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In Thunder's Pocket, Page 2

Joan Aiken

  A gull tried to get its head in my pocket and I decided to move on. I walked into town. There were lots of small shops selling beach toys and boxes with shells stuck all over, and peppermint rock in every possible shape – false teeth and oysters and kippers and soap – but I didn’t want any of those things. I went on uphill towards the park that had been Malot Corby’s garden. I was curious to see it, and all those statues that might once have been people. Would they look like people?

  Ducking to avoid another gull, I nearly bumped into a boy who was careering downhill on a skateboard.

  ‘Yo, Eden!’ shouted the boy as he shot by. ‘You owe me an apple!’ and he disappeared from view round a corner between two squat little stone houses.

  Gulls and boys, I thought: they all seem to be waiting for me in this place.

  I found the entrance at the bottom of Malot Corby’s garden, which ran uphill on a steep slope enclosed by a massive stone wall. The wrought-iron gate had a sign on it: Malot Corby, one of the most famous inhabitants of this town, lived and worked near this place. Her garden is open to the public in her memory. Entry to her studio is through the garden. Tickets to the studio are available at the door. Adults £1.00, children and pensioners half-price. Opening hours 3 – 6.

  I opened the gate. It had an angry, rusty creak like the voices of the gulls overhead. I climbed a flight of damp, mossy steps and started to explore the garden.

  Well, it was more like a jungle than a garden. There were big clumps of bamboo, tall magnolia trees, fuchsia bushes, twelve feet high smothered with drooping, dripping crimson flowers, huge sprouting lilies, palm trees with furry trunks like gorillas’ legs, and roses of every colour climbing all over the walls and bushes.

  In among all the greenery it was quite hard to find the statues. Many were almost buried. Some were made of stone, some of bronze or copper. The metal ones were green and tarnished with damp, the stone ones smothered in green moss or lichen.

  Were they like people? Not a bit! They were smooth curving shapes, like tall toadstools or melting candles.

  If they had once been people, turned to stone by a curse, I felt sorry for them. It must be boring for them, I thought, in this green jungly place. If I were to be turned to a lump of stone or metal, I would rather be dropped into the sea, where the tides would roll me and smooth me and, in the end, wear me away to nothing at all.

  I wondered about Aunt Lal. If she forgot to take her daily pill, which kind of statue would she become? The stone kind or the metal kind? I could imagine Aunt Lal as a smooth grey weathered stone.

  A well-used cobbled path ran steeply uphill through the middle of the garden – why did I keep thinking of the place as a grave-yard?

  A trickle of water ran out of a spout in a rock-face up above and then escaped downhill beside the path in a series of pool and troughs. I tasted the water where it came out from the wall.

  It was very pure and cold.

  ‘It’s called St Boan’s well,’ said a soft voice beside me. ‘The birds love it.’

  I could see that. Swallows and martins kept coming to drink from the miniature waterfall. They zipped past, drinking on the wing. A few gulls hung about up above – this was the only part of the garden where they did come at all, the rest of it was too overscreened by trees – but the swallows chased the gulls away.

  The girl who had strolled up beside me said: ‘Do you want to see the studio? I’m just going to open it up.’

  She was a tall girl in a long red cotton skirt. Her feet were bare. She carried a bunch of keys.

  ‘All right,’ I said.

  I hadn’t planned to go into Malot Corby’s workplace but Uncle Adam had given me a pound ‘for expenses’ so I had no real reason not to.

  The girl unlocked a couple of doors, took my money, gave me change, and then leaned against a counter, looking at nothing in particular, leaving me to wander about as I chose.

  The studio was on two levels, with a ship’s ladder connecting them. The walls were covered with drawings, rather good ones, I thought, birds and skulls and faces and plants and foxes and skeletons all mixed up. On stands arranged round the large room were statues; some of them seemed finished, some not. Unlike the ones in the garden they had definite shapes, a chimney with pot, an outsize milk bottle, a fire hydrant, a golf bag, a letter-box, a grandfather clock – all made out of brownish stone. While I was wandering round looking at them another heavy shower beat down on the roof like artillery fire.

  ‘You’d better stay in here till it’s over,’ said the girl. ‘It won’t last long. Isn’t your name Eden?’

  ‘No it’s not,’ I said crossly.

  ‘A boy called Eden was in here asking about Malot Corby. He wore the same sort of jacket as you.’

  ‘Well, I’d like to know more about Malot Corby,’ I said. ‘Could she really put curses on people?’

  ‘I think so. And other people do too. If she didn’t like someone, they often just vanished away. Of course, maybe they just left St Boan.’

  ‘Uncle Adam told me she put a curse on my Aunt Lal. She has to take a pill every day or she’d turn into a statue.’

  ‘Oh. Well. Yes – I did hear about that,’ the girl said awkwardly. She seemed embarrassed. ‘That was rather hard on your aunt. They lived next door then, didn’t they? Your aunt used to spread out her lace to bleach on the lavender bushes in her garden – she makes lace, doesn’t she? – and Malot had a flock of tame seagulls.

  She taught them to do tricks in the air, and of course they dropped messes on your aunt’s lace. She complained about it. And that made Malot very angry – she had a short temper at the best of times.’

  ‘How did Malot die?’ I asked.

  ‘Well, that was quite queer. It was only last year. James Kinsie, he’s the mayor of St Boan, he asked Malot to do a statue of a famous pirate who lived here two hundred years ago, Thundering Jack, his name was. Mr Kinsie wanted the statue put out on the end of the pier. Said it would bring more tourists. But other people in the town didn’t agree with that, they said it was nothing to be proud of that Thundering Jack had wrecked dozens of ships and drowned a whole lot of harmless people. Malot didn’t take any notice, she had a great piece of rock fetched down and parked on the end of the west pier and she started working on it there. The rock was full of iron ore, it was a huge reddish jagged lump.’

  ‘What happened?’ I asked, though I thought I could guess.

  ‘Well, one day there was a violent thunderstorm, Malot was out there working with hammers and chisels, and a great jag of lightning came down – struck her and the rock, sort of welded them together into one great black frizzled lump. You couldn’t tell which was which. Everyone was horrified, they didn’t want the thing left there, as you might guess. But a few relatives of people that Malot had put curses on, they did want the rock left there, as a warning. While they were all arguing about that, another tremendous gale blew up and a huge wave washed the rock into the sea.’

  ‘That’s odd,’ I said, remembering how, only a short time before, I had been thinking how, if I was given the choice, I’d choose to be a rock rolled and smoothed by the waves.

  ‘Why?’ asked the girl.

  But now it had stopped raining and some customers came in, wanting tickets, asking questions about Malot Corby. So I went back into the garden for an hour. I strolled back and forth, up and down along the paths, wondering why in the world Mum had never talked about St Boan, about Aunt Lal, about Malot Corby. Then, rising up from some deep, lost pocket of untapped memory, there suddenly came back to me a little snatch of talk between Mum and Dad – on Christmas Eve, it had been, a couple of years ago.

  ‘Are you sure you don’t want to ask Lal and Adam over for Christmas, Twinky? Your own sister? It always seems so odd …’

  ‘No, Tony. I just don’t want to risk it – and Lal doesn’t want to risk it either. If Malot knew, if she got to hear, she’d be quite capable of stretching out the bane, the ill-wish, to cover us and Ned as well.
And with a child you daren’t – and Lal knows that.’

  ‘No, I see,’ he said, and then as I had come into the room they fell silent. That was before Malot died, of course.

  I climbed the ship’s ladder to the upper floor of the studio. Here I found a whole row of objects like ships’ bollards, like milk churns, like harps, like vacuum cleaners, like double-basses. They were all made from polished grey metal.

  I walked up to one, shaped like a shiny grey, oversized milk churn, and saw that it had a keyhole in the top. I had been wandering about with my hands in my pockets and at this moment my fingers in the left-hand pocket found a thin short smooth metal band with a loop at one end – Eden’s key. Without thinking or planning I took out the key and pushed it into the keyhole on the milk churn. It fitted; the key turned. I tilted up the top of the churn – which was hinged – and saw, down at the bottom of the churn, a piece of paper with a drawing on it.

  A drawing, a portrait of my Aunt Lal.

  With the same dreamy, instinctive certainty I took out the drawing and slipped it into my pocket, re-locked the lid of the milk churn, pocketed the key and climbed down the ladder. The girl at the desk was talking to another lot of customers but she nodded to me as I went out.

  ‘Hey – you left your apple on the counter,’ she called and tossed it to me.

  I was going to say it wasn’t mine, but she ran off up the stairs.

  THE CHURCH CLOCK was striking five, so I found my way to Fore Street and Uncle Adam’s shop. It was on a corner with windows facing two ways. One window was lined with books and the other had a muddle of brass pots, china dogs, ships in bottles, wooden shoes, and other things I could put not name to. One thing I liked very much was a spiral staircase about the size of a footstool, made of bronze and walnut wood.

  ‘What’s it for?’ I asked Uncle Adam when I went in. He told me it was an architect’s model and cost four hundred pounds.

  There was a bearded man in the shop with Uncle Adam; they were plainly old friends and were in the middle of a game of chess.

  ‘This is Doctor Mike Masham,’ said Uncle Adam. ‘He looks after your Aunt Lal.’

  I was going to ask some questions about Aunt Lal and Malot Corby and the curse, and couldn’t it ever be taken off, and what had happened to the other people that the sculptress had cursed, when the doctor’s portable phone twittered in his pocket.

  He pulled it out, said ‘Yes?’ into the mouthpiece and listened, and then he said, ‘Right, I’ll be there at once,’ and put the phone back in his pocket. He turned to Uncle Adam: ‘It’s Lal, Adam. That was Mrs Pollard, your neighbour. Says Lal’s had a funny turn.’

  ‘I’ll go straight home,’ Uncle Adam said hastily. ‘Come along, Ned.’

  ‘And I’ll go with you,’ said the doctor.

  We went out – Nibs was there too and he ran ahead. The wind had got up and was blowing a gale. I saw Nibs flinch and put his ears back, then press himself into the angle of the wall as he scurried down the street. The doctor and I followed him while Uncle Adam turned to lock the shop door. Just at that moment there was a tremendous crash of falling masonry above as a whole chimney-stack fell into the street from overhead. The chimney pot broke off and bounced up from the pavement, catching Uncle Adam on the back of the head. He fell to the ground as if he’d been shot.

  ‘Murder!’ said the doctor, and he knelt by Adam and felt his skull. Then he pulled out his phone again and called urgently for an ambulance.

  ‘I’ll have to stay here with your uncle till it comes,’ he told me. ‘You hurry on home as fast as you can. Say I’m on my way. I’ll be there as soon as I’ve got your uncle into hospital. If she’s conscious, give your Aunt Lal this pill.’

  He handed me a red pill in a plastic sheath, similar to the one that had come out of the wall dispenser.

  ‘Uncle Adam’s not killed, is he?’ I croaked.

  ‘No, just concussed a bit, probably. Lucky his head’s as hard as a bowls ball. I daresay he’ll be sent home in a few hours. Now hurry!’

  I looked for Nibs, who was waiting on a corner. By now the storm was doing its worst again – I could see what Eden had meant about storms going round and round in St Boan. Rain was slamming down, wind came in fierce gusts and thunder snapped and crackled overhead. Nibs hated it and I was glad Aunt Lal had advised me to take the jacket.

  As I reached the bottom of Fore Street a flock of black-backed gulls flew at me. At first I thought they were blown by the wind, then I realised they were diving at me on purpose, striking at me with their cruel, curved bills, whacking me with their strong bony wings. I had nothing to defend myself with except the apple thrown at me by the girl in the studio. I used it like a knuckle-duster, bashing and thumping them, holding my left arm across my face to protect my mouth and eyes. The attack was so sudden that I wasn’t scared so much as outraged and furious.

  ‘Take that, take that, you filthy bird!’ I shouted, bashing one which had its head half in my pocket.

  ‘For heaven’s sake, what’s going on?’ said the girl from the studio, who just then passed by with an umbrella, and she twirled and twisted the brolly among them until they flew off with harsh angry screams.

  ‘Thanks!’ I panted. ‘Mustn’t stop, my aunt’s not well –’ and I dashed on after Nibs, who was crouched on the next corner, hissing furiously, with his ears and whiskers flattened. I was glad he hadn’t been any closer, the gulls were so huge I thought Nibs would be no match for them.

  But when I got to the harbour front I saw that Nibs and I would have to turn back and take another route. The gale had piled up the water in the harbour so that waves were surging right over the harbour wall and water was sloshing about, several feet deep, across the cobbled walkway.

  Nibs had already backed away at the sight of water and now ran off up a little alley called Sailmakers’ Way. Left, right, left, right, we turned and twisted, while I worried and fumed at the extra time I was taking before I got home with Aunt Lal’s red pill.

  At last I came out on the hillside above Uncle Adam’s house and had to run down a grassy path beside the garden. I noticed that the apple trees were thrashing about in the high wind. Apples were thudding down on to the grass.

  Nibs shot in through the kitchen window. I went round to the front door. The neighbour lady, Mrs Pollard, was in Aunt Lal’s front room, keeping a look-out for the rescue party. When she saw it was just me, her face fell. I told her the gloomy tale of what had happened to Uncle Adam and her face fell even further.

  ‘Lucky thing the doctor was right there by him! But what’ll happen to your poor auntie? I have to get home to my Jim, he’s laid up with flu.’

  ‘Is Aunt Lal conscious? I’ve a pill I’m supposed to give her if she is.’

  ‘No, well, she ain’t, not to say conscious, dear – more like somebody in a dream.’

  Mrs Pollard told me how she had seen Aunt Lal, over the garden fence, hanging teacloths on the line despite the fact that it was pouring with rain. Then she sank down to the ground.

  ‘And just lay there! On the grass! In all that rain!’

  So Mrs Pollard had gone round and, with great difficulty, persuaded Aunt Lal to get up and come indoors and lie down on her bed.

  ‘But stay there, she won’t, Neddy, she gets up and wanders all over the house. And her eyes are tight shut! It’s like as if she was sleep-walking!’

  ‘Well, Doctor Masham’s given me a pill for her. I only hope she’ll take it.’

  A thump on the wall and a loud call from next door now distracted Mrs Pollard.

  ‘Nan! Nancy! Where are you, gal?’

  ‘I’m a-coming, I’m a-coming!’ she called back and threw me a slightly frantic look. ‘You’ll be all right now, won’t you, dear, till the doctor comes? I daresay he won’t be long. And we’ll hope there’s nothing much amiss with your uncle.’

  I certainly did hope so.

  Meanwhile I went upstairs and searched for Aunt Lal.

  I found her in
her bedroom, which was at the front of the house, its window looking out on to the grassy headland with its rocky tip and the white lashing waves that kept shooting up in clouds of spray. Hailstones big as fivepenny pieces now beat down out of the black sky. The ground was grey with them.

  Aunt Lal stood at the window, but she was not looking out, for her eyes were shut. She held a pillow with a piece of lace, delicate as a spider’s web, spread over it.

  ‘But don’t let Malot’s gulls near it,’ she said to me anxiously. ‘Oh, those gulls! She trains them, you know, she trains them to do it. Brutes! They know what they are doing!’

  ‘Aunt Lal, I have a pill for you here that the doctor has given me. Will you take it?’

  ‘Pill, pill, no, I don’t want any pill,’ she said impatiently. ‘There’s been too many pills altogether.’

  ‘But it’s to make you better, Aunt Lal!’ I pleaded, hoping that Doctor Mike Masham would soon arrive with good news of Uncle Adam.

  ‘What would make me better is a nice cup of tea,’ said Aunt Lal. ‘You make me a nice cup of tea!’

  So I went down to the kitchen and made a pot of tea, hoping she might be persuaded to swallow the pill along with the tea. When I took the tray upstairs and poured her a cup she was sitting at her dressing-table as if she was looking at herself in the mirror. But her eyes were still tight shut.

  ‘Here’s your tea, Aunt Lal.’

  I put the cup on the dressing-table in front of her.

  ‘Thank you, dear. You’re a good, thoughtful boy. Just like your mother. She’s my little sister, you know.’

  She took a sip of tea.

  ‘Now won’t you take the pill, Aunt Lal?’

  ‘Not just yet, dear. I’ve such a headache. And those pills always make it worse. I’ll tell you what would help, though.’

  ‘Yes, what would?’

  ‘It’s just thinking of Malot brings it on, the headache, you know,’ Aunt Lal confided. ‘She’s so wicked! She’s my cousin, but we never did hit it off, even when we were tiny. She was jealous, you see, jealous because Twinky, that’s your mother, and I got on so well with each other and Malot had no sister. Do you know, she once threatened to put our cat Nibs into her pottery kiln if he came into her garden. That was why we were obliged to move house. Just thinking about her gives me a headache.’