Free horror story: ‘Mask of the Silvatici’

UPDATED: 15/11/2018

To commemorate the passing of David Davis Dominic Raab, I’d like to offer my own commentary on his departure from the role of Brexit Secretary and the political machinations behind it, by presenting this tale of terror, which I feel is particularly topical at the moment.

 

 

Mask of the Silvatici

By Tom Johnstone

 

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Murdoch’s ears pricked up at the mention of the ‘Norman Yoke’.

The cathedral tour guide had been droning on for hours about the strange little carving hidden away in a forgotten corner of the vast, cavernous building. His soporific voice echoed from the high stone arches.

“…image has recurred throughout the ages. Early examples include the Mesopotamian Green Man, in the city of al-Hadr in present-day Iraq, which may date back to 300 BC, and the leaf-clad statue of Dionysus in Naples from 420 BC. A notable local carving is the so-called ‘Male Gorgon’ discovered in the Roman Baths of Bath and fashioned in stone in the 1st century AD, probably by Gaulish sculptors. Many of the snakes on his head could easily be leaves. Other ‘Green Man’ figures from the Graeco-Roman period represented Pan, Sylvanus, Bacchus and other such deities. Yet…”

Murdoch mimed a yawn at Cressida, catching her eyes with some effort, as she appeared to be staring abstractedly at the carved face. She responded with a faint, vague, uncomprehending smile. An old woman next to her tutted at his rudeness. He’d hoped the girl might have shown more amusement. His experience told him that would have been a sign she was a pushover. Still a smile, however faint, was something to go on. These eager young interns usually came round in the end. The tour guide, facing the wall so he couldn’t have seen Murdoch’s gesture, went on:

“…persisted into early Christian architecture, strongly influenced by the Byzantine era, as well as the Celtic veneration of sacred trees and their view that the head was the seat of the human soul…”

“I’d have thought that was obvious,” he muttered in Cressida’s direction.

She nodded vaguely in his direction, then resumed her contemplation of the face, a segmented mask of green foliage, bursting out in all directions, some exploding from the mouth like green vomit.

“…doesn’t explain why it’s here in a Norman Cathedral, long after one might expect architects felt the need to incorporate pagan traditions into Christian…”

“Rather grotesque, if you ask me,” he added, hoping to catch her eye and exchange a flirtatiously conspiratorial glance, with a nod towards the exit and somewhere more convivial — a sun-soaked beer garden for example. But she wasn’t biting. All he caught was another look of reproof from her neighbour, a hissed out “Ssshhh!” Cressida barely even acknowledged his remark this time. They were only here because she’d wanted to see the Cathedral. He’d agreed, thinking of it as a down payment on future pleasure.

“…until one remembers Norman Churches were a weapon of the Conqueror. The Harrowing of the North didn’t just take the form of slashing and burning all the land, houses and livestock between York and Durham. It also produced enduring monuments to his rule in the form of stone castles, stone churches, stone cathedrals. But there was resistance too — from the Silvatici — the men of the woods, the prototypes of Robin Hood and his…”

And Charles Murdoch, MP for Eastgate Central, took his pleasure seriously. Very seriously indeed. Enough to risk everything for a bunk-up with this one.

“…so serious, with Norman Barons’ corpses turning up dead all over the place, that King William levied a fine on the entire community of each area where such a body was found, perhaps in the hope of, er… ‘Incentivising’ is the buzz word nowadays, I believe… the locals to flush out the ring-leaders of this guerrilla army, people like Hereward, who held Ely against the Normans for several years. The name of the fine was ‘Murdrum’, whence we derive the word ‘murder’.”

Murdoch was all ears now. The tour guide seemed to have warmed to his subject too, talking with more animation now he was dealing with something more than dry facts and figures about ancient relics.

“Looked at this way, the Norman architecture of buildings like this one seems less a monument and more a boot-print on the Anglo-Saxon face — a rather melodramatic way of putting it I admit, but not without some foundation, if you’ll pardon the pun. And yet, in these strange green faces, it also preserves the resistance to the ‘Norman Yoke’, a phrase that has become a byword for all tyranny from Civil War times through to the Victorian age and possibly beyond…”

Murdoch couldn’t be sure, but he could have sworn the guide glanced his way with a half-smile. Well, it wouldn’t surprise him if the man recognised him. He had been in the news once or twice. The guide cleared his throat before continuing, a sound that echoed through the cathedral like a stifled cry of pain or fear.

“It seems not unlikely that the stonemasons who built this place and others had some sympathy with the Sylvatici, and used their cunning, skill and artistry to express that sympathy. That may be the reason why the ‘Green Man’ appears here and in other churches and cathedrals from the period, including Rochester Cathedral, Norwich Cathedral and York Minster.”

He cleared his throat again, looking a little embarrassed.

“But I fear I’ve gone on too long about this subject, something of a personal hobby horse. I’m sure many of you are anxious to move on to the famous Wells Cathedral Clock.”

“No, no, do go on,” Murdoch pressed, at the same time wondering why he’d done so, projecting his voice the way he often did at hustings, so that it echoed alarmingly around the buttresses. “I find that period fascinating. I wasn’t aware of all that men-of-the-wood stuff. And I for one am glad this great land of ours has finally had the sense to throw off that old Norman Yoke!”

He waved a hand around the crowd of tourists, as if to elicit a cheer from the stout English yoemen and women among them, but all he heard was some grumblings of incomprehension.

“I’m talking about a certain historic vote,” he added hopefully, in the tone of a teacher offering a helpful hint to a pupil struggling with an answer.

“Well, that, sir, is a matter of opinion,” the tour guide said coldly. “Now if you’ll excuse me, we do need to proceed with the rest of the tour.”

Murdoch squared his shoulders, pulled himself to his full height, and regarded the professor. As he opened his mouth to speak, he glanced towards Cressida, sensing an opportunity to impress her with his authority, his control of the situation. “An academic, are you?” he asked with a smirk. “Another one of that self-appointed army of experts who think they run this country?”

“No, sir,” said the tour guide. “I believe you are one those who think they run the country. Charles Murdoch MP, isn’t it?”

“Well…”

He felt himself reddening, his collar suddenly too tight.

“Yes, I thought so. I’ve seen you on TV, posing next to a big red bus I think it was.”

Was that a ripple of laughter he heard from some of the other tour-goers?

“Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got another tour starting in ten minutes, but if there’s time, I’ll take questions at the end.”

With that, the tour guide walked off, the crowd melting away at his heels, leaving Murdoch standing there alone, hearing echoes of laughter. Cressida too remained, a look of amusement on her perfect features. At him or with him, it was hard to tell. Her expression was as unreadable as ever. But her face was quite exquisite in its inscrutability, her pale-blue eyes shining silver in the shaft of light from one of the stained-glass windows, her hair so pale it was almost white, tightly tied behind her head.

“Well, you made quite an impression there, Mr Murdoch,” she said diplomatically.

“Haven’t I told you to call me Charles?” he said a little testily. “But, yes, I have to say I did — certainly showed that jumped-up little snot. But don’t you want to keep up with the tour — see the ‘famous Wells Cathedral clock’?”

“No, that’s all right, sir. I’ve seen what I wanted to see. If you don’t mind me saying so, you look like you could do with some air.”

“A drink too. Let’s get out of this godforsaken place…”

 

#

 

A couple of hours later, they checked into the Jack-in-the-Green hotel in Bath. He was nervous about how she was going to react to his usual ploy. Cressida Bowring was different to the other interns. The ones he brought on these little jaunts were often ‘jolly hockey sticks’ types, hearty and fun-loving, who appeared to take the mix-up in their stride, especially after a few drinks. Cressida on the other hand had barely touched a drop all afternoon.

This was how it usually went:

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” the receptionist would say. “We were sure you booked a double room.”

Murdoch would feign incredulity, outrage.

“I meant two single rooms! Oh, this is intolerable…”

“I’m so sorry, sir. There’s really nothing else available.”

“Very well, we’ll just have to make the best of it.”

Often the girl he’d brought along would be ‘up for it by’ then, eyes shining with wine, perhaps asking him coyly in a slurring voice if his wife would mind them sharing a room, some even calling him an old goat or similar, but with a little smile that told him ‘game on’. That was what he told himself anyway. There had been a few times when some of the more naïve ones had taken fright at the situation and he’d had to be a little hands on. He didn’t like doing this. It led to tears and recriminations, even the remote prospect of an investigation years down the line: disgrace, suspension, even withdrawal of the whip, not to mention criminal proceedings.

But Cressida wasn’t like most of the interns. She was serious, earnest. She’d spent the whole of the time he was failing to get her drunk talking about politics for God’s sake! She banged on about how much she admired him because of his commitment to Brexit, even comparing him to Rees-Mogg. It was all very gratifying, but he didn’t bring interns away for the weekend to talk shop. His eyes began to glaze over as she told him chapter and verse about her proposals for holding the prime minister’s feet to the fire over her compromises with the Eurocrats, with such fervour that he began to worry she was some kind of Kipper entryist. Not that he particularly minded this phenomenon, which he thought of as a case of lost sheep returning to the fold.

She had dwelt so much on the morbid details of the Harrowing of the North — survivors forced to sell their own children into slavery and resort to cannibalism, digging up corpses to fend off starvation — that he looked at her strangely over his glass of claret, and said “You’re starting to sound like that windbag from the cathedral.”

“I found his talk quite informative actually,” she said, rather primly, “even if he was a bit of a remoaner.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Probably one of those shroud-waving doom merchants who think that’s what’ll happen when we’ve thrown off the shackles of the EU…”

“Think what will happen, sir?”

He looked up at her in bewilderment, wondering why they were even having this conversation. Most of the girls he took away for the weekend just wanted to talk about how much they’d drunk at the last meet, or what jolly japes they used to get up to at Roedean or something.

“That they’ll have to sell their children and eat their relatives,” he replied, expecting at least a smile at his quip. But she just stared back at him with those pale-blue eyes of hers.

For a woman who affected a certain level of intelligence, she could be very obtuse.

The trouble was, this wasn’t the only way she was different to his previous conquests. He wanted her more than them, with an intensity that alarmed him; and yet he also knew he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to apply the requisite amount of force if push came to shove. It wasn’t just moral qualms or the fear of consequences that prevented him. It was something about her that did so. She reminded him of someone.

If he’d been an aficionado of Renaissance art, he’d have called her a Botticelli Venus. But foreign paintings were of little interest to him. Perhaps a more apt image might be an Anglo-Saxon warrior princess, tough and indomitable despite her appearance of fragility. He remembered something he’d heard at primary school, about how the ‘Anglo’ in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ derived from angels, scoffing at himself for believing such sentimental nonsense. Yet in her case, with her halo of silver-blonde hair and buttermilk skin, he could almost believe this pretty fairy story. It frightened him how much he desired her, and wondered if she would be the one who finally brought him down. How ironic if the one for whom he actually felt something beyond mere animal urges would be the one to destroy him.

He knew he was flattering himself by thinking in these terms. He was hardly a major-league player in the Party. The path to the front bench was a long way off yet. But should he ever find himself plucked from obscurity by an enbattled leader, he needed to cover his tracks better than he had in the past. He had to play this one very carefully, very carefully indeed. And he had to stop these adolescent flights of fancy. There was nothing more grotesque and absurd than a middle-aged man thinking and behaving like a love-struck teenager.

It was as the car pulled into the hotel car park that the resemblance suddenly struck him. He was easing the Jaguar into the parking space, checking his blind spots as he did so, when his eyes alighted on the side of her face. That laughing, tapering quality at the corners of the eyes. But no, surely not.

His concentration momentarily broken, the car stalled.

“Sorry about that,” he muttered sheepishly.

“That’s all right,” she said with a smile.

Now he was noticing other similarities — the way small lines appeared at the corners of her mouth when she smiled, the slight pink flush at the cheeks.

But it was impossible. Martha had dark brown hair and eyes.

Besides, Martha was dead.

 

#

 

She was the one who had been foolish enough to open her heart to him. She should have known this wasn’t an option, that he had his career to think of, his marriage too. When he’d refused to leave his wife, she’d opened her veins. The coroner had discovered she’d been three months pregnant. Not that he’d been present for the inquest of course. Best to keep his distance really, he’d decided. Fortunately for him, most of the press hadn’t been interested in such a trivial indiscretion. The Fifth Estate had far more important things to do than hounding minor MPs on the government side — such as holding Her Majesty’s Opposition to account for example.

But it all came flooding back as he led Cressida up the steps to the hotel, its sign swinging in the wind, a painting of a green-bearded man fixing him with its ancient stare. Inside, he went through the usual charade without much conviction, thinking back to Martha’s desperate calls that he’d eventually blocked. She’d never known that he’d done so because he didn’t want to acknowledge what he felt. To progress, he needed to maintain his marriage, so his dalliances must not go beyond brief carnal relations. If he’d shown a moment of weakness by admitting to a certain deeper bond between them, it would have destroyed everything. He hadn’t been able to explain this to her. Now he’d never be able to do so.

A female voice intruded on his thoughts.

“Perhaps you could arrange a camp bed?”

It was Cressida, replying to the manager, who was apologising profusely.

“Indeed, madam. I’m sure we can sort something out. Terribly sorry again for getting the booking wrong. If there’s anything we can do to make your stay more comfortable, we will.”

 

#

 

So that was how he came to be lying on a cramped, fold-up bed, utterly unable to sleep as he thought of the exquisite body lying a few away on the double bed. He knew what it looked like, because he’d glimpsed it, despite his promise not to peek as she undressed. If he hadn’t said this, no doubt she would have got changed in the en-suite bathroom to avoid his prying eyes. He’d lain on the camp bed facing the wall, listening to the rustle of her clothes as she disrobed, but had been unable to resist a glance over his shoulder to where her skin shone golden in the half-light, her small breasts pointed, a soft down on the skin of her arms, tiny hairs the same silver-blonde as those now tumbling loose and abundant over her bare shoulders.

Sleep seemed impossible after this brief but intoxicating glimpse of her. He lay there listening to his own breathing and nursing a painful erection, smooth and hard as a tree-branch stripped of its bark. After what he considered a decent interval had passed, he called her name softly, his mouth dry, his voice thick and hoarse, but there was no answer. She must have gone straight to sleep, or perhaps she was pretending to be. He held his breath and listened out for any sign of wakefulness in hers. He couldn’t tell if her respiration had the slow, rhythmic evenness of deep sleep.

For some reason he couldn’t fathom, he still lay facing the wall. Perhaps it was an uncharacteristically chivalrous reverence for her modesty, at odds with the jutting evidence of his lust. Or it could be that his body, imitating the stiffness of his sexual organ, lay rigid in the kind of paralysis that in childhood had been the afterbirth of nightmares. Whatever the reason, he maintained that position, like a shamed school pupil sent to sit in the corner, for hours or minutes, he wasn’t sure. He balked at the humiliation of relieving himself by masturbation, especially if she was still awake and might hear. Still listening out in the hissing darkness for whether she was asleep or awake, his hyper-sensitised ears heard a rustle like dry leaves, then the gentle pad of feet on the floor. He gasped, as he felt weight and warmth beside him on the cramped bed, its springs yelping in protest.

Hands snaked around his waist and he felt the gentle pressure of pointed breasts against his shoulder blades through the thin silk of his pyjamas, the bottom half of which the hands deftly and efficiently removed. He moaned, thinking he might peak too soon with a hair-trigger explosion if one of the hands moved too close to his groin. Hair and hot breath tickled the back of his neck.

But he wilted somewhat when he noticed that the twin cones of flesh were not the only things pressing against his back. Something hard was pressing insistently at the small of it. There was a strange smell too, earthy and intoxicating, like the friable mulch of leaves carpeting a forest floor.

He spun round.

It was her face, but subtly altered. Perhaps this was because of the way the light played on her features from a small, dim bedside lamp she must have switched on to illuminate her passage across the room. Yet that could not explain the mocking smile or the playful expression in her eyes.

Remember me? said a small voice within him.

He heard this so strongly it could have been a real voice that spoke it, though her lips had not moved and did not sound like her voice at all.

More like Martha’s, he thought with a shudder.

He felt a strange emotion, somewhere between desire and terror, at the proximity of her face, so close he could see more of those tiny silver hairs springing from her cheeks, her chin. He blinked, but when he opened his eyes again there were more of them, bigger and taking on shapes that, the more they grew, looked less and less like hairs, and more and more like leaves.

A grin broke out on his bed-mate’s face as two hands roughly prised his legs apart, pressing his thighs against his stomach. He felt the blunt, hard object probing for an entry point. When a similar thing had occurred at boarding school at the hands of an older boy who required him to polish something other than shoes, he had vowed never to let this happen to him again. From then on, he’d decided, he would be the one doing the penetrating, not the other way round.

“No!” he cried hoarsely.

But didn’t you always say that meant yes? a voice asked, so close to him it might be inside his head. It couldn’t have come from the mouth above his, which was still fixed in a rigid grin, unmoving, framed by a carapace of verdigris foliage.

“They’d have put up more of a struggle if they didn’t want it!” he blurted out, but all the fight had gone out of him as the creature drove itself into him, its teeth opening to let the leaves inside cascade into his screaming mouth.

 

#

 

He came to himself in tangled sheets, cold winter light filtering through the curtains. When he saw the state of his pyjamas, he threw them away, as costly as they were, and rushed to the bathroom to shower, urinate and vomit, not necessarily in that order. Easier to explain their absence than their blood-stained condition to Miranda. In his haste, he’d already noticed the double bed was empty.

He found Cressida waiting for him in the dining room. Instead of yesterday’s skirt and jacket, she was wearing a trouser suit, but otherwise looked the same as she had yesterday, before the strange metamorphosis that seemed to have come over her during the night, at least in his fevered imagination.

“Ah, Mr Murdoch,” she said with infuriating perkiness. “Good morning. You’re only just in time for breakfast.”

“Actually I don’t feel like eating,” he said, his stomach churning at the smells of hot bacon fat seeping out of the kitchen, something that usually made his mouth water even in the throes of a violent hangover. The spectacle of the intern tucking into her full English with gusto didn’t help. As he’d been driving, he hadn’t had that much to drink the previous afternoon, being more focussed on plying her with booze as a precursor to unsuccessful seduction. Or perhaps rather too successful, he thought uneasily, as flashes of his waking nightmare returned.

“Really?” she mumbled, through a mouthful of sausage. “I could eat a horse myself!”

His stomach lurched. He felt dreadful, his mouth tasting as if he’d swallowed rotten leaves even after copious tooth-brushing and mouth-wash. Looking at Cressida Bowring, sitting there as radiantly lovely as ever, with the same air of fresh, unassailable purity, he began to wonder how much of it had actually happened. It must have been a dream, he thought with relief, planting himself on the chair opposite hers.

But as he did so, a jagged stinging pain lanced through his rear end, suggesting otherwise. At the image this conjured up, of a rapacious hermaphrodite satyr mounting him, his stomach cramped with a fresh bout of nausea. Cressida’s face was all concern.

“Are you all right, sir?”

“Yes, yes, quite all right,” he snapped. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Sure, Mr Murdoch,” she replied cheerfully, lining up her knife and fork on a plate that looked as if it would barely require the services of the hotel dishwasher. “Are you okay to drive?”

“Of course I am! Well…” He felt a fresh bout of weakness, shakiness, dizziness. “On the other hand, perhaps it might be better if –”

Suddenly he found himself rushing to the gents’ to throw up again.

 

#

 

The great, flattened mound of Solsbury Hill rose beside the A36, which cut into its side like a tarmac spear, as they began their hurried exit from Bath.

“Are those people up there?” he wondered aloud, seeing figures dancing in the distance.

“No, those are trees,” she corrected him.

Looking again, he saw from their stillness and green colouring that they must be. Yet he was sure he had seen them moving.

“The Silvatici rising?” she suggested with an arch smile.

He shifted uncomfortably, thinking of that face above his — that foliate face, yet with her eyes.

“Well, it is a hillfort after all,” she added.

He switched the radio on, hoping for a news bulletin to get him back into the Westminster zone, at least in his head. When one eventually came, it didn’t help to restore his equilibrium or sense of reality. The newscaster spoke of intruders at Buckingham Palace. Apparently staff had reported someone breaking into the grounds, but when a search was mounted, no one could be found. Yet when security checked again in the morning, they noticed a tree that hadn’t been there before.

“Silvatici rising!” Cressida repeated, as if this confirmed it.

He looked at her, uncomprehending. Then he remembered all the things she’d said in the wine bar when he was trying to get her drunk, about how the Silvatici were fighting a war of underground resistance against the Normans. He hadn’t paid much attention at the time, just nodded and smiled, his mind taken up with lecherous daydreams. Nevertheless it had occurred to the part of his brain still capable of rational thought that some of her ravings sounded more socialist than nationalist.

Yes, in the cold light of the day, with his body sore and aching, some of her arguments seemed very disturbing indeed, making him wonder if she was in the right party.  All that stuff she’d said about William the Conqueror’s law declaring all the land belonged to the Crown, and how the people needed to take back control of it — he didn’t remember reading that anywhere in the Conservative Manifesto…

But he’d been too infatuated to think too much about it at the time.

“Yes, yes, of course,” he’d muttered in vague agreement. “It’s time to take back control.”

But now he began to wonder if she meant the same thing as he did when she said it. He suddenly felt sick again, very sick indeed.

“Could we pull over at the next services?” he begged, despising himself for the childishly whiny edge to his voice.

“But we’ve only just started.”

“Please!” he moaned.

 

#

 

He managed to restrain himself from vomiting again until they got into Leigh Delamare services, but he didn’t make it as far as the toilets, having to throw up on the grass verge in the car park as lumpen families gawped at his disgrace and his Jaguar. Cressida laid a hand he found far from reassuring on his back as he bent over the pool of sick.

“Got to go and get myself cleaned up,” he muttered, shaking her hand off.

He forced himself to rise, staggering through the car park to the grey, brutalistic, concrete façade of the service station building. He remembered coming here as a boy, falling and slashing his leg open on a drink can ripped into jagged pieces by an industrial lawn-mower. He’d needed seven stitches. His gorge rose again as the cut rose vividly into view in his mind’s eye, messy and bloody. He soothed himself with the thought of the nurse holding his hand as the doctor sewed the wound up with ghostly white thread, the strange feeling of the needle painlessly penetrating his anaesthetised flesh.

The memory of this accident had somehow come to encapsulate the grim malaise he associated with growing up under socialism in the Seventies, all jumbled up with other memories of long car journeys through London streets disfigured by heaps of bin bags, his father’s black moods whenever he got his tax bill, candlelit dinners imposed by industrial action, not chosen for individual pleasure. He’d often retold the story at dinner parties or in the Westminster bar and canteen, saying a private company would never have allowed such a thing to happen, to general applause from like-minded people who shared his folk memory of that bleak time. But increasingly a nagging little voice kept pointing out it probably was a private contractor responsible for the upkeep of motorway service station grounds even then, that the nurse who held his hand and the doctor who healed his leg worked for the NHS, that his own school fees might have been as much of a financial burden as his father’s income tax.

Right now, that voice seemed increasingly to be Cressida’s, murmuring inside his skull like the insinuations of the thing in his bed last night. He weaved through the crowds of weekend travellers, almost knocking an ice cream out of a child’s hand, trying to put more distance between himself and the intern. A woman visibly shrivelled at the sight of him, or possibly the rank, acrid smell of his puke breath. He must look dreadful. Pain screamed from his backside with every step.

Once he was in the toilets, he cleaned himself up, then dug in his pocket for his phone, remembering Cressida couldn’t come in here. He had to warn someone about what was coming, and somehow he didn’t want her interfering. But what would he tell them? That forest-dwelling guerrillas from Norman times were trying to infiltrate the Tory Party? It sounded absurd expressed like that, even after what he’d experienced last night. Then he remembered the figures on the hill, the news story about the intruder in Buckingham Palace. The very safety of the monarchy could be at stake.

But as he thumbed in the number of the whip’s office, he felt a hand on his arm.

“What are you doing, Mr Murdoch?”

He turned to the new arrival: It had Cressida’s face, but the lines subtly hardened, a neat goatee beard framing the red lips, the hair tied back. He whimpered as the intern gently took the phone out of his hand, and led him back out into the car park.

 

#

 

The next day, she led him by the arm into the lobby. She would be at his side throughout the coming session of parliament, especially during those difficult times when the vote was a particularly tight one, and they all seemed fairly close these days. She would make sure his conscience didn’t fail him if he disagreed with government policy and would defy the whips if necessary, walking into the Opposition lobby with his head held high.

The building looked sad and sick to him today, even more so than usual. It was common knowledge that it was crumbling, decaying. The scaffolding outside bore testament to that. But on his way in, he’d noticed a greenish tinge to the ancient brickwork. Perhaps that was due to the ivy clinging to it, its parasitic roots sucking the moisture from the cement. Funny. He’d never noticed it was even there before. The recent spell of warm wet Spring weather must have spurred it on to shoot up the walls over the weekend.

Thinking of this again, he felt a sudden wave of nausea, and had to get to the toilets quickly to throw up. Why was he still feeling sick? It was as if something was growing inside him, eating away at his insides. Some kind of stomach cancer?

No, it was worse than that.

Remember me? said a tiny voice deep, deep inside him, not Martha’s voice this time, but that of whatever had died with her.

He had a sudden, terrible vision of something clawing its way out of him, with Cressida as midwife, leaving him a bloody, eviscerated shell. Emerging from the toilet, he saw her standing outside waiting for him. Her back was turned, so he slipped away in the other direction, almost colliding with the chief whip. Thank God! He had to warn him about what he was becoming, what he might be bringing into the world.

But when he opened his mouth, all that came out was a shower of leaves.

 

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