Read Once Online

Authors: James Herbert

Tags: #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Cerebrovascular Disease, #Fantasy, #Horror - General, #Contemporary, #Fiction - Horror, #Horror

Once (7 page)

She was less than a foot away, deliberately invading his space, her deep eyes studying his. His discomfort began to turn to irritation once more.

And yet…

And yet he could feel the tension - the sexual tension -between them and, for the first time since the outset of his illness, Thom felt a stirring, a reaction in his body over which he had no command. Her coquetry was plain and, at another time, would have been exciting, even welcome; but this morning, and in these circumstances - so fast, so unexpected - he could only be confused. And anxious, for he had been celibate for some time, even before his stroke, and right then he was not sure of his own adequacy, how much damage his system had sustained. Nell Quick was certainly alluring, gloriously so, in fact, and another man might have grabbed the opportunity to prove himself to himself. Not right then, though. No, he wasn’t ready. And, he had to admit, he was too scared.

He went to the sideboard and pretended to search for something, but in truth, putting distance between himself and this unsettling woman.

‘Dammit, always losing my comb,’ he muttered, as if he had been oblivious to the interplay between them a moment before. Nell could not know, of course, that he rarely used a comb to tidy his hair anyway, but she certainly wasn’t fooled by the ploy.

She gave a short, fruity laugh. Tour breakfast’s on the warmer, but you don’t want to let it get too dry, do you?’

Turning from him in a smooth, gliding movement she disappeared through the doorway.

Thom took a deep breath as he listened to her retreating footsteps and looked at himself in the free-standing mirror on the sideboard.

‘Bloody hell,’ he said, blushing deeply.

He followed after her and avoided her eyes as he sat at the table. One plate had been laid and Nell busied herself cutting into the bread.

‘Er, won’t you join me?’ Thom asked out of politeness only.

‘Oh, I never eat a big breakfast,’ she replied, laying two slices on a bread plate. ‘Usually just some fruit or a yogurt, enough to get me through the mornin’. I drink gallons of coffee though.’

He could smell the coffee aroma and saw a percolator close to the electric kettle on a worktop beside the cooker. He hadn’t noticed either of them before - there had been too much to take in yesterday, and his nightcap had been a rare can of beer from the six-pack he’d found in the fridge - and again, he was grateful for Hugo’s thoughtfulness. Thom began to eat and, with the first mouthful, realized how hungry he was. His newfound appetite was a delightful surprise.

He felt suddenly cheered as he buttered a slice of bread, this small improvement in his condition giving him hope that he really was on the mend. He could only hope it wasn’t temporary.

‘White with?’

The knife stayed over the bread as he looked up at her.

‘Sorry?’

‘Milk and sugar with your coffee?’ Nell Quick was leaning back against the worktop, arms folded, her pelvis thrust forward slightly. She was probably one of those unconsciously sexy women who had no idea of the effect she had on men. Oh really? a dry little inner voice that frequently spoke up for the cynical side of his nature insinuated. Seems to me she knows exactly what she’s doing, pal.

Whatever, it was good to know some of his old libido was returning - it had been a while since he’d looked at a woman in this way. God bless good, fresh, country air and decent exercise.

‘Yeah, both please. One sugar.’ His grin was genuine.

‘Comin’ up. Mind if I join you in a drink?’

Thom would have preferred his privacy, but that might have been churlish after all she had done for him that morning. As he waved a hand at the chair opposite him, he wondered if it was Nell Quick who had cleaned the cottage from top to bottom for his homecoming.

He studied her back while she poured the coffee, enjoying the sight of her lushly dark hair which fell between narrow but firm shoulders, its wild ringlets reaching midway down her back. Gentle music filled the room and a breeze drifted in from the open doorway, bringing with it forest smells that mingled with the stronger coffee aroma, and the sounds of birds calling, a distant cuckoo louder and more distinctive than the rest. A bee buzzed in, explored the new territory in a figure-eight flight plan, and buzzed right back outside again.

Nell Quick placed a mug of steaming coffee in front of Thom and took a seat opposite him. She raised her steaming mug to her lips, a forearm leaning on the table-top, and took a long sip.

She looked deeply into his eyes, the smile still there at the corner of her lips, her gaze intense as if she were seeing through to his very soul.

‘Did you … did you sleep well last night?’

It sounded like lasnigh’, and her slight hesitation seemed to give the question more significance than probably was intended.

His own hesitation did the same for his reply. ‘I … uh … I don’t know. I think so. Can’t remember to be honest.’

‘Nothing disturbed you, then?’

‘Like what?’

Her long fingers flicked the air between them. ‘Anythin’. Place’s been empty a long time. All kinds of things could’ve moved in from the woods.’

The cottage has been kept locked up, right?’

She shrugged. ‘Little creatures have ways of gettin’ in, ‘specially into places that are warm and cosy.’

He was about to tell her he thought he’d seen something scurry across the landing only a short time ago, but for some reason - he really had no idea why - he decided not to. Instead, he raised the coffee mug to his lips.

‘Shiii—’

Thom quickly set down the mug and put his fingers to his scalded lips.

‘Oh, I should have warned you it was hot.’ Nell was already on her feet and grabbing for a tea towel. Folding it first, she thrust a corner under the cold tap over the sink, soaking it thoroughly before bringing it to Thom.

‘Here, press it against your lips, it’ll take away some of the sting,’ she said, putting it to his face herself.

He took the wet towel and applied it to his mouth, the pain already beginning to throb. Thanks,’ he mumbled, mentally calling himself a fool for not being more cautious. For Christ’s sake, he had seen the hot steam rising from the mug, was aware it had been freshly made. Stupid, stupid -but wait a minute. Hadn’t he seen Nell Quick drinking the coffee a moment before?

‘It didn’t burn you,’ he said, almost accusing, his complaint awkward through numbed lips.

She didn’t appear concerned - why should she be? It was his lips - and reached into the wicker basket for a canvas bag lying at the bottom. From the open bag she took a small, round, red pot and thumbed off its plastic lid.

‘Always carry salves and healing unguents with me. Never know when one or another will be useful. This is good for insect stings as well as burns.’

She dabbed her middle fingertip into the pot and it came

75

out with a gobbet of yellowish greyish cream. Thom flinched away when she prepared to smear his mouth with the stuff.

‘Come on, don’t be a baby,’ she scolded playfully. ‘It’s only a mixture of coriander leaf and thorn-apple juice, with a few secret ingredients of my own. It’s the pig’s grease it’s boiled up with that makes it look and smell like this. Come on, it’ll work, I promise. The pain will soon go and we’ll stop any inflammation before it starts. Got to go on straight away though, otherwise it’ll be no good.’

‘Cold water will do,’ he protested, turning his head away.

‘No, it won’t. Trust me, Thom, this will get rid of the pain and heal the burn at the same time.’

Her voice was soothing and, for some reason he could not fathom, hard to resist. Reluctantly, he faced her and allowed her to smear the sickly smelling unguent over his lips.

The relief was instant, and he straightened in surprise. The pain was gone the moment she touched him with the substance. Her face was only inches away from his as she leaned over him, her finger still poised over his mouth. Her pupils were large within their irises so that her eyes really were almost totally black. In them he could see the reflections of his own image.

He could feel the salve sinking deeper into his lips, as though it were chasing after any lingering pain or infection. With her face so close, her breath warm on his cheek, and her smell - like some sweet musky incense carried on a breeze - so puissantly sensual, Thom felt a warm flush course through him and the room began to spin, fading as it did so until it felt like only he and the woman existed in the world; there was a hush between them that seemed full of unspoken meaning.

She drew even closer and he could not be sure if he hadn’t leaned towards her himself. He was mystified but drawn by her allure. He had no wish to resist. Her lips were only inches from his own and he noticed they glistened and were so deeply red, so enticing…

An excitement made him shiver. His lips brushed against hers and just as they both began to exert equal pressure, the spell - how appropriate that word, he was to learn later -was broken.

He jerked away - she merely stiffened - when something smashed against the flagstone floor.

A HASTY DEPARTURE

THOM JUMPED to his feet in shock, forcing Nell to take two startled steps backwards. As one their heads snapped round, their eyes searching.

A plate lay shattered nearby on the stone floor in a crazy jigsaw of white pieces.

The silence that followed was only a little less disturbing than the explosive crash that had preceded it and Thom quickly understood why: the birds outside had ceased their babel, as though they, too, had been frightened; even the breeze now seemed reluctant to enter. But stranger than all this, the radio had become silent too.

Thom slowly took his gaze from the broken plate and shifted it to the woman. He was not so much confused as bewildered, for the plate apparently had flown from the dresser shelf as if self-propelled. It hadn’t just dropped; it was too far from the dresser for that. And its force must have been immense for it to shatter into so many pieces.

And what was this expression on Nell Quick’s face? It

wasn’t shock and it wasn’t curiosity. No, there was anger in her eyes. And … and … was that fear?

Now her eyes sought his, as if to gauge his reaction.

“What the hell is that all about?’ Perhaps he hoped she might have an answer.

A long pause before she replied, the air frighteningly still around them. ‘All sorts of things can happen in old places like this,’ she offered unconvincingly. ‘Old timber and stone grow weary, they shrink, then expand. Pressures build.’ She shrugged. ‘Strange things happen.’ Then, as if anxious to reassure him: ‘P’raps a wind knocked it down.’

Sure, he thought to himself. Feasible if the whole row of plates had taken to the air. Besides, he had felt no wind and he was pretty sure she hadn’t either. And for a plate to sail across the room like that, the gust would have had to have been really fierce. He realized she was still watching him closely and there seemed to be a skittishness to her body language, a flick of a hand, a twitch of her shoulders; even her pupils had contracted …

The music from the radio suddenly started up again, making them both start. A welcome breeze drifted through the door once more.

The moment was gone.

As if nothing untoward had happened, Nell said, Td best be on my way. Lots to do today. Must look in on Sir Russell…’ She retrieved the pot of ointment from the table and dropped it into her bag, then went to the small radio, switched it off and this, too, was dumped unceremoniously into the canvas bag.

Confused, Thom watched. She is more shocked than I am, he thought. She’s acting, pretending. Jesus, she can’t wait to get out.

‘Dustpan and brush are under the sink.’ She was pointing back, already on her way to the door. ‘No time to clear up for you, must be gettin’ on … Don’t forget your breakfast now, it’s gettin’ cold.’

What about your coffee? Not going to finish it?’ It was his turn for a little innocent mockery. Why was she so scared?

She stopped in the doorway and for a moment there was a hard glint in her eyes, as if she recognized his tone and did not like it.

‘Hope you sleep well again tonight,’ was all she said, but there seemed to be a hint of malice behind her words. Then she left.

A light clunking from behind him made him turn anxiously towards the dresser again. He was just in time to notice a row of cups hanging by their handles from hooks underneath the shelf that held the plates - plates minus one - settling after another stiff breeze (hopefully a genuine one) had disturbed them.

He also noticed that in her haste to leave the cottage, Nell Quick had left the wicker basket under the table.

THE LAKE AND AN ENCOUNTER

ABOUT AN hour later, after finishing the lukewarm breakfast and tepid coffee, then completing some gentle but necessary therapeutic exercises - it would get tougher when the therapist turned up in a day or two -Thom left the cottage without locking the front door behind him (he and his mother never had in the past, so why start now?). Although the air was still a little fresh, he now wore minimal clothing - dark straight-legged joggers, tan boots, and grey lightweight armless gilet - sure that the day would quickly warm up. Hairs on his bare arms prickled as a light wind rushed at him from the trees and he zipped up the gilet almost to the neck to protect his stomach and chest. That brief gust brought with it more fragrances from the forest and he savoured them all as they cued more memories, his spirits immediately rising. He sucked in a great gasp of air, cleansing the confusion of Nell Quick’s speedy departure and flying crockery from his mind. Only when his lungs had expanded to their limit did

he let go, controlling the breath so that it flowed outwards in a steady stream.

He took his time sauntering down the short path, noting that he would have to do something about the grass sprouting between the cracks as he went. The woods were less than twenty yards away, ferns, bramble, and wild flowers occupying much of the space in between, the shadows beneath trees no longer deep, nor mysterious in daylight; vibrant shafts of sunlight created little oases of brightness beyond the treeline. The woodland that had appeared impenetrable last night was now irrestibly inviting.

Thom regarded the carpet of late bluebells with appreciation rather than the curiosity of yesterday as his eyes swept over this splendidly private view. Again his thoughts dwelt on the life cycle for, like the old oak he had come upon along the trail, the soil itself and the covering flora provided a ceaseless order of survival, animals, insects, organisms, all replenished the earth just as they took from it, nothing ever remaining the same, but not one single life form ever becoming nothing at all. Every individual kind of life had its purpose, which was to sustain all else, and the notion was comforting to Thom, who had faced his own untimely metamorphosis so recently and somehow cheated it. And it was with this reasoning that he realized it was not death he feared, but what lay beyond, what came next.

Continuing to look around him, considering which direction to take for his morning walk, he spied a certain familiar break in the trees. The path there led to a small lake deep within the woods, a quiet place he had once thought was the centre of the world, possibly of the universe too. His mother had also loved this beautiful haven, with its deep, still waters where willows dipped their leaves and animals came to drink without fear, for it was there that she brought him as a reward for being particularly good or working hard at the minor chores she gave him. It had seemed to hold a special magic for her, for while he played along the grassy banks

and in and out of the trees, Bethan could sit by the lake’s edge, watching its placid surface, occasionally closing her eyes as if her thoughts were deep within herself and of things she never divulged to him. Sometimes he would find her quietly weeping and his arms would encircle her shoulders so that he could hold her tight, the child giving comfort to the mother.

The overgrown trail was easy enough for him to pick out, because he had passed that way so many times as a boy, and he even recognized many of the more mature trees along the way and mentally greeted them as if they were old friends: the multi-trunked oak he had climbed so often as a boy, its middle section a broad junction of thick boughs offering a discreet platform from where he could snoop on unwitting animals below - the fox, the squirrel, even the occasional deer, and best of all, at dusk the badger, whose sett was close by; there was the silver birch whose lower white bark he once had carefully peeled away to denude the trunk - the bark had returned over the years, but its discoloured diamond-shaped patches were not as dark, nor as numerous as those in the higher reaches; the beech body he had rested against, the hard-to-rot leaves it had shed in past seasons providing an inches-deep rug beneath him while he read books and comics (the latter loaned from Hugo), or carved wood with Eric’s gift. He spotted tiny, coloured moths that were almost invisible to the human eye as they flitted among leaves. There were the flowers, the nightshade, forget-me-not, red campion, columbine - varieties and colours that never failed to make him catch his breath. The familiar sounds - the birdcalls, the rustlings of undergrowth, a single cry that might have been bird or beast.

He saw everything through the eyes of a recovering invalid: all was fresh, new to him, colours vivid, intense, everything appeared more sharply focused. Even sounds were keener, scents more distinctive. Thom experienced it

all in the same way he had as a child, before time had dulled senses.

Deeper into the woods he went, every so often touching his lips with tentative fingertips, surprised there was no pain and no blisters from the scalding coffee. But then, hadn’t Bethan used similar salves to treat his scrapes and burns years ago? Colds and fevers had been defeated by potions and broths, chicken-pox and measles by herbs and mixtures, tried and tested cures known to countryfolk for centuries, passed on from generation to generation, but mostly forgotten in this new age of science and genetics. Not forgotten by Nell Quick though, it seemed …

His thoughts lingered on his slightly odd but attractive visitor that morning. Why had she fled the cottage so quickly when the plate had smashed to the floor? And just before that incident they had been about to kiss. There was no question that she had flirted with him from the moment she’d arrived and he had to wonder why. They were complete strangers to each other, so why would she move in so fast? It wasn’t a regular occurrence for him, that was for sure. Maybe she was just the friendly type.

He grinned to himself. Yep, no question there.

Then he remembered that she had known immediately where the dustpan and brush were kept. Did that mean she’d visited the cottage before? Was she the one who had prepared the place for his arrival? If so, he wished Hugo had warned him about her. Maybe then he wouldn’t have been so unprepared.

He trekked on, moving ferns and thin branches aside with the cane as he went, musing on that morning’s - and the previous night’s events. Occasionally, he disturbed some small creature on the ground and would wait patiently until it had scuttled away to safety; or a bird would fly across his path, shrieking a warning to watch himself in its territory. Not once, though, did he feel himself to be a trespasser: no, this was his territory as much as theirs and he relished the

feeling of being home. The magic of it all was still the same; only his childhood innocence was missing.

Butterflies caught his attention - Browns, Yellows, Vanessids, and others - as they flitted about woodland strawberries, and birdsong began to fill his head. He looked for and soon found the tree along the trail where an owl used to live, the creature not at all shy when the boy ambled by its roosting hole and hooted or ‘kewick-kewicked’ up at it, merely returning a round-eyed expressionless stare as it waited for dusk to give way to night, the beast walking below too large for consumption and not large enough to fear. Thom wondered H the tawny owl was still in residence, or had died long ago in his absence. Perhaps it had been replaced by another of its breed, maybe its own offspring. Thom sucked in a great draught of air, appreciating, after so many years of city life, just what fresh air really tasted like.

It took another twenty minutes to reach the lake (a boyhood journey of no more than seven minutes of breathless running) and when he came upon it he stood perfectly still, favouring his right leg, unaware of the smile that had lit up his face, the shine that was in his eyes.

Nothing had changed, except that the lake seemed to be smaller. But then, wasn’t everything big when you were little? It was still a sleepy, tranquil paradise, with trees rimming the banks, a golden willow overhanging the water, water lilies floating on its surface. Flowering plants filled the edges like herbaceous borders, wasps bizzing around them and sounding like miniature chainsaws in the morning quietness. Tiny circles softly rippled the lake’s placid surface here and there as fish below snatched floating food; swifts and swallows dashed over the mirror face, wings creating hardly a stir as the birds hunted flies. In colours of green, ochre and glittering blue, dragonflies hovered low like humming birds, poised to strike and, having struck, disappeared from sight, their speed the secret of their implausible vanishing act.

The lake was irregular in shape, reeds and the floating water lilies sometimes concealing its natural shoreline. From the far bank there came the metallic twicking of yellowham-mers. A breeze rippled the flat water, and perhaps it was the sweet aroma of willowherb that came with it that reminded him of a time when Me was simple and insecurity an unknown thing. Or maybe it was the warm breath of air against his cheek, so like the sensation that preceded his mother’s kiss, that brought the feeling to him.

Something distracted him and at first he could not be sure if it had been a sound or a sudden sense of no longer being alone. Inexplicably, and worryingly, a mist descended behind his eyes and dizziness almost sent him to his knees. He leaned heavily on his cane, saving himself, and the sensation, as well as the illusory mist, quickly passed. And then he most definitely heard something, a disturbance that was close by.

But when he looked around, he saw nothing unusual. Nothing about the blissful scene before him was different. Yet all had changed. He felt disorientated, as if he had just arrived at a place he knew, but from a different approach so that nothing seemed the same as he remembered.

The sound he heard was vaguely familiar though: it was the high-pitched yet mellifluous whistling that had come to him as he walked through the woods towards Little Bracken only yesterday.

He leaned towards its source, his eyes squinting. The foliage was dense, but through the gaps he saw what looked like flickering lights. They had to be tiny, for none filled the holes through which they could be seen, and perhaps they did not flicker but merely gave that illusion as leaves wavered before them. They shone just as brightly as they had last night.

Thom knew they were those same lights, akin to fireflies only in that they glowed as they flitted to and fro, something telling him, something he sensed telling him, that they bore

no relation to any physical insect, that they were not a natural species - and that they could not possibly be real. Twice before he had observed them but now, as if with the familiarity, their sound was more distinct, more defined. Thom realized that it was a kind of singing that he could hear, faint, tiny voices unlike any he had ever heard before - or, z/he had, he had forgotten - that rose and ebbed in a weird but euphonic flutey harmony. As it mesmerized, he took robot-like steps towards the bushes that screened them, cane forgotten in his hand, limp imperceptible.

His footsteps were soundless on the mushy forest floor and his breath was held so that his approach was almost silent. His eyes were focused only on the lights as they flashed behind the broken wall of leaves ahead; his ears no longer acknowledged any extraneous noises, for his attention was centred purely on what lay beyond the leafy cover.

His feet narrowly missed brittle twigs which, if broken, might have announced his presence; the tip of his cane was raised inches above any exposed tree root that might have caught it; breathing was held in abeyance. As he drew closer to the rough barrier, his free hand began to stretch forward. His fingertips touched the leaves and gently, and so very .slowly, drew them apart.

His quick gasp for air was barely audible.

Although the lights were mostly a candescent white at their nucleus, their peripheries appeared to take in every hue of the spectrum, from purples to violets, greens to blues, reds to oranges, yellows and golds, and they sparkled as they zipped through the air like brilliant insects in spectacular display. Like the dragonflies he had watched over the lake, they sometimes hovered, their brightness momentarily subdued, and it was then that Thom could just make out the blur of their tiny, almost pellucid, wings.

But his astonishment turned to awe when he realized these delicately beautiful creatures were the darting satellites of a quite ethereal reclining figure whose flesh appeared so white it might have been the purest marble. Pallid colours reflected off their host as the creatures’ gossamer wings brushed its smooth surfaces, and it was only when it slowly moved that Thom understood it was human, a living, breathing human. And when he leaned closer still and shaded his eyes against the dazzling lights, he saw then that it was a woman - no, no, a girl, for her skin was unblemished, her curves subtly rounded, her naked breasts small. He thought then that she was the most sensual female he had ever set eyes on.

She lay back between the two stout roots of a large oak, the thick, gnarled limbs spread like welcoming arms around her before sinking into the ground. Long yellow hair tumbled about her small face, with its finely pointed chin and high cheekbones, falling over her narrow shoulders in a cascade of wild, golden locks; closed eyes were slightly tilted, their lashes long and dark; her lips parted and they were pink and moist, for she was in passion. She drew in soft hasty gasps and her slender body writhed languidly; he realized her eyes were closed in ecstasy.

Her body was slight and her breasts, although small and their tips pubescentiy pink with no visible areola, were mature and beautifully formed. She began to tease their rising nipples, stroking them with her fingertips, the movement tender, unhurried.

Thom felt a stirring of his own body, blood beginning to rush to his centre so that for the first time since his illness had struck, he grew hard and the muscles of his stomach and groin became uncomfortably taut. He felt no shame for the voyeurism - his senses were too much in turmoil, his fascination too overwhelming. Maybe the guilt would come later, but right then the eroticism of the moment was too powerful, impossible to resist.

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