Sorry it’s been such a long time.
That was how I started writing this post, about a month ago. Now I’ve finally gotten back around to it that sentence is more pertinent than ever. So I’m sorry for the delay to your regularly-scheduled programming. Normal service will resume … Now.
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
Rachel doesn’t speak.
This is the first thing I learn about her. She can understand us perfectly, and even does anything either of us asks, without complaining — but she never speaks or makes any other sound: not a laugh, not a sigh, not a cough. She’s silent and pale; it’s like having a ghost live with us.
At first that’s just how I feel — that the mute figure I meet on the stairs, sit down on the sofa with to watch TV, and share meals with in the evenings, is some kind of ghost. Every time her eyes meet mine a shiver runs down my spine, and every time she enters the room I tense. I’m wary of her, but at the same time I’m curious, and the feeling burns like fire inside me.
Who is she? The question goes round and round inside my head. Mum tells me she’s the niece of a work colleague who’s away on business; her parents live in Italy, and sent her here for school; mum’s looking after her as a favour — but this colleague never calls to check on Rachel, Rachel doesn’t go to school, and it seems a big favour to ask, especially for someone as busy as mum.
But I know raising these issues with mum would be a waste of time; it’s plain she adores Rachel. She spends more time with her than she ever did with me, sitting down and reading to her, cooking meals for her, tucking her in at night — I would be jealous, if only my curiosity hadn’t already overwhelmed my other emotions.
One positive thing to come out of Rachel being in the house is that mum works less. Her laptop only comes out after Rachel goes to bed, and there are fewer piles of paper around. She even clears her experiment out of the spare room so Rachel can have it, and she ropes me in to paint and decorate it when I get home on Monday. I stay up until two in the morning screwing a flat-pack bed and wardrobe together, and when I go to get Rachel I find her curled up with mum on the bed. Mum’s fingers rest lightly in Rachel’s hair, and a smile lingers around her mouth.
Also, the men are gone, and I couldn’t be more grateful. Try as I might I could never get used to their hard eyes and suspicious stares; the thought of their guns, hidden, deadly, always set my nerves on edge. Without them the house feels safer, even if Rachel isn’t much of a substitute.
Tuesday — the deadline I set myself to leave for Australia — comes and goes, but I hardly notice. There are other things to worry about now. When the thought of the deadline does occur to me, late on Tuesday night, I put it aside. Another week, I tell myself. I’ll stay for another week, just to find out a bit more about Rachel, and then I’ll leave.
On Wednesday I stay at school all day. I can’t say why. I spend the day looking out of windows and turning my head to see if Rachel will be standing there, watching me. She isn’t, and when the day ends and I come home she’s sitting on the sofa, quietly reading a book. She looks up as I come in, and stares at me as if she’s forgotten who I am. Then her face softens in recognition, and she turns back to her book.
On Thursday I stay at school again, and on Friday. I even copy down the Sociology homework, though I doubt I’ll do it. When Dean Reynolds passes me in the corridor he gives me a double thumbs-up, nodding and smirking all over his fat red face. The sight reminds me of the money in my desk drawer, and the ticket order I have saved with the airline.
Tuesday, I promise myself. I’ll leave on Tuesday.
On Friday evening I take the train to dad’s. He’s in, for once, and he greets me with a smile and a clumsy hug.
“Sorry about last week,” he says. “Storming out like that. I was just upset. I’d hoped you’d be happier for me.”
I force a smile. “I am,” I say. “How’s the job going?”
“Busy.” He brushes the question aside. “Look, I had an idea. Why don’t we go out tonight? We could see that new film, maybe get some dinner?”
He lets the suggestion hang in the air. I don’t have the heart to tell him I downloaded the film a week ago. I shrug instead. “Yeah. Okay.”
Dad beams as if he’s just won the lottery. “I booked tickets already,” he says. “Come on. It starts in half an hour.”
We see the film in a crowded multiplex with a sticky floor. Phones go off constantly, and people keep getting up to go to the toilet, walking in front of the screen and distracting me from the action. I don’t mind that much — I’ve seen it twice already on the laptop — and dad doesn’t seem to notice. He slumps in his seat and shovels popcorn into his mouth, laughing at all the jokes and pumping a fist in the air whenever there’s an explosion. I can’t help looking at him. It’s strange to see dad enjoying something so much. I can’t remember when I last saw him laugh.
Afterwards we go to Pizza Hut. Dad can’t stop talking about the film. He’s jumpy and skittish, like a five year-old hopped up on Pepsi. I eat my pizza and listen to him talk. It means I don’t have to.
We get home late and go straight to bed. But before I close my bedroom door dad leans in and folds me in a crushing hug. The hug goes on for a long time, and when dad finally lets go his eyes are wet, and he turns away quickly so I won’t see his face.
“Goodnight, son,” he says. Then he goes to his room and closes the door, living me with a strange mixture of confusion and happiness.
On Sunday I wake up early and leave the house while dad is still sleeping. The streets are empty, the sky that shade of blue that promises a scorching day ahead. I follow the empty streets down to the river, retracing my steps from the week before. When I reach the abandoned warehouses I search for the alleyway where I saw Rachel. Everything looks different in daylight, so it takes me some time, but in the end I recognise it by the torn posters hanging limply by the entrance. I peer inside. The alleyway runs back between the buildings for fifty meters or so, then ends abruptly in a concrete wall. I pick my way down the alley, stepping over discarded needles and broken glass, until I’m face-to-face with the wall. I look up. The wall is about ten feet high, topped with coils of barbed wire. Cracks run up it, so someone could have climbed it — but not that quickly, and not without cutting themselves on the wire at the top. I bend down and inspect the lower part of the wall from side to side, but there’s nowhere a seven year-old girl could have slipped through.
I straighten up, brushing my hands on my jeans. What exactly happened that night, then? I remember taking the train straight home, all the way from Bermondsey to Putney, and yet she was there when I arrived, waiting for me. She had walked on broken glass, but there was no blood on her feet, and none on the ground here.
Something stirs in the pit of my stomach, something I can’t put a name to. It’s not fear, but it makes me afraid. It’s not nerves, but it makes me nervous.
I turn and walk away, my pace quickening with every step. Before I know it I’m jogging, then running, then sprinting, out of the alleyway and down the ruined street between the warehouses with their broken windows that watch me like dead eyes. I don’t slow until I reach the main road, and even then I keep looking over my shoulder.
Dad spends Sunday at home with me, watching sports and eating chicken and chips. He laughs and tells jokes, and I laugh with him even when the jokes aren’t funny (which is most of the time), and generally we have a good day together as father and son.
When the time comes to say goodbye dad hugs me tight again, and tells me that he loves me. I return the hug awkwardly and say I love him too, even though I’m not sure I mean it; but the smile it brings to dad’s face makes me pleased and confused.
The warmth waiting for me back at mum’s house confuses me even more. Mum is lively and talkative, asking me how my weekend was and saying she and Rachel might go and see the film as well. Rachel says nothing, but I swear I see her mouth twitch in what could have been the hint of a smile.
The next week passes quietly. I go to school every day, stay there all day, and come home. When I walk through the door Rachel is sitting quietly in the living room watching TV or reading a book, and every day she looks up at me with those dark eyes and the face that never shows emotion, studying me for a minute as if remembering who I am, before recognition dawns and she looks away again, making me wonder what it is about her that makes me so uncomfortable.
I can’t forget what I felt in the alleyway, nor can I forget the times I saw her before then. I watch out for her everywhere I go, looking ver my shoulder as I make my way to and from school, staring out of the classroom window, watching the crowds milling around at lunchtimes, searching for her face.
But as the days pass by with no more appearances, I begin to wonder if somehow I imagined it all. Maybe the stress of everything going on at home, the worry over my plans, the fear that someone would find out what I was doing, all conspired to make me think I was being watched, and when I saw Rachel my brain put her face to whatever I had created in my mind, and the image stuck. There’s no other explanation — except one, but it involves a word I don’t want to think about, a word that belongs in films and books, not the real world.
In fact, the more I see of Rachel the more I’m forced to admit there’s nothing that special about her. Apart from her silence she behaves like any other normal girl. She likes listening to music, cooking with mum, reading and watching TV. I assume she goes shopping with mum as well, because she doesn’t like to be away from her for too long. She’s all right so long as mum’s in the kitchen and she’s in the living room, but any further is out of the question.
One afternoon mum asks me to watch Rachel for half an hour while she goes out; as soon as the front door closes Rachel goes up to her room and locks herself in. I do my best to coax her out again, knocking on the door and calling her name, but there’s no reply, and no sign of life until mum comes back. Only then does Rachel come out, pale-faced and wide-eyed, to take her usual place in the living room.
The next Tuesday comes and goes, and the next, and both times I wonder where the days have gone and promise myself another week before I leave. I stop thinking so much about Rachel’s appearances, and start to get used to having her around. By the third week of her stay I can sit with her and mum and watch a film without once thinking about Rachel and the things I’ve seen.
Then, the following Thursday, it happens again.
I’ve just left school, and I’m taking a shortcut through a neighbouring housing estate when I feel the familiar prickling sensation on the back of my neck. Immediately my pulse quickens, and I stop and turn, scanning the shadows of stairwells and parking garages, looking for the figure I know will be there.
“Rachel!” I turn in circles, my eyes roving, searching for her. “Rachel, I know it’s you! Come out!”
A movement above me makes me look up, and I see her. She’s on the landing on the tenth floor, looking down at me with her hair falling either side of her face. She looks scared, but it’s hard to tell from this distance.
“Rachel!” I race towards the stairwell, my bag banging against my side, and take the steps two at a time. “Rachel! Stay there!” The stairs are steep, and bags of rubbish are piled on every landing, but I don’t care. I kick them aside and pull myself up by the handrail, my lungs burning, until I burst from the stairwell on to the balcony, my chest heaving. I look both ways, but already I can feel my stomach sinking. The balcony is deserted.
“Rachel!” I don’t care how loudly I shout, or who I disturb. There’s no way she could have got away this time. Not unless she can fly, “Rachel, I know you’re here! Come out!”
But she doesn’t come out. She’s not there. I’m alone.
When I get home Rcahel’s sitting on the sofa as usual, watching TV. Normally I’d leave her there, and go to my room or to the kitchen. But today I go in and sit down beside her. She doesn’t look at me, not even when I pick up the remote and turn off the TV. She sits looking at the blank s teen, quiet and still.
“How do you do it?” I say, my voice low. I decided to do this on the way home. I’ve had enough of mysteries and unanswered questions, enough of guessing and wondering. I want answers. I want the truth.
“Rachel?” I snap my fingers in front of her eyes, but she doesn’t even blink. “Rahel, look at me. Look at me!”
I grab her by the shoulder, and she turns, and there’s an expression of such fear in her eyes that I snatch my hand away. Then I hear mum’s voice from the kitchen, asking what’s wrong, and Rcahel jumps up and runs from the room, and I hear her footsteps on the stairs and a bang as her door slams.
“Jason?” Mum comes into the room, her hair tied up and her hands covered in flour. “What happened? Where’s Rachel?”
“She …” I point to the stairs. “She went to her room.”
Mum frowns. “Did you scare her?” she says. “You know you can’t be rough with her.”
“I just wanted to talk to her.”
Mum’s frown deepens. “Jason, what did you say?”
“Nothing.” I look up at her. I want to tell her everything that’s happened, everything I’ve seen, everything I suspect, and for a moment I’m about to. But at the last second I look away. I know how crazy it would sound. She’d never believe me. I shake my head. “Nothing. I just wanted to talk to her, but she ran off.”
Mum sighs. “It’s all right,” she says. “Rachel’s a very special girl, but she hasn’t had much experience with other people. You can’t go rushing in and expect her to be okay with it. It’s great that you want to get to know her, but just … Take it slowly, all right?”
I nod. “All right.”
“All right.” Mum smiles. “I’m making pancakes. Want some?”
Rachel doesn’t come out of her room that evening. After dinner mum takes up a plate of pancakes and stays in Rachel’s room for a long time, talking to her. I can hear the murmur of their voices through the bedroom wall. I think about trying to listen in on the conversation, but the idea makes me feel dirty so I put on my headphones and drown out temptation.
For the first time in two weeks I open up the web page of the airline where I saved my booking. The departure date is in red, meaning it’s passed. I change it to next week Tuesday, then sit and stare at the screen for a long while.
Why is it so difficult to do this? I’ve been planning it for months, and all it would take is a click of the mouse. But I can’t bring myself to do it. My hand hovers over the trackpad. It’s shaking, I notice. I try to hold it steady, but I can’t.
Just do it, I tell myself. Just do it, and go, and forget about all this.
A familiar prickling sensation on the back of my neck makes me look up. Rachel’s standing in the doorway, watching me mutely.
I snatch off the headphones and glare at her. “What do you want?”
She doesn’t reply. Instead, she comes into the room and sits down on the bed. Her eyes don’t leave my face.
“What?” I shift uncomfortably. I can feel her gaze on me, even when I look away. I minimise the booking form window and close the laptop. “If you want something, say so. If not, then get out. This is my room, not yours.”
Without taking her eyes from my face, Rachel leans over and re-opens the laptop. She moves the cursor down to the task bar and opens the text editor, then delicately types two words on the blank page:
I look at the words. “What do you mean?” I say, though I already know the answer.
Rachel clicks on the minimised window, which springs up to fill the whole screen. The CONFIRM button glows red. Her eyes bore into mine, accusing me.
I shake my head and reach over, closing the laptop with a loud snap. “You don’t understand,” I say. I look down at the desk, glaring at the wood as though it’s offended me somehow. “You weren’t here. You don’t know them. I have to do this. They don’t even want me here. They just brought me back to … I don’t even know why they brought me back, to be honest. I was happy there, can you understand that?” I look up into her dark, dark eyes, so quiet and still, silently judging me. “I was happy, and they brought me back here, here to this house, to this life. They didn’t even ask me. Can’t you understand?”
Rachel says nothing, but her thin hand slowly reaches out until it came to rest on mine. The touch is unexpected, and I almost jerk my hand back; but I don’t. I leave it where it is, and Rachel’s hand rests on top of it, her light skin against my dark, and the touch feels right, somehow.
I shake my head. “Who are you?” I say. “Where are you from? Why are you here? Why have you come into our family like this?”
Still no reply. Rachel opens the laptop again with her free hand and minimises the Internet window, leaving the text editor open behind it. The two words stand out, black on white:
I look at them. Then I turn and look at Rachel.
“Why don’t you want me to go?” I say.
She raises her finger to her lips, but says nothing.
“Will you stop following me?”
She nods. For some reason this gesture, this acknowledgement of what she has been doing, makes me go cold all over.
“All right,” I say. “I’ll stay. For now.”
Rachel nods, then to my surprise she stands up, leans over, and hugs me. There’s no warmth in the hug — she’s bony, with no strength in her arms — but it leaves me speechless. She lets go and leaves the room, and I watch her go with a thousand questions buzzing in my mind.
Mary Oye sits at the kitchen table with her laptop open. On the screen is a video feed from the camera they installed in Jason’s room. She watches as Rachel leans over and hugs her son, and she smiles. Then she dials a number on her phone and puts it to her ear.
“Hello?” she says. “Yes. It looks like a success. I think she’s started manifesting. I’ll monitor her more closely from now on. What? No, it was my son. I know. Yes, of course you were right. I’m sorry I doubted you. All right. Of course. And you too. Good night, sir.”
She drops the phone and closes the laptop, then turns and smiles as Rachel comes into the kitchen.
“Hello, love,” she says. “Would you like a hot drink?”
* * *
In other news, the Olympics are in full swing here in Blighty. I had a cracking time watching the semi-finals of the Women’s Épée blow up yesterday, with the Korean contender having to sit for an hour on the piste after the end of her match whilst her coach contended the final (deciding) point. I was a keen fencer in my youth, and I still miss the good old days. But, to be honest, I was never quick or ruthless enough to be really good, so perhaps it’s all best left in the past.
I shall endeavour to have a new chapter by next week. Not much writing going on at the moment, I’m afraid, and I have two weeks’ holiday coming up.
I thank you for your patience.