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Lost without you
While I was alone in Luxor, a freak rainstorm had sent me diving for cover. I rushed from the Valley of the Kings, as water swirled around my feet. I felt like it was whirling me away, to goodness knows where. I give myself up to that same sensation now as the memories flood in, slipping back into that seductively scented land.
The excitement of the airport, settling in on the plane and then ... What a pushover I'd been, falling for his charms like that.
I'm well rid. Even if it has left a hole inside me, a grievous ache that I can't seem to shift.
It had been the first holiday we'd taken together. A romantic pre-honeymoon by the Red Sea, or so he had said. My mother had been scandalised. I soon found out that the blonde seated on the other side of Tom on the flight had wiped any idea of marriage from his mind. Marriage to me at any event. As the sun set behind us and we flew into the gathering dark, their conversation became increasingly intimate. I withdrew into myself, dreaming of this return to the homeland of my beloved grandmother. So longed for. So long forbidden.
The second time I'd caught Tom sneaking back into our room in the early dawn because he'd allegedly 'heard Samantha calling out and thought she might be in trouble,' I'd grabbed his clothes from the wardrobe and flung them over the balcony shouting, 'Get out or I'll throw you after them.'
The scattered clothes looked like confetti as they landed on the immaculate lawn. Confetti that, I told myself, would never be thrown for me.
It had been a fairytale romance. Or so it seemed. I should have known it was too good to be true. And, at twenty-four, surely I was too old for such dreams.
'You're so insipid, too inexperienced to keep a guy like me interested for long,' he'd thrown at me as he dived after his belongings.
So why had he promised so much? Made me believe he loved me. Eviscerated, that's what I've been. This cold emptiness that possesses me is what people must mean by 'gutted'. I prefer the more tortuous word. It sums it up so well. I've been emptied out, disembowelled, all my worst fears realised. Such words are my secret joy. I hug them to myself.
Swaying on her hooker heels, Samantha had watched from her balcony, smiling smugly. Her perfume drifted over and made me retch.
As I turned back into the bedroom, stifling sobs, I caught sight of a figure reflected in the mirror on the wardrobe door.
Who was this wild creature? Hair whipping around her head, like snakes in a charmer's basket. Eyes blazing, red rimmed. The skimpy lace nightdress Tom had handed over as we unpacked hanging wantonly from one shoulder. This was not me! My mother had instilled the mantra 'never make a scene, never show emotion.' What would she think of me now? I was letting her down. I dragged on my old comfortable cotton pyjamas and headed to the bathroom to tame my hair. I'd just finished the mousy braid when a knock on the door startled me. Surely Tom hadn't had the gall to come back? But no ...
'Why not go to Luxor, you'll enjoy the sites and we'll give you free entry on the tours,' an out-of-breath rep offered. 'I'm flying over myself later to meet a group. It's a longish trip, we'll have to change planes in Cairo, but so much nicer ...' She gestured towards the window where a frantic Tom could be glimpsed scrabbling for his possessions – helped by the garden boys who secreted items under their ghalabyas whenever he turned his back.
'Thank you ... yes ... I'd like that. It's really kind. Oh, but will I have to come back to Sharm ...my ticket?' Biting my lip, I'd contemplated having to fly home with the lovebirds. 'I ...' But she seemed to know what I'm thinking.
'You can fly home from there, I'll get your ticket changed.
You'll get in a day earlier than the original flight would have done ...'
'That's fine, it'll give me time to clear out his things.'
* * *
And clear out his things I had. There'd been plenty of time to make plans on the flight home and I got to work immediately. Tom would arrive back to find his designer suits strewn over the trees that lined the quiet street, his handmade shirts in the gutter and his prized cult classic DVD collection strung from the lampposts like bunting. My mother would not approve. Tell me I was showing myself up. But my mother wouldn't know. I'd held back from shredding his clothes. I'd been tempted, but gained more pleasure from the indelible ink messages I had secreted within them.
One of my regular customers from the reference library where I spent my working days had been passing as I heaved Tom's belongings onto the pavement.
'May I give you a hand, Phillippa?' Sebastian offered, his pale face getting pinker as he smiled down at me. His skin was so translucent I could see the blood pumping beneath a scattering of freckles that glinted like rusty pennies in the sun. He gathered up the bunting I had created. 'I shinnied up coconut trees in Africa when I was a small boy, so climbing lampposts is no problem for me.'
Gaily waving his trophies like kites catching the wind, he laughed uproariously as he clambered higher. It was a very different side of the serious young man who blushed and stammered his thanks at my desk. I'd never thought of him as having mischief in his soul. Too straight-laced for that. But, he seemed to be revelling in this.
The sight of one of Tom's immaculate white shirts lying in the dirt made the breath catch in my throat for a moment, reminding me of what I'd lost. That hole in my heart was bleeding, my belly draining, elation fading away. Best turn my attention elsewhere.
I'd absentmindedly admired the neat bum Sebastian presented as he bent to fasten more of Tom's silk ties, socks and boxers to shining discs and climbed lightly up the next lamppost with them. I was mentally checking that there was nothing left to tie me to Tom. I must remember to cancel that extra pint of milk. That or get a cat.
Thinking back to the way Sebastian had so enthusiastically helped me to erase Tom from my life I can't help wondering what's happened to him. I'd expected him to ask me out, but he'd hurried away throwing a hasty, 'Gotta go, see you, Pips, bye,' over his shoulder. He'd left behind him a wisp of creamy caramel, like the Werther's Originals of which my beloved grandpa had been so fond.
It's been over a month since I last saw him and I miss his shy smile and requests for obscure out-of-print books. I felt like a detective tracking them down. Sebastian had been so grateful, bringing in chocolates or a bunch of flowers especially for me. I'd been rather attracted to his geeky academic leanness when we first met – and his enquiring mind. Hoped he'd ask me out. I couldn't be so forward as to ask him. But his appeal had been overwhelmed by the sheer animal force of Tom's maleness. Nothing geeky about Tom. He prided himself on his gym-toned body and careful grooming.
Sebastian's attractiveness reasserted itself when he'd helped me erase Tom from my life. Now, part of me is suspended, like a half-written word hanging on a page. Waiting. Hoping ...
I dream of Sebastian, though. If they are dreams? They're so real, as though he's here with me. They're getting more frequent, almost every night now. Comforting, exciting, intriguing, physical.
With Tom gone, the nights are long and lonely – except for those dreams. I'd always dreamt in gossamer hues, insubstantial and quickly forgotten, none of that glossy black-and-white film noir stuff other people describe. No psychological reworking of my day, and if I was exploring my subconscious, it was remarkably innocuous. But now ... Romantic fantasies? Or fallacies? Maybe. Figments of my imagination? I think not. 'Chimerical'? Can I find the right word in my private store of linguistic treasures? These new dreams are different. Brilliant, luminous colour. Every detail standing out sharply, outlined in light. The sounds ... The sensations... The smells ... The touch ... Each moment etched in my memory. There's no chance of forgetting these dreams, nor would I want to. I step into a parallel reality. One that if I'm truthful I'd prefer to inhabit permanently.
The days are okay. The library keeps me busy and there's the shop on Saturdays. Sundays are for a quick clean of my compact – the estate agent called it 'bijou' – flat and a long read as I soak in the bath or lay out in the garden in the sunshine. I bought the flat because the tiny courtyard was a perfect suntrap. A country girl, I need green around me and I tend my plants with care. When Tom moved in he assured me it was only for a few months until the deal he was doing came off and we could get one of the ultra-trendy flats on the river. I hadn't been convinced that a distant view of water from a balcony would be the same as sitting in my own garden, but I don't need to worry about that now. He's been 'expunged'. I love that word. It sums it up to perfection. Not quite obliterated, certainly not destroyed ... merely ... blotted out. Erased.
So why am I still hurting over him – and dreaming of Sebastian?
There is another man too, my Dark Enigma as I've dubbed him. The phosphorescent spectre that hangs around the edge of my dreams. All I see is the desire that flares in his hooded eyes, burning into mine before he melts back into the shadows. What's he all about? He doesn't appear to wish me harm. So, at the moment, I'm more curious than afraid. But I'm aware that this could change in an instant. I need to be on my guard.
I remember what Lord Byron said about dreams. 'They shake us with the vision that's gone by, the dread of vanished shadows ... and give a breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.' Forms that outlive all flesh. That's a thought on which I do not wish to dwell.CHAPTER 2
My heart leaps to go
Ever since the voice in a dream told me to volunteer at the charity shop I've wondered what on earth it's all about. Not that I mind being here. It had given me something to do while Tom was out with his mates watching sport, and when we broke up, I drifted into staying on. I love the treasures people donate, making up stories about their past. The people who'd drunk out of the cups and those who'd placed flowers in the vases. The souvenirs brought back from who knows what exotic lands where anything could happen.
It's the clothes that get to me, rancid with old perfume and rank with death even when they're almost new. They remind me of that freshly discovered tomb I'd been taken to in Egypt.
Malodorous didn't do it justice. A fetid, honeyed-cloves and cinnamon smell mixed with sweaty trainers and something more pungent mouldering underneath had clung to the dusty interior – and to me. 'Polluted by sulphurous putrescence' was a phrase I'd found in a book a customer had returned to the library as 'too grisly for words' that summed it up so well.
For a moment, in the tomb, I'd thought I saw a bright blue flower brush along my arm, but it must have been a trick of the light because there were only a few shrivelled petals in a corner.
Those and the remnants of a delicate lily frieze painted on the wall. I must have got them mixed up in the heat. It did weird things to my head. The walls wavered and wound themselves around me and the stink became so overpowering that I reeled sideways and almost fell. I was looking down on my body from above, hovering somewhere below the ceiling, scrunched up into the rock. When that gropey guide had tried to put his arm round me, I'd panicked and fled.
It took days to rid myself of the smell. Even now, when I take that dress from the back of the wardrobe, it holds the noxious memory of the tomb and makes me blench. Dry cleaning didn't work and I'd left it in the garden for several days. But it seems that neither fresh air nor pouring rain could shift that indelible scent. So I never wear the dress, which had been one of my favourites. But, somehow, I can't part with it. Touching it leaves me empty and unfulfilled, a strange unmet desire fluttering in the base of my belly. Until the stench roars in again and I stuff it back into its plastic shroud.
Shuddering, I push the memory away.
But Tom slams back into my head. Almost as though he's walking beside me. He was so suave and worldly wise. Knew exactly who he was and where he was going in his life. So many plans. An excellent dresser. So confident. Even though he was younger than me, if only by six months. He'd been my first boyfriend. My parents saw to that, guarding me closely, trying to keep me safe. Made me travel to uni each day from home. No wild student parties for me. I hadn't really minded. It gave me time to study.
When I left home to take the library job I'd always wanted, I couldn't believe it when Tom asked me out a few weeks after I arrived. Exactly what my parents had feared. They didn't think that running a reference library was the right occupation for their precious daughter. But, for me, it was perfect. Even though it might not have long-term prospects if everything gets digitised. I dread that. Spending all day amongst old books, ferreting out information no one else can access, tracking down long out-of-print works is my greatest pleasure.
Tom had bumped into me as I hurried out to grab some lunch, dropping the armful of county guides I'd taken to skim through in case of readers' questions. He'd called me Pippi Longstocking, laughing at my studiousness. Had I really want to be named after a rambunctious character in a children's book, no matter how endearing? Had Tom even read the book? Did he know her? Did he really know me? She was so far from my own character. But it had made me feel special at the time. Now I'm alone again. What am I going to do?
A waft of fragrance. The dusky perfume of a night-blooming flower. 'Best not to think of that, my dear, turn your mind elsewhere.' My guardian grandmother murmurs in my ear. Babaanne always arrives when I need comfort. And now, from the whiff of Werther's Originals and pipe smoke, it seems my beloved grandpa has joined in protecting me. Fortunately, they recede when the dreams arrive. How embarrassing it would be to have them watching. Somehow, though, I sense that Babaanne approves. So, it must be all right. Mustn't it? Surely they'd intervene if anyone meant to harm me.CHAPTER 3
It is to you that I speak
'Phillippa' an imperious voice summons me. 'I'm sure I saw someone out the back. Could you check?'
As I open the door, a voice calls from beyond the rickety gate, 'Come. Find me.' A child? But the sound is far from childlike.
Creaky. Disused. Old. Tantalisingly close.
A glance down the alley reveals no one. Merely dustbins and black bags randomly spilling their contents. The dark underbelly of the picturesque High Street onto which the former boutique faces.
The voice comes again, rising and falling in soft cadence, 'Here I am.'
But there's no one there.
A rustling at my feet draws my attention. A tattered cardboard box lies abandoned on the back step, a glimpse of faded red leather within. Another inappropriate donation?
My hand hesitates as I reach towards the tattered cover, disquiet running through me. The book seems to undulate, its cover rippling. But the voice pulls me on.
'I'm waiting for you ... Only you.'
Wrinkling my nose at the musty smell of foxed paper, I reach towards the book. Strange, I usually revel in the aroma of old books, it's ambrosia to me. But this is different. Darker somehow. Grave-smelling. Of great import. 'Stop being silly,' I admonish myself. 'That vivid imagination of yours is working overtime again.' As I lift the book out of the carton, electric tingles run up my arm. What is it? Merely an old tome, surely? It seems to sigh. A soft exhalation of 'Found at last.' I'm beyond wondering how pages can talk.
Taking a deep breath, I open the heavy cover. A breeze ruffles the pages but I hold them down. A faint aroma of not-quite-roses drifts up. So beautiful, such a contrast to the mustiness of its box. Bringing the book to my nose, I inhale deeply.
The air shudders and gyrates. Foul as the tomb. Bony fingers seize the book, grasping, greedy. With heart racing, and struggling to calm my racing pulse, I snatch it back with shaking hands. Wanting to run, somewhere, anywhere, but my frozen knees won't cooperate. How can spectral hands that I can't see, but most certainly feel, pluck at me? A delusion? Imagination? Or just another oddity in the weirdnesses that surround me?
Am I going mad? Suffering some kind of psychotic breakdown? Mental derangement? How would I know? After all that's happened, it wouldn't be surprising, but this is so real. That smell. There have been times lately ... Those fingers are so ... solid. As though in confirmation, blackened nails claw my arm, biting into me, compelling me. 'Give. Me. My. Book.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Alchemy of Night"
Copyright © 2018 Judy Hall.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Dramatis Personae, 1,
Chapter 1 Lost without you, 3,
Chapter 2 My heart leaps to go, 9,
Chapter 3 It is to you that I speak, 12,
Chapter 4 Love in a beloved land, 15,
Chapter 5 Night dreams of love, 18,
Chapter 6 Marvelling why her roses never fade, 20,
Chapter 7 The white magic of love, 26,
Chapter 8 Clothed in the perfect flesh of woman, 35,
Chapter 9 The pullulating world of magic, 40,
Chapter 10 Bright in the forehead, 42,
Chapter 11 Wither shall I go?, 48,
Chapter 12 In pursuit of heka, 50,
Chapter 13 O happiness is passing, 57,
Chapter 14 If I be summoned, 62,
Chapter 15 On the horizon of my seeing, 64,
Chapter 16 Gloom on glooms, 68,
Chapter 17 Dark smoke and wicked fire, 72,
Chapter 18 Banishing the badasses, 76,
Chapter 19 The undying love of a visa, 80,
Chapter 20 Coming forth from yesterday, 89,
Chapter 21 All fragrant and dear, 97,
Chapter 22 To hear your voice is pomegranate wine, 100,
Chapter 23 So tangled in you, 109,
Chapter 24 Who guards her steps?, 121,
Chapter 25 Darkness weighs upon the dwelling place, 123,
Chapter 26 Their places are gone. What has become of them?, 126,
Chapter 27 A touch of lotus, 134,
Chapter 28 A fire colder than the flames of my longing, 138,
Chapter 29 Love has penetrated all, 141,
Chapter 30 Come boldly into her den, 148,
Chapter 31 The desperation of love, 152,
Chapter 32 Lest thy name appear putrid, 157,
Chapter 33 Softened by love-longing, 162,
Chapter 34 Carrying a red fish, 172,
Chapter 35 Nipple berries ripe in the hand, 175,
Chapter 36 The place where truth has the weight of a feather, 179,
Chapter 37 Ensuring no ghost looms, 182,
Chapter 38 How beautiful are the words that fly from his lips, 184,
Chapter 39 Wailing saves no man from the pit, 190,
Chapter 40 Overtoned with gold, 194,
Chapter 41 Vampire claws, time hung, 201,
Chapter 42 Shedding shining light, 204,
Chapter 43 A revulsion of the flesh, 213,
Chapter 44 Joy has he whom she embraces, 218,
Chapter 45 Eyes that dance and wonder, 224,
Chapter 46 The seeker after truth, 232,
Chapter 47 Death shall be no sev'rance, 236,
Chapter 48 Whom will you embrace for your pleasure?, 238,
Chapter 49 I am the Lord of fire who lives on truth, 242,
Chapter 50 Heavy in all my limbs, 245,
Chapter 51 The bolt is sprung, 248,
Chapter 52 Truly, he is a foolish one, 252,
Chapter 53 The holy glimmer of goodbyes, 254,
Chapter 54 On the day of driving back disaster, 264,
Chapter 55 Allhallowtide, 269,
Chapter 56 Going forth, justified, 283,
Afterword Truth can be stranger than fiction, 293,
Aidan's Reports, 298,
Magic Mirrors, 298,
A ritual for banishing the badass guys, 302,
Ghostly goings-on, 304,
Paschal Beverly Randolph, 317,
Ancient Egyptian Glossary, 322,
Aidan's Street Talk Glossary, 323,