The Collection (Part 4)
She’d listened with an ear to the bare floorboards, above the studio. They were arguing, voices raised above the usual murmur, so she could make out certain words and sentences.
Layla had to kneel, stock still, careful not to creak the boards and alert them to her presence.
“How dare you? When she was angry, Auntie Alice sounded like fireworks and boiling water.
Her mother: “. . . my decision.”
The Door said something low and inaudible, but even without the words Layla knew it held menace.
“But why? After all this . . .” Auntie Alice trailed off
“My decision . . . . enough.”
There was a load bang as something metal and heavy hit the floor below. Layla jerked her head back and looked down at the black gap between the boards, as if to see through, then placed her ear back on the cold wood.
“Control yourself.” Her mother again.
Auntie Alice: “You cannot stop now. Not until he is with us.”
The Door spoke, this time loud enough for the words to come through, “Give us what you have. We can finish without you.”
“Shut Up!” If anything, Auntie Alice was even more enraged by her companion’s intervention. “You know we can’t.”
“Leave now. Leave or I will never . . .”
The commotion which came now surpassed all that went before, an explosion of fury and chaos. China smashed, her mother screamed, The Door gave a tired, heavy groan. Her mother screamed.
Layla raised herself and ran from the room, down the stairs, two steps at a time. She banged on the door, “Leave her alone!”
The noise inside suddenly stopped. After a pause, the lock was turned inside and Auntie Alice appeared at the threshold. Behind her, The Door had ahold of Layla’s mother, pinning her wrists against the wall above her head. The expression of panic and distress on her face was unmistakable.
“Let her go, or I will call the police.” Layla said. Her voice was soft and calm, a veil draped across a little girl’s terror.
The old woman stretched out a leathery hand towards her, “Let Auntie Alice look after you. Everything will be fine.”
Her mother spoke from inside the room. “Leave her alone. I’ll do it. Just leave her alone.”
“How do we know we can trust you?”
“I’ll do what is necessary. Just leave Layla alone.”
The Door unclasped her mother’s wrists. Auntie Alice gestured to him and they went, pushing Layla out of the way as they went.
She arrived back at the house and the Sheldon's Land Rover was no longer parked out front. Layla shuffled from her car to the front door in a daze, shivering against the October cold. The gravel on the driveway was bare in patches, hinting at a hurried exit by her former guests. She noted this detail with indifference. Geoff’s rambling at the hospital had left her feeling heavy and disconnected, as if moving through the world beneath murky tidal waters.
Layla hoped the Sheldons were gone for good. A memory of them came back now, unbidden.
She’d seen them at the window, watching her drag Geoff back into the house. And at the front window too, ogling as she bundled him into the car and raced off to the hospital. They must have heard her wailing in the orchard, must have understood that something terrible had occurred, and yet they only stood there, watching.
In the kitchen, she made herself a cup of tea, but left it untouched on the table. She paced around, going over and over events in her mind, trying to isolate the true source of her husband’s disintegration. She could not dismiss the echoes of the past, but neither did she want to give them any credence. It was a black hole, unfathomable.
Night fell around the house, and Layla imagined her home surrounded by darkness, cut off from the rest of the world by an infinite ocean of shadows.
Finally, she slumped at the table and sipped cold tea. After a few minutes, she spotted something on the doormat. A yellow scrap of paper, folded in two. Layla went over and picked it up.
“Urgent business in London. Apologies for leaving so soon. Joshua staying on for a few more days. Will be back to pick him up.”
The sudden knowledge that Joshua Sheldon was, at that moment, just metres away, filled her with an unexpected dread. As if the boy were reading her thoughts, a sound rose up from the guesthouse – the reverb of a deep, male voice amplified through speakers at excessive volume. It was both mesmerising and repulsive. The rhythm of speech had a leisurely hypnotic quality, a knowing, campfire tone.
She threw down the note and went out the door without putting on her shoes. Pin pricks of stray gravel stung her bare feet. She rounded the house and arrived at the guesthouse door. The sound was so loud, the letterbox rattled in its frame.
She rapped angrily on the translucent glass. After a few seconds, the voice went silent and the boy approached from behind the door, a rising wave of darkness. The door opened. He seemed bigger somehow, more substantial than when they’d met in church.
“Hello,” he said and, after a pause, “Is there a problem?”
She wanted to jab him with her finger, tell him to get out of her house, but the words would not come. The way he stood, the way he looked at her, the way he spoke – his arrogance had morphed into something more dangerous.
A sound came from behind her, a scraping then rustling. Layla noticed Sheldon looking over her shoulder, at first with curiosity, then amusement.
She turned and looked.
Her mind fled from it. Layla whimpered and shrank back on her haunches, almost stumbling backwards over Sheldon as she went. Her nostrils filled with the odour of rotten wood and faeces.
Twenty, thirty, perhaps more pairs of unblinking eyes stared back at her. A cartoonish combination of bestial faces and unnatural knowing. Ranged around Layla was a phalanx of wildlife. Most of a smaller variety: mice, rats, squirrels, stoats and weasels. But mixed in were larger animals. An emaciated sheepdog, a goat and, at the back, several forest deer. The air was thick with steam rising from their gathered breath.
She looked to Sheldon, then back to the animals. There was nothing she could say. Whatever was happening, she must get away as soon as she could. She thought of the car keys on the kitchen table. Layla began to move towards the gap between the animals and the corner of the house. They pressed in around her, blocking her path. They moved as one entity, accompanied by the caustic hum of growls and snarls and squeals and other primeval warnings.
“They don’t want you to leave.”
Finally, Layla found her voice, “What is this?”
Instead of answering, Sheldon raised up his hand to reveal a small flat device held between his thumb and forefinger. He pressed it and the voice started up again. It hit her with the force of a punch to the stomach. The words came without precis or warning.
“. . . expected frailty and muscle wastage, but not this. Gatlin’s skin was covered with red blotches, reminding her of raw, bloodied chicken.”
Layla raised her hands to her ears, but it was no good, the voice went on.
“Gatlin laughed, opening his mouth to reveal white mucus, hanging like little tightropes in the gaps between his teeth and tongue. “I did not choose The Cleansing,” he said, “It chose me.”
She did not want to know about Gatlin or the Cleansing or any of it, but that was irrelevant now. The voice wanted her to know and that was all that mattered. It kept on, sometimes purring, sometimes rasping, sometimes lending an individual word such menace and malevolence it broke her endurance. Layla fell to her knees and retched. Tea and bile puddled beneath her.
Sheldon pressed the device again and the voice fell silent. Layla groaned and rolled onto her back, pummelled, assaulted.
He beckoned the animals forwards. They moved in harmony, as if separate limbs of the same body. Layla felt them climbing over her, their teeth gripping her clothes at the shoulder nipping her skin beneath. They pulled and she shifted along the ground. They were dragging her inside the guesthouse.