This charmingly spooky novel is set in Pelican River, southwest of Perth, in the 1920s. With all the charm and coziness of a BBC TV period drama, the story plays out in the aftermath of the First World War. It is centered around the eccentric and newly widowed Ruth, her butler Rutherford, and her aunt Julia, together with Ruth’s inventor neighbor Gordon and his raft of hounds, and the elusive and sinister demon, Mr. Nor. Humor abounds and the characters explore the new ideas in science and physics of the era, as well as the development of science fiction itself, with cameos by the likes of Mr. H. G. Wells. This supernatural crime mystery also bears the traces of the effect of war on a nation and its people.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
K. A. Bedford is the author of Eclipse, Hydrogen Steel, Orbital Burn, Paradox Resolution, and Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait. He was short-listed for the Western Australian Science Fiction Association Tin Duck Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Aurealis Award for Best Australian Science Fiction Novel (twice). He has also won the Aurealis Award twice.
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By K. A. Bedford, Naama Amram
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2015 K. A. Bedford
All rights reserved.
May, 192 —
The ambulance raced through the narrow city streets.
My Aunt Julia, unconscious in the back, looked fragile, even frail. I sat next to her stretcher, holding a wooden spoon in her mouth, as the driver had instructed me, to prevent her swallowing her tongue in the event of another seizure. I had not seen my aunt in years. I knew she was now only in her fifties, but lying there in the back of the speeding ambulance, she appeared withered with age, and too pale.
I sat by her side for the long drive from Maylands Airport to Perth Public Hospital. The ambulance jinked and swerved as the driver tried to get us through the afternoon traffic. There were no windows in the back of the ambulance, but I could hear the driver swearing at motorcars, buggies and carts, even people on horseback, all of them in his way, going about their tiresome business, keeping us from reaching the help Julia needed.
The driver had told me that Julia had become agitated, even panicked, during the last few legs of her flight, and that, not long before landing, she had fallen unconscious after suffering "some sort of fit" as the aircraft, a converted Vimy heavy bomber, came rattling in to land.
"A fit? Julia has no history of that sort of thing," I had said. But then, what did I know? Twelve years had passed. Anything might have happened to her in that time. The Julia I remembered from my old life in England had been lively, funny, never unwell for a single day of her life. I held her cold and clammy hand, and thought that if she was so unwell, had it been wise to undertake this epic journey — all of those consecutive flights! — to reach me?
Julia and I, before our falling out, had been close, great friends. She was the only one in my family, other than perhaps my mother, who understood me, or at least accepted me the way I was, without question. My father, by contrast, had always been formal and serious, as if he'd been memorialised into a suitably grave statue even while still alive. He had been a pillar of the English Establishment, and I, his only child, a profound disappointment.
The ambulance arrived at the hospital. Rutherford, following behind in the Bentley, pulled up nearby. He joined me in the waiting room, pulling off his leather driving gloves. "Is there any news?"
I filled him in. He nodded, rubbed at his face, but said nothing. We managed to find seats and waited. I was struck by the noise of the place. Every hospital I had ever visited had the noisiest waiting areas and wards, despite the large signs throughout urging everyone to keep quiet. We were surrounded by family members, mostly mothers and wives, worried sick about loved ones; there were a great many men injured, perhaps in the course of their work, and just as many lively young children, generally little boys, who had taken one too many foolish backyard risks. It seemed children could sense the urgency and alarm hanging thick in the air. I was sympathetic. Many of the women looked exhausted beyond words. They had done their bit: they'd managed to get their husband or child here in one piece; the rest was up to the doctors. It reminded me of the night my father died, and the long trip from the family estate to the hospital, with Father so still and grey in the back of the car, and my husband Antony driving like a demon along those winding, narrow roads, desperate to get Father to the hospital in time.
Rutherford cleared his throat; he indicated the approaching doctor, a young, tired-looking man in a white coat with bad scarring on his left hand that may have come from War service. "Mrs Black?"
I went over to him. "I'm Mrs Black. How is she?"
"Can we just move over here?"
"Of course, Doctor."
"I'm Dr Mendes."
"Good evening, Doctor." Rutherford had moved to stand behind me, offering his support.
"Are you Miss Templesmith's next-of-kin?" He had a clipboard, making notes.
"I am, yes. Julia is my aunt, on my father's side."
Mendes nodded. "I see," and made a note.
"Can you tell me anything?"
He checked his notes. "Miss Templesmith has suffered what appears to be a mild attack of epilepsy. Does she have a history of —?"
"No, not at all," I said. "Will she be all right?"
"It's possible she'll have recurring attacks," Dr Mendes said. "There are some fairly crude medicines we can prescribe ..."
I knew about such drugs. The worst was bromide, now something of an old-fashioned treatment. I dreaded the thought of Julia being given that. Such medications amounted to sedating one's brain into a state of living death. "I see. Is there anything else that might help?"
"A country rest-cure couldn't hurt. Somewhere quiet and peaceful. Good food, pleasant scenery, free from upsets and disturbances. Things like that would be a start. I don't think it would eliminate the chance of further attacks, but —"
I held up a hand. "I know the perfect place, Doctor." I explained about my home in Pelican River.
"Sounds ideal," he said. "We'd like to keep Miss Templesmith in for a few days' observation before we can release her, of course."
"Very well, Doctor. Of course. When would be a good time to return?"
"Visiting hours close at eight. Perhaps after seven this evening would be best. Just ask when you arrive."
I nodded, thanked the doctor for his time, and left, Rutherford following. It was now approaching five in the afternoon. I would need a hotel.
* * *
Outside the hospital's Casualty department, with its noise and odours, the world looked bleak. The approaching storm front was almost upon us. Across the street loomed St Mary's Cathedral, impressive and as ancient as anything could be in this young city, all flying buttresses, towering spires and stained glass, manicured grounds, and a modest graveyard. It was not something I wanted to see at this point. Everything seemed more than a little ominous. Things happened, I believed, because they were caused. I had always been an empiricist, and did not believe in coincidences. Aunt Julia, by contrast, believed very much in them, and ascribed to them great significance.
Rutherford dropped me off at the Savoy Hotel, on Hay Street.
In my room, I could not relax. Thoughts of family and mystery plagued me. I missed my late husband Antony still, all these years later. I wore his gold signet ring on my right hand. He had worn it on the pinky finger of his left hand; on me it was so large that I had to wear it on my right middle-finger, and even then it was loose. I fidgeted with it when nervous. Sometimes I fancied I could smell him, as if he were in the room with me, and I could talk to him. It was comforting. He and I had always been able to talk. Far more than any other thing that we did or did not have in common, we had always talked. We'd been great friends as well as lovers. I had looked forward to a lifetime together with him, to having a sprawling family of unconventional children.
Soon the sweet-smelling rain came, pouring down from the dark cloud hanging over the city. I stood out on the balcony, getting wet, allowing myself time to enjoy the feel of the cool rain on my face and hands, which reminded me of better days. It had rained the day I met him, in one of Father's shooting parties in the wood behind the manor. Antony had been a dashing young man, dark and full of the world, with knowing eyes but a cheeky smile. He had taken one look at me, in my "mannish" clothes and short hair and no makeup, and he smiled with great charm, saying, "You, my lady, are destined, to be my wife." I mocked his cockiness. Father, surprised out of his wits, said, "Good God, Antony, you can tell there's a woman in amongst all that?" Antony smiled at me, saying, "Oh yes indeed, Sir Gustav. Yes indeed." Naturally, I hated him with great vigour, and continued hating him for a long, entertaining time after that.
Rutherford knocked quietly at my door at a quarter to seven, looking crisp and refreshed. It was time to go. I sent him to fetch the car. The streets were almost deserted, the entire city closed for business.
* * *
Aunt Julia was in a ward containing a dozen other patients, whose bedside tables were decorated with get-well messages and irregular vases that held cheerful floral arrangements. A severe matron monitored the situation from a formidable desk. Tired young nurses in heavy uniforms and large starched hat contraptions scurried about, attending to their patients' never-ending needs. The air here reeked of antiseptic, pungent flowers, and something unpleasant but nameless.
Julia was sitting up in bed, looking weak and confused. Seeing me, she brightened. "Ruth!" she said, trying not to shout. Unlike the Casualty department, this ward was aggressively quiet. Noone would dare emit anything as gauche as a noise with Matron glaring from her desk.
I had stopped at the shop downstairs and obtained some grapes and boiled sweets for Julia, which seemed to bemuse her. "Oh dear, I am an invalid, aren't I?" She smiled, saying this, and helped herself to a grape or two as we went through the greetings. She was very taken with Rutherford, who did not sit, despite being offered a chair. He stood at the end of the bed, hands crossed behind him in the "at-ease" position, gloves and hat under his left arm, looking efficient. I could tell Julia would have liked to chat with him about the sheer impossibility of looking after her wayward niece, but she was more concerned about other matters.
"I received your telegram, Julia. What's —?" I produced the crumpled telegram and showed it to her. I had received it four days earlier. Julia had sent it from Kuala Lumpur, one of the last stops on her epic series of flights out here from Britain. Julia's telegram read:
RUTH — YOUR LIFE IN DANGER STOP COMING TO SEE YOU STOP BE CAREFUL STOP WITH YOU SOON STOP LOVE JULIA
"Yes, yes, of course. I've been so confused, with all the ... all this fuss. Do you know what these doctors are telling me, Ruth? They're telling me I have epilepsy, for goodness' sake! What rot!"
Which seemed to rule out the disturbing thought that she had a history of the condition that she'd kept secret. I felt that she would have told me, in these circumstances, if there had been such a history. The condition was too alarming to lie about it. "The doctor in Casualty told me you'd collapsed during the final part of the flight," I said.
Julia looked puzzled, and touched her forehead. "All I remember, I remember feeling anxious, and somewhat ill — nasty turbulence, they said — and I was so worried about you. I set out two months ago, and all that time this anxiety has only grown worse. It was the most frightful trip you could imagine. I couldn't keep any food down, so I've been terribly hungry — thank you so much for the grapes, I must say, just the thing! — and all I could focus on was that I simply had to tell you about my dreams —"
"What did you mean, 'Your life in danger'?"
Julia, about to eat a grape, nodded, and then stopped. "I have been having the most frightful dreams, Ruth. Frightful! Something was happening to you — or possibly someone else, I couldn't quite be sure, not at first. Something terrible. In the later dreams, which I started having en route, I saw someone trying to kill you, someone with the most enormous hands —"
Julia had always claimed to have "the Sight", as she called it. "Surely, though," I said, sceptical, "this is just the sort of nonsense we all get in dreams. It doesn't mean anything."
"I entirely disagree, Ruth. I know the difference between ordinary, common or garden dreams, and these ... these experiences, that I've been having. You see, in these dreams, I'm looking out through the eyes of this person, and he's stalking through your house, looking for you, looking through your papers, that sort of thing, and then he comes to your bedroom, and you're asleep and ..." She was getting upset, and apologised. Her strength was fading, now that she'd at last unburdened herself of her message.
"How did you know it was my house? You've never seen my house."
She sniffled. "I just knew it was your house, the way you know things in dreams. It looked very nice, too. Just the way I'd always imagined it."
I glanced at Rutherford, who also looked minutely disturbed. He must be worried sick, I thought.
I said to Julia, who now was looking like she would fall asleep at any moment, "You're coming to stay with me, in Pelican River, at least for a while. I have everything laid on, an excellent cook, and the town itself is charming. Right on the sea."
She looked, despite the weariness, astonished, and further chagrined at said astonishment. "Are you sure that's a good idea, Ruth?"
"How do you mean?"
"Your house. That town." She stared at me, as if it was blindingly obvious.
"Yes. My home. Very nice, comfortable, splendid view of the water —"
"Quite. Of course. But don't you see, dear. These visions are warning me — warning you — about your house! The very last thing you should be thinking is returning there, let alone with me."
I was speechless for a moment. Rutherford stepped in. "If I may be so bold, Miss Templesmith, I served with distinction in the War. I still have my service revolver. Anyone wanting to enter that house with murder on his mind will first have to contend with me."
Julia stared at him for a moment. He stood there, next to me, the image of the stalwart and resolute English soldier he had once been. She looked at me, then back at Rutherford, who glanced at me now, as if worried that he'd overstepped the bounds of propriety. Julia said to me, "It would appear I have little choice."
"Of course you have a choice, Julia. But consider: your evidence for this belief, that my life is in danger from someone breaking into my house one night, is your dreams and visions. You don't know for certain that it will happen."
"My dreams often do come to pass."
"Yes, and equally often do not come to pass. You must admit that."
"Why can you not simply agree to move into a hotel for the duration?"
"Yes, and for how long? How long would I have to stay in this hotel? A week? A month? A year? You don't know, from what you saw in your dreams, exactly when this attack is meant to happen. It could be tomorrow. It could be years from now."
"Yes, there is that," Julia said, and disconsolately munched a grape.
"Moreover," I went on, pressing my point, "what's to say that the, let's say 'the killer', would not simply find me wherever I went? It could be that the location in your dreams is beside the point, and that the salient point is that it is me on the receiving end."
"That is true, I must admit," Julia allowed.
"I could go to the South Pole, and it wouldn't matter. If he wants me dead, he'll —"
"Yes, yes, your point is made, dear Ruth. No need to beat me about the head and shoulders with your argument."
"So what do you say? I have no plans to move out of my own home. And if it's good enough for me to stay there ..."
"You really think it would be safe?"
"Rutherford has never failed me."
Rutherford blushed lightly on hearing this.
"I don't know. I think you're mad, but if you think it would be all right ..."
"I could have a word with the local police, if you like. They could increase their patrols." It would keep them from their fishing and crabbing trips, so they would not be pleased about it, but they might possibly do it.
Julia sagged visibly. "Very well, then. I am persuaded. I have always loved the seaside."
"Then it's settled," I said.CHAPTER 2
In the two days of her stay at the hospital, Julia and I spoke at length each night, about home, family — and those troubling visions. Feeling foolish, I began to see that perhaps these were not dreams but something more powerful, and more focused. The more Julia described specific items and rooms of my house, the more I felt unsettled. In my hotel room those nights, it took longer than usual for sleep to come for me, and, when it did, it was neither restful nor satisfying. I woke late in the mornings and felt out of sorts. My own dreams offered no insights; indeed, I could remember nothing about them, other than a jarring sense of confusion. Rutherford, by contrast, informed me that he was sleeping very well indeed. The constant traffic outside, with its rattling engines and clopping hooves, shot through with yelling newsboys, did not bother him; he said he had slept through much worse during the War.
What was I to make of Julia's very specific visions? The more she described, the more it did indeed sound like my house. Her description of the intruder thoroughly and professionally rifling through my desk, for example, was chilling. I quizzed her as hard as I dared, considering her condition, on the specific items on the desk and in the drawers, and she was correct eight times out of ten. Her description of the intruder's attempt on my life was unnerving; so detailed, so confident, it was as though Julia was not quite herself as she described the events; it was as if she were accessing the mind of the intruder himself from some future point. I had never heard of anyone being able to recall things seen in even particularly strange or noteworthy dreams with such cool clarity of detail and intent. Not even the accounts described in volumes by Freud, whose work I did not entirely believe, matched these for sheer chilling detail. When I asked her to stop, when I could hear no more of such things, Julia blinked a few times, glanced at me as if seeing me for the first time, and would say, "Oh my goodness! Ruth! Whatever's the matter?"
Excerpted from Black Light by K. A. Bedford, Naama Amram. Copyright © 2015 K. A. Bedford. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
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