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The Scream

Joan Aiken





  The Scream

  Joan Aiken

  Illustrated by Ian Andrew

  To Charles and Hilary Schlessiger who gave me the screaming cushion


  1. The Island

  2. The Tree

  3. The Letter

  4. The Dance

  5. The Death

  6. The Grave

  7. The Pigeon

  8. The Crossing

  9. The Laird

  A Biography of Joan Aiken

  1. The Island

  MY SISTER LU-LYN WAS A disaster area. Total. How did it happen? First, from as early as I can remember, she wanted to go and live with Gran.

  “Why? Why do you want to?” I can remember Mum saying. “Give me one sensible reason. David doesn’t want to. Why should you?”

  “Because Gran lives on the island. David’s only a boy. And he’s never been there.”

  It was an island called Muckle Burra. Far north of the north tip of Scotland. Lu-Lyn was born there. But then Mum and Dad had to move because of his job. Lu-Lyn had been back, three times since, to stay with Gran. She had never forgotten a single minute of any of those visits.

  “It’s the only place where I ever want to live.”

  “But it takes days and days to get there from almost anywhere,” Mum pointed out. “That’s why Dad had to leave. What about your schooling? What about your ballet classes?”

  Of course, the ballet classes were a strong argument. And another, a clincher, was that, by and by, Gran herself had to leave the island.

  “Why? Why?” Lu-Lyn wanted to know.

  “The Department of Health are shifting everybody who lives on Muckle Burra.” (There were only forty people altogether.)

  “Why are they shifting them? How can they make people leave their homes?”

  “They pay compensation. People can get bigger, more modern houses on the mainland.”

  “I wouldn’t leave my home. Not if it was a lovely white cottage with a garden like Gran’s.”

  “I suppose, in the end, they have to go,” sighed Dad. He didn’t sound happy about it. He too had been born in that cottage. “There’s no power. No services. No way of getting to the mainland. Unless you have your own boat.”

  “I’d have my own boat.”

  Lu-Lyn drew endless pictures of the island, of Gran’s cottage, of the garden, of the flowers she would plant when she went back to live with Gran, of the boat she would build, of the fish she would catch. Sometimes the island was covered with trees.

  “But it isn’t like that. It’s bare and grassy,” Dad argued.

  “There are trees when I dream about it. Sometimes.”

  “Anyway, it’s no good. You can’t live there. They are making the people leave.”

  “Why? Why?”

  “They are going to poison the island.”

  “Poison the island? That’s wicked!”

  “For a scientific experiment. They want to find out what happens to the soil, and the animals, and the birds, and the fish, I suppose.”

  “That’s horrible!”

  It did seem so. Perhaps that is what started all the trouble.

  “A lot of people think that way,” said Dad. “There have been protests.”

  Gran was not among the protesters. She had a very calm nature. She shrugged and packed up her scanty belongings and moved to a tenth-floor flat in a tower block in Kirkbrae near us on the mainland.

  You got a great view from the top of her block on a clear day. First, the grimy outskirts of Kirkbrae—factory roofs, cranes, derricks and chimneys—then the masts and funnels of ships, the river estuary, the Druidh Firth, then the rugged outlines of northern islands across the channel, Burra, Stour, Camsoe, Mink Ness—beyond them the Atlantic, away to the west.

  Lu-Lyn still wanted to go and live with Gran, and in the end she got her way. But that was because Mum and Dad were killed in a motorway pile-up. I had to go along too, in my wheelchair. Luckily there were lifts at Chateau Mansions.

  A queer thing: Lu-Lyn was homesick. Not for our own home. For the island where she had been born, which she had visited three times in her life. I used to hear her crying about it at night. Never in the daytime. And she went on drawing pictures of it. The island was her only friend, it seemed.

  What did Lu-Lyn look like? The kind of doll you’d win at a fairground stall by landing three hoops over a bottle—curly, butter-colored hair, round bluebell eyes, and a grin she could switch on and off like a blowtorch. She never wasted her grin, never switched it on unless she wanted you to do something for her. Never.

  I have to say, Lu-Lyn and Gran got on well together. Surprisingly, because they seemed very different. Gran was thin and spare and old and cobwebby. And her eyes drilled through you like lasers. But she and Lu-Lyn both felt the same way about the island. It was important to them in a way I didn’t understand at that time. Now I do.

  Gran and Lu-Lyn saw eye-to-eye about one important thing, which was that Lu-Lyn should always have her own way …

  In her young days, Gran had been a painter. Among other things. She did pictures of birds and wild creatures in queer places—seagulls in sinks, rats poking their snouts out of bookshelves, naked people wandering in forests. Once, Gran had been quite famous. Some of her queer bird and beast pictures hung on the walls of her flat, and that, maybe, was why she let Lu-Lyn have a pigeon of her own, though pets weren’t allowed in Chateau Mansions.

  Lu-Lyn’s pigeon, Henry, used to fly in through the bathroom window, which always had to be kept open, and he perched on the end of Lu-Lyn’s bed. He lived on corn, which got scattered all over. You’d think there would have been mice—but there were not. He dropped messes on the floor and he woke us at half-five every morning, roo-cooing like a cop car. And of course the bathroom was always freezing.

  Gran had another picture, as well as those she’d done herself, and this showed a person screaming. It was not the original, but a copy. The picture was a famous one, Gran told us, by a painter called Munch, who’s dead now. (You don’t say that name Munch to rhyme with lunch, but Moonck, like the word moon with a “k” in it.) The picture shows this person, a girl I think, letting out a screech of total fright, hands up by her face, jaw dropped right down. It makes your bones prickle, just to look at her. You ask yourself what in the world she has just seen, close to her, a vampire or a charging grizzly, or a hungry dinosaur; and you wonder what is going to happen to her the very next minute.

  Gran must have really liked that picture, for she had two spin-offs from it in her flat as well—a cushion with the horror-struck face printed on one side, which let out a shrill scream if you sat down on it, and an alarm clock. The clock had the face, with numbers faintly showing through, and its alarm, when wound, gave the same screeching wail that would freeze the blood right down to your fingernails.

  “Where did you get them, Gran?” I asked her one time.

  “Oh,” she said absently, “people on the island gave them to me because they knew I liked them. As payment.”

  “Payment for what, Gran?”

  “Ridding their homes of rats.”

  That answer really threw me. Gran seemed such a quiet, mild old body. Rats? How could she possibly do that?

  I tried to imagine her, in her flowered cotton dress and shopping bag, going to people’s houses and calling the rats out, like a Pied Piper. But my imagination fell down on the job.

  “How did you do it, Gran?”

  “One w
ay or another …” She wasn’t going to tell me. “It’s in the family,” she said vaguely. Her thin lips folded tightly. “Girls, mainly,” she added. Being a boy—or being in a wheelchair—seemed to cut me off from something that Gran, and perhaps Lu-Lyn, knew without being told. I knew it would be no use asking any more questions.

  Gran never used her Munch alarm clock. She hardly seemed to need sleep at all. But Lu-Lyn used to wind the alarm now and then, and set it for odd times, just to give us a fright. Which it did, every time. Luckily the neighbors complained if she did it too often.

  2. The Tree

  GOING TO SCHOOL BORED LU-LYN. Utterly. Ballet-type dancing was all she cared about. She had won plenty of prizes before Dad and Mum got killed. And Gran went on paying for her to have special classes.

  “It’s good to have two strings to one’s bow,” she said once, which surprised me. For what other string did Lu-Lyn have?

  Maybe she was good at dancing. I’m no judge. Maybe it wasn’t just her butter-colored curls and her “see what a darling little thing I am” expression that got her to the top in all those festivals and competitions.

  She worked hard, I’ll say that.

  Gran had a balcony outside her tenth-floor window, just big enough to hold two chairs and a coffee table. Lu-Lyn used to practice out there. She’d put a tape on the player and work for hours on end, with Henry the pigeon sitting beside her on the balustrade.

  Down below was a little park.

  Gran told us that the builders who’d put up Chateau Mansions and Castle Heights and Grange Towers and Fortress Manor would have liked to build a fifth block, but they weren’t allowed. Believe it or not, the tallest tree in the country grew on that spot and, of course, it was protected. The tree was a fir, two-hundred-and-thirteen-feet three-inches high—a miserable, moth-eaten spindly bit of vegetation, I thought it was. Maybe it had used up all its strength, growing so high. But Lu-Lyn quite liked it.

  “It’s the tallest tree in the land, and I’m going to be the best dancer in the country. My name will be in all the books,” she’d say, and she’d get out there on the terrace, clutching the rail, banging one leg against the other, five hundred times each side, looking at the tree sometimes in a neighborly way.

  I wondered if Gran had ever planned to be the best painter in the land?

  Gran told us that the tree was left over from a forest that covered the whole country, years or centuries ago, before people built houses and cut down trees. And under the sea, too, millenniums back, when the big land-masses were joined together, there had been forests everywhere.

  At the time I’m remembering, Lu-Lyn was practicing for a school cabaret that was always held at the end of the autumn term. She’d made up her own dance for the show.

  OK, you’ve guessed. Her dance was going to be called The Scream.

  She’d found a piece of music, The Banshee’s Exile, and she played this over and over while she practiced. She found it in a collection, Music from the Northern Isles, by a composer called Ronald Ranuldsen.

  “What’s a banshee?” I asked Gran.

  “A spirit woman who wails outside the windows when someone’s going to die.”

  “But why should she be exiled?”

  “Because her place has been taken from her. Or her life.”

  That was all Gran would say.

  The terrace was not big enough for Lu-Lyn’s dance; she had to work at that in any place she could make use of, a corner of the School Hall or the Ladies’ Institute (when the ladies weren’t using it) or, when the weather was fine, the bit of sooty grass in the park under the tallest tree.

  But she was not too keen on the park because people used to stop and watch her, and she hated being watched.

  Also there were three boys who were her enemies, and if they got to know that she was out there practicing, they’d come along and stare and snigger and shout rude remarks.

  She couldn’t stand that. Or them.

  Their names were Bry and Mack and Orrin.

  Lu-Lyn once saw them push a car into the river. She told a cop—which got them into a lot of trouble.

  “Well, I had to tell someone, didn’t I?” she said later to Gran. “There might have been a person in that car. Or a dog. I hate cruelty to animals.”

  Gran pressed her thin lips together.

  “Sometimes animals have to be drowned,” she said. “When there are too many of them.”

  “I think there are too many boys!” said Lu-Lyn.

  I thought about rats on the island of Muckle Burra. I wondered if they were all poisoned now. And the rabbits, and the roe deer? It’s really queer to think of a whole island being poisoned.

  There had been no live creature in that car, which was an old derelict in the corner of the car park. But, after that, every time a car was stolen, or vandalized, the cops tended to pounce on those three boys. Cops found them a natural target. So, of course, the boys had it in for Lu-Lyn.

  One time, when they were under suspicion of dropping bricks from a railway footbridge on to the Glasgow express—the driver was in hospital for a year—the boys had a notion that it was Lu-Lyn who had shopped them.

  That case never came to court, as nothing was ever proved.

  But, a week after that, answering a ring at the bell, Lu-Lyn found Henry, her pigeon, lying on the doormat with all his feathers pulled out and his neck wrung.

  Have you ever seen a bald pigeon? A wretched sight, he was.

  Lu-Lyn was never one to cry or carry on. Not in public. After the accident that killed Mum and Dad she was perfectly calm. She did turn white at the sight of Henry—as white as the paper I’m writing on—and she said to Gran, “Look what’s been done to Henry.”

  “Oh my word!” said Gran. That was all she ever said, when things went wrong.

  But she helped Lu-Lyn bury Henry’s remains. They did it at midnight, a time when no one would be about to say they were contravening the park restrictions, under the tall fir tree outside Gran’s window.

  Gran asked Lu-Lyn if she’d like another pigeon. But she said no, maybe the same thing would happen again.

  3. The Letter

  I HEARD THEM TALKING ABOUT it one time when I was working on an algebra assignment. Their voices were very quiet. But I have sharp ears. I can hear bats squeak when they first come out in the twilight.

  “If your aunt Arbel hadn’t died …” Gran was saying.

  “But that was a long time ago!”

  “Time makes no difference at all.”

  “Is the power always passed on? Is there always a girl in the family? Suppose there isn’t? Or suppose she should die? Would a boy do?”

  A jet passed screaming overhead, so I missed Gran’s next words.

  “… never happened on the island,” Gran was saying when I caught her again.

  “Shall we ever get back there, Gran, do you think?” Lu-Lyn’s voice was very sad.

  “No use planning on it. Not unless I get a message.” Gran, unusually for her, sounded doubtful.

  “But what can I do about those three boys?”

  “You could send them a letter.” Gran went on, a bit reluctantly, I thought. “That’s one of the ways I used to deal with vermin. Pin the paper to a post, where they can see it, or slip it in where they live.”

  “Can rats read?”

  “Ach, I don’t mean that kind of letter. Not written words. Just a sheet of black paper. You breathe on it before you fold it. That fixes your thought on the paper. Like a rune, it is.”

  “Breathe on it?” Lu-Lyn said curiously.

  “That’s the way we did it on Burra—your great-great gran, and her mother, and hers, going far, far back. That’s how they got rid of riffraff, or things that got in the wrong place. And another thing—it drains the verjuice out of you. It’s not canny to be full of bitterness and have poison r
unning up and down your veins.”

  Whether Lu-Lyn understood this, or believed it, I don’t know. But later I saw her busy with sheets of paper which she had painted black.

  Gran was quite right, I thought. There was a lot of acid in Lu-Lyn, under the sugar sweetness that she kept for strangers.

  Two of the three boys, Lu-Lyn’s enemies, lived in our block. All Lu-Lyn had to do was go up a couple of floors and slip the letters under the door. The third one needed a stamp and a postbox: Bry Bateman lived over on the other side of town.

  Why did the thing work on him first?

  If you believe in it, that is.

  Actually Lu-Lyn gave Bry’s letter to me to post on my way to school, and I dropped it in the river as we crossed the bridge. Benjy, who pushed my wheelchair, said, “What’s that?” and I said, “An overdue competition entry.” I thought he gave me a queer look.

  Now I believe that, even dropped in the river, it got there somehow. Water conducts electricity, doesn’t it? Maybe it conducts ill-wishes too.

  Bry, good at football, was in the town junior XI and, in the following Saturday’s match against Crossgates, he got kicked in the head and lost his sight. Went blind.

  At St. Martha’s Hospital they couldn’t say whether it would be permanent or not; just have to keep hoping, they said.

  Lu-Lyn’s thoughts about what happened to Bry she kept to herself; unless she talked about it to Gran.

  After the loss of Henry she was in a queer mood. Silent, and just nibbling at her meals, not taking enough to keep a sparrow alive, Gran said. Pale as wax. Even her hair turned pale; from butter-color it faded to a whitish yellow, the color of lemon pith.

  The only thing she thought about was her dance. The Scream. She worked at it all the hours she had.

  I had seen that dance so often that I could have done it myself (if I could dance) because Lu-Lyn needed me at hand to keep restarting the tape, The Banshee’s Exile.

  How the dance went: she’s alone in a wood, this young girl, having a nice time, picking nuts or berries or flowers, listening to birds et cetera, doing whatever you do in woods; and then evening comes, the light dims, and she reckons it’s time to go home. And she starts back along the way to town.