Saturday, December 18, 2010
“There’s no such thing as monsters,” he tells her.
The girl screws up her nose. “Look anyway. Please.”
She hugs Hoppy Bunny tight as her dad slides sideways off the bed and onto the floor, pulling the duvet to one side and peering into the shadows.
“Are you sure?”
Even at five years old she knows that grown-ups can’t be trusted with this stuff. They aren’t clear about what is and isn’t in the dark.
“I am absolutely, totally sure there’s nothing under your bed.”
“Check the wardrobe.”
With an exaggerated sigh, he moves across the room and pulls the doors open quickly. Dresses and coats sway violently, like zombie hordes.
“It’s okay.” He grabs the clothes. “Nothing to worry about.” He pushes them aside and peers into the back of the wardrobe. “Just clothes, no lions or witches.”
Her eyes widen. “Did you think there would be?”
“No. No . . . I was just being silly.” He sits back on the edge of her bed. “There’s nothing there, darling.”
“Nothing now! What if a monster slides under the door when I’m asleep?”
“Once I kiss you good night the room is sealed, nothing can come into your bedroom in the night.”
She frowns. “What about the tooth fairy?”
“Well . . .”
“I meant . . .” He frowns too. “Nothing bad can come in, and Hoppy Bunny’s here to keep you safe.”
“How?” She looks dubiously at the small stuffed rabbit.
“Hoppy was specially trained, he only lets in good fairies or Santa.”
“Don’t worry, Dani. Mummy and I are downstairs. Nothing bad is going to happen. I promise.” He kisses her forehead . . .
. . . and the memory starts to fade.
Dani watches her younger self melt into the shadows of the night. Frozen in time, for a moment longer, is her father. The sight of him, so young and handsome, makes her smile--a sad smile. Slowly, the black hair, smooth face, elegant clothes slip away. Left behind, lying in the bed, is the older version. His hair is salt and pepper now, his face craggy and lined. He sleeps, but it’s not the sleep of the just. His nights are pained by visions. More than twenty years of night terrors--and she is the cause.
She sits in the chair by the door and watches him sleep just like she does every night, watching for the shadows to take his dreams. When they come, she will sing to him. Sometimes, when he whimpers or calls out, she aches to lean forward and kiss his forehead--but she can’t. Nearly forty years have passed since he banished the monsters from her room. Now it’s her job--to keep him safe in the night.
She curls her arms around herself. The room is cold, though she doesn’t notice, she just likes to feel arms around her. She wishes she could call the child back, see herself again from all those years ago. How old--five? So serious and confident, when had it all disappeared? But of course she knows the answer to that. “Dani . . .” he calls out in his sleep.
“Shh, sleep safe. I’m here.” And softly she sings a lullaby she remembers from all those years ago.
“Care you not and go to sleep, Over you a watch I’ll keep . . .”
“Not her!” He calls out in pain from the thickness of his nightmare.
“Shh, Dad.” She slides off the chair to kneel by his bed.
“Dani . . .” he calls softly.
“I can’t find you.”
He’s sweating. His face is pinched and his legs begin to jerk like he’s running.
“Dani!” he yells, his hands flail, jaws grind.
“I’m here, Dad,” she tells him, hoping her voice might worm its way down into his dream.
He twists sharply and cries in pain. “Are you safe?”
She hesitates. “Yes, Dad, I’m safe.”
He shakes, whimpering like a child. “Dani. Where are you?”
“Dad, I’m here,” she whispers. “I came back.”
His face contorts and he moans loudly.
“I can’t see through the snow. Dani, I can’t--” His body is suddenly rigid. His jaw grinds and darkness knits his brow. His back arcs--like he is having a seizure.
“Sleep, Daddy. I’m here.”
He makes a low moan and, like a sudden storm, the danger passes as tension slips away from his body and he slides deep into the undertow of sleep. She watches him, listens as his breath softens until it’s barely audible. He’s still. He’s safe. The monsters have left him alone--for tonight. He should sleep until morning.
She stretches in the chair. Her back aches and the pain in her hip cuts through her. She can’t sit any longer, so lies on the floor beside him. She rocks from side to side, trying to get comfortable. It was such a long time ago, surely it shouldn’t still feel like this. Phantom pains. On the ceiling, the faintest movements of shadow--grays and blacks--skirmish above her head. Slowly, the pain recedes and she sinks into the floor. She lies still, missing her night-light, wants something to eat the darkness away. She longs for dawn, for her dad to wake. She wants to talk, go for a walk, maybe see a movie? What time is it now--2 a.m.? Tiredness sweeps across her. He’ll sleep--she wishes she could.
She lies still for a long time, listening to his breath rise and fall. Finally she rolls over onto all fours--stretches like a cat--and leaves. Outside his door, she pauses for a few moments, continuing to listen to his breath. One day it will end. Will she be there at that moment? Hear the body draw its final inhalation, the lungs expand and then just stop so that the air seeps away and there is nothing. Nothing. The thought scares her. The loneliness terrifies her.
She turns to her own room. Inside is her single child’s bed, the same bed her father knelt under to check for monsters all those years ago. She feels a tiny shudder run through her.
“Someone walked over your grave.” That’s what her gran would have said.
The room is too dark, only a little moonlight spills in from the hallway. She isn’t sure she can stay there. The shadows are alive sometimes.
“Be brave, Dani,” she tells herself. But the old fears are strong. What would Dad do?
She bends down and looks underneath the bed. Cobwebs. No monsters--unless you’re a fly. She smiles a fake smile, even though there’s nobody there to see it, and she feels braver.
“Go on, Dan,” she whispers, and stretches out her fingers to the wardrobe door. It swings open with a little haunted-house creak. The dresses and coats are long gone. It is totally empty. Of course it is. Real monsters don’t hide in wardrobes.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
She cuts him.
His body twists. She tightens her grip on his hand as the pain draws him back from the oblivion of sedation. Eyes flicker. For a second they open: confusion, pain, fear. His palm pools with blood.
“Shh,” she whispers, as if to calm a baby, squeezing his fingers tight.
He struggles one final time, but the tape she’s wrapped around his body holds him securely. He drops back into the darkness.
With an unsteady hand she fumbles in her pocket for the sterile swab.
“Damn,” she spits, frustrated by the delicate touch needed. With a bloodied finger she pokes her glasses, holding them in place so she can peer through the oval at the bottom. His blurred hand sharpens into focus.
She dips the bud into his palm; the cotton bloats, gorges itself. She lets his hand drop--it arcs to the floor and swings, splattering red like a child’s painting, and then comes to rest, weeping onto the carpet. She’s cut far deeper than was needed; bone shows through the deep trench of flesh. She doesn’t care, just runs the swab across the slide, leaving a bloody smear. Done. She feels giddy. Finally she’s done it. Patricia Lancing has her man. She leans forward, her mouth brushing his ear to whisper, “You are a monster.”
“He needs a plaster,” a small voice says.
Patty looks across at Dani, who with a shy smile holds up the toy she’s squirted with ketchup.
“Hoppy Bunny needs a plaster. He’s poorly.”
“Oh dear, let’s get him one. Maybe Doctor Duck should take a look.”
“Oh yes, Mum. I’ll go get him.” Her daughter pads away, the memory fading.
“Danielle,” Patty calls to her five-year-old daughter, but she is gone. Long gone.
She looks back to the man tied to the chair. “Why Danielle?”
The question hangs in the air between them as it has done for over twenty years, poisonous and all consuming.
“Why my daughter?”
There is no sound from him. She looks at her watch. 3:42 a.m.
She takes the slide with his blossom of blood, puts it back in its box and seals it. With reverence she walks it over to the cooler and places it inside. All is done. She hears her husband’s voice slide back to her through the years: “Now what, Patty? Now what will you do?” Jim asks, but she doesn’t know what to say to him, her mind too full of shadows.
She turns back to the man she has abducted. With a finger, she reaches out and tips his head. His skin is waxy, lips flecked with the drool of insensibility. She takes his eyelid and peels it back; there is nothing but a poached-egg smear. He sickens her. She raises the knife and presses it into his soft throat. It would be easy . . . so . . . she closes her eyes.
She opens them. The hotel room has gone. She coughs and the shop assistant looks up from what he’s reading.
“Yeah?” He looks fourteen, all spots and surly resentment.
She points behind his head, to the serious hunting knives in the locked cabinet. He grunts, then takes a stubby key from his pocket and slides the glass away. He points to one and she nods. It’s vicious, designed to slice through flesh and muscle, hack through bone. One edge a razor, the other a saw. She’s come all the way across London to this little shop in Wimbledon, somewhere nobody knows her, to buy a specialist hunting knife. She carries no ID, just cash--a cover story all worked out: her husband will be hunting for the first time, big promotion up for grabs and he needs to impress. So she will have to gut, slice and cook whatever he manages to shoot. She’s pleased with her invention and has topped it off with a disguise: waxed jacket and riding boots she bought from Oxfam yesterday. She’s also wearing lots of make-up. Mutton dressed as mutton. She spent all morning in front of a mirror perfecting her cut-glass home-counties accent, reborn as Hilary Clifton-Hastings. Nobody can refuse to sell a hunting knife to a Clifton-Hastings.
“That will do nicely” she says and hands it back. The shop assistant peels the price sticker from the back with a fingernail that is almost pure soil.
Hilary Clifton-Hastings slides the cash across the counter; he scoops it up and scatters it in the till. No questions, barely a glance from him. She does not need her alter ego. He sizes her up in a microsecond; small, thin, gray woman in her sixties: harmless.
That was two days ago.
She opens her eyes. She’s cold. That afternoon’s snow falls on her once again. The watery sun’s dipped below the horizon and the light has died. She stands, a statue, alone in the long-stay car park alongside the metal carcasses that poke from the growing carpet of snow. If anyone were watching her, they’d think she was a crazy woman. But nobody is watching, not even on CCTV. Broken yesterday and not repaired, tut-tut.
She hasn’t dressed for the weather. The ferocity of the cold has surprised her: Siberia in southeast England. She knows she should go and sit in her car but everything looks so beautiful in its white coat. All around the ground is pure, unmarked, as if no living thing exists to disturb the peace. It would be terrible if she destroyed it. So she stands still and waits.
She sticks out her tongue and counts . . . one elephant, two elephants . . . a swirling snowflake lands and dissolves, wet and slightly metallic. Others fall on her eyelids and trickle away as mock tears, some alight on her skin and nuzzle into her silver hair. Each flake is perfect--an intricate and exquisite ice world--unique. Some see the hand of God in this. Not her.
Fewer and fewer planes have been landing over the last few hours as the snow has got heavier. If she had her phone she could check the weather report, check the plane schedule, but she doesn’t have it. She carries nothing that could identify her if . . . if things don’t go to plan.
“Shall I just stand here and wait?” she thinks. “But for how long? He’s already hours late, may not come at all.” Does she wait until she freezes?
She watches the snow and listens for the first mutterings of an engine. She feels as if she’s been placed in a magician’s cabinet, waiting to be sawn in half.
Then, in the darkness some way off, she hears the chug of a motor. She shakes a little, though not her sickness shakes. She doesn’t need her medication--this is first-night nerves.
All is dark. Jim flicks the light on. He stands in the doorway, holding a tea towel where the door should be. “Ladies and gentleman. I now present for your delectation and delight a master of the art of prestidigitation . . .”
“Dad!” Dani shouts from the hallway. “I’m doing magic.”
“Sorry. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Magic of Madame Danielle Lancing.”
The tea towel is pulled away with a flourish and a six-year-old Dani enters, wearing a black top hat made from an old porridge container and a paper plate. She sports a black cape that was once a towel and waves a cardboard wand that came free in a Rice Krispies packet and has been sat on quite a few times.
“I am Mystical Dani and you will be amazed,” she says in as low a voice as a six-year-old can manage.
Excerpted from The Last Winter of Dani Lancing by P. D. Viner. Copyright © 2013 by P. D. Viner. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.