Authors: Cassandra Golds
âI'm not a witch,' said Deirdre again. âI'm not a witch. I'm not a witch. I'm not a witch. I'm not a witch.'
For a moment, she thought she saw a small red flame beneath her. She thought she had imagined it. Then she realised it was true.
She looked around and saw a sea of frightened faces. Then the bell went. It was an electric buzzer, a little distant from this end of the grounds, but audible nonetheless.
About half the kids fled immediately, slithering off through the mud and the dead leaves. The other half dithered. Then Gal came over the fence from the wilderness.
He always came to school this way. And he always came as late as possible.
For a split second he stopped short, staring. The expression on his face didn't seem to change at all, but the colour drained from it, so that his eyes burned weirdly blue against the pallor. Then he dropped his bag and went straight to the rope that tied Deirdre to the tree.
It was not easy to untie.
Gal seemed strangely calm, as if involved in some absorbing hobby â building a model boat, say.
Suddenly a flame licked upward.
That was when the rest of the children ran away.
Gal abandoned the rope, stamped on the flame, burned himself, cried out with the pain, but put it out. Then he got the knots undone, every mean little one of them, and the old rope scratched his fingers until they bled, while Deirdre, having abandoned all dignity, gabbled as if in a fever about the past.
âI can't remember what it was!' she kept saying in an awful, keening voice, weeping inconsolably. âIf only, if only, if only, I could remember what it was!'
For everything always seemed to come back to that â the thing she and Gal couldn't remember. The thing that happened when they were five. Gal kept trying to console her as he worked.
âOne day we'll remember, I promise, Deirdre. We'll find a way to remember, and then everything will be all right. Don't cry. Don't cry. It'll be all right. When we remember. I promise.'
By the time they limped up to the school, the children were pouring out of the first lesson and on their way to the second. Gal and Deirdre made their way to the office and the children in the playground parted before them like the Red Sea. As they passed a small group near the main entrance a boy said, just audibly:
She is a witch.
She's put a spell on Gally-had.'
And Gal turned and hit him so hard it knocked him to the ground.
It had been so swift that no one had seen it coming. The boy was astonished. He seemed almost not to understand what had happened, until he saw the blood on his shirt. His nose was bleeding. He was desperate not to cry. But the other kids weren't looking at him. They were looking at Gal.
Gal was staring at his fist.
He was already pale with the pain from the burn. Now he looked afraid.
Not of anyone else. Of himself.
The other children were afraid too. Not so much because of the punch, though that had been effective enough. It was the swiftness of his anger that really frightened them. And the deep place it came from.
Somehow all three of them got to the office, from where they were driven to the local hospital. Deirdre was treated for shock, Gal for a second-degree burn on his lower leg, the boy for a nosebleed. Neither Gal nor Deirdre went back to school that day.
Or any other.
Deirdre spent the next five and a half years finishing high school by correspondence.
And Gal was expelled.
The minute she put her key in the lock and pushed the door open, they heard it. It was a strange sound, constant, rhythmic, distant, like a drum beating, only more subdued.
Deirdre hesitated, then let herself and Gal in. She closed the door absently behind them.
âWhat is that sound?' she said, puzzled.
Gal had found it harder to get through the hole in the council's hoarding than Deirdre had. He couldn't squeeze through it, even sideways, without pushing it further inwards, making it crack and splinter with a queasy sort of sound. She was a little surprised. He was bigger than her, and taller, but not greatly so, and she had thought the gap larger. It was so easy for her. Now he stood brushing the wood from his shoulders, looking guilty, as if he felt he had broken in.
There was graffiti on the outside of the hoarding. Gal had seen it; Deirdre had not seemed to notice.
THE CASTLE OF THE WITCH
, somebody had written in blood-red spray paint.
Gal had always thought Corbenic looked like a castle. An Art Deco castle. And if ever there was a witch, it was Deirdre's grandmother.
Now they were standing in the vestibule, the rather grand entrance to what had once been Deirdre's grandmother's block of residential apartments, and originally (when the town had been a fashionable holiday resort) her great-grandfather's holiday flats. But tenants of any description had left long ago. Nobody but Deirdre and her grandmother had lived in the building for years.
The ceiling was startlingly high and ornamental, with white plaster fruit and flowers and ribbons modelled on it in relief. It was lovely, but the paint was peeling off it and there were dark stains, cobwebs, and pigeons roosting in the cornices, cooing and occasionally fluttering restlessly. The floor was richly carpeted, but the carpet was worn and faded and had a musty odour. Behind them were the lights of the misty street, visible because of the hole in the plywood hoarding and because the street entrance was a kind of jewel box of mahogany-framed glass. The name of the building,
, and the year its construction was completed,
, were written across the central panel in a stately semicircle. Looked at from within, it was of course written backwards. They had both been intrigued by that as children. Corbenic was the name of the Grail Castle of Arthurian legend, as they both knew. But the backwards lettering made it seem as if, from inside, the castle was somehow upside down and inside out. Or as if this castle was, anyway.
. It's all still here,' said Gal, half in grief and half in wonder.
He looked around him with the air of one who had stepped into a dream or the past. Before them was a wide, carpeted stairway; to the right of it, a bank of pigeonholes for mail, and the office door, locked. To the left, a long hall, at the end of which could be glimpsed an elegant frosted-glass door, which led to another wing.
âIt's like nowhere else in the world, this place,' he said. âIt's so beautiful, and so terrible â the best possible place and the worst possible place. It's like â it's like heaven and hell at the same timeÂ .Â .Â .' It was a strange observation, and yet as he said it he seemed relieved, as if he felt he was home at last.
But Deirdre was still listening to the sound.
âYou can hear it, can't you?' said Deirdre.
âWhat do you think it is?'
Gal considered. It was as if he found the sound some kind of a relief as well.
âYou know,' he began slowly, âwhen you hear a song, and you know it, but you can't remember what it's called or who sings it?'
Deirdre was silent. She knew exactly what he meant. The sound was deeply familiar to her too, and yet she could not name it. But she wasn't as comfortable about that as Gal appeared to be.
âCome upstairs,' she said, and led the way, although she knew he would not have forgotten it.
There were twelve wide, carpeted steps, then a small landing. Sitting alone on the landing was a dark wooden table; on the table sat a sheaf of dusty silk lilies in a turquoise and white and gold and coral Japanese porcelain vase. Above it there was a mysterious leadlight window not much bigger than a kitchen clock. You couldn't see through it, but in any case it looked out on nothing but a kind of hollow bricked shaft, which nonetheless seemed suffused with a curious, cold, misty light. Then there were seven more steps and a second, smaller vestibule like the one that made up the main entrance below. On the right side of this was the door to Deirdre's grandmother's flat. Behind them were stairs up to a higher landing. Opposite her grandmother's flat was a second apartment, its door shut, only darkness on the other side. Deirdre chose a key from the large bunch she was carry-ing, put it in the lock on her grandmother's door, opened it, and let him in.
He entered as if into faerieland.
She suddenly saw him again as a five year old, which was strange, because it happened just as she was reflecting on how tall he had become.
Deirdre's grandmother's flat had very high, almost cavernÂous, ceilings and generous floor space â but it looked small because of the amount of furniture in it. And because of how heavy and unnecessarily large the furniture was. It was furniture intended for a grand house, not a moderate-sized flat. And there was something about this in itself that made you feel as if its owner had never quite come to terms with reality.
Gal stood gazing around him in the half-light created by the streetlights that shone through the bay windows from which Deirdre had looked out and seen him earlier. Meanwhile, with the air of one used to negotiating an awkward environment, Deirdre weaved her way swiftly around the room, replacing the keys, lighting candles â for the electricity had been cut off months ago.
âIt's all still here,' Gal whispered again.
But the flat had changed since he had last seen it. It was in much worse repair. And it was much more crowded. It had always been eccentric. Now it was insane.
The flat was like a robber's cave from
The Arabian Nights
, or Tutankhamen's tomb when Howard Carter first stumbled upon it. It was as rich, and as crowded, and as â crazy. It looked more like a storeroom, or an antique shop, than a residence. There was a dark, polished wooden dining table, with a Japanese vase full of silk flowers on an Irish lace doily, and two matching chairs. There was a velvet couch and a faded floral armchair and a sizable oblong coffee table. There was a heavy wooden fold-down desk with, oddly, a tumbled stack of business letters that seemed to be unopened, and, through the doorway, a bed that was too large for the next room, with a rose-pink quilted satin eiderdown and matching cushions. And a large old-fashioned dressing table, with a three-faced mirror and crystal boxes and trays and vases and bottles of perfume sitting above the drawers. In the corner, squashed up next to the wardrobe, there was a Japanese screen, with hummingbirds in flight amidst blossoming trees painted on a dull gold background. And draped everywhere, a little untidily, were embroidered fringed silk shawls, faded with age. Even the ornaments on the mantelpiece and the desk and the coffee table were not dainty but large and imposing: two matching, tall, graceful Art Deco ladies worked in porcelain, wearing sleek 1930s evening gowns; a carved wooden tiger the size of a small dog; twin marble bookends that were almost too heavy to lift; an old mantelpiece clock with a face as big as a dinner plate set in a kind of miniature Roman temple, with columns and porticoes; large electric lamps with shades that looked like 1930s women's hats; a delicately painted Japanese fan, opened out and sitting on a small stand, which might once have been carried by a geisha. And dusty silk flowers. Everywhere, dusty silk flowers.
All in all, the furniture and ornaments seemed to have grown too large for the flat, like animals still kept in the cages that had housed them as newborns.
So much to look at!
But neither Gal nor Deirdre were looking at any of it. For of course the flat was dominated, as it always had been, by Deirdre's dead relatives. And in the end, it was impossible to look at anything but them.
They seemed to drag your eyes towards them, as if each of them had something they needed, desperately, to tell you. You had to strain to look at anything else. The effect was such that you only had to be in the flat a few moments to feel exhausted.
Deirdre's great-grandmother, who had died when Deirdre's grandmother was born. Deirdre's great-grandfather, who had built the building they were standing in, and who had travelled to Japan and all over the world. Deirdre's great-uncle, her grandmother's brother, who had died when he was twenty-seven. Deirdre's uncle, her grandmother's son, who had died as a two year old.
And Deirdre's grandmother.
Her photograph had been there for as long as either of them could remember. But now she had joined them. Now she was one of the company of dead relatives.
And yet she was set apart. The latest to die, now she was queen of them all.
She was standing with her arms resting on the back of a chair. She was blonde and dressed all in black, her hair cut in a short bob with a fringe. Her little face was strangely piquant and alien, unforgettable in itself; but the reason the photograph was so arresting was her expression. It was impossible to interpret, or at least, impossible to come to a decision about. It was as if the camera had caught her in a kind of war between hostility and defencelessness, and as if this inner struggle drew you into it with her. It was impossible not to take sides, and yet it was impossible to choose definitively one side over the other. She was wearing a calf-length black dress, drop waisted, with long black tight-fitting sleeves and black stockings and shoes. She was clearly in mourning, and clearly in the dress of another era. She looked about six.
And she ruled the flat â she ruled Corbenic â with ease.
âIt's all still here,' Gal said again. âIt's the same, only more so.'
âA lot of these things used to be in other flats,' said Deirdre. âMy grandmother took the best stuff when people left, and put it in here. It wasn't this crowded when you first saw it.'
But it was, Gal knew, because it was really the photographs that crowded it. And they had been here all along.
âDo you remember the day I first came?'
âOf course I remember the day you first came!'
For a moment, they were looking softly at each other.
Then he saw the crack.
And the sound, the sound that was so familiar to both of them, and yet which they could not identify, grew suddenly fast and insistent.
It was an ugly, obscene-looking crack, dividing the high ceiling from wall to wall like a knife wound through flesh, as shocking as a bolt of lightning splitting the night sky. The ceiling on one side of it had begun to cave, so that you could see three or four inches of the layers above the plaster. It reminded one of a split in the earth during an earthquake, it reminded you that the part of a house you don't see, the ugly part, exists just as surely as the painted exterior.
It made you feel as if the whole building might collapse at any minute.
Gal was shaken.
âHow long has that been there?' he whispered.
âI don't exactly know,' said Deirdre. âI noticed it when I got home after the funeral.'
Gal stared at it.
âWhat does it mean?' he asked, for it hadn't occurred to either of them that it might mean nothing.
âIt's the beginning of the end,' said Deirdre.
âHow do you mean, the end?'
âThe building is going to collapse.'
Gal was startled.
âThe building â'
âNo, sorry, I heard what you said. But why are you here? Why aren't you gone?'
Deirdre looked up at him strangely.
âDon't you know?'
âBecause I'm the guardian,' she said. âI can't leave, ever. I must perish with Corbenic.' She looked again at the crack. âThat's how she planned it.'
Gal was looking at her with a kind of horror. âThe guardian of what?' he wanted to say. Only, he was afraid of the answer. And in his head he kept seeing the Grail Maiden, the ghostly woman of Arthurian legend who guarded the Holy Grail. âBut she's dead,' he said again, instead. Every time he said it, he somehow felt less convinced.
âI'm doomed, you see,' said Deirdre as if he had not spoken. âAlong with the building. She meant it that way. And now it all seems to make sense. All the strangeness of it, through the years. That's why I'm so grateful to see you. If I'd been given a wish â a last wish â I would have asked to see you again. That can't have been her doing. Your being here, I mean. Not everything is, after all. Although sometimes I have difficulty believing it. But do you see why you can't stay? This is not your doom. You were banished years ago.'
âDon't say that,' said Gal. âDon't say you're doomed. Don't say I'm not. Whatever happens, I want it to be the same for us. I can't bear it otherwise. I know I can't. I've tried.'