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Chapter Nine

How many miles to Babylon?

Three score and ten.

Can I get there by candlelight?

Yes, and back again.

A thrush or some brown bird answered from a thicket. Rachaela watched it, and walked on. The bird sang a few more notes and flew away.

How many miles, how many miles?

Where had she heard the rhyme? Not from her mother. It came now because it was applicable. She had been to Babylon, and come back.

How canny of her to have chosen a new sweater with a roll neck. This and a little piece of elastoplast denied the most outrageous element of the visit to Babylon. The blood had stopped, had been dry when she woke up. He was gone. But her whole body, strained and bruised as if he had beaten her, that was the monument to his reality.

She was not ashamed. Not embarrassed. Not angry or bewildered or happy. She was nothing. Vacant. He had scoured her out.

He must have removed the remains of the heart from the carpet, or Michael or Maria had cleared it up, like the mouse.

What do I feel?

Surely she must feel something.

But he had drunk up her feeling with her blood.

The heath was rinsed by fitful sun. Sometimes it clouded over with rays of darkness.

Yes, and back again.

She sat down on a rock. From here she could see to the house, the standing stone between like a lightning.

No rabbits today.

She began to cry, silently. Some feeling after all then.

The sea boomed.

The heath took no notice of her.

Rain fell for days and nights. It washed away the markers, the clawings of the cat in the earth, the tenuous little flowers beside the path, the webs upon the outside of the windows. It dissolved memory. For this was what the immediate past had become.

He had come in at the door, he had lain down with her, he had been her lover. And before that he had brought her back from the world, home again into the enclave of the Scarabae.

The doors to the tower were locked. She had tried them after two days. She had knocked.

She knew intuitively Babylon had been only for one night. He had wanted her only for one night. If he had even profoundly wanted her at all. It was the act the house drove him to, a completion. Even her blood was not enough to entice him. If it was true, he had gone without, a monk, for thirty years.

She did not want to leave the house now.

In misery she clutched at it. The cheerful fireplaces, the masks of the windows. She could hide here, burrow, and be safe. No worries, no living to earn, no people to deal with. How dangerous the house was, a great stone cradle lagged with cotton-wool to wrap her.

She existed with the firelight and the radio, and most nights she went down to dine with Stephan and Anna, and now and then others appeared. She knew them all now.

She had never gone back to the beach.

But the rain washed the beach, too.

They were all there, at the dinner table, all of them but Camillo, who had never come. Sixteen Scarabae, and the four who served.

Wine was brought with the fish.

From this, if she had not guessed, she saw it was a celebration. Her blood turned to ice.

And they all smiled at her from time to time. Little biting smiles of their old strong teeth.

Then she felt the trap again. It was not a cradle she was in.

Upstairs she had another hot bath, too hot, it almost made her sick.

She performed the set of exercises she had taken to, on the carpet by the bed.

She should have drunk more of the wine.

In the bed she lay and imagined that she had never come here, that her life went on, between the shop of Mr Gerard and the flat. There would be monetary compensation for the loss of the fiat. She had heard nothing, but how could she, here?

She waited, for the door to open.

Of course it did not.

Five by the tower clock at the bedsidethree-thirty in the morning.

The rain, the restless sea.

The rain had ended, and only Anna had come to dinner.

This seemed if anything as purposeful as the gathering of the clan on the previous night.

She was meant to confide in Anna.

I was thinking, said Rachaela, I may need to get away to London for a while, after all.

How should that be? Anna did not look astonished or even feral. She was bland.

Some money matters I should have sorted out.

Surely, a letter would do.

No mail comes to the house.

The van brings it. Cheta

I really think Ill need to attend to it personally.

Well, if you must.

No refusal then. And nothing to assist.

Rachaela looked into the fire. She saw no pictures there, not even of Sylvians funeral pyre.

As you know, Rachaela said, Ive slept with him.

Oh, my dear, said Anna. Obviously there had been a breach of etiquette.

It was what you all wanted and anticipated. I thought youd like to be certain. Anna did not say anything. Ive seen nothing of him, since then. Rachaela had not meant to say this.

Adamus is very secretive, said Anna. You must allow him time.

I was the innocent, not he. What does he need time for? Hes had thirty years.

He doesnt communicate easily, said Anna, indulgently. I myself havent seen him, except briefly, for a great while. You must be patient.

So you said before. Why must I be patient?

What else can you do? said Anna simply.

Yes, I see. Plainly nothing. How long do you think hell hide from me? Two months, three?

I dont know, Rachaela.

Or perhaps this is now a permanent state. Maybe I should get Michael or Cheta to take me into the tower with them when they deliver meals.

That would never do. You cant force yourself upon him.

He forced himself on me. You all forced him on me.

No, Rachaela. There was some measure of acceptance on your part.

This is a game, said Rachaela, as I suspected.

Not at all. More... more a dance, Rachaela. A changing of partners through time.

Left alone on the dance floor, said Rachaela, and the bands gone home. When the last little star has left the sky, she added, quoting with banality, and not still together.

He is as he is.

I see that. Where am I?

You are quite secure, Rachaela. You have all of us.

Rachaela quailed. But youre all mad.

Anna smiled her smile. What can I say to that.

Rachaela saw a picture in the fire. It was Camillo riding on the back of the great black cat.

Well, Ill go to London.

Anna said, Wait a while.

For what?

Perhaps something will happen.

But it has. I told you.

She thought, Has anything happened? Another dream.

She thought: London, have I the strength to try again?

She knew the days now, she had retained a careful count of them. On a Saturday she went up to the attic. It was two weeks and a day, since he had brought her back, since their episode on the green-and-blue bed. The doors into the tower had stayed locked. She had been busy, walking and walking, sometimes in the fountains of the rain, doing her exercises. Some nights she drank three glasses of wine. She did not talk to Anna, only responded mildly when Anna spoke to her.

Camillo was not in the attic. It seemed he had lost all interest in that too. The rocking-horse stood still as a rock, she tipped its back to make it move. Three bottles had exploded off their tops and there were wine stains on the walls.

Rachaela sampled the wine. It was sour, as the old women had told her. Sour, but potent. She might try this brew, in preference to the civilized wine Michael dished up.

She searched the attic, and found a hammer lying between a sewing machine and a stuffed bird. As if in readiness.

She opened the clear window and climbed out.

The sky was blue, muddied with vast banks of cloud like cumulus from a volcano.

She walked across the two roofs and came to the tower and its window.

No sound. The piano was not being played. How quiet he was. Was he even there? Where did he go to when he disappeared? She had seen, he would brave the daylight. Was it only their affectation, to be afraid of it, as if it was expected of them.

She knocked courteously with the hammers hilt.

Was he there, and only dissembling. Burrowed in the tower, safe from her.

Nothing. Only the noises of the sea.

Rachaela rested against the tower wall. She longed to be elsewhere, to be another person. Anyone would do. Some spotty check-out girl, some sock-washing wife. Anything, anything rather than this.

She swung the hammer lightly. At her first swipe the glass cracked in the lions head. She lashed again. Pieces of yellow crystal dropped out on to the roof like strange sweets.

But she had not breached the tower. There was more glass, or some other thicker substance, behind the jagged hole she had made.

She smashed down hard against it with the hammer and the window shook, tiny cracks appeared like earthquake faults. The substance beyond and between the glass did not give.

She might have guessed. The stone-slinging mob had taught them. The glass was provisioned against attack.

She left the broken shards lying and took the hammer back into the attic and set it down neatly by a bird of paradise in lime and cherry feathers.

A useless aggression.

She had been shown. They were impervious to her.

And she was not a vandal, it was not natural to her to destroy things.

She went back to her room.

In biro, she wrote on a piece of paper taken from an ancient stack in a bureau of the morning room.

Adamus, it is unfair of you to shut me out. I want to speak to you. This isnt some idle whim. How long are you going to hide yourself, or can you?

Then she tore up this letter, and the two or three which followed it, and burned them in the fire.

Adamus was the Prince of Darkness. He would not answer at her call. A capricious and malevolent spirit, thing of shadows. He had imposed his will, or the will of the Scarabae on her. Now she must loosen their shackles. She must. She could. It was simple.

In fear she sat and thought of everything before her. She had been an imbecile and deserved nothing more kind.

She had better find the strength. She had better.

At about four in the morning, by the light of one candle, she thrust two more books into the new black bag, tested its weight, and did it up.

This time she had squashed some of her clothes inside, and several of the lighter books, the paperbacks. Into her everyday bag went make-up and toiletries. She could not take the radio, but as before she had acknowledged that. The quantities of books she must leave behind.

It was Tuesday, she had kept careful count.

The day of the van, perhaps, but that was not relevant. The van could not be used again. Surely Carlo and Cheta would prevent it, now.

She put on her coat and hauled the new bag up on to her back like a knapsack. It was heavy but tolerable. She would have to endure. The lesser bag she slung on to her shoulder.

Rachaela opened the door on the usual night-time blackness. She gripped the candle firmly.

The carvings swung, and up there an owl of wood stared at her among the leaves.

There was something wrong.

She knew it before she had reached the landing. A light burned in the hall, the red lamp.

She came out at the head of the stairs and looked down.

They were all there. All the Scarabae. She looked them over one by one, Unice and Alice, Peter and Dorian, Jack and George and Eric, Stephan was there and Anna, standing to one side, Teresa, Miranda, Anita, Sasha, Livia and Miriam. And Uncle Camillo in his armour with the lamp shining on the breastplate and helmet, and the vizor down so you could not see if he were laughing.

Rachaela had halted in her tracks.

She confronted them, waiting for one or all of them to speak.

How had they known?

Even, there, near the passage, the four servants, big Carlo among them. Ready to seize and stay?

Im going, Rachaela said loudly. I wont be stopped.

She held up the candle and began to descend the stairs.

A little ripple went over them, and she braced herself, but otherwise they did not move.

She was strong and they were old. How would old Carlo react to a kick on the ankle, her teeth in his wrist. The candle might be used as a weapon.

She got down into the hall. They were a wall in front of her, between her and all the doors.

She moved towards the drawing room and walked right at them.

She thought of striking them, the matchstick sounds of the breakage of old bones. She would do it if she had to Eric and Stephan stepped aside. They let her pass.

She went into the unlighted room, the candle bursting on the ridges of furniture. The door to the conservatory veered at her, half-open as it always was by night.

They were coming after, creeping forward with a susurrus of materials and soft shoes. Creeping after her as if they stalked her. But would they spring?

She pushed wide the door and edged through the lanes between the great plants, black and white and grey. They brushed her like strengthless and accusing hands. Rachaela thrust them off, and the stems broke, the petals showered like confetti.

She gained the door on to the night and pushed it and stepped over the sill.

She walked across the garden, over Carlos weeded lawn, under the girders of the cedar. Only the little gate now.

She put down the candle and left it burning there. She glanced back as she shut the gate behind her.

All the Scarabaeall but onewere crowded in the garden. They watched her. Their grim old faces gave away nothing. Like elderly kiddies at a play they did not understand yet knew to be important, they regarded her as she stood behind the gate.

Goodbye, she thought. Goodbye for ever.

With a feeling of great cold, almost of terror, she turned away from them, brushing a spray of their petals from her coat. Who would believe this flight by night. She thought of all their eyes glittering in the candleshine. Eyes like beetles caught on the bushes. She resisted the temptation to look back a second time.

Rachaela walked along the path, in among the pine trees with the sullen roar of the sea to her right. When the trees broke, she came out on the uncut lawn of the heath.-The sea lashed between the bulkheads of the cliff. The standing stone rose white in the darkness. There was a thin moon, a wrack of cloud. The night was noisy with its own nocturnal sounds.

Now she must remember the way that Cheta and Carlo took. She needed to find the village in the dark.

She moved along the heath, and from a tuft of darkness something came out and stood in her way.

Last of them all, it was the cat.

Rachaela slowed her pace but did not stop. The cat eyed her. It was sleek, its ears raised not flattened. Did it know her still or would it turn on her now she was an outcast? Was it some supernatural sentinel of the Scarabae?

She came level with the cat, stretched out her hand, and the cat sniffed her. She smoothed its great barbaric head.

Youre a beautiful monster, she said, are you going to let me by?

The cat withdrew from her like a sooty ghost and stole away along the slope towards the standing stone.

From a distance of thirty feet she heard it clawing the earth. It was not concerned with her. She was through all the ordeals now, and had only the journey to accomplish.

There was a kind of separate fear on her as she walked.

The vast heath was full of stillness and life. Noises were continuous, chirrups of unimaginable creatures, the sudden flush of something in a bush, the beating of wings. Once three night birds rose into the blue-black of the sky.

She disturbed the pattern of the nocturne.

There were stars, brilliant and manufactured, so many of them, ridiculous to believe that they were suns and planets. The cloud formed the shape of a skull beneath the moon, huge eyeholes of sky glaring down. Anything might come out of the sky.

Or off the ground.

Rachaela walked stolidly, the weight on her back like the sins of the pilgrim in some religious tale.

What were her sins? Incest, for one. But the word meant nothing. Do what you like so long as you dont get caught. But there Perhaps the long hard walk would help her. Shake loose the sin.

Silly to hope for that. She had acted unthinkingly and was punished.

Was it a sin to leave the Scarabae?

Were they still standing like statues in the garden? Had Anna and Stephan led them in?

She must forget the Scarabae. Forget Adamus.

Her mother had never managed it. She would have to be different.

It was not difficult to recollect the route Carlo and Cheta had taken. Certain landmarks had been unconsciously remembered. She had turned inland at the right spot she was sure. Yet where was the road now?

Out of a stand of pine a slim grey beast emerged. It checked and looked at her. The markings about its eyes made it savage, wolf-like, but it was only a fox, more discomposed than she at the meeting. It trotted briskly away.

Beyond the pine trees the road ran, desolate and haunted black.

Rachaela did not like the look of it by night. She walked carefully to one side. Some colossal thing might come from the dark, storming down on her.

The gutted farmhouse appeared, silvered by the moon. Uncanny lights could have blazed in the windows, but they did not. A black rook or crow sat in the hedge, as if to challenge her. She saw the glitter of its eye. All things here were Scarabae. But the rook paid her no attention, did not fly at her crying in a human voice Go back!

How the night worked on her imagination.

The village might be gone, or dead, or all the inhabitants turned to stone like the houses.

No, the village was only that. It obeyed the laws of normal things. There were telephones, and they would answer if she knocked loudly enough.

She had only to follow the road now.

Nothing walked or ebbed behind her.

The moon was setting, the cloud like streaming hair or bubbling steam.

She did not recall that wood there by the road. Could she somehow have taken a wrong turning on the straight, unbranching surface? Had part of the land been lifted up and spirited away?

But there, she remembered that derelict wall. Beyond that rise, the village would be. Probably.

She achieved the crest of the road and saw it spill over, and the village in the bottom of the valley, silent as if drowned a hundred years beneath a lake.

The door to the pub called The Armitage was of thick wood, lacking a bell or knocker. A side door was streakily painted and had two sorry pots of weeds beside it, and a bell and letterbox.

The sky was higher and the stars had lost their clockwork effulgence. Dawn was near. Wakey wakey.

She rang the bell brutishly, keeping her hand on it, and flapped the lid of the letterbox.

After a long while muffled sounds came from above. A window lighted.

As she had supposed, it had been best to take them by surprise.

The window went up. A bald but tousled head poked out.

Is that you, Sandy?

Rachaela cleared her throat.

No. I need your help. An emergency. Your telephone.

Theres a telephone up the way, said the aggrieved being above.

Vandalized, said Rachaela. As if the bastard doesnt know. Please. Its urgent. Ill pay you for the use.

This time of night, said the man.

Please, said Rachaela.

Are you from the farm?

No.

Just wait there.

The sky was bluish-grey, vast films of darkness seeping out of it.

From outposts of the dirty village, wild birds began to sing their lawless aubade.

She pictured the man stamping down through his pub, irate and duty-bound. Who was Sandy? Another who knocked them up before daylight.

The door was unlocked and scraped open.

Now what is it you want?

Your telephone.

I dont know. Who are you?

Its very urgent. I must call a car.

A car? What do you want with a car?

The man, she had noticed, had a London accent, like the van people. Another outsider.

Its an emergency, Rachaela repeated.

All right. Youd better come in.

Rachaela moved through. The hallway smelled beery and unclean.

I need the number of a hire car, said Rachaela.

Wants the phone and wants a bloody number an all.

Im sure you have some numbers.

Maybe, in the bar. Ill have to go through. Wait there.

The man went off in his brown dressing-gown.

From above, a woman called plaintively, What is it, Harry?

Rachaela stood in the dark and threadbare hall. She gazed at the telephone. She felt drunk. Perhaps it was the smell.

The man came back and thrust a card at her.

Thatll do. Ill ask you two pounds for the call. Dont be more than five minutes.

Rachaela took the card, opened her bag, and put down the money on the smeary table. The man scooped them up at once.

Harry! called the woman.

What the hell is it?

Whats happening, Harry?

Some girl here wants the phone, he shouted. Get up and make us some tea. You women, he said to Rachaela in disgust.

She picked up the telephone receiver, disbelievingly, and dialled the number of the card. Quickies.

It rang. It rang and rang.

Twenty-four-hour service said the card. Perhaps they had gone to make tea also, or to the lavatory.

Quickies Cars.

Rachaela caught her breath.

I need a car to get to the town station.

And where from?

Where from. Rachaela said, Just a moment. She said to the man, Whats the name of this place?

What, here?

Yes, the village.

You dont know?

No, I dont.

Bidgely, he said. She thought he said.

Bidgely, she enunciated cautiously into the phone.

Im sorry, said the man on the line.

Bidgely. Can you spell it for me? she asked the pub owner.

He spelled the word. It was P-i-t-c-h-l-e-y.

Dont think I know that one, said the car-hire man.

Rachaela said firmly to the impatient pub man, Would you be very kind and give him directions?

Well youve got a bleeding cheek I must say. Getting me out of bed at this hour, wanting me to give directions.

Rachaela handed him the phone.

To her relief he took it and did as he was bid. The advice sounded incomprehensible to her but when he handed her the phone receiver back, the car man said, OK, Ive got that. Be about an hour. Thats the soonest I can make it.

All right. Thank you.

What number is the pick up?

By The Armitage public house.

Right-oh.

Quickies clicked into the void.

There you are then, said the man.

His woman was coming down the stairs in a blue candle wick dressing-gown and her hair in curlers.

They watched Rachaela off the premises and slammed and locked the door.

An hour, and an hour perhaps to get back into the townstill plenty of time, as she had judged it, to catch the ten-forty-five for Bleasham.

Suppose it was not Tuesday that the train ran.

It was. It was and she would be in time. Somewhere someone had to tell the truth. She was determined now. She would make it happen.

Rachaela sat on the ground, on the slope of unbuilt land up the street, where the van came when the van came.

She watched for the car.

The village started half-alive about her, lights went on in some windows, then off again as the daylight strengthened. A woman came out of her house and apparently poured a pot of tea around the base of a bush. Another one put washing on to a line, gaudy bedclothes and sombre shirts.

A car or two, the wrong ones, took off down the street in the direction of the town.

A dog barked.

The village was, as she had thought, a dump, where time was whittled away in some vintage manner. Tainted by Scarabae.

But the car would come.

The car was late.

It was half past nine and the car had not arrived.

Rachaela stood up. Was the driver lost?

The driver would not be lost.

An old green Ford Zodiac materialized on the road, driving down into the village. It went past Rachaela, and pulled up outside the pub.

Rachaela ran.

I have to catch the ten forty-five at the town station.

I doubt if youll do it, miss, said the driver sadly.

Youre late.

Its the traffic, you see. Should have ordered the car sooner, miss.

I did. She got in. Will you try?

The Poorly connection is it you want?

Poorly, yes. For London.

Your best bet is if I drive straight over to Poorly. Cost you a bit more, but youll get the eleven-fifteen London train for sure.

All right. Do that then, she said recklessly.

You understand, Im trying to help you out.

Drive to Poorly.

Dont want you to think Im just angling for extra fare.

It doesnt matter. So long as I get the train.

The village reversed, took off and poured away.

After all, this was the moment of severance.

The car raced up the road. Rachaela felt a flare of mad joy. As if she could leave all her troubles behind. But they were only just beginning.

The driver was talkative. She let him go on, offering the proper monosyllable here and there. He wanted to tell her his life-story, not hear her own.

Perhaps he had lied about missing the town connection. He had four children, two parents, and a weak-willed sister.

The colour of the car, grey-green, the country rushed by. They passed houses and fields and a number of prettified pubs, all showing that the influence of the Scarabae had been left behind. Churches rose in meadows, picturesque, with leaning gravestones. Faint blossom was on some trees like wispy bridal veils. Spring began here too.

She had lost the months as well. Was it March?

They turned through lanes, and joined a motorway and left it. It was ten thirty-five. Certainly too late for the town train now.

A sign said Porlea 6 miles.

Rachaela almost laughed.

Perhaps everything would change like the names once she was out of their net.

Nobody stood on the platform for the despised means to London, but in the ticket office the man had assured her that all was well, or at least, sane.

The station was bright with lots of red plastic, but cartons lay in the litter bins and a discarded magazine loitered on one of the seats.

Birds sewed back and forth over the line.

Then the train came, massive, filthy and real.

An announcement informed the vacant platform and Rachaela that this train was the London via somewhere, calling at something and elsewhere and who cared at all? In an ecstasy of selfishness she got into the magic train.

It was quite crowded but in her pleasure Rachaela did not mind. She found a seat and placed her bags at her feet.

Thank God. Oh thank God.

With a gliding forward-thrust the train achieved its truth. It was bearing her away. Everything would be all right.

The woman with the shopping basket cuddled on her lap made her fifth attempt upon Rachaela.

Dont you find these long journeys are a nuisance? Its the motion. I cant settle to anything. I brought my knitting. Do you knit? But I drop stitches, I find. Knitting a cardy for my granddaughter. Very fancy pattern. I can show you my grandchild. I always carry a photo. Such a bonny child. Not like my daughter at all. More like my mothers side. Such lovely hair. A proper blonde. Of course it will darken. I never let my daughter do anything to her hair. You leave it the way God intended it.

Have it cut, said Rachaelas mother, and a nice set. Easier for you to manage.

The photo was produced and given to Rachaela. A fat, pale child with yellow hair, smiling, jam on its upper lip, unless it had also a red moustache.

Yes, said Rachaela.

Do you have any children?

No, said Rachaela.

A pity, I always think, not to have them while youre young. Its the best time. I had my Janet when I was eighteen. And then John and Kieran. I love children, dont you?

Rachaela did not answer.

Fields and pylons passed. Distant houses with crimson roofs. A far-away river with a castle on its bank. Oh, to be there. To have some destination. There was only London. And until then this woman.

Hurry up and give me a grandchild, I said to her. Oh Mum, she says,Im only twenty. I had you when I was eighteen, I said. I expect youre waiting for Mr Right, said the woman to Rachaela. Weve been together, my Martin and me, twenty-four years. A perfect match my sister used to say. I just wish, she used to say, Id had your Martin, and your lovely children. What do you think youll like, dear, a boy or a girl, for your first? A girls best. Keep the boys in order. Like a second mum my Janet was.

Rachaela stood up. The woman was not affronted. Her universe contained only one, the rest were bit players, successful or not.

Rachaela dodged her way to the lavatory.

The lock was whimsical. She got it shut, and leaning with difficulty to the jolting bowl, she vomited colourless fluids from her empty stomach.

Was this the truth after all, even so early, the proving of the facts? Not the train, not London, but this?

As her head cleared, Rachaela propped herself against the wall. She voided the lavatory, and ran cold water in the basin, laving her face, hands, wrists.

Too soon surely to panic.

It was only fear.


Chapter Eight | Dark Dance | Chapter Ten