The Collection (Part 6)
Her mother did not hold her hand as they walked. She never did.
It was cold and wet. Layla, head down, wore her cheap Parka jacket with the hood pulled up and the zip drawn. Through a mouth of polyester and fake fur, she watched the puddles and broken tarmac pass under her feet.
“I have a job for you,” Her mother said, “Something important.”
Layla said nothing, planting a foot in a pool of muddy water, splashing her jeans and her mother’s leg. In recent months, a more resentful, combative child has emerged from the frightened girl contending with her parent’s moods and eccentricities.
“An important job. . .” Her mother trailed off, as if no longer convincing herself.
They hiked up the hill, out of the town on the Stratford Road, then turned into the fields that led to Fell Mill and the brown, meandering river Stour. A short way into the field they turned again, leaving the right of way, moving down the hill now, back on themselves, toward the brambles which separated the farmer’s land from the “Witch House”.
Layla was not sure why the property or the old lady who lived there had been labeled so, except for the spectacularly overgrown garden. There were several acres of brambles and shrubbery forming the border between the house the area around the river.
They reached the border and stopped. Her mother hunched down, facing Layla, unzipped her coat and pushed the hood back.
“I want to go home.” Layla said.
“One job.” Her mother placed a small metal box onto the wet grass, shook out a plastic bag, and placed the box inside. The bag was crinkled and white, with a yellow-black logo: ‘Fine Fare’.
From her other pocket, she revealed a garden trowel.
“I want you to go in there and bury it.” She pointed towards the overgrown garden of the house.
“What is it? Why does it need to be buried?”
“Don’t pry. Go in and put it in the ground, deep.”
There was a vulnerability to her mother which she’d not witnessed before. She seemed older, frailer. The box in the bag rattled in her shaking hands.
Layla drew herself up, “Tell me, or I won’t do it.”
“Don’t try me, girl.” The tone lacked its usual menace. She looked to the sky for moment, then back at Layla, “I’ll leave you at home whilst I go to Church for the next month.”
Layla crossed her arms.
Her mother’s shoulders slumped. “It’s important. Please.”
The pleasurable novelty of her austere, neglectful mother pleading with her was tempered by the strangeness of it all. Layla wanted this moment to mark progress, a shift in power, but she also loved her mother, and with love came obedience.
“Why don’t you do it yourself?”
“Because if I do, I’ll know where it is. They might find me, they might make me tell them.”
“Who . . ?” But she stopped herself. She knew. The Door and Auntie Alice. They had some form of hold over her mother. “I won’t go in there unless you tell me.”
Their stillness made the cold worse. A chill wind whipped Layla’s cheek. Over her mother’s shoulder a pair of deer stalked on the other side of the river, peering over at them. Next to the brambles, a smaller animal poked it’s head from the chaos. A squirrel? Perhaps too big. A red-furred weasel, maybe.
Her mother looked around her too, as if sensing this newfound company.
Layla said, “I listened, above the studio, in father’s old room. I heard you talking to them about a voice. You said you had the voice. What did the big man call him? Paimon?”
What colour was left in her mother’s face, melted away. Her jaw slackened momentarily, then went rigid. She whispered “Never say his name.”
Layla pulled away and began to hurry up the hill.
Her mother called after her, her voice cracking with emotion, “I’ve been listening, listening for so long. Trying to hear His voice, trying to make Him heard. It’s all around us, we just have to listen.”
Layla stopped and turned back.
Her mother was on her knees. “I’ve heard him now.” She wailed. “Heard his voice and his stories. I captured them. All but the final one.”
Layla walked back down the hill, returning to her prostrate mother.
“It was supposed to be beautiful. They said it would be beautiful.
“It isn’t beautiful, mother?”
“The final story is dangerous, Layla. It must be buried.”
“I wouldn’t listen anymore. Not to the final story. I don’t want to anymore.”
Layla stood in front of her once domineering mother, in the unfamiliar and unexplained role of saviour. She still did not understand or even believe all that her mother said, but perhaps burying it would see a change. Perhaps The Door and Auntie Alice would stop visiting now and the microphones could be put away in a cupboard.
She took the package and the spade from her mother and went into the brambles. She did not hold her mother, or touch her hand. Layla did tell her that, despite everything, she loved her with a fury that made her heart ache.
When Layla returned from the brambles, no more than half an hour later, her mother was gone.
She never saw her again.
Reverend Wilkes spoke from the pulpit, emphasising his words with sharp, tremulous gestures toward the heavens. Layla had always found him an irritatingly optimistic man. He continued in this vein now, using words like “love” and “hope” and “The Loving Father”. These sentiments now seemed like a forgotten land - Primitive, comforting lies for the unevolved.
Sheldon sat in the pew behind. He leaned forward, resting his hand on her shoulder. He whispered, his breath tickling her ear and cheek. “Soon.”
She turned to look at him. Sheldon sat back, his expression serene, ecstatic. His complexion glowed with the heat of anticipation. Next to him was an elderly woman, dressed all in black, her skin crumpled far beyond the normal ravages of time. She patted Sheldon’s knee, but he did not seem to notice. On his other side, a huge broad-shouldered man with greasy, artificially thick hair worked on his incisors with a splintered toothpick. There was blood on his gums.
Layla remembered the silly names she’d given them as a child. She wanted to apologise, tell them that she no longer feared them, that they were her Brethren now.
The Church was not full, but there was a fair attendance for a summer’s day. Perhaps forty or fifty Shipstonians had come to do their duty to a Christian God. They believed their attendance would bring them ever-so-slightly closer to heaven. The irony of it was so exquisite, so monumental; Layla had to suppress a laugh.
Sheldon had explained it all to her. After they’d sat through The Collection for a third time, she’d been able to untie her tongue and ask the questions her rat familiar was unable to answer. History was not the right word, nor pre-history, nor ancient, nor any variation which placed the passage of time within the context of human understanding. Sheldon spoke of the world thousands of millennia before any living being had squirmed upon land or wriggled in the depths. In those aeons past, this place, the very earth on which the church was built, had been sanctified for another god, one who did not ask disciples to sing or shake hands or drink wine.
A god who demanded much, much more.
Paimon yearned to exist in the world, and remake it in his own image. And so, over the slow passage of geologic time, the thin layer between this world and the next, had been eroded, but only here, only in this place. For fish and lizards and primates or any sentient animal which came close, the clues were there to be found. And occasionally, they were. Paimon’s thoughts and visions could be discerned, when they paid attention, when they listened for His voice. And so, once the Sapiens had arrived, a select few were able to sense his presence.
A small band of followers had been sustained for millenia, most often in secret, but occasionally bursting out into the open and suffering the consequences of a world unprepared for their revelations. Yet, the coven had survived, sometimes reduced to a handful of hardy souls desperately keeping alive their one and only purpose: to conjure Paimon to the world.
But to learn the secret, and pass it on to future generations, was no easy task. Some had come close in earlier times, but knowledge could be gained and lost, sacred texts could be destroyed by those who feared their contents.
The priest, who’d met his fate swinging from the tree outside St Dunstan’s in 1637, had come to understand certain things. He realised the need to capture Paimon’s voice and the centrality of the Church. He was the first to appreciate that Paimon desired to conjure himself, with his own words and his own stories on this hallowed ground - the place where his powers were at their most persuasive.
Others had followed and taken forward these works. The coven kept Paimon’s name alive and found that his voice could be heard and, if they were patient enough, with the right equipment, could be recorded. This was the key to it all.
Layla’s mother had not begun this work, but she had been tasked with completing it. As a child of the coven, Paimon was in her blood, and she did all that was necessary, endlessly listening and recording His words, knitting them together into the patterns which formed The Collection.
But Layla’s mother was a traitor too. Sheldon was very clear about that. She had abandoned her life’s work and her blood pledge to Paimon because of the final story. It had been Sheldon who’d finally discovered why, after curating it and finishing it himself. The beginning of the final story was about her only daughter – a seemingly harmless description of Layla leaving the church with her future husband, years in the future.
She had hidden the tapes so they could never be played again, so that Layla would never become part of the story to be told. How was she to know that burying them in that garden would ensure the prophesy would come to pass?
The skin beneath Layla’s eye twitched involuntarily. Sheldon said he would wait for the equinox. He said the power of The Collection being played out loud in the Church would have most impact at that time.
Reverend Wilkes continued his sermon, but Layla could focus only on the ticking hand of her wrist-watch. Two minutes, and Sheldon would press the remote and the speakers, which she had placed at the back of the church, would ring out with His voice, loud and true.
She looked around again at the unsuspecting faces. Some were enraptured by Wilkes, some were bored, some were indifferent. Men, women, the elderly and children. They would all receive Paimon’s Word in their own way. Some, like Geoff, would wilt. Others would ascend in consciousness just as Layla had.
The door at the back of the church rattled and then scraped open. Wilkes stopped speaking, and the congregation, with the exception of Layla, The Door, and Auntie Alice, turned to note the new arrival. They knew who it was, because they already knew the story. Her daughter Lizzie, having finally been told of the news of her father, had travelled back from London and sought her mother out.
“Mum!” There was a rumble of concern, and disapproval from the others. The worshippers would take exception to a sermon being interrupted by domestic affairs. Steps padded rapidly across the tiled floor and in a moment, her daughter’s face appeared, up close to hers, Lizzie’s hands gripping her shoulders. Her daughter was crying, her face twisted with anguish.
Layla sat, silent, [almost] unmoved.
“Mum, why are you here? Why aren’t you with Dad? He needs you.”
Layla found, even over the sound of her daughter’s distress, she could clearly hear the ticking of her wristwatch. She looked again. One minute.
[“I . . .” Layla began speaking, and then stopped. She was not supposed to say anything to her daughter. In the final story, she said nothing. She simply waited for Paimon’s voice to fill the Church.]
Her daughter, kneeling before her, sobbing into her lap, screamed out “Mum. What is wrong with you? What is wrong with Dad?”
[Layla, shifted her hand and found it could keep moving. She placed it on daughter’s head. She felt the heat of it, the connection of their blood. This was not supposed to happen either.]
She looked again at her watch. Thirty seconds. Reverend Wilkes and some of the parishioners were crowding round now, trying to calm Lizzie, staring at Layla with incomprehension.
[Her hand slipped into her bag and gripped the handle of the knife. The more she moved outside of the prophesy, the more her thoughts shifted in unexpected directions. She could see the watering can next to the wall. It must have been left there by someone, watering the flowers that Layla had found no interest in arranging that week. It was the same watering can her own mother had used. The same one that Lizzie had used when she was small and wanted to help Layla with the chore.]
[Layla gripped the handle tighter.]
She heard them behind her, Sheldon, the Door and Auntie Alice, shuffling in place, girding themselves for the moment of truth.
[In one movement, she stood and pulled the knife out of the bag. People screamed and moved back. Someone pulled Lizzie away, as if Layla meant to hurt her own child. In another smooth and swift manoeuvre, she turned around and faced Sheldon. He was reaching inside his jacket pocket. Layla knew what he was reaching for. She dived over the bench and drove the knife deep into his heart.]
[People screamed in terror, but the speed and shock of what Layla had done was so great, nobody could react to prevent her. Certainly not The Door, who was slow and cumbersome even at the best of times, nor Auntie Alice who was feeble.
[But she would not let it play. She would protect her blood. Layla was on top of Sheldon. She left the knife inside him and placed her hand in his jacket pocket and removed the remote control. The blood on her hands almost let it slip away from her grasp. She spotted Sheldon’s phone in his limp left hand, and tore it away from him. Finally, The Door was tried to grab her.
“Play it, play it,” he said over and over again.
Auntie Alice started screaming the words of the prophesy, trying to scratch at Layla’s face at the same time. “And Sheldon pressed play. And Sheldon pressed play. And Sheldon pressed play and His voice filled the church.”
Someone strong gripped Layla around the waist and hauled her back, away from them.
She fell back and down, dropping the knife on floor. There was more screaming, more terror amongst the unsuspecting flock, but Layla could feel her daughter's arms wrapped around her.]