Home > Slade House(8)

Slade House(8)
David Mitchell

· · ·
Dad’s at the table, reading his Rhodesian Reporter and dressed in his short-sleeved khaki shirt. “The Kraken wakes.” Dad always says that in the mornings. It’s the title of a book by John Wyndham about a monster who melts the ice caps and floods the world.

I sit down. “Morning, Dad.”

Dad folds his newspaper. “Well, I wanted to wake you for your first African dawn, but Joy said, ‘No, let the poor lad sleep in, he flew twelve hours nonstop.’ So we’ll do all that tomorrow. Hungry?” I nod—I guess I must be—and Dad tilts his head at the kitchen hatch: “Joy? Violet? Young man needs his chow!”

The hatch opens and Joy appears. “Nathan!” I knew about Joy, who Mum calls “your father’s dolly bird,” but it was still a jolt to see Dad holding hands with another woman. They’re going to have a baby in June, so they must’ve had sexual intercourse. The baby’ll be my half brother or half sister, but it hasn’t got a name yet. I wonder what it does all day. “Sleep well?” says Joy. Joy’s got a Rhodesian accent like Dad’s.

“Yes. Mad dreams, though.”

“I always have mad dreams after a long-haul flight. OJ, bacon sandwich do you, Nathan?”

I like how Joy says “OJ.” Mum would hate it. “Yes please.”

“He’ll need some coffee too,” says Dad.

“Mum says I’m too young for caffeinated drinks,” I say.

“Horse pucky,” says Dad. “Coffee’s the elixir of life, and Rhodesian coffee’s the purest on earth. You’re having some.”

“OJ, bacon sandwich and coffee, coming up,” says Joy. “I’ll get Violet on it straightaway.” The hatch closes. Violet’s the maid. Mum often used to shout at Dad, “I’m not your bloody maid, you know, Frank!” Dad lights his pipe, and the smell of his tobacco brings back memories of when he and Mum were married. He says from the corner of his mouth, “Tell me about this dream of yours, matey.”

The gazelle’s head’s distracting, and so are Dad’s grandfather’s muskets from the Boer War and the ceiling fan. “Mum took me to see a lady, like a lord-and-lady-type lady. The house was missing so we asked a sort of window cleaner man but he didn’t know either…then we found it, it was this big house like in To the Manor Born. There was a boy called Jonah but he turned into a big dog. Yehudi Menuhin was there too, and Mum played with him upstairs”—Dad snorts a laugh—“and then I saw a portrait of me, but my eyes were missing, and…” I see a small black iron door in the corner. “That door was there, too.”

Dad looks round. “Dreams do that. Mix reality with moonshine. You were asking about my gun-room door before you turned in last night. Don’t you remember?”

I must’ve, if Dad says so. “It all felt so real when I was in it.”

“I know it felt real, but you can see it wasn’t. Right?” I look at Dad’s brown eyes, crinkly lines, tanned skin, grayish streaks in his sandy hair, his nose like mine. A clock’s going krunk…kronk…krunk…kronk…and there’s a trumpeting noise outside, not far away. I look at Dad, hoping it is what I think it is. “Dead right, matey: a herd drifted across the river yesterday afternoon. We’ll go see ’em later, but first, line your stomach.”

“Here we go,” says Joy, placing a tray in front of me. “Your first African breakfast.” My bacon sandwich looks epic, with a triple layer of rashers, and ketchup dribbling out.

“That’s God’s own bacon sarnie,” I say. Someone said that line on a sitcom I saw once and lots of people laughed.

“Well, aren’t you the charmer?” says Joy. “Wonder who you get that from…”

Dad puts his arm around Joy’s waist. “Try the coffee first. It’ll make a man of you.” I lift the mug and peer down. Inside’s black as oil, as holes in space, as Bibles.

“Violet ground the beans just now,” says Joy.

“God’s own coffee,” says Dad. “Drink up now, matey.”

Some stupid part of me says, No, don’t, you mustn’t.

“Your mother’ll never know,” says Dad. “Our little secret.”

The mug’s so wide it covers my nose like a gas mask.

The mug’s so wide it covers my eyes, my whole head.

Then whatever’s in there starts gulping me down.

· · ·
Time passed, but I don’t know how much. A slit of light opens its eye and becomes a long flame. Cold bright star white. A candle, on a candlestick, on the scarred floorboards. The candlestick’s dull silver or pewter or lead and it’s got symbols on it, or maybe letters from a dead language. The flame’s not moving, it’s as if time’s unspooled and jammed. Three faces hang in the gloom. Lady Grayer on my left, but she’s younger now, younger than Mum. To my right is Jonah Grayer but he’s older than the Jonah in the garden. They’re twins, I think. They’re wearing gray cloaks with hoods half down; his hair’s short and hers is long, and it’s gold instead of black like before; and they’re kneeling like they’re praying, or meditating. They’re still as waxworks. If they’re breathing, I can’t see it. The third face is Nathan Bishop’s, opposite me. I’m a reflection in a mirror, a tall rectangle, standing on the floor. I’m still wearing the tweed jacket from Oxfam, and the bow tie. When I try to move, I can’t. Not a muscle. I can’t turn my head, or lift my hand, or speak, or blink, even. Like I’ve been paralyzed. It’s scary as hell, but I can’t even go Mmmfff like scared gagged people do. I’m pretty sure this can’t be heaven or hell, but I know it’s not Rhodesia. Dad’s lodge was a kind of vision. I’d pray it’s only the Valium making me see this, but I don’t believe in God. I’m in an attic, judging from the sloping ceiling and rafters. Are the Grayers prisoners like me? They look like the Midwich Cuckoos. Where’s Yehudi Menuhin, all the guests, the soirée? Where’s my mum?

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