Authors: Ramsey Campbell
Published in the UK in 2012
This ePub version is 1.1, published August 2013
For Billy Martin, with love
remember Blackpool, Doc!
"Maybe one day you wake up and forget what it was to be human. Maybe that happens, and then it's okay."—Dennis Lehane,
THE SECOND ANSWER
"You give me honesty," Jack Brittan says, "and I'll give you hope. When did you start to have doubts that Luke was your son?"
"I've never had any," says Luke's mother.
"He wasn't asking you, Freddy," Luke's father objects. "Maybe I should of had my suspicions before he was born. My brother was a sight too eager to come up with a name. Lucius, he wanted us to call the baby if it was a boy."
"We called him Lucas," Freda says as if this may placate her husband.
"I'd like to know why Terry was so concerned with him. Took him out every chance he got when Luke was little. Always telling him he was special like we didn't think enough of him."
"We could have told Luke how much we thought of him a bit more often, Maurice."
"You weren't so pleased with Terry when the boy started having nightmares," Maurice says and turns to the presenter of the television show. "The doctor sent Luke to a psychiatrist, that's how bad he got. God help Terry if I ever find out he was feeding him drugs."
"I never did," Terence murmurs to Luke.
"I know," Luke says without knowing much at all. He and his uncle are in the green room, an elongated white backstage space containing sofas and a television monitor that sprouts high up on the wall. He's about to put one of several questions to Terence when Brittan says "Let's have him out to answer that."
Perhaps Terence doesn't realise this means him. He stays on the sofa opposite Luke until a hulking man whose black T-shirt is emblazoned
gestures him to follow. Seconds later he's on the monitor, where he's greeted by more booing than applause. There's silence by the time he takes a seat on the far side of Freda from his brother.
She risks a glance at him and a quick smile before she reverts to gazing at Brittan. Luke is sure she views the occasion as a public testimony besides her opportunity to appear on a favourite television show. Though her face has grown plumper since he left home, the features minimised by her cheeks seem clarified by her belief in herself. Her faded eyes have regained their acorn tint, her small nose looks eager for a scent, her wide lips have rediscovered pinkness. She leans forward, betraying the silver roots of the black waves that frame her face, as Brittan says "You ought to be a family if I ever saw one."
Presumably he means the brothers, both of whom have all the Arnold characteristics: large-boned brawny frames, auburn eyes, broad noses, square chins. Luke shares all these, although he has conquered the tendency of the lower lip to droop, and his hair isn't clipped as severely as theirs, which is so short it barely admits to greying. "So, Terence," Brittan says, "what sort of an influence do you think you've had on your nephew?"
"He's a fine young specimen of humanity." Terence's eyes flicker from side to side as though he's searching for Luke. "I'd be proud if that was anything to do with me."
"You were just trying to be an uncle, weren't you?" Freda says and tells the presenter "He never had any children of his own."
"And what kind of uncle was he?" Before Freda can answer, Brittan turns on Terence. "What's this about you using drugs?"
"A lot of us used to have a smoke now and then on the job."
"A lot of us didn't," Luke's father retorts. "Anyone that worked for me that did, they'd be out on their arse."
As Luke wonders if the broadcast will bleep the word out, Brittan says "So why did you trust a druggie with your son?"
Maurice scowls at an explosion of applause, and Luke feels as though he's watching a performance while he waits to go onstage. "He knew not to bring that stuff anywhere near Luke," says his father.
"I never did," Terence assures him.
"You brought whatever it did to you, didn't you?" Far more triumphantly than Luke cares for, Brittan says "Is that why your nephew needed psychiatric help?"
"He told Luke fairy tales, that's all," Freda intervenes. "Maybe Luke was too young for some of them."
"How young was that?"
"Six," Maurice says. "That's when we had to take him to the doctor."
"It doesn't sound too young for fairy tales. Maybe you can tell us what disturbed him, Terence."
"Some of the old tales weren't meant for children."
A memory lights up like a tableau in Luke's head. He's sitting in a sunlit field while his uncle tells him about a little mermaid, a story that seemed to reach deep into Luke. The memory goes out as Maurice demands "Then why'd you tell him at that age?"
"I thought they were his kind of thing. You know what an imagination he had."
"Should have been more careful what you put in it, then. Six is no bloody age to have someone messing about inside your head."
As Luke wonders if this refers to the psychiatrist or Terence, Brittan says "We haven't heard why you've started suspecting your brother."
"Luke's having a child with his partner and the way Terry's been carrying on he might be the grandad. He's like he was when Luke was born."
Having waited for the audience to murmur, Brittan says "After the break we'll meet the man the argument's about and his girlfriend."
Though Sophie has agreed to speak, they've put her in the audience. She can't feel any more distanced from the proceedings than Luke does. The programme is pretending to be live, showing adverts for the sponsor corporation on the monitor—Frugoplan Pensions ("Your super superannuation"), Frugocard ("Pack our plastic in your pocket"), the Frugotel chain ("Check us out and check in")... Perhaps they're meant to sell the products to the studio audience, unless someone felt that without them the spectators would feel cheated of part of the experience. Once the commercials come to an end Brittan welcomes viewers back and sums up the story so far, and then he says "Let's meet the man they're quarrelling over."
If there's a quarrel Brittan is happy to exacerbate it; perhaps it mightn't even have happened without his sort of show. Luke marches down the flimsy passage in the wings and onto the stage, where his parents and his uncle join in the applause that meets him. He tries not to let his family's behaviour make the situation yet more unreal. Sophie is in an aisle seat halfway up the auditorium, and stops clapping long enough to wave as Luke sits beside his father. "So," Brittan says, "what's your take on all this, Luke?"
"I think it's a misunderstanding that's got out of hand. It's as my mother said, my uncle wanted to be involved because he had nobody of his own."
"And what kind of childhood are you telling us you had?" Luke inspects him before answering. Nobody would know from watching him on television that he's a head shorter than most of his guests, since he never ventures near them when they're on their feet. His close-set features might be called neat, but they strike Luke as pinched together. Below his precisely trimmed black hair his pale forehead bears a faint constant frown. His dark quick eyes want to appear penetrating, and his thin lips are parted by default, either to urge a response or poised to interrupt. "I couldn't have wished for a better one," Luke tells him, "and I'm thanking my uncle as well as my parents. He was why I talked so much, that's what I'm told, before I could even walk."
"You always knew more words," Freda says, "when you came home."
"Maybe he stuffed too much in your little head," Maurice complains. "One more reason we had to haul you to the quack."
"Not too constructive," Brittan tells Terence, "for someone who works in construction."
"He doesn't," Maurice retorts. "He's in demolition." It occurs to Luke that Brittan takes him to be in his parents' business. If Luke enlightens him, will that stop the show? Surely there's no need; once Brittan has finished melodramatising the situation, the Arnolds can return to normal. His father's doubts can't help making Luke feel as though he has taken his life and his family too much for granted, and he'll be glad when Maurice's suspicions are disproved. The presenter's face closes around a concerned look as he says "Why do you think you needed the psychiatrist, Luke?"
"I don't know if I did need her. It was mostly that my parents didn't want the doctor giving me drugs to help me sleep."
"You should of heard the row you were making in the night," Maurice protests. "Those were never dreams a child should have."
"What do you recall about seeing the psychiatrist?" Brittan wants to hear.
"She kept trying to make me say things about my uncle that weren't true."
"We just want the truth here. What kind of things?"
"That he'd been abusing me, I expect. He never touched me, not like that."
"So you're saying he's completely innocent."
Luke sees that Brittan is frustrated by the lack of conflict and determined to provoke it. "I'm saying," Luke is happy to declare, "we all are."
Brittan doesn't simply look dissatisfied but prolongs it for the camera. "Do we call that honest?"
To Luke the audience's customary response sounds like the lowing of a herd. He has dealt with many kinds of audience, and he's about to try his skills on this crowd when Freda says "You only wanted Luke to make as much of himself as he could, didn't you, Terry? You were trying to open his mind."
"That's it," Terence says. "That's all."
"I expect you're glad he's creative like you tried to be."
Terence lets out a stammering murmur that goes some way towards agreement. Perhaps he's wary of suggesting that his brother didn't do enough for the boy. Luke thinks Brittan may enquire into the remark, but the presenter turns to the audience. "This can't be much fun for you, Sophie, in your state."
She gives this and him a long look. Though Luke is sure she isn't posing for the camera, he can imagine her features gracing the screen: wide blue eyes, long elegant nose, pink lips poised to smile if they aren't already smiling, all softly framed by cropped red hair. Her face stays amiable, but her eyes have acquired a steely glint. "It shouldn't be much fun for anyone."
"I'm saying you can do without all this."
"I'm certain everybody can." She gives Brittan time to take this as criticism and says "This isn't about me. I'm having an easy time, not like Freda did."
"What are you telling us was hard for her?"
"We thought I'd got too old till I had Luke," Freda says. "We thought he was a gift from God."
Maurice lets his lower lip sag while Terence covers his mouth. Once the audience has finished sighing at Freda's words Brittan says "Shall we do what you asked me to do?"
"About time," says Maurice.
"Let me have the DNA results for Terence Arnold," Brittan says and extends a hand until a technician crowned with a headset brings him an envelope. It puts Luke in mind of a prize on a game show, but he's also recalling a joke of his uncle's—that the initials ought to stand for Do Not Ask. "How certain are you that Terence isn't Luke's father?" Brittan asks Sophie.
"As sure as anyone can be."
"One hundred per cent," Freda vows with a laugh, "and more if you like."
"Another hundred," Terence says, having uncovered his mouth.
"And one from me," Luke contributes.
'Just get the bloody thing done with," says Maurice.
The presenter thrusts his dinky little finger beneath the flap and tears open the envelope. He extracts a card and shields it with the envelope while he takes far too much time for Luke's taste over scrutinising the information. At last he lifts his head and gazes at the family. "Our DNA test shows that..."
Luke knows that they're all being filmed. Brittan must be waiting until they've reacted enough to be broadcast, and Luke is on the point of blurting a version of his father's demand when the presenter says "Terence is not Luke's father."
Sophie claps her hands. Though Luke doesn't think she means to cue applause, the audience follows her lead. His father stumbles to his feet and hugs his wife while reaching to grip his brother's hand. "Sorry," he says indistinctly. "Bloody stupid. I'm the one that needs his head examined."
Freda murmurs a demurral as Terence bows his head and shakes it. Luke feels excluded from the proceedings, though he's relieved that the drama is over. Brittan waits for Maurice to resume his seat and enquires "Don't you have anything to say to them?"
"I've said I'm sorry," Luke's father protests but says it again, prompting Freda to stretch out her hands to him while Terence gazes down at his own. Luke is waiting for the presenter to lecture them or wish them luck when Brittan says "We aren't done yet."
Only Maurice seems to understand. "I don't know why I did it," he mumbles. "There's no need."
"It's paid for," Brittan says and gestures for the technician to bring him a second envelope. When he digs his finger beneath the flap Freda cries "You didn't, Maurice."