A deadly unstoppable tide is approaching and the only way to avoid it is to run. But as I prepare to fly out from Kildare to the Azores in the Twin Otter I’m haunted by thoughts of Della. I can think of nothing else as I worry for her safety. I think about Ralph Patterson, her idiot husband and I wonder, as death closes rapidly in on us all; does he have a survival plan and will it prevent me from ever seeing her again?
Ralph is my sometimes business associate. He’s a money making genius on the Trading floor but outside of that he can be a gobshite of biblical proportions. He has a brain of course, and I hoped to god he was using it instead of performing some sort of headless chicken routine. This was the possibility that planted misgivings in my head.
Shortly before the suspension of commercial flights I sent Cian and Aine, my two teenage kids, to the safety of Corvo while I remained behind to secure the estate as best as I could. When it became obvious that we’d soon be overrun I had Peter Fitzsimons, my friend, estate manager, pilot – and many other things – fly the Twin Otter from Dublin Airport to nearby Weston and maintain it there in full flight readiness.
The day before Pete and I planned to fly out my doubts about Ralph organisational skills grew so great, became so overwhelming, that I panicked and called Della up; hoping beyond hope that she’d be the one to answer the phone and not her husband. I planned to say: “I love you. Leave Ralph; he’s an idiot. Tell him you’re popping down to the shop for smokes and drive straight over here to me. We’ll make a good life together in the Azores.”
But Ralph answered. “Ralph?” I sighed, not bothering to hide my disappointment. “Henry here.”
“Henry! Oh my god, Henry! It’s so good to hear your voice. How are you coping? I was just thinking of you…”
“Are you drunk?” I interrupted.
“Well no, not quite; but I’m nearly there.”
“Listen Ralph; what preparations have you made to get away? Where are you and Della going to go?” This question was answered by silence. Was I surprised? I shouldn’t be. After all, it’s why I called in the first place.
“You stupid eejit,” I growled. “You’re sitting there calmly on your fat arse getting drunk and waiting for Clark Kent to fly though the window. Did you arrange anything? Did you even dig yourself a hole in the ground to match the one in your head?”
“Please Henry; don’t be mad at me.”
“Don’t be mad? You’ll die! Put Della on. Now!”
There was another pause.
“Em… she’s out.”
“Out?” I yelled. “You let her go out? Ralph, Jesus Christ! Shut up and listen to me very, very carefully. Get a pen and a piece of paper and write down this code before the network dies on us.” I ordered him to leave the instant she got back. Pack nothing. Under normal circumstances it would take him two hours to get here but with these new monsters roaming freely it might take him twice that.
He let her go out! What was he thinking? What was she thinking? I had to take a calming walk to the Gate Lodge and back, unaware that a group of frigid, unfeeling creatures had already found their way through a long forgotten, overgrown breech in the estate wall and were spreading through the woodland behind the main house.
My only worry now was for Della’s safe arrival. My nervous pacing brought me to the kitchens where Mrs. Walsh and Harry, the regular household staff, were discussing the bloody mayhem that was surging viciously through nearby Newbridge. When I instructed them to get home to their families Mrs. Walsh ordered me out, flapping an indignant dishcloth at my back as I retreated.
I bought this demesne; eight hundred acres of mature woodland, parkland and stables from the Ryan family ten years ago. My parents had been employees here and I was raised in the Gate Lodge, so this place has always been my home.
The main house, which I was never allowed near as a child and in which I now live, is a three storey Georgian pile dating from 1730. Storm shutters, which had successfully withstood over two centuries of gales protected all of the windows; they had defied the rage of the Black and Tans in the 1920’s and even stymied the worst that Hurricane Charlie threw at us back in ’86. The old terracotta chimney in the servant’s quarters and several of the mature oaks hadn’t been so lucky, though.
I stood on the steps below the front door portico and watched a red, sullen moon rise behind the avenue trees. Just then the high beams of Ralph’s Range Rover punched aggressive arcs across the parkland. As it drew closer I saw that the drivers’ side window was broken and one of the tyres was shredded. Steam rose from the battered bonnet and it appeared as if the vehicle had been rolled. Swirling, finger-painted blood smeared the silver bodywork.
As he pulled in Ralph’s foot slipped off the clutch and the car jumped forward and stalled. I ran down the steps as he stumbled out in obvious distress. He still wasn’t quite sober.
“I’m so stupid,” he babbled. “I missed the motorway exit.”
I looked through the driver’s door and saw Della frozen upright in the passenger seat. She stared back at me with haunted eyes. Her face was a white, shocked mask; but that only made her look all the more lovely. I walked around the car and embraced her as she climbed shakily out. A rush of indescribable delight surged through me as she relaxed in my arms and leaned into me. I could have held her there for hours. I inhaled her perfume and buried my face in her hair.
“We ended up in Celbridge,” she said quietly. “The whole town was on fire. There were running battles taking place. Then a mob of the new things surrounded us and we only escaped by reversing through the streets.” She paused and looked into my eyes. “We drove over somebody.”
“We bloody well drove over several,” Ralph corrected her dismissively. “It’s starting here now, Henry!” he said. “Right here! It really has begun. I shouldn’t sound so surprised but it’s just so terrible and so… so hard to believe.”
“Ralph,” I grunted, “you’re a dunderhead.”
He stared open mouthed at me. He seemed more hurt by my putdown than he was by my blatant over-familiarity with his wife.
“Henry,” he blurted, “that’s not fair. I did the best that I could.”
“You’re still drunk. How could you have missed the exit?”
“Oh, just ignore him, Ralph,” said an unexpected, unwelcome and uninvited voice from the back seat.
I relinquished my hold on Della and stared into the car. How could have I missed this malevolent presence? I turned away to hide my sudden rage. It was bad enough having Ralph here but dear god; his mother too? That old witch would already have assumed the right to a place on the aircraft. Just look at her in there; tenderly primping that pampered little dog of hers.
“Luckily we wear our seat belts whenever we travel outside of the Pale,” she remarked as Ralph helped her out.
“There be dragons. Eh, Lavinia?” I said through gritted teeth.
“If you say so.”
I was still just the gatekeeper’s boy to Lavinia. Her obnoxious little Pekingese squeaked and struggled to be released but she held on tightly to its jewelled collar. Expensive surgery made her look younger than her years and in a certain light she could almost pass for a slim, attractive woman in her fifties.
“Ralphie,” she began, “did you see those bodies just lying in the streets of that awful town?” This comment was merely pointing out the untidiness of it all.
I settled them in front of a fire in the library and poured them all stiff drinks. It was only then that Ralph remarked offhandedly that he hadn’t closed the gates. I stared at him in horror and he caught my look.
“Sorry Henry, don’t they close automatically?”
I was just about to shove the decanter up his arse – sideways – when Peter Fitzsimons stuck his head around the doorway and beckoned me urgently into the hall. Not only was he infuriated at the Patterson’s presence but he was mad at me for not warning him they were coming.
“Listen Henry,” he said tersely, “We have trouble on our hands.”
“What? Is it the aircraft?”
“No, no, the aircraft is fine.” Pete said. “But I’ve just had a horrible call from a mate of mine in Celbridge. He may be hurt already, judging by how he was cut off. I don’t know. He was begging me to come over and get him out of the town.”
“Oh Pete, I’m sorry.” I said. We both knew there was nothing we could do.
“There’s more,” he continued. “We need to lock down the house right away. The security lights have tripped near the Folly and I don’t think that foxes are the culprits this time.”
“Bollocks,” I snapped. “Listen, feckin’ Ralph left the gates open. I only just found out.”
“Yeah, I know…did you see anything on the CCTV?” After a botched robbery here five years ago I had the house and grounds wired for sight and sound. A small room off of the main hall acted as a modest security centre.
“Only a shadow; nothing definite. I’m going to go out and take a look but I’ll be coming straight back; it’s not safe to mess about in the open any more.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“What? No, no, you stay here and look after the girls.” This included Ralph.
“Then take a Purdey and a radio.” I said. “Call me if we have intruders and we’ll decide what to do with them then. No confrontations. Tell Mrs. Walsh and Harry to leave now if they’re leaving at all. Follow them in the Jeep and lock, bar and chain the gate after them. Tell them not to be late to the airfield in the morning.”
Pete nodded curtly and strode down the darkly panelled hall towards the kitchens.
“Will you join us for supper?” I asked as an afterthought.
“Life’s too short,” he grunted and then he was gone. Pete disliked Lavinia so intensely that he could hardly even look at her. She and Ralph treated him; an ex-air corps pilot instructor, with a blank indifference. He was merely the lackey that ran the farm or saddled their horse if an impulsive early morning canter took their fancy. But I’ve often seen Della animatedly discuss the herbaceous borders with him at great length and I’ve seen them thundering across the parkland on horseback together.
Della was here now and that was all that mattered. I suppose that Ralph and Lavinia were now superfluous baggage.
No, no, no, what am I thinking? Tch!
We needed to make the house invisible so with Pete gone I got Ralph to help me kill all of the lights, secure all the window shutters and pull the drapes. I didn’t want any light or sound escaping from inside. From the drawing room window I caught a glimpse of Harry’s tail lights flicker away across the parkland with Pete’s mud spattered Jeep following close behind.
A chill of fear gripped me as a lumpy form detached itself clumsily from the shrubbery and lurched unsteadily after them. I hurriedly snapped off the ceiling lights and cupped both hands against the window. I could make out the shapes of the avenue poplars but I couldn’t see anything in the lower, deeper shadows. The moon wasn’t high enough to give much light but a soft orange glow bathed the skyline beyond the branches. I wondered if that was Lucan or Leixlip burning.
Ralph and I soon had the house locked down. As I did a final check on the front door bolts a series of heavy blows pounded roughly against the outside of its wooden panels. I froze at a rising chorus of gurgled moans. Jaysus, I thought. How many of them are there out there?
An artillery barrage wouldn’t breech this door but the knowledge of what was trying to get in was chilling. Nails scratched at the woodwork as if a grizzly bear was nosing around for a way in.
Entering the library was like crossing a portal into the eighteenth century. The room was entirely candlelit. Shadows danced across ceiling mouldings and bookshelves. The corners were lost in darkness but the tall, gilded picture frames – portraits of Ryan ancestors – stood out starkly between the volumes. I just hated to leave all of this behind; I loved this wonderful book filled room more than anything else.
The firelight reflected brightly in Della’s lustrous eyes. She gazed quietly at me with a soft expression, her lips parted slightly in unconscious invitation and, despite my fear of what I’d just seen and heard outside, I wondered what she’d do if I went over there and gave her a deep lingering kiss. I so wanted to. Would she…
“Ah, there you are,” drawled Lavinia disapprovingly from my favourite armchair. “We though you were off working on your accent. Didn’t we Ralphie?”
“Mother!” snapped Ralph in my defence. “Don’t be so rude!” but Lavinia just snorted and nonchalantly lifted her glass to examine the rich ruby colours of her sherry. Her insult had been delivered successfully so she could just go and ignore me again. Flames gleamed through the faceted stem and dappled her expensively lifted features. I looked at the three of them. Surely they had heard the rumpus at the front of the house? Then again, maybe they hadn’t; it was a bit of a distance away.
“What do you think of the candles, Ralphie darling?” Lavinia pointedly asked her son. “We thought they might help dispel the murky atmosphere of this terribly dowdy room.”
“Oh, Mother! For gods sake…”
The sting of this additional insult overcame my fear. I coldly watched her holding that repulsive little rat analogue to her restructured bosom as if it were a baby. Lavinia deeply resented the fact that she had to be rescued from the Dead by me, a member of the lower classes with aspirations above my station.
“We’ll dine in here tonight.” I decided abruptly. “Lavinia, have you any dietary requests before I pop supper in the oven? Some swan, perhaps? Panda? No? good.”
I know it seems strange to associated myself with people I dislike so intensely so I’ll just use this time, as I prepare the food, to explain to you my relationship with Ralph Patterson. It’ll help take my fearful mind off our frightening circumstances.
Ralph was an old secondary school acquaintance of mine but he was never, ever, my friend. He once beat the lard out of me in a fit of frustration in his dormitory after I refused to perform an explicit act on him. At the time he was a large, stocky rugby scrumhalf two years my senior and I was a skinny, innocent fifteen year old who was utterly unaware of his sexual orientation.
I clearly remember my shock, surprise and bewilderment as he knocked me to the floor between the beds and pounded me with his fists; accusing me of being a common little tease. The spectacular bruises that this school hero punched into me that day have never, ever faded. When he graduated several months later I was relieved to know that I’d never have to clap eyes on him again. But five years later, as luck would have it, our careers overlapped and we couldn’t pretend to be strangers on the cramped and chaotic floor of the Dublin Stock Exchange. Ralph insisted on treating me as a dear old school friend despite the memory of that beating hanging rancidly between us. If I was from a privileged background I believe he might have apologised for it; but I wasn’t, so he didn’t.
For my part I was delighted to see that his muscular heft had been replaced by bulky layers of soft, pink fat. I also felt a pleasant satisfaction on realising that I had grown a good four inches taller than him. Try me on for size now you spineless, superior git, I thought to myself.
Occasional we had to mix socially but I actively discouraged any association with him. He no longer frightened me as he once did but he made me quite uneasy with the hungry way he sometimes looked me up and down.
For years I lived the wild life that most young men do, and when I became tired of playing the field I fell in love with a nice sensible girl named Lisa, married her, and we had two wonderful children who, in their infancy, tragically lost their mother in a single vehicle accident.
Now here’s the rub; shortly after Lisa’s death Ralph began calling to my house to sympathise and – he claimed – to help me with my grieving process, which was none of his business. The first time he called (I was too numb to prevent him entering) he gave me a big manly hug that lasted for far too long. He was just taking advantage of course, the sly bugger.
These uninvited visits had the opposite effect to which he intended. No friendly bonds formed, the babies cried when they saw him and I began to experience an unreasonable, growing resentment towards him for his failure to apologise for that old school beating. This resentment grew like the proverbial pebble rolling down the slope…
I knew this antipathy was an aftershock caused by Lisa’s death but nevertheless I allowed it to consume me because…well, because I kind of liked it. It gave me something on which to focus the anger I felt at my wife’s loss. I knew it was unhealthy but I coldly persisted in entertaining it.
So, if he was so bothersome to me why not just tell him to go and take a hike? Why not just remind him he was a tedious pain in the arse and to quit bothering me? Well, you see Ralph, directly and indirectly, helped make me potfuls of money and I couldn’t go and alienate my cash cow; now could I?
Ralph phoned me one day and asked if I’d like to meet his new girlfriend. I laughed outright at this nonsense. Ralph was gay and he knew I knew this. I had no problems with gays but I did have a problem with Ralph so I wasn’t in the least bit interested in meeting his so-called girlfriend but… we had a tasty business deal pending so once again I thought it would be imprudent of me to tell him to get stuffed.
The following night I reluctantly entered the bar of the Shelbourne in the expectation of a forced, tiresome evening with him and some vapid little gold digger – or ladyboy – but that’s not what I got at all.
Della was really something. Not beautiful, exactly; no, not really, but she was very, very attractive. She had poise and a confidence that drew me to her immediately. She made me laugh with delight, almost on introduction, with some well placed quip delivered in a calm, clear voice. She was utterly natural and completely self possessed and by the end of the evening I’d been effortlessly charmed by her easy charisma.
Ralph beamed at the obvious effect she was having on me. He was really pleased with himself. What he didn’t notice; and nor did I until near the end of the evening, was that I was having the same effect on her, too. Yes I was, but she had the very good manners to pretend otherwise. Furthermore, she made it quite clear; quite, quite clear in fact, that she was with Ralph – and that was that. Full stop!
So who was she and where had she come from? I was fascinated. When she went to the Ladies room I asked Ralph but he just winked broadly and tapped a single fat finger against the side of his nose. I momentarily considered poking out his beady eye with a nearby cocktail stick.
I wondered briefly – very briefly – if I could steal her away from him. She had definitely sent me signals. But no, that wasn’t my style. Nevertheless, I began to amuse myself by imagining; as I doodled her name on the agendas of dull meetings, on international flights, as sleep eluded me in my empty bed – anywhere in fact where my mind had time to wander – of ways in which I could make her mine.
In the following months, despite having to suffer Ralph’s company, I arranged to meet them anytime I could just to see her; to see if I was correct about her interest in me. I soon lost all doubts; she was, but she resolutely maintained her distance. Eventually the devil whispered terrible temptations in my ear until one day, when I knew that Ralph was away in London; I sat down and phoned her up.
“Hello Della? It’s me, Henry.”
“Hello Henry,” she said. “I know why you’re calling. This is the beginning of a very bad idea and you know it.” I was totally unprepared for such bluntness.
“I hate it when you beat around the bush.” I joked.
“Henry, you’re not to call me when he’s not here.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I though you might like some lunch, that’s all. We could chat.”
“It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, Henry. It actually sounds lovely. But as pleasant as it sounds I’d only weaken in your company and that will lead to bad things. Ralph and I have a comfortable arrangement and you’ll only complicate it.”
Then I received a wedding invitation. I laughed at this too before the implications sank in. Well…It had to be a joke, didn’t it? The dogs in the street knew Ralph was gay so what possible motives could he have to need to marry?
Did I care? Well no, actually. I didn’t; except that he was marrying Della.
I found myself standing heartbroken on the alter beside them at their Big Fat Society Wedding. I knew I wasn’t the first Best Man to hunger after the Bride but I was the only one doing so in the church that morning. It was another fine joke; me being Ralph’s Best Man. At first I assumed he chose me for business reasons but it turned out that it wasn’t that at all.
During the ceremony, when it came to the “I do’s” part, Ralph glanced round and caught my eye. I believe it was accidental but in that brief instant of eye contact – that microsecond – I glimpsed a vast and terrible landscape of yearning and loss that I instantly understood, and the shock of it nearly floored me.
In that split second I realised that I was, and always had been, the sole object of this poor sods dreams and desires; I was Ralph Patterson’s one true love; the poor, poor miserable bastard. We would have made a mournful duo standing there in our formal frock coats if it hadn’t been for Della shining brightly in a stained glass sunbeam.
Della continued to maintain her distance which only fuelled my increasing resentment towards her new husband. I felt my growing ill will creep invisibly towards him like a silent cabbage fart. I felt it earlier this evening as I stonily watched him quaff his cognac as he rested a limp hand on her shoulder in the Library.
But what can I do about this now? What if they missed the flight? What if Pete and I just left Ralph and Lavinia behind us in the morning? We could sneak out with Della on some pretence or other and just leave them snoring away…
With supper roasting nicely I rejoined the Patterson’s in the library. It was impossible not to notice that Lavinia had changed into clothes specifically designed to highlight her most recent Harley Street augmentations. She looked malformed.
“My goodness Lavinia,” I commented. “You’re looking very nice tonight. Have you… changed your hair or something?” Della hid a quick smirk behind her hand as Lavinia’s gimlet eyes rose slowly and fixed me to the spot.
“Henry,” she murmured coolly, “you’re such a card, aren’t you? But you know where my room is if you’re interested.” Ralph nearly choked on an olive and his head jerked up in horror. Della’s mouth fell open in delighted shock.
“Lavinia?” she sang in disbelief.
Ralph gasped; “Don’t be such a slut!”
“Oh, I am a slut, Ralphie,” she purred. “But my new upgrades are going to waste and I’d like to make use of them while I still can.” She deliberately dropped he gaze to my crotch. “It’s the end of the world, Henry. What have you got to lose?”
My self respect, I thought. This distasteful woman wants me to test drive her new tits. I tipped the sherry decanter towards her glass to hide my revulsion. Her little black hearted Pekingese growled vindictively at me. I stared into its glassy eyes. The hairs on my arms rose up at the chilly gush of hatred that emanated powerfully from this tiny thing. It must be her Familiar. It couldn’t be just the dog, there had to be some sort of vile entity lurking inside it.
“Oh, Missus Ming!” Lavinia scolded it tiredly. “There you go, frightening the help. Henry, don’t pay any attention to silly old Missus Ming. She’s just jealous of you.”
Ralph, possible also jealous, raised his watery, exasperated eyes to heaven. One thing that he and I openly shared was an extremely low opinion of Missis Ming, but if it came to a choice between Lavinia and the dog, I knew I’d rather shag the dog.
“Pete,” I said, “are you there? Over! Hello Pete?”
“Henry!” Pete’s voice crackled. “I’m at the back door. Let me in, quickly!”
“Open the feckin door for Jaysus sake! Hurry!”
Della and I dashed from the library with Ralph’s wobbling bulk following in our wake. We ran through the kitchen and into the small utility lobby by the pantry. I slipped the upper and lower bolts and threw the back door wide open to the night. Pete stumbled in, slammed the door, shot the bolts and backed away from its panels as if they were about to grab him.
“Pete, what happened?” Della asked.
“Hiya, Della. Help me out here,” He ordered us. We lifted the old mahogany table from the kitchen and jammed it tight against the back door.
“That might hold them for a while,” he muttered.
“Hold who?” I asked.
“Who do you think? The entire local population, that’s who!” said Pete. “I’m terribly sorry Henry, but I’m afraid we mightn’t be leaving tomorrow as planned.
“Are you okay, Pete?” Della asked.
“I’m fine; a little out of breath, that’s all. I was running.”
I poured him a glass of cooking wine as he told us what had happened.
“I followed Mrs. Walsh and Harry as far as the gate and secured it after them. Suddenly this guy appeared from the roadside and wham! He slams his head right in through the bars, taking off his ear and scaring the living bejaysus out of me. Man! I jumped back as another joined him. And then another, and another.
“The security lights were still on at the Folly so I motored over there through the trees. I cut the main beams and the engine and coasted to a quiet stop about fifty metres out. A group of them were just staring up at the light until one of them turned and spotted me.
“I decided that running for it was safer than getting mobbed while trying to start the engine so, well… the jeep is still out there. I’m sorry Henry, but I’ve lost our transport. They came after me so they’ll be outside the pantry door soon I think.”
“There’s a mob of them outside the front door already,” I told them. Pete took the wine bottle off me, poured himself a second glass and downed it. His hand was as steady as a rock.
“What are we doing here yapping, then? We need to go upstairs and take a look.”
We felt our way up the broad flight of carpeted stairs to the first floor and carefully opened the heavy drapes in the bedroom above the pantry. Pete swore quietly at the sight of shabby figures shuffling into the kitchen garden, trampling across Mrs. Walsh’s herbs. Their pale faces were visible in the moonlight.
The view from the front bedroom windows was even more disheartening. Groups of them slouched along the driveway towards the front door. Others patrolled the length of the house. They weren’t agitated or excited; they just dragged their feet like bored teenagers. They were nothing like the ones we had seen rampaging on TV but they hadn’t had much stimulus to respond to – yet, so we had stay very, very quiet.
When we returned to the candle lit kitchen Pete gazed at me as I skewered the lamb to check the juices. “Jesus, Henry, we’re under siege. We’re trapped – possibly dead. I have to say you’re taking all this very calmly.”
“I’m not near as calm as I look,” I confessed. “But all’s not lost yet. Do you recall how Collins escaped the Tans when he supposedly stayed here?”
“The tunnel?” Pete snapped. “Henry, the tunnel was filled in during the thirties – if it ever bloody existed in the first place!”
“It does exist, Pete.”
It was a story that had fascinated me since childhood; how Collins had escaped down the secret tunnel in the Big House to freedom from certain death at the hands of the brutish Tans. So as soon as I bought this place the first thing I did was to nose around the cellar for evidence of this local legend. To my great surprise and delight I found the entrance hidden badly behind the wine racks. It was clumsily bricked over but it was there all right. I got myself a pick and a crowbar and went to work.
“The tunnel is real? Henry, you could knock me down with a feather. It’s meant to emerge inside the Folly.”
“It does. I keep the Folly key right over there.” I gestured towards the key rack by the pantry door. Pete smiled and shook his head thoughtfully. “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
“I wanted a secret escape route in case Lavinia ever called.”
Pete laughed. “Hey, we might be able to get the Jeep back!”
“Hopefully,” I smiled, “but in the morning. We’ll need to lure those creatures away from the Folly first, then we’ll shoot through the tunnel, grab the Jeep and scoot off to the airfield.”
“Lure them away how?”
“I dunno. I’ll think of something.” A plan was forming in my head. I just had to figure out the details and grow the balls to carry it out.
“Show me the tunnel,” asked Pete.
We lifted the heavy wooden wine rack from the cellar wall and pulled away the loose brickwork by hand. There wasn’t a breath of air coming from the cool, cobwebbed darkness of the tunnel mouth.
“Is it a straight shot to the Folly?”
“Straight as an arrow and dry as a bone.” I answered as I handed him a flashlight.
“How is it supported?”
“Wooden sleepers. See here?”
He nodded. “You’ve walked it all the way?”
“I’ll do the same right now then. I want to see how easy it’ll be to get to the far end in a hurry. Henry, I suggest you keep an eye on the others while I’m gone. We can’t have Ralph or that old plastic faced bitch doing anything silly; if they so much as peek out of a window tonight we’re dead.”
I nodded. “Walk it carefully. Its ninety years old.”
I choose the Waterford cut glasses for the wine. I thought it would be a shame not to use them one last time. I always imagined that wine tasted better out of these. I had Della and Ralph carry the plates and cutlery to the library and set the table. When they’d gone I took a little bottle of liquid from my pocket and carefully smeared the inside of Ralph’s glass with its contents. Then I carved the lamb and brought it to the library, passing Della in the hall as she returned for the vegetables. I placed the glasses carefully on the table and spent some time choosing a suitable wine from the bottles lining the piano top.
During supper I bit my tongue as Ralph lifted his glass and gazed at it as if making a wish. He sipped away and as the meal progressed his speech became slurred. An exasperated Lavinia suddenly ordered him to bed as if he were a naughty little boy.
“I’m so sorry, everyone.” Ralph apologised as he tried to stand. “I don’t normally get this bad. It must have been that wonderful brandy of yours earlier, Henry.”
“Get some sleep Ralph,” I said. “We’re up before daybreak. We all need to be in bed very soon.”
“I’ll take him up,” Della said. “I’m not sure if he can make the stairs himself.”
“I’d better help you then, just in case.”
Ralph looked affectionately at Della as he swayed between us. “Thank you for everything,” he mumbled. She smiled quizzically at him and he was out cold by the time we flopped him on the embroidered duvet on their bed.
“Do you know what, Henry?” Della said thoughtfully. “Ralph makes the most peculiar demands sometimes.”
“I’ll bet,” I remarked dryly. “I love to ask but I’m afraid to pry.”
“Well, it’s all because of you, really.”
“What?” I gasped. “What have I got to do with you and Ralph?”
She turned and looked into my eyes. My god, she was stunning…
“Oh Henry,” she said quietly as if holding back something and wondering if she should tell. “Why, everything. Simply everything. Didn’t you realise that?”
A light flicked on inside my head as I stared at her. The way she was looking at me; her shining eyes…her and me and Ralph…things suddenly clicked into place. She wanted me but her sense of duty; her marriage vows, wouldn’t allow her to cheat on Ralph.
“I see.” I murmured. “I understand it all now.” I stepped forward and kissed her. Hers lips tasted sweetly of wine and as I moved against her she cupped my face gently with both of her warm, soft hands. I put my arm around her waist while the other…
She gently pulled away. “Goodnight now, Henry,” she said firmly and I felt enormous confusion as I closed the bedroom door gently behind me.
Once more I felt a terrible chill of fear as I gazed out of the upstairs windows. How on earth could we slip by this lot in the morning? We were leaving by the Folly but it was still close enough to the house to be a deadly dangerous gamble.
I went to the cellar to see if Pete had returned from the tunnel but he wasn’t about. I tried to remove Della from my thoughts as I tiptoed through the house with a rare bottle of Port. I didn’t want to rouse the waiting corpses outside of the front door but Lavinia’s little cur began yipping as soon as I stepped inside the library.
“Shut up, Missis Ming.” Lavinia snapped. “What’s that?” she asked as I proudly displayed the dusty bottle.
“This is very special.” I explained triumphantly. “Rather than let it go to waste I thought we should sample it before going to bed.”
“Before bed, eh? Am I going to be a lucky girl, then? I’ve always found you attractive Henry, did you know that? I know Della does.” I know too. Now.
“Let’s try some of this first, shall we?”
“If we must. What is it?”
“This is a Taylor’s Scion Vintage Port. It lay forgotten in an attic for over a hundred years. Then it was found again.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of this.” She said with some interest. I poured two glasses and handed Lavinia the tainted one. She carefully examined the dark honeyed liquid before closing her eyes, sniffing the rim and putting it to her lips.
“Ummm…Sublime,” she whispered and sipped again. “Simply sublime; leather, rose and honey.” It was sublime. I should have opened it the night before the kids flew out. We could have enjoyed it without the fear, urgency or danger.
“And molasses,” I added.
“And molasses,” she repeated. “Pour me some more. We are sipping the very epitome of a dying civilisation.” She licked her lips suggestively. “Lets do it right in here; what do you say, Henry?”
“Well uh…” I hedged, “I though you didn’t like this room? Anyway, Pete is still about and I need to do a few checks around the house first; windows, doors and the like. Not to mention I’d be a little self conscious in front of Missis Ming. Why don’t you wait upstairs and I’ll be up in ten minutes.”
“Oh, very well. I’ll lock Missus Ming up in her cage; but I’ll be in the bed darling, all powdered, perfumed and ready for action.”
In the hall she pulled me close for a kiss but Missis Ming barked. Answering moans erupted eerily through the front door and the violent pummelling began again. Lavinia recoiled in fright. I’m convinced that up until that moment she honestly believed that no harm could ever befall Lavinia Patterson, queen of the social scene.
“They can’t get in.” I assured her. “Go upstairs and I’ll join you soon.” Then I added mockingly: “Darling.”
She stifled a huge yawn despite her fright. I reckoned the drug would kick in as soon as she put the dog away. To be honest, I had dosed her so heavily that I doubted if she’d even make it to the bed. She could lie where she fell for all I cared; I didn’t expect to ever see her, or Ralph, again.
I waited for her bedroom door to close before going straight up to bed myself, but I lay awake for a long time thinking about Della. I badly wanted to creep down the carpeted hallway to her room. I longed to slip between the covers with her, but eventually I fell asleep to the empty moans of those outside.
When my eyes cracked open it was fully light. I yelped, stumbled out of bed and ran to the window. We’d slept it out! We should be in the air right now!
The Dead had coalesced into a single, mangled mass against the walls below. They were moaning twenty, thirty, forty deep around the house. It was like the crush at the stage of a rock concert; only quieter. The sunlight betrayed the damage done to each of them at their creation and I stared in horror at the range of mutilations on display.
I clambered hurriedly into my clothes and dashed straight into Della’s room.
She wasn’t there. Ralph still snored where he had fallen.
“Della?” I shouted down the echoing hallway. Mayhem erupted outside the house at the sound of my voice, but I didn’t care.
“Peter!” I yelled.
I ran through this big, empty house. I was confused. This didn’t compute. Where was Della? Where was Pete? Pretty soon an unlikely thought struck me; a horrible thought; a terrible realisation that I simply refused to accept. But as I frantically threw open doors, ran down hallways and searched through empty rooms my suspicions changed into a horrible, hideous acceptance. I sat heavily on the bottom of the stairs and put my bursting head into my shaking hands.
Fifteen raw, mind ripping minutes later; after my initial denial had morphed into a fit of screaming and crying, I found myself sitting in the pokey surrounds of the little security room. I was exhausted, numb and miserably sipping Taylor’s Scion Vintage Port directly from the bottle. I gazed red eyed at the milling throng on CCTV when the two way radio at my elbow crackled into life.
“Are you there Henry? Over.”
I picked it up. “Pete.” I mumbled.
“Hello Henry,” he replied sheepishly. “I’m really, really sorry about this. Truly I am, but I couldn’t think of any other way to play it.”
“Could you not? Where are you?”
“Weston. I’ve just finished the pre-flight and we should be airborne in a few minutes.”
“She’s here too. So is Mrs. Walsh and Harry and their families. As soon as I get the engines started and the starter gear on board we’ll be off. Conditions are pretty good.”
A silence followed which I thought a planet couldn’t fill.
“Are you still there, Henry?” He asked.
“Yes,” I said. “So, tell me why, Pete?”
“Well, look…I swear I had nothing planned. I was so excited when I went down the tunnel last night that I forgot to bring the Folly key. When I went back up to the kitchen to get it I saw you spiking someone’s glass.
“I suspected that it was Ralph’s and when Della came in for the veg I told her what you’d done. I wasn’t sure what I should do about it though, if anything, and neither was she. She thought you’d probably do the same to Lavinia so I decided I’d keep an eye on you with the CCTV. You were planning to leave them behind, weren’t you?”
“In a nutshell.” I confessed. “But why leave me?”
“Well, it’s Della. We’ve had a thing going for…”
“Rubbish! It’s me she wants. We kissed last night.”
“I know you did, Henry. She likes you, but not in that way. You see, Della is a paid Escort; well…was. Very expensive, very high class, and Ralph hired her as a honeytrap – sort of – to get you interested in her.”
“Bollocks!” I scoffed. “Why?”
“Well, you see Ralph, apparently, is smitten by you. And as you’d never socialise with him alone her presence became an acceptable means to an end for him. Her instructions were simple: to keep you interested but to do nothing more than that.”
“Pete, that’s just nuts.” I whispered. “I don’t believe you.”
“It’s clever but sad, Henry. And it worked out so well that he paid her a six figure sum for the marriage. She didn’t even have to live with him. She could live her own life on one condition; that she drop whatever she was doing, no matter where she was, and answer Ralph’s call if he needed her services.”
I hadn’t felt so battered since Ralph beat me up all those years ago. So it was all about me, just like she said, but not in the misguided way I had interpreted it.
“So you and Della…”
“Yes, we met when they visited last year and we clicked immediately. Ralph didn’t mind. Not that I’d give a shite.”
I was beyond crushed. I didn’t particularly fear death – as such – it was the thought of the pitiless biting and gnawing at my muscle and bone while I still lived to scream that was too terrifying to contemplate. That was what awaited me now.
“So, you’re leaving me here to die, Pete?”
“Oh Henry,” he said irritably. “Get a grip. If I thought you were going to die you’d be here with us now, no matter what the complications. I wouldn’t endanger you for anything. Nothing can get through the doors of that house and there’s enough food in the pantry to last you for at least three months.” He paused thoughtfully. “Six months if you bump off Ralph and there’s enough meat on him to last you a further three. That’s the guts of a year, and I’m sure he’d love you to eat him…”
“Peter!” I shouted. “That’s not funny!”
“…and if you stay quiet the Dead will eventually drift off. Then you can close the gates, pick off the stragglers – the Purdeys are still in the gun cabinet – secure the estate, plant some crops and wait for all of this to end. You’ll be just fine.”
I tilted the bottle to my lips. Self-protective doors were slamming shut in my head.
“Why bring Lavinia with you?”
“What? I didn’t. Lavinia had… an accident.”
“We needed a distraction to clear the Folly of the Dead.”
“My god, Pete,” I whispered at his coldness. “My god.”
“She’s no loss.”
I sensed that our conversation was coming to an end. “Pete, can I say goodbye to Della?”
“No. Sorry, Henry. She’s already on board keeping Harry’s kids calm. They’ve never flown before and they’re really excited.”
“What about Cian and Aine in Corvo?” I said. “Will you tell them that I love them?”
“Yes, of course. Of course I will; it’s the least I can do. I’ll keep them safe too, I promise, but I must go now. Good luck, Henry.”
And that was that. He was gone. I knew I wasn’t in any immediate, personal danger but the heartbreak and disappointment was crippling. I turned off the radio and trudged heavily up the stairs with the bottle in my hand. I went into Lavinia’s room and peered out of the open window. Directly below me a group of them knelt snarling on top of each other as they gnawed at a ragged, bloody carcass crushed flat beneath their collective weight. I wondered absently if they had eaten her implants.
Missus Ming looked out from her gilded cage with big, frightened eyes.
“Looks like we’ve both been dumped, eh?” I remarked. She whimpered meekly as I freed her from her prison but she didn’t bite or growl like I expected her to, nor did she make a single sound as I tossed her casually out of the window to join her late mistress below.
I scrambled out of a dusty attic window and stood on the sloping, sunny rooftop. A low parapet hid me from sight and prevented me from falling. As far as the eye could see there were bright green fields, distant church steeples and low blue hills; it was all very pastoral, well ordered and peaceful. Despite all of this my head was spinning with questions. For example, had Pete been completely honest with me just now? I had serious doubts.
For example, did Della warn Ralph last night? If so, did Ralph see a golden opportunity to have me all alone to himself forever? If he did, what deal could he possibly have offered Pete to abandon me? His mother’s life, perhaps?
No, that’s stupid. I’ll just have to ask Ralph himself when he comes to. It looks like I’ve got nothing better to do this year.
I heard the unmistakeable drone of distant aircraft engines firing into life and two minutes later a small shape rose into the air in the middle distance. It banked gracefully and climbed in my direction before resolving itself into the familiar shape of the Twin Otter. It passed overhead at about a thousand feet and I smiled in begrudging admiration as its wings rocked gently from side to side in deliberate farewell. I choked off a bitter laugh and raised my bottle in helpless, silent salute as the aircraft dwindled away southwards into the mocking glare of the morning sun.
That Pete, I thought; honestly…