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Authors: Peter Dickinson

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Some Deaths Before Dying

BOOK: Some Deaths Before Dying
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Copyright © 1999 by Peter Dickinson

All rights reserved.

WARNER BOOKS

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at
www.HachetteBookGroup.com
.

First eBook Edition: April 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-56109-9

Contents

Copyright Page

RACHEL

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

JENNY

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

DILYS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

JENNY

RACHEL

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

JENNY

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

RACHEL

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

JENNY

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

RACHEL

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

DILYS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

RACHEL

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

JENNY

Also by Peter Dickinson

The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest

The Old English Peep Show

The Sinful Stones

Sleep and His Brother

The Lizard in the Cup

The Green Gene

The Poison Oracle

The Lively Dead

King and Joker

Walking Dead

One Foot in the Grave

A Summer in the Twenties

The Last House-Party

Hindsight

Death of a Unicorn

Tefuga

Perfect Gallows

Skeleton-in-Waiting

Play Dead

The yellow Room Conspiracy

For my mother,

Who suggested that I

Write about rooks

RACHEL

1

C
leaned, changed, propped inert on her pillows and now waiting for her breakfast, Rachel studied the rooks.

First she counted the nests. Ten, still, but the two new ones had grown appreciably since last evening. She had known that
serious building had been going on, from the particular type of racket the birds had been making almost from first light,
beyond the closed curtains. Indeed, she was disappointed to find that an eleventh nest had not been started. It was in the
earliest stages, when the half-completed nest didn’t already conceal the process, that she had most chance of seeing how it
was done.

It was strangely frustrating. Last spring she had lain here, watching until the young leaves hid the almost completed nests—fourteen
of them. Her long sight was remarkably good. She could make out the individual twigs as they were carried in. But she still
hadn’t been able to see how the birds had achieved structures firm enough not just to endure rearing boisterous young but,
all bar one, to stay put through the winter. Then, in early spring, with a lot of yelping and squawking and what looked like
real fights, four had been destroyed and rebuilt while the rest had been merely refurbished.

How did they do it? Rachel was far from sure that, if one of the nest sites had been at ground level and she had been given
a supply of twigs, she could with two deft-fingered hands have woven a nest to withstand twelve months’ weather. Yet the birds
did it with no more than a beak. She had seldom seen one use a foot for anything other than to grip the tree. And they worked
to some kind of plan. She remembered, years ago, watching one wrestle a twig off a bush down by the churchyard gate, a good
two hundred yards from the copper beech where the nests were. Apparently no other twig in the garden would do. It was like
Jocelyn embarking on a bit of carpentry by going to the timber store and sorting through a stack of apparently identical planks
for the three that suited him.

And only some nest sites were acceptable. Thirty-two years ago Jocelyn had decided that the big beech behind the stables had
to come down. It had developed an extremely handsome bracket fungus, over a yard across by the time of the first frosts, then
collapsing into slimy pulp. Rachel had taken a truly satisfying series of photographs of it over several years, until Jocelyn
had got a tree expert in to take a look at it.
Merulius giganteus
it had turned out to be, a relative of dry rot, and the tree had better come down before the next northeasterly toppled it
onto the stables.

“What about the rooks?” Rachel had asked.

“There’s plenty of other trees,” Jocelyn had answered.

But there hadn’t been, not in the rooks’ eyes. The copper beech had looked entirely suitable, and indeed in some years an
outcast pair had built a solitary nest on a particular side branch, but only three more moved in the first spring after the
old beech was felled, and another couple the spring after that. Rachel had paid less attention to them in those days, and
in many years didn’t bother to count the nests, but her impression was that it had taken a surprising time for the numbers
to build up to the dozen plus that they had been since she was first confined here, with time to study the nests and wonder
how they were made.

No, “wonder” was too feeble a word for the serious effort and attention she put into it, a tactic in her long and steadfast
campaign to keep hold of her mind. Almost everything else was gone, the provinces of her body lost for good. Four years ago
she had first been aware of the invaders as an awkwardness in standing and walking, with a tendency to stumble—messages received
at the centre of government but then for a while just pigeonholed. It had taken her nearly two months to decide that what
was happening to her wasn’t fairly normal in the elderly, and that she should go to Dr. Cherry about it. A fortnight later
she had learned, from a London specialist, the barbarous name of the invaders, and that they were irresistible.

The illness followed its expected course, with the head the last to go. By now parties of the invaders were inside the undefended
walls. Though taste still functioned, thank goodness, swallowing was starting to be difficult, as was speech—both varyingly,
on some days almost normal, on others a willed effort, extremely tiring. Meanwhile signals persisted in arriving from the
abandoned provinces—a bit of the bureaucracy still pigheadedly trying to function, but to no purpose because without muscular
control, Rachel’s sense of her own body was haphazard. If, while her eyes were shut, something touched her hand, she would
be aware of the touch, and that it came from her hand, but not which one, nor how it was disposed on the bed. When her lungs
went, she would die. (A ventilator? What was the point?) So a few months more, at most.

But until then her mind was hers, untouchable, holy to her,
hagia sophia
. She was determined to die knowing what was happening to her, and aware and confident of the reality of anything in the field
of her remaining perceptions.

This was a decision she had come to while she could still walk with two sticks, play bridge, set the shutter speeds on her
cameras, be reasonably amusing company. She had made it on what turned out to be her last visit to her elder sister, then
in a home. Tabby had not been felled by anything as specific as Rachel’s illness, but, it seemed, by something in her own
nature. She had kept a good deal of physical control—more, Rachel suspected, than she admitted, preferring to be helpless—but
she had given in. That afternoon she had seemed delighted by her visitors at first, but within ten minutes had returned to
her TV, switching channels every few minutes but seeming to regard all she saw—soaps, advertisements, news bulletins, horse
races—as a single series of events in which she herself was taking part, and all of it somehow continuous with the dream from
which they had woken her when they arrived.

“She can’t be bothered to distinguish,” Rachel had said as Flora drove her home. She had heard the distress and disgust in
her own voice. Different though they were, Tabby had always mattered to her.

“Oh, Ma, why should she?” Flora had protested. “What’s really happening to her is pretty bloody boring. She has much more
fun making it up.”

This was true, and very much Tabby’s style. Make her live in a pigsty, Jocelyn had once said, and she’d show you proudly over
it and tell you that the man who came to change her straw was a real sweetie. But Rachel had found such willing acceptance
of mental death impossible to bear, and had, there and then, made her vow not to let it happen to her. Better the dreariness
of endless real hours than any escape into fantasy. There was no honour in fantasy, no respect, no decency, none at all.

So now she chose one busy nest, watched a bird depart and counted the seconds until its return. Three hundred and seven. Call
it five minutes. Had it been searching for the precise twig? Would it now locate it in a preselected position? Not this time.
Several trials at different angles…but then, ah, back to a lot of pokings and thrashings and flappings which looked like mere
frenzy, looked indeed certain to unsettle the whole structure.

The bird’s partner, meanwhile, watched tolerantly from a nearby branch. One needed to stay by the nest the whole time, because
if both left, neighbours would nip in and steal material.

The thrashings must have been purposeful, because when the bird desisted the partner hopped up, gave a perfunctory tweak to
something, and then both birds cawed vigorously for a while before the nest-builder flew off.

As it did so the door opened and Dilys backed in, fuzzy already as she entered and no more than a talking cloud by the time
she reached the bed.

“Here’s our breakfast then, dearie. Nice scrambled eggs she’s done us. That’ll put roses in our cheeks. Still comfortable,
are we?”

Code, answered by Rachel with a brief smile, also code, meaning no, she didn’t believe her pad needed changing yet. It was
probably damp already, but it would have to become really sopping before it began to discomfort her.

“There’s a good girl,” said Dilys, putting the tray down. “I’ll just get the coffee going, shall I?”

She crossed the room and returned to a human shape. The sturdy blue pillar was her uniform, the silvery blob was the back
of her head, and the white fuzz was her cap. Rachel listened with satisfaction to the sounds of her folding the filter and
measuring grounds and water into the coffee maker. She came back, cranked the top section of the bed to a steeper angle, folded
the duvet aside, slid her arms under Rachel’s shoulders and thighs and effortlessly eased her into a half-sitting position,
wedging her into place with bolsters and pillows. She handled the wasted and useless body with gentleness and dexterity, as
if it had been fully sensate.

It had at first appalled, but now after two months merely amused Rachel that somebody so skilled in the essentials of her
craft should be so inept in how she spoke of them—that awful “we” and the baby talk, and the coyness about physical functions.
Dilys dealt with diarrhoea or a suppurating sore in the most matter-of-fact manner, but couldn’t bring herself to name them.
Jocelyn would have detested her for that, and manifested his dislike in exaggerated politeness. But already Rachel, though
never given to instant friendships, liked her better than any of the other nurses who had cared for her in her helplessness.
Nursing skills apart, there was not simply a human warmth about Dilys, there was a strong sense that she in her turn liked
and respected the real person inside the stupid inert carcase, and thought of her not as the painful leftover of a life, but
as a fully human citizen, with human rights and responsibilities and needs. She was supposed to have weekends off, when Pat,
the retired midwife in the village, took over; but when on only her third weekend Pat had had the flu, Dilys had stayed on
not just willingly but with something like eagerness. Rachel guessed she would rather be nursing.

“Open wide,” she said. “There’s a good girl. Not too hot for us? Sure?”

Dutifully Rachel masticated, swallowed and opened her mouth for more. The eggy pap was in fact tepid, fluffy with milk, undersalted
and overcooked, everything that scrambled eggs ought not to be, but there was no point in complaining to Dilys. Dilys had
no leverage in the kitchen. She was employed by the Trust, and her loyalty was to Rachel. Cooks were Flora’s concern. This
one was new, and would be busy establishing her own rights and territories. She might well react to any complaint from Dilys
by sending up even worse meals.

Still, a fuss must be made. It wasn’t just that taste was the only physical pleasure remaining, but the making of a successful
fuss, the achieving of a result, would be good for morale, a foray from the citadel to prove that Mind could still accomplish
something beyond those walls. The coffee maker had been such a victory, and so had the rejection of the microwave. Again,
it wasn’t only that it was not Dilys’s job to prepare meals. It was that if they came up from the kitchen all ready for the
microwave, though they would then at least be hot the machine would have no effect on texture or flavour. No, this cook must
be made to provide real scrambled eggs.

BOOK: Some Deaths Before Dying
2.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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