curses and gentlemen
Peakman didn’t like the estate agent very much. When they had first spoken about the house, the naked delight of imminent gain seemed the only real thing about him. All the particulars – the crisscrossing timber, that black and white divide, the authentic 14th century musk – had been nothing more than fodder for his ploy, each one loosed with tactical care in pursuit of the money, the money, the money. Now that the deal was done, the man – his name was Reade – could not wait to disappear.
‘You’re sure your father will be alright with it?’ he said, as they stood upon the doorstep. ‘It’s a bit… cold.’
Peakman nodded. ‘We’ll be fine, thank you.’
Reade looked away. He was shaking. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m glad we could move things along so quickly.’
Peakman slid her hand across the surface of the door, the bubbles of old paint intriguing her touch. She slid the key into the lock and opened.
The foyer was smaller than she recalled. A few steps in and she was through to the living room, where a brick hearth dominated the view. Reade had been at pains to tell how the building had been an inn until the turn of the century. Peakman tried to imagine it thus, but could not call the appropriate revelry to mind.
It could be anybody’s house really. Judging by the local lore, he had expected some amount of gothic enterprise or appropriately hammy smarm. It was just dirty, that was all. Dirty and old. The thought of cleaning it drained her as she marched upstairs, until she could affect little more than a slouching pace.
She noticed the cold as she slowed. It seemed worse inside than out, a notion that irritated her considerably. It was hard enduring the old man’s rage at his shrinking options. He wanted a house on a hill, even better, a mansion. A mansion perched upon a knuckle shaped crag, the whole scene endemic to nightmare. Well, if he wanted to live like Dracula, then he should have employed better guards. Peakman wasn’t complaining. She didn’t much enjoy driving back and forth through the countryside every time they needed Toilet Duck.
Peakman sniffed. There were cars parked at the back of the garden where it bordered the peripheries of a golf course. It had been a quick sale, one with little time for threat management. The old man had spent too long away from native soil, and was beginning to show the strain.
She descended the stairwell and shuffled toward the front door. She patted herself for keys and cursed aloud when she saw them hanging in the dashboard of the van.
The guest was still unconscious when she crawled through to the back of the vehicle. She wrapped a blanket tight around his body and placed a bobble hat on his head. He’d put on weight, she realised, as she hauled him into the house, hoping that the old man had too much on his gory plate to notice.
They moved in that weekend. The old man complained incessantly; about the house, about the cold, about the worthless Polish dogs Peakman had recruited. England had no more room for monsters. It had been war of one kind or another ever since the rout of ‘98. The grubby beasts fleeing the castle, the hunt pissing fire from the parapets. Mouthwash swishing from cheek to cheek.
What he couldn’t give voice to – would not under any circumstances – was the fear. The old bastard was afraid. Really afraid. The thought made Peakman dizzy, as though she had been catapulted from a great height and could not see where she might come down.
Her hand moved of its own volition as she passed through the living room, waving to the moving men as they rolled slowly down the driveway. They had been laughing all morning as she flittered about with mugs of tea, and their lapses into dialect had left her with the nagging doubt that she’d missed out on something special (although the old man being spot-on about their lack of complication).
She checked her hair in a mirror and sighed, warm breath erasing the paleness of her face.
The stairwell was a short journey of narrow slabs hung between kitchen and cellar. Closing the door meant entering a gloom without end, dull plaster walls sliding fathom by fathom into ubiquitous nothing. She felt ashamed to have provided him so little light.
The size of the cellar, at least, was something to be admired. Far roomier than the dank granary where they had sojourned in the Drôme. The old man had been insistent on his typical decorum, a line of paint bisecting its centre to split the room in half.
He was waiting behind the line.
‘Sorry about the light,’ said Peakman. ‘You know electricians. It’s Tuesday, then Wednesday, then Maundy bloody Thursday.’ She tittered as he fought to strike a match. ‘Nothing wrong with candles though. Founded an empire on candles. Well, that and colonialism. But at least they could all see.’
The guest said nothing. He had pulled his legs up onto the mattress and was resting his chin on his knees. The tiny bruise inside his elbow was clearing up nicely, forming a neat line of ritual scarring. Peakman was proud of the work. She sometimes imagined walking her slender fingers across his skin, each delicate contact leaving the shadow of her passing.
Was that mad? She no longer had the means for comparison. You couldn’t count the old man. Six hundred years of monotonous habit – coupled with the occasional inhuman blowout – would drive anyone round the bend (even now it was incredible to think it. It was blue carousels of light in the sky to think the old man a jabbering mentalist. Peakman’s meagre rebellion thrilled her still).
‘Got the papers,’ she said. They landed at his feet, beside the stainless steel manacle she had sheepishly purchased from an eBay S & M store. ‘Have you seen this thing about the Hootenanny? They want to cancel the Hootenanny!?’
The guest smiled. ‘I haven’t actually,’ he said. ‘Swept me properly by, that one.’
Peakman returned the smile, inflating it beyond reasonable limits. She admired his pluck, and his ability to look beyond the parameters of their situation. The hunt could have learned a thing or two from their urbane duet (had not been swept into war against the Catholic Church, Peakman often considered that she would have been an excellent priest. Though she’d probably balls it up on live TV by saying the wrong thing about glad-handed bishops – )
The guest was talking to her.
‘… This is it then? Not that I’m complaining. I’d hate to be a burden, what with the economy and all that.’
He was knotting his hair above her head, muttering when the band snapped over his fingers and the black slick unravelled in his hand. The old man had demanded his hair cut short, but Peakman had doubts about her ability to do so. Didn’t you need a certificate to cut hair?
Peakman stared at the television set, where mercurial graphics slid across the screen. A Humvee burst into flames in some distant chimerical nation. She didn’t much care. She was still proud for having convinced the old man to permit his entertainment.
‘Saw that celebrity rainforest thing last night,’ she said. ‘They had Shoestring on. Remember Shoestring?’
‘Boon stole potatoes off my plate once. The feisty fucker.’
Peakman chuckled. ‘Lovely potatoes.’
‘Was the old man alright?’
She shrugged. ‘Still miffed about the moving. Still not right in the head. Kept going on about his aching legs. You’d have spotty little oiks to wash them back in the old days apparently, not that he’s lifted a finger to help us get in. Fingers, legs - I don’t mean to confuse the issue.’
‘It’s alright. I hate to say it, but I don’t much care about his legs.’
Peakman leaned in, her eyes narrowing in conspiracy. ‘I don’t much either,’ she whispered. The heady rush of treachery was almost too much to bear.
She smiled, and could not stop smiling, and was delighted when the guest shared her glee.
He had been a part of their lives for almost ten months now. Barring the occasional bout of nostalgia (the old man’s secondary foodstuff, his kin being prone to the kind of bone deep ennui that saw Peakman haunting forums at three in the morning to chat about toys of the 1970s), the old man seemed resigned to his company, especially now that procuring another regular meal had become so complex.
Peakman stood in the kitchen and nibbled on a Twix. It struck her that aside from the hysterical gentlemen and their overlarge crosses, things had been particularly good for some time. She certainly didn’t miss cleaning up the Norwegian’s leaky bum gravy every morning.
The guest liked to talk, unlike the Norwegian and the African, and that nutter from Hampshire. He knew about Fingerbobs and stunt kites. The old man’s head was black as pitch in comparison. He knew about mouldering tomes and spellbound bigwigs (who belonged to who, what they did for the kiss), about roach hotels where impoverished teens sold their bodies to the liver eaters, and that island in the Caribbean where amaranthine bankers hunted children for sport. He knew these things, and so Peakman knew them too. She’d known them all of her life, as had her father and mother, and their parents in turn, generations crushed to lay the bedrock of kings; their sacrifice immeasurable, unthinkable and dull. The books hurt your eyes, made your stomach turn over, their degenerate jargon ruining every attempt at maintaining a Twitter account. The celebrities were bores, squirming in horrid rapture as they struggled to find the romance in slavery. The Jigharkhwar were out of their bloody minds, and the kids were surely just a myth, not that you’d ever see a desert island on your wages sunshine, not in a million years –
It was nice not to know for a while.
The old man was sprawled on the sofa, staring at the cogs of a threadbare paperback. The snot-green blurb on the cover promised MOTOR-ROTOR something-something, the phantasmal face beneath concealed by his massive palms. Outside, the light was fading. A Venetian blind cast bars across his face, infesting the room with the jacked-up paranoia of noir.
‘The damp seasons approach,’ he said, in a voice full of creaking bass. ‘The water rushes through the tunnel.’
Peakman said nothing. Let the old fool wear himself out.
‘Our enemies approach. Our enemies are all around us. What is given freely is always taken back in time.’
Yes, yes, thought Peakman. Sounds like you’re saying something when it’s the same old bottomless tosh. Carry on, carry on.
‘Let them come! I cannot be bought, not with gold, nor silver (The book resting on his belly now, arms folded in burial chic). They cannot touch me, but I can touch them. I am the crow – all crows! All crows gathered at a pauper’s wake, the snow and the blood on the ground. I am here for his eyes. I am something beyond this petulant curse, and I will shift the ground until I am rid of it.’
He turned to regard Peakman from behind a pair of dark, disproportionate spectacles. ‘Get me a drink. I want a real drink.’
‘We don’t – ’
Peakman swallowed. ‘We can’t tap him again (she felt like a teacher addressing a child), he’ll be knackered all week. To be fair, it’s not like I’m going wild in the aisles at Waitrose, what with the slush fund being banged up the arse by our conspicuous little haven.’
The old man loosed a note of disapproval. ‘Where would he be without his mother eh?’
‘I’m just trying to protect your interests. It’s the dog stock until he’s up to scratch. It has to be.’
‘It’s a sin to go with your own. Worse if she’s ugly.' He cackled dementedly, in love with his own remark.
Peakman exhaled softly. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I shall look into your concerns in the morning. Any idea where these enemies might be hiding?’
‘Out with you. Back to your clean sheets and linen.’
‘By the roundabout? B & Q perhaps? They will need the wood.’
‘Get out I said!’
The old bat was weeping then, tearing at everything around him. Peakman stepped sideways and quietly closed the door.
In the morning, she pulled on her peacoat (she never wore white) and drove into town. The sky was grey and cloudless. She pottered around for an hour or so, taking pains to remain discreet. The old man had broken her wrist once, as punishment for skiving off a morning shift to play arcade games in Galway. It ached sometimes when the weather was bad.
She moved slowly through the old town, past shoestring missions and ancient shops. Past the ghost-shack of a decrepit theatre, Thalia the muse etched in stone upon its crown. She looked better in Nattier’s painting, thought Peakman. Or as Ackerman had put it (the sheep-bothering creep); “I would.”
By three, she was doing circles around the ring road, having decided that if the hunt were really in town, they would have likely perished from boredom. Haleshurst was less a retirement town than a communual graveyard, perfectly indicative of the typical stopgap of the less-than-esteemed servant. Empty chalets all along the beach. Torpor on the air.
As the day drew in, she sat on a bench outside a bakery and watched people shuffle through the slush of flattened snow. If humanity was a TV show, she decided, you’d probably change the channel. At the very least, you’d slag it off down the pub. She supposed that it was, and that people did, but had no way of confirming her suspicions.
He was asleep when she returned. The boiler was loosing a percussive thrum throughout the house, as if rioting against its moorings.
She watched the rise and fall of his shallow chest, readying for another war against her murky inner workings. She had once asked her father if he had ever grown fond of a particular guest, and had been attempting to decode the ensuing silence for nigh-on thirty-five years now.
She sniffed the air and grimaced. It was time to break out the Freshamatic. She swapped the bucket by her bedside for a slice of lemon cake, hoping it might lessen the stench.
He opened his eyes as she crept towards the stairwell, turning to reveal the white flesh of his shoulder, the ill-fitting folds of his neck. He was not beautiful, Peakman thought, but what in the world truly was?
‘Sorry about the noise,’ she said.
He coughed. ‘It’s not a problem.’
‘Would you say if it was? You would say wouldn’t you?’
‘Sure. I mean, if you’ve got the time, I do have a few minor complaints I’d like to make.’
He raised his eyebrows – in irony, Peakman thought. He was a clever so and so like that. ‘Oh. That would be the cue to thank you for the cake, yes?’
Peakman blushed. She felt light, very light. The cold seemed to pass through her body.
‘No, no,’ she said. ‘Just a random bit of happenstance. Right place, right time. Like that cat from last summer.’
‘What happened to that cat anyway?’
‘Oh. I suppose it ran away. Or… ’
He rolled over, turning his back to her. Oh Peakie. See that? That’s karma. That’s why you wake up with that haircut every day.’
There was something like laughter in his voice. She could still hear it in the dark of the stairwell, like a thousand broken bells.
The boiler died in the night. Peakman – so often surprised by her skills – could do nothing to save it, and spent the morning locating premium space for the useless fan heaters they’d accumulated over the years. Frost had seized the town; getting a workman round before the other plebs called in – putting aside the secondary issue that was the man held captive in the cellar – would be as rare a miracle as she had ever performed.
The old man slept throughout the day, as was his wont. Peakman buried him beneath a small hill of blankets and went to attend her routine.
She stopped at one for lunch, curled up in the study with a soggy baguette. The cold was invasive in its assault. She tried, time and again, to find someone to attend the boiler, eventually negotiating well above the norm for an assessment in two days. She could almost feel the man grinning down the phone.
At four, having polished the lamps on the uppermost hallway, she attended the old man, who growled between gulps from a lukewarm flask and shook like some withering grandmother. He was slower to emerge, these twilight days, from the shadows of blood-spun reverie.
‘Did you find them?’ he said, his voice little more than a creak.
Peakman shook her head. ‘I think we’re safe.’
‘But did you look?’
Peakman began to straighten the old man’s sheets. One day, she knew, she would be called upon to produce a servant of her own, to cook and clean, and bake their brains in the library. She wondered if there was some malign purpose behind the old man’s choice of guest, and felt a rush of clean joy that left her nauseous and abashed, astonished by the gift that was her own sluggish morality.
‘We have to kill him,’ said the old man, as though proposing a pleasant round of golf out the back.
Peakman blinked. ‘What?’
A dark and covetous mouth was opening up before her. ‘I thought…’ she said, ‘I’d hoped that we had made a decision not to arouse further suspicion.’
The old man seemed to consider this. ‘It must be terrible to in such fear,’ he said.
‘I just don’t think we should – ’
She was off her feet before the words could emerge. Pain exploded in her skull as she crashed against the floorboards. The old man’s tongue was cold and rough as it capered across her neck. It stank of iron.
It was so fast. So much worse than Peakman could recall.
‘I am no fool,’ said the rotten mouth. ‘They are coming. Kill him, and bring me measures of his fire.’
‘Please – ’
‘They are coming.’
The guest stared at her, wiping the sleep from his eyes with a half-torn fingernail.
Peakman didn’t deal well with silence. Too much silence and all the old blasphemies would spill out. Her freedom – such as it was – was a curse. A stone in her shoe. Oh god, he was such a puzzle. Like an advert for something that she couldn’t decode. Making her feel like she was out of control.
‘You shouldn’t sleep so much,’ she said.
He pulled the sheets about himself, writhing and kicking for warmth. ‘Is he hungry?’ he said. Her voice was hoarse, locust-dry.
‘No. No, it’s fine.’
‘It’s cold down here. I mean its freezing.’
Peakman smiled weakly. She fought to keep her thoughts from forming. ‘There’s a man coming round on Thursday.’
She supposed she had always known that someone like him would one day instigate The End, just as she knew that they moved in different worlds. It was the same with walking past a pretty boy in the street. One of those worlds could hollow out the other, and the other never got it back.
She prodded the empty television set. ‘Watched anything good then?’ she said.
The guest closed his eyes. ‘Pagan Britain. Vikings.’ He dipped his hand in the air. ‘Dead things.’
Peakman frowned. ‘Very interesting.’
He lifted his hand higher, tracing patterns that she could not decipher. ‘What was that film?’ he said. ‘Oh yeah. One of those Jennifer Aniston things. Idiots scrabbling around for some broken ideal… Love, destiny.’ He yawned. ‘All that bullshit.’
She stood for a while, rooted by his display. She thought of the old man in his weakest moments shrieking for the dead Countess. ‘I don’t think you can discount all those things,’ she said. ‘I think they’re very, very important to a lot of people. It’s a terrible thing to live without hope.’
She sat on the edge of the bed and let her fingers edge toward his. ‘Without love,’ she said, ‘without those driving emotions, none of us would be here. Love is at the heart of everything. And Jennifer Aniston captures that so wonderfully in every role she inhabits.’
He tilted his head. For a moment, he seemed to be caught between conflicting emotions, until Peakman realised that he was trying to hold back laughter.
‘What?’ she said. ‘Am I being funny?’
He was really going for it now, tapping into a sinkhole of merriment that she had never thought him to possess (she was disturbed by the notion of manly hysteria, a condition she assumed to be a symptom of her father’s final days).
‘It’s just – (he just wouldn’t stop laughing) I suppose I never really pictured you thinking about (there were tears now, hot tears of – what? Mirth? Misery? Male hormonal imbalance?) relationships.’
She waited for her amusement to subside. It was a long, solitary interval. The guest seemed to have more to say, and Peakman found she had nothing.
‘I saw someone the other day,’ he said eventually. ‘When you were talking about the papers. Old girlfriend. Can you believe it?’ His breath came in miniature bursts now, still shaken by the laughter. For a moment, it sounded like sobbing.
Peakman sat very still. She could taste her own tongue. Her teeth ached in their sockets.
‘Please don’t,’ she said.
‘It was a market,’ he said. ‘She walked past the reporter while he was – he was talking about a trader’s dispute.’
His eyes were far away. Blank and starving. Peakman told herself that he would move on soon. That he knew the parameters of their situation. ‘I’m sure she’s fine,’ she said. ‘I bet she’s just… really happy.’
His mouth fell open in a wreath. The skin of his neck was flushed and pink. ‘There was a little boy,’ he said. ‘In the car park. He was looking for his mum and… he was so scared. So tiny and scared. And then you were there – ’
He began to wind his hair around her fingers. Peakman remembered the day she had given him the scissors; the blood on the sheets and his cold, pallid face –
His hand was suddenly there, clamped around her wrist in a grip she could scarcely believe. He held her for a moment, making a game of the space between them. There was a stab of something like pain or guilt, and then he was in her arms, begging, howling, wailing, for release. She could feel the curve of his ribcage through the waxy flesh as it bucked and pressed against her.
‘Please,’ he whimpered, ‘please. I won’t tell anyone. Just let me go. Please, Peakman, please let me go.’
She pressed his face into his hair, smelling the sweat and grime where there should have been scent and said all that she could say, ‘I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.’
Her father had told her once, in an attempt to curb her youthful conscience, that everything happened for a reason. Serving the old man was the way things were meant to be. Everything serves its purpose Daphne.
The thought carried her into town, past a late night road crew and a couple dry humping on a sundial. The buildings around her seemed vast and ominous. Eros was everywhere and nowhere, and there was Peakman, trapped in between.
She was going to kill the old man.
And she was going to get him out.
It took a while to settle in. For a day, she was floating above himself, trying to make sense of the path she had taken. The will to act, she assumed, would come in the moment. It was the specifics of the death that now betrayed her.
Several prominent texts commended the absolute finality of the old-fashioned stake through the heart, but she could not rid herself of the absurdity of the notion. What if she was unable to crack the ribcage and the old man awakened halfway through?
Fire was a good suggestion, but she feared she would be unable to contain the blaze. There was little heroism to be found in dumping the guests scintillating ashes in the skip behind the golf club. Decapitation, gross dismemberment; all good options for stronger people – perhaps the Poles could be persuaded to return? Sunlight would make him weak, but she needed him dead. For a moment, she was overcome by the lunacy of her existence. What an odd thing to have to consider.
She avoided the guest; for fear that the whole ordeal might be thwarted by some mad urge to confess. It was nearing his bath night anyway, and the least she felt she could offer now was privacy. The thought of it made her tremble. She skulked through the house for days on end, unwilling to meet her reflection in the overpolished brass.
In the end, she decided on fire, unaware that the choice would soon be taken out of her hands.
She was sitting in the dining room with a plate of fried eggs when she heard the shattering of glass. There was another loud crash, and the whole house trembled, as though shaken by the force of Peakman’s tumult.
Her body seemed foreign as she wobbled up the stairs, vaguely aware of a sudden warmth and the disturbing smell of burning.
The old man was on his feet in the bedroom, arms outstretched as though praising the dreadful new day outside. The bed was ablaze. It had been consumed wholeheartedly, the fire turning in rapid ballet across the polished floorboards. Through the smoke, Peakman could see headlights emerging in the low winter sun. She could hear the old man muttering, his voice rising to a maddened shout as the ancient timber groaned in distress. All of this in seconds, and now the old man petitioning the waning darkness, ‘Seize me! Take me under if you dare!’
Peakman fled to the stairs. She found new strength as the house came down around her, scrambling across sheets of splintered wood in a rush toward the kitchen. She realised now how little there would be left of her left if the old man were lost. Only one thing could make her permanent now.
She prayed she had remembered the keys, radiant with joy as her fingers found metal and the lock popped open. Smoke rose from the stairwell like a leaden pillar, blinding her momentarily as the name she did not know became a scream inside her mouth. She was about to throw herself forward, when a figure appeared on the stairwell, stumbled, and fell to its knees.
She hauled him up the final steps, twitching each time he coughed. His skin was stained by ashes. The shattered remains of a bedpost hung like a flail around his ankle, the flesh there raw and pockmarked by the barbs of tiny splinters.
‘We have to go,’ she said, ‘you have to get up.’
He knocked her down as he rallied, almost losing his footing upon the newly scrubbed tiles of the kitchen. She landed hard, on the tips of her elbows and felt the old pain in her head scream in dominion.
Colours blurred in the ringlet smoke. He reached out behind him and found the frying pan she’d left to dry. That was my mother’s, she thought, as he swung it to his side. Outside, the men were congratulating one another on a job well done. One of them whooped as the library erupted, spilling the histories of beasts across the lawn.
‘Please,’ said Peakman. ‘I came to take you home.’
He stood over her, like some ancient god of wayward souls, and she knew that the purity she had sought in him had never been in vain.
‘I came back for you,’ she said.
He nodded as he lifted the pan. His eyes were blackened slits. ‘I'm here for you too.’