Authors: Cassandra Golds
And then â was it a week later? a month? â something happened to Deirdre and Galahad that was so important, so transcendent, it changed them, and bound them, forever.
They had been exploring, as usual, in the building. It was raining outside and they could hear the rain dripping down through the many drainpipes. Sometimes Deirdre felt that they lived in a fortress of drainpipes. Gal had been complaining of a pain in his chest. He wasn't coughing, but Mrs Dark had grown up in this mountain town of pilgrims from the city with hollow cheeks and dark circles under their eyes, people who had tuberculosis and who had come for the pure, healing air. So she had talked of taking him to the doctor for a chest X-ray.
It was odd how one minute it was open war between them, the next minute she was treating him as if he was her child and she a fussing, attentive guardian.
However, the visit didn't seem to be going to take place anytime soon. Mrs Dark was very busy, these days, with her building plans.
They never seemed to get to the end of the passages and stairways and rooms to explore. They had wandered down a dark hallway with doors on either side of it: all locked, all apparently leading to empty flats that had been shut up because they couldn't be let. They were about to turn back, disappointed; they didn't remember this hall and it had seemed more promising from the outside than within. But then Gal noticed a dim glow on the wall at the end. It was oblong-shaped and they suddenly realised the passage did not culminate in a dead end but turned at right angles towards some place more brightly lit. The peculiar thing was, the light looked like sunshine.
And yet they could still hear the rain dripping relentlessly through the pipes.
âWe're in the middle of the building,' Gal said suddenly. He was sure it was true, although he didn't know how he could tell, unless it was some kind of instinct. âThe very middle,' he said wonderingly. âLike the centre of the earth. Except this is the centre of Corbenic.'
Then Deirdre did something that startled him. She turned her head towards him and looked at him in a weird, interior kind of way, as if she was there, but not there; as if she was blind, or sleepwalking.
âI know,' she said.
They ventured on towards the end, turned the corner, and were confronted with a surprising sight. Another hall â a strange, rough, empty hall like a stony passage between an underground network of caves. Only there was a stairway at the end of it and the steps seemed to be made of stones, naturally occurring stones, which might have been found in a river. The stairway led upward. At the top was a gate with iron bars. Through it poured a dim red-gold light.
They did not speak; but they reached for each other's hands, and walked towards it.
The gate looked very old, older than the building; too old to be in the building. It looked like something that might be found somewhere in an old, old church: a gate round the tomb of a knight or a saint, perhaps. As they approached Deirdre grew strangely confident. She went ahead a little, pulling him by the hand. She walked up the steps and instead of peering in through the bars, as he had expected, reached in and found a latch that was invisible to him but which, when released, caused the door to drift gently open.
He followed her inside.
There was light all around and the room seemed to be made of crystal â that is, cut glass â which, like the light, was impossible. There were no walls, only windows, and the windows looked like diamonds. The room was circular and contained only one thing â an iron plinth on which stood a crystal box. The box had a lid, also crystal.
The sunlight seemed to be shining through the cut glass from within the box. But the box was not filled with light, or not light only. There was something inside, something about the size of a fist that could be dimly perceived through the glass. It glowed red-gold and it moved, or jumped, rhythmically, almost as if the fist were clenching itself and releasing, clenching itself and releasing, with a blind, but conscious intensity.
âIt's a little animal!' whispered Gal. âIs it â a frog? He must be trapped! But how does he live?'
âHe's not trapped,' whispered Deirdre. âThat's his cage. He lives because I feed him. Grandmother put him here. It's my task to guard him and look after him.'
âSo you've been here before?'
âI come here every night,' said Deirdre. âBut when I'm not here, I forget. I had forgotten until just now. I never think about it when I'm not here. I think I come here when I'm sleeping. Perhaps I'm sleeping now. Do you want to see him?'
Gal nodded, and Deirdre took the glass bowl in her hand and offered it to him. âTake off the lid,' she said.
Gal did so and the moment he did they both saw something so beautiful, so important and so heartbreakingly sad that it seemed to explain everything, all at once â even questions they had never thought to ask. They both gazed at it for a moment, lost in wonder and love. Then they looked at each other, and knew, even then, even though they were only five, that this would be the most important moment in their lives.
They could never have believed, at that moment, that it would be possible to forget what was in the box. And yet, they did, as soon as Mrs Dark appeared in the doorway.
She must have known. She must have been able to tell. She must have been able to feel what was going on in the building, as if it were a part of her body, as if the building was her body, or perhaps, her mind. And she must have been waiting for this to happen.
And yet now, she was truly, lividly angry.
âWhat is he doing here?' she asked Deirdre, without taking her eyes off Gal.
At such a moment another child might have dropped the box, but Deirdre was not that child. Instead she held it tightly to her chest, as if to put herself between it and her grandmother.
âPlease, Grandmother, please,' she begged. âDon't be angry with Gal. He didn't mean to come here. I didn't either. I forgot it was here! Please don't be angry.'
âI'm not angry,' said Deirdre's grandmother. But something about the way she said it made Deirdre's stomach give with a sudden, sickening lurch. âNot â
,' she repeated. âI'm disappointed. Disappointed.' She swayed a little as she stood and for a moment Deirdre thought she was going to fall. âNot in him,' she went on. âI wouldn't have expected any better. I'm disappointed in you, Deirdre.' And she stared at her and Deirdre lowered her eyes, trying helplessly to escape the deep, searing reproach, but not succeeding. She felt utterly guilty, utterly condemned. âHe will have to go. I cannot harbour such a child. His influence will ruin you.'
âPleaseÂ .Â .Â .' Deirdre tried to say, but she had no voice.
Her grandmother turned to Gal.
And Deirdre, in her despair, had a strange and wild series of thoughts. She is the biggest thing! There is nothing bigger! There is no one bigger to ask mercy from! she thought. And then, in a kind of final hopelessness, She is God!
âBecause you have dared to come into this place without my permission, and because you looked inside my box â
my private box!
â you have lost my protection forever, and you will never set foot in Corbenic again. And you will never speak to Deirdre again, either. Your friendship ends now. You will stay the night here, but tomorrow morning I will take you back to the farm and you can move in with whoever will have you. You've had your chance. Now you're no concern of mine.'
She looked at him for a moment, waiting for his face to crumble, but it didn't. He just stared back at her, never lowering his eyes, his expression unfathomable. She turned suddenly to Deirdre, as if to stop the power draining from her before it was too late, and Deirdre kept shaking her head in grief and terror and trying to say
but still her grandmother said, âBecause you brought him here and showed him what is in the box I will take him away from you and you will never leave Corbenic. You will be the guardian of this room, and what is in it, for the rest of your life. And although you will long for it, you will never have my total love again. Neither will you win the love of anyone else. Some things are unforgivable, Deirdre. This is one of them. You are unforgiven, and love is denied you, for the rest of your life.
âNow get out of my sight. Both of you.'
And although it had taken so long for them to find the room, the way back to the flat was so short it had the speed of an evil thing in a nightmare. They remembered nothing of the way out of the room, or the way down the steps, or the way back down the corridor. They seemed only to begin the journey before they found themselves in bed, alone, in disgrace, at opposite ends of the flat, with all their lives an impossible burden before them.
Gal never had a real home again. Nobody ever knew what happened to his father, but he never came back. So the little boy went back to a life of kindly neglect by aunts and uncles and older cousins, this relative or that relative â one person or another who cared about him vaguely, but didn't have the resources to look after him permanently. And nobody in that branch of the family ever imagined that he wasn't all right, because he always seemed cheerful, and his face was never other than calm and impenetrable.
But underneath there were three emotions that never left him, three emotions so powerful that at times they dizzied him. Love for Deirdre â who shone in his memory â the only person he had ever really mattered to, the only person who had ever really needed him. Hatred for her grandmother, who had separated them. And anger, deep, ever-present anger that was like a subterranean river flowing through the vast empty caverns within him, always threatening to flood his entire being.
From then on, controlling that anger was an exhausting hourly struggle.
The day he left Corbenic, he swore that, when he was grown up, he would come back and rescue Deirdre.
But every night he lay awake, the pain in his chest almost tearing him apart.
âYou see?' said Deirdre. âYou see?' She had gone stiff with panic, staring up at that hideous word,
, as the building thumped and shuddered around them. Her whole mind was consumed with a longing to be put out of this misery. She had no more hope; she just wanted it to be over, at last. âGod have mercy,' she said, and as always she couldn't separate God in her mind from her grandmother. âGod forgive me!' she muttered, but there was no mercy, no forgiveness. âYou have to go,' she said, trying to push Gal towards the door. âYou have to go, now, before it's too late â'
But Gal barely moved. He was still standing, staring at the ceiling. He wasn't scared; he was angry.
It was as if the word had reached in and made contact with the deepest level of his being, and had found, not fear, but anger. And yet his anger was calm â it was the deep-seated, patient anger of one who was used to controlling it, who had been controlling it since he was five years old. It was as if he was accepting a challenge and felt equal to it.
A duel, he thought. To the death. At last.
And the moment he thought it, he found another feeling, a feeling even stronger than the anger.
He was not looking at Deirdre; he was still standing, rigid, staring at the ceiling. But he wasn't thinking about it anymore. He knew exactly where Deirdre was in the room, he knew exactly how far she was standing from him, exactly what the distance was.
And the distance, only an arm's length, seemed intolerable, seemed like torment. He longed to put his arms around her, just as he had when they had found the dead rabbit. But now he longed to put his arms around her so badly, he would have given up his life to do it. The longing was exhausting. He noticed he was trembling.
But he couldn't act on it. It was forbidden.
Deirdre stopped trying to make him go. She did not have the will. She stood swaying in the warmth that radiated from him. She was so cold, so cold; it was all she could do to stop herself moving closer.
Suddenly Gal shut his eyes with the pain of it.
âWhat if she is God, Gal?'
âShe can't be God. She's dead,' said Gal.
âBut witches are more powerful after they're dead!'
Gal had a sudden, incongruous vision of the neat, undisturbed lawns at the local cemetery. He wondered how anyone could imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
âNot all-powerful, though,' he said.
And as Deirdre stood there in his delicious warmth she began to find the thumping in the building oddly comforting, like the rocking of a cradle. It's different, she thought, it's not the same thing as my grandmother and the collapsing of the building. I don't know what it is, but I recognise it, and it's not scary, and it doesn't wish me harm. Then she had a thought, a strange thought, almost the strangest thought she could have had, because it seemed completely at odds with her beliefs.
What if, after all, Gal is more powerful than my grandmother?
But that could not be true. Could it?
It was like wondering whether life was more powerful than death.
âIt's just a word, Deedee,' Gal said. âIt's a word every two year old knows. I know a word, too.' And he looked up at the ceiling, at the word and the crack, and said, â
Deirdre cowered, staring upwards. But nothing happened.
He knew it wouldn't.
âShe's a bully,' he murmured to himself. âShe always was.'
She turned her head to look at him. He looked back at her, with a look of such naked vulnerable honesty it was as if she had, for a moment, seen right into his soul.
And then she had one of those odd flashes of memory. There had been a time, not so long ago, when she had felt his warm, warm skin against hers, when there had been nothing, no space at all, between them, when they had not even been two people, but for brief, ecstatic moments, one. But when could that have been? How could it have been? He had always been forbidden to her.
âThere's something strange about my memory,' she muttered, almost as if she was talking to herself. âIt scares me. I think it must be something to do with Grandmother dying. It must be the shock. I feel so confused. Especially about you â and the story of my life. I'm so â muddled â about what happened, and when. It's like I can't tell the difference between dreams and reality â what I wish had happened, and what really did. And some memories scare me so much I can't even let myself remember them â'
Gal gazed at her sadly.
âThere's not as much difference as you think,' he said. âBetween dreams and reality, I mean.' Then, âLook,' he added quickly, because he was afraid she would get too scared to act, âyou think this is the end. But it's not. It's the beginning. This is the showdown, the last battle. The confrontation. Our whole lives have been leading to this.
âAll this time we've been running from her. And she's been winning. She had us at her mercy. She had us in her power. Now we have to turn around; now we have to go looking for her. And we have to take the power from her â for ourselves.
âI am not giving up, Deirdre. I don't care what she does. I don't care if she brings the building down on top of us. I don't care if this is our last night on earth. She is not going to win. I came back for a reason. I'm going to free you from this place if it's the last thing I do. And the only way I can think of to do it is to fight her, to wrestle her for this thing we've lost â this thing she's so determined to hide from us â to find it, to remember it, to look at it and know it and take it back, no matter what she does to stop us. There's no other way. Do you believe me?'
Deirdre gazed at him. It was hard for her to say, but she said, âYes.'
Of course she believed him. Of course it was true. She knew, simply because confronting her grandmother â and remembering what she had forgotten â was the most frightening thing she could think of to do.
âHere's what we have to do,' said Gal. âWe don't think. We don't try to remember. We just start exploring, like we used to, like we've got all the time in the world. If we do, we won't find it â it'll find us. I believe that. You know what I mean?'
Deirdre stared at him. She thought it was the most hopeful idea she had ever heard.
âHow do we start?' she said.
âOpen the door,' said Gal, âand step out onto the landing.'
And so they did.
Deirdre shut the door behind them.
It was lucky they did not see what happened in the flat after they left. For if they had seen, they might not have had the courage to go on.
As soon as the door closed, the photographs in the flat began to murmur among themselves, arguing, contradicting, pleading for each to hear the other's story. The murmurs grew more and more frenzied and insistent, until first one, then another, then a third of the photographs began to dance in their frames, trembling along the surfaces they were displayed upon as if the earth were quaking beneath them. They grew more and more agitated, jumping and muttering, until finally one after another moved too close to the edge, fell and shattered to the floor.
The last to fall was the photograph of Mrs Dark alone as a child. As it teetered on the edge of the mantelpiece, and then overbalanced, there was a charge in the air, a snapping, crackling, as if the flat were full of live electricity. When it smashed on the floor there was a peculiar sigh, a kind of disembodied relief, as if something confined had at last been released.