You’ve all been good, so here’s the next instalment of Coals of Fire. There are now actually eleven chapters, not ten, and I’m beginning to understand why the last book in the series is fatter than the first. But it’s all good stuff, have no fear!
* * *
Coals of Fire: Ash
The next two weeks are the strangest of my life.
On the one hand, mum’s happier than she’s ever been. She cooks every day, bakes with Rachel, watches films with us in the evenings, and hardly touches her laptop. It’s as if she’s taken all the energy she would normally put into her work and transferred it to this family.
On the other hand, there’s Rachel. After the hug that evening something between us has changed. I’m still wary around her — I can’t help it — but I’m not suspicious any more. I don’t get the same cold feeling creeping down my spine, and I’ve stopped looking out for her when I’m at school. Instead I start to think of her more like the little sister I never had, and I think she starts to feel the same towards me. She starts to touch me more — holding on to my arm in the scary parts of a film, snuggling up beside me when mum reads her a book before bed — as if she’s afraid I’ll disappear if she doesn’t keep hold of me.
Her appearances have stopped completely. If she would just start to talk, you wouldn’t be able to tell her apart from any other normal girl. As it is she’s still as ghost-like as ever, always on the edge of things, only watching, never involved. But as time goes by it just becomes part of who she is, something me and mum accept without question.
Dad’s happier, too. I think his new job’s doing him good. When I visit him at the weekend he wants to go out again, this time to a comedy festival on the South Bank. We go, and even though it’s odd going with dad to one of the places I used to come by myself, I soon forget it and enjoy watching him laugh. When the show’s over we get Frappucinos and wander over the footbridge to Trafalgar Square, where we sit in the late afternoon sun and watch tourists taking pictures of the pigeons.
“You know,” dad says suddenly, shaking his head. “I’ve lived in this city for twenty-five years and this is the first time I’ve come here. It’s funny how life runs away with you, isn’t it?”
An idea comes to him, and he gets me up and leads me down to the Strand, past Charing Cross station and along to Holborn, where we stop outside the London School of Economics. Dad stands looking up at the white stone building for a few minutes, then he turns to me.
“This is where I met your mum,” he says. “Right here on this spot. It was a Monday. Six o’clock. I was leaving, and she was arriving. It was lucky, really — or providence, depending on how you look at it. I normally left at five, you see? I’d come out of these doors, go across to that bus stop, get the bus straight home, eat, study, then go to work at the hotel. But that day I was waiting for my tutor, and he was late, so I was late. I was rushing to get home to change, and I literally ran into her right here. Knocked her clean over. Gave her a black eye!” He chuckles. I say nothing. I’ve never heard him talk this way, never heard this story before. I want him to continue, and he does.
“I took her to the medic. Insisted on staying with her until she got seen. She wouldn’t so much as look at me. Kept checking herself out in the mirror, watching her eye get darker. The only thing she said was, ‘This had better be quick.’ That was it! For the whole evening! Anyway, it wasn’t quick. We left at nine. I was late for work already, so I offered to buy her a coffee. She said no, of course! She was a looker, back then. Still is. And she was a London girl, and I was a Nigerian boy. A bit bush. A bit fresh. There was no way we’d get together.
“So I thought that was the end of it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Every day when I left I’d hang around for a bit, miss a couple of buses, try to catch sight of her again. Then one day, about two weeks later, the buses weren’t running and I decided to go straight from uni to work. I left at six thirty, and there she was! Standing on the pavement, watching all the boys come out. And I knew — I knew — she was looking for me!”
Dad shakes his head. As if he still can’t believe it, twenty years later.
“So I said to her, ‘How about that coffee?’ And she said, ‘I drink tea.’ So I bought her tea, and we sat in the shop and talked until it closed, then we walked along South Bank in the dark, and I got her back to her halls at about one in the morning, and I asked her if I could see her again, and she said … Yes.”
He sighs. He’s smiling, but I don’t feel happy. Something’s gripping my insides, twisting them until it hurts. When did it go wrong? I want to ask. When did it become about the money? What happened?
But I don’t ask. Of course I don’t. And after a while dad sighs heavily, as if he’s sighing out the happy memory, then he throws an arm round my shoulders and forces a laugh.
“Come on,” he says, and we walk away.
When I get home on Sunday evening the house is empty. There’s a note on the kitchen table: Gone shopping. Back soon. Dinner’s on the stove.
I lift the lids on the two big pans standing on the hob. One’s jellof rice, orange and still warm; the other’s chicken swimming in peppered gravy. Two plates are stacked on the side, with two knives and two forks laid across them. I frown. I suppose one is mine and the other Rachel’s — but it’s not like mum to leave Rachel alone in the house.
I serve up both plates and carry one upstairs to the spare room. I stop outside the door and listen. Nothing. Maybe she’s asleep. I knock, and wait. Still nothing. I knock again.
“Rachel?” No answer. “It’s Jason. I’ve got your dinner.”
I try the handle. It turns easily, and the door swings open. I look inside.
The room is empty. Not only empty, but bare. A bed stands in the corner, by the window. In the other corner is an open-fronted Ikea wardrobe, and a desk standing next to it. I remember putting them up, the night Rachel came to stay with us. Nothing much has changed since. All the clothes in the wardrobe are ones mum bought for her; the same with the bed sheets. The only change is the pictures taped to the wall above the desk.
I hesitate. I should leave. This is an invasion of privacy. But something about the pictures keeps me there. I put the plate on the floor and walk over to the desk, looking at them. They are childish, clumsy, drawn in multicoloured biro lines: people, animals, landscapes. I see my name, and smile at the straight-faced caricature of myself beside it, all in blacks and blues. There’s a portrait of mum, in reds and oranges; and one of a woman called Carol, dressed in what looks like a white lab coat.
But it was the landscapes that caught my eye, and when I look closer I can see why. They look like a five-year-old’s drawings: grey houses and streets at the bottom of the page, and blue sky scribbled at the top. But where any other child would leave white space in between, Rachel has drawn another landscape: greener, brighter, with animals roaming between lollipop-stick trees. I lean forward until my nose is almost touching the paper. The drawings are rough and clumsy, but there is detail in them not visible from a distance. The buildings at the bottom are the same on each page, a collection of one-storey Portakabins grouped around what looks like one of those Victorian red-brick schools, and a barbed wire fence running along the page between us.
But the landscapes are different, as are the skies above them. In some, there are groups of what look like dinosaurs, or dragons, each rendered in meticulous similarity, down to the number of toes or spines along their backs. Some I recognise, like what are clearly Triceratops, or Pterodactyls; others are unfamiliar, like the writhing coils of a massive brown worm curled between the trunks of a blackened forest. Then there are drawings of people, all in different costumes as if from different times, arranged like something from an Egyptian frieze, or the Bayeaux tapestry, telling some kind of story. I see a boy with his parents in a sunny forest; beside them, a scene of battle, and bodies scattered all around; the boy running, alone, then found by a village of woodsmen; the boy growing to become a man, hunting, fighting, then fleeing the village and wandering alone again.
The skies, too, are different from picture to picture. Almost all of them, whether night or day, feature constellations of stars, and in many of the pictures the constellations are the same, but in different positions in the sky. I see Orion, the Plough, the Seven Sisters, and others; but next to them are words scribbled that I do not recognise: Tuarin; Nimlidel; Auglir, and others. I recognise the handwriting, though. It’s mum’s.
I realise my hands are shaking. I stand back and look at the pictures on the wall, seeing how similar they are now, like different views of the same place, taken at different times from different angles.
A card is pinned to the wall above the pictures, a picture of a teddy bear holding a heart with the words, ‘Good Luck!’ printed on it. I reach out and open the card. Inside is a message written in neat, precise handwriting: ‘All our love in your new home. From Carol and the Team. “Bless them which persecute you.”‘
Underneath, someone has drawn the Shannen logo.
One of the drawers in the desk is ajar. Inside, I can see folders with more papers in them. More so than before I know I shouldn’t, but the temptation is impossible to resist. I slide the drawer open all the way and take out one of the folders. On the cover, in permanent market, is written a single word — ‘Schematics’ — and inside are pages and pages of sketches of buildings, places, streets, machines. These are not Rachel’s drawings. These are more professional, and they’re by lots of different people: some are pencil sketches, some watercolours, others look like technical drawings done in a computer. At the bottom of each drawing is the word ‘dictated’, followed by a date and a reference number; at the back is a stapled page, sometimes two or three, that looks like a report form, dense with scribbled notes.
I take one out. The picture is a watercolour of a night scene. In the foreground are row upon row of tents, some kind of army camp by the look of it, and beyond them a black mountain rising against a starry sky. The legend at the bottom reads, ‘Dictated: 18/04/11. 3486-724-BJ’. I turn the page over and begin to read the report:
Subject RHL-224. REM state = 4 hours. Mixture AA32, 3mg p/h, 1mg doses p/20mins. Dictation supervised by CH, scribed by ST, vizualized by HN-N. Dictation follows:
CH: Rachel, how do you feel?
CH: Did you sleep well?
CH: Did you dream?
RHL-224: (shakes head)
CH: You know we look at your brain while you sleep, don’t you? The computer that does that told us you had a dream. Why are you telling me you didn’t dream, Rachel?
RHL-224: Because I didn’t.
CH: Then what happened?
RHL-224: I went away.
CH: Where did you go?
RHL-224: To the inbetween.
CH: Where is the inbetween?
RHL-224: (looks around) It’s here.
CH: So you didn’t go away, then? You stayed right here.
RHL-224: (shakes head) No. I went to the inbetween. It’s not here. Not exactly. It’s between …
CH: Between what?
RHL-224: (shrugs) Between the ground and the sky. Between yesterday and today. Between here and there. Between awake and asleep. It’s the inbetween.
CH: And how do you get there?
RHL-224: When I sleep.
CH: So you went to the inbetween last night. What did you see there?
(pause of 1-2 minutes)
CH: Rachel? Can you tell us what you saw?
RHL-224: (hesitantly, with pauses) It was dark. It was nighttime. Tuarin was there. He was flying over the black mountain. There were tents in front of the mountains, and people walking around the tents. They had metal clothes on, and they were all men. Some of them had sticks, and some had knives. They had the birds on their clothes. There was a river by the mountain. The men were scared of the river. They said the Eighteens lived on the other side of the river. They didn’t want the Eighteens to kill them. It was winter. I was cold. But there wasn’t any snow. It was just icy, and the ground was hard. They couldn’t see me, but I could see them. I wanted to tell them it would be all right, but they couldn’t hear me so there was no point. I wanted to go to the city on the mountain, but when I started to walk I woke up. That was it.
(subject is then debriefed and dismissed)
End of dictation.
I put the paper back. My hands are still shaking. I don’t know what to think. The are countless other folders in the drawer, each with its own label: ‘Flora’, ‘Fauna’, ‘Indigents’, ‘Recurrents’, ‘Notation’, ‘Insignia’, and more. I take out the last folder and open it up. These pages are smaller, the sketches simpler: symbols, crests, ensigns, flags, logos, brands I have never seen before. Some have more than one iteration, and these are grouped together in their own categories. The symbol of a black and white bird entwined is repeated about twenty times; that if a moon imposed on a sun more that thirty times; but the final category outnumbers all of them many times over.
It is the Shannen logo. Over and over: bigger, smaller, narrower, broader, formed in fire, cut in stone, scratched in sand. The pages go on and on, the dates stretching back four years. Four years? What is this? Where is all this coming from?
Another folder, this one simply labelled, ‘Dictations’. There are no pictures here, not reports. I pick one at random. It’s dated for earlier this year.
Subject RHL-224. REM state = 0.25 hours. Mixture AA32, 6mg p/h, 3mg doses p/30mins. Dictation supervised by CH, scribed by AO, no visualisation. Dictation follows:
CH: Rachel, how are you today?
(subject is distressed. Note that subject’s sleep was severely disturbed. Evidence of physical demanifestation on record.)
CH: Rachel, are you all right?
RHL-224: No. No I’m not all right.
CH: What’s the matter? Was it something you saw last night?
CH: What is it? What did you see? Maybe talking it out will help?
RHL-224: (with great effort and distress) They’re gone. They’re all gone.
CH: Who’s gone, Rachel?
RHL-224: Everyone. The whole planet. They got in their ships and they left — thousands of ships; millions of them, like great skyscrapers the size of cities heaving themselves into the sky, leaving the ground black and burnt for miles around them.
CH: Why did they leave, Rachel?
RHL-224: Because they couldn’t stand it any more.
CH: Couldn’t stand what?
RHL-224: The thought that they were alone.
I jump, startled. It’s mum’s voice, calling from downstairs. I swear and shove the folders back in the drawer, crumpling the papers inside. How could I not have heard the door latch? Because you were too busy learning that your mum is conducting experiments on small children, I tell myself. I fumble with the drawer, knocking a jar of pencils over in my haste. It’s too much to take in now, too much to think about. I stumble to the door, pick up the cold plate of food, and lurch out on to the landing. Mum’s coming up the stairs: I can just see the back of her head. I pull myself together enough to take a deep breath and gently close the door, then I turn with the plate in my hands as much reaches the top of the stairs.
“Hi,” I say, pulling a smile. “You all right?”
Mum smiles back. “Fine,” she says. “Did you get my note?”
“Yeah. Is Rachel with you?”
The smile drains from her face. “What?”
“I was just knocking for her, but there’s no reply. I thought—”
I don’t have a chance to finish the sentence. Mum barges past me and grasps at the door handle, fumbling in her haste to open it. “Rachel?” The panic in her voice is obvious. “Rachel, are you there? Rachel—?”
The door swings inwards and mum stumbles into the room. I look past her, and my whole body flushes cold.
Rachel is sitting on the bed, watching us.
There are two Jasons in the argument that follows.
The first Jason alternates between apologising for not having knocked hard enough, and scolding Rachel for not having answered me.
The second Jason is numb with the shock of everything that’s just happened, and wondering how on earth Rachel could have gotten into that room and just exactly how long she’d been there before we opened that door. But the second Jason can’t say anything. Especially not to mum. The second Jason is finding it hard to look her in the eye.
Rachel sits at the kitchen table between us, watching the argument go back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match. She doesn’t say anything. In the end I apologise to mum for having scared her, and after accepting the apology mum takes herself and Rachel up to bed, claiming that I’ve managed to exhaust her more in ten minutes than any part of her career did in eight years.
I sit on my own after they’ve gone, replaying what I saw over and over in my head. It makes no sense, any of it. Already it seems like a bad dream, and I wonder whether I imagined it. But no. I know it was real. I saw it — saw the empty room, and the pictures over the desk, and the files in the desk.
Is this what mum’s job is? I ask myself. Some kind of mad scientist who experiments on children?
That can’t be it. This is mum, my mum. She’d never do anything like that.
Then why is Rachel here? Why is mum looking after her?
Maybe mum doesn’t know about any of it.
Of course she knows. That’s why she’s kept you out of Rachel’s room. She doesn’t want you to know. Remember the creaking, like footsteps at night? What do you think that was, if it wasn’t Rachel?
That was before Rachel came.
It was before mum showed her to you.
I don’t have an answer, and I go up to my room without having decided anything.
When I get to my door I pause. The landing light is off; the space under Rachel’s door is dark, but mum’s light is still on. I can hear her talking to someone. She sounds agitated. I know I shouldn’t listen in, but what I’ve just seen makes me wonder.
I walk down the hall to mum’s door, where I stop and listen, my heart hammering.
“… can’t be serious about shutting the project down. No, I understand that. But this is my research. Well, I can certainly make a strong claim. Eight years of my life, to start with! Including the nine months I spent carrying her! No, I am not. I could have you up before a panel for sexual discrimination just for mentioning it. All right. Just … Give me a week. Can you do that? One week. Yes, arrange whatever you want. Just keep it discreet. Because normality is key to this phase, that’s why! I can’t have either of them knowing what’s going on. It’ll disrupt the process too much. We can’t afford the risk. All right. Look, I’ve got another call coming in. I’ll speak to you later.” A pause. Then: “Are you there? Did you get him?” Another pause, then she groans. “Fine. Don’t do anything else with that. I want you to come here. You’re reassigned to RHL-224. She is your only priority. Understood?”
I hear her sigh, then the bed creaks and the light goes out, and I’m left in the dark in more ways than one.
* * *
Well, I hope that scrambled your eggs a little. For extra points, who can tell me who the second phone call was from?
Have a good day!