The Love of Peter Cushing

Only two features gave the stone its rudimentary humanity: a circular hole through the centre and the green-black smudge beside it. Kimberly frowned, trying to reconcile its appearance with that of the man on TV.

Nope. Not even one bit.

It seemed miraculous at the time, but when Kimberly suggested a walk along Whitstable beach Ham had unfurled from the sofa, put on his army surplus jacket and wordlessly followed her out the front door. He found the stone half an hour later, and as he held it up to examine, the sun shining through the tiny eye cast a beauty mark on his cheek. Kimberly felt a shot of adrenaline, almost starstruck. Ham looked exactly like he used to do on stage.

‘Oh wow,’ he said. ‘You know this is where Peter Cushing lived?’

‘Yes. Do you know you’ve already told me that?’

‘No but this house right here. Seaway Cottage.’

Kimberly looked over Ham’s shoulder at the house. It was more like a Dutch barn, a gigantic property with tall studio windows in the pitched roof.

‘Well, don’t you think it looks just like him?’ he said.

‘The house?’

‘No, idiot. This!’ Ham held the stone out, as if for her approval.

Kimberly thought she was able to picture Peter Cushing. He wasn’t as familiar to her as he would soon become. The stone looked like just that: the most generic of stones; a chalky oval the size of a 2p piece. She asked Ham if he was joking. His eyes took on a feverish look.

A painful acidic taste flooded Kimberly’s mouth; the sweet chilli noodle salad from two hours ago.

She recognised that look.

 

Could it really be three years since Billy Pendragon had died? Kimberly didn’t want to admit to herself it had been that long.

That night, Anna and Hari had been insistent she come out with them. She had needed some convincing. The acuteness of her grief for Billy was such that she couldn’t even think of leaving the house. Or so she liked to think.

But could she really be grieving him again? He had as good as forced her to break up with him, and afterwards had removed himself so completely from her life that in the weeks leading up to his suicide Kimberly had found herself wondering if the relationship had happened at all. Then there was news from his father: Billy had been found in the ditch of a field behind his house, dead of an overdose.

But tonight, Cosmic Parrot were playing The Black Cat. Anna worshipped them, Hari wanted to fuck them; two ringing endorsements of the quality of evening on offer. So, she had gone grudgingly, and by the end of the night had turned her life around.

Kimberly became aware she was chatting with Hari less and less as Cosmic Parrot’s set progressed. She liked the band considerably, mainly because the frontman’s eyes kept flashing at her throughout the show, the first time she saw the feverish look which meant he was either horny, or inspired, or high. That night he was all three.

The final chord of the night was still ringing from his guitar as he bounded down from the stage and asked if she wanted a drink. Even before she had known his name Kimberly knew that this meeting would eventually make a pivotal chapter in her autobiography. Especially when she found out he was called Ham.

 

The rushing of pipes interrupted her thoughts. Ham came into the living room, rubbing his hands, at once drying them and exhibiting his anticipation for the cinematic treat to come. Over dinner he had sagaciously proposed they watch an old Hammer Horror movie to celebrate his unearthing an object which had gone in the space of an hour from being known as ‘the stone that looks like Peter Cushing’ to ‘Peter Cushing’.

Ham ducked past the sofa, squeezing her knee as he went, then tipped all six feet of himself into the low Scandinavian rocking chair. He pressed play on The Mummy, which Kimberly would remember as complementing her living room quite well, being mostly grey and brown with the odd splash of bright orange blood.

 

Once the mummy disappeared into the quagmire, taking the Scroll of Life with him, Ham went up to bed. Kimberly said she’d sit up and do some writing, but forty minutes later had only succeeded in rewriting her LinkedIn biography and buying a huge plush octopus from Etsy. She was double-locking the front door when she heard a single-syllable expression of alarm from the living room. She stood for a moment, squinting into the darkness-draped archway, resisting her brain’s first impulse to bolt up the stairs. Then she slipped beyond it, eyes wide and shoulders hunched.

Even in the gloom she saw immediately what was out of place. Rather than a cry of fright, she had heard the hollow ‘puck’ of the Peter Cushing stone bouncing off the tiled surface of the hearth. It now lay face down on the rug – if you could call those meaningless marks a face – chestnut fluff sticking through the hollow eye. Kimberly closed her hand around it and held the stone in her palm. Nothing about it suggested Peter Cushing. For a moment she wondered if this wasn’t some elaborate joke on Ham’s part, and the thought made her stomach drop, just like it had on the beach. From the start, Ham said cocaine brought out his mischievous side. He got as far as painting the tips of her pens with nail polish remover. Then, after he joked about putting food colouring in the hand soap, Kimberly had sat him down and made him watch Gaslight, insisting that if he ever displayed even so much as a hint of Gregory Anton-ness again, he would find himself kicking rocks.

As she straightened, the face appeared, the actual face of Peter Cushing – mouth set, eyes clear and brow noble – staring back at her. His face hovered in mid-air, in purple and orange relief against the curtains, almost as if it had flashed—

It was the DVD cover!

Kimberly stood for a moment, breathing high in her chest, corroborating with herself that Cushing’s face was nothing but a photo-bleached afterimage of the foil-embossed DVD cover, lit by the hallway light and now tracing across her vision in negative. She rolled her eyes, and Peter’s face followed her. Depositing the stone on the coffee table, she went back into the hallway, blinking the vision away, feeling the skin between her shoulder blades tightening to gooseflesh.

 

‘Plah!’ said Kimberly, and mouthwash turned the sink a gritty purple. She said, ‘Do you really think that stone looks like Peter Cushing?’

Ham looked up from his copy of Prog. ‘Don’t you?’

‘I don’t really think it even looks like a person to be honest, Ham.’

Ham huffed good-naturedly, and Kimberly got a brief glimpse of his dead tooth through the side of his grin. He put the magazine down. ‘I guess it’s like when one person looks at a cloud and sees a clown, and another looks and sees…’

‘A handsome old film star?’

‘Oh, you think he’s handsome?’

Kimberly pulled the bedcovers aside and sat on the bed. Ham shuffled towards her, and she did the same, and for a moment the two of them were doing a kind of shoulder dance, moving towards each other into the warm core of their mattress. When the tips of their noses were almost touching, Ham turned away to take off his glasses. Kimberly said, ‘Cheekbones for days, dear. Handsomer than that mouldy lump of chalk downstairs.’ She freed her arms and plumped the covers around herself, then opened her bedside table drawer and turned to Ham. ‘Doctor?’

He nodded slyly, pre-empting her question, and Kimberly twisted the cap off the brown bottle and poured out a dose of viscous green liquid. He handed the cap back to her, empty, still grimacing at the minty-sour taste. She topped it up, tensed her throat and tipped it back. Then she leant over and kissed Ham’s stubbled cheek.

‘Night night night, nurse.’

 

Kimberly’s first dose of the day always came within the first minute of waking, while Chris Hawkins’ pre-breakfast show was still chattering away on her clock radio. This meant painkiller number two should have come at ten, an hour after she sat down at her desk. But this timetable had proved troublesome. Kimberly was always too deeply engrossed in her inbox to remember her second oxycodone of the day. So, given she couldn’t very well start taking pills in her sleep, a rule had to be bent; the one which strongly recommended a gap of four hours between doses. Her system had a lot of slack to give. Liver damage? She barely drank. Jaundice? Kimberly didn’t smoke. Pruritus? Well, she might have it, but then again, she definitely had psoriasis, and it might as well be that. Also, going into the kitchen an hour early meant bumping into Lee, who seemed to come in at a time of morning which required a nine o’clock pick-me-up.

He was tall like Ham, but that was where the similarity ended. Whereas Ham unapologetically filled a room, Lee seemed put out and unwieldy. It made Kimberly laugh. But then his full lips and long, straight nose always made her feel wretched until lunch. His heavy brows were often knitted, always seemed so full of concern. But if she thought about it – and she found herself thinking of it more and more often – with a brow like that Lee couldn’t help but convey a sense of portent. His voice was even more of a phenomenon – a deep, brown voice as her mother would have said. He spoke slowly, deliberately, so precisely that Kimberly could almost hear his commas; his speech was made up of full paragraphs – not the halting, filler-strewn doggerel of everyone else. She was impressed by the aura of literariness that seemed to swish around him like a cloak wherever he went. He was not long back from a writer’s retreat in Dublin and was full of stories – literally.

 

Kimberly hummed to herself as she unlocked the front door. The sun waved like a friendly neighbour from a horizon stained repulsive shades of salmon pink and olive green, which somehow still managed to create a breath-taking wash of colour.

She was sure if enough cups of tea were poured, if enough milk were passed, if enough conversations about biscuits were endured, she would find something to say to reach his level. ‘The sky was blue, the wind was still, the moon was shining clearly,’ she quavered, barely aware of herself as she juggled her keys, laptop and backpack. When she got inside of the door she stopped singing, her attention diverted by a small form on the doormat, alerting the occupants that the Royal Mail had been frustrated in delivering a parcel. She dumped her things and crouched to pick up the red cardboard rectangle, and as she stood back up she came face to face with the old man.

He was six feet tall and cadaverously thin with delicate, almost simian features. Under an expensive looking tweed jacket, he wore a shirt and tie and a mustard-coloured jumper. Kimberly opened her mouth, although she had nothing in particular to say, and closed it again as the man drew something from his pocket, a brown, winged thing, and brought it up towards his face.

A mask – some kind of horrible mask!

With a hand gripping each wing, the man settled the object on the crown of his head and pulled it down. It was a deerstalker, its pattern perfectly matching his jacket. ‘Young lady,’ he said as he passed through the door. Kimberly was already striding towards the living room.

On TV, Bernard Cribbins was pretending to be a robot. A comedy soundtrack implied something humorous, but Ham’s mouth was cast downward.

‘Who was that in the hall?’ said Kimberly, propping herself as nonchalantly as possible against the doorframe.

‘Mr. Kenley.’

‘A client?’

Ham nodded, still focussed on the screen. Kimberly checked over her shoulder, then looked at the stone on the mantelpiece. She twitched the form in her hand. ‘Did they leave this without ringing the bell again?’

‘Didn’t hear it.’

‘Could you go and collect it tomorrow? I think it’s our you-know-whats from America.’

‘Don’t know, babe,’ Ham sounded muffled, as if he was speaking from another room. ‘Got an afternoon client.’

Kimberly peered around at the front door again. ‘Who was he again? That man.’

‘Mr. Kenley.’

‘Then you can go in the morning?’

Ham didn’t reply, but Kimberly’s mind was elsewhere now – her gaze had been drawn to the TV. ‘What’s this? Is that Bernard Cribbins?’

‘Yeah, it’s Doctor Who.’

‘When was Bernard Cribbins on Doctor Who?’

The answer to that question was a long one, but by the time Ham had the pieces all arranged in his mind, Kimberly was embodying the difference between not talking and being silent, and speaking felt like an imposition. She scrunched the cardboard in her hand, looking at the screen, her eyes flat and dulled. Ham looked back at the TV and saw the Doctor. Trumpets blared as the moustachioed old coot was rushing into the Daleks’ spaceship, a kindly, almost dorky figure in a brown velvet jacket and fingerless gloves.

Kimberly went to the kitchen and stood in a beam of afternoon sunlight, savouring the distant warmth on her skin, the blood-red haze cast on her closed eyelids. She put on the kettle to mask the sound of cracking foil and washed down two Anadin, drinking straight from the tap.

‘Can I have one?’ called Ham.

She tapped a red-painted fingernail on the worktop, an unfamiliar tingling feeling percolating in her stomach. She wanted to write, and her rapping finger sped up as she added up all the reasons she couldn’t today.

I should go on a course. I should go to writing school. I could go to Dublin. Lee could come with me. No, he’s already been. Where could I go with Lee?

Nowhere.

Two pills rattled into the sink and started to fizz anaemically before Kimberly even realised she had popped them out of the blister pack.

She thought about her dad’s beard, a red boxy thing full of errant white hairs. Weird that she should think of it now. But no, here was his voice, speaking his maxim: you’ll never need a palliative if you make sure you take your vitamins. Frank Marrow had thrown a veritable alphabet of vitamin pills down his throat every day and died at forty-two of magnesium poisoning.

The constipated buzz of a Dalek’s voice drifted in from the living room.

Is Ham ill? The question dropped into her head unbidden, and Kimberly frowned, trying briefly to un-ask it. Ham was in better shape than ever. When in London had he ever eaten three meals a day, slept for at least six hours a night, or kept as hydrated as he did now; when did he ever have access to a pharmacy’s worth of medication, like the stuff stashed in their bathroom cabinet, as well as every kitchen, desk and bedroom drawer?

At least he wasn’t that kind of ill, and she certainly didn’t think it was sick to have a hobby.

Just like his old hobby?

Kimberly’s brow twitched. What was that? Resentment?

Why not? Your rock star boyfriend likes a dead actor more than you.

Anadin paste bubbled desolately in the plug hole. ‘It’s not a hobby.’

In Brockley, Ham could show his face at any number of practice studios around South London and be assured of a trip to Cosmic Parrot-land, a world of infinite frolic. Assembling rough and ready bands made up of studio employees, musicians stolen from other acts, even janitors and cleaning staff, he would coax and cajole until each ephemeral, makeshift outfit was playing in the off-kilter, barely together style that defined Cosmic Parrot, and Ham could lift out of his head and be away on his song for three and a half minutes at a time. This was Ham’s brain on music. But rock ‘n’ roll had never been his only stimulant of choice. There were combinations out there too delicious to resist.

Since coming here Kimberly had heard Ham sing only once. She had been sent home early in the height of summer – Maddie from conferences got heatstroke and collapsed, and her manager had elected to send everyone home rather than shell out for air conditioning.

At first, Kimberly had thought it was the radio. Then she recognised the song, and her heart leapt at the thought Cosmic Parrot were still getting airplay. Then she realised.

He was perched on his massage table, his head haloed by a poster-sized diagram of a man’s gluteus maximus behind him. He held his acoustic guitar, the fingers of his left hand loosely coiled around the neck, right hand slung over its body, hovering over the strings. He was singing a capella and she had listened to Ham’s voice, gentler than she had ever heard it, for whole minutes. Then she had made a noise, an ill-aimed step on a creaky board, and Ham had stopped immediately, coming out of his studio, asking her how her day was as if nothing had happened. She supposed nothing had, really.

Kimberly pictured that feverish, flashing stare. When she had seen it yesterday it had been like meeting a friend for the first time in years and realising that, whether you’ve changed or they have, that indefinable magic that held you together long ago is gone now, evaporated, was maybe only a mirage in the first place.

 

The moment she came in from her Thursday evening commute, Kimberly heard Ham’s footsteps on the stairs. He overtook her on the way into the living room, bumping her shoulder and knocking her into the doorframe. ‘Thanks for that,’ she said. ‘Did you get the – ah!’ Ham had passed her a small brown parcel wrapped in crumpled masking tape. The postage stamp was American.

‘Great. I’ll go and put them in the—’

‘Babe!’

Ham’s voice was husky, full of a terror far too sincere for Kimberly to look anywhere else but at him. He stared past her into the hall, his mouth a severe white dash. ‘Peter Cushing is standing right behind you,’ he said, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. ‘I swear to God. He’s right there in the hallway.’

Kimberly’s shoulders sagged. She cocked her head sceptically. ‘Piss off, Ham,’ she said. Then, against her will, she turned.

The thought occurred to Ham that maybe he had misjudged this particular prank even before Kimberly stopped screaming. Her outline almost seemed to be buzzing with outrage as she stared at the cardboard cut-out of Star Wars’ villainous Grand Moff Tarkin standing in the hallway, glaring reproachfully from out of the gimlet eyes of his all-too-familiar depicter.

In The Mummy, when Peter Cushing’s archaeologist character had sensed danger approaching from behind him, he had half-turned so that his face was in profile. This was what Kimberly did now. Ham felt an uncanny sense of being transported into the scene as her eyes flicked down then up, watching without facing him. Then, slowly, she began to turn. In the movie, the archaeologist turned around in time to see the mummy smash its way into his parlour, before unloading both barrels of a shotgun into the monster’s chest.

Since moving to Whitstable, Ham had become aware that his conception of the past was changing. No longer was the history consigned to memory and media; somehow it had mutated into an obnoxious little child, and it was constantly pressing its snotty nose up against the sweetshop-window of his present. Ham saw the odious little prick, looking in all the time now, his own history, desperate to get at him and eat him up until it puked him out.

Replace the word ‘coke’ with ‘Peter Cushing’, and Ham may as well have been back in the Parrot’s Nest in Brockley, he and Kimberly sitting up while the sun did two full circuits of the room, she pleading for him to come away from the life that was stifling – no, killing – him and start a new one in this bijou little town on the Kent coast; and he unwilling to admit to himself that he would do anything, go anywhere to keep her near him.

As Kimberly talked, Ham stared at the stone, unblinking. But then she noticed, so he looked elsewhere, but still not at her. For some reason he couldn’t look at her. While he sat, Kimberly stood, directing most of her words to the ceiling, and behind her, Ham’s framed poster of The Abominable Snowman screamed in bold yellow letters: THE TERROR OF ALL THAT IS HUMAN!!

It seemed like too big a deal, just because he was a—

Ah, but that’s the point, Ham, old boy: you don’t have the luxury of fandom. Your mind is full of trapdoors, portals to fixation, mania, paranoia, and oblivion. From fandom, passion, obsession, come the ghosts that take your house, and they take your hand, and they make you hurt yourself. Here is another trap door, and this one comes in the form of a genteel, kindly actor.

So, Ham agreed to everything: the posters would come down; the biographies would go to charity; the action figure, framed pipe and the signed photograph would be posted on eBay. (He had amassed a lot in the space of a week.)

At one o’clock in the morning, Kimberly finally sat down. Ham crossed to the mantelpiece and smiled ruefully at his mascot. ‘I’ll throw it in the sea.’ He stared down at Kimberly. ‘Everything was fine before this thing turned up.’

Kimberly sat up to contest this. Then she relaxed her posture, sat back in the chair and arranged her face.

 

Despite a nasty moment in the morning, when Kimberly came across the Grand Moff’s two-dimensional head sticking out of the recycling, she and Ham managed to get through the rest of the week without mention of a certain venerable actor.

 

The sun casts tall beams into the room where the man once painted. Now it is an empty space its remarkable view of the beach is going to waste, but time was that three or four easels stood here, each cradling a seascape sketched in watercolour strokes.

Dust motes crawl, crowding together until the light looks milky. They swirl once in a slow cyclone and part, pushing each other indolently towards the window, and if you looked you might see the air clear itself and the floor momentarily darken.

Cross now to the window. You see the front garden, little more than a pebbled yard, from this angle obscured by a mountain ash and several palms. Beyond the yard is the squat sea wall and the beach, brushy and rock-strewn like a Nevada desert, portioned out between weed-covered groynes. Distant oyster nets line the exposed shingle where the ocean sleeps. Beyond that stand the outlines of hulking military forts.

The sun is at its highest, and the studio is almost sweltering. But where you stand the air is a few degrees colder.

You see a couple walking slowly along the beach; a tall, skinny man dressed in black, and a short woman whose dark blonde hair is pulled into a lazy bun. Her smile shimmers like heat haze; his face is blank, the face of a man with few thoughts in his head. He makes a comment, nodding towards a lone seagull, and the woman throws back her head and laughs. In doing so, she catches sight of you and immediately stops laughing.

Impossible. You are not there, after all.

They halt, he walking on a moment more. He looks in the direction in which she is pointing and shakes his head. Though the woman met your eyes, he searches as if watching a squash game, blind to whatever she says is there. He raises his arms in a shrug, his face crumpled now, mouth screwed up like a cauliflower ear.

The woman gestures up towards you, lecturing, angry. Resist the urge to duck away from the window because this play isn’t over yet. The man is arguing back, head shaking, palms upturned, chest thrust out. Now she is no longer pointing at you but at him, into him, jabbing a gleaming red fingernail into his chest. Her body says something different every moment, but you can read nothing from his posture; he is as still and as certain as soda bread.

She turns her back on him, walks away as if leaning into a gale, and she is soon obscured by the mountain ash. But now he’s looking at you, and somehow, even though you are not there, he sees you.

 

Kimberly’s eyes opened before her brain awoke, and she knew she had been dreaming. Relief rocketed her up into wakefulness, and with that came the realisation that she had been dreaming a memory – a recent one; only ten hours old if the red teeth of the digital clock read true. As Kimberly looked, the display turned from 03:03 to 03:04.

She sat up, running her hand across the sheet beside her. She had a memory of Ham coming to bed, but his side was empty now.

A breeze shifted the curtains. The usually calming sound of the sea was like a vampire tonight.

As the veil of sleep lifted, doubts Kimberly had pushed aside earlier now emerged into her mind like drunks staggering into the streets at closing time. She had as good as locked eyes with Peter Cushing.

Nope. It was the cardboard cut-out.

But hadn’t she seen him break it down?

Had he really snuck it into Seaway Cottage?

The thought made her stomach churn, and she reached for the top drawer of her bedside table. By the glow of her iPhone screen Kimberly retrieved a box of sleeping pills and the squat brown bottle of Night Nurse.

The pills were resting on her tongue, the bottle halfway to her lips, when she heard the front door close, and the wind bundled a sound through the open window from the path below, wrapped up in bluster and hard to discern, but undeniably a human sound. Kimberly slipped out of bed and crossed the room, automatically washing the pills down as she went. She threw back the curtains. Neon sulphur-bright bulbs illuminated not much else beyond their own lamp posts, but Kimberly saw something twist into the darkness between them; the tail of a tiger, or Ham’s dressing gown cord.

Kimberly burst out of the front door and ran up the steps, jogging alongside the sea wall after him. Her dressing gown flapped behind her, doing nothing to prevent the North Sea air slicing through her camisole.

Seaway Cottage reared up out of the darkness on her left, its white exterior and proud blue plaque stained a uniform grey by the feeble streetlamps. Ham was up ahead, shambling between light beams, his left hand stretched out towards the house. Kimberly saw the Peter Cushing stone clenched there.

She said Ham’s name as she took hold of his arm and slipped her fingers through his. He looked down at her and smiled indulgently. He was elsewhere, dream territory.

‘Come and see Peter,’ he said, and pointed up at the studio windows. Kimberly flicked her eyes momentarily towards them and looked away, suddenly unwilling to learn whether Ham had played a prank on her or not.

She put her other hand on his shoulder, trying to guide him around, but he pulled out of her grasp, and toddled further towards the house.

‘Ham, I don’t know what to do.’ She caught hold of his dressing gown cord, but it pulled through his belt loops as he advanced. ‘I don’t know how to help you anymore.’

Kimberly leapt forward and slapped both palms on Ham’s retreating back. He stumbled, then stopped. ‘Leave me alone,’ he said thickly, and she caught sight of his dead tooth, shining frogspawn-grey in the dim light. The wind went ‘ooh’ like a studio audience. White pinpoints of streetlight flared in Ham’s eyes. He swayed on his feet once, then turned away.

Kimberly felt a horrible calm descend on her, the serenity of a white star preparing to go nova, and the wind subsided as if it sensed the anger about to geyser up out of her. ‘Leave you alone?’ She grabbed the Cushing stone from his hand and launched it overarm into the darkness. It disappeared, soundless for almost too long before it knocked loudly against the hull of a boat.

‘Leave you alone? I wish I’d never met you!’

Like lemon through lamb fat, a beam of white light sliced into the dark pool around them. Kimberly looked towards the house, shielding her eyes. A lamp shone above the front door, casting a bright halo around the mountain ash, obscuring everything the lamp might have revealed. A figure stood in the tumbledown wooden porch of Seaway Cottage, a black cut-out obscured behind the glimmering leaves.

‘I say, excuse me. What’s all this noise? Is he alright? We’re trying to sleep.’

Ham turned from her. ‘Peter?’ he said in a small voice.

‘He’s fine,’ Kimberly called towards the house, bundling Ham into her arms, trying to look like she was taking some kind of action. ‘I’m really sorry.’

‘Is he drunk?’ called the voice.

Ham’s arm shot out, clipping Kimberly’s right breast, and she leapt back in disgust. As she drew her dressing down around her, fighting back tears of shame, he waved frantically towards the house. ‘Peter!’ He turned and looked at her, beaming like a child about to meet Santa, and she saw those fever-bright eyes. ‘Kim, it’s Peter,’ he said in a stage whisper, grabbing her hands, almost dancing with joy. She pulled back, took a step back into the darkness, and then another, and another.

‘I’m really sorry,’ she said, looking from Ham to the figure in the doorway. Peter. She turned back to the house and passed out of the streetlamp’s meagre glow, walking slowly. She was tired.

 

Brine showed its teeth on purple groynes as the arid beach shimmered in the midday light. The sea was silent today, the stringent breeze swapping atmospheres around like a game of Uno. Kimberly walked towards Seaway Cottage, her arms wrapped around herself. She felt as if the cottage was greeting her like an overenthusiastic acquaintance. The ash and palm trees waved languidly, filling in on white noise duties while the sea was indisposed. Kimberly kept a steady pace, trying to control the unpleasant floating sensation in her stomach, resisting the urge to go into The Neptune for a double whisky and ginger.

Two constables had brought Ham back at 5:00 am: a bald male officer with an acne-pocked face, called Wilkinson, and Morrison, a female PO whose hair was as short and neat as her demeanour. Between them stood Ham, wrapped in a silver heat blanket, his hair unusually fluffy like a baby chick. After they sat him down on the living room sofa, Wilkinson asked whether Ham was on any ‘substances’, and whether there were ‘substances’ in the house. Once that had been answered, Morrison enquired where Kimberly had been while her boyfriend was trying to break into Seaway Cottage.

‘Break in? I don’t understand. Why—’

‘Mr. Johns informed us that he was sleepwalking, and he has no memories of tonight before waking up in the back of our patrol car,’ said Morrison.

Kimberly went to speak, to say Ham had seemed alert enough back on the beach, but when she looked over at him she stopped herself. ‘I still don’t understand,’ she said instead. ‘We spoke to the owner.’

‘The owner?’ said Morrison. ‘When was this?’

‘Well, the tenant. Whoever lives in the cottage. Tonight. This morning.’

Ham shook his head. The two officers glanced at each other, then Morrison wrote something in her notebook. ‘We’ll look into that,’ she said. ‘For now, can you confirm Mr. Johns sleepwalks regularly?’

‘Yes,’ she lied. ‘He usually has to medicate before bed.’

‘What medication does he take?’ Morrison’s pencil was poised above her notebook.

Kimberly said, ‘Nytol? Paracetamol? Ibuprofen, Night Nurse, melatonin? Rhodiola root? That does the trick. But I guess…’ she flicked her eyes towards Ham. ‘I guess…’

‘I guess I forgot tonight,’ he said from between clenched teeth.

Wilkinson asked if he could have a look around, and Kimberly laughed and extended her arms: be my guest, you won’t find anything illegal. As the policeman searched, Kimberly looked at Ham for a long time, asking with her eyes: what happened back there? His expression said nothing in return.

When Wilkinson returned he picked up his cap from the sofa and looked at Morrison and raised his eyebrows, telling her in a manner beyond language that there was something wrong with the people in this house, but nothing they could be arrested for.

‘Just make sure he takes his medicine, Mrs. Johns. Goodnight.’

 

Now she was outside Seaway Cottage she faced it, standing in the middle of the path as people stepped around her. She peered intently at each window. They were all dark apart from the ones at the top, the studio windows, and lit by sunlight. She could see straight through to the back of the room, to where windows of equal height provided a reverse view. She saw nothing else.

From her coat pocket she removed a stout white bottle with a red cap, and even before she had raised it and shaken it in front of her face she knew it was empty.

A passing mother steered a ginger child wearing orange water wings in the direction of the sea as the woman on the path hurled her white plastic bottle onto the pebbles and kicked it away, hollering once, a short sharp bark, and then again. Kimberly brushed the hair out of her eyes and looked at the mother and child, scrunching up her mouth, trying to seem placid. She swore under her breath. The mother hurried her boy onwards, stumbling over a groyne to get away.

‘Fuck it!’ shouted Kimberly, selecting a large stone and hurling it at the sea. It came down short, causing a small colony of gulls to float up, flapping and squawking. ‘Fuck it!’ She bent down, and when she straightened up she drew back her arm to throw. But just as she was about to launch it, Kimberly stopped herself.

She brought her hand to her face and studied the object held there. She smiled cautiously, looked around, back, and her smile widened. It was the hairline that did it, a smattering of lichen which ran all the way across the stone’s oblong pate. As she turned it in the light a passing shadow played across an irregular angle, briefly giving the impression of a salt and pepper beard. He felt warm and rough against her skin, slotting neatly into her palm.

Kimberly was surprised to find herself tearing up, but the nostalgia was too great to resist. ‘Christ—’ she said, cutting himself off as a scene erupted into her mind.

Her mum and dad’s sitting room at Christmas, surrounded by all twelve of her surviving relatives, the last time they were together before her dad’s death. The clan had been stewing in front of the TV during the dead time between lunch and dinner when The Two Towers had come on, and even though nobody in particular had wanted to watch it, nobody changed the channel either. When Christopher Lee appeared, the Marrows had been galvanised, and for the next half an hour they all agreed, loudly and at length, that Christopher Lee was an absolute legend, and a total boss.

Kimberly put her fingers to her breastbone, trying to suppress the heaving that wanted to break out in her chest. She slipped the stone into her pocket so that she wouldn’t stare for too long and break the spell. It was too precious to risk.

Kimberly leaned against the sea wall, taking her iPhone from her coat pocket. She selected ‘Mum and Dad’, then paused, and flicked back to her contacts menu. She scrolled down to ‘L’ and selected the only number there. She selected ‘New Message’ and began to type.

How’s your weekend? Get any writing done?

 

Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville were speaking furtively, but Ham had no interest in the events on screen. He flicked the movie off and sighed, turning his gaze to the wall.

The room was blank without his posters, without Peter’s face. When Kimberly’s stuff was gone the place would be totally barren; only a massage table and a modest guitar collection would suggest that Hamish Johns had ever been there.

His eyes lit on the table. A battered, unevenly packed box covered in masking tape sat there; something forgotten, a relic from another life.

With shaking fingers, Ham tore at it, squashing and twisting the cardboard until it lay in pieces. Out of the mess a white plastic bottle rolled, rattling across the shining table top. Ham snatched it up, twisted off the lid and shook two of the jostling white dots into his palm.

He dry-swallowed them, then he looked out of the front window for a long time, at the dry red grass poking over the sea wall. If someone had looked in, they would have thought he was waiting for someone to walk along the beach and down the steps to the house. After a while he went upstairs, moving as slowly as the high priest of Karnak himself, and took his maple-topped Epiphone Wildkat down from the wall. Hefting the guitar’s weight onto his thigh, he strummed the muted strings twice, his eardrums jolting in the enclosed space. He made an E shape, then a G, then a C7. Then he started to play, and as he did so, he felt his sorrow float out into the room, merging with the hushed tones of his own voice.

Robert Tamplin is a writer and editor living on the Kent coast. His work has been performed on BBC Radio 4 and at the Warehouse Theatre. He has been writing fiction since childhood and has recently decided to pursue publication.

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