“Did you get off on it then?” Zelda dipped a piece of pitta bread into the taramosalata, scooped up a generous portion and shoved it into her mouth.
“‘Get off on it’?” I repeated, appalled. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that it sounds like you enjoyed your spat with Deputy Dawg.” She reached for an olive. “My guess is that the air between you was positively fizzling with sexual tension.”
It should have been possible to refute this suggestion with a witty riposte, but for the moment I couldn’t think of one. I stared at the naively painted mural of the Acropolis behind her, and wondered, instead, if the rumours about Jen Fowler and Aidan could possibly be true. Was it really likely that, almost as soon as he’d arrived at the school, they’d started an affair? Or had they known each other before? Or had Zelda simply picked up some vibes that suggested that the Politically Correct Beanpole had designs on him? And why should I care anyway? If Jen Fowler wanted to throw herself at a man who walked around with a briefcase with his initials on it, that was up to her!
“Dora, it’s classic,” Zelda spat an olive stone into the palm of her hand and put it on the side of her plate. “You meet a man, it’s antagonistic at first, and then, before you know it, you’re between the sheets and bang!”
“No thanks,” I said. “My last marriage cured me of that kind of thing. I never want to have a relationship with a man again.” I forked up a piece of fetta and chewed determinedly.
“But the sparks flew between you, didn’t they?”
“I don’t know why I got so annoyed. I suppose it was because I had a dreadful
feeling that he was in the right. I mean, I never thought 9X were in any danger, but what about what they did to the poor Honey Monster?”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it. That wasn’t your fault. And you left the class with someone you had every reason to believe was a qualified teacher and then you supported the Year 8 swim. Rumour has it, that when 9X didn’t turn up for their geography lesson with Pickering, not only did he fail to report them missing, he went down the pub!”
“All the same, I’ll have to be more careful in the future,” I said.
Kris’s Kebab House was a tiny place, tucked behind the old engine sheds in Engel’s Crescent. The service was quick, the meze was cheap, and there was something soothing about the stained tablecloths, the threadbare carpet, and the loop of bazouki versions of White Rose of Athens and Never on a Sunday. It was always semi-deserted at lunch time, the perfect place to escape from Havelock Ellis for an hour.
“Have you really not been involved with anyone since Peregrine?” Zelda asked me.
“No. I’m too busy looking after Caspian.”
“You could still have a little fling on the side. Are you sure you don’t fancy Deputy Dawg?”
“Quite sure. Can we please change the subject?”
“OK,” Zelda shrugged. “Listen, about last night. I’m sorry if I was insensitive. But I was just knocked out when I found out! About Chappaquiddick, I mean.”
“And I didn’t mean to be so defensive,” I put my fork down and picked up my glass of mineral water. “But the thing is, I don’t really want people to know that I ever had anything to do with the band. At the beginning, I mean just after it happened, there were so many fans sending me letters, asking me if I’d got any tapes of unreleased material, wanting me to give them an interview. And then, every so often, I’d get a call from a journalist. And even now, all these years later, people track me down. I even get invitations from some total ghouls who want to hold a candle-lit vigil at the scene of the crash.”
“Well, perhaps,” Zelda suggested gently. “You should stop thinking of them as ‘ghouls’ and start thinking of them as people who loved the band.”
“I expect they did love the band,” I bit my lip. “But how can those people think that I’d want to stand on that road, in that place, where Dingo lost his mind, Loon Tailor got crippled for life, and where Dave, my lovely Dave…oh hell!” I was filling up.
“Hey,” Zelda leant across the table and squeezed my hand. “You know what I
think? I think it would help if did go one day to meet those fans. And maybe even go and visit the place where it happened. You might feel better. It would be closure. And can’t you share some of your memories with me and Josh? Surely you wouldn’t mind Josh knowing? Let me tell him, and then the three of us could have a great evening. We could listen to some Chappaquiddick tracks—have you got the bootleg tapes by the way? And you could enjoy a really cathartic sob-fest. It would be good for you. What do you say?”
I stared at her across the table. Her expression was sympathetic but I really felt as though she lived on an entirely different planet. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I didn’t believe in’ closure’, nor was there such thing in my book as ‘enjoying’ a ‘cathartic’ sob-fest. As far as I was concerned, all I knew was crying uncontrollably in private until you threw up and then getting on with the rest of your life and trying not to give way again. And as for going to the scene of the accident on the anniversary of Dave’s death, that would be unbearable if other people were there. I knew exactly what was likely to happen. They’d start asking me my opinion of Dingo’s extraordinary testimony. They’d ask me if I believed that it had been no ordinary road crash and if I thought it was possible that Dingo had really seen what he’d said he’d seen and if…
“So can I tell Josh?” Zelda interrupted my thoughts.
I considered the question. What harm could there be in Josh knowing? And she was bound to tell him anyway.
“All right, then,” I said. “You can tell Josh. And if he wants, I’ll lend him the tapes. But please don’t ask me to listen to them. I just couldn’t bear it.”
I’d had a difficult afternoon, trying to supervise a Year 11 Games lesson, and now there was a coffin on my doorstep. At least, it looked like a coffin, an oblong box, mitred at one end. But if it was a coffin, it was an antique, a casket that had lain for centuries in an ancestral vault, containing the remains of a deceased aristocrat with a dubious reputation. It was covered in stained, green leather and there were metal studs along the edges, and on the side, there was a handle in the shape of a two-headed serpent. And there, I noticed as I bent down, with some trepidation, to look, under the handle, was a scroll, tied up with a red ribbon and fastened with a thick seal.
Where had this extraordinary object come from? It obviously hadn’t been delivered by Parcel Force. An artifact like this must have been transported over a treacherous, winding mountain road on a coach drawn by four, black plumed, madly whinnying stallions and driven by a cloaked, hunchbacked retainer who was whipping the beasts into a nostril-flecked frenzy.
Tentatively, I put my hand out and removed the scroll. I unrolled it and held it
up to the security light above the door. With some difficulty, I managed to decipher the spiky, Gothic script:
‘Property of His Excellency, Count Valkhov. ‘ Touch it ye not those who are too ignorant to understand. Dabble ye not with the forces of darknesse. If undelivered to the rightful address, return this boxe to the Palais de Pere Lachaise, Paris, otherwise, beare the consequences of thefte and deception.’
I’d heard of Pere Lachaise. That was the cemetery where they’d buried Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison and half the wealthy bourgeoisie of nineteenth century Paris. I hadn’t, however, ever heard that there was a palace there. Who was Count Valkov? Was he one of Ralphie’s friends? And if this coffin belonged to him, did that mean that Count Valkhov was inside? Oh! I imagined an emaciated corpse with hands like bunches of brown, dried bananas crossed over its chest, and a wizened head resting on a pillow edged with lace, and lips that had shrunk back to expose long, yellow teeth, set in a macabre grimace. No! I didn’t want to look any closer. I was just going to go into the house and…as I went to step over the mysterious oblong box, my foot collided with the box, and with a creak, the lid began to rise.
I’m proud to say that I didn’t scream, although I did clap my hand over my nose and mouth. But that was to try and block out the awful smell, musty and sickly sweet, like a damp old church filled with rotting apples and dead mice that rose up as the lid crashed against the front door. All right, I admit was apprehensive. The fact was, I was sure that I knew what was going to happen next. A revenant corpse was about to swing up in a stiff, ninety degrees, Jack-in-the-box elevation from the waist. But wait, this couldn’t be a coffin. Coffins didn’t have hinged lids, did they?
I looked down, faint with relief. Books. Nothing more sinister than books.
But wait! Wasn’t there was something alarming about those books? I could
see several ancient, leather bound tomes, lying under sprigs of mistletoe and dried ivy leaves, and they were all stamped with the insignia of the two headed serpent. And the stench of damp and dust was getting stronger by the minute.
I wasn’t sure what to do now, but I’d seen enough horror films to know what I shouldn’t do. I shouldn’t, for example, pick up one of these books, open it at random and start reading the text out loud, particularly if it happened to be in Latin, Aramaic, or some forgotten tongue spoken only by Egyptian necromancers in the tenth century BC. Nor should I flick through the books and put my hand on any woodcuts. Entities depicted in those were notoriously fond of leaving the page and creeping up beside you while you were innocently reading by candlelight. And if any of these books were grimoires (I only had a vague notion of what a grimoire was, but I knew it was something lethal) then I was in serious trouble. No, there was no way I was taking this property of Count Valkhov into my house.
I edged round the casket, unlocked the front door, went in and slammed the door firmly behind me. Then I kicked off my shoes, dumped my school bag in the hall, and padded through to the kitchen. I sloshed some gin and tonic into a glass and went to the fridge for ice. As I opened the door, I saw a piece of parchment sticking out from under Seb’s Mont Blanc fridge magnet. I recognized the purple ink:
Gone to The Lord Halifax to collect some pieces of the dear blue china that Oscar gave me. Do meet me there later. We have much to discuss. Yours R..
Blue china. Right. Well, at least I had the house to myself for a while. I opened the fridge, took out some ice, put it in my glass, and went up to bed. I fell gratefully under the duvet and after a few sips of my drink, I had zonked out.
It was a husky voice, gentle as the September dew on Hackney marshes. But I hadn’t heard that voice for twenty years. And now it had roused me out of an uneasy dream, where I’d been floating, shipwrecked, on a plank of wood in a greasy black sea. The sky had been blood red and I’d seen a dark mass coming towards me and I’d started waving at it. But as the mass advanced, I saw that it was not a ship at all but the old 1870s London brick building of Havelock Ellis School, and that it was bearing down on me. And then 9X, transformed into a group of rotting zombies, had leaned out of the windows, grimacing and catcalling at me. “You’ll get incident slips, you’re not in school uniform,” I’d yelled back and then Rizwan had pulled off one of his arms and hurled it at me.
“Wotcha, girl.” The voice again, here in my room. But how could he be here? It just
“Davey?” I stretched my hand out to turn on the bedside light.
“Don’t do that, girl, I ain’t ready,” the voice said. “Too much light, and I
might be gawn.”
“But I can’t see you!”
“You will in a minute, girl. But don’t move. You have to stay where you are. We can’t touch or nothing. Now, I’m ‘ere, girl, can you see me?”
“Yes,” I breathed. “Now I can.”
It was a miracle. As my eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, I saw him there, by the window, doused in the orange sodium street lighting leaking in through the chink in the curtains. His blond hair was fanning out in the slight breeze from
the open window. His thumbs were hooked into the belt of his denims. He was standing in his characteristic, cool pose, and he looked just as he had done when we first met, those fabulous, sculpted cheekbones, that generous mouth, the sweet, tiny scar under his left eye, and his swimming-pool blue eyes. Five feet ten inches of staggering physical beauty that might have been chiselled out of Carrara marble by a Renaissance master. Dave Dellow, the boy I met in Dawlish all those years ago, and not a single mark of a violent death on him.
I didn’t want him to see that I was trembling. Dave never liked excessive displays of emotion. He’d been the strong, silent type, an East End lad of the old school, but he’d also been capable of great tenderness, in his understated, laid-back way.
“Oh,” I said softly, “It’s really you.”
“Yer, it’s me,” he grinned. “Sorry I never come back before.”
Oh, that voice. I’d always adored the way he spoke, despite the fact that his accent was of the same provenance as that of Nanny Barrel Hips. But while she invariably sounded raucous and aggressive, his dropped h’s and glottal stops had been gorgeous and sexy.
“How are you, Davey?” I asked.
“Apart from being dead, I’m fine.” He was standing very still. “And how’s the kid? Me son?”
“You know about Seb?”
“’Course I do.”
“He’s not a kid any more, Davey. He’s in his second year at university.”
“Cor, fancy that,” Dave sounded surprised. “Don’t take after me then. I
mean, he must have brains. I haven’t seen him since he was born.”
“You saw him?”
“Yeh. But that was a one-off. I managed to get a view into the ‘orspital, and I saw him, lying in that little cot on wheels.”
“Oh, Davey.” I felt as though the lump in my throat would choke me.
“But after that,” he looked rueful, “I couldn’t seem to come back. Not until now that is. Some people can do it easily, but it’s taken me a while to get the hang of it. Sorry girl, I always struggled with stuff.”
“You didn’t struggle, Davey,” I said. “You played the guitar like a genius, and you made love like an angel. And now you look just like one.”
“I ain’t no angel, girl,” he grinned. “Anyway, what would I want with a bleeding ’arp?”
“Oh, Davey,” I giggled. Dave could always make me laugh. “It’s so good to see you again.”
“It’s all right seeing you too, girl,” he said.
Neither of us spoke for a moment. It was one of those comfortable, loving silences that we’d always enjoyed. But there was something I wanted to ask him, something only he would know.
“Davey, about that night,” I said, “The night when you…”
“Got meself killed? Oh, don’t think about it. It’s water under the bridge. No good crying over spilt milk. What’s done is done. You make your bed and you lie on it. No point me being a dog in the manger. Worse things happen at sea. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You’ve got to row, row, row your boat swiftly down the stream. When your cup’s half empty, it’s really half full, ignorance is bliss,
when you come to the end of a perfect day…”
“Davey, oh, please stop!”
“What’s wrong, girl?” he sounded perplexed. “Ain’t I making no sense?”
“No, no, it’s not that,” I saw, to my consternation, that he was becoming increasingly translucent. The wardrobe door was visible through his chest. “It’s just that I haven’t seen you for so long. There’s so much I want to say and…”
“And I’m talking rubbish,” Dave completed my sentence. “It’s a funny thing, being dead makes you do that. There’s all this stuff floating in your ‘ead and you can’t get the words out. You know what? I’ve learned stuff since I’ve been on the other side. I wanted to be your equal. I learned all that stuff you was studying. I know about Battleship Potemkin and the films of Ingmar Bergman, who wasn’t the same person as Ingrid Bergman, and I know about tracking shots and what the gaffer does, and the best boy, I even know what a focus puller is and…oh sorry, I’ve gone off again, haven’t I, and I did have something important to tell you. Only I can’t quite remember what it was, no, wait, it’ll come to me in a moment.”
I could hardly see him at all now. He was fading like a Victorian sepia photograph that had been over-exposed to sunlight.
“Oh, Davey!” I leaned forward, anxious not to lose sight or sound of him. “Davey, Davey, stay here!”
“Sorry girl. I’ve got to go.”
“You have to stay. Please, you must try!” All I could see of him now was the vaguest outline. The bedroom seemed to be filling up with mist.
“Listen, girl,” his voice was fainter. “What did you go and marry that bloke for? The one who owns this gaff? I didn’t want you to live like a nun, girl, but you could have done better than him. You deserve better.”
“It was a mistake,” I bit my lip. “I’m sorry.”
“It don’t matter, girl.”
“But it does. I should have known. There could only ever be you.”
“But I’m dead, girl, it’s no bleeding good. Here, it’s coming back to me, henbane, you’ve got to get some henbane...” his voice was echoing as though from the bottom of a fathomless well.
“I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
“I said to Dingo.... watch out for that tree.....”
“The tree!” Desperately, I was trying to keep him here. “Davey, what about the tree? Did you see…?”
“The henbane….don’t forget the...henbane....bloody strange way for a tree to behave…henbane…”
I heard a car roar past outside. Then there was silence. He was gone.
I threw back the duvet, got up, and went over to the window. I stared out at the foggy street. I was alone, feeling the desolation of his loss all over again. My past was coming back to haunt me, and still, nothing made any sense. But the memories were stirring, and the only thing now was to go with them, and see where they would take me.