another slice of toast. She listened to the slop slop of his dentures as he ate.
âI know the answer to your riddle.'
âIt's not a riddle.'
âNothing,' she said. She watched his eyes for a reaction. âThe answer is: “nothing”.'
Mr Garforth sucked his lips. He shook his head.
Delphine threw her hands up. âOh come on!'
Mr Garforth shrugged. âSorry.'
Mr Garforth gave her an odd look. She thought she saw the beginnings of a smile, then he coughed into his sleeve and it was gone.
âHelp yourself to seconds,' he said. âWho knows when we'll get the chance to sit like this again.'
âNot till the next world.'
âSorry.' Delphine felt her cheeks colour. âIt's what Daddy used to say. When something was very lovely. “Ah. Not till the next world, eh?”'
âAha.' His shoulders relaxed, and his head fell into a steady nod. He smiled, and raised his mug. âWell then. Till the next world.'
âTill the next world,' said Delphine, and gently touched her mug to his.
After they had eaten, Mr Garforth brewed more tea and they sat by the hearth to go over the plan one last time. He made her repeat things. The fire was white and tangerine. The heat made her cheeks glow. She could not concentrate. She had the oddest sensation that she was experiencing the cottage for the first time â that until that night she had never truly seen the pattern on its chipped brown floor tiles, nor smelt the sappy, mellow dampness beneath the woodsmoke. Her mouth was dry, and when she recited his instructions, the voice belonged to a calmer, tougher girl.
Presently, he peered at the clock on the mantelpiece. By flamelight, the loose, spotted skin around his neck looked like scales. He squinted.
âIt says it's nearly eight,' said Delphine.
He curled his bottom lip. âOh.'
Mr Garforth took the shotgun and wrapped it in a tea towel. She followed him into his workshop. He set the gun in a bench vice and began winding a handle. Wood shavings lay on the cement floor in stiff blond curls. The handle squeaked with each turn. Vice jaws bit into the towel. Mr Garforth pulled the towel back from the barrels like a barber-surgeon hiking up a patient's trouser leg. He picked up a hacksaw and rested the blade half an inch from the forestock.
âThat's too much,' she said.
Mr Garforth started cutting. Steel fell in shining granules. He put a hand on the bench to steady himself. The left barrel dropped, clanging against the cement. The right barrel followed. Mr Garforth unwound the handle a little way. He picked up the shotgun, blew. The sawn barrels gleamed: a bull's snout.
âIt's what you need,' he said.
They returned to the front room. She slipped a cloth bandolier diagonally over her shoulder like a sash. Mr Garforth handed her a carton of shells. While he sat wiping down the shotgun barrels with an oily rag, she took each shell from the carton, hefting the paper casing between thumb and forefinger, then slotted it into one of the
pouches across her chest, pressing down the flat brass head with her thumb until it was snug. Her crab hook tucked into a long slip pocket on the back.
Mr Garforth looked her up and down, gave a snort of approval. He held out her gun.
She took it, held it, testing the new lightness. She nodded.
Mr Garforth picked up the oil lamp. He led her into the backroom, ducking under the lintel with exaggerated caution. They squeezed between packing crates, box traps, poisons, a nested stack of spun aluminium washing-up bowls, three fishing rods and a split cricket bat held together with soiled bandages. Beneath a small window with thick, greasy panes, a brass ring was set into the floor. He hooked it with the end of his stick and, grunting, raised a trapdoor.
The shaft fell away into blackness. The route down was a column of rusted stemples â thick iron bars hammered into rock at two-foot intervals, acting as a ladder. There was a smell like rotting fish.
She turned from the darkness to the old man.
âWell,' she said, âgoodbye.'
âWait.' Mr Garforth set the lamp down on a crate and left the room. She heard clattering, then he returned with a leather satchel.
âWhat's in there?'
He lifted the heavy brown flap. In the satchel were three condensed milk cans. She took one out. It was surprisingly heavy. From the middle of the lid protruded a five-inch fuse.
âAre these .Â .Â . jam tins?'
âGuncotton surrounded by bits of old horseshoe. Mr Wightman supplied those â you can thank him one day.'
âHey.' He jabbed a forefinger at her nose. âDo
use these except as a last resort. That fuse is about five and a half seconds. Call it five to be sure.' The finger hovered. The nail was chipped and yellow, underscored with a sickle of dirt. âDon't be in the same room when this goes off.'
âI know. I'm not stupid.'
He flashed her another look she could not read.
She placed the grenade back in the satchel. Mr Garforth fastened the hasp, then helped her sling the strap over her shoulder.
âLook at you. All grown up.'
âLook at you. All old.'
Mr Garforth half-opened his arms. Delphine looked at him. He let them drop to his sides.
âRemember: nobody has to die.'
âNo. We all do.'
He took a deep breath. His shadow was an ogre against the brickwork.
âYou sound like a soldier.'
âIt wasn't a compliment.' He smacked his lips. âEnough. Let's get this over with.'
Delphine turned her back to the trapdoor and knelt, dangling a leg until her foot found the first rung. The air in the shaft was colder than she remembered; beneath thick socks, her calves stiffened with gooseflesh. She gave Mr Garforth a last nod. Her head felt weightless.
He narrowed his eyes. âHow long are the fuses?'
âFive and a half seconds. Five to be sure.'
The old gamekeeper nodded. She started her descent.