The Collection (Part 5)
“He has ways of making things happen.”
Layla could hear Sheldon’s voice, knew it was important to respond, but was unsure if it was dream or reality. Her head hurt and her mouth felt dry and sandpapery. “Wha?” was all she could manage.
“You heard.” There was an edge of irritation to his voice. When he spoke again, it was gone, “You may be feeling groggy. I took the liberty of medicating, to make you more comfortable.”
She opened her eyes.
Layla was in the guesthouse, facing into the main living room, her back to the bay windows. The facts of her situation could be checked off one by one, but the sum of the whole would need to wait. Her senses were flattened, suppressed by what she saw. The full horror settled down at the back of her mind, waiting to pounce.
Her wrists were tied to the arms of a wooden chair, tight, but loose enough for circulation. The white polyester cord was the same as that removed from Geoff’s neck the night before. Or was it the night before that? The aching in her back and shoulders told a confusing story. Time seemed elastic now, stretching and contracting at some other's whim.
Layla tried to move her legs and found her ankles bound to the chair. Sheldon sat facing her, on the sofa, legs crossed, arms splayed out on the new floral cushions. Beside him, a weasel perched, raised up on its hind legs looking for all the world as if it were following Sheldon's words. The weasel's red fur, tiny black eyes and twitching nose were all present and correct, but the tilt of its head and ever-so-slightly open mouth hinted at grotesque and unnatural intelligence.
Layla turned towards movement at the periphery of her vision. In the far corner of the room, Brian Sheldon's parents stood shoulder to shoulder in matching repose, facing the wall, their heads bowed, their hands clasped in front.
Layla called out in desperation, “Jean! Lawrence!”
Silent, they swayed slightly from side to side, their heads resting against the wall.
She returned her gaze to Sheldon, her face twisted by incomprehension.
Instead of explaining why his parents were standing in the corner, Sheldon continued where he’d left off. “It’s not like you can get it on Audible,” He said, looking to the ceiling, as if considering his own words afresh. “Not yet anyway.”
“Let me go, please.” Layla whispered.
Sheldon pushed on, “It was being kept for me, I guess. Kept for someone worthy." He looked across to the weasel, "Shall I?"
She could not deny her own eyes. The animal had dipped its tiny copper-speckled head in affirmation. Even though Sheldon went on speaking, Layla kept her eyes locked on the animal.
“It’s important you know something of The Collection’s origins, otherwise you won’t be able to help us.”
“I don’t want to know anything.”
“You must, Layla.”
Layla could now feel the panic starting to rise in her chest. She tried to shift her weight to move the chair, whimpering but unable to cry. She moved it an inch, but the effort exhausted her.
“My grandmother lived here, you see, in Shipston. Before they packed me off to boarding school, my parents liked to deposit me with her during the holidays. Mother and Father were very lazy, before I took the helm." He looked across to them, his lip curling in disdain. “The last house in town, on the way to Stratford. It’s been demolished now and built over with an office."
Layla remembered the old house. A large property on the outskirts of Shipston. It had a back garden so overgrown it took on mythical status among the local kids.
Her eye caught the small black speaker remote, resting next to his hand. Sheldon’s story-telling was, at least, a distraction.
“I did not dislike my grandmother, You must understand that. But the chasm between us felt unbridgeable. She sat in the corner of her worn-out living room all day, every day completing crosswords and number squares in the newspaper or watching daytime TV shows. She had a lung condition. The doctors said her arteries had blown up because of smoking. Mucus in her airways, or something. She had this Oxygen capsule strapped to wheels which she pulled around after her. Every ten minutes or so she took some, just to keep herself going.
"I was left to my own devices, and you know what they say about idle hands . . .” He laughed at this, a big booming laugh. The weasel looked to him, as if sharing the joke.
After a while, Sheldon settled, “As you know, the garden went on and on. It stretched away from her bungalow until grass gave way to brush and brambles. I took to exploring in the afternoon when TV or video games had loosened their hold. In the frontier of the brambles, I found a crisp packet. Ridiculous, isn’t it? A faded crisp packet snagged to the thorns with a logo I’d never seen before and a sell-by date from before father was born. To me, a little boy of nine, it opened up my mind. It made me think of the world racing by, lives ending and beginning and all the while that plastic bag just waiting, snagged to the thorns.
"So, I made my way further in, ducking beneath the overgrowth. Occasionally, I found myself blocked by roots and thistles, but I hacked through with a bread knife stolen from the kitchen. Twenty yards in, a blackberry bush overhung a ditch running across the width of the property. The trench was filled with broken bricks and sticky clay mud. Digging around, I found scores of curved, ridged stones the size of my thumb.
He held up his thumb, like a Roman governor deciding the fate of a gladiator.
“I showed them to Grandmother, who told me they were fossils, common in Warwickshire, from some prehistoric shellfish. “Devil’s toenails” she called them. It was the first interesting conversation we’d ever had. After that, I reported back to her every evening on what I’d seen and found in the brambles.
“A funny thing though." Sheldon tapped his lips with a forefinger, "I noticed, when my parents came to collect me, Grandmother said nothing of my forays into the brambles. Either by instinct or example, nor did I.
“The following half-term, I found myself looking forward to visiting Grandmother. As I searched, more items came in a steady flow. A fishing rod, a six pack of ancient beer cans, a bronze broach in the shape of a butterfly and a man’s wallet, empty except for a taxi receipt from 1982.
“Grandmother explained, in times gone by, the brambles could be accessed from the fields over the way, and local kids and ne’er do wells sometimes congregated at night, to do, in her words, “whatever them types do when they’re roamin’ under the moon.” Sheldon spoke these words in the manner of an old woman, aping the weak midlands accent of the town.
“It would have petered out, I suppose. By the end of that summer, I’d almost exhausted the brambles and our evening discussions were beginning to falter. New discoveries were, apparently, a condition of her affections.
“Then I found the tape, or should I say, it was presented to me.” He turned to the weasel and smiled. The animal returned the grin, bearing its beady teeth.
“Nice for you.” Came the voice, pinched and raspy.
Layla rocked back in her chair, wanting nothing else in the world but to be away from it. The weasel was speaking.
“Very nice for you.” It said again, then turned its empty bestial eyes to her. “Stories change you.”
The weasel’s voice made her think of the story Sheldon had referred to, the priest swinging from a tree, children pulling down on his ankles. An abomination.
“Rude of me not to introduce you before,” Sheldon said, as if he were hosting a dinner party. “This is Vinegar Wycke, we first met in Grandmother’s brambles all those years ago.”
“He showed me where to find the box, didn’t you Vinegar? He couldn’t speak to me at first, that came later, but he managed to lead the way.”
“Yes, yes. For the stories, for His Collection,” it said.
Every time it spoke, Layla wanted to cry.
Sheldon continued, “The box was buried at the western end of the ditch. Vinegar showed me by scratching at the earth. It took me a while but eventually I got it out. A small metal box, nothing special, just a box containing a sealed plastic bag and inside of that a case. A cassette tape case.”
“Tape” The Weasel said, bouncing a excitedly now. “Tape.”
“You remember these, don’t you Layla? Cassette tapes must have been all the rage for your generation.” The boy held up a white cassette case, with an inlay card, the face etched in Biro with a single word.
She did remember: mix tapes and pressing play/record at exactly the right moment, trying to grab a song off the radio. The plastic case and double wheels should have been a source of warm nostalgia. Not now. She knew what was on this tape.
“I took it to Grandmother, of course. And she went to one of her cupboards and found a top-loader, a flat box cassette player with up here.” He mimed pressing down on the controls, as if the machine resting on his lap.
“We were grinning from ear to ear. She plugged it in and loaded up the tape. Of course, we expected, music or a recording from the radio, or maybe a personal memoir. Neither of us connected the word written on the case with a collection of stories. It seems so obvious now.
“It began. He reads out the title and then off he goes. We pretended to be amused, but it didn’t take long to feel the impact. You know that already Layla. Once His voice is there, inside your head, you can’t shake it.
“Vinegar is right, stories do change us.” He held up the case again, “They are remarkable, as if all the evil in the world, all of the terrible events which have piled suffering upon suffering for millennia have been distilled into these twelve fables.
Before she’d heard it, really heard it, Layla would have considered these the ramblings of a lunatic, and perhaps they were. Lunatic or not, Sheldon was speaking the truth.
“By the end of the third story, grandmother pressed ‘stop’ on the player. She said it was wrong, that I should put it back in the box and rebury it.
“It can effect different people in different ways. I know that now. Some can handle it, grow with it, others cannot. Geoff is a perfect example of the latter.
“I’ll admit, I was angry. I had strange new thoughts running through my head, dangerous, urgent ideas. I needed more. I switched the player back on. Grandmother turned it off again.
I believe we might have gone on that way, turning it off and on again for a while. Then me, the little boy, eventually yielding to my elder. But this little guy came to the rescue.” Sheldon petted the animal’s head “He appeared in the doorway and told me what to do.
“Grandmother did not appreciate your presence in her home, did she Mr. Wycke?”
“Old Lady weak,” it said, it’s scratchy voice nasty and vengeful.
“With all this going on, she became short of breath, wheezing and gasping.”
Sheldon sounded like he was describing inclement weather, not the struggles of an elderly relative.
“Once I understood Vinegar’s idea, it just happened. I stood up, and went over to where she sat and unplugged the tube connecting her face mask to the oxygen. She tried to stop me, tried to struggle, but even then, I was stronger. I wheeled the oxygen away and she fell to her knees beside her chair, squirming on the floor like an upturned tortoise.
“I went back to my place and watched her for a while, listened to her wheezing. When I was sure there’d be no more trouble, I pressed ‘play’. It was last thing she heard, His voice. I’m not sure why I take so much satisfaction from that, but I do.”
Sheldon picked up the remote.
Layla gave a sharp intake of breath, and held it there, her chest burning.
The Weasel raised its head and cawed to the ceiling. The sound came from deep down within the beast, guttural and wet. “Cuk, cuk, cuk, cuk, cuk”.
Layla said, “Please, I can’t . . .”
Sheldon pressed the remote.
The voice surrounded her.
News of Geoff’s ‘incident’ had spread.
Her friend, Annabel, and her not-so-friendly acquaintance, Susan from church, visited in person. The former out of genuine concern, the latter from a prurient hunger for gossip. On auto-pilot, Layla sat and talked and drank tea with both of them, behaving the way she was supposed to behave, saying the things she was supposed to say, fooling them.
. . . great shock, no warning signs, thank god I arrived home, wake up call, a tragedy averted, a time for prayer, time for healing. . .
She claimed to have visited Geoff that very morning and he was doing fine, all things considered. “Beginning to see the past the darkness” she said, and “he’ll be home soon.” All lies. Layla sent them packing with hugs and tears, all the while feeling no gratitude or irritation or anything in between. She gave them what they expected, so they would not know, would not suspect what was roiling beneath her skin and her eyes - events yet to come, moments stolen from time.
She went out onto the back patio and sat next to Geoff’s empty seat. She kicked his chair and it toppled onto the patio with a clang. After a while sitting, thinking about Sheldon and the stories, she spotted Jean and Lawrence Sheldon marching out into the fields, hiking gear on, but disheveled now, walking sticks at different lengths, jackets pulled over to one side.
Sheldon had told how, over the years, he’d exposed them to The Collection, just little doses here and there. Playing it loud in his room, then turning it off as they entered. Listening to it on full volume on his headphones at the breakfast table. He’d realised it made them docile, malleable.
Layla’s phone on the table buzzed. Without looking to see who was calling, she picked it up and threw it into the fishpond.
“Good Layla. Rid of the bad metal. With us now. With your friends.”
The voice did not surprise or frighten her. She had known it was there, hiding next to the Rosebush, waiting for her to be ready. She had known because of the story.
The screechy voice went on, “Joshua said check. Check okay.”
“I’m fine, she said.
The rat came out from behind the thorny stems and waited at the edge of the patio. It’s voice had a similar quality to the weasel, but the pitch was higher, almost whistling the end of each word.
“You like stories?”
“I like stories,” She said, and she beckoned with her fingers. It scurried across the paving to Layla and ran up her leg, then settled on her lap. She stroked its filthy brown fur with her fingers.
Layla thought back to the previous night, sitting in the chair in the guest house, listening to His voice tell the stories. She thought of the final story, the one that tied it all together. She spoke a line to her rat, wanting her familiar to know she understood, that she saw the bigger picture: “. . . the stories are a gift, a message. They let you to see things.”
“From story,” the rat said. “The best one.”
Layla asked, “What do we do now?”
“Joshua tell us.” The rat said. “Wait for Joshua.”