THE HOUSE IN THE HOLLOW
The sequel to 'Truth Or Consequences'
By Touch the Light
How long did Gillian hold out? Three days, did she say?
And I’ve been here nearly forty-eight hours already.
The clock is ticking down...
Painting and decorating are not activities at which any of the kuzkardesh gara excel. It took Gillian and Hilary most of Sunday afternoon to remove the last of the grimy rococo wallpaper left behind on the staircase by the house’s previous occupants; their daughters have made slightly more rapid headway this morning coating the living room’s skirting boards with emulsion, though if they get much more on their hands and forearms the tin will have run dry well before the task is complete.
Being taller and more robustly built than either of the teenagers, I was asked to paint the living-room ceiling. I have little time to waste; a blanket of low cloud is settling on the valley, and as the light deteriorates it’s becoming more and more difficult to see which areas still need doing. Dressed like the others in just a loincloth made from an old sheet and held together with a safety pin, I push the roller to and fro with all the vitality my right hand can muster while I use my left to keep the stepladder steady, my arms and breasts speckled with apple blossom white and my hair almost certainly in the same piebald condition.
It’s a small price to pay for staving off the boredom I’d be suffering otherwise, sitting on the bed with only A New Approach To Cultural Evolution for company. I’m also hoping that if I can convince the kuzkardesh gara I’ve decided to try and fit in, they might relent and allow me the occasional cigarette.
I wonder if Simon smokes? It might be awkward if he doesn’t…
That ferry has left the dock, babe. As far as he’s concerned, you stood him up. And if Trisha’s dragged my name through the dirt, which she’s perfectly capable of doing now that she believes I’m responsible for her father’s death, I might have more to worry about when I get back to the Gladstone than losing a potential boyfriend.
Then again, a police cell might be the safest place for me until this has all blown over.
Just be wary about what you’re getting yourself into. Remember what happened after you and Kerrie Latimer went sticking your noses in where you shouldn’t have.
Who’d have thought I’d ever be in a position where I’d regret not listening to Sylv’s advice?
Once I’m satisfied that every square inch of the ceiling has been covered, I climb down from the steps, fold them up and rest them against the wall.
“I could do with a long, cold drink,” I murmur to myself, raking back my fringe.
Gillian and Hilary, who have been putting up shelves in the corner of the room to the right of the window, lay down their tools. There follows a short exchange of clicks and hisses, during which I catch the Ugur words for ‘milk’, ‘container’ and ‘new’ – the last in the sense of ‘fresh’ or ‘unspoiled’. The kuzkardesh gara go into the kitchen together, and as I start rubbing turps across the backs of my hands I can hear through the door the sound of a bottle clinking. Nothing, it seems, is too much trouble for one who is ‘okde’.
Only her liberty.
I dissolve most of the splotches from my arms and chest, then use my oily hands to slick back my hair. I’m about to commandeer the bathroom when I notice Hilary standing in the doorway inspecting my handiwork.
“Ongat,” she remarks, her approval evident from her expression.
“Good?” I hazard.
“You learn quickly, Ruth Pattison.”
“It was just a wild guess.”
“There was nothing fortuitous about it. Your brain processed the information it received and came up with the most likely translation.”
“I don’t think so. Not when it only had two syllables to go on.”
“Ah, but did it? What about the visual signals Hilary Parker was transmitting?”
I have to admit she has a point. If a person looks pleased, the chances are they’ll say something positive.
“Anyway, I’m glad you think it’s okay,” I tell her. “Much more of this and I’ll have bigger muscles than Geoff Capes.”
Her ebony lips curl in a lukewarm smile. But only out of politeness; converts don’t have what any human would recognise as a sense of humour.
Gillian returns, carrying a glass of cold suyt. Although I’d have preferred lemonade or cola, the subtle spices she’s added to the milk imbue it with a zest I’m beginning to find quite palatable.
As I take my first sip, she trails a bejewelled, black-nailed finger the length of my upper right arm. I shudder, but resist the urge to jump away; if I want to persuade her I’m settling in, I must grin and bear this kind of contact.
Her breasts press weightily against mine as she leans closer.
“Siz yadaw,” she hisses into my ear. “Hazir oturmak.”
“That’s not fair,” I complain. “How do I know what might be going through your mind when I can’t see your face?”
“There are other ways,” she replies.
“You should regard each part of our conversation as an event. Think about the various contexts in which that event is embedded: our surroundings, our reasons for communicating, the non-verbal cues that accompany each phrase, the cadences, pauses and subtle shifts in volume. Clear your mind of all extraneous thoughts and let the totality reveal its meaning.”
I try my best to follow her guidance. I recall that ‘siz’ means ‘you’, so she’s either making an observation about me or suggesting something. And her smile wasn’t reflected in her eyes, which held a certain amount of concern for my well-being. That’s because I’ve been overdoing things, and now it’s time for me to rest.
“You want me to put my feet up for an hour or two,” I conclude. “Can’t argue with that.”
“Edil,” she chuckles softly. “You see how easy it is?”
I gulp down the rest of the suyt, then hand the glass back to her.
“Tell me what it was like. When you realised you actually wanted to become a kuzkardesh gara. What made you stop fighting it?”
She seems genuinely baffled by the question.
“The eradication of Gillian Dixon’s individuality is a fact. It makes no difference how or when it happened.”
“But there must have been a moment when you agreed to have all your hair shaved off, and your face painted and everything?”
“You believe that we were required to undergo some sort of initiation ceremony? What strange ideas you have about us.”
“So they did this to you bit by bit? And you just accepted it?”
Gillian tosses me a sympathetic grin.
“You want to know what to expect. That is understandable at such an early stage of your conversion. Be assured that the details will soon cease to matter.”
“Is that what you reckon?”
“This is not a contest, Ruth Pattison. It is not you against us. We have no influence whatsoever over your assimilation. Our part in that ended once you were exposed to the meme. The replacement program is now working independently to create within your subconscious mind an exact replica of the neural patterns we inherited from Sorina Dascalu. It needs no external stimulation; the process is as automatic as those taking place in your other physiological systems.”
“Bullshit. You’re telling me I’ve got no control over what I think?”
“There is no ‘you’ to exert that control,” says Hilary.
“Selfhood is an illusion,” adds Gillian. “It is nothing more than an accidental by-product of the interactions between the memes already present within your brain. It has persisted in the human species only because of its value as a survival mechanism.”
“Wait a minute, you said you were replicas,” I remind her. “If that’s true, you’re not really a collective intelligence at all. You’re just copies of a single consciousness.”
“The distinction has no practical significance.”
“How d’you make that out?”
“What makes human beings think and act as individuals? Why do some behave in ways that are completely unpredictable, often to the detriment of those around them? It is because the memetic programming many humans have been subjected to is both complex and contradictory. The memes are involved in a continual fight for ascendancy, producing feelings of inner conflict when co-operation between them proves impossible. But if the host minds were to be infected with the same meme, one so powerful it absorbed and neutralised all the others, from then on they would react identically to each situation they encountered. In effect there would exist only one way of thinking, that of the group.”
“Sounds worse than having the world taken over by the Moonies.”
“It means an end to war and hunger,” Hilary points out.
“And no one will ever write a decent tune again.” I frown at the greasy film covering my palms. “I’m tired of this. Time I got cleaned up.”
I run myself a bath, but don’t allow myself to surrender to the water’s seductive embrace for longer than it takes to scrub and scour my pores free of gunge. I have better things to do than lie here soaking; the kuzkardesh gara appear to have a much deeper understanding of memes and the technicalities involved in their transmission than I do, and I need to put that right. A New Approach To Cultural Evolution may not be the most riveting of reads, but if it helps me co-ordinate my resistance I’ll put up with the lacklustre, jargon-ridden prose.
During the hour before lunch – the word for ‘fruit’ was mentioned, so it might even be edible – I dress, then sit on the bed to take a fine toothcomb to the text. What I want to know is how can an idea, something with no physical presence, alter the ‘neural patterns’ Gillian was talking about?
One passage seems to strike at the heart of the matter. It argues that every experience we have changes, to a greater or lesser extent, the way our brains respond to the sensory information they receive. The more memorable the experience, or the more often that experience is repeated, the stronger the connection between the various clusters of neurons that process it. A meme is merely a set of signals that act as the neural network’s input, arranged in such a way as to provoke a given output in the form of a series of instructions sent to the body’s various physical systems. A powerful meme will establish strong, and therefore long-lasting links; these will determine how future inputs are processed, leading to permanent alterations in the long-term memory.
But what makes some memes more effective than others?
The author attempts to answer this question by rambling on for several pages about evolutionary psychology. I struggle to follow his thread, but the gist of it appears to be that memes reflecting our genetically driven needs have more chance of replicating than others.
Try as I might, I fail to see how this explains why anyone could harbour an inbuilt desire to become a kuzkardesh gara.
All most of us need is something to kick-start the relevant mental processes.
Which implies that for some people it takes more...
That might be what my gift is!
Maybe I can resist this meme, stop it from changing me! Why else would the hive be holding me here against my will?
Piece by piece, the rudiments of a plan begin to coalesce in my mind.
I’ll be running a huge risk. I’m a strong-minded young woman, but so was Helen Sutton.
We have no influence whatsoever over your assimilation. Our part in that ended once you were exposed to the meme.
It’s up to me, then.
I’m the one responsible for keeping this hound on a tight leash.
But if the changes are taking place in my subconscious, how can I keep track of them?
It needs no external stimulation; the process is as automatic as those taking place in your other physiological systems.
How long did Gillian hold out? Three days, did she say?
And I’ve been here nearly forty-eight hours already.
The clock is ticking down. If I don’t act soon, the meme will have spread too widely for me to control it.
I take a very deep breath, then stand and walk from the room. I notice that Louise’s door is open; when she sees me looking in, I incline my head in the direction of her dressing table. She immediately puts down the shoes she was lifting from the wardrobe.
“You are not yet ready to join us, Ruth Pattison,” she frowns.
“No, but it’ll be a relief to get the first step out of the way.”
She smiles, knowing I’m telling the truth.
“Very well. If you would care to sit…?”
The kuzkardesh gara pulls the stopper from one of the phials on the table. She wipes the brush on the rim, then proceeds to spread black lacquer across my left thumbnail. Working with the dexterity of a seasoned professional, she requires only a few minutes to finish both hands. While I’m holding them out to dry, she paints my nipples – apparently it’s normal for them to spring erect like that – and finally my lips. It only remains for her to fit silver rings adorned with heavy black gemstones onto each of my fingers and thumbs, and the first stage of my transformation is complete.
It has two unanticipated results.
The first is how wickedly sexy I feel.
The second comes when I go downstairs, and no one raises so much as an eyebrow.
Yekshenbe, the meal traditionally eaten at sunset by the Ugurs of Xinjiang, begins with an appetising minted salad, which is followed by the piquant vegetable stew known as chorba. For dessert there’s alma sheker, a dish that can best be described as a candied baked Alaska. The fragrant, slightly smoky chay we drink from decorated china bowls complements the food beautifully – yet the rich variety of flavours and aromas only makes me wish all the more fervently for a cigarette to round off the experience.
“I don’t suppose you’d let me have just one?” I ask Gillian after the others have left the table.
“Siz okde,” she replies, dabbing her mouth with a napkin. “Taslamak angsat.”
For the third or fourth time since she taught me how to interpret unfamiliar phrases, I empty my thoughts of everything except the information that’s being conveyed to me. Her tone was steady, her eyes kindly but her body language stern and inflexible. She also reminded me of the gift I possess, which suggests it may be of some help if I can work out how to apply it to the situation in question.
“It should be possible to give them up?” is the best I can manage.
“Angsat,” she repeats.
The movement of her jewelled brow makes the meaning clearer.
“Not just possible, but straightforward? Easy?”
She smiles and pats my wrist.
“The drug they contain works on the brain’s system of reward circuits. All you need to do is let the meme break it down by fooling the receptors into thinking that they are receiving the chemicals nicotine would normally give them.”
“So I just say ‘go ahead, meme, do your stuff’?”
“First you have to want your addiction to be cured. If you are sincere about that, the rest will follow automatically.”
I lay my hands flat on the table, recalling how quickly I became accustomed to seeing my nails painted black. It was as if the mental compartment which contained the antipathy I ought to have felt towards their altered appearance had been closed off. Could I not do the same with my dependence on tobacco? After all, the previous occupants of this body were both non-smokers...
Suddenly the idea of lighting a cigarette, then inhaling the fumes into my lungs seems not only pointless but downright stupid.
“You were right,” I laugh. “I just thought about it and the craving’s gone.”
Gillian rises from her chair and walks over to the sink. She crouches to open the cupboard beneath it, reaching behind the pipe for the pack of Marlboros taped there. I leave her to dispose of it while I make a start on the dishes.
But the scouring, scraping, rinsing, stacking and drying can only act as a temporary diversion from the widening vista of opportunity opening out in front of me.
And I’m only just starting to appreciate what that could imply.
In the kitchen window I watch my black lips curl mischievously. The MoD have already put it about that I’m a menace to society. Who am I to prove them wrong?
They’re a totalitarian regime, a religious cult and a zombie plague all rolled into one.
Yet this isn’t the Bucovina hive. It’s an imperfect copy, lacking most of the sinister attributes of the original.
It is a question of priorities. Ours are food, shelter and access to clean water. For everyone.
We can be a force for good…
I draw back from the brink to which my own feet led me.
But when I walk into the living room, and Gillian turns from the fireplace to touch a beringed, black-nailed finger to my cheek, it takes all my resolve not to respond in kind.
And I suspect it won’t be very long before I’m teetering on the edge of that abyss again.
I sit up in bed with a start. The room is still dark, which at this time of year means it can’t be much later than about four. In any case I don’t need a clock to tell me I’ve had only a few hours sleep.
Pulling the covers closer against the draught coming from the window, I listen for the sound that must have woken me.
But I don’t sink back into slumber. I need to stay alert, for who knows what tales the local people have spread concerning the women of Sunny Hollow?
It’s one o’ witches from up dale.
And if that’s everyone’s attitude…
Then I hear a voice cry out.
I yank at the light cord and spring to my feet, stopping only to pull on a clean pair of panties as I hurry to open the door. The kuzkardesh gara is on the landing, leaning against the banister and clearly in pain. The tears welling from her eyes – now bereft of their characteristic oriental slant – make her appear refreshingly human, despite the row of gemstones set in her scalp.
“Babek,” she splutters. “Howp olum.”
Gillian and Hilary emerge from their room carrying the gravest of expressions. They begin weeping too.
I realise at once not only that Donna is pregnant, but that she feels she’s in danger of losing her baby. The fear that she may miscarry washes through my consciousness like a wave, denuding it of all other emotions.
The tide withdraws, depositing layer upon layer of understanding.
Fate has brought you to us for a very special reason.
The others are waiting for me to do something. In this time of crisis they are looking to me - or rather my gift – as their principal source of strength.
“Okay, let’s all try and stay calm,” I say quietly. “Louise, take Donna back to her room and sit with her. If the worst happens, or looks as if it’s going to, just yell. Hilary, get into some proper clothes and have the Dormobile ready in case you have to drive her to South Tees. Gillian, you fetch hot water, towels and whatever first-aid equipment you can lay your hands on.”
I don’t wait for a reply. Kicking from my mind the images of sheets and blankets covered in blood and goodness knows what else, I follow the girls into Donna’s room.
They’re both still sobbing, and I’m a little tearful myself, but when I ask Donna to part her thighs there seem to be none of the discharges I’d expect to be leaking from her vagina if her body were about to reject the child.
“How far along are you?” I enquire, putting my palm to her forehead.
“Two weeks,” she mumbles.
“Two weeks? You’re joking! You can’t possibly…”
“We are certain,” says Louise.
“I mean, who the hell’s the father?” Then I remember what Susan Dwyer told me about the role of men in a kuzkardesh gara-dominated society and decide I’d rather not know. “Sorry, that can wait. Just tell me how much it hurts, Donna, and where.”
When she describes her symptoms, I relax a little. I’ve come across this kind of thing before, albeit in a work of fiction, and there’s every chance it’s nothing more serious than an upset tummy.
I look up at Louise.
“The chorba Hilary made last night…what spices did she put in it?”
“Ginger, cumin, coriander and star anise.”
“Well, you should think about leaving out those sorts of ingredients while one of you is pregnant. Not long ago I read a novel called The L-Shaped Room. It’s about a girl called Jane Graham, who’s expecting a baby and living alone in a dump of a bedsit somewhere in London. One night she treats herself to an Indian meal. She’s hardly left the restaurant when she doubles up in agony, convinced she’s going to have a miscarriage.”
“Hemme ongat?” sniffs Donna, gripping my wrist.
“They were both fine.”
Louise goes downstairs with orders to find something that will settle Donna’s stomach. I hurry to pick Philip from his cot – the fuss has woken the poor mite – and rock him against my breast until his mother comes back. The medicine administered and five sets of cheeks dabbed dry, I gesture for Gillian to join me in my room.
“I think she should have a check-up, just to make sure everything’s all right,” I say to her. “I don’t suppose you were given the number of a doctor when they moved you here?”
She shakes her head.
“Not even somebody you could ring in an emergency? What if one of you fell seriously ill? I despair of those idiots, I really do.” I let out a long sigh. “Look, you’re going to have to address this sooner or later. It’s not just Donna I’m thinking about, there’s Philip too. I haven’t had children myself, but—“
“Of course you have.”
“That’s lamentable, Gillian, even by your standards.”
“They said you would deny it.”
“The humans who followed you here. They left before you recovered consciousness. One of them provided us with proof that you have indeed given birth to a child.”
“What proof? Show me it!”
She leads me down to the living room, where she opens one of the sideboard drawers. The document she hands me has the codename BELLADONNA stamped across it.
SURNAME: Hansford-Jones (née Pattison)
CHRISTIAN NAME(S): Ruth Maria
DATE OF BIRTH: 2/9/55
PLACE OF BIRTH: Northcroft-on-Heugh, County Durham, UK
MARITAL STATUS: Separated from 2nd husband
CHILDREN: Charlotte Annabel, D.O.B. 28/7/74, Bromley, Kent, UK
“This is forged!” I laugh. “I’ve seen it before. The last entry said ‘none’.”
Gillian gives me a sad smile.
“It is futile to continue in this vein, Ruth Pattison. As aspects of the universal female mind, we instinctively know when a woman has produced offspring.”
“Looks like your instincts have let you down this time.”
“That is not the case. We—“
“You think I’d lie about something like that?”
“Yes, we believe you would.”
My pent-up frustration explodes. I launch myself at her, going straight for the throat. Then the room does a backward flip and I land on the sofa, my wrists pinned behind my head and a pair of large, heavy breasts pressed into my face.
“Get off me, you fat, bald-headed cow!” I try to scream, but the words are muffled by the fleshy globes covering my mouth.
Gillian slowly eases her body from mine. I take several deep breaths, my anger subsiding as I begin to understand just how counter-productive my reckless assault has been.
“All right,” I gasp when my chest has stopped heaving. “You believe what you like, see if it makes any difference to me.”
I get to my feet, shrugging off the helping hand she offers, then move to the window and pull open the curtains. The valley and the wooded hillside beyond are just beginning to be visible in the greyness of pre-dawn.
The humans who followed you here…
They’re probably still watching.
The MoD won’t let anything stand in the way of their experiment. They’ll use every means at their disposal to hasten my conversion.
But they’ve fucked it up this time. Someone forgot to tell the author of that revised document where I spent Christmas. If I had a four year old daughter, why didn’t her grandparents ask me about her?
Unless they were told not to.
Maybe in a P.S. attached to the letter I sent them the week before my visit, saying that as soon as the subject was raised I’d be on the first train back to Portsmouth.
Suki had every reason to keep the child’s existence from me. Learning that I was a parent at such a crucial stage in my adjustment could easily have caused me untold psychological damage. Later, it’s possible that she came to the conclusion that I’d adapted too well, and thought she might face a battle for the girl’s affections. And Charlotte had already lost one mother…
Gillian is standing behind me. Her hands begin massaging my shoulders. I don’t have to turn and face her to know that the expression she’s carrying is one of genuine sympathy.
“It’s not true…” I mutter. “It’s not.”
“That is not what your heart is telling you, Ruth Pattison.”
I dash upstairs, heading for the one place in the world I want to be: sitting on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands. Of all the shocks to the system I’ve suffered over the last six months, this is the most upsetting.
I have a daughter.
I’m a parent.
I’m a mother.
And I have no idea how I’m going to cope with that knowledge.
Time passes. Whether it’s a few minutes or several hours I can’t say. Then the door creaks open.
“It probably isn’t worth going back to sleep,” I sigh. “Not with all the extra jobs that’ll need to be done now Donna’s incapacitated. Shall I use the bathroom first?”
The kuzkardesh gara clicks her agreement.
“Gillian demlemek hokmunde siz yuwmak.”
She might have said she was going to build a heated swimming pool in the front garden solely for my entertainment, but I think it’s more likely she’ll make us chay while I relieve myself and shower.
I wonder where she is, and what she’s been told about me?
Nothing good, I bet.
The countryside brightens, welcoming the imminent sunrise.
But I don’t see the first golden rays touch the tops of the trees.
Before me shimmers a red-brick building, four storeys high, separated from the road by a forecourt marked out with parking spaces.
The Gladstone Hotel.
From where the meme has the potential to be dispersed far and wide.
Planted in the mind of every woman who stays there, if I make full use of the gift I’ve been blessed with.
And should that come to pass, not one of the self-appointed guardians purporting to fight for humanity’s survival can say they didn’t ask for it.
To my mind, the following piece of music complements this chapter perfectly. I'll try inserting a link so that those of you who are interested can judge for yourselves.
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