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Authors: Deborah White

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BOOK: Wickedness
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So while the rope-walker slept, the Doctor took pains to charm my mother and father. He complimented my
mother’s fine cooking and my father’s choice of wines.

He talked about his travels in Egypt, and said, with the utmost delicacy, that there was much money to be made from the trade in Egyptian artefacts. He invited them to call on him in his house in the Strand and see the many treasures he had there.

“Though I fear,” he said, with a modest smile, “you will find fault with the housekeeping as I have no wife to look to it.”

I fixed my eyes on my plate and did not look up. But I flushed the deepest red.

“Margrat will make someone a good wife,” my mother said quickly, causing me to wish the earth might suddenly open up and swallow me whole. “If they have no objection to the colour of her hair.”

“I think it very beautiful, on her at least. But now…” He pushed back his chair and threw his napkin on the table, saying, “I must go and see how the boy does.”

 

My mother led the Doctor to the study. My father and I followed on. Jane had been sent to the kitchen to fetch hot water and clean towels.

The rope-walker was still asleep. Though his face was caked in dried blood and the purple of a bruise
bloomed across his left temple, he looked peaceful. His right hand pillowed his cheek.

The Doctor bent over him. I held my breath. I was sure that he would see the ring now. Would he whisper to the rope-walker the very same thing he had whispered to me?

He did not, saying only, “Boy, wake up now, I have come to examine you.”

 

The rope-walker must have journeyed a long way in his dreams, for he came to very slowly. At first he did not know where he was. He shouted and tried to jump from the bed, pushing the Doctor out of the way. But the Doctor caught him by the wrist and held him. Now I saw that he was looking at the rope-walker’s ring. He smiled, but so fleetingly I wondered if I had seen it at all. Then he said, with a voice as sharp as flint, “The boy must be turned out of the house this instant.”

The shock of it. As if a link boy, lighting my way home, had turned and stabbed me with a knife.

“Why? What is the matter? Does he show signs of the plague?” My father backed slowly towards the door, pulling me with him.

“Worse,” said the Doctor. “Much worse.”

“What could be worse than that?” said my mother,
clutching a hand to her mouth.

“The plague attacks only the body,” said the Doctor. “The sickness this boy carries with him attacks the very soul itself.”

My mother gasped, made the sign of the cross and muttered a quick prayer under her breath.

“See this ring he wears? I have seen it before…” The Doctor was looking straight at me and I held my breath, for now I would be undone. My father would know I was a thief and I would be severely punished. “It is worn by the members of a secret sect; followers of an Ancient Egyptian goddess called Sekhmet. Wherever her disciples go, plague and pestilence follow.”

My mother cried, “I will call the constable and have him arrested this minute.”

Then she was gone and missed what followed after. For the rope-walker, hearing her words, struggled to escape. I saw the colour drain from his face with the pain, but fear of capture drove him on.

Though the Doctor still had hold of his arm, the ropewalker now leaped from the bed. He pushed past my father, past Jane, spilling her jug of hot water, out through the front door and into the street. We ran after, but he was too quick for us.

“No matter,” said my father. “If he has any sense
he will lie low for a while and then leave London.”

I could see from the Doctor’s expression that he did not believe it. “I hope that you are right, but you must keep a close watch on Margrat. For the sect preys on young girls with red hair and plucks them straight from the street. They disappear and are never seen again.”

“For what purpose?” I asked, the words as faint as a mouse’s breath.

The Doctor said nothing. His silence hung in the air between us, as eloquent as any words. I was imagining a fate far worse than any he could have described.

Claire knew her mum was bubbling over with suppressed rage. And she knew why. That man, Robert Benoit, had clearly wanted to buy the box the minute he’d stepped into the house and seen it. Had offered, before he left, a great deal of money, if only they would sell it to him. But Claire had kept a tight hold on the box, even though her ring wouldn’t open it. She wasn’t going to give it up. However much her mum had pleaded and threatened. So he’d gone away empty-handed.

Now her mum didn’t know what to do with all her anger and was so charged up that she was going through the house like a whirlwind. Wearing only a halter-necked top and a pair of shorts and with her hair pulled up in a clip, she was stripping shelves bare and emptying cupboards. Out in the street a skip was already piled high with stuff. It didn’t seem as if anything could stop her. Not even the heat.
Scorching, even in the shade and no sign of it easing up and everything starting to shrivel up and die.

Then there were the rats. There had only been one at first. But out in broad daylight and running along the garden wall and pushing through a gap hardly bigger than a thumb’s width, into the brick outhouse next to the kitchen.

Claire’s mum had been in the garden, ripping out weeds. She’d looked up and seen it and had screamed so loudly Claire and Micky had heard it and come running. All the way down from the attic, where they’d been looking through a box of old trains and track.

* * *

The next time there had been two rats. One of them really big. Black and sleek, with a long grey tail as fat as a twist of rope. They had run across the grass and swarmed up onto the bird table, where they sat eating sunflower seeds like two ugly great birds.

Claire’s mum had been washing up at the kitchen sink and ran out, still wearing pink rubber gloves and banging on a saucepan lid with a
wooden spoon. They’d scurried away. But it wasn’t long before they were back. And this time there were three.

Her mum had rung the council at once. But the line was always engaged. And then when she did get through, they said there would be a
two-week
wait before anyone could come out. They’d been snowed under with calls. There was a plague of rats.
Black
rats, which was very unusual. Maybe the hot summer had encouraged them to breed.

So all they could do was wait and watch and listen. Every little noise sent them into a panic. Claire lay awake at night imagining rats running over the bed and across her face. Claire’s mum said they must keep the toilet lid closed and weighed down with the 2lb weight from the kitchen scales. She’d heard they could swim up the U-bends in toilets.

Only Micky didn’t seem scared, telling her mum that it was okay because black rats didn’t like swimming as much as brown ones. And after that, at every mealtime, she told them a new rat fact: they had ‘collapsible’ bones that meant they could squeeze through the smallest of gaps. That no one was ever more than two metres away from one.
That they could breed at a phenomenal rate and had litters of anything from six to eleven babies, up to five times a year. (Claire silently did the maths and shuddered.) Oh… and they were carriers of typhus, plague and a type of parasite that could infect your body and slowly kill you. And it was fleas carried by
black
rats that had spread the Great Plague of 1665.

Now there were black rats on the streets again and another type of plague just beginning. And Claire knew it was no coincidence.

* * *

“Do you think they can spread bird flu, too? Or is that just chickens?” Claire asked. She was watching the six o’clock news on the television.

Two hundred cases of bird flu reported in London now and spreading. Hospitals were starting to feel the strain. Anyone flying in from Hong Kong or the Far East was facing stringent medical examinations. But it was all too little and too late, because it was already here.

The Chief Medical Officer was urging everyone to remain calm. But on the tube and on trains and
buses, people had started to wear masks. And when a woman collapsed on the escalator in a big London store, there had been panic and two people injured in the rush to get away. It had turned out that she was pregnant and had simply fainted in the heat.

“Poor thing. I hope the baby was okay,” Claire’s mum had said, looking pale. Claire had looked up in surprise; had been expecting her to say, “Stupid woman. Pregnant and shopping in all this heat.”

“Well I hope Dad’s being careful, that’s all,” Claire said. He was away on business. Dublin this time. He’d said he would call if he could, but they hadn’t heard from him for over a week now and as usual his mobile was switched off.

“What did you expect?” said Claire’s mum, when Claire moaned about it. “Once he’s gone, he never thinks about us at all. He never has. Out of sight. Out of mind.” She stopped. “We could be dead for all he’d know or care.”

Then she turned and ran out of the room and Claire knew she was crying. And she hadn’t even done that when Grandma had died.

* * *

Claire lay awake for a long time that night thinking about death. She even crept out of bed and tiptoed across the room to check that Micky was still breathing. Leaning in close to her; stroking her bare arm, until, making tiny, snuffling animal noises, Micky surfaced just long enough to shake Claire’s hand away and turn on her side. Claire watched as she curled up, drawing her arms and legs and head in, like a little sleeping dormouse. Her shock of brown hair, fringed black with sweat and the nibbed ridge of her curving spine, just visible in the light from the moon outside.

Suppose something happened to her mum? Or what if they all died and it was just her left? What then? Where would she go? Now Grandma was dead, there was no one else. Only a few distant cousins and she was sure they wouldn’t want her.

I’ll be 14 soon
, she thought.
And then I’ll be able to look after myself.

But she didn’t believe it. And when she did finally fall asleep her dreams were vivid and disturbing. Her mum and Micky were inside the house and she was locked out. She ran round, banging frantically on all the doors and windows. Trying desperately to attract their attention; warn
them that something terrible was going to happen. But they didn’t seem to hear her, because they were talking and laughing with that man. Robert. With his long dark hair and his hungry eyes and everything about him distorted, as if she was looking at him through a twisted mirror.
He
heard her though, because he turned towards her and smiled and she stopped banging and in the silence that followed, she heard him say quite clearly, but inside her head, “You are bound to me now and will be for ever.” The words repeating themselves, as if they were playing over and over again on a loop. And all the while, rivulets of rats running around and over her feet.

When she woke up the next morning, the dream stayed with her, vivid and terrifying still.

Maybe
, she thought,
if I tell Mum about it, I’ll be able to forget it.

So she went to find her. But she was in Grandma’s study, busy emptying out drawers in the mahogany desk that stood in the front bay window and didn’t see the look on Claire’s face as she talked about it… or register the fear in her voice.

“Think, Claire,” she was saying. “How surprising is it that he was in your dream? And the
rats. And me and Micky. Not surprising at all really. I’ve been having some…” She stopped what she was saying to bend over and pull out a roll of paper from the bottom right-hand drawer. “Now I wonder what this is… your grandma had so much stuff you wouldn’t believe. Masses and masses of cuttings about plague outbreaks all over the world. And not to mention all the stuff on circuses. I mean, how weird is that?”

Claire didn’t think it was weird at all. Not now anyway, because it didn’t seem to her that her grandma had ever done anything without a purpose. But Claire had no idea what the purpose was. She could understand all the plague stuff. But circuses, tightrope walkers. Where did they fit in to the puzzle?

“Can I have these?” Claire unclipped the circus tickets. Held them out for her mum to look at. “Only it IS my birthday soon and Jade says she’ll come with me. If you go early you can join in, do a workshop. Jade would love that.”

“You hate circuses! Anyway, I don’t want you going Claire. Not now. Not with the flu. You shouldn’t be going to crowded places. And I don’t want to catch it.”

For a second her mum seemed flustered. So
Claire pocketed the tickets quickly while she wasn’t paying attention.

“Now…” Claire’s mum had pulled herself together and was clearing a space on the desktop and smoothing out the roll of paper. “Oh… the famous family tree. Well I suppose I’d better keep it. Though why anyone would be interested in a load of dead people is beyond me.”

But Claire was interested, because at the top of the tree she could see a name. Margrat Jennet. Born 23rd December 1651. She did a quick count in her head. So she would have turned 14 in 1665, the year of the Plague.

My age
, she thought,
give or take a few weeks. And was it the same name she’d struggled to read on the manuscript? She knew it was.

“Can I have it? I’ll look after it.”

“If you want.”

But not the box. She couldn’t have that, because it might be valuable. And this wasn’t. Just names.

 

She left her mum clearing out the rest of the desk drawers and she took the family tree upstairs to Grandma’s bedroom, where there was space to spread it out on the floor in front of the bay window.

She knelt down and unrolled it, weighting down the corners with four books she pulled off a nearby shelf. Then she bent over to study it.

There at the top, Margrat Jennet, born in the parish of St Lawrence Jewry. There at the bottom, her own name, with her date of birth, the 7th August. Beside Margrat’s name, Grandma had written ‘red hair’ and underlined it. And beside Claire’s name, she’d written the same. And why was that fact important enough for her to have underlined it? She traced all the names down, noticing with surprise that all the children born who had survived, were girls. All the boys had been still-born or died shortly after birth. And no one else was listed as having red hair. And how on earth did Grandma know that Margrat had? And why was it important enough for her to underline it?

Claire sat back on her heels and rubbed the palms of her hands dry on her shorts.

She felt a little quiver of excitement at the thought of a connection made across three hundred and fifty years and ten generations to this Margrat Jennet, who was her direct ancestor! What had she looked like?
Anything like me?

Claire jumped up and ran to look in the
dressing-table mirror. Did the face that stared back look anything like Margrat’s? Were Margrat’s eyes that changeable colour too? Sometimes grey. Sometimes green.

Maybe they were, she thought. Maybe I’m a throwback.

So many questions and would the sheaf of papers that Grandma had left with the ring hold the answers? All she had to do was be brave. Stop thinking that stupid nonsense about the plague and take the papers and try and decipher the writing. Surely the ring and the papers and the box were all connected? She could go and fetch the papers now. But the thought of it still scared her – she felt stupid – but it did.

She would move back into Grandma’s bedroom
tomorrow
and then look at the papers properly. Late at night when she wouldn’t be disturbed. Good, she felt better now she’d made that decision. And if it was too hard and she struggled to read them, then she would find someone to help her. Someone who knew about 17th century writing. Someone at the university, where her dad was currently working on some complicated IT project. Maybe she should save time and do that anyway. Now.

She fetched her mobile. Took it into the loo and locked the door. Best not to let her mum know she was ringing Dad. Even mentioning his name these days made her angry.

She keyed in his number. It rang out, but there was no reply. She left a message, “I need to speak to you Dad. As soon as you get back. Ring me. Please.”

Now Micky was banging on the door. “Claire. I’m going to pee my pants if you don’t come out now.”

Claire sighed, locked her phone and slipped it into her jeans pocket. Then she flushed the toilet and unlocked the door, hoping that her dad would ring back that minute.

But he didn’t call until the next morning when her mum and Micky were out.

“I’m in Dublin until tomorrow,” he said. “Only just picked up your message. Sorry. It’s been so busy, there hasn’t been a minute…”

Not even a minute to think about your daughter?

“Dad, can you do something for me when you get back? Please, and I need you not to tell Mum about it.”

“Well…”

“Grandma left me something. An old manuscript. It was written in the 17th century. But the writing’s all scratchy and blotchy and I can’t work it out. I need someone to help me translate it. Please, please.”

“Why can’t you ask your mum?”

Why couldn’t she? Because the minute Mum knew about it she’d tell that man and it was somehow important that he didn’t know. But Claire couldn’t explain that to her dad, so she pretended not to have heard the question.

“Please… please. There’ll be someone at the university won’t there? Someone you could ask?”

“Maybe…”

“Can you call round tomorrow, on your way back from the airport? It’s on your way. Say yes.”

“I don’t know. It might be awkward, Claire. I don’t think I want to see your mum right now.”

“You don’t have to. You can park down the road and ring me and I’ll come out with it. She won’t even have to know that you’re here.”

“All right. But make sure that she doesn’t. And Micky. Don’t bring Micky.” He rang off.

Good
, thought Claire. But then a little worry started to niggle away at her. Supposing the papers
got lost somewhere in the university. Maybe she should photocopy them and give her dad the copies. Yes, she would do that. Now. Before her mum came back. There was a copy shop in the High Street on the other side of the common. Her mum had used it to copy papers to do with Grandma’s will.

BOOK: Wickedness
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